Enter Sandman

I wrote this short essay for my students in December of 2014, on the occasion of losing my little brother. 

To my ears, my brother Dan could shred. More than once I stood in my mother’s walk-out basement, listening to him do his best Marty Friedman. He loved metal. There was no greater pleasure in his life than chasing the next note on his black, B. C. Rich guitar, the one he called “The Beast,” at speeds that would make Vin Diesel say, “Woah, maybe tap the brakes.” Or so it sounded to me. But then, I’m not into heavy metal. When he was sixteen, I took him to see Megadeth and Sevendust, and fell asleep during the main act. I hadn’t listened to metal in years, until I looked it up on YouTube to listen to after school last Friday.

Dan and The Beast

Dan and The Beast

That’s the day I learned Dan had died.

He was thirty.

Back when I was driving him to that loud-yet-apparently-soporific concert, it was not yet clear to me that Dan was ruining his life. I would find out a few years later that he had been drinking, smoking cigarettes and pot, and experimenting with other drugs since just past junior high school. When he told me that, I remarked that if I’d realized he was doing these things at the time, I’d have kicked his ass. I said this, I think, because I didn’t know what to say, and it’s the sort of useless thing that you say to your little brother in that situation. Addiction comes into a family’s life like a force of nature, an Act of God. If we are brave enough to stand, looking into the storm, we do so pitifully, shaking our puny fists. The storm takes no notice, and rages on.

Or so it seems. I actually do believe there are things we can do for loved ones with destructive addictions.

Now, please don’t read this as a “Don’t Do Drugs, Kids,” kind of lecture. There are surely kids who start drinking at a young age, or experimenting with pot, or worse, and manage to pull themselves out of the abuse. But Dan couldn’t, and didn’t, and my family and I will spend the rest of our lives wondering why. So I don’t have many answers. What I do know is that he certainly had been exposed to the notion that substance abuse could ruin his life before ending it, had heard that he should Just Say No, and DARE to resist drugs, and none of that had an impact. That message alone doesn’t break through. Too often, the people who hear it think the adults saying it are oversimplifying or moralizing, and tune them out. I know Dan did.

Yet addiction did ruin his life. Substance abuse wasn’t the thing that finally did him in, but it wasn’t irrelevant, either. An adolescence and adulthood spent ruining your ability to think, to remember, and to make competent decisions offers all kinds of opportunities to die. And so he is dead, and we mourn him, even as we’ve been privately, inwardly mourning him for years, wondering every time we saw him whether this time would be the last. Eventually it was.

Dan as a senior in high school

Dan as a senior in high school

It’s hard not to see music culture as part of the problem, which is not something I ever thought I’d say. My brothers and I each found a subculture that made us feel we belonged. For me, it was writing and comics; for Steve it was acting, swordplay, and Renaissance Fairs; for Dan it was heavy metal music; for Zeke it was film and stand-up comedy. Every subculture built around artistic expression has its history of substance abuse, and each encourages some tolerance for that abuse. There are a lot of openings to experiment with unhealthy things, and a lot of chances to turn them into unhealthy habits.

So at the risk of sounding like an old man who doesn’t get it, I have three requests for students who might read this. First, if you’re not close to anyone at school who has these problems, but there are people in your classes who you suspect of having unhealthy habits, do not assume this conversation is not for you. Be part of the solution. Invite that person along to a study session. Go out of your way to draw them into conversation. Be generous. Make them feel welcome among people who are not making self-destructive decisions.

If you have a friend or acquaintance who you think might be abusing drugs or alcohol, you need to become the person in his or her life who can make the difference so he or she can get back on some healthier track. Let them know you’re worried. And when they tell you to fuck off, don’t. That can be a hard choice to make; such friendships seem fragile, and are often built on mutual, unspoken agreements that I won’t hassle you if you don’t hassle me. But they need you to break that agreement, and you probably have a better chance at getting them to think differently about their own behavior than anyone else they know.

And if you, yourself, have been experimenting with alcohol or drugs, because it eases your pain, or your anxiety, or your depression, or your boredom: please consider where it is taking you. Death is not romantic or edgy, and death in early adulthood is a true, colossal waste. There are many, many years ahead of listening to the music you love, and watching the movies, and laughing with friends, and food and sex and all the rest that life has to offer, and we don’t want you to miss it. We want you here, in this world, among the living. We love you.

That sounded like a Don’t Do Drugs lecture. But it really isn’t. It’s a Listen to the Ones You Love lecture, a Be Aware of the Depression Around You lecture, a Don’t Let Your Choices Consume You lecture. For Dan, those messages did not get through. Grieving, my family can only stare at the photos of the long-haired boy with his guitar, as he recedes from our lives faster than his fingers once moved across its strings.

11 Responses to Enter Sandman

  1. Frye says:

    Beautiful. I don’t know what else to say. Love.

  2. judy McIntosh says:

    beautiful message to students and adults alike. I am so sorry for your loss Michael. I hope surrounding yourself with the chatter of young voices here at school, the hugs and love of family and friends and the strength of God comfort you in this time of pain. Judy McIntosh

  3. Mary Wilcynski says:

    Thank you, Michael, for sharing your sadness and grief. Thanks, also, for sharing ideas on how each of us might have a positive impact on others.

  4. Carl Barton says:

    Thank you for sharing. Carl

  5. Sean Neilly says:


    Such good words and a great message. It is most definitely not a “Don’t do Drugs” lecture, but it’s also not just an “Ain’t Life Grand” lecture. Your willingness to share your family’s sense of helplessness will really help someone connect to your brother’s story. And the act of writing this difficult thing honors something special about the brother you lost.

    One of the coolest things I ever read was that the Navajo culture has a belief that there are really two deaths a person suffers. One is the end of their existence on the planet as a living person. But because people touch and impact others, they live on in stories after they are gone. It is only much, much later, when all the stories about a person are forgotten, or when the people who told them are gone, that the person truly dies. This blog post and the stories readers take away from it will push your brother’s existence into the future.

    Thanks for this. I am sorry for your loss.

    Sean Neilly

  6. Sydney Hofferber says:

    Still inspiring me… ever since AP Lang my Junior year of high school. These words ring true with us at the University of Iowa. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  7. Mike, I am so very sorry for your loss. As soon as I finish this note, I am forwarding The Day the Music Died to my 17-year-old nephew. He is dealing with the same kind of addictions which claimed your brother, and I pray the eloquence and power of your message will help him. You and your family are in my heart.

    Jan Netolicky

  8. Amy says:

    Ahhh…arms around you…you articulated beautifully the sadness of addiction. You are a gifted writer and your words will impact all who read them. Carry on, dear friend.

  9. Mark says:

    Death is reality and for so many with addiction problems they don’t always like to live there. It is easier to change the way you feel. I have heard that the problem is not the addiction, but it’s Living sober and clean. If you can do that 51% of the time you have a good chance of living a reasonably happy life. It’s when living sober or clean becomes more painful you become more willing to change how you feel.
    Beautiful Blog Michael! Thoughts and prayers for the now, one day at a time.

  10. joyce stoffel says:

    Dear Michael, I do not know you but it matters none. My sister-in-law Susie Ross from Kennedy High school passed this on to me as I have worked 25 yrs as a substance abuse counselor. I am sure she felt that there was someone I could share this heartfelt message with as I know it touched her also.

    My purpose in writing to you is to let you know that your words are not just words ….they are the honest to god’s truth about the ravages of drug addiction, and that death is not romantic, or edgy but rather it is “a colossal waste” especially in young adulthood.

    I take all of what you say to heart as I hear it daily from the rooms of our treatment center especially the adolescents. Many days I feel as though we are “preaching to the choir” and many times we are. I appreciate your sincerity in regards to how you do not want this to be “Lecture 101 on “Don’t Do Drugs.” I want you to know I did not hear it that way at all….I loved how you were able to relate to what is left for these young people if they would only “stop to listen”….the music, laughter, friends, sex, food etc etc……It does not have to be lived in just a few short years as you cheat yourself and all those who you love you of what is yet to come.

    Please accept my sympathy on the loss of your brother, Dan. The unanswered questions will remain but you have already made a great contribution by sharing your true sentiments. They are not hollow words….they are the story of your brother’s life and many others like him.

    With your permission I would like to be able to share your words with our patients. Your thoughts are often felt but not so often shared. Sharing your story and that of your brother Dan are often the things that touch people’s hearts. Loved ones do not write these things for fame or glory they write them because they know the pain and believe that maybe just maybe someone who needs to hear this message will.

    If I did not believe Michael that some DO LISTEN and some DO make different CHOICES I would have hung up my hat a long time ago …..my very first boss was in recovery and she told me this: “Joyce, people work for more that just money….that is a secondary gain. Many work because they believe that someone will listen and make needed changes.” I always remembered that….after 25 years I still believe this….I go to our treatment center each day with a belief in my heart that some will listen, some will not and some will die….but under my watch I will do the best I can each day to make a difference…to let others know THEIR STORY MATTERS and there is hope for those who chose change.

    Again I want to say thank you….your effort is not in vain ….I will take your message forward with the hope and belief that your words will take a hold in someones heart so yet another can live to hear the music, enjoy the food, the laughter and yes the sex if that is what is meant for them. Peace Joyce

  11. Lexi Scharmer says:

    Dr. Ayers,
    Thank you so much for this post. Your point about meaningful ways to approach struggling friends is incredibly helpful. I’ve seen this struggle more than once, and I know approaching people and having difficult conversations is no fun and can even seem detrimental to a relationship. It’s incredibly helpful to have a reminder about the importance of being a good friend before being a “nice” friend. I’m sorry for your loss, and thank you for your wisdom. It’s a important reminder to all about where our true priorities ought to lie and what being a friend, or even a new acquaintance, really means.

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