Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Memory

On July 14 two years ago, I saw the news that Cory Monteith, star of Glee, aged 31, had died of a suspected drug overdose the night before.  I was filled with anger, but in a small apartment with two families while on vacation, I bottled up my emotions, not wanting my kids to see me cry and not being able to explain why. As a high school kid who loved music and dancing but couldn’t sing, I was the glee club groupie of my day. So, many years later, I naturally loved the TV show, and its star.  A life cut short is always sad, but why did the death of this stranger send me to the bathroom to hide and cry my eyes out?

Because, 24 years before, there was another 31 year old at the top of the world, full of life, the kind of person to make everyone laugh and smile.  He was the kind of person who, when he walked into a room, you knew the party had started. There’d be song and dance and joy. He was the kind of person who would give you the shirt of his back, who would rush to your side to help you up. He was also the kind of person who also had a darkness inside he couldn’t overcome, whose pain was so unbearable he turned to cocaine to numb it.  He was my big brother.

The first emotion is anger – why would someone be so selfish as to turn to drugs? Don’t they know they have a family who love them? Friends? Fans? (And believe me, my brother Albert had fans!) Sometimes it takes years to get over that anger, and sometimes it comes back, like each time a well-known person dies in the same way.  Sometimes the anger is directed at ourselves – why didn’t we do more? Why couldn’t we fix it? Why couldn’t we love enough? What did we do wrong?

But the other emotion one recognizes over time is one of sympathy, if not quite understanding.  Depression, real depression, is a powerful demon, not easily controlled. It’s not about “feeling blue.” It’s about being brought to the depths of despair and feeling like there is no way out.   People in that place find a way to numb the pain.  I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand it, but I recognize that it’s not so easy to toss off. 

Sometimes, a loved one can help pull them back up. Often, they can’t. You can love someone completely, you can be there for them, you can give them your hope, but you can’t save them. 

In June of 1989, when my brother hadn’t returned my calls for a number of days, I got worried. I went to his apartment and he wasn’t there. I found an open window and climbed in. On the counter I found a steno-pad with notes about cocaine: what it does to the body, how the body reacts physiologically, how the brain reacts.

Then he walked in.  At first relieved he was ok, I then worried he’d be furious to see his 19-year-old kid sister snooping, but he was calm, peaceful.  He told me that he’d not only been off cocaine for many months, but was working on understanding it so he could learn to counsel kids about drug use.  We talked for hours that night. Finally, I went home, content that he was well into recovery.  A young man full of so much promise, so much love and hope. A man full of laughter.

Two weeks later, in a particularly dark moment of despair, he reached for the one thing he knew could numb the pain, cocaine. And it did. Forever.

[edit: I'm being an armchair psychologist. To my knowledge, he was never diagnosed with depression, because I don't think he ever sought out psychiatric help. But knowing what I know now, the manic-depression-drugs cycle is very obvious. I use addiction and depression interchangeably, because for him, I think they were linked. ]

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