The sibling relationship is unique to any other. There is the competitive side – if your sibling gets something you wanted it is said you first try to take it, then try to break it and as last resort say it wasn’t worth having anyway. Siblings represent a link to the past, present and future that is unique to any other relationship. The relationship outlasts marriages, survives any argument or division and outlasts the lifespan of the parents. At least that’s the way it’s suppose to work.
Twenty-eight-year-old Mount Pleasant resident Tricia was born to a successful family in the Atlanta area. She was preceded by a brother who was six years older and a sister who was five years older. Her sister thought Tricia should be an addition to her doll collection, but Tricia was pure tomboy. She idolized her brother and went to great lengths to be with him. She dug up worms so she would be invited fishing. She would sit in his room and clean his shoes. She tried to dress the same as him – anything to be around him. Their birthdays were so close that they had a joint birthday party every year.
For his part, big brother Jay was born with crystal blue eyes and high expectations. The first male child of many cousins to come, he tried to follow his father and grandfather who both had great business success and were beloved in their community. Jay took formal dancing lessons as a young man and learned to charm both women and men. He felt it was his job to make sure everyone was happy; that no one ever felt left out. People flocked to him and he craved the attention. Just before Jay entered high school the family moved from Georgia to Alabama, a move that came with a bit of culture shock, but one Jay seemed to take in stride.
Jay did his best to command the same respect as his father and grandfather, but being young he was short on accomplishment. So everyone liking him was the next best thing. In those times where there was no party or fanfare, deep feelings of inadequacy would crop up. However, Tricia and Jay had grown so close that she could immediately sense this and bring him out of it. In turn, Jay took his role as big brother seriously, looking out for Tricia and covering her back. Both were comforted knowing that no trust would ever be betrayed and no need would go unmet. He even gave her stern and dire warnings about avoiding drugs – advice that sadly, he didn’t adhere to himself.
In Jay’s late teens there were a few minor arrests - racing and trying to out-run police in an old Lincoln Town Car. In college things escalated quickly and as a sophomore he headed to the first rehab of many to come. He charmed his way back into college, but to no avail. He started following bands and to support himself he sold some drugs – not a big time dealer but enough to cover his growing habit. The next 10 years was a cycle of increasing dependence on drugs, stints in rehabs, short periods of sobriety and promises and then the next relapse. Time after time the family’s hopes were raised then dashed.
As Jay’s drama escalated, his mother and father had to scramble to earn extra money to pay for yet another rehab. When Tricia entered college the money wasn’t there to support her like it had been for the older two. She distinctly remembers one time he was in a rehab and there was “family day” – where the whole family went for joint counseling, but she had no transportation to get there. Tricia saw college through and was the only sibling to graduate.
“I began feeling almost cheated, because Jay became such a vacuum of family resources – not just money, but a real strain on time, energy and emotions. When I graduated it didn’t seem that big a deal because he was in trouble again” Tricia says. “I started to hate going home because everyone in our small town knew about his problem. Many of my friend’s parents discouraged them from being around me and I was no longer invited to many of the events that I used to be invited to.”
“I would look into his eyes and see a void – over time there was less and less 'Jay' in there. At the end of college I went to visit some friends and I asked him to watch my dog. It was July 4 and I warned him that the dog was afraid of fireworks. The dog ran off. When I returned I begged him to help me look for it. I knew he didn’t want to face me. I am sure the coyotes in the surrounding hills had gotten the dog, but I still wanted to try to find it. There had been many other incidents where he’d upset me or hurt my feelings, but somehow during this one I realized that my brother that I had idolized and so loved was gone for good. I didn’t know the man behind the crystal-blue eyes anymore. This was kind of my last straw so-to-speak.”
Tricia decided she needed to pull back from her brother for her own mental well-being. But there was always new drama. There was a new girl in his life and he was sober and life was going to be great. But the girlfriend continued the party lifestyle and when Tricia tried to warn Jay that he needed to get away from her he made it clear to Tricia that she was no longer a priority in his life. More friction came when other family members would give into his “sob stories” and help him find pills. So pulling back – “Taking a Break From Jay” –seemed the only way to preserve her own sanity.
Tricia had moved to Mount Pleasant and was building a life. During those occasions she returned to the family home, she would put on a happy face for the benefit of everyone. By now, he would no longer even look her in the eyes. She had thoughts of bridging this void, but felt that it was his responsibility to do so – he was the one creating the issues. But then on July 5, 2016 came the inevitable phone call – Jay had been found dead of an overdose.
“Everyone always talks about how addiction only happens to ‘other people.’ Well, we became ‘other people’” Tricia says. “I would have feelings of anger at Jay for all sorts of things. He abandoned the family. He chose drugs over me. He consumed large amounts of the family’s resources and any one of a hundred things. Then I felt guilty because I was angry. I convinced myself that if I had tried harder I could have gotten through to him and felt guilty about that. I know this is a lie, but I can’t help telling myself it. I’ve felt anger for my parents and my sister, because they tried to help him to no avail. I know they felt. But mostly I just feel powerless and that’s the worst. But in a way I have an advantage over the other members of my family. I had been so close to Jay that I had watched him die – piece by piece – over the 10 years before his physical death. In large part I had grieved his loss long before his final passing.”
“I used to be frustrated with my mother – how could you give him everything when he was just using you? Well, I now have a young son and when I look in his eyes I know exactly why mom did what she did. The unconditional love I feel means that there is nothing my son could do to make me stop loving and trying to help him succeed in life.”
“Jay had a way with kids, and when I watch my son discover something new or laugh uncontrollably, my gut wrenches as I think about how Jay would have loved him and he would have loved Jay. You may ask of me ‘Has she gotten over it? Is she better now? Does she still cry over him?’ The answer is complicated; not a day goes by that I don’t think about him and wish I had more moments on this Earth with him. There are nights I dream about him. I’ve dreamt he was holding a newborn baby, perhaps a vision given me by something greater so that I can see him with my child in his arms. On occasion our eyes meet and we share a feeling. Those days I wake up with a smile and life is easier to navigate. Maybe we coach ourselves to be stronger or maybe we’ve just learned to get comfortable in the weighted blanket of sorrow, guilt, shame, anger and sadness. In other words, maybe you just get used to it.”
“Am I ok? Yeah, sure. Most days. I can only hope it gets better. Remember to use grace in your day – when you bump into a stranger, have lunch with a disgruntled family member, have a meeting with someone who has a harsh tone – we never know what weight one is carrying or how much grace they may need.”
As I leave Tricia I remember that addiction is a family disease that tends to skip a generation as it manifests through the family tree. She will be careful to warn her children of the dangers in such a way that they will heed, but since they have been spared the pain of it will they neglect to be open and honest with their children? Because one thing is for sure, this predator called addiction will wait patiently for any opportunity to devour another family.
I cannot help but smile at Tricia’s story about how right after his funeral, in despair she told God that she needed a clear sign that God was still with her. And on the ground before her she clearly saw the crystal blue color of Jay’s eyes – in the pattern of a Blue Jay feather that had fallen from above. And in that moment she knew he was. And in her retelling of that moment I know she will be OK too.