The pain is so different this time. I’ve lived through the pain of receiving news of the deaths of my mother and my father. But the pain on hearing my brother has died is different in an intensely horrific way. The force of anger in me upon hearing the news while driving surprised me. I can’t even estimate the number of times I hit the steering wheel in anger and frustration and feeling somehow satisfied by the pain in my palms felt from their violent contact with the wheel. Screaming at no one and feeling frustrated there was no one nearby to receive my screams. “WHY, GOD, WHY?” I’ve never asked that question more for anything than I have asked that question on behalf of or in regards to my brother Dale. For 40 years, Dale struggled with binge alcoholism. Severe substance abuse was the most recent formal diagnosis. He seemed to experience no relief at all from the abuse or effects of the abuse. He was in prison a number of times – once he even chose prison over trying to make it in a halfway house and program offered by a judge.
Dale was addicted to alcohol from a very young age – my guess would be somewhere between 13 and 15 years of age. He had trouble through high school. Then, directionless upon graduation, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. His addiction grew. He was honorably discharged with disabilities three years after enlisting. He had contracted mono-nucleosis, which led to encephalitis and a Gran Mal seizure. He nearly died. My parents were called to fly out to California from Michigan as they did not expect him to live. But he lived. He moved back home and his addiction continued. I remember helping him get a couple of jobs with friends – one who he helped build decks, and another hired him at a lumber company. Everyone liked Dale. But the jobs never lasted. Alcohol had its corrosive way of destroying whatever good had managed to occur in Dale’s life.
I can’t be sure, sadly enough, but I believe he was married twice and divorced twice. No relationship could withstand Dale’s massive consumption of alcohol. Oh, things would go along well for a short period of time, but then the monster’s ugly head would rear again, and relationships were destroyed. At least one of his marriages produced a child, a girl named Alex, but I have no idea where she is now. Relationships with family members were all strained. I remember dreading holidays, wondering what disastrous drinking events or consequences of those events we would be dealing with each year I traveled home to visit. One year it was picking him up from prison. Another year, he shot a gun in the house late one night when he thought he was protecting one of his sisters. Luckily, I had taken my sisters out of the house that night as I went to pick up my mother from her job. There was always something to worry about with Dale.
He spent most of the last 10 to 15 years as a homeless veteran. He received disability pay from the military that mostly got used to purchase alcohol or purchase protection from others by buying them alcohol. The homeless liked my brother, too, as he often bought others their drinks. But he was also very vulnerable as the alcohol had taken a toll on his body and he became immobile as he drank. So, Dale was beaten up more than once. My parents had to face unbelievable emotional pain as they attempted to deal with Dale over the years. I remember when they sent him to rehab in Rochester, New York, which didn’t work. I remember when they dropped him off at a shelter in Pontiac, Michigan. I remember when they kicked him out of the house and he decided to live in the field by our house, and because he was threatening to do himself and others harm, they called the police who came and arrested him on an old warrant.
In all the years, I was never able to see Dale’s pain. I saw only the pain he brought to us and others. But a few years ago, I began working with sexually exploited and addicted individuals and reading current material around addictions like the work of Gabor Mate, author of In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction. And I have come to a new understanding of addiction. Knowing what I know now, I believe Dale experienced significant trauma as a child. And that trauma planted a seed inside of Dale that was watered by the alcohol that most of us try when we are teens. He had further traumas while in the Marine Corps, and further alleviated the pain of those traumas with more alcohol. And as he began to experience the pain of rejection all around him, in his family, friends, workplaces, etc., he tried to drown out the pain of rejection and isolation with more and more alcohol. It is not a thought-out process, but rather an instinctive pull.
About 12 weeks ago, my brother was transported once again to the VA Hospital after being found drunk and living in his own filth in an apartment provided by the VA’s HUD/VASH program – its mandate is to put vets in homes. He told one of my sisters to lock him up for two years because “I can’t do this anymore.” HUD/VASH proceeded to discharge him from their program as their clients must be able to take care of themselves in an independent home in order to qualify for their program. After he sobered up, the VA Hospital wanted to discharge him as well – into homelessness. As his sisters, we began advocating for him with the hospital, but we seemed under constant pressure or threat of discharge. Dale had been suicidal, so they put him in their psych ward. They claimed, however, that he really didn’t belong there. How they could know that without a comprehensive mental health assessment, I have no idea. We managed to get him kept in there for nearly eight weeks as we frantically searched for both long-term and short-term solutions for Dale. During that time, three VA rehab facilities rejected his application to enter their program. We have asked why that occurred, but have not yet received a satisfactory answer. And no long-term solutions (i.e., long-term veteran’s housing) or even discussions about solutions ever came our way.
We worked to get him accepted at a private rehab facility, and he indeed showed up there to enter their program. However, they refused to let him smoke and asked him to cut his beard, so he was rejected once again and left. He went to live under a bridge according to my sister who is the last one to have contact with him. In his last conversation with her, he tearfully told her he appreciated everything we had done for him. Within a week, he was found dead behind some trees near a trail with many homeless encampments on it in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Dale was 53 years old.
I am sharing my pain with you today because I believe that, as Johann Hari suggests in his book Chasing The Scream, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety…the opposite of addiction is connection. My brother was a U.S. Veteran. Though he did not serve overseas, he experienced trauma where he was stationed in California. He was proud of his service in the Marine Corps, for which he received at least one award, and proud to be a part of the community of veterans. The community that seemed to deem him unworthy of connection in the end.