The Year That Wasn't

By Nils82 11/05/18

My youngest brother Phillip died of an overdose one year ago, succumbing after a long battle with drugs, his favourite of which was heroin. I empathized with his fight. I was an addict too, but I made it out. Scathed, but alive. What I contend with now is survivor’s guilt.

I’m trying to forgive myself. I make superficial passes at the notion of blamelessness. I tell myself that it wasn’t my fault, that I did all I could to save him. I declaim, whenever asked, that I know there was nothing I could have done to change the outcome. But I miss my little brother. I wish he were here. I wish he could have experienced the world clean, with me, with us.

I’m powerless, I say. I was powerless during his struggles, and I’m powerless now. Powerless to bring him back, powerless to intuit when the grief will bleed back over and across the margins. Powerless over the episodic nightmares, the longing, the fits of rage I fly into when I think of the injustice of it all, the cruel, uncalculated tragedy of the situation.

Radical appeals to powerlessness: the universal refrain of the recovering addict. This is how I’ve learned to cope as a sober man. This is how I’ve been programmed. But no programming is entirely immune to glitches, and there remains an insuperable disconnect between my body and my soul. What I understand intellectually, with my brain, I struggle to assimilate emotionally, with my heart. As my therapist has always said, “you get it with your brain, but I don’t think you get it with your stomach. One day you’re really need to get it with your stomach.

And this is why I still blame myself, at least in part, for his death. I know that this isn’t healthy, and I concede, intellectually at least, that this isn’t true. Unfortunately my gut and intellect are not yet in lockstep. This has been an interesting year.

Life continues apace. My wife and I have moved into a beautiful home, in a quiet, cultured neighbourhood. I’ve taken on an extra job, just on Saturday’s, supporting newly sober men in a recovery house in the North East corner of Toronto. I’ve benefited from a creative flowering, a renascence, and the realization that I no longer care to please people at the expense of my authentic self. I will no longer camouflage who I am or what I believe to appease your sensibilities. Take it or leave it. I’ve lost supposed friends over this, and supposed is the operative word. If you only valued me for a mirage of who I am, then you never really valued me at all. Life is too short to be spent behind veils. My little brother didn’t live that way. That was a dimension of his personality I deeply admired.

I’ve experienced most of the last year from an almost disembodied perspective, floating through days, an ethereal spectator observing my actions from a perch somewhere just overhead of where I stand. I’ve spent many hours reaching back into the past, meditating on what I could have done different, for my brother, for my family. It’s possible that I spend too much time in the past. I wear it like a mask, a second skin. Perhaps I need to be more like the snake. Perhaps I need to shed this skin to grow, to rid myself of the parasitic and unneeded.

In Kalil Jibran’s, the prophet, the protagonist aphorizes “but who can depart from his pain and aloneness without regret”? The question bears contemplation. 

I ask myself, “am I ready to depart from this pain and aloneness, am I prepared to relinquish the past, and move on from that moment, this loss?” 

And to that question, I answer no.

My past acts like a lens, a scope with which I perceive the world, shading the greens with black and the yellows with grey. I know I should put this scope down, or at least clean the lens, but I’m not ready yet. It just isn’t time. My brother’s death spurred a profound reworking of the way I interpret people, places and things; a shift in the texture of the landscape. Things are just a bit grainier, a bit less fluid, and that’s OK.

There’s still too much that needs revisiting, too many whispers to record, too many memories to transmute. I visualize my history in the form of a wall; an edifice that hold the moments of my life together in a singular mass. The wall is tagged with memories, images, half-open windows looking out onto a starless plane. I look to this wall for inspiration. I draw upon my brother’s death for strength, to expropriate light out the pockets of the shadow. Being itself is cyclical. This is a fundamental truth. Death brings life, decay allows for growth. I understand this with both heart and soul.

The guilt will fade, or mutate into something less biting. And my stomach will learn to concede what my brain already has. That my brother’s death was not my fault. I loved him, he knew that, he knows that. It was the last thing we said to each other. Our final exchange was punctuated in these three, undying words: I love you. 

I’m trying to forgive myself. Perhaps I’m closer than I thought. 

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