My Brother's Keeper

By Laura Kiesel 01/22/17

To be a parentified sibling is to be swallowed up by guilt and grief, to bear the burden of the weight of worry and responsibility that the absent or abusing parent has shirked.

My Brother's Keeper
We are bonded not only by blood, but also our shared trauma.

On my brother’s birthday, I called him ten times. Each time, it rang repeatedly until the generic voicemail picked up. I would hang up, take a breath and try again. I finally left him a message.

“Please be safe,” I said.

The month before, my brother had confessed to me that he had started drinking again in June after seven months of sobriety. He had been dishonest to me about it all summer, first by omission, then by outright deception. When he finally came clean with me, he started to sob, asking me to not cut him out of my life as I once did our mother. But how could I?

He is not just my only living link to our fraught past, but someone whose existence offered me a lifeline.

My brother and I are the sole survivors of our small family. We are bonded by more than blood, but by our shared trauma. We are like veterans who not only served in the same war but fought on the same battleground. No one else can relate to our exact experiences but us, even those who can also stake a claim to a family destroyed by addiction. Our common thread was our mother. She was someone we survived, someone we simultaneously loved and hated, drawing us together at certain times, while driving us bitterly apart at others. But beyond her death, we have become fast friends. And while we may have coped with having our specific family dynamic in different ways, our bodies have collected so many of the same scars.

This has made us closer in many ways than siblings with more tepid upbringings who never had to cling to each other for the sake of safety or sanity. We had a saying growing up: “We come from the same womb and we share the same room.” While my brother and I have different dads, this was mostly inconsequential to us growing up since neither father was around much. And though we may not have shared the same last name—something the nuns in our shared Catholic school sometimes shamed us for—we shared many of the same genes. We have nearly identical eyes—sea green, heavy-lidded, long-lashed—inherited from our mother. Both of us are bottomless pits of need we try desperately to fill up in our unique ways. Me with my words, with seeking the companionship of men who can’t fully commit. My brother with his weed, his pills, his beer.

My mother gave birth to my brother when I was in the first grade. Almost immediately after he came home with her from the hospital, he was put into the crib beside my bed. I learned to sleep and wake by my brother’s rhythms. When he cried in the middle of the night it was often I who scrambled out of my small bed to retrieve his bottle (my brother didn't breastfeed). It was I who would play peek-a-boo with him until he exhausted of his own giggles or would sing to him from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” until he finally yawned and dozed off. I would stay awake long after, watching him breathe.

Before my brother hit his first birthday, my mother and stepfather had started doing drugs. By the time he was two and I was eight, my stepfather had left us and my mother found her comfort in a cloud of heroin. In this way, my mother was always there but not there. When she went on her warpath, screaming and hurling huge objects around the apartment, I would grab my baby brother and lock us both in the bathroom. We would sit in the tub shivering while our mother pounded maniacally at the door, calling us curse words. After some time her energy would wane and she’d stop. I'd wait till it was completely quiet on the other side to open the door before I’d let us warily emerge. Usually, she had collapsed on the couch. Other times, she had left the apartment altogether. Then I would make us a snack and read him a story before bedding down for the night.

But being my brother's keeper would sometimes wear on me. Sometimes his two-year-old tantrums would sink like metal hooks under my skin. I’d take the keys and leave to go play with the other kids on the corner or find a shadowy spot in a nearby alley to cry. I tried to forget about the dirty diaper I had refused to change, or his hot tears as I left. I’d come home an hour later and usually nothing had changed. Occasionally, my mother would have snapped out of her heroin-induced stupor long enough to change my brother and put him to bed. The Christmas she could not be woken up, I tried to assemble one of my presents—a Pound Puppy fort—by myself. But my brother kept kicking it and laughing hysterically as the pieces smashed spectacularly apart. I erupted into an angry fit, pushing him hard to the ground and smacking him several times, my small hand imprinting flaming red outlines on his chubby thighs. He began to shriek and cry, which jarred me out of my rage. Kneeling down next to him I hugged him hard as we rocked together on the floor, both of us sobbing. “I'm so sorry,” I said again and again.

When my mother’s antics reached a fever pitch, I’d call my grandparents for reinforcements and they’d arrive to come get us. But sometimes my mother clutched hard to my brother and would not let him go. Those times, we left without him. Once I watched as he reached his arms out to us and called my name, falling out of my mother’s lap, face first onto the floor. I could hear his anguished wails all the way down the hallway.

When we finally moved in for good with our grandparents, things improved, but only marginally. Our mother still lived with us, meaning we still had to endure her near-daily onslaught of screaming and stealing and sometimes, slapping. Our grandparents grew older and frailer, gradually transforming from enforcers to enablers. While I rejected my mother in every way, withdrawing so far inside myself at home I was ghost-like, my brother built a reputation as a loudmouth and troublemaker. Yet still, in our own way, we were close. We told each other stories from our separate beds when we couldn’t sleep. We watched horror movies and sitcoms together, sitting side-by-side with a bag of chips between us. We had private jokes and dance routines we practiced when we were bored.

After I graduated high school, I took off for college and barely looked back. By the time I was in my twenties, my brother had already started doing drugs with my mother. She had introduced him to harder stuff than he had tried in high school: offering him cuts of her cocaine and peddling off pills from her opioid prescription to him in exchange for drug runs for her. When I found out, I hit the rock bottom of betrayal I could handle from my family. I cut ties with all of them but my brother. Over the next few years, we corresponded in only handwritten letters, me constantly beseeching him to seek treatment.

To be a parentified sibling is to be swallowed up by guilt and grief, to bear the burden of the weight of worry and responsibility that the absent or abusing parent has shirked. When my brother became an addict, I felt betrayed by my mother and grandparents in a way I never had for the crimes they committed against me more directly. I also felt it was my fault, for all the ways I hadn’t been there for him, as well as those times I took out my remorse and frustration on him.

When my mother died, followed soon after by both of our grandparents, my brother finally went into recovery for opioid addiction. But he continued to drink at a volume that astonished me. In 2014, we stopped speaking for nearly four months after he was hospitalized for acute pancreatitis from excessive alcohol consumption. The Thanksgiving before when he visited, he went through a six-pack or more a night.

“You are going to die,” I yelled over the phone until I was hoarse. My brother began ignoring my phone calls.

Before the end of last year, the miracle I had prayed for finally happened: my brother checked himself into a week-long detox. He came to visit me a couple of weeks later for Christmas and didn’t drink a drop of alcohol at my apartment the entire time and thereafter remained sober for the longest stint since he was sixteen.

Yet, though he was sober, he didn’t strike me as recovered. During his holiday stay with me, my brother went to bed early and woke up before me. He went for walks and drew designs in his sketch book. He seemed content, if not blissfully happy. But in the ensuing months, he regressed back into his old habits. He would shut himself in his room for days at a time, keeping an erratic sleep schedule and ignoring his hygiene. It seemed inevitable to me he would eventually fall off the wagon without some drive or inspiration for life to fill the void alcohol had left.

Recovery memoirs often tend to follow an allegorical or fairy tale-type of narrative. There is the downfall and the struggle, followed by redemption and a (relatively) happy ending. But it’s usually far more complex. Many people never recover. Many addicts also don’t die young or suddenly of overdose. They linger, suffering for years until poverty or other diseases slowly but surely snuff them out. In the meantime, they have children onto whom they pass on their painful legacy. These children either grow up to develop their own addictions or become the rare sober child who may have escaped the cycle of addiction but is not unscathed by its terrors.

People often ask me why my brother and I turned out so differently. How come he took up drugs and drink, while I avoided that path? Why did I manage to go on to graduate college and assimilate into polite society, while my brother still languishes in our old apartment, having never worked or pursued higher education, a virtual shut-in? Was it gender? Birth order? Probably both, or perhaps neither. Like siblings of other families, we have very different personalities. Also like most other families, we have our horror stories and our happy stories, our secrets and our regrets. In the meantime, the shared past of our parentage continues to haunt me, leading to a reluctance to have children myself and be at all directly responsible for another’s deep damage.

My brother and I may be the end of our bloodline, but that doesn’t have to be a tragedy. He is not just my only living link to our fraught past, but someone whose existence offered me a lifeline in what would have otherwise been an isolated childhood. More than any marriage, our bond will last as long as we live. Hopefully, that will be many decades yet.

Laura Kiesel has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian, Salon, the Washington Post, Narratively and others. She is currently completing a collection of essays, The Drug Addict's Daughter. Follow her @SurvivalWriter.

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