Twin Addictions And Parallel Recovery

By Brett Fenzel 12/28/18

In hindsight, we both had tell-tale signs of the addict – irrational fear, feelings of inferiority, flights of fancy. But there was no room for two troubled twins in our divided, post-divorce household.

Brett Fenzel (pictured on left)
Brett Fenzel (pictured on left) and BJ, his twin brother.

I’d always been the golden twin by default. To quote the Radiohead song, I was “fitter, happier, more productive” than my twin brother BJ. I came out first, and he popped out seven minutes later.

I was right-handed, and he was left-handed and had trouble writing and reading. He repeated kindergarten while I galloped on to first grade and was writing in my “Daily Log” in Mrs. Thornton’s first-grade class in no time.

BJ was the needier one. Even though, as fraternal twins, we looked almost identical, I had a rounder face, a perkier smile, and a confident swagger that BJ lacked. He was literally always been behind me — at birth, in school, in life. I don’t know exactly what happened in the womb, but the evidence supports the notion that I drew the longer straw and got the better food and cozier reclining position.  

BJ was also neurologically impaired. In our early teens, having already been tagged with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), BJ was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome.

I was gay and suffered from acute anxiety starting around the same time, but I was an A-student and a blue-ribbon swimmer. I didn’t have any genuine self-confidence, but my steady accomplishments kept me trudging along while BJ treaded water.

In hindsight, we both had tell-tale signs of the addict – irrational fear, feelings of inferiority, flights of fancy. But there was no room for two troubled twins in our divided, post-divorce household. So, I squashed my troubled side whether I was fully conscious of it or not.

It wasn’t until 20 years later, when BJ and I both hit bottom and ended up in recovery, that our paths finally converged.

I had plenty of childhood fears, but BJ’s, namely getting older and TV’s The Incredible Hulk, were more outwardly irrational. As a six-year-old, I didn’t rule out monsters living in our closet and didn’t love those scenes of Bruce Banner transforming into a hulking green monster. BJ showed it, though, by letting out a gut-wrenching scream and darting away from the TV set.

One Sunday night, after an easy pill of The Dukes of Hazzard, my parents, still married at the time, decided to try to some conditioning and forced BJ to stay in the room during one of Banner’s transformations. My mother majored in child psychology in college, and I have no doubt it was her idea. She taught me to swim by pushing me in the deep end.

BJ wailed and shook. It was unbearable to watch my twin writhing in terror. The intention was good I guess, but I think my mother saw A Clockwork Orange one too many times. My “happier” side was a mask, but the Hulk incident was an early indication that I needed to keep wearing it. 

BJ’s Tourette’s started off as grunts and tics but progressed quickly into verbal outbursts. He started off by snarling at our younger sister Melanie. To be fair, she was a pain in the ass. But his actions felt involuntary. Even when she wasn’t provoking him with her brattiness, BJ would unleash his made-up epithet (“Bratface! Bratface!”) every time she entered the room sending her off in tears. I saw in his eyes and in his sunken body language that he didn’t mean it. But he had to say it. 

Over the next few years, his disease became even more profane. During Family Day at the reputable all-boys Catholic high school my father forced me to attend without my twin, BJ yelled out during church, “Fuck God! Fuck Jesus!”

I turned and shot him a piercing look. I hated this place and would have liked nothing more than to be sent to the nearby public high school with my middle school friends. But I was devastated. Why did he have to express this inside the church? Why couldn’t he wait until we got outside? I already felt like one of the awkward and unpopular students at the school. My anxiety caused by being an effeminate gay kid drowning in a sea of masculinity was no less emotionally crippling than BJ’s Tourette’s. It was just more manageable and easier to internalize.

We were mirrors of each other, and my reflection had a seemingly incurable and publicly humiliating disease.

By the time BJ’s Tourette’s was peaking, my parents, now divorced, agreed to take him to Washington DC to see an expert who wrote a popular book and specialized in the treatment of OCD, a regular companion to Tourette’s.

But I don’t think the doctor knew enough about Tourette’s to justify the cost of treatment and regular travel from where we lived in New Jersey to DC. BJ started seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed meds, but nothing seemed to quiet his Tourette’s. If anything, it was getting worse.

One night, dosed up on Prednisone, he huffed and paced our bedroom in a panic, repeating, “Why is this happening to me?”

I felt like a witness to an exorcism gone awry and couldn’t understand why the doctors had prescribed a steroid to a kid who was already amped up. Unlike with the Hulk, there was no off switch. 

By my late teens, I had grown ashamed of my other half and started to pull away from BJ. We were now technically in the same grade. He managed to skip a year with the help of a learning specialist, but we still weren’t like other twins.

Unlike the Kean brothers, twins our age and equals academically and on the baseball diamond, BJ and I were in totally different orbits. I was on a college track, and he was still barely squeaking by in school. He was being home-schooled, because of the humiliation he experienced in the less competitive private high school he had been forced to attend.

The sweat pouring from my palms left noticeable handprints on the black desktop in biology class, but I could quickly wipe them away with my shirt sleeve. BJ, on the other hand, couldn’t hide his nervous grunts and was being accused by his classmates of masturbating in the back of class. It always seemed worse for him. 

In the last few months of my senior year, I was bullied by a homophobic wolfpack. I tried to get help from school counselors and my unambiguously queer gym teachers, but they were powerless to stop it. I had already been accepted to a top university in the Midwest, so I just needed to wait it out. Any guilt I felt over leaving BJ behind was replaced by the promise of a fresh start and the chance to operate as one person instead of an abler, less tortured half. 

I tasted freedom in college, but halfway through school that freedom morphed into full-time partying. I was sexually active with boys and openly gay (or at least bisexual). But I had a river of shame and guilt coursing through my veins. Coupled with the trauma from high school and decades trying to keep up appearances against the weight of my disabled brother, I was suing my father and grandparents over a mishandled trust fund.

I had left BJ behind to bear the brunt of my father’s rage. Alcohol, marijuana and cocaine offered a quick transfusion. 

By senior year, I was skipping and failing classes. I was no longer the card-carrying A-student and golden child. Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away, BJ had started using too. Using the same cocktail of alcohol and drugs, he finally found the effective medication he’d been seeking all along to quiet his tics and offer some relief. Separately and for different reasons, we’d succumbed to identical, or more accurately, fraternal addictions.

My addiction progressed into my early thirties when I had a psychotic break. Living in Los Angeles with a coke dealer on either side of the 405 freeway, I started experiencing panic attacks every morning for months. I went into therapy and started taking prescribed meds for the first time in my life. But BJ, now 3,000 miles away, became my genuine life-preserver. I called him begging the same question he had asked me decades before, “Why is this happening to me?”

I didn’t expect an answer, but I finally understood his paralyzing terror from that night in our bedroom. Also, I knew BJ had been in and out of recovery for years but had never dared to ask about his experience. I had viewed his yoyoing as yet another failure and probably knew that I’d see my own addiction reflected back. Now, facing a dead end, I was finally willing to listen. The next year later, five days after our 33rd birthday, I walked into AA and didn’t turn back. 

Ten years later, I’m still sober and working a program. BJ, who had a handful of relapses in my early sobriety, has almost eight years. Statistically, I don’t know what our chances were before we got sober, but I never would have predicted this outcome. We’ve achieved equilibrium together, and I’m no longer seeking anything outside of twin relationship to make me feel more unique. I turn to him to remind me what real courage looks like. I might have the fuller head of hair – BJ’s slightly more effective meds have thinned his - but today neither of us is the fitter, happier, more productive twin. 

Brett Fenzel is a professional script reader for a New York-based film production company. In addition, he has had film reviews and essays published on HuffPost Blog and is currently working on his memoir tentatively titled "The Twenty-Year Divorce." After 16 years in Los Angeles, Brett left the states in July 2017 and is now working remotely and living with his husband in the south of France. Brett can be found on Linkedin, and you can follow him on Twitter.
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