Your time and energy are not infinite. So how do you determine who gets the bulk of both: your baby son or your beloved brother struggling with heroin addiction?
Eight months after my son Oslo was born, my parents and I learned that my 32-year-old brother Max was a cocaine and heroin addict. In the days that followed, I felt myself impossibly pulled between two potent loves—that of my tender new baby, and that of my deeply troubled sibling.
Oslo was more dear than any of the infants I tried to imagine in pregnancy. At eight months old, he had big dark eyes and fine, wispy hair. He was funny and inquisitive and he held my attention—most of the time. I never doubted the love I had for my son and yet, much of the joy and lightness I had experienced around him became clouded once I knew my brother was an addict.
Truthfully, I had spent many years worried about Max. He, too, had been an adorable baby, though in retrospect, bits of darkness crept in early. In response, I became his fierce protector. Once, he crawled out of bed after a babysitter put us to sleep. After three hours of searching, the police were called just as I found him buried under a pile of dirty socks and shirts in the back of a closet. Another time, on vacation, he spent an afternoon perched on top of a toilet in a bathroom stall as my parents and most of the inhabitants of the small island we were on conducted a search until I stumbled on his hiding place.
When in middle childhood, he began telling lies, I lost my way as his advocate. I was as quiet as my brother was increasingly loud; as plainly honest as he was at sketching his own stories. Still, I felt undeniably attached to him.
Despite record test scores and a gifted photographic eye, he floundered academically in high school, when girls and male friends would stream through his bedroom window late into the night like ants following an irresistible trail. Afterward, he never held a steady job. The occasional visits we shared felt hollow; I couldn’t trust his declarations that all was well despite appearances to the contrary, and that his fortunes would soon be rolling in. He didn’t inquire much about my own life, either—my international moves, degrees, and boyfriends all seemed to pass him by without notice.
Somehow, despite the accumulation of let downs and lies, my feelings for Max, not entirely unlike those for my son, once he arrived, remained ground-level, primal ones. Our childhoods had rooted us, and part of my young self formed around the shape of this lost person. When I sensed he was suffering in a haze of mental illness, so, too, did I suffer. I wished, hard, for some tiny pebble of connection to be reinstated; to break through the fog and touch him.
Once I knew Max was a drug addict, I would stare at my baby son and envision Max crouched over mirror shards and powders, making plaintive midnight calls to dealers, sleeping away the years. I studied Oslo, so beautiful and fresh in this world, which now felt overrun with dust and grime. Sometimes, I felt like a shadowy, ghost parent and wondered if I had the strength needed to remain open to my son while I watched someone I loved self-destruct.
I lay sleepless for two nights after receiving the news about Max, torturing myself with questions of where he was, and if he might be dying alone on a bare mattress. I stopped eating. I worried until I felt sick from morning to night. And then, just as my family was growing desperate about finding a way to confront him, Max invited me into his living space for the first time in nine years, and I saw my opportunity.
Inside his apartment, every shade was drawn. It felt like a secret tomb that was hovering in some unmapped part of the sky.
His living room was a sea of old mementos, DVD’s, magazines, and ashtrays. Surfaces were buried beneath old food cartons and grocery sacks. Faded photos spilled out of sagging cardboard boxes. I scanned the room as best as I could for spoons, plastic baggies. I knew he would have stashed them away, but an oversized roll of tinfoil eyed me on a strikingly bare kitchen counter, likely used for cooking drugs on. I felt my stomach turn yet again.
My brother was full of warm, hollow bluster and made his way around the room, sifting through stacks of photographs, looking for shots he never could find. He had long acted as a sort of family memory keeper. There was rarely an order to the vast collections he amassed chronicling births, awkward adolescent phases, and family road trips, all of which seemed to mirror his mind: a sprawling territory of sweet sentimentality and chaos.
My job while there was to tell a series of lies convincingly enough that Max would show up the next afternoon on our mother’s porch to face an intervention counselor and circle of family and concerned friends. I was to sell him on a phony backyard picnic with my mom, me, and most importantly, my son, whom he adored. This broke my heart—both the idea of involving Oslo, even theoretically, in this ugly situation, and the reality that the only thing that may have been compelling enough to get my junkie of a brother out his front door, aside from his next drug purchase, was the chance to spend a few minutes with his nephew.
“How are you, sister?” he asked, studying a photograph of my parents, youthful and wavy-haired, arms encircling each other, standing in front of a parked train engine.
“Pretty good,” I managed. That was lie number one. He didn’t prod further. My hands were trembling. Inside my gut I pictured a dark creature from one of my son’s picture books—a dirty tangle of soot and deception.
When Max turned away from me, I was struck by the cliche of him: he had long, curly matted hair. He smelled of cigarettes and stale alcohol. In the light of a small lamp I could see that his arms and hands were dotted with constellations of fresh, fiery burns and sores he had picked open.
He told me a series of lies that night, too, about why I couldn’t see his bedroom (dirty laundry!) and explained what all that tinfoil was for (lots of cooking!). The deep burns on his hand, he offered, were from working on his car.
My lies worked. He showed up he next day and wearily agreed to inpatient treatment. He made it through 28 days of an initial 30-day program. And then everything fell apart, and the nightmare unfolded. My divorced but formerly civil, devoted parents went to war about how best to help him. My brother continued to flounder. Today, over a year after we learned Max was addicted, my family remains in pieces and despite his arguable sobriety, his underlying struggles remain glaring as they ever were.
Yet, amidst the chaos, I felt a tiny, important change in myself. Over the course of that awful year, some of the strands that had tied me to Max all those years began to fray and loosen. A few AA meetings with the theme of loving detachment helped, and so did a determined therapist. Mostly, there was just my son, who increasingly demanded the attention he deserved while walking, and then running. My love for my brother remains, and is still sore just beneath the surface—it’s a wound, but I no longer let it invade time with my son.
It all started for me that night in my brother’s apartment. When I felt a pang of longing for Oslo, who I knew was probably getting his bath at just that moment, I wanted to go home. I leaned in toward Max and asked him a final question, the same one I had been asking since we were teenagers, always hoping for a glimpse of something real. “How are you doing?”
“Good,” he said blankly. “I mean, yeah, there are a few things maybe I’d change, but all in all, things are good.”
I needed to convey my own sense of fear and desperation. I didn’t care if he noticed. I draped my arm around his back and leaned in closer than we ever stood together. “I don’t think you’re OK, Max.” I started to cry and didn’t stop. We stood that way for maybe two minutes, my whole body shaking, tears streaming, my brother mute and rigid, staring at a corner of his stove.
Downstairs, just beside my parked car, he seemed slightly sad. I waved goodbye and pictured my brother hitting the streets afterward. Then I drove home and put my son to bed.
Addie Hahn parents, writes and grows an abundance of kale and peonies in Portland, Oregon. She holds a B.A. in English and certification in Child Life.