An article from The Guardian in August 2017 written about an alcoholic brother.
I was visiting friends when I got the call to go to the hospital. I’d been expecting it for the last few years. I ran to find the ward on which my brother was lying in a bed on a ventilator.
“Am I too late?” I asked.
“No, Steve’s still with us,” somebody told me. I looked down at the bed, the monitors, assessing his heart rate and blood pressure. Things I knew about. Then I looked at my brother and knew the doctor was wrong. The truth was quite different.
In reality my eldest brother, 17 years my senior, had not really been with us in many years. We had been losing him a little bit at a time to a disease we had long held off giving a name. We didn’t know what to call it. Sometimes we thought we knew, other times we felt blind. We held back from labels, organised dinner without wine when it seemed prudent, with wine when things seemed all right.
We were just fumbling about in the dark. Because what we came to accept in those final years, and what was more obvious than ever as we stood at his bedside, was that what had resulted in his latest, and final admission, had a name. Steve was an alcoholic.
But it wasn’t always like that. Alcoholism takes its time, comes and goes as it pleases for years. There was a time, many years before, when my brother pushed me about in my buggy, played at being Dad. He took me fishing, teased me, and made me hate him by locking me in his room while Michael Jackson’s Thriller played on repeat. Years later, he called me when his cats were giving birth, and looked after me when it was school holidays and my parents were at work.
When I got older he would invite me to dinner and we would eat lasagne from oversized colourful plates and he would talk to me about his woodworking and huge movie collection. Now, I wonder if it was my childhood naivety that casts our earliest shared memories in a joyous light. Perhaps what for me was a lovely night with my brother pointed to a deeper loneliness on his part. A fact that something was missing, a hole there to be filled. It was a sign of what lay ahead, although I never realised.
I lived just around the corner. But it was only when he died that I came to understand the predicament he had been in; there had been no choice about the way he lived. And it was only after that insight that I came to appreciate that alcoholism wasn’t a lifestyle he had adopted as the easy way out of disappointment. It was only after he died that I realised how nobody would have chosen to live like my brother, on the sidelines of a family who loved him, isolated from the world, surrounded by chaos.
It was never preferable to live the way he did rather than how he would have liked, which is why, even when I felt hopeless, he never lost his faith that one day it might get better. He never stopped making plans to stop drinking. He always hoped that a better, happier life was waiting for him on the other side of sobriety.
After we lost him, for a long time that sense of injustice stayed with me; it wasn’t the fact that we had lost him, but the disappointment he felt while he was alive, how his treatment had failed, and how, to his chagrin, he had never achieved the quite simple dream of loving and being loved in return by somebody other than his family.
Every time I hear about a person with an addiction, I think of my brother. Every time I hear that someone has battled their demons, I feel as proud as if they were him. When I see men fishing from the end of the pier in Limassol, Cyprus, where I now live, I remember the times he untangled my lines, and told me that another lost float didn’t matter. I see his face when I look at the bowl he made, which I took from his house after we lost him.And each time I think of him, I realise I was as wrong about him in death as I was in life. For years, I thought he was no longer with us, but he was, filled with hope that there was another chance waiting for him, a different life we could be a part of.
So perhaps when I thought he was lost already that day in hospital, he wasn’t. Perhaps he was still with us. Because although there might have been no hope to save him that day, he never stopped hoping that we could. That is how I choose to remember him.
We needed to break down my brother’s door before we could see the problem for what it was. On that occasion he was found unresponsive, and was admitted to hospital for detox and rehydration, and was back out within a couple of days, unharmed and unchanged. One of my brothers fixed the door. Steve was fine, OK?
But the episode had put an altogether different spin on what was happening, and quietly, between ourselves, the first mutterings of alcoholism passed our lips. I began to understand what everybody else already knew. So a new routine became our norm: sporadic periods of silence, mixed with concern, always topped with a thick slice of denial.
The problem was not my brother’s drinking, per se, even during periods of inebriation. It was the fact that drinking was altogether something normal. Acceptable. Having a drink at a family dinner or finding a two-litre bottle of cider in the fridge would have been entirely reasonable if it had been anybody else.
Well-intentioned strangers couldn’t see the harm. But they didn’t see that the cider was the only thing in his fridge, and the food that should have been in there with it was still in the carrier bags, rotting on the kitchen floor. They didn’t have to help him down from the roof of his garage when he became disorientated and confused. They didn’t wait for half an hour each day on his doorstep over a two-week Christmas period calling his name through his letterbox, only to hear him moving around inside, denying their wish to spend time with him, knowing he was wasted. Wasting. By then the time for breaking down doors had long since passed.
As we inched towards the later years of my brother’s life, frustrated by his continued demise despite our best efforts to maintain a sense of normality, such desperate measures as broken-down doors seemed an overreaction. The alcoholism had taken hold of all of us in some way, reduced our expectations about what was possible. Still, during crisis moments I would wake up at 1am to a call that something wasn’t right.
We all took our turn when it came to those late-night dashes, to stand in his room amid the disarray, crouched in front of our tearful eldest brother, feeling hopeless, even when he agreed to do anything we asked. He would go to rehab, call them tomorrow. He would find a therapist, a different one. He would go to the GP, and this time take the tablets. Those nights would often result in sporadic attempts to set things right. Pens and bowls would be turned on a lathe with surprising precision; we would receive invites for dinner and find the house immaculate. When treatment would commence. Despite the failures, these moments offered blurred remembrances of our bright, hopeful, and unfailingly kind brother with a crude sense of humour that we all missed so much.
Often, I was frustrated by alcoholism and therefore my brother. It seemed so simple to me in my easy life where I could mix cranberry juice with vodka and it didn’t imply another failure. Just pour it away, don’t buy it, go to work, and come to my house.
The comments are heart-rendering sharing of other young deaths caused by King Alcohol as pictured above ((Image: “King Alcohol and His Prime Minister” c. 1820)