Success in Sobriety

By Jenice Lee
(redjar/flickr)

In the middle of a cool summer night in 2002, my brother Josh sat outside on the front porch. With a lighter in hand, he lit his first joint. Earlier that day he bought it off a co-worker, paying an extra $10 for him to roll it.

At 14 years old, before he felt the first sting of alcohol or inhaled his first cigarette, he was high. “I didn’t have to worry about my dad, who struggled with depression or feel the pain from my mom’s death,” he says now. For a moment, he was outside his problems.

As a boy, I remember Josh being curious and mischievous. At three years old, he snuck out of house and wandered down the road to a local bowling alley. We found him half an hour later, face glued to the alley’s glass doors. He always wanted to be in the center of the action. As his big sister, I could always count on him to plan elaborate adventures with me. But when Josh began to use, I was shut out.

He smoked pot occasionally throughout high school, but one spring Friday night, things quickly escalated. Barely 18 years old, he rented a hotel room with his friends. A friend brought mushrooms and offered some to Josh. He decided to give it a try. He found himself hallucinating. Operating on a tip, police officers visited the hotel room where Josh was staying. With a stupid grin slapped across his face, Josh took his first mug shots. "As I sat in the jail cell, I couldn’t tell if I was hallucinating the events of the evening or not. Every time a police officer would walk by my cell, his face would contort to look like a demon. I freaked out,” Josh says.

I got a phone call late that evening on my way back from a ski trip to Colorado. "Josh was arrested and now he's missing," my sister explained. A friend had bailed him out, but no one could locate him. I called every one of his friends, begging them to tell me my brother was with them and that he was safe. I had seen the pain begin to wear at him the past few months. His eyes weren't as bright and he was much more distant. I sensed something was wrong but couldn't find the words to talk to him about it. A phone call later that night revealed that Josh was safe and with a friend. I felt relieved he wasn't in immediate danger but couldn’t shake a lingering sadness.

With dropping grades, Josh struggled to stay in school. With only a semester left to finish, he was expelled from his high school because his GPA fell .02 points below the minimum requirement. The tension at home was suffocating. Josh moved out of the house and dove head-first into an ocean of drugs. The little brother that I knew was slowly disappearing. I found it difficult to spend time with him—what used to be an open, easy-going relationship now felt awkward and forced. I wanted to love him, to show him that I wasn't going to turn my back on him. But with each encounter, it got more difficult to meaningfully connect.

After another visit from the cops and another night in jail, with a court case looming overhead, Josh decided to try rehab. A rush of relief swept over my body as I pulled into the parking lot of the rehab center. My sisters and I walked him in and stayed with him through the two-hour check-in. After our long hug goodbye, I felt a tinge of newfound hope for my brother.

I visited Josh a week later. He looked healthier, but more remarkably, he was warm in his behavior toward me. The numbness that had characterized his past several months was slowly wearing off as he broke his habits: Taking 5-7 ecstasy pills per day, smoking pot, and drinking exorbitant amounts of alcohol.

My many visits with him in rehab were mostly spent playing ping pong and laughing at how his roommate was the spitting image of Christopher Lloyd. One evening, we sat outside, looking at the stars. Josh smoked a cigarette and divulged all of the insight he had acquired during his month-long stay, and his hopes for his future. I cried hot tears as I watched him graduate from rehab, 30 days clean. My sister and I spent two days repainting and cleaning up his apartment that he had trashed during his former drug-induced haze. He was ready for a fresh start. We were so excited to have a small part of our brother back.

Wanting to stay clean, Josh moved in with a new roommate but quickly found his way to marijuana again. Soon a friend introduced him to Xanax, he loved it. “I would forget complete days,” he admits. “On a single night, I would take ten Xanax pills, four grams of mushrooms and three ecstasy pills. This was my life.” Clean Josh vanished shortly after he graduated from rehab. One afternoon, my sister popped in unexpected at his apartment. We attempted an intervention on his front porch, using limited tools we learned from Narcotics Anonymous. He didn't budge. He shrugged it off, telling us everything he learned in rehab was useless. Mere days after our failed intervention, Josh moved across the country.

In Colorado, Josh found pain meds. “Opiates were glorious,” Josh says. “[They] numbed me from every type of pain.” But they also held him back from feeling any other emotion. Moments of joy, excitement, and love were only dim representations of the true thing, he says.

This numbness became incredibly evident when our father fell into a coma. Josh looked at our father, hooked up to tubes and monitors, and listened as doctors told him that our dad was dying. “I wanted to feel the weight of the news,” he says. “I tried to make myself cry but the drugs kept every feeling at bay.” And when our dad miraculously recovered, there was no joy, not for Josh.

Josh moved many times throughout the next few years, always searching for a fresh start. But in reality, “I was running from the wreckage of my life,” he says. The move never brought the permanent fix he desired. “I would stay clean for a while but after a couple of bad days, I could easily convince myself that I deserved a quick hit and that it would be for this night only. But taking one hit was like rolling a snowball from the top of a mountain and expecting it to stop three feet ahead. It never worked that way. It would quickly become huge and beyond control. It always turned into an avalanche. “

I always knew when Josh was using again. He became distant, turning off his phone and never returning calls. Whenever I saw him, he was easily irritated and often antsy, unable to spend more than an hour with our family. His entire demeanor would shift. Being many states away, I never knew how to help him. There were no easy answers, no handbooks that gave step-by-step directions. It was muddled and often messy. I felt I was walking in the dark, never knowing if the next step was the right one. Every time Josh would begin the cycle of drugs, I had to sit back and watch him destroy himself, unable to help in any real way. Anger and sadness were constantly tag-teaming in my heart. I was angry that he was wrecking his life, and heartbroken that I couldn't fix it for him.

Nearly a year ago, he found himself without a car, riding his bike eight miles to and from work. On his lunch breaks, he would relax as a co-worker injected him with heroin. It was enough to pull him through the rest of his workday. All of the money he earned went straight to supporting his habit. He lived in a house without heat and often without electricity. “If I knew I needed sixty dollars to keep the lights on, I would still spend every last dollar on drugs."

Last December, while riding his bike home at night, he crashed it off a bridge. He limped home, bruised and bleeding. But when he got home, his roommates told him that his dog Rufio, his closest, most constant companion for the past nine years, was missing. He rode around for hours looking for him, and when he didn’t find him, he binged on heroin, for weeks. After a failed intervention from our brother and sister, he came home to find that someone had dropped off his dog. The return of his dog was a breaking point. Josh began to detox on his own. For hours on end, he curled into a ball on the floor shaking violently with chills and sweating profusely. His entire body was raw with aches. But his grit and determination were slowly strengthening. “Drugs used to be fun,” he says. “They allowed me to forget my shitty life for a few moments. But it quickly stops being fun. It’s more like a job—a job I had to do."

At the start of this year, Josh packed his car with his few belongings and made the move back to Tennessee to live with our parents. But for the first time in many years, he wasn’t running from anything.

During his time in Tennessee, a single word of encouragement cemented his path toward a life of sobriety. “One afternoon, Dad asked if I knew where my name came from,” Josh says. “He told me that Mom adamantly insisted that I be named Joshua. Just like the Joshua in the Bible, she believed that my job in life would be to lead others to the promised land. That changed my perspective.”

“On opiates I thought I was who I always wanted to be,” Josh explains to me now. “I was social, engaged, energetic, happy, and didn’t get too worked up about things. It’s tough to stop doing something when you feel it brings out the best part of you. In the midst of it, you are convinced that it makes you your ideal self.” When Josh was moving to Tennessee, he confronted a sobering thought. “I decided that giving up opiates was settling for a second-rate Josh. I wasn’t going to be anywhere close to the best person I thought I could be. But I figured it was better than a life strung out on drugs.” Nearly 10 months sober and with a spark of pride, Josh says, “I’m seeing a better ‘Josh’ than I ever did on drugs. It’s not an everyday occurrence because you cannot manufacture it. But it’s better, much better.”

A month ago, Josh flew up for a visit. As he stepped out from the airport terminal, I could sense something was different. His countenance had changed since the last time I saw him. The brightness that shone in his eyes as boy was back. He was lighter. He was genuinely happier. I felt transported back to childhood during our time together. We laughed, played pranks on each other, and spoke candidly about life. For the first time in nearly 10 years, I felt like I had my brother back.

Today Josh is keeping himself busy by caring for his parents and starting his own carpentry business. In the 280-some days since Josh last used drugs, he has transformed. Determination and persistence slowly smoothing away many of his rough places. It's shaped him into a more considerate, understanding, and tenacious man. And he is fulfilling his mother’s desire for his life. "My struggles weren't for nothing. I've been in a low, low place. I know what it's like." He carries a compassion and empathy for others that often surprises me. After wrecking nearly every aspect of his life, he is now rebuilding it, piece by piece. He doesn’t promise to stay sober forever. “You never say never. You wake up and say 'today that’s not on my mind' and go from there. On bad days you say, 'get through today and see how you feel tomorrow.'”

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/success-in-sobriety/280232/