What they don’t teach you about having a heroin-addicted brother (#7 will shock and enrage you!)

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Many of my friends know that my 21-year-old little brother Britton is back in rehab for the second time in 13 months. Might as well be the millionth. Here are some things I’ve learned about addiction, recovery, and the importance of friends, family, and faith over the last few years – so get ready for a bit of hashtag-real-talk.

1. My brother isn’t a bad person for using heroin.

He’s a bad person for a lot of other reasons. (I’m just kidding.) Look, I was baptized into the “War on Drugs” mentality of the 1980s and 1990s – that drug users were these creepy, emaciated, greying people with nefarious intentions who hide in dark alleys and want to grab others and drag them into the pit of addiction. Either that, or they were the “bad kids” – the halfwits from godless broken trailer park families who were just predisposed to doing things wrong (I’ll deal more with the Christian abuse of addicts in a bit).

More often than not, addicts are people who have made simple mistakes. And who among us hasn’t? It might start out as a mostly innocent bit of peer pressure (I never would have started smoking if my friends didn’t offer me a cigarette at a diner after a breakup in 2006). Maybe it begins as a little medicine cabinet curiosity. But nobody decides to be an addict, particularly because…

2. No one wants to be an addict.

Repeat after me: “No one wants to be an addict.” No. One. Wants. To. Be. An. Addict. I know this because I recently quit smoking (one and a half months smoke-free!), and I hated that I did it. I hate that I still have cravings. I liken it to prisoner recidivism in that no one wants to be in jail, but it becomes so comfortable and routine that the thought of freedom is a scary one. “How am I going to cope without it? Can I trust myself to deal with the reality of not using? What does it look like on the outside?”

No high is ever as good as sobriety. The best day in prison is still worse than a mediocre day outside.

If none of this makes sense to you so far, and you feel like you want to stop reading, keep in mind that…

3. Addiction can happen to any person, any family, at any time.

You’re not immune. In fact, I guarantee that you have addictions yourself, and they’re no better or worse than craving dope. Examine your life – are there things that take priority? Maybe you enjoy that after-work glass of wine a little bit too much. Maybe you center your evenings around “The Voice.” And your family – addicts, every one of them! Maybe, oh, I don’t know, your husband looks at pornography when you’re not around (check the browser history, and don’t tell him about Incognito Mode!).

Humor aside, heroin addiction, in particular, is an extremely horrifying thing, and the epidemic is utterly massive. I don’t want to mitigate that. Turn on your local 6 p.m. newscast or listen to NPR for about five minutes and you’ll get just a hint of the extent of the mess. But – and this is huge – that doesn’t mean that your addictions don’t count, or that they’re “littler.” Less deadly, maybe, but no less damaging.

If you’re a Christian reading this, my pal Kenny, who I met at a Celebrate Recovery meeting, loves to tell people: The Bible has an awful lot to say about addiction. But it doesn’t call it “addiction” – it uses the word “idolatry.” Think about it.

4. There’s no such thing as the perfect family.

There was probably a time years and years ago when people looked at my family and thought we were the Cleavers – policeman dad, housewife mom, twins who dressed alike, and a sweet, smiling baby boy. No one will mistake the Peaches for that anymore, and thank God! (There’s a certain wisdom that comes from being messy, from being human, from being forged in the fire with the ability to admit that life didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to.)

I’m not saying “there’s no perfect family” to make the mess of Britton’s heroin addiction and the ensuing frustration – which has caused us collectively to miss work, miss other events, spend and lose tons of money and time, border on nervous breakdowns, pray, cry, swear, lose faith, find faith – seem better than it is, or to somehow make excuses. I want it to be an encouragement. Everyone has skeletons in the closet. Everyone has things they’d rather no one knew about. And that is not only totally okay, it’s perfectly expected.

If you or your family is struggling to keep smiles on your faces while you quietly deal with something hugely difficult and damaging, you can let the facade down a bit – we’re all in this together.

5. Success often looks like a lot of little failures.

There’s something to be said for falling up the steps to the second floor – even if the technique is backwards, no one’s going to argue with the result. I don’t look at Britton’s second rehab stint as a setback. To me, it’s a major leap forward: for one thing, he’ll at least be unable to use for the month he’s in rehab; for another, he admitted that he was helpless to fix this on his own, and that’s Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous right there!

One of the things one quickly learns about addiction is that relapse is part and parcel of recovery. It’s almost bound to happen. It’s particularly frightening when it comes to drugs like heroin (Philip Seymour Hoffman was sober for a couple of decades before he died of multiple drug toxicity a few years ago), but it’s not a death sentence.

Every step backward is another chance to do it the “right way,” although I hesitate to even use that terminology, especially since…

6. Every decision is the wrong one until it’s the right one.

Let me be a little brusque for a second: If you have an idea of how Britton or my family could be “doing it differently,” save it. We’ve heard it all. We’ve had knock-down, drag-out fights between all of us trying to determine what the correct course of action is – rehab? mandatory drug tests? take away the phone and internet? – we’ve second-guessed each other, we’ve second-guessed ourselves.

This isn’t to mention that, while I’m speaking for Britton now because he can’t speak for himself, he has his own agency and his own ideas of how his addiction should be managed. (And again, he hates that this is his burden. He openly wept the last time he relapsed, because he couldn’t believe he let himself and his family down again.)

No one wants Britton to beat this addiction more than he does, more than we do. But we’re not going to know what works until it works. There’s no silver bullet.

7. Most Christians are shit at dealing with addicts.

And if you’re more offended that I used the word “shit” than you are with the idea that Christians don’t treat addicts well, you’re probably one of the Christians I’m talking about!

Now, caveat lector, we’ve gotten tremendous support from a lot of dear Christian family and friends, from the folks at Lebanon Area Evangelical Free Church to much of my extended family of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and in-laws. This has nothing to do with Christianity itself, or the incredible Christlike love and help we’ve received from many.

Unfortunately, that’s the exception, not the rule. It seems like a lot of Christians have this Horatio Alger “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality that says quitting drugs should be no more than a firm “just say no.” Some Christians think Britton isn’t being healed of his addiction because he’s “not Christian enough,” or because he and our family “need to have more faith.” Some think Britton is “living in sin” by using heroin, and that the sickness and the relapses and the potential of grave harm or death is merely “the natural consequence of his actions.”

As a result, there are people who look at us differently in church. There are family members who won’t offer help because they don’t think we need or deserve it. There are close friends who won’t even talk to us anymore – because they’re holier. They’re better. They don’t mix with people like us, because our family’s struggle doesn’t fit into their perfect Christian narrative.

All because my little brother struggles like the Apostle Paul: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”

In Mark 2:17, Jesus says, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” If you think that heaven belongs more to you than to another person, or that your sin isn’t as great as the next person’s, it’s time to admit that maybe Jesus isn’t the savior for you.

8. It’s easy to become embittered and hopeless – but hope is vital.

In case you can’t tell from my little diatribe there, yeah, it’s easy to get frustrated and even angry with misunderstanding, a lack of empathy, a lack of help. This isn’t fun or easy, and the toll, the enormity of its weight, eclipses all spirituality, emotion, mental acuity, physical faculties.

That said, we need to have hope. Hope is vital. Hey, it’s in that list of the “big three” at the end of the passage in 1 Corinthians 13 that people only read at weddings: “Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.” I can’t tell you how important it is to cling to hope for a good future, a clean future, a healthy future for Britton and our family.

Faith, hope, and love. Some days, my faith becomes atheism, my hope becomes doubt and disbelief, my love turns into anger and hatred – often within moments, then back again. But we continue to fight this fight because the weight of our expectations is stronger than the burden of fear. And we invite you to have faith with us, to love us, and to hope alongside us.

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