I’ve been thinking a lot about the day I learned my Uncle had passed. I was pulling up my boots as I was getting ready for work. I had heard the sound of tires screeching in the drive way and the sound of the front door slamming into the wall. The full force of the door slam shaking the pictures on my bedroom wall.
Those words were like a distant echo ricocheting off of the walls and back to me. The words circling around my mind almost sounding like a swift buzz. My body felt numb. My heart sank. Everything sounded distant almost as if I was underwater. All voices sounding muffled. I pulled my boots off so hard that the soles came apart. I ran out with shaky hands and saw my mom sobbing on the couch. It sounded more like a shriek as she cried over and over:
“Billy’s dead. My baby brother is dead.”
My step dad was comforting my mom. I looked at my sister, who was 14 at the time, her face pale and her eyes filled with tears. In any situation of grief I’d always been the strong one. I’d always been the one ready to hug the person in shambles and save the day. I’ve always been the rock. I’ve always been good at handling grief and sadness. I had always been the reliable shoulder to cry on. This time everything was different. My sister ran toward her room and the effort to be there for her was there so I followed. I didn’t want her to be alone. I saw her sitting on her small bedroom couch and I began to say something to try to comfort her. My words faltered and instead came the tears. My legs had felt like rubber, like they were going to give under me and I found myself sinking next to her on the couch hugging her. At that point I couldn’t stop crying. I was playing the last conversation I had had with my Uncle in my head on repeat. I had accused him of stealing $20. I had said, “Whatever,” instead of accepting that addicts lie and that in the active addiction lifestyle telling the truth was almost impossible at times. My sister hugged me tight as she cried much more silently than I. I must have been crying loudly because that was when my step dad came in, looked at me and my sister, and embraced us both.
“I was supposed to help him. I had the resources. I should have given him more help. I’m a counselor for God’s sake! I accused him of stealing money. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there for him. I should have called him when he got out of rehab. I should have called… He needed me…”
I began hysterically blaming myself for not calling him after he had left the 7 day program he was in. The sad thing is I had an article on the other side of addiction I wanted to show him. An article I’d printed out on December 8th just waiting to share with him… to give him perspective of what the family was going through. My step dad told me it wasn’t my fault. Which I knew. I know the stages of grief. I studied this. I know blame is part of it. The fact is my Uncle had been battling his disease of addiction for some time. Unfortunately, the addiction was too much for him to fight and he lost. After the tears couldn’t fall anymore I took a deep breath and announced I was going to call off of work. Of course my step dad offered to call for me, but I was too stubborn. Too prideful. I had to do it myself. I didn’t want to be a burden. That always seems to be my illogical way of thinking to this day. The thought that any feeling or moment of vulnerability is too much of a burden to go to another for assistance with.
At the time of my Uncle’s death I had worked in a terribly heartless company. I worked in residential with pre-release male inmates that mainly consisted of meth cooks and those battling with a meth addiction. So working in addiction was no big mystery even at that time. I called my boss, who at the time was one of the worst human beings I have ever worked with, and informed her through my cracked voice that I couldn’t come in. I lost my Uncle to his addiction and I needed time to process and be with my family. There was no, “Oh my goodness, take all the time you need. Let me know if you need anything.” The only thing she said was:
“All right, when will you be back?”
“I don’t know.” I replied.
“Well, he’s not immediate family and an Uncle’s death is not covered in our bereavement policy so I need to know.”
Obviously, I was too numb and couldn’t think straight so I didn’t give a damn whether his death was covered or not. Plus who the hell even asks that when someone has told you that they JUST FOUND OUT THEIR FAMILY MEMBER DIED??? At that moment all I knew was that I couldn’t go to work. How could they even expect me to smile and pretend everything was peachy after finding out the worst news of my life? I’d never called off work before. I’d always been an exceptional employee, even though she liked to point out how incompetent I was at my job, and then praise me all in one sentence. She was an awful human being.
“I understand that and at this moment I don’t care. I can’t come in and I can’t even think straight right now. Just take it out of my vacation if you have to. I’ll call you when I know more.”
With that I hung up and proceeded to place the hardest calls of my life… breaking the news to his kids. Now those moments are a blur due to my emotional state. I remember the general sobbing and cries, but I don’t like to replay those moments. It’s much too hard to even think about. My heart aches just thinking about it. All I know is my Uncle’s death showed me the true colors of the company I used to be apart of. A company that called the clients they served: “fucking criminals.” They proved time and time again that they didn’t care about me as an individual. They proved that with most of their employees. They even proved they weren’t really there to help these criminals, who we were supposed to transition into society, not judge or condemn. They only cared about themselves. Sad that a “helping” company was so heartless. Those “fucking criminals” (yes I’m not making up this statement, it was really said) I served as a counselor ended up showing me more empathy than most of the management and most of my co workers. But that’s a story for another day (if I ever even want to tell it).
My Uncle used to be the story I told my clients to show that you can beat your addiction. That there is hope. After he relapsed for his last time and died he became the cautionary tale. December 13th, 2015 will forever be engraved in my mind. The sobs. The cries of:”Billy’s dead!” Nothing has felt the same since then.
One things for certain I got the hell out of that company. I learned a lesson. They taught me to look at my worth and what I deserve from a place of employment. They showed that you can gain respect from clients by simply treating them like human beings. But that’s a given. I had always said:
“I’m a social work major. I’m here to advocate for the best interest of whomever I serve. If I go down advocating then I did my job right.”
I’m so much happier continuing to work with the population of those struggling with addiction. Sounds odd I know. Everyone always asks me how I do it. I’m in it to win it. I’m in it to help people find a way to click and beat their addiction. On June 13th, 2016 was when I got the job offer for my current position. To me the fact that it was on that dreadful day 13 of the month was a sign. I don’t know if you believe in that sort of thing, but I do. I hold on to signs. Signs are what keeps hope alive. The fact that it was on the 13th of the month showed me that he was still rooting for me to help others. Or at least that’s what I convinced myself. That my work wasn’t done. That I wasn’t ready to leave this field despite my heart breaking daily with grief. That I still could make a difference.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t save my Uncle. You can’t save them all. In fact in order for the addict to conquer their addiction they must save themselves. We are not the hero of the story. They are the hero of their own story.
I just need to remind myself of that sometimes…