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The day it all changed…

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.

“Billy’s dead!”

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

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1 year, 3 months, and 8 days…

It has been 1 year, 3 months, and 8 days since my Uncle lost his battle to his heroin addiction. You’d think grief gets easier. It doesn’t. My Uncle’s death shook up our whole family (as most deaths do). Everything has changed…

But most of that is another story for another day and is way too much to get into on my first blog post.

I need this blog. I need this outlet.

I’m a substance abuse counselor. I’ve been in the field for about three years now. I run intensive groups with higher risk patients. Basically  my caseload consists of the ones struggling to make sobriety click. Of course the fact that I’m a non-addict I’ve gotten the:

“You aren’t an addict! You can’t possibly understand my addiction!”

To which I reply:

“I may not know your personal struggle, but I know all about losing a loved one to addiction. I know all about the other side of addiction and seeing it from the family perspective.”

At first they don’t get how that makes me able to relate, but after a while it clicks. One client in particular said something that plays over and over in my mind in regards to the other side and not realizing the other side could relate.  The patient had said:

“I had no idea that my wife could be as numb as I am in my addiction.” 

Those words were powerful. Those words (even though I shouldn’t need reassurance) helped me see that maybe some of what I say, despite our differences, can reach someone struggling.

Again, I don’t want to get in too deep in regards to what I do as of yet. I just wanted to kind of give a background on why I chose to write this blog. I’ve realized recently after breaking down in a co-workers office after a very intense group that I am still struggling with my grief and needed an outlet. Of course I knew that I was. But after crying at work I realized that it was much more than I thought.

Another co-worker, who runs more intensive groups than I do, was doing a Goodbye Letter group. If you aren’t familiar with what a “Goodbye Letter” is it is basically where the person struggling with their addiction writes goodbye either to their drug of choice or the lifestyle. When I discuss “Goodbye Letters” I encourage them to write the letter how they want to, whether it’s a letter…a poem…or a story. How you say goodbye is your choice. No real right or wrong answer. At least that’s my approach. Anywho… he had the room set up like a funeral. Picture the rows of black chairs divided so that there is an aisle run down the middle, dim lighting, and a cardboard casket. My co-worker, let’s call him Mr. J for anonymity, had obituaries laid out on each clients chair stating how they died with their drug of choice. Mr J had them each read their letters. Some struggled reading their goodbyes to their drug of choice and lifestyle, and others it came easy. Mr. J then had them place their letter into the casket. Almost as if they were burying their old lifestyle. Burying their addiction.

Now it wasn’t the set up that hit me. Yes, the funeral arrangement was kind of triggering for grief, but that wasn’t the reason. It wasn’t the letters that hit me. I didn’t really feel the tears welling in my eyes until my supervisor, who has always been tough and hard on the group, discussed her own struggles with being on the other side of addiction. My supervisor put it raw to them. My supervisor told them how much she was inspired by their perseverance to keep trying for their sobriety. My supervisor shared the hardships she experienced as the child of an alcoholic. As she spoke it hit me…It was March 15th, it was my Uncles Birthday, and it marked 1 year, 3 months, and 2 days since he died. I suddenly got lost in my head. I suddenly began thinking about the grief I was avoiding. The grief I was pushing aside by helping others. I felt the tears welling in my eyes. I sat there swallowing my tears. Swallowing my emotions. When I was asked if I had anything to share I even found myself at a loss for words. I never have a loss for words. The words were in my head…the words on the tip of my tongue:

“You inspire me too. As someone who has lost a loved one to addiction. As someone who is here today not able to wish their loved one Happy Birthday due to their death. As someone who had to endure condolences at a funeral from people who used and sold dope to my Uncle it’s tough. What you leave behind with a death like that is more heartache, confusion, sorrow, and chaos. Choose your life. The next hit could be your last.”

But I couldn’t articulate anything.  I didn’t say those words.

After I left the group I went to a co-workers office like a zombie. She took one look at me asked me if I was okay and I closed her office door.  As soon as that door shut I broke down. She listened to me discuss my struggles with my grief and how I didn’t think it would hurt me to come to work. I talked about my last words to my uncle. The last thing I had done before he’d died was accuse him of stealing $20 out of my purse. It was the day before he left for rehab. He’d denied it. Of course I didn’t want to keep accusing him. So, I said: “Whatever.” Thinking in my head: I know you did it.

He then left for 7 days in rehab. When he came back I didn’t get to see him. He died, I believe 2 days, after returning. My grandpa had found him in his room with a rock and a needle…

It’s hard to face grief. It’s especially hard to face the death of something, you unfortunately hate yourself for saying, you expected. It’s not that I expected failure. I wanted him to succeed so bad. But each day he got lost in his addiction…each relapse…each broken promise…the lack of sober support…and the lack of follow through in his recovery made me look at him as a man on the path of destruction. A man who would die by his drug of choice. Heroin.

I hate that I never got to say I love you, Uncle Billy. I believe in you. That closure will unfortunately never be there.

As a counselor I tell people all the time that there is no set time line for grief. It’s okay to go through the emotions. It’s okay to feel. It’s how you live with it that counts. Live with the good memories. Don’t dwell on the negative. It’s how you learn to move on with your grief. It almost becomes apart of you. That as much as people say GET OVER IT you can’t just get over it…and that it’s okay not to just as long as it doesn’t hurt your day to day functioning and you don’t let it lead you to your own path of self-destruction.

I’m no expert in grief. Everyone internalizes it differently. But what I do know is this blog is for my release. It’s my therapy. If it helps someone through their own grief then that’s even better.

So if you managed to read through this long post of possible half ramblings… just know… whether your loved one died from cancer, a car wreck, old age…or like me you lost someone to addiction.

If you struggle with grief. If you can’t get over ityou are not alone.