When A Good Heart Isn’t Enough

Today is a milestone birthday for my brother, Timmy. He would be 50. His lifestyle gifted him just 46 years. It may sound callous to say, but if you knew him, you’d understand his early death was not a surprise. I try to think about his positive contributions to the world and drift into imagining ‘what could’ve been’ had his potential been nurtured and realized; his innate talent for drawing, his powerful, energetic, convincing demeanor and his immense capacity for love and emotion. These beautiful capabilities were buried deep inside him under a weighted boulder of addiction.

Looking back at the entirety of someone’s full life with an imperfect human brain lends to revisionist history and the remapping of events. In my half-brother’s case, it seemed like he was always plagued with a challenge starting at a very early age. He was the product of divorce, raised for a few years by our mother and her mother before becoming part of a blended family and gaining a step-father, step-brother and newborn half-sister, me. As a child he was often rewarded with food and garnered the label of “husky” regarding his physique. Food was his first addiction. His habits proliferated into smoking at age 12 to attention/approval-seeking, which led to a serious eating disorder, drinking and recreational drugs all before age 20. He was indeed the beloved life of the party as “Timmer” and seemed comfortable and joyous in that easy, “good time” role. But it wasn’t a good blueprint for a productive life. A productive life takes hard work.

He maintained a full-time job and full-time alcoholism simultaneously. He exhibited anxiety, OCD, highs and lows and entitlement during his young life. Full blown self-destruct mode came about in his mid to late 20s when he endured a back injury from a mild car accident. It was the mid 1990s and he was prescribed Percoset and opioids to manage the pain. Glossing over events for brevity, he soon quit his job and moved in with his grandmother and great aunt for a life of leisure and painlessness fueled by cigarette smoke, half-truths and greed to gain more pills. This unhealthy environment lasted for about 10 years in which time we barely spoke and when we did, he was incoherent, slurry and obviously under the influence of too much of something destructive. To me, I thought he was always an addict of some kind and there was nothing I was going to say or do that would help.

He was on his own after his enablers died and left him their house. Never having the opportunity to learn genuine lessons or doing things “the hard way”, he turned to easy money and sold the house to support his addiction and was, at times, homeless. Then our mom died and I had to engage with him as he didn’t have many people left who loved him in his life. His addiction made him incredibly self-centered. When we’d have discussions about his state of affairs regarding his hurtful mistakes, various addictions, trials at recovery and desperate living situations he would spill out his world to me in the most profound way with gutting emotion and glistening hope with sentiments to repair his broken ways and achieve greatness in the way he knew he was capable. During these times he would often say, “You know I have a good heart, Ann!” and it’s true, he did. But I despised that his actions didn’t reflect what was in his heart because talking about it wasn’t enough, and I despised being called ‘Ann’ although it was better than his other nickname for me, “egghead”. It was during these numerous talks, sensitive shouts and cries that I felt like we were deeply similar and blood-related. I was 100% convinced and available for emotional help (only) when he was like this and 0% to be found when he was in self-destruct mode. He dictated 0% mode more often than not. Regardless of mode, I’d always get a text on a holiday or birthday, always signed, LOVE TIMMY, in yes, all caps.

This and other truly story-worthy and incredible ‘tales’, addiction adventures, recovery periods and heartaches rolled roller-coaster-style for about 7 more years. When we weren’t on speaking terms and when he was without a phone I wondered about his safety and status, dead or alive. I became like a chameleon effortlessly adapting to loving or loathing him with a strange ability to emotionally detach or listen to his heart and be his supportive sister offering encouragement and love. And that is what he needed on New Year’s Eve 2015, an ear, some love.

This story will be recorded in more detail in the future, but that night he was again homeless and at a hotel distraught and ready to turn things around after being “clean” for a couple months. I made sure to ask and he assured he was not suicidal, nor was he ever. He was scattered but hopeful, beaten but ready to beat. I listened and geared myself up for 100% mode in the morning and we made a plan to talk on New Year’s Day to discuss a plan for his new beginning. His heart was good. We said “I love you” and “goodbye” and 2015 was over.

New Year’s Day 2016 I called him. No answer. I worried not. I left a message.

Hours later I got the message he was found dead in his hotel room from a heroin overdose. My brother. His 20-year opioid addiction led him to heroin and after being clean for a couple months the amount he snorted was too much. He became a textbook-fatality case of the opioid crisis. He was 46. He should have a huge celebration today, but…

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