Having had the most normal, stress-free, trauma-free and pleasant childhood imaginable (which involved a white-fence, private-lake community with a beach and swimming pools —otherwise in the middle of nowhere — plus hardworking, loving, and extremely devoted parents), my life perspective was optimistic. I was fun, full of life, and so curious about the world; we were a working-class family and ate dinner together every night. My high school was stereotypically “cornfield”-oriented (and from what I recall, an overall healthy mixture of conservative and liberal political groups which defined my outlook as well) and as I freely dabbled in sports, music, karate, and the great outdoors, I developed life goals about having my own family and emulating that same life model when I grew up.
Some of my “dream” career paths involved being a chef, an architect, or a teacher. Interestingly, none of what I thought I wanted came to fruition although I do well for myself — I’m now a career-oriented software developer with computer science and math degrees, childless, and independent.
I’ve always been active in volunteerism — in a nursing home, speaking at conferences to encourage women in STEM, serving on non-profit boards, or tutoring — always highly involved in my community, without pay. Although I am proud of my accomplishments, I recall each day how different I am than I ever expected — with self-confidence and all the power in the world to maintain control over my own life and happiness.
But this article isn’t meant to paint a picture of me — it’s really to illustrate one of the people that I love most in the world. I refer to an extremely intelligent, creative, kind-hearted and caring person who would absolutely give you the skin off her back if you asked for it, no questions asked. I learn from her. We have a lot of wonderful childhood memories together — we rode the same school bus and both were involved with after school activities. She thinks like me in the most strange and intimate of ways, which many folks find hard to believe considering we’ve always had somewhat opposite dispositions and outward personality traits (she was more of a tomboy, more physically active and high energy; she liked motocross and BMX sports; I didn’t).
This person and I are close, although I often go several years without speaking to or seeing her, and without myself receiving so much as a birthday phone call — nor being able to give her a birthday ring because I don’t know how to contact her. She stole a lot of money from her own parents— developed strong lying and manipulative habits, and can be quick to elicit a tragic, emotional plea on which she relies to fund her habits shooting heroin.
Unfortunately, at the young age of 19 this girl served a 2-year prison sentence (she was facing nearly 30 years, max, for a one-time offense) and ended up in-and-out of jails, rehab facilities, detox centers, street corners, and hospitals thereafter. My worst recollection in a physical aspect was while visiting her in the ICU, during which she had a 20% chance of making it through the night after going into septic shock (from sharing needles), a leaking heart valve, and several other serious ailments including on her brain. She was unable to open her eyes during most of my visit seeing her, laying on what was to be her death bed. Her family and extended family came to visit, some driving long hours to have made the trip. I’m not going to pretend that I understood her parents’ feelings at the time; obviously they were inexplicably distraught, yet in a sense they seemed also half-prepared given the years of struggle that they’d endured. They expressed to me about how hard it was not knowing where their daughter was or whether she was alive on any given day. It seemed that not knowing was the hardest part of it all, and that the current fate watching their daughter nearly die was devastating and almost a long, drawn out, never-yet realized although impending fear finally coming to reality on its own slow and tormentous terms.
Thinking back, I often reflect on my own life and childhood, trying to compare and contrast it to that of another person who could (apparently?) so recklessly seem to damage herself and everyone around her on a daily basis. Can I truly compare my life to that of another human being, even one who I thought I knew — someone who I was so close to?
Plenty of folks in our school before all this happened (kids/classmates, and authority figures like counselors and teachers) offered plenty of answers to these philosophical and existential questions. They all tried to address issues — various rumors, her alcoholic family, abusive parents, rape accusations, betrayal, during what was a desolate, terrible and abusive childhood in a needle-ridden park trailer that must inevitably have fed this ugly addiction. These were the “expert” opinions given by everyone and their brother, so in what position was I to know any better?
Interestingly enough, none of those people ever asked me what my childhood was like — which was the same childhood as the drug addict’s, given that this person, Jane, is my little sister. Indeed, we grew up under the same household with the same house rules, raised by the same parents, and naturally we went on all of our family trips and vacations together. We had the same babysitters, had many of the same friends, sat at the same family dinner table every night, and swam in the same swimming pools with the same fun noodles.
Plenty of people — even people close to me, including partners or those toward whom I look for support — express an utter and total lack empathy for Jane, stating that she is reaping what she sowed due to her choices (and while informing my parents and myself all about how she is an adult and makes her own decisions — thank you guys for the life advice).
It’s been almost 8 years at the time of writing this piece, since the day my dad first found out due to an intuitive wake-up scare in the middle of the night — that Jane had been incarcerated — which was a surprise at the time and which is a whole story in itself as well. The reasons behind her arrest were first assumed to be “typical” teenage things (throwing rocks probably? smoking pot?), and it was quite a shock to my parents to find out their youngest daughter could possibly have manufactured meth in the car that she’d worked so hard to save up for at her summer job, and positioned herself well enough to have purchased outright herself.
Now with this backstory, perhaps you may have some strong opinions about my little sister — about how irresponsible she is, how her opinion about world matters don’t matter if she contributes nothing to society. Many people will be quick to call her a junkie, a thief, a liar, and a meth-head. While I suppose she is, or has been, those things, perhaps you would be convinced by the logical and productive arguments made by another member of society — someone with a college degree, a senior-level software engineering job and a healthy income, who has spent years volunteering and serving on non-profit boards while running business and pursuing additional educational goals (hopefully a Ph.D one day) — that drug addicts are often extremely good people, from whom we can learn a lot about: about society, about psychology, about spirituality, and about forgiveness — once we are truly ready to lay down our battle axes, listen, and help.
My sister is a source of inspiration for me in my life; she motivates me to treat people with compassion and to never lose sight of what’s most important in life. Jane is one of the most talented and creative minds I’ve ever encountered (including myself — of course to be clear, as the big sister I’m still the most talented). But, I admit she is even more clever — plus faster to learn new things — than I am myself.
Given her medical problems, historical criminal background, and struggles to overcome addiction, she has a harder time than most simply finding a job that will sustain food for herself. She’ll never escape the enormous mountain of debt that she has, which is partly imposed upon her by the poor excuse we have for a “justice” system which is specifically designed to keep people down and dismantled, facing hardships. Our system perpetuates the cycles of criminal activity and addiction, and it tries to squeeze every last penny and every last ounce of blood from people with none left of either. The cops won’t arrest her even though she has warrants — because they don’t need to, jails are full, and they don’t care. Yet, the warrants serve as a constant reminder for even when Jane is sober and working, that she could be arrested at any time. Rehab facilities won’t always take her depending on residency or not always accepting medicaid (which, of course addicts are great at keeping up-to-date paperwork ) and some halfway houses or sober living houses won’t let her sleep without having undergone recent rehab. She will presumably never get a half-decent job, and due to the stress of the lifestyle that she hates deep down, she finds it exceptionally difficult not to self-medicate in order to escape her pain.
Even throughout each of the short, hopeful glimpses of optimism during which Jane has been sober over an extended time period in-between relapses, she struggled with money and other relationship problems which led to a high-stress lifestyle. I’ve never “wondered” why she keeps relapsing — my one day society will catch up. One day I hope to become so filthy rich that I can readily hire people including drug addicts and pay them healthy salaries with rehab subsidies — and one that doesn’t damage their job outlook every time they use the drugs that happen to be illegal.
Until then, as I plug-away at my current 3 jobs working long hours in order to achieve this “real” goal of mine, I remind myself every day to not lose sight of what’s most important — to live like my sister does in her heart — with more compassion, unconditional love, and forgiveness than what many non-addicts can never understand. This way, I can’t lose; I choose to remain optimistic knowing that Jane is still out there teaching me life lessons, and I just hope that one day she will know it.