Anna’s Moment of Clarity

In two recent blog posts starting here, I focused on a qualitative research project we conducted with family members who have been indirectly affected by substance use problems.

Years after this research was conducted, I received a story written by Anna, who lives here in Australia, which relates how her family coped with her brother’s heroin addiction. I published Anna’s Story on  Recovery Stories and recently updated it in my eBook Our Recovery Stories: Journeys from Drug and Alcohol Addiction. Anna’s story highlights the need for family members to accept that they cannot take ownership of their loved one’s addiction. They are not responsible for the addiction and they cannot do recovery for their loved one.

Here is a particularly pertinent section of Anna’s story. At this stage, she was becoming overwhelmed by the whole situation concerning her brother’s addiction.

”After this incident in the city, I became unhealthily obsessed with finding out as much as I could about heroin, as well as trying to monitor my brother’s behaviour and uncover his lies. I read every book I could get my hands on, including a few books I’d had as a teenager—Go Ask Alice, Junky and H: Diary of a Heroin Addict.

Every time my brother made up some excuse about needing money, I’d be straight on the phone to my parents, ‘dobbing’ on him. I’d check his pupils and follow him to the bathroom whenever he came over to my place to return the car.

It was around this time that I said to him, ‘Why can’t you just give up? Why is it so hard for you? I smoked and gave it up, why can’t you?

He said, ‘For one, tobacco is not the same thing as heroin. And for two, you’re not me and I’m not you so stop trying to make your experiences, my experiences.’

It was an important reminder that I needed to be less judgmental and stop trying to force my ideas about how the world worked on to others.

Not that I managed to stop doing this overnight! I began to talk about my brother’s heroin dependence non-stop to my friends. I’d go over the details again and again and then I’d get upset when they started to get bored or frustrated if they couldn’t help me. I couldn’t see that my brother’s problem was his own.

At the time, it was all about me, and I was very angry with him for hurting me. Why was he doing this to our family? Didn’t he know how much he was destroying us? We loved him so much and he was treating us like crap. Why couldn’t he quit? How could he keep lying to us all the time? How could he steal from us? How could he expect us to ever trust him again?

Once I understood that it wasn’t all about me, that my brother was not purposely trying to hurt me—he was hurting himself and as a result, the rest of our family suffered—I became terribly sad and depressed and would cry most days. My brother, who was an amazingly talented musician as well as an intelligent, caring, funny, gorgeous guy, was now a junkie who spent all of his time scamming, stealing and doing whatever he could to get heroin. It was such a waste of a life and I started to really fear that he might die.”

And then, Anna had a Moment of Clarity:

“My parents could see that I wasn’t really coping with what was happening and they convinced me to go and see a counsellor. I went to see a very expensive psychologist for three sessions. The first two sessions were spent crying and telling the same story I’d told everyone else a thousand times.

In the third session, the psychologist said to me, ‘Anna, I’ve been hearing a lot about your brother and all of his problems. What about you? Do you think you might have a problem with drugs too?’

I said, ‘Yes.’ I was drinking every night to cope with what was going on, and my boyfriend at the time was also a heavy drinker.

She said that I needed to accept that I couldn’t change my brother’s behaviour or anyone else’s, I could only change my own. She also said that I needed to focus on my own life and stop focusing so much on my brother’s.

After the session finished, I went out to my car and bawled my eyes out, but it was a different type of emotional release. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I knew that things would be different for me, and that I could change the way I was thinking and feeling.

It was the first time in about a year that I could see a way forward. I then went to see a counsellor for a while, who was much cheaper than the psychologist, but I didn’t find her all that helpful, and I decided that I already had the tools, I just needed to practice using them.”

Near the end of Anna’s Story, she wrote:

“On a much more positive note, there’s no way I can tell this story without saying that my brother is truly the most inspirational person I know. I am in awe of who he is and what he’s achieved. He has taught me so much about life, including the most valuable lesson I could ever possibly learn—that you can get through anything. I have learnt that things might be bad, but they won’t be bad foreverI also know that it’s not impossible to make changes—even if they seem small and irrelevant at the time, they can lead to bigger and better things further down the track.

It’s also possible to learn something new or change the way you think if you’re prepared to work at it. Not only has my brother overcome his drug dependence and rebuilt his life and his career, he has travelled the world, has a gorgeous family, and can speak another language fluently, which he had to learn from scratch when he moved overseas. It may take time, it can’t be rushed, but we are all responsible for our own happiness, and it’s up to us to create the lives we want for ourselves.”

Seven years later in 2020, Anna’s brother is leading a happy, successful life free of heroin. He has found recovery, as has Anna.

The photograph used in this blog post is by Tim McCartney and has come from Unsplash, a great resource of free high resolution photographs.