Thoughts on My Brother’s 65th Birthday


My brother, his ex-wife, and daughter, 1979

The other day I read an article by a guy who’d lost his brother to alcoholism. I got very angry with the writer. His whole point was that if there were a scientific and methodical way to treat alcoholism, no one would die of it. The writer (I wish I could find the article and if I do, I will insert it here) railed against AA and other 12 step programs because, mainly, they put the cure of alcoholism in the hands of the alcoholic.

Statistically, AA works for only between 10 and 20% of alcoholics. Personally, I don’t think the statistics matter when one sober person is enough (IMO) to call the program a success, at least for that person’s family.

I get it. No one wants to rely on the drunk to cure his/her own problems. Who is more unreliable than an alcoholic?

Anyone who loves an alcoholic wants a powerful outside force to come and wrest the problem from the drinker and awaken that person to the wonder of a sober life. I wanted that for my brother every single day of his life. For a time I thought I could BE that power. Later I thought I could ally myself with that power (various rehab programs and hospitals that tried to help my brother). I busted my ass working extra jobs to pay for my brother’s rehab, housing, food, medical care. In all that I learned something important.

There is no such power.

The United States already spends about $35 billion a year on alcohol- and substance-abuse treatment, yet heavy drinking causes 88,000 deaths a year—including deaths from car accidents and diseases linked to alcohol. (“The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous” The Atlantic)

Science continues to research the problem of alcoholism (which is as old as humanity, I think, since we started brewing brew and vintnering vino early in our history) and comes up with chemical aids to treat and help alcholics. The bottom line THERE is that even with the help of science, the alcoholic has to be motivated to use the medications or the psychological treatment.

It’s a pretty common-place notion now that many alcoholics have underlying psychological problems and that booze is self-medication. My brother very likely suffered something like borderline personality disorder. Both our childhoods were traumatic at key moments in our development, and we were very different kids. Some people are intrinsically more reslient than others, less dependent on others, react differently to stress, able to develop alliances outside the family. I am a survivor; my little brother wasn’t. Even as kids if someone picked on him, I beat them up. My reaction was to fight back or leave. My brother’s was to stay there and take it.

In 2004 I realized that though he called me, he didn’t even know where I lived, what my life was like, or much about who I was. I was just an open wallet to him and he would — and did — lie and con me to get money. It was hurting me teaching 7 classes and holding down a 20 hr/week clerical job. His life wasn’t worth more than mine. “Don’t call me again until you stop drinking,” I said on the phone, feeling like my heart was being pulled from my chest.

“Fuck you,” he said.

I never heard from him again. I was totally OK with that. I had realized that I couldn’t do anything to fix my brother. It was 100% beyond me. I wasn’t mad at him, I loved him as much as ever, I wanted him to pull his shit together as much as I ever had, but I finally understood that it wasn’t my job. I had a lot of help reaching that point, the kindness of loving friends who’d experienced something like this in their lives and some of whom knew and loved my brother, too. I took a lot of shit from some of my family over my decision, but those who understood really did understand. I will always be grateful. ❤

No one ever saves anyone who isn’t already clinging to the shore asking for help while he or she tries to pull him/herself up.

My feeling now about alcholism is that there isn’t, and will never be, a “one size fits all” cure for this problem other than the one we know and that is that the alcoholic can stop drinking if he or she is motivated to do so. I’ve known several people who stopped drinking because something outside of them mattered more to them than drinking. My dad’s sister, my dad, my grandfather — just to name three, but my list is longer than those three family members. People do stop, but my brother didn’t. He died of an alcoholism related stroke in 2010. I didn’t even know until five months later.

Today is my brother’s birthday and he would be 65. The ONE thing he refused to try was AA. Who knows?

In any case, I miss my brother, and I would much rather be baking a cake today than writing this. I think I’ll go take a walk. ❤

Two songs for my brother and me:



The best song about addiction I know:

30 thoughts on “Thoughts on My Brother’s 65th Birthday

  1. So sorry to learn this about your brother. You did your best to help for a long time, then what was important to maintain your own life — you could not have done it differently! I hope a good walk with Bear helps!

      • November 2 will always be a difficult day for you, perhaps today more than usual because of his age. And I know that the outdoors is helpful in this situation — my dad’s ashes were scattered at sea, and I’ve always done a ‘pilgrimage’ to the beach on his birthday. I’m glad your walk with Bear helped!

        • Thank you! You know when it hit me? I saw a speed limit sign on the way back from the store. 65. Instantly I thought, “Kirk, today.” Some years I don’t even think of it. Frequently I’m in Colorado Springs with friends on his birthday, too. But not this time.

  2. The tragedy of alcoholism is not only the toll it takes on the one affected by it, but even more so (IMO) the toll it takes on everyone around the individual. First because they can’t see how their actions affect everyone else (much less care as the bottle is all important) and because it has a rippling effect. They may and do at times, feel horrible about their addiction, but it quite often isn’t enough to motivate them to stop, instead because they are “losers” in their mind and worthless, they figure why not, I deserve this. I’m proud of you, Martha, your efforts were valiant and motivated by the love of your brother. Deep down in his soul, he would have felt it, if only momentarily. It’s a tragic loss for all concerned. You, at some point, have to save yourself to keep your own sanity.

    • Thank you. I think it’s worse for the family. The alcoholic can drown his sorrows in a bottle. I couldn’t. I had no way out, which isn’t to say I was not sorry for my brother. I was lucky a few years later that I got counsel families of addicts. That was hugely helpful to me and, I hope, to them. Most family members have a hard time letting go of their feeling of responsibility for what the addict is doing. ❤

      • It’s true. That and trying to “fix” them. There is no fix – as painful as that may be. My daughter/husband have a friend that’s such an alcoholic, that he went to jail for killing a man while driving. He said he hadn’t been drinking, but he had all night and the alcohol content was still as high. Doing time stopped him drinking while in jail, but he’s as bad now as ever. He loves his daughter more than life itself and will do anything to protect her, yet even for her he can’t stop drinking.

  3. Very hard stuff, these families of ours. And addiction on top of it. I am glad that you were both able to be there for your brother and ultimately to set a boundary/limit on what you would do/give to him. As I often tell my clients, one of the things I learned in my first summer job (lifeguarding at the city pools). Can I actually do this (the rescue) safely? There is no point in two people drowning instead of one. Painful stuff, these choices.

    • That’s exactly the important question. It doesn’t matter if you’re willing to sacrifice your life for another, if the other isn’t going to survive. It wasn’t easy to see that. It’s the “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first” idea.

  4. By the time I finally got Garry into rehab, I was desperate. But it worked. I do wish they’d stop advertising booze on TV. That doesn’t help. I don’t know the statistics of AA, but I think it works better for those who go voluntarily and not under court order. I don’t think anyone can be forced to be sober. Not booze, not anything else, either.

    • Rehab worked for Garry because somewhere inside he wanted it to. My brother was in extensive rehab 3 times, kind of “They told me to go to rehab I said, ‘No, no, no.” That girl might have been talented but… I’m no fan. I heard that song and wanted to smash my radio.

      AA works for people who want it to. I’ve had friends who went to AA under court order and it helped them, others not. It’s (I think) totally individual.

      • I really WAS desperate. He was also at an age where it was beginning to melt his brain. Luckily, somehow — good genes? — his liver was spared. But after a couple of very early relapses (how many men go to rehab and adjourn to a bar afterward I wonder?), he got it and after a few more years, he REALLY got it.

        I think somewhere, you have to want to break free of the booze. Everyone has their own reasons, but I’ve seen a lot of AA successes. There’s virtually no drinking at parties anymore. Which is amazing because I remember how it used to be.

  5. Not an easy road to walk, whether you are the alcoholic or the one who loves them. You are absolutely right that the drive to be sober has to come from within.

  6. Excellent post & accurate arguments, Martha. Yes, the sincere desire to become sober must come from within. But often it starts from outside interventions, most often MULTIPLE outside interventions. AA/NA/CA are definitely not ‘one size fits all’ and in fact can cause more harm than good if not the right fit. Today, there are multiple treatment approaches available. Sadly, the ones most likely to be effective in the long term are prohibitively expensive and not fully covered by most insurance plans. The changes the Trump administration and Republican legislators in general have made to A&D and MH treatment policy and funding in the last few years have been DISASTROUS. The honest truth about how most of our problems related to substance abuse,mental health care, and insurance gaps can be solved is that our politicians must stop insisting that we have to cut taxes and shrink government. I mean seriously. In the course of your (thankfully) long life, how many private companies can you name that had a vested, honest, fully funded, effective interest in helping the afflicted recover rather than in developing expensive, long term solutions that ultimately benefited their bottom line? I’ll give you a hint. If your answer is greater than zero, you’re WRONG!

    • My brother was in all kinds of rehab and hospitals. I am sure interventions help some people, but there are incorrigible addicts who can’t be helped by anything.

      One good friend of mine, Chris Bava, was a heroin addict and smuggler (with a yacht!). 8 years in the penitentiary cured his addiction — to the point of showing him that there were much better and brighter lights in life than heroin. A few years after he got out, he shot up. He wanted it so bad and when he had it, he realized what it was to be owned by something and to have sacrificed his freedom and his soul. He never used again.

      He and his wife helped heroin addicts who sought the help of Ibogaine. There are clinics in Tijuana. I taught a brilliant kid who’d been a heroin addict and was helped by ibogaine. It’s illegal in the US. Chris (and my student) believed Ibogaine remains illegal in the US because there’s too much $$ to be made from addicts who DON’T recover (and the industry built around them).

      My friend Chris was the only person I’ve ever known who fully understood me when I said that my brother had given his soul to booze. Chris said, “That is exactly what happens to many addicts at a certain point. From there there is almost no turning back.”

      Anyway, I miss my brother.

  7. By the way, good choice of song to represent. Johnny Cash’s cover is even more heartwrenching. And if you aren’t familiar with John Prine, check out his classic ‘Sam Stone’ and his current extremely timely and relevant ‘Summer’s End’. But not ’til after making sure you have a box of Kleenex nearby. Yes, even you, tough girl!

  8. It’s beyond bittersweet when you know he isn’t suffering any longer and you don’t have to keep trying or worrying. I am sorry he did this. I am glad others understood and supported you, it’s never easy.
    Remembering him on his birthday, which was also Day of the Dead and All Souls Day is a beautiful tribute. The love you show is still strong and deep.
    I have been lucky and seen people pull themselves to the shore, but there is always the worry they could relapse. It really never ends.

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