Being the Sister of an Addict

This week I wanted to share another very personal topic.  As my sister mentioned in her blog post last week, she is a recovering heroin addict.  Reading the first draft of her post and reading those words were difficult for me. For a long time I wouldn’t say the words out loud. You know how that is, when you actually say the words out loud, they become real.  It was easier to skirt around it– my sister has problems or my sister has had issues with drugs.  But actually saying my sister is a heroin addict or my sister is a recovering heroin addict was, and still is, extremely hard.

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At Heather’s daughter’s Christening

It was hard to read.  It was hard to admit out loud.  But it was even harder to live it.   

Earlier this year she had actually asked me to write on this very topic but I wasn’t quite ready at that time.  I knew that I’d share some things that she wouldn’t want to hear. And probably some things I didn’t want to remember or admit was part of our family’s truth.  And most importantly, I never wanted to offend anyone who is an addict or a recovering addict. It’s not something I can empathize with. I’ve never been an addict so I can’t understand what it’s like to be one.  And so my hope is to provide some comfort to those who are struggling as a friend, relative, or spouse of an addict. It’s not easy. And we all know it can end a million different ways. We all say that it’s important for people who suffer from addiction, sickness, etc. to have a support system. I think it’s just as important that the support system has a support system.  

So here goes…

There’s a 4 year age difference between me and my sister.  But it seems that what went on when she was in high school versus what went on when I was in high school was light years apart.  People drank alcohol and smoked weed. But as far as I could see that was really the extent of it. I admit that I was super naive back then (and maybe I still am?).  I went to my fair share of parties, hosted my fair share of parties, and drank my fair share of smirnoff ice drinks (insert gagging sound here). But I never got involved with anything beyond alcohol.  I’ve never even smoked weed. Ever. I personally think it smells gross. I did, however, try an edible brownie once or twice. Needless to say I got the section of the brownie with no weed in it because I felt absolutely nothing. And let’s be real, I just wanted a brownie.  Nom nom nom.

So to say that I was on the straight and narrow when it came to experimentation of drugs would be an understatement.  I just never had an interest. I went away to college, but only for a semester before I ended up at Stony Brook University.  I commuted for three years. I started working full-time with my dad at the age of 20. I was living up to the expectations of being Lauren.

Heather, on the other hand, had always been the most rebellious of the three of us.  She was the one with spunk. She was the one with a cute little personality. And when my mom got sick and then my parents got divorced, she clearly didn’t handle it well.  As she said, she became a terror. She was sent away to boarding school for the last year and a half of high school. I was about 20/21 at the time. And I have to say, it was the most relaxing 18 months of my life and my parents’ life.  She was safe and that was most important. But as much as that 18 months was good for us, the effects on Heather were both good and bad. Heather’s issues prior to going to the boarding school were mostly behavioral– skipping school, hanging out with a bad crowd, stealing the car, lying, manipulating, etc.  At that point she hadn’t started dabbling in hard drugs. But when she went to boarding school, she met a lot of kids that had.  

When she graduated she was all set to begin her new life as a happy, well adjusted, college kid.  But that ended pretty quickly. She began hanging out with kids she went to boarding school with. And had boyfriends that were into drugs.  And from there, it spiraled out of control.  

I can’t even pinpoint the moment the drugs started because she had been acting out for long that it all seems to mesh together.  But the 9 or 10 years from when she graduated from high school until she became pregnant with her daughter were extremely difficult for everyone in my family.  My mom just couldn’t deal with her bullshit, so for a long time they had a very bad relationship. My mom refused to let her live in her house (understandable if you saw how Heather acted).  My dad had gotten so fed up with her at times, as well. He also told her she couldn’t live there anymore. (I think that was after he found out she had been stealing money from him, so again, very understandable).  So Heather bounced around from place to place with her boyfriend at the time. And lo and behold, he too, got fed up with her issues.  And while he wasn’t a drug addict himself, he was a dealer, so in my opinion, he wasn’t much better.

Those years were terrible.  There were times we wouldn’t hear from Heather for a week or two at a time.  It was scary but almost a relief. No calls = no drama. But no calls also made us all worry like crazy.  

Heather tried to get sober a couple of times.  I watched her detox in the emergency room at a hospital.  The doctors pretty much just let her lay in a bed. It was excruciating to watch.  But the minute she left the hospital, she started using again. It was a cycle. A terrible, and vicious cycle.  

And all during this time, I heard about so many overdoses.  Like, so many. From my sisters friends to a co-worker’s child to people from high school.  Heroin addictions had become so common. It seemed like every other month I’d hear about someone overdosing.  Every time my phone rang from an unknown number, I would get nervous. I hate to say it, but it almost felt like it was just a matter of time before my phone would ring or my dad would show up at my house crying with the bad news. (I literally played these scenarios out in my head countless time.  It was probably a defense mechanism– like I was preparing myself for the possibility that it could happen, which is really sad). 

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I feel like I’m incapable of truly expressing what it felt like to go through all of that. But just like everything else, I try to look at everything in my past as a learning experience.  What can I take away from the experience, what can I learn from it. So here’s a few tidbits that I thought I’d share:

  • No matter how much you want someone to get sober, or lose weight, or fulfill their potential, it will never ever happen until they’re ready and 100% committed.  As a supporter, you being committed is not going to cut it. The person wanting to make a change has to be ready for it. Because if they’re only trying because you’re pushing them, what’s going to happen when you take the day off or you can’t actually be there for them every second of every day?  They’re going to go back to their old ways. You have to let that person run their own path. They have to come to you when they’re ready. And they might do it a few times before they’re really ready.
  • It’s very difficult to understand and connect with someone who has or has had an addiction if you’ve never had one because it’s so far out of YOUR reality.  The only thing you can do is be there for them.
  • It sucks watching someone you care about live through a terrible addiction. Especially when you know that person has so much to offer the world.  No bright side here, it just sucks.
  • I can only speak for myself, but there were times I felt absolutely guilt-ridden for living my life while my sister squandered for her’s.  It seemed almost incomprehensible at times that I was able to live my life as if her struggles didn’t even exist. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt that way.  But the truth is, not living my life wasn’t going to help her live hers. There was nothing I could do to help her if she wasn’t ready herself. So living my life was the only way to ensure that I wasn’t wasting my life too.
  • People say that addicts have to hit rock bottom before they “see the light” and decide to get clean.  Unfortunately rock bottom is different for everyone. I am beyond thankful that Heather made it past her rock bottom because so many people don’t get that chance.
  • Heroin addiction has become a global epidemic.  We’ve all been affected by it one way or another.  One of the things I tried to explain to Heather was that when you’re sober, you actually feel things.  The lows can be very, very low when you’re not self-medicating with drugs.  And those times can suck big time. But the highs are so much higher. When you can actually experience, be present and remember all the good things– there can’t be anything better! 

I think the scariest part of all of this is that no matter how long Heather has been clean from her heroin addiction, I still worry at times.  I know how easy it is to slip off track with “addictions” that are waaaaaay less addictive. Obviously she needs to understand her triggers, continue to work on herself, have a support system, keep busy, focus on her family, etc. in order to avoid slipping backwards.  

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My sister is full of life, full of energy and she’s got a lot to offer the world.  Seeing her work through her addiction, become a mother, and take control of her life, has been a blessing. I hope she continues to believe in herself and her vision for her future because the world needs her sparkle.  

Part 2: Heather’s Take

Ahh, I’m so excited this day has arrived!  I finally get to feature my sister’s writing on my blog.  I’ve expressed this before but maybe not everyone caught it so let me start by saying this: even though we’ve been sisters for 28+ years, our relationship hasn’t always been like a lot of sisters we know.  We are so different, but also share some qualities (like we’re both HIIIIII-larious; or at least we both think we are 😉 ).  And we both truly want to help people become the very best versions of themselves… and I think that’s because we both recognize (in such amazingly different ways) that no matter where your life journey takes you, it’s important to love yourself and spread that love to as many people as possible.  So without any further adieu… 

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My mom, Zoey, and Heather ❤

Hey everyone! My name is Heather and I am Lauren’s younger sister. Before I jump right into it, I wanted to introduce myself a bit. I am 28 years old and I live in New Jersey with my boyfriend Jonathan, my 10 month old baby girl Zoey, and my 18 month old pup named Charlotte. I am a recovering heroin addict (more on this in my next post) and I want to make it my mission in life to help others who feel as hopeless and helpless as I felt, and guide them on a journey filled with self-love and happiness.

It’s not hard for me to remember the moment when I felt as though my life would never be normal again. I remember the exact day as if it were yesterday. I remember waking up and going downstairs to my brother telling me that my dad had taken my mom to the hospital because she had a “headache”. I didn’t understand why anyone would go to the hospital for a headache but as a (relatively) innocent 12 year old, I didn’t question it. I only sensed something was wrong when my dad sent a neighbor to pick me up and bring me back to their house. 

When we got there, they sent me down the stairs into the basement to play. It wasn’t too long until they came downstairs to get me.  My dad wanted me at the hospital. At that point I knew it was more serious than just a bad headache. The whole ride I sat anxiously in the backseat.  I had no idea what I was walking into. I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

 As we pulled up to the hospital, I saw my entire family huddled outside of the entrance. They brought me into the room where my mom was. I walked into the room to find her lying what appeared to be lifeless on the hospital bed and my dad and brother crying next to her. I don’t recall what my dad said to me or how he tried to explain to me that it didn’t look like my mom was going to live.  But I do remember feeling completely helpless. And scared.   

I remember feeling like a terrible daughter for not crying right away. Now I look back and realize I was in shock and trying to process the situation. I carried around a lot of guilt for that for a long time.  I was also trying to stay strong for everyone else who seemed to be falling apart around me. Thankfully, things turned around and my mom survived the brain bleed.

But the weeks and months to follow were filled with a lot of anxiety and worry. The doctors were doing everything they could to help my mom re-learn to walk and talk. It was really hard to see my mom like this.  One time I remember walking into one of her physical therapy sessions to see her and there she was struggling, trying to hold herself up between these two bars. She looked so helpless and there was nothing I could do to help her. 

Over the next few months our lives adjusted to what would become our new routine.  Me and my sister would go to school everyday. Our brother was up at college. My mom couldn’t drive but she was alive and recovering quite well considering what happened.  And then, my dad told us he was moving out. This is another moment that I remember quite vividly. We were all at the kitchen table in our usual spots eating dinner and my dad said he had something to tell us. I knew what was coming. I remember feeling nervous and scared because I knew my life was about to change drastically.  Again.

Within a year of my dad moving out, we sold my childhood home. My mom and I moved into a condo and that’s when my behavior started to get worse. I would burst out in verbal and physical attacks on my mom. I started skipping school and dabbling in drugs.  I would steal, lie, and manipulate to get what I wanted. I was an absolute terror. I developed very little self-confidence and low self-worth. I never felt good enough at anything. Being the youngest of three, I was always compared to my siblings. “Why can’t you be like your brother and sister?” were the famous words of my high school principal. I felt like an outsider all of the time. I remember always comparing myself to other girls in my grade. I always felt like they were smarter or prettier than me. 

My parents didn’t know how to handle me. They tried sending me to therapy but I manipulated my way out of that. They sent me to a wilderness program for 7 weeks in the Adirondack mountains, which was one of the coolest experiences of my life, but within months of being home I was back at it with the atrocious behavior. Eventually, I was sent off to boarding school for 16 months until I graduated high school.

For a long time, I carried around a lot of resentment regarding those situations. I felt like if my dad never left, or my mom never got sick, I wouldn’t have felt or acted that way. And maybe I wouldn’t have. I was just so angry at everyone and everything. I was angry at God for letting this happen to me and to my family. I was angry at my mom for getting sick. I was angry at my dad for leaving. I was angry at my sister for coping with it better than me. I felt like there was this recurring theme in my life of everyone leaving me and I had no choice in the matter.

Looking back on the situation, I see it for what it really was – everyone doing their best to keep it together during a shitty situation. Unfortunately all of these events were just beginning to more troubling times. My next post is dedicated to sharing my journey about how it all started, what it was like during my addiction, and what it is like now on the other side. When I was younger, I wasn’t even able to imagine my life at 28 because I didn’t know if I was going to make it. All of those life experiences brought me to where I am today – sober, happy, and healthy.  Today, my mother and I have a relationship that I hold dear to my heart and that I love and respect. I thank God I am able to be the daughter my mother always deserved.

The Scariest Moment of My Life

I want to share something that I don’t share often.  A lot of people know that my mom doesn’t drive, but they don’t know why.  This story is a huge part of my life.  It was one of those defining events that shaped me as a person.  So here goes…

Not too long after my sister was born (1991), my mom suffered from a stroke.  That stroke led to the discovery of an AVM (arteriovenous malformation) in her brain.  After the stroke, my mom had to go through speech therapy.  Her speech went back to normal but her right hand/arm have never been the same (thank God she’s a lefty!).

Life continued after that. I was only 5 or 6 at the time my mom had a stroke so I obviously didn’t really understand what happened or what it all meant.  But over the years I learned that this AVM was still in my mom’s brain.  The same thing could happen again.  Apparently, doctors told to my parents that the removal of this could cause loss of eyesight, which would mean that my mom might not be able to drive ever again, which would mean her life, as a stay-at-home mom who shuffled us everywhere and was at every single game, meet, etc., might change forever.  So my parents decided to put off the surgery.

Fast forward to May 2003.  I was 16-years old.  I was in Disney World with my friend and her family to celebrate my friends 16th birthday.  (Not too shabby, right?!)  Little did I know, my trip was going to be cut short.  

Earlier that year, my mom started getting more intense headaches which led to doctors’ visits and subsequently the decision to move forward with the surgery to remove the AVM from her brain.  I don’t remember the exact timeline of things but I remember that my mom had some sort of test scheduled the Friday I was going to be in Florida. I remember asking my dad if I should stay home and he told me that it was just a test and to go.  So I did.

A day or two later, I was walking around a park in Disney and my cell phone rang.  Something didn’t feel right.  My mom would NEVER call me in the middle of the day.  I know that’s a weird thing to think, but I distinctly remember thinking it.  And when I heard my dad’s voice on the other end of the phone when I picked it up, I knew something wasn’t right.  He said, “Lauren, your mom is in the hospital. You have to get home.”  Tears started pouring.  I handed the phone to Emma’s mom and cried as arrangements were made to get a flight home.  I cried the entire way.  Those were by far the scariest hours of my life (and still are).

Meanwhile back home, my mom was transferred from a small local hospital to Stony Brook University Hospital where they determined that her brain was hemorrhaging.  I don’t know how they got the bleeding to stop, but they did.  She didn’t die.  The hands of a higher power were at work, I guess.  It was a relief to know she was alive but now what?

We all went home that night while my mom stayed in the hospital.  I remember when I woke up the following morning I was actually pissed at myself for even being able to fall asleep.  I had no idea what was going to happen to my mom yet I was able to close my eyes.  I know that might sound weird but I couldn’t help but be mad at myself.  Everything was happening so quickly that I guess all sorts of emotions were coming to a head.

A week or so later (I think)  surgery was performed to remove the AVM from my mom’s brain.  And then began the road to recovery.  No one could tell us what to expect because the final results were unknown.  Over the next couple of months, my mom was in and out of hospitals for rehabilitation.  Me, my brother and sister spent more time driving to and from hospitals than we care to remember.  But over the next few months, my mom started to recover.

The lasting changes include that she has no peripheral vision on her right side.  That means when she walks in a new environment she is likely to bump into something because she can’t see what’s to her right.  This has gotten her a couple of nasty looks from people who don’t realize she’s not being an asshole, she simply can’t see.  Because of that, she can’t drive.  She is also on a TON of medication to prevent seizures and once in a while (although it’s been a long time :knocks wood:) she has one.  Her short term memory has good days and bad.  And her speech and thought process isn’t as quick as your’s and mine.  I assume the combination of the stroke, hemorrhaging, seizures and the fact that she has been on meds for almost 30 years contribute to all of it.  But, considering what she’s been through, she’s absolutely perfect.

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I have no idea what we’re laughing at.  Also, my mom’s dress is on point. 

Once the dust settled from all of this, my family got used to our new normal.  My brother went off to college that fall, I started my junior year of high school and my sister started 7th grade.  My dad worked a lot of hours back then so I helped my mom when it came to driving.  My sister’s Bat Mitzvah was coming up that following February and I remember driving to and from Hebrew School for her lessons.  The good thing was I got a lot of driving experience.

Then came hit #2—almost exactly a year after my mom almost died, my dad moved out.  My parents were separating.  Bad timing, yes.  But I guess there’s never good timing for something like that.  And without going into too much detail on that (because that’s THEIR story, not mine), I’ll say this: my mom wasn’t happy.

So now it’s May 2004… my dad is moving out of the house, my brother just came back from his first year of college, my sister started acting out, and I was just there doing my thing.  That year changed me in a lot of ways.  I’d always been a responsible kid, but I ended up putting a lot of pressure on myself.  My sister’s behavior was driving my parents crazy.  Eric wasn’t around much.  I had to help out with driving.  I was the one who kept my shit together.

I became more serious and reserved.  I don’t think I was too different on the outside, but on the inside I was just trying to be the good kid- the version of me that I thought I needed to be.  I remember my parents made me go to therapy at one point.  On my second appointment the therapist told my mom that I was handling things very well and he didn’t think therapy was necessary.  He was right—I became really really good at handling shit (and I still am).  But I believe it ran deeper than that.  I think that subconsciously I felt the need to be an adult because nobody else around me seemed to be stepping up to the plate.  It’s all about perspective and that’s how I saw it.  I’m not saying it was the reality of everyone around me.  But it was my reality at the time.

I think any child or teenager that witnesses a parent suffer from a severe illness or pass away gets a different perspective on life.  You hear people say as their parents get older, they change.  Their memory isn’t as good.  They sometimes become more irritable.  It’s hard to see your parent become a completely different person than they once were.  And for kids, it’s hard to see your parent with a shaved head (they had to shave my mom’s head to do surgery), re-learning how to walk, struggling to find words to express themselves, and just not be the person they were a few months earlier.  These things are difficult for an adult to comprehend, but even more difficult for a child or teenager.

But, and I hate to say it like this but its true, shit happens.  Nobody’s life is perfect.  Unfortunately everyone has to deal with hard stuff. Everything that happens in our lives shapes who we are. While sometimes painful, I think it’s important to reflect on the events of our past.  It gives us an opportunity to learn lessons that may not have been so obvious the first time around and it can explain why we are the way we are (and maybe give us the push to change some of those things).  It’s also important to remember that we don’t have to let our past determine our future.  We may not be able to change our past, but we don’t have to let it define us.

I would like to end this on a very important note: I don’t blame ANYONE for the way these things affected me.  I know that I put a lot of undue pressure on myself.  And now, being a parent myself, I know that my parents were just doing the best they could at the time.  I know that my parents, just like I am now, were trying to figure their shit out while being parents to 3 teenagers.  I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them either.

My next post is going to be written by my sister, Heather.  She is going to be sharing her experience during that same time period.  As a quick preface, my sister is 4 years younger than me.   At the time my mom got sick she was 12.  My sister is a sharp cookie.  She’s just coming into her own and discovering herself at the age of 28.  Her journey is just beginning. Stay tuned…

 

Taking Control of Your Body & Mind

Let’s take a trip down memory lane… For a long time I was in a vicious cycle of overeating, gaining weight, and feeling like crap.  I  was completely out of control- and not just with my weight or what I was putting into my mouth, but with everything.  I didn’t even realize that something wasn’t right. All I knew was that didn’t like the way I looked in clothes and I was constantly comparing myself and my body to others.  I was very insecure.  It wasn’t a good look.

I hate that I wasted the better part of my 20’s feeling so badly about myself and my body.  Unfortunately, I can’t go back and change what was, so my hope in sharing this is to shake you awake if you feel this way right now.  Taking control of my health was the very first step for me in becoming who I am today.  It gave me more confidence because I proved to myself that I could do something BIG.  And when I say big, I’m talking about the way I shifted my mindset regarding food.  Losing weight can be super easy once you put your mind to it.  The challenge really starts when you reach your goal weight– you have to figure out how to maintain it!  It requires changes to your diet, your movement and most importantly your mindset. And THAT is a big deal.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back on it I was using food for all the wrong reasons.  I was using it as a coping mechanism.  Nervous?  Eat.  Anxious?  Eat.  Angry?  Eat.  Sad?  Eat.  And that isn’t an uncommon theme.  A lot of people do that.  And that’s OK… sometimes.  But you can’t use food as a way to deal with every emotion you ever have (uhh, hi, old me).

Think about the actual purpose of food for one second– food is measured in calories and calories are energy.  Calories are meant to fuel you so that you can get through your day to day activities.  That’s it.  They’re not meant to be consumed in excess or at a deficit.  The goal is to consume as many calories from foods that provide you with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients as possible. (Rather than wasting your calories on foods that provide little to no nutritional value.)  But we all know the truth: the ones that provide little to no nutritional value are the ones that we like most!!  Why?  Because they taste good! Because they have sugar in them.  Because they make us feel good (even if just temporarily).

But these foods are “bad” so we tell ourselves we can’t eat them.  But after a week or two or three, we cave.  And then we don’t just eat two Oreos, we eat a whole sleeve of them!!  If you are constantly depriving yourself of food Monday through Friday and then over the weekend you go ape shit on everything you see… are you really solving the underlying problem?  Because at some point, those “cheat days” go from just Saturday to Saturday and Sunday… and then Friday, Saturday and Sunday and before you know it, you’re back to your old habits and the weight comes back on.  And then you feel like crap about yourself.  I’ve been there… repeatedly.

But one day it just clicked for me:  I control what I eat.  I control how I feel about my body.  I control how I look.  I control how I feel about myself.  I AM IN CONTROL.  And since that day everything has been a lot easier for me.  My temperament is better.  I have more patience.  I am less irritable.  I am happier.  I am able to be the mom I want to be.  I don’t complain that I feel fat.  I feel more confident. I have more pep in my step.  I feel in control of myself and my life.

Only you can make the decision to take control.  Control is a very powerful thing.  It’s exciting but it’s also scary.  When you finally take control, you can’t use excuses anymore. I think this is why people shy away from it. It’s easier. It’s an excuse. It’s a way out. But if you have that mindset regarding your health, it usually trickles into other areas, as well. Being in control forces you to take responsibility. Ick!  Take responsibility for my poor food choices?  No thanks!  But the cool thing about taking responsibility and taking control means that you can literally do anything  you want to do!  You have complete control over your own destiny.  And that should excite the hell out of you!!

If food is a struggle for you say this everyday, repeatedly, until you believe it:

YOU are in control of FOOD.  FOOD does not control YOU.

I know it sounds a little silly to do, but trust me!

Your thoughts

It took work for me to get to this point.  It didn’t happen overnight.  But I had to start somewhere.  It started with recognizing that I wasn’t in control.  I let myself be controlled by food rather than me controlling food.  Then I had to figure out why.  If you know me at all, you read my blog, or you follow me on social media, you know one thing about me:  I’m not afraid to tell you that I’m a hot mess of a young lady that’s just trying to figure out life (Spoiler Alert: I’ll never “figure it out”).  I’m 100% happy to share the experiences of my life because I know that I’m not the only person who struggles with stuff– especially food.  And since I feel like I have a pretty good handle on this I’m even more excited to share it.

The day I realized that I was in complete control of my health was the first day of the rest of my life.  It showed me that I can do anything as long as I believed I could do it.   It taught me I could do hard things.  It taught me I could change my mindset and how I thought about food (and everything else while I was at it).  There’s not doubt in my mind that I could never have gotten through the last couple of years of my life if I didn’t have the confidence, mental strength and positive outlook I worked so hard for through my wellness journey. I am so grateful that I had the courage to take so many steps over the past few years to get to where I am today. This wellness wave has been an amazing ride and I’ll continue to show up for it every single day. 😉