On Thursday, September 22, 2018, our lives were forever changed. I was having a normal day at work, sitting at my desk, when my boss walked over. He asked to speak to me in one of the conference rooms. Immediately, I thought I was in trouble. I had no real reason to assume this, but when your boss asks to speak with you privately in a conference room, your mind certainly wanders.
When I walked in, I saw my boyfriend Michael standing alone in the room. It was so odd to see him there at work. He had never been to the office before. I had a sinking feeling. As Mike broke the news to me that my brother Daniel had died, I stood against a wall to hold myself up. I kept saying, “No” as I shook. I started to cry but just briefly before I realized where I was. “I have to get out of here,” I said to Mike. He helped me gather my things, and we left my office. We went back to our apartment to pack and drove straight to my mom’s. That day, I heard the news I had been dreading for many years: my brother had died from an overdose. It was something my family and I had feared ever since Dan’s heroin addiction took control of his life, but it was also something we were not expecting as of recently. He was three years clean from heroin’s grips.
Dan is my big brother just shy of two years and is my only sibling. He was my best friend. Growing up, Daniel was an adorable, funny, feisty and intelligent little boy. He had big, round glasses and a blond head of hair. Dan was always drawn to computers and loved learning about them. Schoolwork came easily to him, and he had a group of tight-knit friends and straight As.
When Dan first got his license, he was in a car accident. Luckily, he walked away with nothing more than some bruises. At the hospital, he was prescribed painkillers. This was my brother’s first taste of opioids.
Dan went to college at Monmouth University for Computer Science and pledged to the fraternity Sigma Pi his freshman year. Two years later, I started my first year at college and was aware my brother was not quite the same. I didn’t know if it was partying too much or his studies, but I knew something had changed. I remember walking to class one afternoon when he called me on the phone. He sounded terrified and told me he had been taking pills and was scared he had become hooked on them. From there, my brother’s addiction slowly spiraled out of control. Even while using, he managed to get accepted to Stevens Institute of Technology and transferred there from Monmouth. Unfortunately, during the remainder of Dan’s time at college he struggled behind closed doors with his addiction. Eventually, my parents had to step in and remove him from school because it was clear his heroin addiction had become full-blown. My brother tried to get clean time after time, and unfortunately, relapse always came. My brother spent many, many years in and out of rehab facilities and struggled enormously with depression. Every time things seemed to get better, the worst would happen, and he would relapse again.
Dan would always come out of rehab full of hope, and we would feel like we had our Daniel back again. The same brother I grew up with would return. I felt like I could really talk to him again, and I always felt a sense of immense hope. Unfortunately, Dan had so many demons. After some time would pass, his demons would pull at him and bring him back down. He felt immense guilt and sadness for all of the pain he had caused the people he loved.
For a few years, Dan was in a co-dependent relationship. It was difficult to help him see the negative effects this was having on him. He felt lonely after losing most of his friends and was desperate for acceptance. Daniel was also on probation due to an earlier arrest for possession as a result of my parents calling the police on him when they found heroin in his bedroom one day. At the time, my parents didn’t know what to do. They were scared and felt like they had run out of options. They thought calling the police would help keep their son alive and protect him. That same arrest came to haunt us for the rest of Dan’s life, as it kept him from being able to obtain a job, even at the local Walmart or Costco. His self-esteem took a hit after being rejected time and time again, which was devastating for many reasons, but mainly because my brother was smart and had a background in the IT field. It killed my parents to see him struggling to gain employment. For all of these reasons and more, Dan struggled on and off. We all did.
The stress of Dan’s addiction seeped into all aspects of my family’s lives. We learned firsthand the stigma that addiction carries. Rather than an outpouring of support and love for Daniel, we lost close friends and felt abandoned by many. People don’t understand addiction, the media stigmatizes it, and as a result, we often felt alone. Addiction does not just affect the addict. It deeply affects the entire family. Each member of my immediate family also battled our own tumultuous relationship with Daniel. The love we had for him never wavered, but Dan often stole, lied and said many hurtful, angry things when using. The thing about loving an addict is that it can be utterly heartbreaking. Seeing someone you love act out of character, seeing them choose a drug over everyone else, including themselves, and not being able to help is the most frustrating feeling. I lost my big brother but also a part of my parents. They were exhausted and emotionally drained. Trying to keep Daniel alive became my family’s mission — one only Dan could truly control. Unfortunately, my parents’ marriage unraveled, and eventually they parted ways.
In spite of all this, I felt my love and compassion for my brother only strengthen as time passed. Throughout all of his pain and suffering, his spirit always shined through, and he refused to quit. He wanted more than anything to lead a normal life again. Dan and I always remained close. We often told each other “I love you” and considered one another to be best friends. I could tell Dan anything without judgment, and he felt he could do the same with me. We depended on each other and leaned on one another through our parents’ divorce. We had inside jokes, pictures, songs and many other things I will cherish for the rest of my life. I wish it had been enough. Unfortunately, the guilt Dan carried with him overcame him and always kept him in the dark.
In the last years of Daniel’s life, he was clean from heroin. Unfortunately, he sought help from a psychiatrist who turned out to be an untrustworthy person. This individual prescribed my brother an anti-anxiety medication he grew addicted to. Why a psychiatrist with experience treating addicts would prescribe someone potentially addictive medication is beyond me, but it slowly turned into another substance my brother was abusing. He fought to stop taking the medication, and his body reacted with seizures. Daniel was on probation at the time but was granted the ability to leave the state of New Jersey to go to a rehab facility in Florida. Dan wanted help more than anything. He wanted a happy life.
During Dan’s last stint in rehab, he spent the majority of his time in the ICU due to seizures. My mom pleaded with his probation officer and the judge on his case to allow him more time out of state to recover in rehab. They refused and told us he had to be on a plane within 24 hours or he could be arrested. So, with no other choices, Dan got on a plane and headed back to New Jersey. He wasn’t ready to leave. He needed more help. He wanted more help. Daniel died that week, four days after he arrived in New Jersey. He had an accidental overdose from heroin. That was it. The man who wanted help, the family who desperately fought to save his life — we were all let down by different people along the way.
Over the years, I saw my brother in halfway homes, hospitals, psych wards and numerous rehabs. He tried having sponsors, trying medication, going to NA meetings and seeking therapy. He lost all of his friends during this time and felt isolated. My message is simple: if you are reading this, and you know someone who is battling addiction, I beg you to reach out to them. Addicts are just people. They are not bad people but people who are battling a vicious disease — one that’s destroying lives. We need to show more compassion and do better for one another.