How to Talk to Your Brother

Updated: Mar 8

2020. Go on three dates with a guy named Paul. You think he’s gentle and kind and has

dreamy brown eyes. Over dinner he asks, “Do you have any siblings?” Hesitate. Think to yourself, maybe I should just lie. But you like Paul and don’t want to lie to him. Say, “Yes.” Reach for your wine glass. Pause. Say, “I did. I had a brother.” Before he has a chance to probe any further, say, “This wine is so good. Great choice.” Gulp down the rest of your merlot. It’s like blood, saturating your mouth and somehow making it very dry all at once.

2019. You will fly home to Albany on a dreary, fall morning. Try your hardest not to cry. For mom, you tell yourself. Her eyes will be swollen and red. She won’t leave your side all day, digging her nails deeper into your shoulder each time someone approaches. “I’m sorry for your loss,” they will say, over and over. Your brother, Josh, is dead. You can’t bear to look at him lying there with all that makeup on, forging life into him. Think to yourself how barbaric it is to have open caskets.

2018. Your friend, Lindsay, will tell you over Skype she saw Josh at McCarthy’s pub the

other night and he looked terrible. “Like, really terrible,” she’ll say. You don’t know how to talk about your brother so you’ll tell her you’re meeting a friend for dinner and you have to go. Think about when you spoke to him last. You can’t remember. You call him and he doesn’t answer.

2017. Go home to visit in the summer. Make plans with him for lunch at your favorite cafe. Sit by the window and order a Pinot Grigio. When he’s 30 minutes late, call him. He won’t answer. Wait 15 minutes more, then drive over to his apartment. You let yourself in with the key he gave you and find him passed out on the couch with a needle in his arm. His wife is divorcing him. You don’t blame her.

2016. Your mother will call. She will tell you Josh got fired from his job for stealing, and

they are pressing charges. You hear the despair in her voice. You won’t know what to

say. A moment of silence seems to go on forever. You finally manage a sigh.

2015. Your family is invited to a childhood friend’s wedding. Your mom will show up late,

sliding next to you in the pew with a look of defeat across her face. You’ll whisper, “Where’s Josh?” but you’ll already know the answer. She sighs. “He’s having another one of his moods, won’t get out of bed. Told me to go fuck myself. I don’t know how to help him, Anna.” You hold her hand and squeeze.

2014. Josh’s wife kicks him out and he will stay with your mother. When you show up at her house one afternoon you’ll find her crying on the floor. “He stole all my jewelry,” she cries. “My engagement ring, nana’s necklace, everything!” You hate what he does to her. You hate what he’s done to your family. Tell your mother maybe it would be better for everyone if Josh just overdoses and dies. She slaps you. “That’s not how you talk about your brother!” she’ll say. Move to London for a job. It will feel good to getaway.

2013. You’re hungover. Your dad takes you for a boat ride out on the lake in the

afternoon. Your head feels as though it might explode and Josh has not stopped talking

since breakfast. Ask him if he took his medication today. He paces back and forth in the

bow singing, “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms!” over and

over. And over. You fantasize about throwing him overboard.

2012. On a Sunday, you and Josh have dinner with your mother. Before you even sit down to eat, he steals $100 out of your purse and leaves without saying goodbye. When you go to get a cigarette, you will notice. You call him and it goes straight to voicemail. You won't bother to leave a message. “I’m sick of his shit!” you yell on your way out of the house and slam the door behind you. Your mother will have dinner alone.

2011. Josh has an accident on a job site. He falls three stories, shattering his pelvis and

lower spine. “He’s lucky to be alive,” the doctor will say. Your mother is concerned about

the pain pills they will give him. “He’s a recovering heroin addict,” she tells the doctor. Your parents get a divorce.

2010. Josh gets married. He is taking his medication. He is happy. He's not using.

2009. Josh is using again and when he uses he doesn’t want to take his medication. You feel like you don’t know him anymore. At your birthday party, he has a manic episode and throws cake at your uncle’s head. Later you find him passed out on the bathroom floor. Josh goes to rehab. Again.

2008. Josh is different now. His extreme mood swings make him difficult to be around.

The doctor says the heroin created a chemical imbalance in his brain. Your brother is

diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The economy crashes and your father loses his business.

2007. Your parents send Josh to Rehab. You will ask to visit but he won’t want to see

you. You tell him you love him and send him a letter. Wonder if he read it.

2006. You graduate high school and Josh gets his own apartment. On the weekends, you sometimes stay there. He will have lost a lot of weight. “Are you eating?” you ask him. “You sound like mom,” he will say, annoyed. Lately, he always seems annoyed.

2005. Josh is almost never home anymore. But your mom will make him have family dinner once a week. Sometimes he falls asleep at dinner and you kick him awake under

the table.

2004. You steal cigarettes from Josh’s room while he’s in the shower. He always keeps them in the top left dresser drawer under his boxers. This time you find small bags with red skulls and a syringe. You don’t tell your mom.

2003. Josh gets a job delivering pizzas a few nights a week. He has a new group of friends and doesn’t spend as much time with you anymore. He will make up for it by bringing home pepperoni pizza regularly. In geometry class, Jill Sanderson tells you Josh’s new friends are bad news.

2002. When you start high school, Josh is a senior. He walks you to most of your classes the first day. You feel cool when his friends say hi to you in the hall in front of the other freshman.

2001. Your first boyfriend, Joe, breaks up with you for the girl with the biggest breasts in eighth grade. Josh brings home your favorite ice cream. Through sobs, you manage to scarf down the mint chip and get brain freeze. He promises to beat Joe up.

2000. Your parents go out of town and leave you alone for the first time. Josh has a party. He lets you have a beer. You think it's gross but drink it anyway. Be cool Anna, be cool.

1999. Play grand theft auto together after school until your mom comes in with her hands on her hips yelling, “Get off that game and start your homework!”

1998. On New Year’s Eve, you wear festive paper crowns and drink sparkling grape juice. At midnight you blow party horns and he kisses you on the cheek.

1997. He teaches you how to rewind cassette tapes with a pencil so you can record over them. Start an imaginary radio show together as a brother-sister duo. He’s the host and lets you choose the songs. You record every Mariah Carey song you know and he doesn’t mind.

1996. Race bikes down to the lake together and skip rocks. You hope you can skip rocks like Josh someday. He’s the best at skipping rocks.

1995. Burst through the front door with tears streaming down your face because you fell in the driveway. Josh puts a ninja turtle band-aid on your scraped knee and gives your shoulder a squeeze. “You’re okay,” he’ll say.

1994. Bunny ears, bunny ears, playing by a tree. Criss-crossed the tree, trying to catch

me. Josh teaches you how to tie your shoes. You high-five in triumph.

1993. Trade Polly Pocket dolls for G.I. Joes. Perform a wedding ceremony between them. Josh officiates their union and you throw rice.

1992. On Saturday mornings, you watch cartoons together in a tent he made from dining chairs and blankets. Your mom makes pancakes and the whole house will smell of maple syrup.

1991. He pulls you around the yard in his red radio flyer wagon he got for Christmas, stopping every so often to pick you a dandelion.

1990. In the bathtub, Josh puts bubbles on your head and you scream with laughter.

1989. Josh hold you for the first time. He’s only 4. Kissing your forehead he says, “Hello. I’m your big brother and I’ll always take care of you.”

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Addiction is not a choice. It is a disease. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction visit SAMHSA's National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (TTY 1-800-487-3889). This free, confidential, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service (in English and Spanish) offers support and resources for individuals and family members of those who are facing substance use disorder.

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