Tag Archives: alcoholism

Brother, Can You Spare Some Change?

I’ve written about my oldest brother before, but in sum: His name is Donnie and he’s an alcoholic. And a drug addict. And homeless.

Last week, my mom was driving to the grocery store in New Jersey when she noticed someone familiar walking along the highway. He was wearing red shorts, no top, and was carrying a black bag. As she got closer to this man she realized it was my brother, her eldest stepson. Unable to pull over and unsure of his mental state, she called my dad to let him know. Everyone assumed he was either on his way to our shore house or to his brother, David’s house (less than a mile apart). But everyone was wrong. After days of Donnie-free sightings, David learned that Donnie had been sleeping on the beach.

It’s kinda weird to hear a story like this about a family member. A man walking along the highway, barely clothed, sleeping on the beach. Almost every day I walk past a homeless person on the streets of New York and think ‘how did they get there? where is their family?’ And now I wonder how many people saw my brother and thought the same thing.

It’s very simple for me to close off any feelings for Donnie. He’s over 20 years older than me (my dad started “playing house” pretty early) and he’s always been in and out of the picture. In when he needs something. Out when he’s flying high. The stereotypical rambling man, or prodigal son. I owe him nothing and he owes me nothing. We simply share half a bloodline. Hell, I remember the time when he showed up to one of my high school basketball games. He walked into the swankiest prep school in Philadelphia covered in tattoos and beer gut in full force just to embarrass the living shit out of me (at least that’s what I thought at the time). I swear one of my teammates actually asked what the homeless dude was doing there. Worse than Peter denying Christ, I wanted to deny my brother more than three times. And just last summer, I made fun of the fact that he was selling French Fries on the boardwalk. A grown man working a minimum wage job that high school kids do for the summer? O-M-G. Soo em-barr-ass-ing. We are so not related.

But sleeping on the beach? Walking from town to town without a shirt on his back? No money. No cellphone. I can’t make fun of it. I can’t roll my eyes. Goddamn it brother, why are you in my life at all?! I’m frustrated by my powerlessness, by his helplessness. Do you know what it’s like to want to reach out and help someone while fully aware there’s nothing you can do? Sure you do, you’ve walked past a homeless person before.

I can’t give Donnie anything that will change his life. Not even my love. If you give a bum some change, you don’t change his life. I could give Donnie all the money in the world–it would not alter his reality. This is how he chooses to live. Addicted. Schizophrenic. Literally. Do you know how many times I’ve referred to someone as psycho? But my brother really is. Thanks to a life spent shooting, smoking, drinking and snorting he’s damaged goods. He’ll call my parents at odd hours just rambling on about things that don’t make sense, about people out to get him. All they can do is just listen. They’ve tried getting him help, putting him in homes–he just leaves. None of us know what he’s after or where he’s going. We can only watch him walk along the highway; hear him ask for change.

From what I understand, Donnie started drinking at age nine and added drugs around 12 or 13. No one knows why. No one understands. It’s like cancer and car accidents–some people get it, get hit and some people don’t and it never makes any fucking sense. It’s a simple twist of fate.

“A saxophone someplace far off played/As she was walking on by the arcade/As the light bust through a-beat-up shade where he was waking up/She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate/
And forgot about a simple twist of fate.” -Bob Dylan, Simple Twist of Fate

To hear the original track from the album Blood on the Tracks cut and paste this URL into your browser:

http://popup.lala.com/popup/504684642123677280

And here, a Jeff Tweedy cover of Dylan’s song with altered lyrics:

Cast the First Stone

My two oldest brothers are the prodigal sons–the boys who left home too early, squandered their fortunes, and returned home after everything was lost.  And just like in the biblical story, my parents had many celebratory feasts welcoming them back, believing as they were told, that this time would be different.

The story of the prodigal son is one I learned while growing up Catholic. And although these days my religious ethnicity is somewhere around the equation of 80% atheist/15% agnostic/4% believer/1 % Satanist, I still think the Holy Bible has some good points. Hey, our influences are our influences.

Donnie and David are big influences in my life. Bigger than religion. They’re real-life examples of what not to do. What paths not to take. In them, I see two adult men with broken families of their own and a lack of personal pride and responsibility. They also both suffer from drug and alcohol addictions. And I hate them for it. They just can’t get their shit together and I resent them for it. They’re supposed to be older, wiser and supportive, but I’m the one who’s smarter, wiser, and better than. I’m the good son (technically, daughter) dammit!

My brothers and I did not exactly have the same upbringing. First of all, we’re half-siblings. They’re my father’s sons from his first marriage. And they’re more than 10 years older than me. My dad divorced their mom. My dad also suffered from addictions. Their mother also suffers from addiction. And even though my dad has done more than his best to raise the kind of men he’d be proud to call his sons, these boys are in a vacuum of pain that no one can get them out of.

Pain is the culprit, right? I just don’t know how else to rationalize my brothers’ behavior. What makes a person so unable to take care of their own life? I hate them for being the kind of siblings I don’t brag about and I also wonder how they broke beyond repair.

The problem is that every time I pass judgment on my two oldest brothers, cast those stones, I realize I am no different. I know the restorative power of drinking and doing drugs. God the escape. You just don’t know unless you’ve felt its deliverance. Deliverance. ‘I do declare that this drink has lifted my spirits’ even though I’m crying…I feel goood! And what compelled me to take more than one? Pain! That fierce enemy! So it might just be true that pain is what leads a person to drink too much, to eat too much, to do too many drugs. Because I can attest from my own minor dalliances that this shit makes you feel good. No need to be poetic about it. Even when you’re feeling bad, this shit makes you feel great. Tony the Tiger grrrreat. Invincible. Incapable of feeling pain or sadness or disappointment. You feel powerful. Strong. Mighty. No matter what will you feel like the next morning.

Some days I feel like I could do it all the time. Consume to oblivion. Drink. The. Magical. Elixir. And yet I hate my brothers for making this their habit. The basis of their lives. Of our lives. And I understand the appeal the entire time.

Although Bon Iver‘s song “Skinny Love” is more of a, well, a love song, it still reminds me of my brothers:

“I tell my love to wreck it all/Cut out all the ropes and let me fall/My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my/Right in the moment this order’s tall/Who will love you?/Who will fight?/Who will fall far behind?”