The scent of cigarette smoke weaved itself through the tension felt in the air at my grandma’s apartment that day. I had arrived with a knot of adrenaline that had been formulating deep within my core from the moment I received the news – she had let us down again. I could feel the adrenaline slowly diffuse from my core and reach my extremities.
The scene I was greeted with upon entering was numbing. In the far corner of the tiny unit, my grandma sat by the window in an over sized armchair. The chair seemed to swallow up her petite figure. Over the last year she had lost weight in a manner that seemed to redistribute the composition of her whole body. She looked as if she had shrunk. Her usual fashion forward shirt hung awkwardly on her narrow shoulders, her once strong, robust legs invisible within the folds of her now too baggy pants. Her tiny wrist seemed to buckle under the weight of her cigarette, as her trembling hand brought it up to her mouth. She inhaled and then exhaled, looking out the window, and for a moment turned to me and stared blankly before returning her gaze to the window. Her usual optimistic, truly kind-hearted and trusting nature was absent that day. The person sitting on that chair no longer resembled my grandma – but an empty human, almost as if she had been a victim of a tragic accident that left her outwardly paralyzed, her usual nature buried somewhere deep inside, stifled and unable to surface due to the trauma she was subjected to. She didn’t deserve this.
My heart was pounding, I could hear conversation occurring around me but felt disconnected.
I had arrived there with a mission in mind. I replayed the moment in my head the whole ride there, it brought me simultaneous satisfaction and pain to envision it. I felt as if I had to take control of the situation for my family, swoop in and take care of it. With that, I got up and walked towards my grandma’s bedroom which was barely an arm’s length away from the main room.
I saw a hunched mass laying in the middle of my grandmother’s bed. Upon closer examination I realized that this was my sister, though she was nearly unrecognizable to me in her state. Her face was more oval than I remembered it, as if her heavy skin had been weighing it down. Her complexion pale and blotchy, her stringy dark hair clinging to the crevices formed by her starkly protruding cheekbones. But what struck me the most were her eyes. The fragile skin surrounding her eyes had become so swollen that it bulged out beyond her face. Her beautiful hazel eyes which I had admired and been jealous of growing up were barely visible through the narrow slits they were hiding behind. She rolled over and looked at me.
“What” she mumbled, her voice crackling.
Anger surged through my veins. But at the same time a strange urge to laugh came over me as I felt ridiculous for arriving there as if to scold a child. I thought for a moment that we would both burst out laughing like we did when we were young, in the middle of heated arguments. But that feeling quickly disappeared as the reality of the situation returned. The realness of the situation settled around us like a foreboding, dreaded fog. It filled the every crevice of the room. It made it difficult to breathe, as if suffocating me. It clouded the direction of my thoughts, despite having had gone over them repeatedly hours, days, weeks and months prior to this moment.
“What have you done” I blurted, not sure of what answer I was expecting since I already knew the truth.
“Nothing” She responded apathetically. The anger returned like a bolt of lightning, shooting through my veins.
“Don’t lie to me Monika” I managed to stammer.
“I’m not, fuck off” and with that she turned her frail body over, her bony back facing me. Anger, disbelief, desperation took over me as I felt my body take me to the side of her bed, standing directly at her bedside.
“If you lie to my face, one more time I swear to God I will slap you” I managed to sputter. The words flew out of my mouth in between my rapid heartbeats. I realized I sounded like a crazy person. “What would be the point of that?” I thought to myself. I was not in control of my tone or pronunciation due to the adrenaline flowing through me.
“I DID NOTHING WRONG JUST FUCK OFF” she wailed, her face contorting in despair. She looked as if she was in so much anguish, a sorrow radiated from her that penetrated me. But it was not sorrow on account of disappointing everyone, yet again. It was a sorrow because she was no longer in control: the situation, our family members, and most importantly her life.
I raised my trembling hand and it came down on her cheek, stinging my palm and immediately I felt a flood of regret. She looked at me, dumbfounded as she calmly got up from the bed, her narrow shoulders hunched over and proceeded to the door. Her calmness was eerie to me. In that moment, I knew deep within me that this was just the calm before the storm. I knew that fentanyl’s grip had penetrated my sister to the core of her being, but I did not know if, when, or how it would release her.
The above excerpt was written at the height of my sister’s addiction. At that time, I was not yet aware about the powerlessness that an addict truly experiences at the hands of this disease. I harbored a lot of resentment and anger towards my sister – which I now know realize stemmed from a lack of understanding of what was afflicting her. I over simplified the physiological and chemical changes that had occurred in her brain that perpetuated the cycle of addiction. In desperation, I convinced myself that her actions were a result of a conscious decision. Maybe that was a coping mechanism for me – to deny the staggering power of this disease that we were up against. To ignore the very real possibility that this was much bigger than her, and the sobering fact that she may not make it out alive.
Whatever the reason for my ignorance, looking back I realize that in many instances my own reactions (or at times lack thereof) contributed to the unhealthy dynamics in our relationship. I can now only imagine how alone she felt that day at our grandma’s house. My emotion fueled actions, driven by desperation only strengthened the wedge between us – and consequently strengthened the vice that this addiction had around my sisters life. My actions reinforced what I can imagine the addiction was telling my sister all along: that she was not good enough, that she was a failure, and that she did not fit in. Most importantly, the unhealthy interactions between us gently nudged my sister back towards the ever-comforting arms of fentanyl – her refuge from the unbearable conditions that had become her life.
“We may not be responsible for another’s addiction or the life history that preceded it, but many painful situations could be avoided if we recognized that we are responsible for the way we ourselves enter into the interaction.
-Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.