by Lauren Dykstra
Was it a fair fight? I was eight years old when I found out that my uncle had a drug addiction. It wasn’t just an addiction to pot or an addiction to cocaine. It was an addiction to everything. An addiction to opioids, heroin, and PCP. Some that did not know his back story of drugs would say that he just had an addiction to life and was always the fulcrum of the party. The loud one, the funny one, the outgoing one, the wild one who would accept every dare with a “know it all” grin that would make you think he had done it already. He was captivating on every level of his personality and he could manipulate any situation. He was the guy who could sell a ketchup popsicle to a lady in white gloves. My uncle Chris was my father’s brother. My Dad grew up in a tumultuous household being one of four brothers and he was one of the brothers with a great head on his shoulders, always helping out his brothers and caring for my Grandmother when my Grandfather left for National Guard drill once a month for a weekend. My Dad always knew what was going on with my Uncle. He knew that he had a problem and didn’t know how to “fix” him or make him better. He was just a teenager, and in the early 1970s, no one really knew that a lot of drug addiction was linked to mental illness, nor did they know how to treat it. Mental illness was stigmatized and no one wanted to talk about it. At eight years old, I remember my Dad inviting my Uncle Chris over for dinner one night. He knew that my Uncle was going through a depressive state since the limousine company he owned was beginning to tank. Events like this are triggers for those with mental illness and drug addiction. I didn’t know it then when I was eight years old, but I sure do know it now. My Mom cooked an elaborate meal of spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, and Sunday sauce, or as some Italians would call it – gravy. My Mom laid out a gorgeous spread using the finest china in the hopes that we could cheer up her brother in law, my Uncle, and my Dad’s brother. Uncle Chris showed up to the house in his finest suit looking just like a limousine driver. From the second my Dad opened the door, he could tell something was not right. My brother and I were sitting on the couch and we watched as Uncle Chris stumbled right into the doorway and onto the floor as my Dad opened the door. He must have been leaning half-asleep on our front door. My brother and I knew something was wrong but didn’t quite know what at the time. My Mom immediately called my brother and me to attention and made us wash up for dinner. My Dad took my Uncle Chris into his bedroom. To this day, I’m not sure what he did in that bedroom, but Uncle Chris came out looking better than ever and smelling better than he did when he first fell in – like stale booze. He smelled like a powerful cologne and over-bearing peppermint mouthwash. My brother and I sat down at the table, Uncle Chris sat down at the head of the table along with my Mom and Dad. My Dad began to ask Uncle Chris how his day was and made a typical family conversation about life. As Uncle Chris spoke, his speech was impaired and mumbled. His words were slurred and my brother and I watched as his eyeballs rolled in the back of his head. I remember it like it was yesterday. “They’ve done it once again to me……ttthhhheeeyyyyyy rrruinnnnnedd meeeee…..,” he slurred as his head rolled forward and landed in his bowl of spaghetti. He passed out right in his bowl of spaghetti. My Mom picked up his head, cleaned up his face, removed the bowl from underneath him, checked his pulse to make sure he was okay, and then let him sleep right on our kitchen table. It was at that point that my Dad began to tell my brother and I about Uncle Chris’s drug addiction. It was difficult to understand as an eight year old but as time went on and I had more experiences with my Uncle Chris, I understood how the drugs impacted him and how when he did not have them, he was a completely different person. Over the years, Uncle Chris lost his family of three kids and his wife who divorced him and took the kids with her due to his drug addiction and his inability to be an attentive and involved father. He was left with no one except his family and primarily my Grandfather and Grandmother who allowed him to stay in their house while he looked for a clinic to get himself clean. Sometimes he was clean, then he would fall off the wagon if he lost his job or had a falling out with a girlfriend, then he would pick himself back up again and get clean at the nearest methadone clinic, and the vicious cycle would continue. My Grandparents were beside themselves. They continuously sent him to methadone clinics to get clean, but there was more that could have been done. Everyone would say, if we call the police on him and he gets locked up in jail, it would be the best thing for him because he would get clean there. Our family did not have the money and he did not have the insurance for an intake at a mental health therapeutic setting or retreat with others who suffered the way he did. That wasn’t the only issue with my Uncle’s whole ordeal. Many just believed he had a “drug addiction” rather than looking at the neurological and mental health issues that could have caused the drug addiction to happen in the first place. If family members, friends, and society were more accepting of recognizing He wound up getting a new girlfriend down in Florida where my Grandparents lived and he moved in with her. No one in our family knew anything about this woman or what she was capable of and what she was into. A few times she had reached out to my Grandparents letting them know that everything was well with Uncle Chris and that he was getting clean but as you know, we’ve heard this story many times before in his life. I know my Uncle Chris was feeling beaten down and defeated. He couldn’t find work, he was having trouble holding a steady job, and his kids who he loved and treated with respect for most of their lives regardless of his condition did not want to speak to him or reach out to him. He was crushed, depressed, heartbroken, and I can imagine he felt like he went down the rabbit hole. Too uneducated in the area of mental health to understand what was happening to him, and everyone around him was uneducated in the area of mental health to support him in the way he needed. Was this a fair fight for him? Fast forward to a few days before Thanksgiving, the year 2005. My grandparents were up from Florida visiting us in New York along with my Dad’s brother, Uncle Jim, and his wife and my cousin Melissa. We had a full house for the holidays, which was just the way we liked it. The home phone rang a few days prior to Thanksgiving and my Dad picked up the phone. I remember him saying, “hello……hello…..hello?” Finally, my Uncle Chris spoke up over the phone sounding tired and exhausted and told him that he wanted to apologize to my Dad for making his life a “living hell” over the years and told him that he really appreciated him as a person, a friend, and a brother. When my Dad got off the phone, I remember saying he had a very eerie feeling about the whole phone call. It was out of the blue and completely unexpected. My Uncle Chris never called my Dad or reached out to him especially since he moved to Florida. My Dad said the phone call gave him goosebumps, but he didn’t think anything of it at the time and moved along with life. Two days later, we received another strange phone call on our house phone on Thanksgiving Day. It was Uncle Chris’s new girlfriend on the other end. My Dad picked up the phone and when he asked who it was the woman replied, “I know your brother very well, can I please, please speak to your mother or father?” My Dad got nervous, said she sounded frantic, and immediately handed the phone to my grandmother. Her speech was muffled coming out of the receiver that was glued to my grandmother’s ear but our whole family was in the kitchen trying to listen in on the conversation – or lack thereof (on my Grandma’s end anyway.) I remember my Grandma’s face turning white, and she dropped right to her knees sobbing with her head in her hands as the receiver plunged to the ground losing its plastic covering to the speaker as it hit the ground. My Grandma was inconsolable. My Dad grabbed the phone off the floor and began to speak to the mysterious woman on the other end. She told him that she had gone out grocery shopping and when she came back, my Uncle Chris was lying on the couch with a black, leather belt wrapped around his bicep tightly, and a needle with a syringe stuck in his skin. All around him were liquid and powder. She cried and said when she got home, she found him unconscious. She did CPR, tried to wake him up, but by the time she got home, it was too late. My Uncle Chris was reported dead of a “drug overdose” the next day by the coroner. He had used his “buddies” from the methadone clinic to buy more drugs off of them, and he took too much. Was it a fair fight? My Dad found out after his passing that other family members received mysterious phone calls from my Uncle Chris as well, a few days before he passed away. My Dad always said he thought maybe it was suicide because the circumstances were just “too weird,” but the coroner declared a drug overdose. Was it a fair fight? The mind is a powerful organ. If your brain is lacking a certain chemical (serotonin,) or you have a need to feel happiness, energy, and a high all the time, you are more prone to drug addiction. When you are feeling empty, often drugs have the ability to alter your state of mind to give you that satisfaction and happiness that your brain was lacking to begin with. Most mental illnesses are linked to drug addiction. They go hand in hand. This is what happened to my Uncle Chris, he was an undiagnosed mentally ill man who relied heavily on drugs to keep him “normal” and alive. As a disclaimer, my Uncle Chris was the most amazing Uncle when he was off of the drugs and on the drugs. His mind was manipulated to believe that he needed the drugs to be the best version of himself and that just was not true. He was fun, a character, always tried to be a good father and do the right thing, and always tried to “get right” at methadone clinics. Had he gotten the help he needed, from a psychiatrist, psychologist, retreat, or mental health clinic, he may have had the chance to be the best version of himself without having to poison himself with toxins and drugs. I don’t blame anyone for his death, but I do advocate heavily for mental health awareness because often, society thinks a person is weak if they have a mental health illness, and that is not the case. As a matter of fact, in my opinion, you are a strong person if you can admit that you have a problem and you need help. By coming to terms with this, you admit that you want to be the best version of yourself for you, your family, your friends, your colleagues, etc, and that is what it’s all about. I challenge you as a reader to think about whether or not it was a fair fight for my Uncle Chris who was battling mental illness and drug addiction. Was it a fair fight for him?