I ask my sister, Katie, “How did you start using heroin?”
She says, “A friend told me it was cheaper than pain pills and had the same effect.”
I’ve been sitting with a Buddhist Lama each week for almost ten years.
He’s a retired cowboy. Wearing his long silver hair pulled back in a neat ponytail—always dressed in boots, pressed shirts and jeans. His movements are slow, his words intentional—practiced over forty years of counseling families, couples, and individuals.
Tonight, there are eight of us sitting with him. A Doctor, a nurse, a professor, a violin maker, a writer, parents, college students, teachers. Everyone is listening intently, straight spines, sitting on small round cushions, looking directly at him.
He starts, “Once you reify, you disorganize.”
My mind darts to a phone call earlier that day with Katie.
When she said, “I’m not using”—even though she was slurring her speech and blending her words—on the day she has to go to court for the custody of her kids.
Hearing her fumble over each word, I tried to deepen my breath. To feel into my body—the gripping around my heart, grabbing around my shoulders, clenching of my teeth. But quicker than an instant my entire neurobiological system was hijacked by a surge of frustration making me snap, “Are you fucking high?” before I hung up on her.
Shutting her out is so practiced in each of my nerve endings. Developed over a lifetime of witnessing our mom struggle with and then die from opioid addiction.
I mistakenly believe it’s the only way I can survive this, again.
The stories of how Katie and I were when we were little, are more family tales than my own memory.
Like the one my dad used to tell of how when Katie was a newborn, and I was five, I would pinch her awake in her bassinet making her cry, telling him, “Look, she’s a bad baby, we should return her.”
Or the story Katie tells of how I would wrestle her to the ground, climb on top of her, and tickle her until she answered, “Whose number one?”
Or the one she tells that always makes us laugh—I would ask to give her a make-over, then cover her face with dark black eyebrows, the rosiest cheeks, and big, bright red lips.
On the phone, I ask Katie what she remembers.
She says you were young, too.
“It wasn’t fair you were given so much responsibility.”
She means how for a few years when Mom was at her worst, I was the one who took care of her.
She says she remembers me, maybe nine or ten, her four or five, fighting one of my brother’s friends away from her, off of her bed, and out of her room.
I research the cause of addiction.
I find definitions explaining drug dependence. How pain pills affect the amount of oxygen your brain gets. How they slow your breathing. How they affect the levels of dopamine your brain can make. How you need more and more of them to get high.
I call Katie to share this with her.
I’m trying to convince her to stick with withdrawal while her brain recalibrates. While she swings between depression and anxiety. While she shakes and sweats and trembles.
She’s crying when she says, “It even hurts to pee.”
I ask, “Did you know that too much Oxy effects how much oxygen your brain gets?”
She’s quiet now, but I can hear her breathing on the phone.
I feel desperate and say, “Your breathing will become erratic, then shallow, then cease.”
I want her to be afraid, like me, for her life.
I don’t realize she is already afraid. Always afraid. Afraid of losing her battle with addiction. Afraid of losing her children. Afraid of ending up in jail or on the streets. Afraid of disappointing us—her family—once again. This is the cycle she is caught in.
I am attempting to use fear and facts knitted up tightly together to somehow shake or wake her out of this cycle.
Neither approach ever works.
Neither approach ever will.
I read about the opioid epidemic—how drug overdose is the leading cause of death among Americans under fifty. How four out of five heroin users started out misusing painkillers. How there are an estimated one hundred deaths a day because of opioids.
I research projections for the next ten years and find—they are bleak.
Two hundred and fifty deaths a day, and over the next decade as many as six hundred and fifty thousand
will die from an opioid overdose.
I watch documentaries about small-town hero’s fighting for access to Naloxone—the anti-overdose medication—and how they rally for more access to rehabilitation centers, and even transportation to those centers.
I learn hospitals are reimbursed according to how well the clinicians do controlling pain—payment incentives. How drug companies founded groups called The American Academy of Pain Management and The American Pain Society, which set the guidelines for doctors prescribing pain pills for long-term use.
I discover health insurers cover narcotics, but not things like chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, and counselors.
I hear about how multiple doses of Naloxone are now needed because heroin is cut with
Fentanyl which is sometimes one thousand times more potent than heroin.
I know a Buddhist teacher who overdosed and died on a Fentanyl-cut opioid in his car.
They are doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, and middle-schoolers.
They are my mom.
They are my sister.
None of these facts matter when I talk to Katie.
The Lama says we are taught to always engage what is happening, yet not how to recognize how we distort it with our own reactivity.
When I read about the influence of drug companies on our legislation, healthcare, and doctors, I have to get up, get out, and hike up a mountain, just to move some of the anger I feel out of my eyes, ears, and hands.
I won’t bring this anger, this reactivity, to my phone conversations with Katie.
I drop the research I’ve done about the prescribed Zubsolv she’s taking—how it makes you feel intoxicated, nauseous, and sweaty.
Another fucking doctor prescribing her more Ativan.
Her aversion to her lawyer, the judge, and her new parole officer.
I keep my balance as she shifts from saying she’s not using to how she just called her dealer. “She’s pissed I’m trying to get sober. Says I’ll be calling her soon.”
All of my movements are an attempt not to distort.
An attempt to clearly see and care for my reactivity.
An attempt to somehow, someway, be there for her.
The Lama says, “I assume your sister feels alone and afraid. How can you meet her need for connection?”
“But she’s so toxic; I can’t even talk to her. I won’t talk to her ever again if I can avoid it,” Sarah, a fellow practitioner, replies.
The Lama leans forward the way he does when he wants you to hear him, to understand him. He drops his head slightly so that he can look at Sarah directly, over the rim of his glasses.
Slowly, seriously he says, “From a mindfulness and Buddhist perspective you can’t abandon your sister. You can’t abandon anyone. If she is in your life, you have a karmic connection.”
There are a directness and gravity to his words that make Sarah start to quietly nod her head yes.
He holds eye contact with her for a silent moment and then says, “This will deepen your affection for your sister and others.”
My days are tied to my newborn daughter’s naps—twice a day—each time for two to three hours.
During most of her naps, I stretch out on the floor in the room next to hers to practice what the Lama calls mindfulness—relaxing and opening to what is.
What I see is an endless spiraling of losing and finding my attention.
Losing—I’m in a torrent river of chatter and fear. Finding—I get glimpses of a simple aliveness that’s tender and spacious.
The moments I’m brave enough to relax into that space, I wonder—is it possible to live in this groundlessness? With such a tender and unprotected heart?
Katie’s Summer and now Fall have been in constant motion—
She has left her husband, Scott.
They have sold their home.
She has sold Mom’s wedding ring.
She has already spent her money from the house.
She has spent the money from Mom’s ring.
She has moved to Ohio.
She has left Ohio.
She has moved in with Dad and Debbie.
She has wrecked into a semi.
She is out of the hospital.
She is stealing Debbie’s jewelry.
She is stealing Dad’s medicine.
She is stealing Debbie’s family’s medicine.
Dad says I already did this with your Mom— “I’m not doing it again with your sister.”
During the holidays—
Katie spends a week in a state hospital
one month in rehab,
and after passing out at a red light,
four months in jail.
Finally, her movement stops.
I remember seeing this term several times in the journals my mother kept while she was in rehab.
Katie says they’ve been talking about it at her meetings.
I decide to pull it up online.
A list of rehabilitation centers fills my feed.
I click on the first one and read, Terminal Uniqueness is the belief that the situation the individual is facing is unlike anything faced by other people. It’s called terminal because thinking this way can get people killed.
A small window pops up on the right corner of the website—a counselor asks if I want to live chat. I close the site and click on a blog post titled, “Do you suffer from terminal uniqueness?”
It’s an uncomfortable feeling rooted in self-centeredness. You think that no one is the same as you, and although that is true to a point, if you approach meetings with an open mind you find that there are more similarities than differences. You aren’t really all that unique.
I think of what the Lama says at the end of every one of his talks— “This is the View.”
By this, he means, Right View. Thoughts of a separate solid self in time and space, apart from nature and one another are an illusion. We are more interconnected than we are separate—the opposite of Terminal Uniqueness.
The Lama says, “Right View is like putting on glasses. Clear seeing compensates for the distortion of separateness.” It reminds me of what my Environmental Studies professor used to say, “There is no them, there is only us.”
To see clearly when Katie calls, I need to position myself by a window. As she rages over how unfair her life is and how she doesn’t understand how she has gotten to this point—I need to be able to see the wind moving the trees. The sun lighting up the hollyhocks. The hummingbirds moving back and forth between the feeder and the flowers. I need to see the aliveness, goodness of the present moment with my eyes to help me remember my own and hers.
To hold this view even though she may not remember.
To see and hear and remember her intelligent aliveness.
To call out to it, while I practice staying rooted in my own.
The Lama warns us of concepts—he says they are like maps and menus.
You can’t hike the map; you shouldn’t eat the menu.
Yet, often words and phrases jump at me—grab at me—getting into my system and taking root. Slowly, they begin to grow, revealing old neurological systems, covertly operating.
When he says, “Neuroception Of Safety,” my breath leaves my body for almost an entire minute.
I don’t know the definition, but my neurobiology buzzes and hums.
Katie tells me her counselor has been talking to her about trauma—how our bodies and minds are intelligent and will shut out everything—even love— to protect us in ways we’re not even conscious of.
Katie says, “I didn’t know my body could do that.”
Again, my body says, “Yes.”
Katie’s body, eight months pregnant, waiting for me at the house after mom died.
She was sitting on the overstuffed fuchsia chair in our parents living room. When I walked in, she stood slowly, outstretched her arms past her huge belly, and tilted her head to one side. The look on her face was one of instant understanding, and empathy, and sorrow—but there were no tears.
Before Katie’s body was made, our father had been cheating on our mother. They went to their Catholic priest for support and guidance, and he strongly, confidently recommended they have a baby to help save the marriage.
This was the family joke for many years—Katie was supposed to save the marriage.
Now, my heart moans, creaks, and breaks under the pressure of these words—save the marriage. When I let myself feel the break, a clear message moves through my lungs, across my vagus nerve, into my nervous system, directly to my brain, almost instantaneously uprooting all assumptions I have about addicts.
On the phone, Katie says she’s afraid to visit. Afraid she’ll run out of pills and go into withdrawal.
We’re both quiet for just a moment, then I say, “It’s okay, Katie. We’ll visit when you’re ready.”
She says, “I know. Thanks, Becca.”
A familiar tender ache in my heart starts when I realize she’s crying.
Studies say the opposite of addiction is connection. “It’s not a substance disorder, it’s a social disorder” is the new paradigm.
She says, “I miss you.”
I miss her, too.
I say, “I’ll call soon.”
Hanging up feels almost impossible, making the ache in my heart deepen.
A breaking heart is intelligent—quietly, yet continually informing me of how to show up for and love my sister, moment by moment.
To be here for Katie, means to feel this break continually.
Rebecca Brenner lives in Park City, UT. She is currently finishing her first memoir, The Architecture of a Mother.