Choosing Kindness in the Face of Challenge
A story of sibling support to a life with PTSD
As a sibling of someone that lives with PTSD I have been asked to contribute to this month's PTSD focus. I only hope that what I have to say may help another family in some small way. In being asked to write something I was told that I was chosen because I had demonstrated resilience both individually and as someone who helps support and empower loved ones with PTSD. To be honest I am glad that this is what I portray and I’m thankful that most days I would agree. It has been a challenging journey however with many struggles to date but also many triumphs.
One day at a time...
My brother came to live with me February 20th, 2019. This date is forever etched into my mind for both positive and negative reasons. Let’s start with the negative. Before February of 2019 I had resigned myself to the fact that I had lost my brother. The incredible human that I looked up too as a “baby” sister (we differ in age by 10 years). When I was only 8, he joined the army and proudly headed off to serve our country. He and my family couldn’t have been prouder. After 20+ years of service and the trauma that comes with the life and exposure of a soldier, both at home and during tours abroad, his drinking got heavier and heavier.
After being medically retired from service due to an inner ear disorder that meant he could no longer serve, my brother’s drinking got so much worse. With him living in Manitoba, it was difficult to truly understand the extent of his alcoholism from my home in Ontario. I knew he was in grave trouble when he stopped calling and wouldn’t answer his phone. Alcohol had become his life and he cut off all of our family. We would all try to reach him and after silence for sometimes months, our nephew would come into Winnipeg from remote northern Manitoba to check on him, met with hostility and driven away almost immediately. In February of 2018 my brother was hospitalized after being found out cold in a park in Winnipeg at -30. Doctors initially thought he’d suffered a stroke. He lost the use of his legs and his left side and he was in a state similar to dementia and suffered frostbite. Doctors weren’t sure he would ever walk again.
I immediately got on a plane and met other family members at the hospital where it was painfully obvious that after a gamut of tests with inconclusive results that we were looking at the effects of our loved ones alcoholism, doctors named it a “Neurological episode”. We pleaded with him to stop drinking and with the doctors to please get him help for his drinking. Doctors assured us that was not their problem nor concern and they released him as soon as he could stand at a counter and fry an egg. To the professionals this warranted his release after a 4 month stay. It didn’t concern them that he was still delirious and referring to conversations and visits with family that had been dead for years. Nor were they concerned that he required a walker and had steps at home and no equipment to make his home accessible for him. The hospital called him a cab and sent him on his way, we only knew he’d been released because the caring social worker at the hospital called to warn me. His first stop …. his local bar. It broke my heart to watch someone I loved killing themselves but no amount of pleading could change his ways and his drinking got even worse. After another twelve months he had spent every dime on booze. I was paralyzed with fear when my cell rang February 14th, 2019 from a Manitoba number that I didn’t recognize. I was sure someone was calling to tell me my brother was dead.
I was so relieved when I heard my brother’s voice. He was calling from a neighbour’s phone to tell me that he’d lost everything. His car had been repossessed and the bank was sending the sheriff to evict him from his home which was being sold at auction. I think it was the realization that he was truly homeless and penniless that finally had him “hit bottom”. I’d been told by friends when I struggled to support my brother from a distance that he would need to “hit bottom” before he would accept help, I prayed that time would come before his death. I immediately booked a flight to Winnipeg, scared shitless, no plan and no idea what was next, but knowing in my heart that if the tables were turned, he’d do exactly the same for me.
Now in caregiver mode, I started placing calls. First, to one of my closest friends who I knew worked for DND and hoped could help. Turns out Rebecka was THE person I needed. As soon as I explained the situation she had names and numbers of contacts for me in Winnipeg and I was able to book appointments before my plane touched down.
When I arrived at my brother’s house I was brought to tears immediately. The big brother and protector I had known had been reduced to a shell of his former self. He was a gaunt skeleton, grey and so overwhelmed he couldn’t speak. I was shaken to the core by how much he looked like my 83 year old father on his deathbed at only age 56.
Although we both thought my brother had hit bottom it wasn’t until we headed to the detox unit of the hospital after a doctor referral that we learned of a whole new level of “bottom”. After visiting Veteran’s Affairs and explaining our situation, the case manager was working to get my brother a bed in a rehab program after completing detox. With only a suitcase in hand and a ready mindset to quit drinking my brother was turned away from detox, told they were already full and to try back tomorrow but they would make no promises even then. We were both in shock and devastated. We both started to cry. We didn’t know what to do next. He had finally agreed to accept help and reached out only to be rejected. There was nothing else to do but bring him home, to Ontario, where we had a network of people that I knew could help so I bought my brother a ticket and we flew home that afternoon. I was terrified of the potential dangers of taking someone in his frail state onto a plane but I didn’t see any other option and with a plan, a feeling of relief after his ordeal and a sense of hope we headed to the airport. My brother did have a couple of drinks before getting on the plane because I was terrified of the impact of him quitting drinking abruptly without medical supervision, but those were the last drinks he had to this date.
Here is where our story swings to the positive. Once we arrived home and had the support of amazing family and friends the healing could begin. My first concern was helping support my brother’s sobriety in a way that would be effective for him and give him the power to take back his life from a truly evil disease. I didn’t mention this earlier but my brother had been through rehab twice prior at the military’s “request”. Obviously it did not work for my brother. He hated the experience and drank immediately after both stays. This told me we needed a new approach. He was so relieved when we talked and I told him how he got sober was his choice. He decided to try Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He’d been before, but thought going to meetings and living at home would better support him than being immersed into an on site rehab. Now I know that just the thought of going back to rehab was putting him into a panicked state and he was reliving the trauma of being unsuccessful in the past. To help my brother feel supported and not alone I went to AA with him. I learned that anyone can attend what are called Open meetings. Stepping into that first meeting, although not an addict, gave me so much more empathy for my brother. It was scary as hell. My mind raced wondering if we were being judged, not knowing where to sit, what to do, feeling like an outsider. I am so extremely grateful for those first meetings and the amazing people within. My brother and I couldn’t have been more welcomed and made to feel at home immediately. People introduced themselves and made us feel at ease without knowing anything about us, no judgement. Some people, outside of AA, found it a bit funny that I was going to 3 or 4 meetings a week with my brother but that was the only way I felt that I could support him at that time, when he was so vulnerable and fragile. This was all new to me and I just remembered thinking if it gets him to go somewhere that can help, “I’m in”. With time my brother felt more at home and began attending more and more Closed meetings at AA (for people with a desire to stop drinking). If you are a family member of someone that struggles with addiction I highly recommend you attend an Open meeting. If nothing else, I truly believe it will help give you some perspective and maybe some insight into what your loved one is experiencing and if you have a desire to stop drinking there are people in those rooms that are there to help. One of the most important lessons I have taken from AA is to live in the present because yesterday has passed and tomorrow hasn’t arrived so both are out of our control. This perspective is something that I knew immediately that I needed to apply in my life, worrying about what is out of our control only brings us anxiety and stress.
It has now been 1 year, 4 months and 6 days of sobriety for my brother. This is a tremendous accomplishment and I couldn’t be prouder of him, but this has been a marathon rather than a short distance race. We’ve learned so much about PTSD and its effects on everyone it touches. It was addiction that led us to psychological assessments which uncovered my brother’s PTSD and we are only ankle deep in uncovering the extent of its effects. More than an accomplishment, I think my brother’s sobriety has been a choice. In my experience many choices we make require hard work and dedication. Like many of the effects of PTSD, addiction being only one, how we choose to address and react are daily choices we all face. Some days are much harder than others at my house, but no matter how hard the challenge the one thing we have is a choice in how we respond. Choose kind… and remember that means for others and ourselves!