Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Couch Surfer

My brother Mark and I have always had a love/hate relationship. I love him and he hates me.

I am the oldest of six and ruled over my siblings without mercy. Being the oldest of six in a fatherless family I felt like I was the dad, responsible for every one's well being, but omnipotent and all knowing. My brother Mark, being two and three quarter years my junior, bore the brunt of my out of control ego. He dealt with my hubris in two ways. He was contrary to everything I was. If I liked the Red Sox, he liked the Yankees. If I wanted peanut butter and fluff, he wanted peanut butter and jelly. His other coping mechanism was humor. He developed a keen sense of humor which diffused almost any situation. He was almost like a super hero with the power to change situations through laughter. Teachers, police, my family, even myself; no one was immune to his ability to turn the tables and make the most dire of circumstances light, thus diffusing the situation. His manipulative abilities were so great that he felt bulletproof...until he was firing bullets at himself.

When we became adults our paths diverged. I eschewed the self destructive coping mechanisms that I utilized to get me through our tumultuous upbringing. I confronted my demons. I disavowed escapism. I learned how to live in the present. Mark did not. He reveled in his self destruction like a circus acrobat, working the high wire without a net. The problem is when you finally fall, with no net, its going to hurt, a lot. Maybe kill. At some point I gave up on ever having a normal, adult relationship with him which, in my definition, includes reciprocity, acceptance and understanding. His dishonesty, drug use and lack of empathy, while understandable with our fucked up childhood, was unacceptable for me now, as an adult.

Shortly after I married my wife in 1992, my brother skipped town. He owed people money, he was in trouble with the law, so he went as far south as he could to escape his troubles, Key West. I don't know much about his exploits in the Keys except for the bullshit stories about his lavish spending and tales of debauchery. He moved around quite a bit in his fifteen years as he never had the same number or address for more than a few months. Occasionally he would leave the Keys to escape troubles, dry out or look for more trouble.

On Easter Sunday the spring of 2007 I got a phone call from Mark, the first call in many years. It was the first time we talked since a year after my mothers death in 1999 when he was on a drug fueled binge and he called me to let me know he was coming to get me for all the times I wronged him while growing up. At first he sounded like a WWF wrestler, calling out his opponent with pedantic, hackneyed insults. Then it got dark. I hung up after he started talking about chopping me up into bits. Although I knew that his rock induced tirade was full of empty threats, I was done. With my mother dead and buried I think he subconsciously assumed her mantle of guilt and insecurity. While speaking with him that Easter I sensed a vulnerability and resignation that I hadn't sensed in him since we were huddled together up in our bedroom, frighteningly listening to our parents fist fight in the parlor down below. I knew he had to be dire straits to reach out to me, his sworn enemy. His oppressor. He talked about spending the past few months living and working in a devastated post Katrina New Orleans and that he wanted to come home, to Massachusetts. Within a month he made it up north, with his ex-stripper girlfriend in tow, but ended up in New Hampshire, suicidal and alone, when she ran off with one of his associates. Eventually they succumbed to their codependency and reunited.

She and he eventually made their way to Northampton where they burrowed their way into my sister's home, just across town. This wasn't the first time he stayed there for an extended period. Numerous times since my mother's death he stayed with her when he had no where else to go and needed some family connection. In previous visits he never completely burned his bridges occasionally getting drunk and obnoxious, but never exhausting my sister's hospitality. This time was different. He was losing his mind. Eventually she had to ask him to leave. As usual he got his shit together long enough to find a place to live and get a job working nights. This was short lived. His grandiosity, paranoia and boorishness crescendoed in early September when on a warm, late summer morning I awoke to find him sitting in a chair on my backyard deck. He didn't look right. He said he had been drinking all night. He said he wanted to die. He couldn't understand how he had lost his girlfriend, his place to live, his pride. He repeatedly lamented his decisions over the past 20 years.

It was time to pay the piper.

Years of avoidance and diversions had taken their toll and he could no longer run from the one person who could catch him, himself. I spent the day listening to his epiphanies and self analysis. I suggested that I bring him to the hospital so he could get some professional help. He vehemently declined not wanting to be compared to my mother who had spent some time on the "Fifth Floor". I fed him dinner and let him sleep on my couch with the understanding that he needed to leave and find a place to stay in the morning. He spent the next week couch surfing, staying with whoever would take him in. The next weekend I received a number of frantic calls from my sister's who had been spending a similar day with their brother to the one I had experienced a week earlier. This time he relented and agreed to be hospitalized.

After a few days, I went to see him. He greeted me with a huge hug and went into a 15-minute diatribe about his new diagnoses and his insistence that now that his problems of codependency and drug dependency have been identified then he would be fine. He looked like a new man, so much so, I agreed to let him stay with me until he could find a place to live. My wife was shocked. I vowed years earlier when I received that crazy, crack fueled phone call that I would never have anything to do with him ever again. Was I a bad brother? Did I treat him badly? Have I really been there for him? My own guilt was kicking in.

I picked him up from the hospital and immediately lay down the ground rules: no drinking, no drugs, we get your whole paycheck to hold for you until you get your own place, follow your post admission plan which included A.A. meetings and therapy, no contact with your Ex. He agreed to them all. The first few weeks were great. He helped around the house during the day, went to meetings in the afternoon and worked all night. We watched the Sox in the playoffs and the Pats in the midst of their 18-0 run. He played with his nephews constantly, waking up each morning to their smiling faces staring at him nose to nose, while he awoke on the couch. We spent mornings drinking coffee, talking politics, religion and recollecting happier times. Best of all he made me laugh. He is the one person who could always make me crack up whether it be in church, making faces during the priests sermon or at home mimicking my mother's scolding. This was the brother I always wished I had. In confidence, I told my wife that he could stay as long as he wanted.

Then he missed a nights work. Then another. Then a meeting. He started sleeping longer and longer some days never leaving the couch. He was starting to act erratic again. When confronted about his backslide he became defensive. One night when I was at work my wife got a call from him that he needed a ride home from downtown. He was drunk. When I got home and no one was there, I knew what had happened. I called her and she confirmed my suspicions. I waited for him on my porch and pounced on him immediately upon exiting my wife's car. He denied drinking even though I could smell the booze emanating from every pour. I threw him to the ground and held him there until I realized that this is what he wanted. He needed an excuse for his fuck up. I let him go and told him to leave.

The next day he apologized and I, against my gut feeling, let him back into my home. His regression continued, unabated. Supposedly his hours were cut at work, his therapy was cut back and his A.A. meeting times had changed. He was prepping to go. He was supposed to set up an appointment to get an abscessed tooth fixed. When he didn't go to his appointment he tried to say they wouldn't take his insurance. I called his employer and they said he hadn't been to work in days and was not yet eligible for insurance. I called the dentists office; he had never made an appointment. I knew the end was near.

He spent all Halloween Day lying on the couch. As the kids dressed in their costumes he took a shower to get ready for "work" and "therapy". I dropped him off at his therapy group and went back to soak in the ghoulish festivities. The next morning he was no where to be found. The couch was empty. I left for the gym with the boys and wondered if he would be back. When we got home just past noon I made the boys a sandwich and sat down at the computer to do some work. I heard some noise from the back deck and found my brother snoring in a deck chair. I went back to my computer and a minute later He came in the house and went straight to the bathroom. Sensing something was wrong I went to the back door to see if there was any sign of drinking or drugs. There was a piece of paper towel on fire on the table inches from freshly fallen leaves which were strewn all over the deck. I ran into the bathroom and burst in screaming at him to get his ass out to the deck to see what he had done. He ran out and swatted out the flames with his sleeve. I stood there, smouldering, while he sat back in the chair, emotionless. I asked him what the fuck was wrong with him. He didn't answer. I grabbed him out of the chair and jacked him up against the wall. An audible crack sounded when his head and torso broke the vinyl siding. I threw him into the backyard with him screaming "What did I do, what did I do?". "You tried to burn my fucking house down, get the fuck out and don't ever come back here." He walked down the street and I watched him turn the corner. I went back in the house where the boys had napped through the drama. As I gazed upon their sleeping faces I realized that this was not the place for him. My house, my wife, my kids were constant reminders of what he didn't have. Stability, piece of mind, home. I packed up his stuff and put it outside the garage door.

When my wife got home I filled her in on the afternoon's events. I decided to fire up the leaf blower and blow all the leaves from my deck. As I started to blow the leaves from my front yard a siren pierced the quiet of the grey All Saints Day afternoon. The cop car turned down the street next to mine which parallels the park. I had a bad feeling. Yelling to my wife who was in the kitchen I told her that I had to check out something and would be right back. As I turned down Arch Street I could see a firetruck, an ambulance and two cruisers. My heart inched up into my throat. I drove by the scene, rubbernecking, but couldn't tell what was going on. One of the firemen on the scene directing traffic was a friend of mine who said a jogger found some guy in the park. I knew it was him.

The next morning he called. He told me that when he left my house he went to the liquor store, pounded down a fifth of Vodka and passed out in the park near my house. The police PC'd him and let him go at about 4 AM. He wandered the streets till he called me. I grabbed his stuff, put the boys in the car and drove to meet him. He got in my car. He was crying. He kept saying "I've got to go, I've got to go". "You do", I agreed.

We drove to the bank so he could cash a paycheck and then to Dunkin' Donuts. I drove him to the bus station as if I was driving him to the gas chamber. When we got to the parking lot I got out and hugged him. He leaned in the car and gave the boys a kiss. I started to well up, but willed it back. "I'll see you again, It'll be OK, I'll see you again", he tried to reassure me. I knew he was telling one last lie.

His bus wasn't leaving town until later that afternoon. When my wife got home from work I returned to the bus station. I sat, unseen, on a fire escape overlooking the bus station. I wasn't sure if I was there to make sure he got on the bus safely or just making sure he got on the bus. As the cue formed at the bus for Springfield, Mark leaned on the brick bus station wall talking to a girl wearing a backpack, working his magic, spinning some yarn. He left a parting shot and dashed for the line. Once he got on the bus I crept down the fire escape and walked back toward my car. As the bus passed me I stopped, staring at the tinted windows, hoping that he knew that I was there.


Mushy said...

What the hell does one say except...sorry dude...sorry you are living this.

I pray things get better, before one of you is gone.

Dirty Red said...


This was deep. You sure you was not prepping us for the screen play you are getting paid to write?

All I can say is damn.

I can relate. I have a couisin that put my family through the same shit. But at least your story has a light at the end of the tunnel, your brother is still able to turn his shit around. My cousin was found shot execution style in a park in the Bronx.

Are you sure we are not related?
Because man I swear your story and mine sounds so similiar.


Your Sox... Damn... What can I say?
If they keep playing like they played last night... Another ring.

Andraste said...

This is a beautifully written and heartbreaking post.

I have a friend with a similar situation going on with his brother - it's been going on for YEARS. It's the same M.O. - they change their behavior juuuuust long enough to give you hope, then they regress and it breaks your heart. And it'll always be someone else's fault...The sad truth is that we are all our own worst enemies - it's just that some people hate themselves more than they love others.

I admire and commend your patience and loyalty. Sounds like you've been on the same roller coaster my friend has...

Melinda said...

Like the rest of the commenters said, I greatly admire the faith and care you have shown your brother. It's not easy to watch a family member do things that you know are terribly wrong. To watch them take advantage of people you love. To watch them go down a path that will probably lead to even worse things.

I hope sharing this story has helped you.

*hugs & prayers*

Suldog said...

Ah, Cuz. You know how this hit me. Some of the same sorry situations I went through with our cousin, Joey. Your situation with your brother is deeper, of course, but you know that I know what you're feeling. What can I say except God Bless you both? If you ever want or need a shoulder...

David Sullivan said...

Thanks all. Besides a few drunken late night phone calls, I haven't heard hide nor hair from him, so all I can assume is that he is doing the same. As hackneyed as I find the Serenity Prayer, I've got to say that changing what you can, accepting what you can't and knowing what you can change and can't is the key to dealing with most any problem. I always have hope that someday he'll stop running from himself and find some inner peace.

and DR, its not out of the realm of possiblity that we are related; the Sullivan's are known for indiscriminantly spilling their seed, especially my old man, 9 kids (that we know of).

Los Angelista said...

Reading about your brother made me feel like I was reading about mine. Addiction is such a cruel mistress. It steals the souls till we're left with these strangers that care about nothing and no one.

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How about a blog entitled "no turd left behind" or maybe "pubis on the soap bar"


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