My Friends, Misery and Guilt

For Kenny, Sylvia & Garrett

I’ve been called miserable. Both to my face and behind my back. If I’m being honest there is some truth to it. I am miserable. Well, I don’t think I’m miserable, exactly. I like watching the sun set. When I can’t sleep, I like to go and watch it rise. I love the people near me. I try my best to be good to those people and I try my best to be good to myself. I think people who are truly miserable can’t see the things that I see. I sometimes fear that I see too much. At any given moment I could tear up at how much good there is in the world. At how much beauty there is. I see it all.

My problem was that, I don’t like to.

Who am I to bask in the beauty of the world when he can’t?

Who am I to see his little boy grow up first hand while he can’t?

Who am I to dream of a wedding, when he never had his?

Who am I to enjoy my days, or better yet, not enjoy my days, while he can’t?

Who am I to be happy, without him?

It’s not misery, its guilt. I constantly feel guilty. On the days I’m happy, I feel guilty. On the days that I’m sad, I feel guilty. For every beautiful moment, I feel pain. When I see his little boy laugh his head off, my heart aches for him. When I watched my sister marry the love of her life, my mind was looking for my brother to be there with us, only to remember he isn’t. When I look over at my boyfriend, sleeping peacefully, remembering all the love he so freely gives, I tear up realizing all of that love is also within me and some of it with nowhere to go. When all of this pain and guilt bottles up inside me, my subconscious will find something literal to take it out on. After a great weekend with my boyfriend, I’ll pick a fight. After a day I felt very confident, my brain will pick my body apart. When school or my job would go well, I would consider dropping out or quitting. It happens like clockwork. And sometimes I don’t even realize what’s happening

I was once told, “I feel like you like feeling this way.”

And in a way, they’re right.

I enjoy pain with something physically in front of me more than the pain of something that’s only mentally and emotionally there. It’s easier to fight with someone in front of me than yell inside my head. It’s easier to look at something and say, “Ah! This is why I’m mad (or sad)” instead of trying to argue with parts of my brain or things that can’t even respond to me.

Like I said, it’s not misery. It’s guilt.

Since I was 12 years old, I always feared my brother would die. Not Garrett, just Kenny. Not that I don’t care for Garrett the same, because I do with all my heart. But I never prematurely feared Garrett’s death. Or Sylvia’s. Just Kenny’s. His addiction only grew worse and worse. And throughout my middle school career, almost monthly, we watched documentaries on drug addictions and overdoses. I was always afraid he was going to die. I had this one very vivid dream when I was in 7th grade, and I’ve seen it a handful of times since. In the dream, I was in the main hallway of my middle school, no one else was there. I was standing there anxiously. When I looked down the hallway, I saw Kenny. He was standing there calmly without words. I started to walk towards him and the hallway stretched more and more, pulling him further away, the more I walked. When I stopped walking, a coffin appeared and Kenny climbed inside, and then, I woke up. Years later, I had a similar dream. But this time I was in a funeral home and I had to walk up to his casket and say goodbye. I kept my back turned to him crying and whispering, “it’s not him, it’s not him, it’s not him”. Only to turn around and have all of my hopes shattered. I tried desperately to put one foot in front of the other to approach his casket. Watching my feet with each step. Feeling like I was walking through Quick Sand. This dream ended up becoming my reality about eight years later.

Growing up, I never had anxiety. I was never really worried about what people thought of me or anxiously studying for a test. Nothing really bothered me too much. But I think that’s because I was always worried about my brother. Everything else was background noise compared to Kenny and his addiction. Now that Kenny’s gone, I think that worry is still within me, with nowhere to go. So, I worry about where he is. I worry if he is okay. I worry that he knows he is loved. But again, this becomes an extremely frustrating internal monologue. So, I switch the focus to myself. Again, worrying about my relationship, my body, my education, career, everything.

When I was younger, I always knew something was wrong when it came to Kenny. My mom once told me that with larger families, there’s a different bond between the oldest and the youngest. That was Kenny and I. I always knew he was in trouble. I would be sitting in school and start to feel weird. My lunch would stop tasting the way it was supposed to. Something just felt off. I would later come home to my mom telling us that Kenny was arrested, or in the hospital, or needed picked up right away. That usually meant someone with access to means of hurting someone pretty badly and getting away with it was angry with him. Typically, over money. After a few years, I began to realize the correlation between the weird stomach ache and Kenny being in trouble. As we got older, my mom tried to keep us separated from a lot of Kenny’s problems. She knew we would get upset with her always bailing him out or giving him a place to crash. So, she wouldn’t tell us what was going on unless it was very serious. In retrospect, they were all very serious. But, when you care for an addict, everything that once seemed so serious, like being arrested or having to pay off a drug dealer, is no longer that serious to you. You are just watching to make sure they survive the day. How ever the hell you have to do it, you just keep them alive. I never understood my mom’s ability to stick with him through it all. But that’s the unconditional love that only a mother knows.

Siblings are different. We have the ability to put up boundaries much easier than a mother does. It’s not like our brother started using and we cut the cord. We stuck around for a long time. I think Kenny had been addicted for about eight years before I started to push him away. Growing up, Kenny was my favorite person. Garrett was a maniac, typically hanging from trees or some shit. He was always hanging with all the boys in our neighborhood who, at that age, didn’t like that I was a girl. Sylvia was friends with all the girls in the neighborhood who were mostly around her age and were too cool to let me hang out with them. But Kenny was always there. I thought he was so cool, and more importantly, he thought I was cool. He would take me on drives with him. He would let me play with his guitars, but not the black, that’s the expensive one. And he would tell me, “Fuck them kids!” if I told him about a mean kid at school. I one time told him that someone called me ugly and he said,

“Do you think you’re ugly?”

I replied, “I don’t know but they said-”

He interjected, “No, I asked do you think you’re ugly?”

“I don’t know” I answered nervously.

He said, “Well, you better decide because whatever you think about yourself is true”

Kenny was always big on manifestation in a sense. What you believe is what it is, kind of thing.

“And who cares about that shit anyway. You’re cooler than those kids, Rach” He followed.

He was right.

But he wasn’t the same on drugs. When he was high, he could barely conversate, or if he could, it never made any sense. And if he wasn’t high, he was mean, until he could get another fix. He stole from me. He lied to me. He scared me. I thought he almost died, many times. And he always went back to drugs. It broke me every time. My wall slowly built over the years. It typically only came down when he was in prison. We always had a nice sigh of relief when Kenny was sentenced, which again is something only the family of an addict would understand, because it meant he was sober. Mostly. He once was telling me about how he got drunk the night prior. I was confused and asked how that was possible given that he was, ya know, in jail, and he said “we make it!” More employers should hire ex-cons because they are certainly innovative. But, besides the occasional batch of jailhouse booze, he was off the hard stuff. We would visit him and talk over weird prison recreation room vending machine hot pockets. He was his old self again. But, after a couple weeks of being out, he would fall back into his addiction. I stopped enjoying his sober moments because I knew they wouldn’t last. I distanced myself from my brother more and more as his addiction grew. I know I did it to protect myself, as most family members of addicts do. But to this day, at least once a day, I remember a time that I made it known I didn’t want to talk to him. Kenny was typically in jail or rehab during big events, so all communication was usually just over the phone. I remember my 21st birthday when my mom said “Kenny wants to say, Happy Birthday” and I said “I don’t want to talk to him.” Knowing now that I would give my own life just for the chance to talk to him one last time.

I knew Kenny didn’t want to be the way he was. I remember him stopping me as I was walking out the house to tell me he was going to be a dad and that even if our relationship was strained, he wanted his son to have an Aunt Rach. I said, “Well if that’s what you want you probably shouldn’t curse me out like you did the other night.” He was in disbelief. “I did that to you?”

“Yes.” I replied. “I’m so sorr-” he began to cry. “I’ll still be his aunt.” I said and left. After I left, I realized, he genuinely doesn’t understand the damage he has done. Most addicts don’t. But I had to protect myself. Every time he relapsed, every fight that broke out in the house, every trip to the hospital. I was still that sixth grader learning my brother was in trouble all over again.

Like I’ve said, our brains remember pain. You’re not 23 years old, your brain is 12 years old and is trying to protect you. You’re not in that mature relationship, your brain is still in that toxic one trying to find similar patterns. You’re not having a fun night out; your brain is still fighting off the guy who attacked you and is watching that guy behind you so you don’t get assaulted again. We are all just trying to protect ourselves.

I guess that’s the ultimate irony of the world. We should act like every day is our last and every conversation is our last. But, we don’t. We can’t. We need to protect ourselves.

But I still have that guilt. Why didn’t I help him more? Why didn’t I answer the phone? Why didn’t I tell him I love him more? Why am I alive while he’s not?

I mentioned before that I thought my brother had no understanding of the damage he caused, but he did. I once had my brother arrested. A story that I thought I would take to the grave. But, I did. The reasoning is someone else’s story to tell. But, I did it. I had him arrested. The bigger, older, and stronger Rach didn’t care if he found out. But, that smaller, younger Rach never wanted him to know. I still wanted to be his cool little sister. So, I never asked. My mom eventually confessed to me that he found out it was me. I’m not sure exactly how, but he did. And he said to my mom, “Good thing it was Rachel. I could never stay mad at her.” He forgave me. Without an apology. Without my explanation. Without my request. Without words. He forgave me. Just as the unconditional love only a mother knows, it was the silent forgiveness only a sibling knows. He knew what his addiction had done. He just couldn’t help it.

Shortly after my brother died, I had another very vivid dream. A dream so vivid, it feels wrong to call it a dream. I awoke and after remembering the reality that my brother is gone, I put myself back to sleep. I felt like I woke up again. I walked around my room. Everything was how it normally is. Except, one detail. A red sweatshirt was sitting on the chair in my room, perfectly folded. Not just any sweatshirt. Kenny’s favorite sweatshirt. I picked it up to smell it. And when I took it away from my face, there he was. Kenny. Standing there waiting for me to say something. But, I couldn’t. I was without words. He grinned and said, “Hey, Rach” as he always did. He was alive. He was standing. He was with me. I ran and grabbed him. I felt the cotton of his sweatshirt on my cheek. I felt the dampness of my tears on his sweatshirt rub against my face. I felt his shoulder blade on the palm as my hand as I hugged him. I whispered, “You’re here, you’re really here...” I then heard his voice. “Of course I’m here, Rach. I’ve been here the whole time.” I didn’t question it. I just held him. And after a minute, he pulled away. I said, “Where are you going? Kenny, stay!” He turned around and said, “I can’t, Rach. I have to go.” He was so calm. I begged, “Kenny, please, just stay! Mom will be home soon. She’ll be home any minute!” He emphasized, “I can’t, Rach. I have to go.” I again begged for him to stay until my mom came home. He grabbed my wrist. I felt his thumb gently squeeze my inner forearm. He looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Rach, I need you to tell mom I’m okay-” When I tried talking over him, he deepened his voice. “Rachel, I need you to tell mom, when she gets home, you need to tell her I’m okay. I know you’ll tell her so please tell her I’m okay and remember I’m always here. I’ve been here the whole time.”

“Okay, Rach?”

“Okay? Rachel?” he asked again.

“Remember, I’m always here. I’ve been here the whole time.”

I cried, “Okay.”

And he left.

As I began to panic, I woke up.

I picked my head up. I looked out the window and saw my mom was pulling into the driveway.

With all the worry I have for him, he came to tell me he is okay.

Even after all the things I feel guilty about, he still came to tell me he is okay.

I believe in an after-life. I’m just not sure exactly what it is. But I know it’s there. I know it explains my brother’s voice in my ear. It explains the colors of a sunset. The colors of a sunrise. The warm feeling that invades your chest when you laugh with the person you’re in love with. The involuntary smile when a baby laughs or when a puppy licks your face. And it explains why losing someone hurts so much. It explains all of the beauty and all of the pain.

The night after Kenny’s funeral, I was crying myself to sleep, asking Kenny to tell me he was okay. “I wish you could just call me to tell me you’re okay” I cried. I awoke the next morning to a missed call from Kenny at 11:38 PM. His fiancé’s mouth dropped when I told her because it turns out his phone had been dead for the past three days.

Even in different forms, he still comes to tell me he’s okay.

Even after all the things I’ve done.

After I didn’t let him wish me a happy birthday.

After the times I ignored his calls.

After the times I didn’t say, I love you.

After I had him arrested.

Even after being alive while he is not.

He still comes to tell me he is okay.

He forgave me. Without an apology. Without my explanation. Without my request. Without words.

He forgave me, but for the past three years, I haven’t been able to forgive myself. I wallow in the guilt of my choices. The guilt of my existence. But, why? He forgave me, so why can’t I forgive myself? I think I subconsciously feel like I’m honoring his death, with this guilt and sorrow. He’s gone, but I can still have him in his death. Because I don’t want to let him go. But recently I realized, I keep hurting myself to hold on to him when he has already let go. Kenny didn’t let go when he died. He let go the day I wouldn’t let him wish me a happy birthday. He let go when he found out I had him arrested. He let go every time I had my wall up. He always let go of all my guilt so why am I still holding on?

I think that guilt is the least talked about part of grief. I think because it’s so internal. People know you’re sad when a loved one dies but they don’t know you’re continuously thinking of the things you wish you hadn’t done or the things you wish you had. So, you just sit with them. All of your regrets just on repeat in your brain. Just the other day, I remembered a bad memory. Something I did years ago that I very much regret and started to feel very bad about it. Until I stopped myself and thought about how far away that memory was. But, in that moment I felt like I was reliving it all over again. But, I never forgave myself for it. Our regrets hold on to us. And usually, the memory of them accompanies it. As I hold these regrets about my brother, I hold on to the pieces of him that weren’t really him. So, I’m choosing to remember my brother who told me not to give a shit what others think. My brother who taught me how to play Smoke on the Water on the guitar. My brother who tried to set his fart on fire. My brother who used me as a stunt double when he tried to make his own version of Jackass. My brother who wanted me to be so happy and strong that he forgave me for distancing myself from his addiction. So, to do so, I have to forgive myself. For the silence. For the times I walked away. For the times I wasn’t there. For being alive when he is not. I choose to love him past his flaws, as he has loved me past mine. Without an explanation, without words, but with my request, I forgive myself.

With just as much love and forgiveness we give to our lost ones for leaving, we must also forgive ourselves for still being here.

342 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All