My sister had gone into a drug and alcohol treatment center and we were invited to come and see her at a “Family Day” given by the center. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I was a little nervous, but I was looking forward to seeing my sister sober.
My mom, stepfather and I went. My mom and I drove together, and Al left work early and met us there. It was interesting to me to see what “family” was at this point in my sister’s life.
When we entered the large room, all of the residents were there, as well as their families. I was surprised to see all of us in one room – I thought it was going to be more of a private conversation between us, and the counselor. I was feeling very exposed and felt the fear in the room. It was a lot of energy with everyone’s emotions in one place.
The counselor started off with talking about some of the programs they’ve been having, and then asked each of the residents to speak to each of their families (in front of everyone.) I could read Leslie pretty well and she was a combination of nervousness, restlessness and depression, and it looked like she was trying to look confident, but did not have that extroverted bubbliness that she would use to win people over. I was surprised to see her a bit more “real”. She seemed genuine. I listened closely to what she had to say, but it was the end of her statement that really stuck out to me. “You know,” she said, looking right at us, “the odds of relapsing are high. 3 out of 4 people relapse…” I didn’t hear what she said after that, because I knew at that moment she was planning on relapsing pretty much as soon as she could get out of there. It was obvious to me that she was not choosing sobriety.
The counselor handed out paper and pens to everyone in the room. “I’d like each of you to write a letter. If you are a family or friend visiting, then write the letter to your loved one who is a resident here. If you are a resident and have more than one family member here, then just choose one and write a letter to that one person. Find a place anywhere in the room to write your letter.”
I think everyone in the room was squirming. I’m pretty sure there weren’t many of us that were used to expressing our feelings in writing. I picked a spot that was as reclusive as I could find in an open room. I chose to sit on the floor and lean back against a wall that jetted out, so I could position myself in such a way that would prevent me from seeing any of my family members. As I began to write, I started to cry uncontrollably. I was surprised to feel what my heart was revealing. I heard myself thinking, “If I had to do this with my brother John, I think I would physically die.” By looking at the blank piece of paper and thinking about what it was like to have Leslie as a sister before she was an alcoholic and addicted to drugs, memories flooded in about John. It was a sucker punch and it was a foreshadowing of some big work that I was going to have to do in the future. I pulled myself together and wrote my letter to Leslie, telling her how much I loved the shows we did in the basement, recounted memories of us in the bedroom we shared, all the activities she was part of and how much life and fun she brought into my early years. I told her I missed her, and I was longing to have my sister back.
When it was time to give our letters, the counselor surprised us again, and told us we would have to read our letters aloud. I was starting to understand why Leslie didn’t like being in this place. A lot of exposure of one’s self, and a high expectation of coming across with all of the exercises/activities were a bit unnerving.
When it was our family’s turn I remember Leslie reading her letter to Mom. Some of it was kind and some of it was harsh. Mom read her letter – I don’t remember any of it, and Al read his letter – explaining how he was there to support Mom and that she didn’t deserve the treatment that Leslie was giving her. I was called on last. I read my letter without looking up – I thought if I looked at Leslie I would definitely lose it. After I read it, Leslie started rocking back and forth and yelled, “That’s me!! That was me!!” She completely resonated with the words I had written. The counselor became animated too. “Leslie, listen to me. She is the one,” she pointed directly at me. “She is the one who can bring you back to who you really are. She can remind you. She knows who you are. She remembers. She is your best resource.” Leslie looked at me with tears in her eyes. “I had no idea you remembered any of that. I thought you were too young to remember. But that was me.”
It was like a moment of recognition that I will never forget. She knew I saw her and she saw me, as if for the first time. I prayed to God that she would really use me as her resource. That gave me hope – that maybe there was a chance that she would rather be that authentic version instead of the relapsed version of herself.
Since Al came in his own car, Mom and I left together. She was raw with emotion. She had been crying and was shaken up. The counselor drilled into her that she would smile when she spoke about being upset with Leslie. My mom would keep a smile on her face as if it would ease her anger, but the counselor got her to drop her mask for a few minutes. It was an intense afternoon for all of us. On our drive home, Mom started telling me that she had no idea that I remembered those things. I explained to her that being with the family – who were all alcoholics and drug addicts – was very difficult for me. It was incredibly painful to see them ruin their lives and behave so erratically. By now I was living in Nashville and had moved 600 miles away. I loved having that distance. Now in the car, she brought up a memory for her that she was upset with me when I refused to come the previous summer to a family picnic at her house. I was still living in the area and she wanted all of the kids there. I refused to go. It was the first time I told her no – I didn’t want to be around them. She argued that I had to come “and help her with Ken and Leslie.” I told her that if she needed that kind of help – why would she invite them over? Now as she reiterated the memory, she said, “Oh now I understand why you didn’t want to come. I thought at the time you were just being a bitch.”
My heart stopped. I couldn’t speak. I never heard my mom talk that way, and to hear her say that about me of all people was a shock. It hit hard. My heart was crushed. She never understood me. She never heard me when I said, “No, it’s too painful for me to be with them,” when I initially tried to explain why I didn’t want to come to the party. She just saw me as a prima donna who wouldn’t help her when she asked for it – and too good for the family. It made me wonder what other preconceived ideas she had about me. Again, I was reminded to never trust anyone.
After the treatment center, Mom set up Leslie in an apartment close by and even bought her a used car that would get her around. Leslie got drunk and totaled the car. Mom said, “No more. I’m done,” and that was the end of Leslie’s help from Mom – at least for the time being.
Leslie began another relationship with a man that she stayed with for the rest of her life. She continued to drink and was addicted to another drug that was supposed to help you get off drugs. She worked for a little while, and then claimed disability. I don’t know what she said her disability was and I never asked. She seemed perfectly able to me as she would remodel her house, do amazing artwork, sewing projects, multi-media art, and all the repairs needed around the house. Her partner had a moving business for a while but always seemed to be home as well.
They eventually moved an hour north of Milwaukee and had a nice piece of property with 2 trailers on it. She saw her kids periodically and took them for week-long vacations to Florida in their truck and camper. She grew raspberries and cooked wonderful foods. She seemed to be living in a manageable way. She continued to hide her alcohol in cans and I saw her occasionally when I came to visit Mom. She talked incessantly and was a bit unreachable.
At one point, Rusty asked me, “Why do you bother? Why do you care about your sister? She’s not worth it.” And then something amazing happened.
My sister decided to get sober.
It was winter time, and Rusty and I took our two daughters to visit Mom and Al. We decided to go sledding at a nearby hill. Leslie called Mom and heard we were there and said that she would meet us at the sledding place. Rusty and I exchanged glances. This wasn’t going to be easy. Leslie was not easy to be around. We didn’t believe that she had actually sobered up.
After sledding for about 30 minutes, Leslie showed up proudly dressed in grey mechanic’s overalls. She boasted that it was a Goodwill find and it kept her very warm. She had the biggest smile on her face. I knew as soon as she came and gave me a hug that she was her old self. The incessant talking had stopped. She was present, and seemed genuinely happy. It was so good to see her again!
We laughed and laughed. The girls enjoyed her too – for the first time ever. After 45 minutes or so of sledding with Leslie, it was time to go back to Mom’s house and warm up. She came and spent another hour or two with us. After she left, Rusty pulled me aside. “She’s amazing. I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it for myself. She’s really smart. I mean really smart. And funny. And she looks great. Now I see it. Now I see what you were talking about.”
I was so happy to have Leslie back. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. By the time I saw her again, she went back to her old lifestyle. A few years later, one of the trailers on her property had burned down. It turned out that her common-law husband was dealing marijuana and had quite a business. The second trailer was filled with pot plants. It was the biggest drug bust ever in that county.
Leslie went to jail for 3 months. And then her partner went to jail. He was supposed to get several years, but since he gave the police a list of his customers, he got a much shorter sentence. I think that if Leslie had had more time away from him, she might have made it. But she was tired, and her body ached from all of the abuse. She was 52 years old and had always said, “As long as I live past 49 years old (that’s when our dad died,) then I’m doing good.” I never liked it when she said that. It was almost as if she was making a proclamation that 50 years old was enough.
I saw her at Mom’s 80th birthday party in August. She looked rough, but we connected on a good level. I had sent her my CD “Leap of Faith” and she told me it was her favorite CD. “It’s as if you’re telling my life story. How could you know what my life was like?” I replied, “I was there too.” She told me that she shared it with her AA/NA group. They all resonated with it. She was hoping that she could buy copies for everyone.
She also said that she had been to the doctor, and he told her that her body was like that of an 80 year old. She had so much arthritis and joint issues, that her legs and back were in a lot of pain.
A few months later, her partner was released from jail. Then she seemed to change again. On the following Memorial Day weekend, Leslie house/pet sat for a close friend of hers. Her partner called Leslie’s daughter and asked her to check on her since she lived much closer. Leslie was not answering her phone or returning his phone calls. Her daughter found her dead. She had taken enough alcohol and pain pills to end her life. She was 54 years old.
The grief was for the sister I wish I had - the sister that I only saw when I was young, and had a glimpse of when she was playing with her children, laughing while trick-or-treating, sledding down a hill, and the brief moment when she knew I saw her. I kept waiting for another time with her, and always hoped that we could be together again, but it never came.
I played two of my songs at her funeral and spoke about the Leslie that made poor choices, but had an amazing soul. I met people at the funeral I had never seen before. They were her friends and neighbors. They talked about how kind she was and how she was there for them when they needed someone. She came to a neighbor whose dog died, and gave him a hug and was there for conversation. She brought food to her neighbors and helped them whenever they needed it. They all loved her so much. I could see the Leslie that I loved in the their stories and in their eyes. They gazed at me in disbelief. “We didn’t even know Leslie had a sister. And you look just like her. Your eyes are exactly the same.” They felt they could approach me since they heard me speak and felt comfortable because I reminded them of her. It was wonderful to have that closure, knowing that she was kind and loving to those around her.