Devastated by addiction, a grieving sister speaks outBy Jay Turner
On July 16, just six weeks after losing her older brother Marc to a heroin overdose, Elisa Alberts posted a letter on the Canton Alliance Against Substance Abuse Facebook group that she had written a few months earlier — one of many she had penned to Marc over the past year-plus in the hopes of “changing his life.”
It was a courageous act — exposing a very private pain to a public audience of mostly strangers — and yet she was more than willing to do it if it could help even one person realize “what their addiction means to their family members.”
As Elisa, 23, reveals in the letter, Marc’s ongoing struggles with opiate dependence didn’t just impact him personally. It affected the entire family unit, causing stress and strain and devastating the little sister who had always been his biggest admirer and defender.
“Repeatedly I was faced with … calls and concerns from loved ones that you had been using one of the worst opiates out there,” she tells Marc in the letter. “I sat in my room day after day drowning in tears, clueless of what actions I was supposed to take.”
Eventually, however, Elisa did take action, telling their mother, Pauline, and embarking on a proactive quest to get her brother the help that he so desperately needed. And it is this story — of a sibling’s undying love and determination and refusal to be an enabler — that she hopes to share with others as part of her new lifelong mission to end drug addiction for good.
“It was like eating a bowl of cereal in the morning.”
That was how Elisa compared life with an active addict and all that comes with it. The blank stares, the lies, the constant requests for money — it all became so commonplace, just “another thing that you’re dealing with every day.”
It became exhausting, she said, but she also knew her brother well enough to recognize that it was not really him; it was the drugs and the powerful hold they had over him both physically and psychologically.
“I knew that he didn’t want to be using it,” she said of Marc, the middle sibling of the three Alberts children. “I knew that it was so important for him to stay clean. He was so concerned about being successful, but I have just never seen something take over someone’s mind like this did.”
Even today, when she thinks of Marc, she has a hard time being angry and mostly remembers the affable, big-hearted kid who loved cars and fixing things and cherished the time he spent with his family.
Looking back on it now, Elisa believes the problems started some time after their father, Paul, passed away in 2011. A popular UPS delivery man who was beloved by the community and adored by his family, Paul was just 52 when he lost his battle with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that attacks plasma cells.
Elisa said they were all devastated by the loss of their father, but Marc took it especially hard, turning inward and eventually using drugs as a means of escape.
He would often sneak off to the cemetery to visit his dad, but he refused to open up and “wouldn’t talk about it, ever.”
“I tried to talk to him about it,” said Elisa. “He was such a lovable kid and would talk to anybody, but at the end of the day he couldn’t raise his hand in a meeting and talk about his problems.”
When she first heard the whispers that her brother was abusing opiates, Elisa flatly refused to accept it.
But in hindsight, she said the signs were always there; she just didn’t want to see them and was “truly afraid to face the consequences.”
The turning point, she said, came this past winter, when she saw him nodding off and then pass out while getting himself a drink in the kitchen. Feeling helpless and terrified, she decided she had no choice but to turn to their mom.
“It was one of the hardest moments of my life,” she explains in her letter to Marc. “I knew that her heart would be broken and that being a single mom she would have no idea which road to head down. My mind was telling me to involve her because I could not handle the pain of losing you when I could have prevented it from happening.”
One of the first things they did was have a family meeting, and despite the family’s pleas for Marc to come clean and get help, Elisa said he became defensive and would only admit to occasionally taking Percocet pills.
Elisa said she even tried to check for needle marks, but Marc was adamant and she suddenly didn’t know what to believe. “I started second-guessing myself,” she recalled. “I mean, are the right resources telling me that he’s doing this?”
Eventually, after repeated denials and constant nagging from his mother and sister, Marc finally agreed to seek out treatment, and after successfully completing a detox program he transitioned to a halfway house, where he was put on a schedule and drug tested three times a week.
In all, Marc managed to stay clean for three months, and during that time Elisa felt as if she had gotten her brother back. He was happy again, and he was so apologetic for all the hurt he had caused. Still, Elisa had learned enough about addiction to know that it was never simply cured, and when she heard her mother scream in the early morning hours on that June day, she just knew that he was gone.
“How can something be so bad after being so good?”
To this day, Elisa is still haunted by that question and by the seeming absence of an answer. For at least 90 days her brother had been clean. He was working and saving money and was preparing to move into a new apartment on the day that he died.
“He had the advantage of knowing how good life was, and a lot of people don’t have that,” Elisa said.
At the same time, she knows full well that Marc is not alone. She sees the news and she follows social media and understands that there is an epidemic of opiate abuse in this country. She knows that people of all ages, genders and ethnicities are dying from the disease of addiction despite the growing availability of support groups and treatment options and substance abuse coalitions.
And yet as heartbroken and as helpless as she sometimes feels, Elisa said it would have been “10 times worse” if she didn’t do everything in her power to get help for Marc.
“I know that I did my best and I know that I can hold that forever, but I just hate that I have failed,” she said. “And yet there’s only so much you can do. We weren’t a family that would put him out on the street; we just couldn’t.”
As a sibling living at home, Elisa often found herself on the front line of her brother’s battle with addiction, and yet she refused to give up, combining undying support with her own unique brand of tough love.
“I set a lot of limitations,” she said. “I made it clear that I was certainly not going to be funding it for him. Half the time I would tell him I didn’t feel good and would stay home and be a babysitter and would follow him when he left the house.”
Today, Elisa continues to be passionate about substance abuse prevention, and her goal is to “one day speak somewhere and make a career out of it.”
She has also gained strength from the outpouring of support and all of the thoughtful cards and kind messages she has received, and yet she would trade all of the knowledge and perspective in the world just to have her brother back in her arms.
“[Losing him] was always my biggest fear,” admitted Elisa. “I knew something bad was going to happen to him and for it to become reality is just out of this world. I don’t get it, but am I supposed to? I mean, I just don’t know.”
If you have a family member who is struggling with addiction or have lost a loved one to this disease, please know you are not alone. For resources and support, visit Learn to Cope, a locally based peer network, at www.learn2cope.org or Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing (GRASP) at www.grasphelp.org.
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