I am unable to pinpoint the exact moment when it all started, when the trouble began, when my brother started to fall apart. James is two years older than I am. As early as I can remember he has been my hero. To me he was special; he had a fire inside him that no one else possessed. I think in some ways I imagined his stature. I wanted to believe that he was worthy of my admiration, as younger siblings do.
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Our parents divorced when James was five and I was three, and we spent our time shuffling between their houses. Despite that, we had a pretty happy childhood, surrounded by love. He did well in elementary school, all the way through the fifth grade. His teachers got a kick out of his quirky sense of humor and his innate acuity. James was wiry but attractive, athletic and able. His eyes were green, but in the right light they were known to turn into a clear blue. He has always been tan and thin. He excelled in surfing: entered some local contests, won, and eventually a company decided to sponsor him. He was the envy of many fellow surfers and friends.
By the time middle school started he had developed a smartass sense of humor that wasn’t appreciated by everyone, but he was funny. He was intelligent as all hell, which is probably one of the things that got him into the most trouble. When adolescence kicked in, something changed in him. His attitude was altered, not for the better, and his grades began to slip. Although he had always been twice as smart as me, his grades weren’t half as good. He was struggling in every sense of the word.
At 14, he was constantly searching for ways to attract the attention of other students and adults. I’m still not sure if he was doing it on purpose or if it just came naturally to him, but regardless he was always getting grounded, suspended or sent home. I remember once, my mother insisted he go to a therapist. The therapist took him into his office and asked him questions for a long time. When he came out, he had deduced that James was “retarded”. My father had had enough- he knew James too well- James had simply gone in there to mess with the doctor and toldthe doctor everything he wanted to hear. James thought that was hilarious. He never worried about the backlash. My mother was constantly finding him home in the middle of the day smoking pot and drunk off of anything he could get his hands on. Later that same year, after some serious begging from our mother, James agreed to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and prescribed Ritalin. Hoping that this would help James to focus on the important things again, our mother was shocked when she found out he had been attempting to sell the Ritalin to his peers. Because of this incident and several other discipline-related issues, at the end of his freshman year James was asked not to come back to that high school.
That year, our dad lost his business and concluded to move to New Smyrna Beach on the east coast of Florida. It was decided that James would go with him to have a fresh start in a new school, and just like that we were separated. My hero was gone.
From there, he harbored his interest in surfing and skating for a short time. Being on the East coast, where the waves are bigger and everybody surfs, the school seemed to excuse his absences under the pretense that he was surfing. It wasn’t until the end of the school year that my parents learned he had missed a total of 54 days. Unfortunately, James was spending his time getting into harder drugs instead of being on the beach. Besides the obvious alcohol addiction- which runs in our family- he was now using Marijuana, Acid, Xanax and Cocaine. My parents were still blind to just how bad it had gotten.
James had every advantage handed to him. When he turned 16, my father bought him a used Cadillac. The first night he had it, in a drunken and high stupor, he wrapped it around a tree just blocks from our house. He simply walked away from the scene and stumbled back home. When the cops arrived at my father’s door, they decided to leave the disciplining up to him; once again James had lucked out and escaped the ramifications of the law.
After his sophomore year, James dropped out of high school completely.
He attempted to work while living with our father, but his addictive personality left him jobless and returning to drugs and alcohol. Realizing that he was in over his head, our father turned to our mother for help. She found a National Guard program, in Starke, Florida. The school was called FLYCA or Florida Youth Challenge Academy. It was a six month residential program in an army-like environment.
The day James left for FLYCA stands out in my mind like an ugly muddy spot in the snow. I was standing outside of our mother’s house, watching him pack his limited possessions into our father’s white Toyota Tundra. His hair was dark brown now, and it looked like it hadn’t been cut in months. His eyes had acquired a blurry, evasive glaze over them; I felt like I hadn’t seen his particular sharp blue hue in years. I said goodbye to him for what seemed like the hundredth time, somewhat resenting him for leaving me, an only child, yet again.
This was a hard time for me, not being able to communicate with my brother in any way but through snail mail. James had been writing me letters at least once a week while he had been away and his descriptions of the conditions seemed unbearable to me. He lived in a drafty barracks with about thirty other boys. They were awakened at four a.m., at which time they were ordered to run ten grueling miles. I knew this must’ve been a damned-near-impossible task for someone who was probably in withdrawal and definitely out of shape. His words broke my 14 year old heart.
Unfortunately, James was dismissed from FLYCA right after he passed his GED but right before he was eligible for a high school diploma. He had been caught huffing gas with another cadet while they were supposed to be mowing the lawn. The other boy was reinstated after simply apologizing to the school authorities. James couldn’t - or wouldn’t - bring himself to apologize, resulting in his expulsion.
For the next two years, James spent his time job hopping around Florida. However, he never held a job for more than three months. My parents begged him to try community college, to give school another chance. Unfortunately, James’s top priority has always been to support his expensive drug habits, so working came before school every time.
In 2006 I graduated from high school and moved onto college. James graduated from anti-depressants and moved onto Opiates such as Roxicontin and Oxycontin. Attempting to live on his own, away from either of our parents, he moved in with a girlfriend in Sarasota, Florida. Their house was dark, dirty and to my eyes, unlivable.
After staying out of any major trouble with the law for almost a year, James landed himself in jail with a reckless driving charge in November of 2007. Our mother posted bail, but in January of 2008 he was booked again for a DUI charge in New Smyrna Beach. This time, our father bailed him out, but at that point he was on probation for two separate charges, in two different counties. Needless to say, he no longer had the privilege to drive and consequently began missing probation appointments and mandatory drug tests.
In March of 2008, my entire family and many friends were in Sarasota to celebrate my grandmother’s eightieth birthday. James and I attended my grandmother’s party and had a great time with her guests and our family. However, when it came time to leave and I found James, his eyes were glazed over and he seemed to be looking straight through me when he spoke. I knew this couldn’t be due solely to alcohol so I turned to my boyfriend, Derek, who had been talking to James all night. Derek informed me that James had had a friend stop by and drop off some pot and pills. James had apparently been sneaking off to the bathroom throughout the night to snort what I assume now was Roxicontin.
On April fourteenth, 2008 I got a call from my mother informing me that James was in jail again. This time he would not be bailed out within twenty-four hours. When I asked what he had done she told me the following in a very calm, quiet voice:
“James stole four Ambien from your grandmother and took them all on Saturday night; he also drank a half quart of gin. He then proceeded to walk to a Mobile gas station. When he realized it was closed he picked up a small propane tank and threw it through the window of the gas station. When he got inside he realized there was an attendant still there counting the money. It was an elderly woman; James pushed her down, stole some cigarettes, and left the scene.”
Shockingly, I wasn’t surprised. I took it all in, asked as few questions as possible, said goodbye, and hung up. My ‘hero’ was confined in the county jail with a bond of $50,000; he was being charged with armed robbery.
James ended up serving a 51 month bid in a maximum security prison in Tallahassee, Florida. I was attending Florida State University in the same city, I suppose you could call that the silver lining. A lot of things changed; I started spending my weekends with my older brother again. Instead of supporting my school at football games on Saturday’s I was now supporting my brother in the visitation room of a correctional institution. Instead of attending my sorority chapter meetings on Sundays, I spent those days being searched and stripped of all personal belongings. My brother and I would sit, eating microwaveable cheeseburgers that made me sick to my stomach and drinking powdered coffee. Sadly, these disgusting food choices were like treasures to James. We took comfort in each other, both of us pretending we were okay with it all, learning to accept his fate but never quite finding solace. To our family, it felt like someone had died; there was one less person at the dinner table, one less person to buy gifts for at Christmas, and his birthday was just sort of skipped. For four long years a piece of my heart was missing and there was an empty space in our lives.
51 months later, James was released. He now attends daily meetings at Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and is on a strict five year probationary period which doesn’t allow him to leave the county without permission. He is far from free. He will never drive again; he will never be permitted to vote or to hold a firearm.
Prison changed James; most people say it was for the better, but to me, a part of him was lost. That fire inside him was put out, and he keeps most things to himself. We aren’t nearly as close as we once were, and sadly we probably never will be.
I have personally experienced the sadness, humiliation and torment of a drug addiction. Four years of my brother’s life were wasted inside the walls of a correctional institution where he was never hugged, never kissed, never given a pat on the back. The pain and suffering that he and my entire family experienced was a direct result of drug use. This all could have been avoided if his willpower would have been stronger than his addictions.