My life has been defined by a series of phone calls, both good and bad. I have always been able to discern these life-changing moments based on the time of the call. In my experience, whether or not I initiated the call, no good news comes after midnight or before the sun rises. Sunday, March 18, 2007 was no different than any other morning, I was up with my “cup of Joe” before the sun. Awake with my thoughts, my husband already out of the house, my son at his dad’s and my mom asleep in her room. Normally I tend to use these quiet moments to simply appreciate my life. But that day would be markedly different. That day caused a ripple in my universe, it changed the course of my life work and led me to where I was supposed to be. Here, now, in the most unlikely of places, I have turned my grief into action. After years of battling drug addiction and going in and out of the revolving door of our judicial system, my brother died of an accidental overdose.
Washington Irving once stated “There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.”
Today whenever I hear the phone ring I think of my brother, the tears I shed for him and my lifelong journey of accepting that I was my brother’s keeper. This was my journey and it was both a blessing and a curse, personally and professionally. The blessings were many, my son’s and nephew’s profound memories of their very own John Candy– he was Uncle Buck’s character personified. These blessings were tempered with the frustration of dealing with a sibling that struggled with drug addiction his entire life. There were many days that, if not for my husband, I may not have had the strength to help and accept my brother for who and what he was. My husband helped me to define my brothers’ struggle with addiction by pointing out my own addictive nature. What separated my brother and I was simply 14 months and slight differences in our DNA. While his genetic makeup and experiences led him to clinical depression, manic behavior and drug addiction, mine lead me in a different path.
But the paths we walked were never too far apart even in our darkest moments, moments marked by my career in law enforcement. I recognized in spite of my love for him, I failed him as well by stigmatizing his behavior and addiction through my cop lens during a darker period of our relationship. It was not till after my son’s birth and my divorce from his father that we reconciled. In a story that is too long to tell for this particular article, I know that I saved my brother’s life because I was a police officer and his life was also destroyed because of law enforcement. My brother was not an angel, he had always been a risk-taker. Our family always joked about how many times he would visit emergency rooms over a year. Another striking characteristic of his was a sense of fairness and consideration for others. Some of my best memories of him are the ones told by his friends about his compassion to their plight above his own. He found personal redemption through saving women, animals and anyone or anything down to the giving away the shirt off his back.
Yet because of the stigma associated with being dual-diagnosed manic depressive and an addict, the good he did was for naught when it came to the eyes of the law. He was objectified and viewed as less than human by those charged in administering the rule of law and even by being a failure to those that loved him.
I did not understand what it meant to be Billy until my husband opened up my heart and our home to save him. It was in this intimacy of watching him try to live up to the expectations of those he loved where I realized just how damaging our society’s “tough love” moral rhetoric on drugs really is. My brother was truly a wounded bird, a sensitive soul, a risk-taker and by our society’s standard, a criminal. His struggle with addiction taught me many things, he had many years of sobriety, interspersed with what most addiction specialists will say are the failures characteristic to the disease of addiction. But because of an emphasis by the court system on abstinence-only drug programs, these normal and accepted failures in recovery are punished by a system that places punishment over progress and harm reduction. Because of his felony convictions for drugs he was unemployable and thus lacked healthcare. Without us my brother would have been in the streets and a burden to our society.
Before I knew what harm reduction was my husband and I managed to give my brother what I believe now were many happy moments. We gave him tools to manage his life, provided structure, stability, work and unconditional love. But in spite of all we gave him, a lack of mental healthcare and professional medical support reduced him to just another drug addict in the view of the cops and the prosecutors. There will be those that will judge us as enabling my brother’s addiction and not helping him live up to the standards of our society, but I will argue if we in fact had a national drug policy that was based on harm reduction strategies, that my brother and others like him would not be lost to us, or languishing in jail, which is just another form of death.
As the phone rang that fateful moment my only relief in my brother’s accidental overdose death was that he would find the peace that he had sought throughout his life. He would not have to endure the slow death of prison that would have forever changed his humanity. So for all the victories the drug policy reform movement has made we are nowhere close to ending the inevitable consequences of a national drug policy based on the destruction of those we love. We must remember those whose lives have been marked by the consequences of a policy doomed to fail, and I ask all of us to accept that in order to change our society for the better we need to accept we are our brother’s keepers.
Rest in Peace
William “Billy” McKinley Wattles III
February 19, 1960 – March 18, 2007