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My brother’s life ended with an overdose

Our family was powerless to stop his lifelong, and life-ending, drug and alcohol addiction.

John Hersey

I WAS HAVING LUNCH at a Brookline restaurant with my wife and one of our three sons when I got the call that my only brother, Jamie, had died of a drug overdose. I went outside to better hear, or, frankly, grasp, the words coming from the phone. The sidewalk heaved like a pebbled ribbon; I got my balance back by staring down at a crack in the concrete. The day we knew would come, this dreaded day, had finally arrived. I sobbed in quiet jolts, overcome with loss and shame and guilt.

Weeks later, the medical examiner in Philadelphia issued a cause of death — fentanyl poisoning. Jamie, or his dealer, anyway, was riding the wave of drugs laced with fentanyl, an opioid 30 times more powerful than heroin.

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He was 55 when he died in May. Outwardly, Jamie had the sheen of success. He had been a writer and researcher at Golf Magazine, his dream job, and went on to be a stockbroker at the financial services firm where our father was once CEO. At night, he was a renowned guitarist and singer, appearing in the bars and music halls of suburban Philadelphia, confounding all of us who had snickered at the humid hours he’d spent as a teenager playing guitar in his underwear in front of his bedroom mirror. Born to privilege, he wore Belgian loafers to blues gigs. Yet jobs and commitments never lasted long with Jamie. He had brown, gentle eyes and an eager, forward-leaning posture — his enthusiasm for conversation often brought him too close to you. He had our mother’s broad forehead and open, Irish smile. He was a quipster, often tossing off withering assessments and asides. He specialized in strong forces and human conflict, bingeing on Shark Week, ranking the best rogue waves on YouTube, reading World War II histories, and issuing urgent family e-mail alerts about hurricanes spinning up from the Caribbean. You could catch a sadness in him in off-guard moments, but mostly he was quick to laugh and projected easeful warmth. He was two years younger than me. 

Jamie died at a time when drug overdoses are on the rise all over the country. Governor Deval Patrick even declared a public health emergency earlier this year, noting that opiate overdoses in Massachusetts had jumped 90 percent from 2000 to 2012. Still, the fact that Jamie was a statistic — a victim in a broader, vicious epidemic — brought no succor. The dread of his death had been replaced by something new, something equally insidious, and I was haunted by a simple question: Had I done all that I could? 

 

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BEFORE JAMIE, our family had little exposure to addiction. Forty years ago, when he first began to show signs of trouble, treatment programs were spoken of in whispers, and even as a teenager I could sense in the heaviness of my parents’ deliberations an embarrassment and shame that was unfamiliar to me. Jamie was thrown out of eighth grade for bad behavior, then out of high school for dealing pot. Not knowing where else to turn, my parents nudged Jamie to enlist in the Marines during another forced absence, this time from college. They were plain-spoken about it in the oddly formal setting of our family meetings, and somehow we all believed, my older sister, Sophie, as well, that a military stint would get him back on track. These first conversations about addiction sank deep in me, and I was scared. We were told it might run in our family, and we all needed to be mindful of our own habits. Run in our family? Was it a gene, a disease, a disposition? I remember thinking If only I had an idea or an image, a map of this territory, to help dispel the uncertainty, because I loved maps and thought they could explain anything. But nothing came to me. All of us, Jamie included, were now walking unfamiliar ground.

Jamie pushed through the basic training program, conducted in the brick-hot days of summer on Parris Island, South Carolina. He said the mosquitoes were the size of dragonflies. He returned home after basic, 21 years old, looking like a movie star, tanned, with cropped hair and ropey muscles. For a little while, he went on morning runs and challenged me to push-up contests, which he would always win. Then, with heartbreaking speed, he lapsed, diving back into his Jack-and-Cokes, alighting from his car reeking of pot, comforted by the familiarity of a breakaway high, the guy everyone liked to party with.

Jamie’s was never an inexorable downward spiral. Despite relapses, he finished Hobart College after his Marines commitment, and went on to earn a master’s in journalism from Columbia. Painfully, the sorrow of Jamie was that even when things appeared to be at their best, the anticipation of a fall loomed.

The Bell family photographed in Maine in the mid-1960s, with author George at left and sister Sophie and brother Jamie at right.

Addiction took him on a lifelong roller coaster ride, and my parents, sister, and I were along with him. Family interventions, halfway houses, and jobs that didn’t last long. He could be said to have matriculated at the country’s best treatment programs. The way addiction had grabbed him rendered us powerless, though it took us awhile to understand this. Our means, our education, our connections — nothing could make a difference. He lied plenty, to everyone. Yet over the years we didn’t abandon Jamie. Tough love was advised, but we never had the courage to walk it out to its acerbic end. We didn’t have any practice at this. Jamie was not cut off — not from contact, not from money, not from summer vacations in Maine. My sister and I each married, had kids. Our father died of cancer. Jamie married. Still, one refrain strung our decades, and in a way our family, together: the phone call that started out “I’m worried about Jamie.” Jamie, the guy who smoked cigarettes and drank a six-pack of Diet Coke every day, the guy who was so gifted, the guy who seemed perpetually, to the outside world, to be doing “much better.”

George, Mom, and Jamie at Sophie’s 1984 wedding.

One of the most touching aspects of Jamie’s character was the way he worshiped our mother; her approval and friendship gave him great reward. When she died a few years ago, I realized, with some guilt, that her presence in Jamie’s life had lessened my worry about him. She needed him, too; they were the last of our family to live outside Philadelphia, where we had all grown up. She was feeble in her final few years. Jamie did errands for her, drove her to doctors, took her to hit golf balls when she could, nursed her during hospital visits, and sent my sister and me e-mails about her condition. When our mother died, Jamie lost purpose. He perceived that no one needed him. His downward spiral began anew.

On her deathbed, my mother had asked my sister and me to stay in better touch with Jamie. Time and the priority of our own families had worked to pull Sophie and me further away from him, but I committed to change that.

Typically Jamie and I saw each other most in summer, when we returned to the coastal community that we had been part of for generations. In recent years, golf there emerged as a shared passion. Walking the course with him in Maine on a hot July afternoon, we were just brothers then as brothers should be, with an easy way to our conversation. We had both longed for such a meeting place for years, but I needed to find a different way of relating to him. I had to stop measuring him by my standards of success. I had to stop thinking that addiction was something Jamie simply had to get over, as if it were easy to terminate it. I had to recognize that walking and talking with him on that golf course was itself the basis of a good relationship, and I didn’t need to lecture or judge or compare. I just needed to walk with him, so that he could feel us as equals, bound by family and love and history. My mother’s death gave me the ability to see this. Secretly I ached for him, feared for him, but also took joy in his company.

Following the first summer after my mother died, I made a point of calling Jamie several times a week. We talked about his music, his dogs, and the Philadelphia Eagles. The topics we couldn’t discuss — his health, using, his search for meaningful ways to employ his time — hung heavy. Jamie was very active on Facebook, and a year or so after our mother’s death, I lapsed into thinking that trading inane quips with him on his Facebook page was meeting the commitment I had made to my mother and myself. The phone calls became less frequent. I mistook the digital labyrinth of links and likes for touchstones in a relationship. As my sons say, I thought we were good, but the reality was that Jamie was descending further into dangerous isolation. Looking back, it was the scourge of isolation, the absence of some sort of routine interaction with people, that marked Jamie’s lowest periods. He had inherited enough money to get by, and in recent years had stopped looking for a job, or even volunteer work.

Jamie had one final deception to play out on himself and on all of us around him. Just as we thought he was sinking again, he called to tell me that he was checking himself into a live-in treatment facility in West Palm Beach, Florida. He hadn’t been to a program in more than 20 years. I was thrilled for him. He complained that his insurance wouldn’t cover the whole thing, but he was determined. He was proud — he nearly broadcast his departure on Facebook. He returned in six weeks and proclaimed himself sober.

Two weeks later, he called to say he had lapsed again and was entering an intensive live-out program in Philadelphia. He was also qualified to get a monthly injection that would make him somewhat immune to the effects of opiates. I knew he was really struggling, but he was showing bravery, a new, almost indefatigable commitment to get sober. We talked about his long therapy sessions with other addicts, their desultory circumstances. He said it always made him realize that he was one of the lucky ones — still alive, still surrounded by people who loved him. A few months later he was dead.

  

Jamie and George in 2012. 

NO ONE INTENDED that Jamie’s journey become the journey of our family. That’s just the way it played out. The days since his death are shot through with recriminations and questions still strongly influenced by him. Should I have traveled to Philadelphia to see him more often? Should I have tried to cajole him back into Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous? Was he lying about his most recent treatment programs? Did that matter? Since his death, many friends have come forward to offer their sympathies and also their own stories of addiction. The stories spill out in a straightforward way, yet I’m taken aback by the number of people affected by addiction even in my own life.

I think about Jamie most in the mornings when I first awake, conjuring the music he liked, his imitation of our badly dentured uncle, eyes closed, eating corn — and who once bit so deeply he left his teeth in the cob — his roaring laugh at extended family dinners when 20 of us would crowd around our grandparents’ table. With the jumble of the day still ahead, I allow myself to lie there, letting sweet reminiscences of our early years wash over me: the way he teased me when he put his head underwater before I could, his struggles with skiing, our marathon TV sessions, and, later, trashing each other’s taste in music. “Grover Washington?” he would ask with his sly derision. “Doesn’t his stuff play in malls?”

But my days are stalked by a contradiction — there was nothing else I could have done, and I didn’t do enough — an undertow that pulls at me and yet sets me adrift. I’ve come to believe that both are true. I had hoped that my days in Maine this summer, the fairway walks without Jamie by my side, might allow me to create a sacredness around his memory. But instead I walked with an aching sense of regret and inadequacy, his addiction still unresolved within me.

George Bell is an executive in residence and partner at the Cambridge-based venture capital firm General Catalyst Partners. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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