I walked a mile with Sorrow, And ne’er a word said she; But, oh, the things I learned from her When Sorrow walked with me!
“When Sorrow Walked With Me” by Robert Browning
The name “Brennan” means “sorrowful.” I knew that was the name I wanted for my firstborn son; it simply felt perfect. My ego led me to believe that with good parenting, I could prevent the sorrow.
I lived in a big fancy house. I sent my children to private school. I was a soccer mom for a decade. I drove a Honda Odyssey van. I was in therapy and doing 12-step work. And the ultimate irony: For several years I did publicity for a coalition that worked to prevent substance abuse among teenagers.
Yet my son died a heroin addict. I could not save his life.
How could my son get into drugs? He had so much going for him. He was a very loving, sensitive, and bright child.
When he was three years old, he went with his child care group on a field trip to a farm. He knew that, at that time, I liked candy corn. When he returned, he ran up to me and eagerly gave me two pieces of candy corn he had clutched in the palm of his hand during the entire 30-minute bus ride home.
When Brennan was about four years old, he would try to rescue the earthworms on driveways after the rain.
During a trip to Colorado, he found a dead mouse and wanted us to have a funeral for it and bury it, which we did.
As soon as Brennan was tall enough, he was riding in the front car on the Son of the Beast roller coaster at King’s Island. He was called “Missile foot” by his soccer buddies because of his powerful kick.
When Brennan attended The Schilling School for Gifted Children, he loved saving up points in Mrs. Peak’s class so he could buy things from her store to give to the rest of us. One time he bought a beautiful oval china box with a lid. He could hardly stand waiting to give it to me, yet dropped it before he could. He sobbed, heartbroken. I so cherish that repaired china box.
Later he enjoyed the challenge of writing sonnets. He also was very proud of his youtube video, created during high school, that has already reached more than a million views.
Even with this beautiful soul, I was extremely challenged by Brennan from the beginning. When he was 10 years old, he said to me, “Mom, you don’t know what it’s like to live inside my body.” I tried many times to find the right therapist for him, which didn’t happen until he was 17—which, for him, was too late. I watched over his education so he had the best environment for his temperament and abilities, and I worked hard at being the best possible parent for him. It wasn’t enough.
Everything collapsed after my diagnosis of end-stage cancer. I got too sick for too long to be a decent mother. Brennan was 14 and began experimenting with alcohol, then drugs. I don’t know how much of this was from living for years under the continual threat of losing me, or from curiosity and a desire to explore his mind, or from growing depression, anxiety, and difficulty with focus, or from dealing with divorce. It most likely was a combination of factors.
Two years ago he started using heroin. I didn’t realize this for a full year. Not my son! Then he spent the next year deciding to get better and going in and out of treatment programs.
After his third extended rehab program, he managed to stay clean for three months. But then the sober living house where he lived was closed. I encouraged him to move into another sober living house, but he chose not to go that route. Soon Brennan fell back into using.
Again I tried to get him into treatment, but it just didn’t work out.
On May 26, Brennan sent me a beautiful letter, which is the most precious gift of my life. Like the 17th century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal after his Night of Fire, I wanted to sew this message into my clothing so it would always be right next to my heart.
I really appreciate all the things you have done for me in the past year. Sending me to Fairbanks, Recovery Works, and Singer Island was a tremendous help… However, I am still a weak person and still have succumbed to this disease… I used again after more than 3 months of being clean, during which time you supported me at Trent’s Lighthouse. I did my best while I was staying there, but my best was not enough. I ended up using again, and creating yet another cycle of use. I am thoroughly ashamed that my efforts were almost useless. I continued to use until this past Thursday. For this I am truly sorry.
I wish I could take it all back, but I cannot. I truly wish that with the next round of treatment, I will become what I should have in the years past. I am truly sorry for all the pain I have caused you and dad in times past. I will do my absolute best to make it up to both of you in the coming years, as hopefully I regain control of my life and my actions in the coming months.
I love you, and shall never forget all the things that you have done for me in the previous months. I truly respect and admire you for all the ways in which you have tried to help me in the past months, despite the fact that I have essentially thrown it all in your face…. And for that I am truly sorry. I love you mom, and I love everything that you have done for me in the past few months … thank you for believing in me. I am trying my hardest to beat this disease, no matter what it throws at me.
According to my Codependents Anonymous sponsor, the number one hallmark of addicts is denial of their roles in their problems. By blaming others, addicts don’t have to accept responsibility for themselves and the pain that this acknowledgement brings. There are people who have been in recovery for decades who still can’t take the kind of ownership that Brennan shows.
Yet in this letter, Brennan openly sees and admits to himself and another human being what’s going on inside himself and the effect he has had on others. He blames no one and nothing else. The veil of insanity has been ripped away from his eyes. He is fully aware of what he’s doing, fully feels the weight of his responsibility for it, and he hates it.
He admits he is being defeated by this terrible disease. He wants so desperately to stop. He also is fully aware of his absolute powerlessness over his addiction, which is the first of the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous, which reads:
“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
This awareness makes the addict’s pain far worse. It’s a necessary step for recovery, but it is so difficult. The old habit has been to hide from the pain. Now he really sees, and there is no place to hide.
I know how difficult this inner work is, and not many people are truly willing to do it—especially at such a young age. But Brennan had the courage to take a hard look at his life. Even though he hated what he saw in himself, he was able to stay with the pain, acknowledge his mistakes honestly, share his feelings, express his sorrow, offer his heartfelt amends for his addictive behaviors and how they affected us, and express gratitude. This honesty took incredible strength, and is so uncommon in the addiction culture. He was truly working the NA steps and hoping for recovery. Unfortunately, looking directly into the agony that had become his life probably proved too much for him and he fell back into the black hole of his insidious heroin addiction.
Two years ago, Brennan wrote a sonnet about the agony of lost love. This is a portion of his sonnet:
It feels like air
Can’t get inside my lungs. The lack of breath
Makes my head spin.
A few years ago, I watched a video about death. In it, someone said life is like swimming in an ocean, and dying is like breaking through the surface of the water and coming up for air. I believe Brennan is now filling his ethereal lungs with the fragrant breath of heaven.
I always felt a deep soul connection with Brennan. I believe we have been together in many previous lives, and that I will be with him again. I also believe he has only dropped the pain–wracked emotional and physical bodies he carried in this lifetime, and that his powerful, courageous, loving spirit is still nearby.
Someone could look at Brennan’s life from the outside and see it as a total waste and that he lost his battle with addiction. But I was privileged to see him from the inside. He lived and loved fully and deeply. Near the end he also woke up. Not many people have the courage to reach that level of inner depth and awareness, especially when so young. For me, Brennan’s eternal, beloved soul gained something far more precious from his ordeal than he ever could have from a long, productive life, and it will always stay with him. He experienced, at least for a period of time, consciousness. Nothing else could have made me more grateful for his life.
What message did you want at your addict’s funeral?