Sosha Lewis lives in Charlotte.
It was 10 years ago, not too long after I was promoted to assistant vice president at my corporate job, that my little brother appeared, in a haze of drugs and desperation, from out of my old life and pleaded for entry into my new one.
And to my everlasting regret, I turned him away.
It has taken me a long time to understand the roots of that decision; understanding makes the guilt bearable, but it doesn’t make it go away. My road out of an opioid-ravaged corner of Appalachia was paved by a primal sense of survival and determination. My parents, Steve and Starr, were beautiful, felonious, drug-addicted high school dropouts who ran as wild as kudzu. I was their oldest child and understood from an early age that the odds were not in my favor. Not much was expected of my kind.
But I worked harder and made better decisions — or so I told myself — than those who stayed on the rusted merry-go-round of poverty, drugs, petty crimes and domestic abuse.
Moving to Charlotte allowed me to put both physical and emotional distance between those I left behind, including my younger siblings. They were stuck dealing with our spiraling parents, West Virginia’s ravaging poverty and an opioid epidemic rotting large swaths of my home state from the inside out.
When it became apparent that my brother Zack had graduated from pot and alcohol to more serious narcotics, I ping-ponged between anger, indifference and indignation. I had shown him the way out, hadn’t I? What more did I owe?
Our communication became sporadic, but I called him on his 21st birthday. We exchanged pleasantries before the topic turned more serious. He wanted help. His friends were dying, and he was scared he would be next. I told him he could move in with us. My husband could get him a job where he could learn a trade, make good money and have health insurance. But first he had to be able to pass the company drug test. He admitted that he couldn’t, but he asked me if he could live with us long enough to get clean. I said no.
Six months later, he was dead.
To be clear, no one would have called Zack an upstanding citizen. During his brief stint on Earth, he waged war with his demons — and more often than not, he lost. Like our parents, he dropped out of high school, got into drugs and never held a long-term job. And, like them, or maybe because of them, a stigma surrounded him in our town. That stigma would contribute to his death.
On a brittle November night, a police officer found my brother in the passenger side of his truck in a McDonald’s parking lot. He was arrested and charged with public intoxication.
The arresting officer later testified that he believed Zack was under the influence of a controlled substance and not alcohol. Although the officer was unsure what the controlled substance was, he decided to let him “sleep it off” rather than seek medical attention for him. Zack died the next day, alone on a cold slab of jailhouse concrete, after a blood clot formed in his leg and traveled to his heart.
Had it been me, Zack’s well-heeled older sister, found passed out in her car, I would certainly have been rushed to the emergency room and not to a jail cell. Still, though I will never forgive the police for what happened, I know Zack’s death has layers to it. So many people failed my brother. Including me.
We’re taught that everyone should be responsible for themselves. We’re warned that enabling is no kindness. We’re told our love sometimes needs to be tough. That’s what I was trying to do in that phone call with my brother. But there is a gaping hole at the heart of this logic.
In addition to my brother, I’ve lost my mom and friends to overdoses. Drug addiction is merciless, indiscriminate, unyielding, lonely. When someone extends a hand out of such darkness, we should take it. If the opioid crisis in America has taught us anything, it should be this: It could happen to any of us.
There are no guarantees, I know. If I had said yes to my brother, the story might have still ended the same way. But I’d give anything for a chance to go back in time and find out.
Thursday will be the 10th Thanksgiving since Zack died. Overdose deaths are rising as the covid-19 crisis grinds on. Somewhere in America, a person like my brother is reaching out, and a person like me has a choice to make. In the spirit of the holiday, may empathy and generosity guide her way.