I Lost My Brother to Opioids & 11 Years Later, I’m Finally Picking Up the Pieces

From time to time, I think about "The Hardest Button To Button," the White Stripes song that my older brother played for me in his old yellow car. We were heading back from the dentist when he insisted that I would love this next song — an unlikely claim, considering that I found his musical taste tolerable at best. But as big brother, his duties included educating me on the coolest music, as well as coercing me into suffering through teenaged guitar renditions of his favorite songs. For years, I would see an old yellow car on the road and think it was him. But of course, it never was. It couldn’t be. My brother is dead.

He wasn’t always dead, of course; he was very much alive when he played me that song. And though as I approached puberty and he aged into adulthood our seven-year age difference made points of bonding fewer and farther between, my brother and I had once been close. When we were younger, my brother would sucker me into watching him play video games for hours in exchange for coveted Mortal Kombat sessions when mom wasn’t around. The difference in our biological bloodline never separated us as kids. That my brother and sister had a different last name than me never crossed my mind. They were my brother and sister, and Mom and Dad were our mom and dad. We lived together, played together, fought together.

Then, when I was seven, Mom and Dad divorced.

At first, the three of us remained as close as ever. But as the custody battle raged out of control, Dad suddenly became only my Dad and I began making the weekend visits to see him alone. What had been a "we" became an "us" and a "them."

When I moved in with Dad two years later, my brother and sister were left behind, ripping the fraying familial fabric at the seams. If our age difference made bonding hard, our separation now made it almost impossible. Though we never lived far apart, I had a new family, a new house, a new sister, a new brother. My brother and sister had each other, a lot of houses, a lot of struggles, a lot of Morgan-less memories. Our shared experiences were confined to holidays, car rides, and occasional weekend visits.

But on that day in his car, this particular song seemed to provide some much-needed common ground, a gateway into a shared interest, a way to go back to just being brother and sister. I was in the last months of middle school — practically an adult, I thought — and felt finally mature enough to relate to my older siblings. In that moment, we were back to being kids, the vast ravine between us shrinking.

So for weeks, I became obsessed. I sought out the boy in my eighth grade class that wore Metallica shirts and asked him if he had any White Stripes CD’s. I paid him a few dollars to burn me all of their albums, which he had to me the next day with perfectly handwritten song lists on the back. I went home and feverishly began learning the lyrics to “The Hardest Button to Button” and familiarizing myself with their music.

As Mother’s Day approached, I had it all planned out. We would all be together for the celebration when, nonchalantly, I would put on my CD and casually sing along to the words. Unpracticed, of course — it was only natural, with my being such a big fan. He would be stunned. Floored. Impressed. Where did his 13-year-old sister learn so much about The White Stripes? Oh, you know, just around. We would go to concerts, hang out, listen to CD’s. The night before Mother's Day, I could barely sleep in anticipation.

The next morning, Mom opened her gifts as we all waited for him to come over. I had just given her Rob Thomas’ Something to Be album and we were about to play it when the phone rang.

He never came over that day. We never went to concerts together or listened to CD’s.

I’m ready to stop being angry. To stop being ashamed. To not let how he died define how he lived.

After my brother died, I stopped listening to The White Stripes. Never mentioned his name. Never visited his grave. I haven’t even spent time with his son.

I was angry. Confused. I felt like his death revealed another aspect of his life to which I couldn’t relate. The day after his death, I boarded the school bus. “Please don’t say anything,” I begged my sister — the beginning of my denial.

While my other sister tattooed his name on her arm, I pretended like it never happened. Washed my memory so the stigma wouldn’t stain — so that I wouldn’t go through life as the Girl with the Brother that Overdosed. To not be followed by whispers in every room: “Poor thing.” “So sad.” “What a shame.” To avoid the guilt of growing apart and then never having a second chance.

My actions went unnoticed. No one questioned my going to school the next day. No one seemed to think it was odd that I simply carried on. Perhaps my denial came as a relief, a way to avoid the uncomfortable discussion of loss. Perhaps everyone thought I was too young to understand, that I’d talk when I was ready, I’d talk when I was older.

Or maybe it was something else.

Maybe it was because when my brother died 11 years ago, it was a death so surrounded by stigma that I was completely paralyzed with shame. To me, opioids were associated with rock stars or criminals. My brother was certainly no rock star. So I mourned his death in silence, afraid people might think he was a bad person. A junkie. A loser.

Or worse, they might think I was a bad person. A future junkie by association.

No one wants themselves or their brother thought of like that, to be immortalized in immorality, especially in the heart of the Bible Belt. Sometimes I wondered why it couldn’t have been a car accident, a sickness, a more acceptable death that I could talk about. I felt the way he died denied me the right to mourn, and made all the condolences clouded with condescension. Even to some closest to me, his life was not one to be celebrated or mourned, but a cautionary tale of bad decision making. Plus, he was only my “half” brother, so I should really have only been half sad, right?

So here I am, having successfully reached the age of 25 with very few people knowing that I even have a brother. But your mid-twenties have a way of greatly reducing both the ability to handle hard liquor and compartmentalized emotions — next thing you know, they both start coming up in bar bathrooms. Struggling against the stereotypical waves of a quarter life crisis, I’ve realized that I can’t keep hiding my brother’s death unless I plan to drown inside my own head. And since I’ve gone my entire life feeling like I couldn’t tell anyone, I’ve decided to tell everyone.

As opioid use has unfortunately become a topic of national conversation, my own brother’s death also no longer feels like something to hide. It pains me to admit my ability to discuss his death largely comes from an increase in opioid awareness, a shameful realization that replaces my previous guilt. I wish I could say that it’s something I would have openly talked about otherwise, but I’ll never really know if that’s true.

In the years after his death, I thought I could somehow wake up and it would all disappear. That maybe we would be back in the car and time could just start over. But it won’t. And 11 years later, I am finally ready to move on, and stop being stuck in that moment. I’m ready to stop being angry. To stop being ashamed. To not let how he died define how he lived. To piece together his identity outside of those car rides and video games. I can no longer live in denial; he wouldn’t want it that way.

I played that White Stripes song recently. He'd be happy to hear that I still know the words.

Images: Pixabay, Morgan Bost