Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Of Lottery Winnings & Younger Siblings of Addicts

This blog post was born out of a series of events that happened recently and ultimately got me thinking. (I do that a lot. Maybe too much?) Please bear with me while I share with you how my crazy brain works sometimes. And please read to the end, because that's where my main point finally comes across. :)

Last Friday, my wife and I joined our younger son, a high school senior, on his first-ever college visit. We went to check out Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Aquinas is the only college our younger son has applied to (so far). The folks at his high school thought it would be a great fit for him because of it's small overall size--about 1,500 students--and small classroom sizes. The more intimate learning environment would be, they think, a good fit for someone with ADHD.

When we arrived at "AQDay," we were looking at it as a general opportunity to visit a college and see what things were all about. After all, we didn't even know if our son would be accepted to the school. (His first two years of public high school were less than stellar and his overall GPA has suffered because of that.)

We were greeted by an admissions counselor who pulled us aside to welcome us. After we exchanged pleasantries, she handed us an envelope with some documents inside. When I opened the envelope, I was a little bit confused. The papers inside were telling us how much financial aid we would receive. I looked them over briefly and then asked the counselor, "Is this how much money we'll get if [our son] is accepted?"

The counselor gave us kind of a funny look and said, "He already has been accepted. Didn't you know that?" Well, we didn't know that. The news came as a total surprise to us because our son had not received an acceptance letter yet. Evidently, that letter was "in the mail."

As pleased as I was to learn that my son had been accepted by Aquinas, my whole outlook on the day changed in an instant. My brain went from thinking I was there for a casual visit to thinking, "Oh, my God. How am I going to pay for this?"

I tend to stress out a bit about money, especially these days. The whole being unemployed thing tends to make me panic even more than I usually do when it comes to finances. (Imagine that!)

We continued on with the tour of the Aquinas campus and attended a few breakout sessions. But I couldn't get my mind off the money thing. After two years of boarding school, some of which was financed by friends and complete strangers via a GoFundMe campaign, my wife and I do not have large sums of money lying around. In fact, we don't have much money at all. And I'm looking for a job. Ugh.

My brain was preoccupied with the money thing from the moment I heard that our son was accepted until we pulled into the driveway at home later that night. The next morning it was time to get online and start looking for scholarships my son might qualify for. Later on, it was time to go buy a lottery ticket. I don't play the lottery very often, but I thought, "What a great thing winning a large sum of money would be in light of what transpired yesterday."

My mind then started thinking about what I would do with the money if I ever did happen to win the lottery. (That's always a fun game to play, right?) Being that my wife and I are not extravagant people, things like buying his and her Lamborghinis and a Tuscan villa are not on my imaginary list of things to do with lottery winnings. I did come up with a few uses for the money, though:

*First and foremost, I'd pay for my younger son's college education. If my older son decides to go back to school, I would pay for that, too.

*I'd buy my mom a little house and make sure she had enough money to live out her life. My mom and dad were not wealthy, and when my dad died last year there was no inheritance for anyone. Zip. Zero. Zilch. So my mom is struggling a bit right now. And she's such a great person who's had such a positive influence on my life.

*I'd make a substantial donation to the Leelanau School. I honestly believe that this is The Greatest High School on Earth (more to come on that in a future blog post). It changed my younger son's life and I want it to be able to change the lives of other kids with special learning needs for years to come.

Those are three things I came up with off the top of my head. That's what I'd do with a large amount of money if I won it. My wife and I don't need a mansion, yacht, airplane, or whatever luxuries some people buy with lottery fortunes. We are simple people and are more about helping others these days.

That mentality is what led me to a fourth thing:

*Start a foundation to help younger siblings of people who have struggled, or are struggling, with addiction.


Younger siblings of addicts are amazingly special people.

Addiction is a family disease, and there's no doubt that it eats away at families in every way possible: emotionally, physically, financially. It affects everyone in the family, too: mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles. But I don't think anyone is affected as much as younger siblings are, because they are so innocent and vulnerable. They really don't know what's going on with this person who means so much to them, or why it's happening.

My younger son was exposed to my older son's addiction for about seven years; from the time he was about 9 until he was about 16. Those are pretty formative years and I regret that our younger son had to experience what he did during that time.

He idolized his big brother and for seven years or so he watched him struggle. He also watched his mom and dad struggle. Through no fault of his own, he was frequently put on "the back burner" while we dealt with the beast known as addiction as it tightened its grips on our older son.

My younger son witnessed so much during those years. He saw his brother go from being a happy, athletic teenager to a depressed soul dependent on drugs. He saw him drop out of high school. He saw him go to multiple rehabs and hospitals. He watched and listened to horrible confrontations in our home. He was a victim of his brother's stealing, whether it was his "piggy bank" getting cleaned out without his knowledge or the family video game console getting traded for drugs. He saw police officers come to our house on a number of occasions. He was, as a young child, caught up in something he never asked to be a part of.

Watching my older son fight the demons of addiction was heartbreaking for me. But watching my younger son have to deal with those same demons secondhand may have been even harder.

I remember one night in particular, shortly after my wife and I found out that our older son was using heroin. Our younger son was upset and crying in our arms. "I don't want [my brother] to die," he said. That about ripped my heart out.

Yet through it all, my younger son handled things pretty well. I'd be lying if I said I don't think he'll be impacted by what he went through for several years to come. But even though he was adversely affected, he was always supportive of his brother. When he was 15 and his brother was in rehab in Palm Springs, California, my younger son not only accompanied me and my wife to Family Weekend at the facility, but actively participated in it. I remember how impressed the facilitator was at my younger son's maturity and sense of compassion.

Unfortunately, an older sibling's addiction also has a negative financial impact on younger siblings. While trying to help an addicted child, parents burn through money like nobody's business. They spend thousands and thousands of dollars on rehab treatment, hospitals, therapy, intensive outpatient programs, sober living houses, special medications, etc. Sometimes they even spend money on college classes that, unbeknownst to them, never get attended. By the time the younger sibling of an addict gets to the point where they need help financially, their parents are quite frequently tapped out. And, once again, the sibling--through no fault of their own--gets moved to the back burner, at least temporarily.

That's pretty much the situation in my world today. Money's too tight to mention, I need a job, and my younger son wants to go to college next year. I never graduated from college, so I'd love for my son to have this opportunity. Whether or not we'll be able to help him financially, though, is a big question mark at this point. We are investigating scholarships, talking to the college's financial aid department, seeking advise from those in the know, etc. But it might be a couple of months before we know one way or the other.

All of what I just talked about is the reason why I'd love to start a foundation to provide financial assistance to younger siblings of addicts. They are innocent victims in the clusterf*ck that is addiction. Their older brother or sister is afflicted with a disease, their parents do all they can to help fight the disease, and the younger sibling gets stuck with the short end of the stick. How wonderful would it be if there was a place for these kids to go to get some help with college tuition or other things?

If I ever win the lottery, I promise you that I will make that happen.

Who knows? Maybe I'll try to make it happen even if I don't win the lottery. (Does anybody have Bill Gates's email address??)

P.S. My older son is 21 months clean and sober today. Just typing that makes me smile from ear to ear.

"If you're not making someone else's life better, then you're wasting your time. Your life will become better by making other lives better." --Will Smith


  1. Excellently put Dean, I know my daughter felt the loneliness of her brothers addiction. I must admit that because she was so mature and self sufficient, that all my energy was directed towards saving my son. I know she loved her brother and wanted him to get better, but I also know she felt abandoned. I can't say I would do any different today, my complete focus was keeping my son alive. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in that endeavor, and my life is forever changed, but so is my daughters life. Her brother will never know the person she may marry. He will not be present at her wedding and he will never know the joy of being an uncle. Along with the tremendous constant pain of his loss, I also must bear the shortchanging of hers. Not a great place to find myself, but in all honestly, I would do it all over again and I would give anything to still have the opportunity to save my son. I think it's a great idea to have a way to help the sibling survivors. I'm in, let me know how I can help. I am listing myself as anonymous but I am a member of atTAckaddiction and met you at our recent 5K. My son is named for the Delaware Good Samaritan 911 Law. John M Perkins, Jr. Borrowed 4-16-1981 returned 5-5-11. <3

  2. You don't need to start a foundation for the younger siblings of addicts -- you, as a parent, should not have spent ALL your resources on his screw up older brother.

    Your younger son totally got the fuzzy end of the lollipop -- and it is YOUR doing.

    Why should others pick up the slack, simply because YOU chose to spend it all on ONE of your kids?!?

    Irresponsible. Totally unfair.

  3. The one thing you can take comfort in is that at every point in their lives, assuming you have more than one child, one or more of your kids will feel that they are getting the short end of the stick. That the other child is getting the new bed, or the new dress, while s/he is getting hand me downs. And another time it will be the other kid who will be getting the good stuff or the accolades. Obviously this is an extreme case, and it's probably similar to the sibling of a child with cancer, or some other terminal illness. There are support groups for those, so I think this is a GREAT idea. Because, as with so many issues surrounding addiction, there is a stigma, and kids fall by the wayside. And I am not talking about YOUR younger son. Although this isn't something you would have wished on him, he has turned into an amazing young man, who is working to overcome a learning difference, got into college, plays music, and most of all, loves his Mommy on her birthday! And the biggest lesson your younger son has learned is that his parents will stand by their children no matter what, and will do whatever it takes to help their children when they are in trouble. That's a pretty freakin' awesome thing to know you can count on. You may not have a lot of money, but you have a lot of LOVE, and he knows you will ALWAYS be there for him.

  4. As the mother of a recovering addict with 3 younger siblings I can so understand your feelings. It is such a struggle to try to sheild my younger children from the trauma of what they witnessed over and over and over again. It is a struggle to create a new normal in the aftermath of what addiction does to a family. It is also a struggle to watch these younger children put aside some very difficult feelings and accept their now sober brother back into their hearts knowing that they could get hurt again. Love is healing and love hurts sometimes but with love their is always hope.

  5. Is there any way you can get your old job back to at least have some income while you continue to look for something else?

  6. Well, here's what we did at Chateau Johnson about college tuition. My husband who is a good writer (like you, Dean) wrote a heartfelt "special circumstances" letter to the college financial aid department, every year. It helped to get more aid. For instance, if they use your 2013 income taxes to determine financial need, that information is already outdated by your employment circumstances. All of that aside, I think a foundation like the one you propose is a terrific idea.