Thursday, August 4, 2016

Winning Essay: "Healing with Love" by Carolyn Robbins

This is the winning essay in the 2016 My Life As 3D Scholarship Essay Contest. Our first-place winner this year is Carolyn Robbins of Chelsea, Michigan. She is a junior at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she is studying political science and history. Carolyn will receive $1500 to help pay her tuition costs this year.

Healing with Love
By Carolyn Robbins

If I had a dollar for every time I heard, "Wow, you two are polar opposites," then I wouldn't be writing this scholarship essay. My brother Eric and I grew up with both of our parents in recovery. Because of that, we were constantly reminded that we had a ninety percent chance of developing an addiction at some point in our lives, most likely to alcohol. Growing up, I took this warning very seriously. Eric, however, was a little more adventurous.

When Eric was in preschool, my mother started to see that he didn't learn the same way that other kids did. His teacher said he was "On the high end of active," which my mother tells me is "Politically correct for 'Your kid is a real spazz.'" By the time he was five years old and starting kindergarten, he was taking medication for ADHD. Being seven years old myself, I thought this meant that Eric just wasn't as smart as I was. As time went on, my understanding of Eric's disorder began to develop and I realized that the traditional sit-down-and-learn schooling environment just wasn't suited for him. However, there was already a divide between us in that I was the overachiever and he was the troublemaker. By the time we were both in high school, this was a full-blown dichotomy.

From years of observing my brother's behavior and knowing that he didn't always fit in with kids at school, I wasn't shocked the first time I caught him smoking marijuana. But I was heartbroken and scared. In a typical "hero child" fashion, I blamed myself for not being a good enough influence for him. At this time, I thought I could keep him away from drugs. I thought I could convince him to turn around. I knew he was starting to fall in with a rougher crowd of friends, and I encouraged him to cut ties. Of course, Eric was having none of that.

Carolyn with her brother Eric.
I was also worried because I knew that marijuana is a gateway to other drugs, and I didn't see Eric turning anything down. I felt scared that Eric would encounter law enforcement. I was also selfishly worried that his habits and attitude would begin to reflect poorly on me. Deep down, I still hoped this was only a phase.

It wasn't a phase. One year later, I heard some noise outside of my bedroom at 2:00 AM. I knew it was Eric, of course, but something about it seemed strange, so I went to see what was going on. I found my brother stumbling around between the bathroom and his bedroom. His movements were very fluid and it seemed like he didn't have control. I asked him what was going on and he slurred the words "drunk" and "Jack Daniels" to me between giggles. It wasn't hard to put two and two together, so when I finally got him to lie down, I was determined to stay up next to him all night and scold him in the morning. Somewhere along the way, he stood up, fell, and hit his head on his dresser. My initial plan to cover for him and scold him myself in order to save my parents some heartbreak was foiled. We ended up in the emergency room. Eric was half passed out, half kicking and screaming. The nurses told me my brother had a Blood Alcohol Level of .244. I knew this was only the beginning. Eric had shown no signs of slowing down when it came to experimenting with substances, and at this time he still had three years of high school left ahead of him.

At this point, I had been facing my brother's growing addiction for about three years. Around this time, I began to experience panic attacks regularly. During these panic attacks, I couldn't catch my breath. Only one thought would go through my head, "Something really bad is going to happen." When these attacks were almost daily, I began seeing a therapist. I was pretty resistant to therapy when I first started. I didn't want to be helped. In my opinion, Eric was the one who needed help. My therapist helped me to recognize the different roles and co-dependencies in my family. She helped by giving me strategies to break these molds, and to detach when necessary.

Our whole house could smell like marijuana, but no one would admit that they noticed. My clothes smelled like smoke, the car we shared smelled like smoke, and I worried people would begin to wonder about me and whether or not I was using like my brother was. One of my biggest fears was getting pulled over and having my car searched. I knew there was marijuana hidden somewhere, but I could never find it. I was worried a police officer would find it and I would have to face charges myself. I was constantly told that I was imagining things, that I was crazy, and that I didn’t know what I was talking about because I myself have never smoked marijuana.

There were many times I felt betrayed by my parents. It always felt like they weren't acknowledging the problem, which was extra painful because they are recovering addicts. There was excuse after excuse. "You two are different." "He has ADHD, it's harder for him." "At least he isn't drinking." And my personal favorite, "He’s a boy." I would be the only person to acknowledge that Eric had a problem with marijuana, alcohol, and eventually with prescription drugs. As a sibling, I was helpless. Over time, I learned that my influence was not enough. I didn't have the authority to punish Eric, or anything like that. I felt like Eric hated me for getting in the way of using and my parents resented me for criticizing their parenting. For me, all of this culminated in feelings of isolation, hurt, and most of all, anxiety.

My therapist encouraged me to "detach with love" from my painful family situation. Starting college was a great time to do this. I was finally attending my dream college, the University of Michigan, and even though it is only a half hour away from home, it was distance enough to begin to detach and try to grow independently as a young adult. My main focus was to succeed academically and build a financially stable life for myself so that I ultimately would not have to rely on my parents. I wanted to escape the toxic family dynamic back at home as soon as I could. The summer after my freshman year of college, I moved home again. My plan was not to involve myself or start any arguments when I knew Eric was using. That plan didn't last long, as I was still clinging to a hope of getting him into recovery, or at least admitting there was a problem. I went to my first day of my summer job at a bridal shop smelling strongly of marijuana smoke, despite my attempts to cover it up. I was incredibly upset and embarrassed about it. When I brought it up to my parents, it was the same argument over and over again, "You're imagining things."

One night, Eric and I were staying at our family's cottage. Eric had previously been staying there alone for a couple of days, with my grandparents next door on one side, and my aunt next door on the other side. It was his favorite place. Because my parents are in recovery, there is never alcohol in our cottage. However, other family members do drink, so there is alcohol accessible to a determined and sneaky teenager. When I went to put a soda can in the recycling bin, I opened it to see that it was filled with beer cans, top to bottom and side to side. It was not an "I had a couple," or a "Well I’ve been out here for a week" amount of cans. It was an "I cannot stop" amount. That's when I began to see my brother's drinking habits as something I would not be able to stop, something my parents would not be able to stop, and something that required a twelve-step program. I had stopped seeing this as an experimentation phase for my brother and started seeing it as the disease that was already so prominent in my family. He wasn't going to stop until he wanted to. And at this point, he didn’t want to.

When I went back to U of M in the fall, I became a part of the Students for Recovery group on campus. I became friends with numerous young people in recovery. I knew that it was best for me to remain healthily detached from my painful family situation, but I was beginning to understand the need to lead with love rather than trying to force Eric into recovery. I even went to my first Al-Anon meeting. I really liked the people I met and I planned to keep going. But six days later, Eric died in a drunk driving accident.

There's something about a sibling that's different from any other relationship. You can laugh and joke, you can scream and fight. And at the end of the day they're still in your life because they have to be. Siblings just are. Siblings have a connection whether they want to or not. They're one of the few people who really know you, because they've known you since the beginning. I don't have a single memory of my life before Eric. We were only two years apart. When I was in tears after my high school boyfriend cheated on me, 15-year-old Eric was first on scene to offer to beat him up (as brothers do). We drove to school together every day in our red Jeep, either bickering or shamelessly singing along to the radio. Eric was the first person I told when I was accepted to my dream school. He extended a silent but genuine "fist bump." I have millions of funny jokes and memories from growing up together. When we fought, we were constantly reminded, "It’s just the two of you, so you'd better find a way to get along." I had complete faith that Eric was eventually going to recover, and I was excited to embrace a healthier relationship when he finally did. Unfortunately, we never had that chance.

I could have said, "I told you so." I could have said, "I tried and you didn’t." Because I did tell them so, and I did try. I felt like I made my whole family hate me because I was trying so hard to change Eric, and it was all for nothing. But I didn't say those things, even when I really wanted to. I realized that even though they may not have handled things the same way I did, neither of my parents wanted to see Eric fall into the same world they worked so hard to escape. We all wanted to see him recover and we all handled it differently. It’s never fair, but the timing of this felt particularly unfair. Eric was seventeen years old when he died. He was a senior in high school. The fact that it was Halloween gave it an even eerier feeling. I woke up that morning and he was just gone. He had died instantly upon impact with a tree, drunkenly driving our Jeep. We were all thankful that he didn’t suffer or take anyone with him, but the fact that it happened so quickly gave the situation a sense of urgency and shock that I couldn't shake for close to three months. It took a long time for me to feel safe again.

Carolyn with her dog Teddy.
I backtracked on any progress I had made with my own depression, anxiety, and overall mental health. I wanted to drop out of school, I wanted to drink for the first time in my life, and I even contemplated suicide. But none of those things happened. Nine days after Eric's accident, I was back in class. I lived my days in a fog. At night I either couldn't fall asleep, or I was woken up by graphic nightmares about my brother's accident. I was acting out all the time. I was very irritable, depressed, unreliable, and often physically ill. I could barely complete my work. I felt embarrassed and ashamed for not being able to bounce back and compete with my peers at the level that I had before Eric died. But something in me told me to keep going anyway. Even if my work was low-quality, it was important that I keep doing it. It was important to maintain contact with the friends I had made in recovery, and it was important to keep talking about my grief, even if I didn't want to. I always found an open ear in the recovery community.

It has been eight months since my brother died and I'm still not sure how to live my life without him in it, but I am trying to grow and develop despite my ongoing grief process. I've found that the most comforting way to do so has been to embody the traits that hid under Eric's disease. Eric was persistent, loyal, funny, optimistic, and most importantly, he was kind. He would jump at the chance to help anyone who needed it. I wish he could know that he was able to give the ultimate gift of kindness to many people after he passed. Although his organs were not able to be donated, his corneas have helped two people gain sight, his tissue has helped people regain mobility, and his skin has helped countless burn victims.

One of my dreams is to live a full life for myself, but also for Eric and all of the years he missed out on. My family is lucky enough to have some of Eric's last writings, which came from journal entries for his "Senior Seminar" class at school. One of these journals included a bucket list. While I don't intend to own a bar, and I'm pretty iffy on the whole skydiving thing, there are a few things from Eric's bucket list that match dreams of my own. I hope to experience them for the both of us. The first is to fight poverty. I thought this was a cool and somewhat unexpected thing for my brother to have on his bucket list. Little did he know that for the last two years, I have been a part of a group on campus (the ONE campaign) that works to fight extreme poverty. The next thing on Eric's list was to spend a year in Ireland. I never knew that was something that both of us wanted to do. While I may not be able to spend a year in Ireland, I do plan to travel there someday to see where our family came from. The last thing on Eric's list that I would like to do is give back to my parents. I'd ultimately like to pay them back the money they've contributed to my schooling, because I know they've always done everything they can to make sure Eric and I had everything we needed.

Eric probably never even thought to put "graduate from high school" on his bucket list, but that was where I took my first steps to truly moving forward and living for the both of us. When they called his name at Chelsea High School's graduation ceremony last month, I walked across the stage and received Eric's honorary high school diploma from his favorite teacher on his behalf. It felt a lot like when I stood up to read at his funeral. Everyone was watching me. And to be honest, I hated every second. But I know that Eric waited his whole life for that moment, and it was important that someone experienced it for him. And even though it was going to be difficult for him to battle his ADHD, I had complete faith that he was going to graduate just like I had faith that he would eventually make it into a recovery program.

I also intend to pursue dreams of my own. Some have changed since Eric passed, but many have stayed the same. I intend to graduate from the University of Michigan with two majors, history and political science. I have always wanted to pursue work in counterterrorism. I would like to see the world, raise a family, rescue animals, and tell my story by writing a screenplay. A dream of mine that has developed since Eric died has been to increase my presence in the recovery community. My experiences so far have helped me to cope with my loss in a healthy way. I would love to be an open ear to people who have similar experiences to my own, especially siblings of addicts. The recovery community is gratifying for both those who seek help and those who receive it, and I would love to become more involved in Al-Anon.

My biggest dream is to live a life free from anxiety. I hope that one day, I can be free from my feelings of regret surrounding my brother's addiction and death. I was fighting an impossible battle, and that battle wasn't even mine. It can be very difficult not to look back and think of what else I could have done, or blame myself for not doing more. However, I hope to one day heal through a process of self-acceptance and love. I know that increasing my involvement with the recovery community is an excellent place to start.

Carolyn accepting her brother's honorary high school diploma.
(Photo by Junfu Han of the Ann Arbor News.)


  1. I am so moved by your story, thank you so much for sharing it! I have four children, one of which did make it into recovery, thank God! I am honored to share your story with as many people as I can! I wish you all the best in conquering every dream, and then some.

  2. Carolyn -thank you for sharing your story. You set a lucid and powerful example of how one can move through grief in a positive way. Your grace and determination, and love for your brother Eric and parents shine through.

  3. I was in the audience, at my niece's graduation this spring, when you walked across the stage, Carolyn. I didn't know the whole story at the time, but I knew from the reaction of people around me that it was a moving, emotional moment. You received the loudest applause of the day -- for Eric. But also for you. Bravo! You have clearly carried a burden for and because of your brother, you've borne it with grace, and I'm glad you also recognize the gifts that that extra responsibility can bring. Thank you for sharing your story, and Eric's, and congratulations!