Even To The Best of Us…

It was my oldest brother’s 58th birthday on Wednesday. He died in 1995, the official cause of which was AIDS. But it was heroin that pushed the spade into the plot of land that became his grave. Gus was a junkie.

Most years, July 16 comes and goes as just another summer day for me. I never talk much about Gus. His struggle with heroin addiction is not a topic I bring up in every day conversation, if you know what I mean. Some things are better left unsaid.

Until now. Last week when I read this story in my local paper and knew that it was time to speak up.

Parents’ struggle to save teen from heroin’s clutches

Newsday columnist Joye Brown, did a great job covering this story, giving perspective into Natalie Ciappa’s brief life story, and reminding us that it’s not just the drug user who suffers from its use.

My family suffered along with Gus. I was much too young to remember how he got hooked on heroin. He was already out of high school and in the Air Force before I reached first grade. My earliest recollections are that of a nice, clean-cut teenager, but the person who returned home to our New York apartment in 1972 was someone totally unrecognizable.

He had long hair and a scraggly beard that covered a gaunt pale face. His arms and legs were spindly, and he was constantly running his hands over his face and pinching his nostrils, hiding a look perpetual of drowsiness. These are but a few of the symptoms of heroin use. We didn’t know it, yet, but my brother Gus was high and there was not much we could do to stop him.

At his worst, Gus would take or sell anything he could carry from our home to satiate his jones. Cash, clothes, books and jewelry were easy marks. When I was 19, I caught him walking off with the portable typewriter I got as a birthday present from my parents. “I’m just borrowing it”, he said as he walked out the door. I just let him take it because I was too trusting and too afraid to resist.

When the well ran dry at home, he resorted to petty crime, mugging people on the subways for a few bucks. The law caught up to him in 1985; he was busted for robbing an old woman of her purse. He did 24 months in the Queens County (NY) Correctional Facility for that one.

There was an upside to Gus though. Like Natalie, Gus was a super-smart kid with a talent for anything he put his mind to. “Jack of all trades, master of none” is what my mother-in-law used to call people who spread themselves thin with varied interests. My brother Gus was the exception. He learned to play guitar on his own and took his music seriously, forming a band called The Delivery Boys which once played on the same bill at CBGBs with The Talking Heads back in the late 70s. Painting, too, came naturally to him. He literally picked up some brushes, acrylic paints and some canvases and painted several landscapes, one of which still hangs in my parents’ living room.

But his were wasted gifts. For every moment of lucid brilliance there were three where he was too high to function. I have quite a few vivid memories of those moments. More often than not, I’d find Gus sprawled out on a couch or bed, on his back, eyes half open, with a burning cigarette dangling from his mouth or hand. There was another time when I was playing in front of my apartment building when paramedics showed up with a gurney, only to emerge minutes later carrying Gus out cold with an IV coming out his arm and my parents desperately in tow. How does a 10-year old kid even begin to explain this? Thankfully, I never had to. On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the heartache of drug addiction was considered normal.

I can’t begin to tell you what my parents went through with Gus. They did all they could to rescue him. They spoke to doctors and social workers to try and get him help and there were times when it looked like he turned the corner. But helping a junkie stay clean is a 24×7 job. They could not spend every moment of the day with him. They had jobs and bills to pay and six other kids to raise. Unlike some strung out entertainers, they couldn’t afford to put him up at Betty Ford or Phoenix House. So this vicious cycle continued for years — a few months high, a few months sober, a masochistic yo-yo of hope and despair.

My brother Joe suffered much of Gus’s addiction, too. He was probably the closest to Gus because he spent the most time with him. Joe was the front man for the Delivery Boys. He idolized Gus not only because he tapped him to sing in his band, but because he was also our “cool” older brother. After Gus died, I recall talking to Joe about how conflicted he was over his relationship with him. Pure love and hate wrapped in one idea and often expressed in the same breath. It was Joe who took over as Gus’s “guardian” when my parents finally had enough and tossed him from the house. Joe got him help from the Veterans Administration and saw to it that he made his appointments and took his meds, even to the point of dragging him out of abandoned tenements known as shooting galleries. There were lots of them in New York City in 1984, so finding Gus wasn’t always an easy task.

When Gus left jail in 1987, my parents let him come live with us in Queens. He came back to our house in South Richmond Hill with some dire news. He had HIV. No one believed him at first, but he showed my parents the proof, having been tested while he was in jail. He probably caught it from a shared hypodermic needle; a point of probable fact because if there’s anything you should know about heroin junkies, they’ll do anything for a hit.

He was a model citizen after that. After jail, he helped Joe set up a rehearsal studio on Ludlow Street in Manhattan, taking care of the bookings, collecting fees and making sure to open and close it up. I think Joe let him have whatever was left over after paying the rent on the space, which was quite a bit of cash sometimes. Gus had turned the corner. He was going for drug counseling and keeping his doctor’s appointments. He even started writing new music and purchased a new acoustic guitar with the money he made. He smoked quite a bit of pot, too. Strangely enough, the effect it had on him was medicinal because he was eating like a fiend and gaining weight.

By early 1995, having been clean of heroin for nearly 8 years, it all came crashing down again. Gus had missed some doctor’s appointments and he could no longer be counted on to help out with the rehearsal studio. Joe thought it was heroin again and drove him to where my parents were living in New Jersey. I was there the day he drove Gus over. Joe stormed into the house, dropped him off and said “I can’t take this shit anymore” and drove away. As it turns out, Gus wasn’t using at all, but suffering from the dementia associated with the late stages of HIV. He had AIDS.

The end came fairly quickly for Gus. His doctor at the VA checked him into Goldwater Memorial Hospital shortly after the incident at my parents’ house. Six months later his heart gave out. Joe and I were there when it happened. Joe called me at work to ask if I would go to the hospital with him. “Gus had to be revived last night,” he said. “The doctor doesn’t think he’ll last.” We showed up to find him unconscious. The heart rate monitor next to his bed barely registered a pulse. Joe stroked his head and whispered a few kind words in his ears. That’s when the line on the monitor went flat. Gus was gone.

Death offered us little relief. I never saw my brother Joe cry like he did that day. Years of anguish came pouring from him because despite all the shit Gus put us through, he was still our brother. We still loved him. My mother’s reaction was no less visceral. I could hear her wail through the payphone receiver when I told her the bad news. What’s a mother to do?

Me? I didn’t cry much. I was angry in the weeks after his death. But not many tears. Joe gave me Gus’s guitar, which now belongs to my oldest son. Again, I chose to bury it all and not talk of him much.

Until now. When Natalie’s story appeared in the paper, it was as if I was reading an abbreviated version of my own family’s tale. One e-mail sent to Ms. Brown took the calloused view that the Ciappa family got off easy. In a detached sense, that may be true, but I don’t agree. Family is family. It makes no difference whether the cause of death is drugs or nature. It hurts. You miss them all the same.

What I will say to all of you is this. If someone close to you is using heroin or some other powerful opiate, don’t keep it to yourself. The big mistake we made as a family — a mistake repeated by the Ciappas — was seeing a family member’s drug addiction as a point of shame or failure. It’s not. If the recent rise in reported heroin usage is any indication, it should tell you that this could happen even to best of us. Talk to people. Get help. Do research. There really is hope for the hopelessness of heroin.

~ by Spartacus on July 18, 2008.

26 Responses to “Even To The Best of Us…”

  1. Oh, Spartacus!

    What a tale. I’m so stunned I can hardly function.

    Thanks for sharing,


  2. Phew.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Spartacus, this post tears at my heart. I feel for you, for your family, and for Gus. I have had a similar experience. And yes, it took 24 hour a day companionship to help my family member. I think it has worked. I hope. Wish us well, as we wish you well.

    Geez, in this fucking war on drugs, why, why, why can we not help the fucking victims? Doesn’t that seem like the logical approach?

  4. How does one comment on something like this without sounding stupid? You’re right, man, intervention, early. And so is SWB, get them help. Locking them up doesn’t do a fucking thing.

  5. I am really sorry. A great write. I cannot say anything else.

  6. Tengrain – Do what Splotchy did: take a deep breath and let it out. I shared this because in the hopes I can help someone who knows, lives with or loves a Natalie or Gus.

    Splotchy – You’re welcome.

    Scarlet – Indeed, I do wish you well because this you probably know as well as I do how drug addiction can tear apart a family. And there is help for the victims, but that helps starts by talking about it. Again, I wish you and your family well, and thanks for your kind words to mine.

    Randal – You answered your own question with your thoughtful comment. Getting an addict help early is the key, but sadly, it’s only one half of the equation. The addict has to want the help.

  7. Okjimmm – it’s cool. Thanks.

  8. Coming from a family riddled with addiction and the associated personal tragedies that fan out to consume and destroy the guilty and the innocent alike, I can only tell you that I understand how certain days, dates, times, what have you, arrive bearing ugly gifts on a yearly basis.
    I hope when I say “I here you,” you understand that to mean I know how such a tragedy can have seared your soul. Be well.

  9. … i meant to say … “I hear you,” …

  10. Man what a story.

  11. Oh my – there really are few words here.

    And yes – you are so right, the real act of love is to speak up, so easy to say and so very hard to do.

  12. i’m sorry for your brother and you and your family…… i glad you could write so well about the effects of the heroin addiction though…… i found this and hope you like it….

  13. Spartacus, thank you for sharing this heartbreaking story. I hope it helps someone else who may be going through the same experience.

  14. This is so authentic, so sad and poignant. I’m sorry you lost Gus to this addiction and subsequent lifestyle. I can only imagine the ongoing hell your family went through.

  15. I was lucky enough to get to meet gus and to love him. I saw first hand the heartbreak this awful drug can cause. I only hope your heartfelt words can help someone else whose loved one is battling an addiction. We all miss you Gus!

  16. Thanks, Spartacus. This had to be hard to write. Thank you for writing it. My sister-in-law’s youngest brother was doing heroin (smoking, I think, not shooting it up) but he stopped and seemed to have beaten the addiction. But he was feeling depressed–this after years of no use–and apparently got a hold of some heroin. And he died. My sister-in-law is still raw with pain over a year later. Hope you and your family have found peace.

  17. Spartacus, I’m totally moved. I have no words.

  18. Anita – Here. Hear. The words don’t matter to me. It’s the sentiment that counts. Thanks.

    UC – much appreciated. It needed to be told.

    Fran – there are lots of words. But speaking up for someone you love is a good start.

    ghostdansing – Thanks for the sentiment and the Leonard Cohen video. I loved it.

    MG – You’re welcome. I hope it helps, too.

    Maria – The hell is over for us, but like Anita said, every now and then we get reminders.

    skippy – baby, you know our family’s pain more than anyone. Thanks for hanging in there with us. :X

    PiNYC – Your welcome. This was a hard one to write. I’m sorry to hear about your sister-in-law’s brother and I empathize with her pain. It’s because you love them that it hurts so much. All the same, I hate it for her that she has to go through it.

  19. Morse – It’s cool. Much appreciated.

  20. Hi Spartacus:
    My name is Dan and I’m a recovering (June 3, 1991) alcoholic and drug addict. It took me the best part of 90 minutes to read this post, as I had to keep leaving my computer to sort and control my emotions.

    I later went to college to learn specifically how to try to help those like Gus and I. What you wrote brought back the memories of those I’d seen “not make it” while I was practicing, and again later, working in clinics.

    “was seeing a family member’s drug addiction as a point of shame or failure. It’s not.”
    No it isn’t. Addicts are very good people with some very bad habits. Unfortunately, we are still viewed as second class citizens, and because of that, too often, we leave a stain upon family reputations.

    “But helping a junkie stay clean is a 24×7 job. “
    Addiction is not just a personal problem. The effects of addiction are like a Tsunami. As hard as it is for the family, they have to constantly live with the cold reality of knowing the addict could relapse at any moment and years of hard work goes down the drain in an instant. There is no cure. It is a never ending toil of love….and disappointment. The rewards, for both the family and the addict, is measured in hours. Every 24 of them that we spend sober is a reward for all of us. The number of years so9ber don’t mean anything. That’s all yesterday. The ONLY thing that matters is today. “How bad do I want it?” Speaking as an addict and an alcoholic, there are many days in our early days of recovery that we’re paralyzed with fear – and desire. So long as I live, I will never forget the people during those times, who held me tight when all I could do was cry like a baby!

    What you wrote here will do Gus no good. But it may keep another “Gus” from happening.

    Thank You for the reminder that the shit sill kills. It doesn’t care who, where, when. It only kills and moves on.

    I wish you nothing but the best!!

  21. Dear Spartacus,
    When you give pieces of your life story you give us all. I have no words to express the love and sadness I felt when you told us about Gus. Thank you.

  22. Spartacus, July 18 was my 20th anniversary clean and sober. I came here because The Future Was Yesterday linked your post in a comment over at my place. Your brother died clean, with a side effect of his disease – AIDS. It is the reason why you need to hate the addiction, not the addict.

    Your family suffered – the effects on a family are deeper than most people will realize or even admit – and thank god for Alanon because it helps families of alcoholics and addicts to recover from the insanity of the disease – which is, in fact, a mental illness with a physical allergy. Your brother suffered – believe me, he suffered more than anyone who is not an addict or alcoholic can begin to imagine – because in no way did he want to cause the agony that he caused. He had no choice when he was using. Heroin was his higher power.

    Your story is incredibly loving. That you’ve given the guitar to your son speaks volumes to me about YOUR capacity for love and tolerance, and I honor your path. I pray your family does not have to suffer from the disease of addiction or alcoholism again.

  23. Dan – it appears that part of your comment has been cut and pasted by Matt (that is, if you’re not one in the same person). No matter. Thank you for your words of understanding and encouragement. I wish you all the best in your efforts to stay clean and sober. Peace.

    Susan – you’re very welcome. You know, as I do, that love given is love returned. But please, no more sadness over Gus. He passed 13 years ago, and while he will always remain in my heart and memory, I told our tale in the hopes that it would help someone, anyone, dealing with the pain of drug addiction now.

    Divajood – Please know how proud I am of you for staying clean for 20 years. That is indeed a huge accomplishment, not only for yourself, but for the people who love you and need you. Yes, Gus did suffer and we suffered along with him, but with your comment, you reminded me that he did not die in vain. Thanks for that and for your words of encouragement.

  24. Spartacus, that was some well written account of your brother and so loving and understanding. Well done.

    My younger brother died of a drug overdose on February 18, 1979. It seems so far away now but I can relate to all the suffering that the family goes through along with the addict. Years later I wonder what we could have done differently. Psychiatrics are different now… maybe there could have been hope for him. I don’t know.

  25. Thanks Blondesense. I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your younger brother and for the suffering you and your family went through because of his addiction. While it’s true that the psychiatrics are different now in that there is a larger body of evidence to work from in how to treat addicts more effectively, there’s still a wide gulf of understanding between those who think addicts are completely responsible for their actions and those who have to deal addicts on a daily basis. Unfortunately, many of those who don’t understand drug addiction are also elected officials. Hence, the silence on the part of families like the Ciappas and my own.

  26. I lost my nephew a year and half ago and my own daughter to heroin a little less then 1 year ago. She was a single mom, just 27 years old and her daughter just 2 1/2. We are grandparents now raising her daughter and she is missed so deeply. I understand your tale so immensly and sometimes cry out in silence because there is no pain greater than the endurance of an heroin addict. My daughter rests now.

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