Addiction from a Distance
It all started when my siblings and I discussed our upcoming trip to Mexico. I was ten at the time and it had been three years since I had seen my family in Mexico. We were all very excited to be able to see them once again and started to recount all of the adventures we had on our last trip to Mexico. We reminisced about the cousin who thought we were strange because we spoke a different language and came from a different country, and even though we spoke Spanish like him we spoke it differently. We had an accent, and he apparently did not. We all laughed about him and started bringing up everyone we had met on our last trip and what we thought of them. Then suddenly, I asked, “Hey, do you guys remember our Uncle Caesar, he was really nice wasn’t he?” My younger sister gave me “the look”, one I know all too well now, but did not back then, it basically meant drop it, and be quiet if you know what’s good for you. I, not having yet mastered the art of being perceptive, asked exasperated “What? Our uncle, don’t any of you remember him tall, friendly, Jonathan and Adrian’s father?” All laughter ceased the moment I finished my question as everyone stayed silent until my brother decided to break the abysmal silence that had taken over the room. He looked me straight in the eyes, making sure I understood the seriousness of the situation and said “Never say his name again especially if Mom or any of the adults are in the room”. Being the curious child I was, I didn’t understand why he would say that and simply asked “But why?” My brother knowing, I would not grasp the situation if I was left with my curiosity peaked declared “Because, he’s a drug addict and that’s all you need to know”. As I opened my mouth to ask further about my Uncle my younger sister gave me “the look”, and I swear now, that at that moment I learned what that look exactly meant.
Before the conversation with my siblings I had never really thought about my uncle Caesar. We weren’t exactly close, as I had not seen him in years but from what I could remember he was a nice, friendly person with an encouraging smile. Yet, my image of him had become completely distorted when I was told he was a drug addict. It seemed as if the person I had met had never existed as it didn’t matter that he was a nice person, he was a drug addict, and everyone made it seem as if his drug addiction was what defined him. It didn’t help that whenever I heard anything about him it always displayed him in a negative light. No one seemed to think about his addiction as a problem he needed help with, but instead as a hopeless case. People treated his addiction as a lifestyle choice, as a bad habit he didn’t want to break. As if he had chosen to make his bad decisions and mistakes. People seemed to believe he had willingly wanted to leave his sons and his family for drugs. For many, he was like countless other drug addicts, someone that was better left forgotten and someone that you needed to move on from if you didn’t want to end up stuck in a never ending cycle. Because his addiction was just that never ending.
Like most people I stopped thinking about my Uncle Caesar considering it just seemed to make everyone tense and uncomfortable. That is, until I inadvertently became part of a very awkward situation. It all happened when my siblings and I were in Mexico in my grandmother’s house visiting. We were all in the living room with a couple of our cousins waiting for dinner to be ready when we suddenly hear my grandmother start speaking bitterly about my Uncle Caesar. She was having an argument with my Aunt Elena as to why my Uncle was picking up his sons, her grandsons, as she believed he should be ashamed of even looking at his sons after what he had done. She of course, had not noticed that my Uncle’s son Adrian, was in the living room with us while she scathingly asked my aunt Elena in Spanish “That good for nothing drug addict who left your sister is coming here? How dare he? What’s wrong with him?” My Aunt Elena quickly demanded my grandmother be quiet as she noticed my cousin Adrian’s watery eyes that were threatening to burst into tears in any second. We were then called to dinner as my Aunt and my grandmother didn’t know what else to do. My grandmother looked conflicted as she had an inner debate about whether she should apologize in order to make Adrian feel better or stand her ground as she firmly meant everything she had said. Not knowing what action to take she opts to stay silent instead. As we all sit down to eat our dinner no one knows what to say or do. I don’t think anyone was even in the mood to eat anymore as everyone seemed to move their food around more than that they actually ate. After what seemed like an eternity, I along with many others excuse ourselves from the kitchen as soon as we deem it appropriate enough to leave. I don’t believe I can recall a time where I felt as bad as I did for my cousin as I did in that moment. What can you say to a seven-year-old child to make him feel better about his father’s substance abuse? The only thing I knew at the time was that I had never seen my cousin appear so small and vulnerable before. And I knew then that I wouldn’t ever be able to forget that image.
When all the problems my family was undergoing were happening, I was too young to realize most of what was actually happening. As I recall those moments I feel as if all I really ever did back then was observe everything, take it in, and then nothing. I couldn’t understand what I do know, and that is that my family’s actions were wrong. Although I did not know what was really happening I feel as if I always knew deep down that something was wrong. It was like if I was seeing a house falling down and yet did nothing to stop it. I ignored the problem just like everyone did and although it wasn’t my problem per say I still shouldn’t have neglected it the way I did. Because not acknowledging that a person has a problem when they do substance abuse is a problem in itself. The only way we could have helped my Uncle was acknowledging that he had a substance abuse problem and he needed to seek help. I am just glad that he was able to eventually find help in his darkest hours.
I didn’t see my cousin Adrian or his brother for some years after their parents had gotten a divorce and their father had been in the deep end of his drug abuse. I never expected them to move countries as they moved to America right after their parents split. Their mother, my Aunt Silvia surprised us all when she just decided to leave her home, friends, job and her whole life behind when they moved. My mother was absolutely ecstatic about having another one of her sisters a lot closer to her. I was happy for my mother and because I would able to bond with a part of my family I was not very close to as I had not been around them that often. And yet, my Aunt and cousins were different. They weren’t the same people I had met the first time. There was a certain vulnerability and strangely enough more hardiness in them I had not seen in them the first time around. It seemed as if they were ready to take on a different world as they had already been through the worse with my Uncle’s drug addiction. It was dejecting to see how drugs had forced my cousins and Aunt to undergo all types of changes. They would never be the same people I had met because now they had gone through something that had marked them for the rest of their lives.
As I grew older I started to understand that my Uncle’s drug addiction didn’t just leave a devastating mark on my cousins but on my Aunt as well. My Aunt Silvia is someone everyone has always admired because of her strength, determination and overall ability to move forward and persevere. I never realized how hard it truly had been for her to leave her husband until she discussed it with me one night. She slept over in my house and was sharing my room as it had two beds at the time. We were staying up a bit late and talking about movies, celebrities we thought were attractive, and other meaningless topics when we suddenly started discussing my Uncle and the reason she had left him. She told me it was one of the hardest decisions she had made in her life as she had loved him deeply. Her eyes were a bit watery but filled with fierce determination as she said “I loved him very much but not enough to choose him over my sons. I knew that they couldn’t be around him anymore, not when the drug abuse was getting so out of control. I would rather they think of their father with good memories than with those stained with problems the drugs created”. I had never known all the problems my Aunt had undergone just because of the immense love she felt for her husband. But when push came to shove she was out of there before the true damage could hit her sons as she simply wouldn’t allow the drugs to ruin her sons. It was then, that I comprehended that it wasn’t that she had given up on her husband, but she had chosen instead to protect her sons over staying with her husband in fear that one day the drugs would be too much.
When my cousins first moved to the U.S my mother tried to have me and my sibling speak to them the most we could. She believed that we could help them learn English faster as they had never truly been exposed to the language before. At first I did try to engage them with conversation but I quickly learned that they weren’t taking the change as well as everyone had hoped. But who would? They were uprooted from everything they had known, were supposed to learn a whole new language and were dealing with their parents’ separation. They didn’t say much for a while, but I was old enough then to know that we simply had to give them time. They had to figure things out on their own and conquer the inner demons that plagued them in order to truly move on with their lives. I knew that they missed their other family in Mexico as they had known them all their lives, but I also knew that they would get to know this family and like them just as much. All they needed was time. My Aunt had made sure that their father drug addiction didn’t seep into their lives completely. My cousins were damaged but they weren’t broken. They were resilient and in due time I knew their spirits would be back.
Much later, when the topic of my Uncle Caesar was not as tense as it used to be I started finding out details that changed my perspective on his character. I had never been aware of his life growing up, as his family lived very poorly and he had never had a father. He was a young man when he first took up drugs like many other young boys in his neighborhood. No one in his family ever acknowledged that he had a drug problem and instead believed it was something he could give up at any moment. My Uncle’s mother spoiled him in order to make up for their poverty and the absence of a father figure in his life. She didn’t reprimand him when he deserved it and gave him all the liberty he desired and never set boundaries. When the drugs started getting out of control there wasn’t much his mother could do as she couldn’t do what she had never started. Understanding the environment he lived in, and what influenced his decisions made his image become a lot less distorted as I started to learn why my Uncle Caesar was the person he was. I know that his difficult childhood in no way justified his drug abuse but it does explain why he made mistakes as he was a lot more susceptible to them than many people are. Becoming aware of a drug abuse problem helped me and my family be able to recognize one and be able to be better prepared to help a person in need the next time around.
Two years ago, I went to visit my family in Mexico again. It had been a couple of years since I had last seen them. I never expected to see my cousin’s father once again as he technically was no longer part of my family. I was happily surprised to find that he still kept in touch with my grandparents and family and that he was still considered part of the family. I found out that he had gone to a rehabilitation center, had not done drugs for years and had become a new improved person. He even began to help run the rehabilitation center that had first helped him and has been able to help countless other people who are stuck in the same position he had found himself years back. Being able to stop his drug abuse improved his connection with his sons and his new family as he once again became the friendly man I had first met. After a long struggle he was finally able to find his calling and provide many the help they so desperately need.
Although my Uncle Caesar is not someone I very close to he did play a significant role in my life. His struggle and triumph over his drug addiction completely changed my perspective on drugs and life in general. Seeing the abominable effects drugs had on my family made me want to never be a part of something that could cause so much harm. His situation made me value everything I have and learn from his mistakes. My Uncle Caesar did not let his mistakes define him as he persevered and changed the person he was in order to become a better person. Thanks to him I know that you can be the person you want to be as long as you persevere.