A Semi-Outsider's Experience with Drug Addiction

My little brother is a drug addict.

He’s been clean for over a year now, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s an addict.

I don’t remember how old Zach was when he started using drugs, but I know I was pregnant with my son the first time my parents sent him to a sort of “rehab”. At the time, he was only smoking marijuana, but he was also 14-15 which really isn’t advisable regardless of where you stand on the “legalize it” front.

He got into recreational drugs quite early, doing hallucinogens in my parent’s basement, smoking and taking pills. I honestly think a lot of it was that teenage experimentation/peer pressure that a lot of kids experience. It took a turn for the worst when he blew out his knee playing football.

It was a long time ago, and I don’t remember specifics, but I know he started out with prescription painkillers. Like many heroin addicts, his addiction started with a medication he was over-prescribed by a careless doctor. Unpopular opinion maybe, but I firmly believe that our healthcare system is at the root of the opioid epidemic after our experiences with my brother.

Zach isn’t a typical drug addict. He’s an addict with additional trauma. He’s adopted, as the rest of us in the family are, and his biological mom was the most disgusting type of human on the planet. After Zachary was born, it was clear that he was withdrawing from drugs. When asked, his biological mother said “she did everything.” Pills, drinking, meth, crack, heroin, all the drugs she could get her hands on. She didn’t care. So Zach was born damaged. His brain didn’t develop correctly. He had fetal alcohol effects (never diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome but we suspect it was) and the frontal cortex of his brain was damaged. If you know Zach personally, and you understand what that type of damage means, it clicks almost instantly. Zach is one of the smartest, most talented, gifted people I’ve ever met. He truly has the voice of an angel. Move over Bieber, Harry Styles, whoever you are- Zach can sing better than all of them. And he’s musical in other ways. He plays the piano and writes his own music. He plays the guitar and can pick up instruments quickly without a lot of struggle. He also draws. He creates photorealistic portraits, most recently with black ball point pen. Being in prison creates some artistic setbacks. When he was out of prison about a year ago, he started tattooing. His tattoos look like the work of someone with a career’s worth of experience, not someone who just started with “prison tats” and got a tattoo gun off the internet.

I don’t feel that it would be fair for me to tell my side of the story with regard to Zach without sharing all sides of him. When we were kids, we fought constantly. We hated each other at home. My brother Levi actually sent me a meme the other day that said “Some of you haven’t been chased around the house by your brother wielding a knife while your parents weren’t home and it shows”. We laughed, but that really happened, and it happened more often than we’d like to really admit. While we fought at home, we were firmly on each other’s teams at school or in public. If someone picked a fight with me, they picked a fight with Zach. And if some girl tried messing with my brother’s heart, or some punk tried to beat him up, they got to go through me first. We were ruthless when defending each other. Family came first outside the home. We taught each other how to defend ourselves, and even despite the size difference, people knew not to mess with either one of us. In the throws of his drug addiction, I was at a party with some friends. This random guy said something super inappropriate to me and another guy at the party said “Don’t you know who that is? That’s Forsberg’s older sister.” I have never heard a more heartfelt apology in my life. He begged me not to tell my brother what he had just said to me. It was like something out of a movie. But that’s how our sibling relationship was. You just didn’t mess with the Forsberg siblings. I realize it sounds like a joke. I would normally think I was blowing it all up- if it weren’t for that apology at the party. Maybe we were ghetto. I don’t know, and I don’t care. High school was rough for both of us. I do know that even to this day, if it came down to it, Zach and I would have each other’s backs. And in a fight, I’d want him on my side ten times out of ten.

I realize this sounds super weird, but when Zach was just on heroin, he was manageable. He was a “functioning” addict, if there really is such a thing. He had good jobs in marketing and sales, he was maintaining relationships and would be “calm” around the family. That being said, it still took a toll on everyone involved. He stole a lot from my family. Playstations would go missing. Tools were pawned. Drawers were gone through. It was a very regular occurrence.

Depending on who you ask in the family, you’ll get varying opinions on how all of that was handled. You’re reading my blog, so you’re hearing it from me. Maybe I should put some sort of “this is just my point of view” type disclaimer in here. I realize it’s a controversial subject, and I’m talking about my own family. This is real life. This stuff all really happened, some of it is even public record. And if the opioid epidemic wasn’t destroying millions of lives every year, I wouldn’t be making this such a thing. But it is, and it does, so here we are.

My family is wealthy. My dad is a doctor and was extremely financially savvy. He spent far less than he earned, saved as much as he could, and chose purposefully not to flash his wealth. (A lot of us could learn from that, me included.) Because my dad had a substantial income, having our xbox and playstation stolen, having money or tools or random household objects go missing wasn’t that big of a deal to our family. It was obviously annoying and frustrating, but it wasn’t the end of the world. In some ways, obviously that’s a very good thing for my family. In others, it set him up for almost a decade of being enabled. The Xbox would go missing one day, and we’d have a brand new one for the rest of us to play a few days later.

Quick detour to another family that I’m very close to and also has at least one drug addict. That drug addict was part of a family that wasn’t as financially stable as mine. That addict stole the entire retirement account from their parents. That addict has basically bankrupted that family and caused the parents to work well beyond any suggested retirement age. Typical addict behavior like this is destroying more lives than the drug addicts themselves. I have no idea what could have happened to my family had it not been for the bank account my dad worked his entire life to have.

Back to Zach. I wish that a couple thousand in stolen goods and the tens of thousands (probably hundreds) of dollars spent on rehab was all the “cost” from his decade plus long addiction. It wasn’t. Actually, it was far from it. My father has suffered at least two mini strokes due to stress from my brother. One of which was while he was driving my family in the car. I have watched my mother cry for days and weeks on end. I have watched her experience depression, PTSD, and anxiety that no mother should have to endure. I have watched my other siblings reactions to seeing their older brother in the throws of heroin and meth addiction. I was there for the aftermath when he attacked my little sister and my father over my mom’s purse. He has aged my parents beyond belief. He has created trust issues and boundary issues. He has built walls in our family so high that Trump should just hire him if he wants the job done. The true depth of the hurt he has caused to every member of our immediate and extended family cannot be quantified.

Toward the end of his active addiction, he was involved with an aryan gang. I’m not going to get into more specifics than that, but it was related to the methamphetamines. Most gangs like that have a big part in the drug trade and if you’re an addict and broke, the easiest way to get fixed up is by joining forces. Zach was never scared to make a threat. He threatened me (and probably countless others) over the years, but this time period was the most terrifying. He made threats on my life in front of my child. I don’t really know if Andrew ever thinks about it, and I hope he doesn’t. I don’t know what I would do if my uncle told me he was going to shoot my mom in the head. I lived in fear from Zach for a few years. He wasn’t allowed to know where I lived or where my son went to school or daycare. You could never really know what the “high on meth” Zach would do.

Methamphetamine took his psychosis and brain trauma to a whole new level. He was paranoid, angry, confused and irrational. He would stay up for days on end. At one point about 3-4 years ago, I went with my parents to take him some food. They had put him up in a motel in Midvale right off the freeway. (This I will come back to at some point.) I remember my dad got him Panda Express- his favorite. Zach came out to the car and it took everything not to cry or throw up. At almost 6 feet tall, he weighed less than 120 lbs. He was wearing a white wife beater and jeans, with the belt so tight that the jeans were sagging down below the crotch of his underwear. He had sores EVERYWHERE. From picking and from injections ites. His cheeks were sunken in like a skeleton. His eyes were dark and cloudy. His once beautiful veneers were grey and damaged. His hair was matted. He smelled like the sewer. And his head was twitching so hard he kept hitting it on the door of my mom’s van as he leaned in to talk to her in the passenger seat. This thing was not my brother. His energy was not the same. His face was not the same. If I had seen him walking down the street I never would have known it was him. Meth ravaged his body like a plague. The heroin was bad. But when he started doing meth as well, it completely changed everything. My mom asked him the last time he had slept. He was vague and said “It’s only Tuesday, mom. I’m fine” but it was Saturday. My brother had been high for almost a week straight.

Zach went to prison a little while later. It happened for two main reasons. One, my parents stopped enabling his addict behavior. Two, he got caught.

I know it’s really easy to look at how someone raises their children and say “I’d never do that.” But when you’re put in the situation, you have no idea how you’re going to handle something until you just handle it. I watched my parents handle a teen pregnancy and a child with a drug addiction. I do not agree with a lot of the ways those situations were handled, but I learned from them and so did they. Today isn’t my “I’m an idiot” story, it’s about my brother, but eventually you’ll get the tea on all that as well.

When my parents knew my brother was a drug addict, I do not believe they ever just handed him cash. I know it happened frequently before they understood the depths of his problems, but he wasn’t the only one asking for cash all the time so I’m sure it felt normal for them. (Yeah, I asked for a lot of gas money and shopping money, friends. So sue me.) As soon as they knew the money was going toward drugs, I believe they discontinued giving him cold hard cash. What they didn’t do, was stop funding his lifestyle in general. (Before you freak out over the words that I’m saying, know that I have talked to my parents about this at length. Me sharing this information will shock no one in my family. And honestly, no one has any room to judge them unless they’ve been in their shoes.) They paid for everything he did. When he needed a car, they bought it. If he needed an apartment, they paid his rent. Now, to be fair- they did those things for me for a short time as well! But I was enrolled in full time school and had a 4 year old child as a single mother. They had always told us that if we were going to school and working hard that they would help us with necessities. Zach wasn’t doing those things. He was injecting heroin.

I know the rest of us kids felt a lot of animosity toward my parents for this. We couldn’t understand how they could continue helping him when all he was doing was hurting himself and others. My mother would tell me “how do I watch him die? How do I let him become homeless and sleep under an overpass and freeze to death at night?” and while I do not have any idea what it feels like to worry for my child like that, I do “get it”. Because if paying for years and years worth of motels stays is something you can do financially, and you know your child has a roof over his head when it’s below freezing outside, what else are you going to do? They paid for his cell phones, because even though that was his way of contacting his dealers, at least he could call them if he was in trouble and needed help. As we were in the thick of things, I judged them harshly. I told them they were actively helping him use. And I think part of me still believes that. I know that Zach was able to use as much as he was for as long as he did because he was a kept man. He never worried about a place to stay or how to get food to eat, he only worried about when he was going to get his next fix. Or high? I don’t know. I don’t know the lingo. I regret being so harsh with them now.

I know my parents have always done the best they knew how with what they were given. I do not think my parents are responsible enough in his addiction to the point that they metaphorically injected him themselves, but I do believe that enabling addicts perpetuates the issues that we are facing in the United States today. There are people throwing bandaids on the problems. And I have got some serious news for everyone who ever reads this. Prison is a disgusting, infected bandaid. Prison does not change criminals. If anything it makes them worse and sets them up for more failure. Our justice system is flawed. It is broken. And it is up to us to do something to fix it.

Zach went to prison in the winter of 2015, I believe. He wasn’t at my wedding in 2016, and I am pretty sure it’s because he was already incarcerated. He had been living on the streets. My parents had finally stopped paying for his motel rooms after he decided to rob a string of rooms and the cops got involved. It’s a matter of public record, but Zach also attempted to rob a couple walking at Gateway Mall and was arrested. They were not hurt, he was not successful in robbing them, but he was arrested and sent to prison due to other prior charges that compounded to make sending him to prison “worth it”. Had my parents pressed charges on any of the other numerous crimes he had committed against them, he would have been in prison a lot sooner. So some of you are probably thinking… “Great! That gets him off the street and away from the drug dealers.” Nope. Not even close.

I did not have anything to do with him for about the first year in prison. I hadn’t had contact with him since he assaulted my sister the year before. No one pressed charges for that, and I held a serious grudge. If I’m being honest, I still do. While he was in prison that first year, I lost my baby. I went through this period of depression that should really have a bigger name than that. It was agony. It was like being dead and alive in the worst pain imaginable at the same time. I felt so alone, so hopeless, and one day I realized that my brother probably felt like that a lot. He was in maximum security prison at that time, with only a prison guard for interaction at random times throughout the day. He lived in his cell for 23 hours a day at some points. How does someone become more alone than that? So I wrote him a letter. And then, we started up a correspondence.

He told me how easy it was to get drugs in prison. He said it was easier than getting drugs on the street. He said he thought he’d have help there and be able to get clean and get his life together, but it was the opposite. The gang he was affiliated with has a very strong presence in our prison system. He couldn’t get free from them, either. Over time, he got clean. He broke ties with the aryan brotherhood and was on the road to recovery from drugs. We started to rebuild our relationship and our friendship. I think we wrote weekly or biweekly for the last year he was in. I was very, very hopeful for his future and welcomed the opportunity at having some sort of sibling relationship when he got out. I haven’t checked in on him since he went back to prison last May. And at this point, I do not know if I will ever have a relationship with him again.

The parole board released Zach from prison after about 2.25 years- just a rounded guess. I went to the prison with my parents and his then girlfriend to pick him up. I thought it would be good for him to see some familiar faces as he went through the transition back to the “real world”. My other siblings, my husband and my child did not go. I will not speculate for my siblings, but I did not want my husband or my son there. I wanted to get a feel for the person he was becoming and make judgements as to whether or not my family would be a part of his life.

Shortly after getting out of prison, he married the girl he had been writing while he was incarcerated. They had dated previously to him going to prison, and had reconnected while he was on the inside. Out of respect for her, I will be vague as to what happened after they got married. Zach has never been a calm person. He’s never been “all there” as described above due to the damage to his frontal cortex. While he’s completely brilliant and talented, he lacks common sense that even a 10 year old has. That has always been the greatest weakness of his life. Lack of common sense. Once, he almost bled to death after punching a window to see if he could break it. He was rushed to the ER with deep lacerations to his forearm and was in and out of consciousness due to blood loss. He’s also jumped out of trees and broken his arms, and probably hundreds of other things that most humans wouldn’t even think of doing. “I just touched the stove to see if it was hot” kind of kid. Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed.

In May of last year, on Mother’s day, Zach violated the terms of his parole and went back to prison. He did not use drugs or alcohol. He was completely sober when he made some very, very poor choices that landed him back in prison. That’s where he is today. My parents still go visit him about twice a week. They have every single week since he originally got sent to prison three years ago. I have never been to visit. Neither have my siblings, to my knowledge. There are some hurts that are too deep. He remains married to his beautiful wife and a stepfather to a 6 year old girl who my whole family absolutely adores.

I know everyone in my family wonders what Zach’s life would be like had he not started using drugs as a young teenager. It’s pointless to daydream, obviously. He is where he is. He has multiple felonies on his record. He has tattoos across his face, neck and hands- which in this day and age still limit employment opportunities. He will always and forever battle drug addiction. I don’t think anyone who’s addicted to drugs is ever “recovered”. It’s always a process. I can’t count on both hands and both feet the number of times Zach was “getting clean”. He will ALWAYS be getting clean. He will always be fighting those demons that controlled his life for over a decade. Watching him go through what he did made it really easy for my siblings and I never to go near drugs like that. I hope and pray that it makes my son stay away from them, too.

In the past, I always believed drug addiction was a choice. To be fair- the first time you use drugs is a choice probably 99.9% of the time. But seeing my brother at 120 lbs smacking his head against the car door showed me that it wasn’t a choice. He had a disease. And it was destroying his life. I do not feel bad for him right now. Unpopular opinion, I’m sure. But I do not feel bad for the choices he has made in his life. He is the only person responsible for the position he is in today. I feel bad for my parents. I feel bad for my siblings who had to watch their older brother battle those demons. I feel bad for my son. I feel bad for the people my brother has hurt. I feel bad for his wife and his step-daughter. I feel bad for the 10 year old kid I once knew who had big dreams and injected them all away. I’ve been told Zach will be getting out on parole again soon, and that it’s most likely his last shot at life outside of prison due to the new charges he has from last year. I truly hope he is able to pull it together and figure out how to live life in a positive way.

Like I said, I don’t know that I’ll ever have anything to do with him again. When he was out for those 3.5 months last year, he made more threats on my life. (Unrelated to him going back to prison.) I never called his parole officer and pressed charges. But he did it while completely sober because I was trying to help someone close to him find safety. He ended up hurting that person, which is why he is back in prison serving more time. I don’t know how to maintain a relationship with him at this point. Maybe someday I will, but it will be a very different sort of relationship and I don’t think my son will ever be involved with him again. It’s one thing to make concessions for the behavior someone exhibits while on drugs. To me, it’s a completely other world when they do evil things while they’re sober.

I guess if there’s anything I’d want someone to take away from this, it’s that drugs don’t discriminate. And they don’t just hurt only the person using them. If nothing else, take this very small little snippet of what my family has gone through to show someone why drugs aren’t worth it. The ends will never justify the means. There is so much more to life than getting high. I would give anything to go back in time and change the trajectory of my family’s future.

As far as dealing with a drug addict? I recommend empathy and compassion, but prioritize your own safety. You never know what someone has gone through in their life and where they are today. If you know someone on that road to recovery, support them. Be there for them in whatever way you’re comfortable with. Help them know that they’re not alone. They need every little ounce of support, love and motivation that they can get. If you know someone who has a family member struggling with addiction, remember to love and support them too. Odds are, they’re doing the very best they can just to hold it together. But friends, do not do stupid things. Don’t be careless with your own health and safety. Do not prioritize someone who brings only pain to your life. Do not neglect the others who still need your help, even if it isn’t in the same way or with as much apparent urgency.

I really don’t know how to end this. I hope that someday after I post it, I’m able to go back with an edit that talks about the successes Zach has been able to enjoy in his life. As of now, we are just waiting to see when he’ll be released again.