I’ve been unable to post anything the last couple of days. Unfortunately, my brother died on Monday.
His death appears to have been a heart attack, but what really killed him was vodka. My brother was an alcoholic; he had been one for many years. Looking back, he first showed signs of it as an early teenager. It stayed with him, flaring up on and off until over the last ten years, during which drinking had largely destroyed his life.
I wasn’t that much help, but I was at least more useful as a brother (helping to get him into rehab for the first time back in 1999) than I was as a medicinal chemist. We don’t really understand alcoholism enough to be able to do much about it, and the same goes for almost every other form of addiction. Alcohol’s harder than most of them to study because there isn’t a specific receptor system that you can point at (as there is for, say, heroin.) Its effects are broad and strong, and for some people, almost impossible to fight.
Needless to say, we don’t know why some people can drink and never become alcoholics, while others just seem to slide right down into the pit. Essential questions about the brain and human behavior come up immediately when you start to talk about alcoholism, and no one knows the answers to them yet. I believe that David Foster Wallace defined a harmful addiction as something that offered itself as the solution to the problems that it was causing, and that seems to sum up the tangle of biochemistry and behavior that an alcoholic lives in. Each year, my brother slipped further and further away from the possibility of a normal life.
Eventually, there wasn’t much left of the person I grew up with. He died in stages. His memory, his motor skills, his speech and his personality had all been eroded by drinking. Despite his own attempts to break free, despite stays in rehab and AA, despite terrible convulsive bouts of delirium tremens and nearly dying of pancreatitis at least twice, he was never able to find a way out. In the end, he was alone, on a couch, in a littered room that he was unable to summon enough strength to clean.
All I can do is honor his memory, especially the memories of the times before he was a damaged shadow of what I think of as his real self – the days when there was still a real self left. And I can hope to warn others of what could be waiting for them. If any of you reading this think that you might have a problem with alcohol, then you very well might. And the sooner you try to do something about it, the better your chances of succeeding.
Don’t wait. Don’t end up on that couch. Please.