My brother might have been an amazing teacher. He tutored struggling fourth graders for a year in Seattle, making up raps for math formulas and writing comedy routines for his reading group. After he died, the teacher he worked with wrote to my family:
Kyle wrote a [comedy] routine that he performed with a student, Yin Ting, who recently emigrated from China and spoke little English. Their routine captured her personality so perfectly and turned her language difficulties into a source of pride and humor so elegantly that I’ll never be able to forget it.
Kyle never became a teacher. He dropped out of college twice, the first time after being kicked out of campus housing for dealing weed, the second time after he started smoking crack in his apartment. Even while he was tutoring Yin Ting and her classmates, he was snorting cocaine in the elementary school bathroom.
Eventually, he was driven out of Seattle. Crack dealers began pounding on the front door of the house he shared with a group of roommate friends– occasional pot smokers, unaccustomed to hardened drug dealers demanding money on their front porch.
They were as bewildered as the rest of us who knew Kyle that he had become the kind of person willing to sell his housemates’ TV or a company computer for drug money.
When we talk about drug addicts, we are really talking about two people. The person who uses drugs, and the person underneath. Drug Kyle, and Kyle.
Now that he’s dead, most new people I meet only know Drug Kyle. My relationship with him is usually summed up in just one sentence: “My brother died of an overdose.”
People are always so sorry. If they don’t jump to change the subject, their questions are usually about Drug Kyle.
“What did he overdose on?”
“When did he die?”
“How long did he use?”
Nobody asks what kind of music he listened to or how he wore his hair or what he aspired to. Drug People don’t have aspirations, unless you count getting high, which I don’t.
Kyle was chock-full of aspirations. He studied neuroscience for a while, and loved talking about the impacts of neural pathways. He was an incredibly creative writer, eloquent, but still accessible and often hilarious. He dreamt of writing for a television comedy show.
Behind every addict is a human being– maybe not quite as incredible as my brother, because he was straight magic– but a human being who woke up and worried about what people thought of them. A person who somebody, at some point, turned into a Drug Person for the first time.
Here are my intentions:
To honor Kyle, not Drug Kyle.
To mention Kyle when I hear a song he loved, not just a song about drugs.
To talk about Kyle without also saying how he died in the same breath
To remember him as a tutor, a comedian, a father, an epic big brother.
To talk about addicts like people, not Drug People.
Humans are all so much more nuanced than the singular identities we give ourselves and each other, a rainbow of feelings and stories and choices.
Addict, in particular, can be a very difficult identity to detangle ourselves from. Our society has cultivated a very specific image of a drug addict– dirty, detached, an outcast member of society living on the fringes.
Drug Kyle was all of that, sometimes panhandling on the streets and sleeping in a tent in a public park, looking just like the image you conjure up in your mind when you hear heroin addict.
But Drug Kyle is such a narrow sliver of Kyle. Reducing people to their Drug Selves is dehumanizing and dangerous. It’s what allows lawmakers to push harsh sentences and mandatory minimums for drug-related offenses, instead of improving mental health care. It’s what allows us to pass homeless people on the street with nothing more than a look of disgust mixed with pity.
The teacher Kyle tutored for ended his letter by calling my brother, “one of the most uplifting presences [he’s] ever known.” Even while he was snorting coke, even while he was fucking up, even while he was also Drug Kyle.
My brother died of an overdose, but there is so much more to his story than that. If all you know about someone is their drug use, I invite you to ask better questions. Here’s to digging deeper, to looking beneath, to truly finding and seeing each other in our beautiful complexities.