Today, Melissa Sue Tucker is the host of the Addiction Support Podcast. Tucker’s personal perspective is not one of an addict, but of someone who has been profoundly affected by the problem of addiction. Her own family experience has led to a passion for helping people suffering from addiction and people whose lives are impacted by caring for them.
Melissa sat down with me recently to share her personal story of losing her brother through addiction and how she learned her own life lessons in the process.
Melissa was raised in a devoutly religious home. From her parents, she learned that going to church regularly and behaving properly is the formula for success in life. The oldest of five siblings, with four younger brothers, one of her brothers had some issues, which she describes as possible chemical imbalances. Eventually, he became addicted to meth and went to prison multiple times. Each time, he’d get clean in prison, then come out and do very well for brief periods. But, within a year, he’d find himself dragged back down again by his addiction.
Everyone in the family tried their own ideas for helping him. Melissa says her approach was to shame him for failing to make more sensible choices. She’s had a hard time forgiving herself for that, especially since her brother’s untimely death in 2012.
She remembers being with him at a family gathering in early 2012. She says she’s grateful that she went to that event. She treasures the picture of the two of them there together. “He looked at me with tears in his eyes, and he was shaking,” she recalls. “I am doing everything I can to stay clean, and every moment of every day is [expletive],” he responded. Her brother seemed determined then to reach his goal of staying clean for a year and then starting to work helping his friends beat their addictions too.
But, only a couple of months later, he was in serious trouble, looking at possibly doing 30 years in prison (under Arizona’s three strikes law). Feeling hopeless, he just fell even deeper into his addictive behaviors. He ended up in a dangerous situation. Apparently, he had been helping some friends collect money for the escort services they were providing, to buy drugs. One night, he was shot in the head and killed. Melissa believes it may have been a john, (a customer) refusing to pay, who shot her brother.
The emotion and grief she felt following that were unlike anything she had ever felt before. But after so much worry and anxiety about how he was doing, or that he might die and never be found, she admits that there was maybe a small sense of relief mixed in. She says she knew he was in a better place.
Recalling happier days is frustrating for Melissa because she remembers her brother as seeming almost magical, “with leadership skills through the roof.” Everybody wanted to be his best friend. She sees now the mistake she’d made in thinking he was just wasting his skills. She’s learned from that experience, and now she works to help family members of addicts understand the nature of addiction. She wants others to learn from her mistakes.
Surviving that family crisis of her brother’s addiction battle and his early death is not the end of Melissa’s story about addiction. After her first brother died, her mom visited her and told her that another of her brothers was a heroin addict and was in prison. She had known he smoked pot, but was shocked to hear he was using heroin. He was ten years younger than Melissa, and she had babysat him a lot growing up. They were always close and still have a very strong bond. It was a staggering blow to find out he was an addict.
Melissa’s mom talked to her about her habit of judging her brothers, calling them losers, and that whole approach she had been using to try to get through to them. She said that, at first, she was unhappy with her mom for having that talk with her. It wasn’t something she wanted to hear about herself. It didn’t reflect the kind of person that she had always tried to be. She spent over a year really self-evaluating around that, because she didn’t want to lose another brother, and she definitely didn’t want to find herself contributing to his problems on some level.
So, with a second brother now in and out of prison, in 2015 she decided she needed to learn more about addiction and become more involved. She wanted to learn from people who were succeeding against their addictions, to find more positive ways to help her brother.
Examining her own role in both of her brothers’ lives, she recognized that there was some codependency, which she calls, “the biggest addiction out there.” She believes there’s a sort of symbiosis between it and drug addiction. She says she would have insisted that there’s no way she was an enabler. But, after doing a lot of soul searching and reflecting on her experience, she could see that she definitely was. She recalls giving her brothers cash, or rides, or other help, knowing that they were going to use it to get drugs.
Her advice today to anyone in that situation is to have a loving talk, saying something like:
“I love you unconditionally. I get it that you need money. It’s okay with me if you ask me for it. I have a responsibility to tell you no, because that’s the boundary I’ve had to set to take care of myself. When you’re clean and sober, you’re always welcome. When you’re not, I’m always here for you. Anytime you want me to take you to rehab, just call and I’m there.”
Looking back at a similar conversation she had with her own brother, Melissa reflects that that was actually the best conversation she could have had with him, because she was able to neutralize her sense of need for the outcome she hoped for, which was for her brother to stay clean.
She came to reason that addicts will figure out their resources for drugs. They don’t actually need you for that. Finally, she had also realized addiction is a disease and that there’s a chance that her brother will use again. She could see that relapses are a part of the process of recovery for many addicts. She likens it to a baby learning how to walk. They can’t just get up and keep walking. They fall down sometimes, and they have to get back up.
Her brother did go back on the streets and started using again. But, this time she felt less of the anxiousness and worry. She just kept reminding him that she loved him and was there for him when he really needed her to take him to get help. Her brother is now back in prison, possibly for more than five years. But, she says that today their relationship is amazing, and that it’s partially because she was able to neutralize her feeling of need for him to stay clean.
Melissa and her brother talk about everything imaginable now. He reads books she sends him, mostly about mindset and entrepreneurship. She’s confident that he’s fully committed to recovery. He wants to work helping other people when he gets out. She working on a website for him, so he can be confident in knowing he’ll have some income when he gets out.
Melissa no longer invests herself in whether or not her brother is going to come out of prison the next time really ready to sustain sobriety long-term. She simply says she thinks she’s just going to be a lot more unconditional about that. She’s accepted that her own happiness doesn’t have to depend on whether or not her brother is sober. She’s got clarity now on how she should think about her role in her brother’s family support system. She knows he might use again, and she’s ready to be there for him for life, no matter what.
Of course, new obstacles come up, but Melissa finds a lot of reasons to remain hopeful. For example, her brother called her to talk about frustration with his cellmate. Having someone to talk it out with helped him work through it and avoid a fight with the cellmate, or solitary confinement, or turning to prison drugs. She says she knows that kind of thing sounds minor, but it’s not. She’s seeing him practicing new attitudes and behavior changes, and that’s encouraging to her.
At this point in her own journey as a family member of an addict, Melissa says she thinks that we need to be expanding the dialogue about drug addiction. Though addiction is about how people get along with each other, among other things, she thinks there also appears to be a chemical component. That means some people may be helped somewhat by medications or possibly even certain dietary changes.
She emphasizes that a holistic approach to drug addiction treatment should help the whole family, including addressing codependency. She explains that, because addicts are often good at making someone feel like the world’s most important person, you need to understand some things about yourself, like what you’re getting out of your relationship with the addict, and whether it’s something healthy, and fair to yourself and the other person. She suggests that If you’re finding yourself feeling exceptionally important or needed, it may be time to find something else to get involved in that gives you that feeling. As Melissa puts it, “You’ve got to feed yourself.”
Other important advice she offers families of addicts is to think hard about it, before you make a decision to use a tough-love approach. If you tell the addict you don’t want them in your life until they’re clean, you should prepare yourself for what can happen. Melissa cut her brother out of her life at one point, and they were estranged for a long time. She says now, “I wish to God that instead of tough love I had taken a love tough approach.” She says she learned the hard way that love should be first.
She regrets not having the tools in those days to handle the situation more effectively. Now, her advice to others is to get help, and to figure out your boundaries and how to honor your own boundaries. People ask Melissa what kinds of boundaries there are and how to set them. She says a lot of people haven’t really considered what a healthy boundary is.
She recommends reading some of the great books on boundaries, and mentions advice from Codependence Anonymous, which stresses that you didn’t create the addiction problem, and you can’t solve it. For Melissa, it was about realizing that when her brother is on the street doing drugs, she’s not responsible for his actions or his consequences, or for his happiness.
After she figured out what wasn’t working, Melissa changed her way of handling her desire to help. She knew it was a bad idea to keep giving money, because that was likely to get used for drugs. So, she started offering food, putting gas in her brothers’ cars, and other caring actions like that. She said that from then on, her brothers knew that every time she helped them, she would ask them if they were ready yet to get help. She would just remind them that any time they wanted to go into rehab, she was would show up for them and would help financially too, but that she couldn’t support the choices to keep using.
Through her journey, Melissa learned the key things people really need to do to be sustainable as sources of real help. Above all, she stresses the need for family members to take care of themselves. The first thing is to get support, whatever might work for you—groups, a counselor, talking to your church minister, seminars, reading books and articles, watching videos, listening to podcasts. For addicts, any of those things listed might help too, along with maybe entering a 12-step program. Getting an assessment of gut health and even food allergies might also help rule out unknown chemical triggers. For everyone involved, she also suggests getting family therapy.
Doing a lot of reading and work on personal growth has been the biggest self-help focus for Melissa. She says she thinks that everything out there can help somebody, that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.
She repeatedly emphasizes that you should not think you can do it alone. You can’t solve the problem and you shouldn’t try to. Taking on too much leads to failure, which can just end up making the addict feel worse, maybe even add to their problem and tend them toward the same bad solution you’re hoping to save them from. So, core advice for a family member is, again, to get help for yourself.
Finally, she wants to help people keep perspective that the addict you know can recover. Lots of addicted people are caring, wonderful people. For her, the point is to give your unconditional love, but, again, to also maintain your boundaries. She stresses the need to forgive, or at least to work on forgiving yourself and the addict, for any pain. She points out that not forgiving is unhelpful, and that it can even make you sick.
So, along her journey through tragedy and love, the rough road has led Melissa to important insights that she now shares with anyone trying to help an addicted loved one—get clear on your own issues, understand that things are going to continuously change, set your boundary and stick to it, learn to be neutral, get help, forgive, believe that your loved one can recover, and always communicate in a loving way.
Is this easier said than done? Absolutely.
And is it well worth doing? According to Melissa, absolutely.
You can find Melissa Sue Tucker and her podcast, Addiction Support Podcast, over at: https://addictionsupportpodcast.com/.