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Addiction and loss



[00:00:00] Tonyhen: Life and is a Scranton Fringe podcast made possible by The Luzerne County Medical Society in partnership with Park Multimedia. Hello, listeners. My name is Tonyehn Verkitus and I'm thrilled to welcome you back to a new season, the second season of our storytelling podcast "Life and... This podcast is centered on one simple concept that presents a beautiful variety of engaging, complicated, and sometimes funny directions, listening to true firsthand stories and talking to those storytellers to learn more about them and their journeys.

Each new season brings new tales, new storytellers, and a new central theme pulled from all the messy, marvelous, and mundane aspects of the human experience. Life and hope, life and loss, life and family.

Last season, we centered our stories on substance misuse and its wide reaching impact. This season we turn our focus to another all too common experience, that given current circumstances, is more relevant than ever. Isolation.

Is there a benefit to distance? Is a long period of isolation, the time for growth or a time to reflect. It is our hope that by hearing a hundred percent true firsthand experiences, we can work towards creating more unified, supportive communities and provide a platform for engaging conversations.

Welcome listener, and thank you for joining us. My name is Tonyehn Verkitus. I'm the co-producer of this podcast, and this is the premiere of Life and Isolation.

Michaela Moore, the guest for this episode has graciously offered to share her powerful story of family isolation, loss, and forgiveness. An NYU graduate. Michaela Moore is an international theater maker, educator and creative entrepreneur. Today, she adds being a featured guest on this podcast to her impressive resume.

Please note this episode may have content that is triggering for some listeners. Al-Anon is one of the oldest and largest support groups in the world for friends and family of alcoholics. You can learn more at That's AL-ANON or call 1-888-4al-anon. That's 1-888-425-2666.

[00:03:26] Michaela: Life begins and ends with a single, isolated breath. One breath in into living into this world, into a life that is unknown. And as of that moment at the cusp of a thousand beginnings, full of promise and what ifs, and then at the end, one breath out into death, out of this world and into another. That is also unknown and the cusp of so more than a thousand beginnings.

This story begins and ends with a single isolated breath as well. A breath in sucked in in reaction to the message on Facebook from his son, Tom. This message was expected for years. It was just not wanted. I had hoped it would never come, and I was simultaneously surprised it had taken this long. But then on February 25th, 2020, it was there.

"Please call me."

I knew I knew as I drew that breath in. So I took a moment, let the air out, sat down and called Tom as requested. Expected, and still shocking info came through the phone. My brother was in ICU. He was still alive. He had been found at the homeless shelter after a massive overdose. He had sustained a catastrophic brain injury and might not live through the night. I should come if I could.

The processing of the information began. Addiction had caused this injury, of course, no surprise there. But homeless? This was new information. And an overdose? Mike's drug of choice was alcohol, not opioids. Mostly I was surprised that he was not already gone, and then I might have a chance to say goodbye.

As I drove the eight hours to Ohio hoping to get there before he died. The Cha Chunk Cha Chunk Cha Chunk of the asphalt slabs on the highway sounded like a heartbeat. I tried to hold onto to hope that this was some sort of sign that Mike would stay in this world long enough so I could touch his hand and tell him that despite it all, I still loved him.

I ruminated on the crazy journey. That was our relationship. It started with my parents sitting, my sister and I down to tell us something important. It was clear that important meant bad, or at the very least, very big. I sat across from my parents in our former living room, the one with the silk furniture that we were supposed to sit on cautiously with awareness, a carefulness of action that mirrored the current tentative air in the room.

Another breath in. And then my mother told us that in 1963 she had had a son and given him up for adoption. The story she unfolded was one right out of Hollywood. She the cheerleading captain, president of her class, had been whisked away from her perfect world to hide the growth of a baby, conceived in a relationship with her handsome high school sweetheart.

She was shipped off to Georgia to stay with her grandparents for the pregnancy, and then sent to a home for unwed girls for the birth. The baby was born and she was instructed to go back to her life. This secret was so protected, so dear that even her younger siblings never knew until 1988 when my sister and I were also told Michael, his name was Michael and he had found her, and now she had been forced to pull the truth out and lay it out on the silk couches for the world to know.

Including my world.

I remember listening with a mixture of surprise and a feeling of, oh yes, of course. For most of my childhood, I would say to myself, I will have a big brother someday. Even as a small childhood, loved to get lost in the fantasy of my imagination. I knew that was not how it worked, but here we were and here he was.

I had a big brother and apparently that was how it worked. But he was a brother I had not been raised with. Our relationship only really began in the beginning of my adult life when I reached out to him to get to know him. My relationship with him was this island in the middle of my life, an intense blip of getting to know each other and then living together and working together, and then a fantastic crash and burn caused by his addiction.

There was an eventual forgiveness, but also necessary distance that followed. Loving an addict is like a minefield. There they are standing in the middle of it. Sometimes you see them smile and wave, so desperate to convince you that they are fine, that they have it handled, that they're okay. Sometimes you watch them collapse under the weight of it all and break down.

Sometimes you run to them to try to save them, hoping that you won't get blown up in the process. Sometimes you just have to watch them suffer from a distance. Not sure if your instinct to keep yourself safe is self-preservation or the height of selfishness. Sometimes you break down too, but always you just desperately wanna get to them and bring them to safety, even though you know only they can leave that field.

I have thought about addiction so much and so often. Who puts those minds there? Is it the addict to their supposed lack of self-control or refusing to get or accept help? Is it the sadistic gods of genetics? Laughing as they place some souls in such peril and leave others to watch? Can those minds ever be diffused?

Did I do enough to help? Did I do too much? Despite hours of contemplation, I have yet to find any answers to these questions that are clear and simple. The only thing I do know is that loving someone through their battle is the only clear thing one can do. Love is always a choice, and so I was on my way to try to give Mike my love one last time.

I made it to Columbus. As I remember now, walking into the hospital, unmasked, it seems like a fairy tale. It was two weeks before the start of the pandemic, and hospitals were still safe places to be and not the frontline of a terrifying war, but this hospital was still a foreboding place for me. I looked up at that tall building and thought, this is where my brother will die.

Mike had lived all over the country, all over the world. His life was full of escapades travel and more experiences than most people have in 10 lifetimes. He had incredible highs, endless opportunities, many successes, and massive wealth. He also had plunging lows and in the end suffered in crushing property.

But the one thing that Mike's life never was, and the one thing that Mike never was, was boring. As I walked in, I was greeted by Mike's adult children, technically my nieces and nephews, but I barely knew them. They were family members of mine, but most of them I had last seen when they were children. But here we were islands in the ocean of love for a complicated and now dying man.

Being in community and mourning with people who you barely know but are your blood is, there's really no word for it. It's like you're each in a bubble inside of a bigger bubble. You're there together, but not quite touching. Walking into this hospital, I knew Mike through my eyes only. I did not know him through the eyes of these other family members the way you normally do.

My relationship with him was singularly between him and I. But as we all navigated this horrible situation together in making decisions about life support and how Mike would die, we also began to tell each other who he was to each of us. I began to see my brother through the eyes of his children and his adopted sister.

My singular relationship with him became clearer and deeper and less isolated as I listened to his kids speak of how they too vacillated between anger, at him, but also deep, deep love and how he never, ever failed to make you laugh. Even after a night of trashing my home with many an unsavory character, he still managed to make me laugh at how utterly ridiculous the situation was, and indeed how utterly ridiculous life was.

His kids knew that side of him too, and so it became richer. My brother's colors were deeper for me through their eyes. I learned more about the sources of his darkness and sorrow. Those pained and choked drunken confusing confessions that he shared with me in the middle of the night became clearer stories of true pain when my recollections were mixed in with the ingredients of their knowledge of the same stories.

His sister's, memories of him as a child, a version of Mike, I never knew, added into my knowledge of him, and he became all the more vivid as a person and as a soul. In seeing him more deeply, I saw myself more clearly. We really do know ourselves through our relationships to others, and I realized that having to find a way to love Mike through all the chaos of his addiction was a gift that my time with him was blessed, even if it was wrapped in chaos.

Learning to forgive is a gift. Love is a gift, and it's the only thing that truly saves us. After all the tubes and IVs had been removed, and I sat with Mike listening to his breath in and out, I felt his body relax. I felt his soul begin to let go, and the minefield begin to dissipate. The island of addiction that Mike had been stuck on for so much of his life was finally letting its grasp on him go.

I was losing my brother, but he was becoming free, and that was a beautiful thing to witness. I do know that Mike would not wanna be remembered for his addiction. He would wanna be remembered for his beautiful kids, his wicked sense of humor, his adventures, his hard work and business savvy, his service too, and love of his country, and his generous spirit.

I will choose to remember him as a fascinating, hilarious man of adventure. He made me laugh more than cry, and that counts for a lot.

Michael died on March 4th, 2020.

My wish for my brother and for myself is that I remember to treat people who are struggling with kindness and compassion. When someone is wrestling with poverty, with addiction, or just with a day-to-day struggles that life brings us, instead of reacting with disdain or judgment, I hope to remember to take a breath.

And send them a prayer or give them a helping hand. If this last year has taught us anything, it is that anyone can end up in a place of struggle, of aloneness, and of isolation. Struggle does not define a person. It's just where they are right now. It did not define my brother. He was so much more than his pain.

I am so much more than my pain. And the pain I felt in community with this new family of mine was in the end, not about the pain. It was about the beauty of a shared experience and a shared love for another person. Love is always a choice. Reaching out is always a choice. Community, even with those who seem to be in another bubble, is always a choice.

I hope that I remember this.

Months later on a Zoom call with Mike's kids and sister, we celebrated his birthday and his memory. We were supposed to spread his ashes on that day, but the pandemic had other ideas in mind. So instead we gathered once again in our bubbles. This time, bubbles of distance, and we remembered a man we all loved.

As I sat on the roof deck of my apartment in Philly, a single red cardinal flew by and landed near me. A single bright flame. Unextinguished, not boring, not tethered. Free. I took a breath out.

[00:15:36] Tonyhen: I was just gonna say Michaela that though tragic and sad at points, that was absolutely beautiful and

[00:15:48] Michaela: thank you.

[00:15:49] Tonyhen: I really appreciate your sharing your story.

[00:15:54] Michaela: I'm really glad to be able to share it.

[00:15:57] Tonyhen: Um, I know this is pretty fresh, so I especially respect and appreciate your sharing because I can tell that this is still a little difficult for you, but there were so many beautiful... emotions that you shared. Um, and a couple of the ones that stood out for me especially was the idea of a cusp of a thousand beginnings. Mm-hmm. Um, especially because in your story there are so many beginnings and some that I didn't even think of until later in your story, and I don't know if you wanna touch on this at all, but a few that came to mind was the beginning and end of your mother's first motherhood, right?

[00:16:41] Michaela: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:16:42] Tonyhen: Cause that was a completely separate experience. I mean, that was really something that happened in a bubble even more so than others. Has she spoken to you about that at all? I'm just, you know,

[00:16:56] Michaela: She has, yeah. I, I mean, it was an era where, you know, that just. It didn't happen. I mean, it did, but it didn't and it wasn't allowed to. So, um, I mean, her time in Georgia with her grandparents was one, I think, honestly, of great joy. She really loved her grandparents.

[00:17:15] Tonyhen: Mm-hmm.


[00:17:15] Michaela: Mike's birth was definitely this like, very alone experience.

[00:17:21] Tonyhen: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:17:21] Michaela: And, uh, very, you know, put that in a box and let it go, you know, which of course is impossible. So yeah. What's interesting is that when Mike showed up, we had a period of time where we were living and working together, and then it, as I said in the story, it sort of blew up. And what's interesting is that Mike showed up and left within a nine month period. You know, my mom and I talked about how it was like a second letting go for her.

[00:17:54] Tonyhen: Yeah.

[00:17:55] Michaela: Yeah.

[00:17:55] Tonyhen: So I actually had a question about that too, because you mentioned that your relationship with him began when you were an adult, and I was just curious to know how long between that day, your mother said, I have something important to tell you, and you actually initiating your own relationship.

How much time passed between that?

[00:18:18] Michaela: I think it, I mean, I met Mike when I was 14, when she first told us, it was like a very brief meeting. Um, his two oldest sons were, I actually, I don't even know if his second son was born at that point. Um, he was on the first of many marriages. Uh, he was young too, and in a very different place of his life.

Uh, But it was very brief and you know, I was 14 and not really able to navigate that on my own. I believe I was, I think it was 10 years later when I was 24, I just reached out to him and I said, I think it's strange that I have a brother that I don't know. And we spent probably another 10 years or so. Is that right?? Yeah, probably. Um, you know, visiting each other from time to time, talking from time to time. Uh, that was a period of, uh, really extended and long and successful sobriety for Mike. And he was very, very successful in his life at that time. He was on his second marriage. The put, um, and, uh, Yeah, so it was really, it wasn't until I was in my like mid, early to mid twenties that we really started to get to know each other.

[00:19:32] Tonyhen: I also liked your reference to the bubble of your own experience, the idea that you're going to mourn someone, thinking in your mind that your experience is kind of singular in a sense, right? But in the end, realizing that you all had shared experiences within your personal journeys of relationship with him.

Mm-hmm. Um, I think that also correlates a little bit to what we're trying to do here. With life and is the idea that we all live in separate bubbles, but we actually connect a lot more than we think. Do you maintain a relationship with his kids or ...

[00:20:16] Michaela: His oldest son Tom actually lived with me for a period of time years ago. Um, and we have talked on and off for a while. Um, his two girls and his second youngest son we don't speak as often, but um, you know, I think we're still hoping to do some sort of, uh, memorial service eventually for him. Um, so, you know, when I was speaking with Mike, uh, obviously he was, I mean, he had sustained a traumatic brain injury, so he was in a deep coma.

But when I was speaking to him, my promise to him was that I would help them through these moments and if they wanted me to, to help them, you know, in the future. I'm certainly open to a relationship with them. I do think that my connection to their father is something that can be painful for them in some ways, because their relationship with their father, in many ways was painful, and also because it's so fresh.

So I'm allowing them to take the lead on how much I am in or out of their lives. And I just wanted to say as far as the comment about the bubble, I mean, I think that the reason why that was the image that came to mind is because it feels separate, but actually they are so. You know, breakable and mendable, um, excuse medable with each other.

[00:21:41] Tonyhen: Yes. Mm-hmm.

[00:21:42] Michaela: And, you know, this sort of bubble that we've all each been in as we've been traveling through this last year. I, I mean, the fact that this happened two weeks before the pandemic began, I think was in many ways a gift because. You know, I've had this experience of realizing that no matter how isolated you think you are, you really aren't.

You know, and I think it's ironic that we are speaking on, uh, St. Patrick's Day, which has, you know, I have all this Irish heritage that I share with that whole family, but the idea that like, we're not really family through blood, we're family through experiences. And so in that sense, We are family with all of humanity. And to me that's a, a great lesson to remember.

[00:22:28] Tonyhen: I think that's beautiful. And you know what else I thought about with the bubble was you spoke so much about breath. And so when you speak about a bubble, you're breathing your own air, right? So you're kind of wallowing in your own experience, but once you allow others into that bubble, it expands. And we are gaining from that experience and breathing other people's air. Right. Getting the essence of their experience as well.


[00:22:56] Michaela: I just read a book too that said something that like, uh, I think that we have at some point breathed in the same air as every person who's ever been on the earth. So yet another way that we're connected. Yeah.

[00:23:12] Tonyhen: So two more questions for you. The first is slightly difficult maybe. Um, and that would be you talk about whether you were dealing with self-preservation or selfishness. Have you made a determination about that or settled into maybe it's both, you know?

[00:23:34] Michaela: Yeah, I, I mean, I think that this is, this is something I've spoken a about with other people who have had to navigate a relationship with an addict who is in the throes of addiction.

Um, And I do think, I mean, I don't, I actually don't think it's experience that is only, um, is not, it's not only unique to dealing with someone with an addiction. Anytime you have to set a boundary or say no, or give to yourself in order to stay safe or sane, can feel selfish. I think especially as women, we are taught to be nurturers, so to say to someone.

I cannot help you with this because you are not willing to help yourself. Uh, and so therefore I need to walk away. It always initially feels like the bad, you know, quote, bad thing to do, but I do think that. It's necessary. So I I, I think the conclusion I've come to is that it's not selfish, but it is definitely difficult and that sometimes stepping away from someone and letting them navigate their struggle is actually the kindest thing you can do. Because if you try to fix it for them, they'll never. They'll never break away from it. I, I'm, I'm sure other people have used this, but it's like the metaphor with the butterfly, if they don't actually break through the cocoon, their wings never, you know, they don't get strong enough so that they can fly away.

Um, so for me, even though Mike in many ways lost his battle with addiction, I do think that it was his, it was his battle and it was his struggle, and I had to simply be kind enough to let him fight it.

[00:25:26] Tonyhen: Um, the fact that you brought up how hard it is to say no as women, I actually just said to someone the other day, no is a complete answer.

That's enough, right? You don't need to add,

[00:25:40] Michaela: oh no, it's, I'm sorry, blah, blah, blah, blah. Yeah. All the, all the self explanation as to why it's okay for you to be where you're at and say what you can give and what you can't give. Yeah,

[00:25:51] Tonyhen: Exactly, no's a complete answer. Well, in closing, what I'd really like to ask is what do you believe is the biggest gift that you've received from Mike?

[00:26:04] Michaela: Oh boy, that's a hard one. Um, the first thing that leap to my mind is that never forget that humor can save you in almost any situation. Um, I mean, obviously the story I just told was not necessarily funny, um, but. A lot of the time I spent with Michael, I spent in laughter. Uh, I mean really even, uh, uh, that night that he made me laugh, you know, I was so angry at him and he had this person at the house that was insisting on trying to leave very intoxicated and drive, and I had their keys and Mike, as I was battling it out with this person, was sort of narrating the whole situation in the background and it was hilarious, you know, so it was this completely frustrating situation, but in the end it was actually made more tolerable by the fact that we were able to laugh and, uh, you know, the fact that in the end, Mike, Did get to let go of his addiction.

He wasn't, he's free of that now, and that maybe just remembering that a breath out in laughter can be the most powerful thing you can do to survive and to rejoice in this life.

[00:27:29] Tonyhen: Thank you, Michaela for sharing your story. Um, I'm wishing you lots of laughter in the future, um, for yourself and hopefully with his children as well.

[00:27:41] Michaela: Well, I hope many, many days of laughter and joy for you as well. Thank you so much for having me.

[00:27:45] Tonyhen: Thank you.

This podcast can only grow with your support. We love bringing these stories to you and we'll continue to do so as long as we can. If you've enjoyed your time with us, please take a few moments to like follow, review, and share this podcast wherever you're listening. A few moments of your time can ensure we'll maintain this podcast for yet another season.

And on a personal note, I'd like to send a big shout out and thank you to my brother DJ Williams for creating the music for this podcast. Until next time, listeners, remember to breathe and make time for stories, yours and others.


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Thank you for listening!

This podcast is made possible by the combined efforts of the Northeast Counties Medical Society (NEPAMS), Scranton Fringe, and Park Multimedia. 

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