As I sat on the roof, the tears tumbled out of me. I had a lot of emotions back then, but I never really cried. At least not like this.
I had made a secret phone call minutes before. I wasn’t sure who to reach out to, so I called the only person that seemed to be the safest: our family’s pastor. When he picked up the phone, I could barely get the words out. They eventually bubbled up amidst deep sniffles and chest heaves.
“Pastor Dewayne, Jenny’s lost it again,” I said hysterically. “I don’t know what to do anymore. She makes life a living hell.”
“I’m on my way,” he said without hesitation.
I crawled out of the window, using all fours to find my way to the middle of the roof. It was the only place that was somewhat peaceful. I could still hear Jenny screaming hysterically at my parents in the kitchen. At least it was somewhat muted and the stars above offered some sort of cosmic, there’s-more-out-there comfort.
Jenny was, and is, my sister. I can still close my eyes and hear her screams to this day. She has a piercing tone that starts out low and reaches bird-like shrieks in milliseconds. That night wasn’t an isolated incident. Growing up, she made my life — and the lives of those in my family — absolute, sheer, painful, raging, unbearable hell. The screaming matches between her and my parents were frequent by the time she was 13. It didn’t matter what it was about, it always escalated.
Shortly after, she started disappearing. At first for hours at a time, then nights, then days. She would turn up randomly. My step-dad literally bugged our own home phone with something out of a spy movie in order to record her calls and try to figure out where she was going. It wasn’t long until she started stealing their cell phones. It was during that time that she started experimenting with drugs. And it was during that time that I found myself calling our pastor and crawling on the roof begging for it to stop. Pleading for some kind of peace.
It came for a time. My parents finally convinced her to go to a teen behavioral rehabilitation facility in the middle of snake-infested Louisiana. Even though she “agreed,” she went kicking and screaming.
It was one of the most peaceful years of my life. Sure, I’ve had better times since. But to go from a life of chaos to calm in a matter of days — to get that sort of instant relief — is nearly indescribable.
It didn’t last long, though.
She came back after a year, but within months she was right back where she had started, only this time things were worse. After having been cut off and denied so many things in Louisiana, she started drinking from a firehose when she got back.
By 16, she was pregnant with her first child. By her early 20s she was a raging cocaine addict. And by the time we realized the depths of it, she was pregnant again.
And I hated her for all of it. Really, I hated her.
By 16, she was pregnant with her first child. By her early 20s she was a raging cocaine addict. And by the time we realized the depths of it, she was pregnant again. And I hated her for all of it. Really, I hated her.
I don’t use that term lightly. The very thought of her put me in a dark place, the sight of her made me tense up, and hearing her voice made me clench my teeth. Guys, I hated my sister with every fiber of my being. And at the height of that hate, it had been five years since I had any semblance of a conversation with her.
I say all that so you can understand how much I still marvel at what occurred next.
In the summer of 2006, something happened. Something that I can’t fully explain, but that I’ve tried. That attempt is below. It’s a story I wrote in 2007 for a little organization called To Write Love on Her Arms, back when it was just a Myspace page. Jamie Tworkowski and I had some mutual friends, and after talking to him in the lobby of a small, New York City theater one Sunday afternoon, he encouraged me to write out my story of forgiveness. So here you go.*
I never knew reconciliation had a smell; I guess I have much to learn.
It wasn’t one of those picture perfect days. It was a very Wisconsin-like, early June afternoon — partly cloudy and 56 degrees. The drive to go see her seemed to take forever, and I tried to keep my head clear by thinking about anything but what was about to happen. But no matter how hard I tried, reality kept crashing over me.
I was about to do something I had not done in five years. And even if, for an instant, I was able to stop thinking about the conversation I was soon to have, her face was staring back at me every time I checked my rearview mirror. That’s where Emily, my niece, was sitting. Four years ago, my life was forever changed by the birth of this little girl, and today, more than ever, I couldn’t help but see her mom whenever I looked at her or heard her voice. She asked me why we have trees and where our hair comes from and I responded, wishing all the while that her mom was the one to give her those answers. But she couldn’t. Presently, she had been in drug rehab for a month, and we were on our way to spend time with her. I couldn’t help but realize that, although she was only four, Emily had spent more time with her mom in the last nine years than I had. I was hoping to change that.
“What’s going to happen when your mom gets better?” I asked her as she sat idle, smiling at me from the back seat of my car.
“Well, we’re all going to be happy again,” she replied in the unwavering innocence and faith of a child.
At that moment, I almost lost it. I couldn’t remember the last time our family was at peace. Even more appalling, though, was that Emily knew there was something more fulfilling than what was happening, that things could be better.
As the trees zipped by and the butterflies spawned in my stomach, I thought about the magnitude of this moment, this trip. Six months ago I was filled with so much hate for Emily’s mom, Jenny, that I refused to tell others she even existed. In my mind, Jenny was dead. She had hurt me and my family so badly that I wrote her off completely, telling people that “in five years, shell either be in jail or in a coffin — and I won’t cry about either.” I had become so completely hardened that I had stopped loving her.
Angry words and actions have one good quality about them — the very nature of their use suggests that the person they are directed toward is worth the time and effort to use them. I did not even allow her that much dignity.
I took part in the greatest form of hate: I would not acknowledge Jenny’s existence. Angry words and actions have one good quality about them — the very nature of their use suggests that the person they are directed toward is worth the time and effort to use them. I did not even allow her that much dignity. I stopped contacting her, calling her, and talking with her. She would walk into the room and my body would quiver, my jaw would tighten like an anaconda, and I would rather stare at the elephant in the room than look at the human being in front of me. She was the one person in this world I hated and I had no intention of ever making things right with. In my heart, she had made even the thought of reconciliation impossible through her actions, words, and attitude, and I wasn’t willing to fight through the walls that she put up around herself. I had two brothers and one sister; that’s what most people knew and that’s what I had come to believe. In reality, I was one of five kids, but I had created my own world inside of reality where Jenny no longer existed.
But something started changing inside me in the spring of 2006 that culminated in the hour car ride with Emily.
Donald Miller of “Blue Like Jazz” says that sometimes you have to see someone else enjoying something before you can enjoy it yourself. Don is exactly right. It wasn’t until I saw my family, especially my oldest brother Jeremy, start to forgive my sister that I knew it was time to let go. I knew my brother harbored some of the exact feelings I did. Seeing him start to let them go began a tug on my heart. However, it wasn’t until I saw my sister truly trying, after two rehab failures, to pull herself out of the most deplorable state that I have ever seen someone in, that I realized it was time to make the effort once again. I prayed so hard for God to give me love for her. On my own, I could not love Jenny. For nine years I had been cultivating hate and welcoming it as a means to deal with the pain. I had trained myself to despise her, to ignore her, to write her off. I knew there was only one person who could tear away the deep anger that had consumed me.
When we got to the house, I parked up the street. Emily asked why we were so far away, and I joked that we needed the exercise so that she wouldn’t have such a puffer belly. She stuck it out, laughing and patting her little stomach like it was a drum. The truth is, I was so nervous I needed the extra time to try and get rid of the anxiety. I had no idea what to expect. Jenny and I had not had a real, genuine conversation in over five years, and we had never spoken to each other as adults. I couldn’t remember the last time I hugged her or told her that I loved her. In fact, I could not even remember looking at her without despising her. I think we all have moments in our lifetime that we categorize as definitive. For me, this was one of them. I was about to put to rest nine years of hate and start a new life. For a moment, I felt like I was the one going through rehab, not Jenny. At times, I think I still am.
Emily reached up and grabbed my hand as we walked slowly: “Come on, uncle. Let’s go see my mom.” It was time.
As we approached the porch, Jenny came running out of the house, as much as a girl who was seven months pregnant could. She was so beautiful. She had put on about 20 pounds and had a beach ball for a stomach. Her hair was done and her face was clear. She looked so different. The last time I saw her, the crack had completely taken over. Her face was sunken in, her cheekbones were more visible than the life in her eyes, and she hadn’t taken a shower in days. The smell of stale cigarettes mixed with the faint odor of old shampoo hovered above her head. She was four months pregnant but it looked as if she was only slightly bloated after eating a big meal. The truth is she hadn’t eaten in days. She was so strung out that she looked like a walking corpse. I was so overcome with emotion at the time that I went into the bathroom and cried. She would tell me later that she doesn’t even remember that night.
We walked through the house and out to the back yard. Emily played but eventually went inside with another little girl who was visiting her mom, too. Jenny took a seat across from me on a picnic table.
“I want to read you something.” She proceeded to pull out a 40-page, handwritten packet entitled her First Step. “This is everything,” she said, “it’s my entire life story. I want to read it to you.” I looked into her eyes for the first time in what seemed like forever and saw Jenny. I saw the addict, not the addiction. I saw the little girl I would play with for hours in the driveway until we would stub our toes so bad we would have to go inside. I saw the mother of two young children, committing to get better. I saw my sister.
I told her I would love to hear it, but I could never have prepared myself for what she was about to read.
She put her head down and began to explain the last nine years of her life. It all started when she was 12. She talked about losing her virginity, the first time she smoked pot, the escalation to crack, and her foray into prostitution to support that habit. I sat in silence listening to the stories of bad drug deals and graphic rapes by guys she had never met. My heart ached as she talked about how she was beaten and nearly choked to death with a gun to her head, the time she was ransomed off, and all the stories in between. I was learning about the twisted life that she had come to call normal. I closed my eyes and tried to transport myself into her world, a world where she would stay high as long as she could keep her eyes open, sometimes for two or three days at a time. In this world, Jenny would pay the strange lady downstairs to watch Emily and lock herself in the bathroom for hours, losing herself in the crack. Emotional abuse was her constant companion and the death threats that were on her and our family were close to becoming tomorrow’s headlines. I would like to say that her life had become a wreck, but that does not do justice to the stories she was telling me. She experienced pain and hurt that I would never be able to understand. I would never wish what she went through upon my worst enemy, which ironically was her up until the month before.
I sat in silence listening to the stories of bad drug deals and graphic rapes by guys she had never met. My heart ached as she talked about how she was beaten and nearly choked to death with a gun to her head, the time she was ransomed off, and all the stories in between.
I looked at her through the tears in my eyes and stared silently. I felt horrible; I had never considered what she was going through. With every word on every page, we were both being liberated. My entire view of Jenny was changing. Years of pain, hurt, and hate were melting away. From my vantage point, life slowly started to seep into her being once again. Even the birds seemed to give audience, staring silently in amazement at the beautiful swan emerging from the feathers of a broken life. It’s as if we were standing on the opposite ends of nine years, running to each other with our arms open. The picnic bench was the middle ground, and we met halfway. I realized that Jenny was a person, not the monster that the crack had turned her into.
I told her that I wanted to write the story of us. She excitedly agreed and wanted me to do this for her. Ill never forget what she said to me next.
“You’re so different. I don’t know what it is, but you’ve changed.” She leaned on her hand and cocked her head to the side, eyes squinted and eyebrows lowered. Her whole life was lying in front of me, free to take and caress or trample on like the hundreds of people before me. I chose the former, never thinking I would get the chance to make the choice.
“I know, I just never thought this day would come,” I said as I picked up the broken pieces of nine years of misplaced love.
“Neither did I.” She let out a smirk, as if it felt so good to use the past tense.
I hugged and kissed her as we said goodbye, the first time I really had ever done that with sincerity in my heart. Her head briefly rested on my shoulder and a certain smell swept through the air. It was the familiar smell of hair laden with cigarettes and shampoo; the smell I always hated. But it was different now. That smell no longer rested on a ruined life. It symbolized something greater, something better. It wasn’t the smell of a dead sister; it was the smell of reconciliation.
I have tears in my eyes reading that again. The emotions came flooding in as I transported myself back to that picnic table. But I’m also crying because of where the story went from there. Let me say this: Recovery isn’t a linear path. And in the years after I learned to forgive Jenny, I’d have to remind myself that I had done so several times. Including the times I would have to talk to her through bulletproof glass as she sat on a cold stool wearing an orange jumpsuit.
Like I said, recovery isn’t always linear. More on that next time.
This story is the first of a series. You can read the second part here. Jonathon M. Seidl is the editor-in-chief of I Am Second. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@jonseidl) and like him on Facebook.
*I’ve edited it a little from the original version, both for length and because, let’s face it, I was still trying to get the hang of this writer thing 10 years ago.
To see how another former addict was able to find reconciliation, watch Jordan’s story: