Prepping for the Marathon, Remembering Ronnie

Written by JKM on October 24th, 2014

Remember when I said I would keep you posted about my training on my blog?!  I guess i lied.  Here we are days away from the marathon, and it’s only my second post.  I have indeed been training, though, so don’t worry about that!  I just haven’t wanted to spend any down time sitting at the computer.  With that said, this is a post I have been meaning to write for a long time.

I realized that some people don’t know the circumstances surrounding Ronnie’s death.  This is not because our family is ashamed of it, not at all.  Ultimately we don’t know the specific reason for Ronnie’s acute illness.  It was a combination of various physical breakdowns that, when compounded, could not be reversed:  severe alcoholic hepatitis, pneumonia, and kidney and liver disfunction.  Ronnie was an alcoholic.

He was also a devoted son, loving brother, wonderful friend, computer expert and very capable EMT. Alcoholism was a very small part of who he was.  It is an illness, one I consider myself very qualified to argue is worse than cancer.  Not long after Ronnie died, I read a blog post at work that made my JuLaura blood boil.  It was written by a patient undergoing treatment for breast cancer.  She wrote of her disgust over a news segment where an expert claimed that addiction was an illness like any other illness, comparing it to cancer.

I was angry.  So I wrote a response.  But I never sent it.  After I wrote it down, I thought about how she must be scared and that it probably wasn’t the appropriate time to educate her.  She was venting through her blog, as I often did, and I didn’t want to judge her.  I did, however, save what I wrote:

As a 2-time cancer survivor, I respectfully disagree.  Perhaps you have to know someone       personally to understand the disease of addiction.  My brother died a month and a half ago of alcoholism.  He never “put [himself] in the position to become addicted“.

I am slowly learning just how serious of a disease alcoholism and addiction is.  And I am of the firm belief that he suffered far more than I did through chemo, total body irradiation, radioactive iodine and a stem cell transplant.  He suffered silently because addiction is an unacceptable illness, a character flaw to be judged by others, and that is not how it should be.

I don’t mean to offend anyone, but I now feel a great responsibility to educate others about addiction.  I know cancer well (unfortunately), but I have much to learn about addiction.

That was three years ago, and I am embarrassed to write that I still know little about this disease, save my personal experience with it.  I think about it almost daily and I wonder if there is any way to truly understand it.

When I think about Ronnie’s alcoholism, I think of 9/11.  Ronnie had jury duty that morning, and because he woke up late, he did not take the subway to the World Trade Center stop.  Instead, he hailed a cab, and while riding along, he heard planes flying at what seemed like a very low altitude.  He saw the first tower just after the plane was hit, and he watched as the second plane flew into the second tower. He began walking toward the chaos, and what he witnessed was something he relived in his mind every day for the rest of his life:  people jumping from the towers, others getting hit by cars while running terrified in the streets.  Then came the collapse, and Ronnie turned and ran.

Bars became places where people found solace and companionship.  The entire city of New York was suffering, and having a few drinks with someone to talk about their experience that day or to discuss the gaping hole left by the fall of the towers brought great comfort.  That gaping hole represented something much more than a simple loss of real estate; it was a loss of lives, of security, of normalcy.  Life would never be the same.  Alcohol helped to relax and to forget the horror of Ground Zero for a brief time.

Ronnie was always touched by the strength of New Yorkers and their response to such tragedy.  I would say that was around the time that he truly began to feel like a New Yorker.  But his pride in his city and fellow New Yorkers could not diminish the fear I believe he felt each day, a fear I think alcohol helped to assuage.

I can never imagine what it must have been like to witness what Ronnie witnessed.  I know that after watching the news all day at work and home, I took a long bath, and I sobbed almost uncontrollably; I was relieved Ronnie was OK, but I grieved for what he had seen, for the lives that were lost, and for the realization that life was forever changed.  That will always be the day I stopped feeling safe.

None of this is meant to explain away Ronnie’s alcoholism, but rather to illustrate that life circumstances can play a great role in addiction, and I truly think it did with Ronnie.

There was a period of over a year when he quit drinking.  He went back to school and he also joined Tuckahoe Volunteer Rescue Squad as an EMT.  He really was happy, but I still believe he replayed the images of 9/11 in his mind every day.  He also was working hard to encourage me after my diagnosis of leukemia.  When I relapsed in 2008, I think he too relapsed, finding some comfort in alcohol when he could not affect the safety and health of those he loved.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but these are my thoughts, and I wanted to share them with you.

Please don’t judge addiction.  It is a powerful and devastating illness that ravages both the person addicted and all those they love.  To end, I will borrow a piece from my sister, Katie, who wrote this as a Facebook status following Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death in February:

Every time a public figure dies and drugs or alcohol addiction appear to be the cause, I see variations of the following statements on social media: “They made that choice to do it to themselves.” “They knew what they were doing.” “They’re selfish.” While I would hope to find more empathy and less ignorance, the messages are almost always the same. I find I’m a stronger person by learning aboutaddiction and addressing the scientific facts that our brains do not all function the same. That we all deal with experiences in different manners. Mostly, I’ve found that I’m stronger through loving–through realizing that my judgements don’t help those suffering. And they don’t help me either.

I miss my brother every day and I can say with 100% certainty that it was not a choice for him, nor was he selfish. He had an addiction and attempted to deal with it in a society where insidious comments are disguised as tolerance or help. I hope less people know the pain felt by Ronnie or the pain my family and I felt. I’ll always strive to do what Ronnie taught me by example: fight ignorance with knowledge.

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