Here is my confession: I have only seen one episode of "Breaking Bad."
I don’t live under a rock, and I do have access to television and Internet. Most of my friends have tried to get me to watch "Breaking Bad," because for them, methamphetamine is a plot device, a prop in a show. For me it has been the very real possibility that my brother would burn our house down while we slept. Or steal someone’s wallet, or slash my mother’s tires, or kill someone in a bar fight, or hurt himself.
My older brother became a meth addict, and after years of using and attempts at rehab, his addiction claimed his life. I know it’s a coincidence, but as the seasons aired, my brother declined further and further. By season three, he couldn’t keep a job or a roof over his head. By season four, he had stolen a car to feed his habit.
In the month following the series finale, with seemingly everyone freaking out about the conclusion of their favorite show, my brother’s addiction had created such powerful delusions and paranoia that he committed suicide while checked into a mental health hospital.
My first distinct memory of my brother Matt is from kindergarten. I walked home from school because it was only three blocks away, and my brother was supposed to watch me while my Mom was at work.
When I got to our gate, he was sitting on the porch rocking back and forth in a plastic chair. I walked inside the house, and he followed me. He locked the door and the deadbolt at the top, and he turned to me and said “The tree is trying to kill me. Don’t open the door.” '
Then he climbed out a window and ran away through the back yard. I was five.
He was a troubled soul. He was in and out of juvenile hall, and later jail. No one else in our family has ever used methamphetamine so we didn’t understand that you can be addicted after one use, that it rewires the processing of dopamine in the brain, and that it can take over a year of sobriety for the brain to function normally again. There is no methadone treatment for meth, nothing to help ease into abstinence.
Not only was he was destroying his own life, and he was tearing our family down as well.
I believe that he made numerous bad decisions, and those decisions contributed to his death. Drug use and suicide are choices that are tragic, but individual. Yet at the same time, he struggled for years to get clean, and could never seem to quite break through it. We believe that he suffered from an undiagnosed mental disorder, but the drugs prevented him from ever seeking lasting treatment. Combined with a strong addiction, it’s a wonder he made it as long as he did. He died a few weeks shy of his 37th birthday.
For a long time, he received help, as much as we could provide. My family has always been in the lowest income bracket, so the expensive rehabilitation centers and counselors and therapies were always off limits. He would get clean during stints in jail, or by locking himself in an empty room for several days.
There were times he would get better on his own, and stay clean for months. The most stable time in his life was when his children were born. We thought that maybe he finally found something strong enough to help him stay clean, to function like a normal adult. His life was a roller coaster, and it always seemed to go so much further down than it had ever gone up.
For my family, methamphetamine was why my brother never held down a job for more than a few months, why he would disappear for weeks on end, why he would steal money from friends and relatives, including his own children, why he had been violent and abusive.
Meth is why he stole my Mom’s jewelry and pawned it two blocks away. Meth is why he ate all the sandwiches that were meant for his kid’s lunch when he hadn’t eaten in several days. Meth is why I had to call the police on him before breakfast. Meth is the black hole that swallowed him up before he turned 40.
Yes, "Breaking Bad" is fiction, but what sort of message is it sending when one middle aged guy’s cancer treatments are more important than the devastation of dozens of entire families? Every addict has a family somewhere. Regardless of Walter White’s intentions or motivations, the effects of meth are catastrophic.
By the end of season 5, how many people used Walter White’s signature Blue Sky? Hundreds? Thousands? It’s entertainment for people who will never come close to having to deal with an actual meth addict. I don’t understand how people can find it thought-provoking and edgy to see a character be a part of the problem with no remorse.
Yes, drug use is a choice, but so is becoming a drug lord. Is the preservation of one middle class white family so important that it trumps the safety of entire communities? Maybe if it was Walter Black or Walter Brown instead, the show wouldn’t be worthy of a Netflix binge.
His final relapse got him kicked out of the halfway house he was in. With nowhere to go, and the paranoia starting up, my brother checked into a mental health hospital. They had him on five minute checks, meaning that he was never alone for more than five minutes at a time.
The day before, he called my sister, trying to tell her about the people who were after him. He had had this delusion for years, in different cities, only while under the influence. At one point he was crying as he told her “I wish you believed me that they’re coming to torture me.” He was so convinced that what “they” had planned for him was hell, he took his own life. He asked to take a shower, and in under five minutes had managed to get his T-shirt through a grate. How scared do you have to be to want to die that badly?
When he was discovered, he was rushed to a hospital. The doctors tried everything they could to resuscitate him, and for several days we were in a state of limbo, unsure of whether to plan a memorial, whether to have hope. While we waited, I realized that I wanted it to be the end. I didn’t wish him dead, but I wanted his suffering to be over. I wanted all of our suffering to be over.
Because in 20 years of memories, I didn’t have a single positive one with him in it. When someone dies, you grieve for all the potential that is lost, the person they could have been, all the days and blessings that come with life. He had no future, though, nothing that he could have been while using meth.
In the end his brain had suffered too much damage, and that was it. He was a candidate for organ donation, and it’s been a source of comfort to know that the two people who received his kidneys have a second chance at life.
When I spoke with my mother after he was cremated, she said something that broke my heart.
"This death I can live with,” she said,” This is better than him getting killed in a fight, or freezing to death in a ditch somewhere, or us never knowing what happened at all. He didn’t die alone. This was the best outcome for his life.”
Drugs turned him into a call that we dreaded, a violent surprise that showed up at dinner. His two children will only ever remember him as the erratic, crazy drug addict he became, a man who made grand promises and then would disappear for weeks. Meth consumed everything that he was, everything he might have been. His addiction burned down everything else, relationships, ambitions, possessions, until the last thing to go was his body and his life.
Don’t tell me it’s just a TV show, not when it glorifies a person making millions off of a dangerous and addicting substance, not when real, living people struggle with it everyday. Go ahead and watch it, and throw viewing parties, and enjoy it. But don’t make blue sugar candy “meth” and think it’s clever. Remember that it isn’t just a prop, it’s a problem.