Dealing with Death in Early Recovery

by Marcus Abernathy

I’m 31 years old, and until a week ago I still had all four of my grandparents.   Last Wednesday, May 15, 2013 my grandfather – mom’s father – lost a long battle with Alzheimer’s.  He was 91 years old.

I don’t have a very good track record of dealing with death in a healthy way.  I’m a recovering drug addict, so that’s what I did when things would get unbearable.  I’d use.  I began using after a good friend of mine was murdered when I was 21, and getting loaded has been my coping mechanism ever since.

However, last Wednesday when my grandfather passed away, I had also accumulated 180 days of sobriety.  And as much as it hurt to lose him, there was silver-lining that I found solely because of my recovery time.  First of all, even though he was unaware, I was proud that I was able to get sober while he was still alive.  Second, my family didn’t have to worry about how this would affect me and correspondingly how I might affect them during this trying time.  Last, I had a chance to show up for my family and be strong.

My grandfather, “Papa” as I knew him, had shown signs of Alzheimer’s as far back as 20 years ago, long before I developed any substance use habits.  And when my drug use became an issue, my parents shielded this information from their parents for a long time.  (Until it directly affected my grandparents on my father’s side.)  And once I finally got the treatment I needed, and they got the education they needed, we agreed that being open and honest about everything with my family was a necessary hurdle to jump.  By this time, however, Papa wasn’t mentally well enough to comprehend everything.  And, even if he could, he probably wouldn’t know whom they were talking about anyway.  Alzheimer’s is a nasty disease.  But even though Papa was unaware of my struggles, and therefore unaware of my successes in recovery, I couldn’t help but feel proud that I was able to clean up while he was still alive.  I know he would have been supportive of me getting help, and he would have been very proud of me staying clean.  He loved me very much, and if he were able to, he probably would have invited me to go fishing to celebrate my new life.

As my addiction got worse over the years, my family began to view me as a liability at family functions.  They would worry how loaded I would get, and if I would embarrass them by embarrassing myself.  And rightfully so, because that’s what I did.  I can’t even imagine how I would have mishandled myself this past weekend if I were still getting high and drunk all the time.  The focus would have been taken off of Papa, and on to me.  Making sure I didn’t make a spectacle would have been a spectacle in itself.  What would go missing?  What sort of inappropriate comments would Marcus make?  Where is Marcus?  Has anybody seen Marcus?

But, fortunately, nobody had to worry about that.  We were able to focus on the family as a whole.  We were able to honor the memory of Papa, and tell stories about fishing.  We were able to cry when the trumpet man played ‘Taps,’ removed the flag from the coffin and presented it to the family.  I was able to hug my mother, and cry with my brother and my cousins.  I was able to step up, be a man, and be strong for my mother and grandmother.  I was able to be strong for myself, which involved a little crying, I am proud to say.  I showed up, 100% William Marcus Abernathy, as pure as the streams that bubble out of the ground in Hissop, Alabama.

Me – 1, drugs – 0.

William “Billy” Claude Maddox, “Papa,” was one of the most caring, benevolent men I have ever known.  He was selfless, loved his family, and always knew how to make me laugh.  He loved to fish, and I’d bet that’s what he’s doing right now, if I were a betting man.

In closing, this is difficult, no doubt.  I am sad.  And I am happy, because I am sad.  Because that means I am allowing myself to experience my emotions instead of drowning them out with chemicals.  For once in my life, I am allowing myself to experience the grief, and properly mourn.  It sucks, and for that I am grateful.

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