My brother recently began suffering from what I believe is meth psychosis about three weeks ago. The havoc it has brought down on me and my family’s lives has been swift and truly frightening. Initially, I was sent into a small tailspin by the impact of his delusions, experiencing a sense of fear I had never known. I thought that after the initial shock I felt better once I found my bearings, but I know now that there probably isn’t ever going to be a return to normal.

When did the scales tip?

I’m not sure when my brother’s drug use tipped from recreational to substance abuse, but I remember the first time that I saw him high on something past the usual recreational drugs. Ten years ago, my aunt and I were visiting him in northern California where he had recently graduated UC Santa Cruz. He was late in meeting us at a restaurant for lunch. When he did show up he looked disheveled, he was sweating, his eyes were bulging, and is general affect seemed awkward and twitchy.

My aunt, being dangerously naïve to such things, either didn’t notice or attributed his behavior to his nature as a musician. I knew instantly he was high, probably on meth. It was totally crushing. I wanted to get up and walk away, all the way back to San Diego where I lived. I probably should have, but in the unfamiliarity of the situation my brain said no to flight, no to fight, but yes to freeze. I spent the rest of the meal feeling more and more uncomfortable as he skitted from topic to topic, loosely connecting them in a way that only a brain affected by methamphetamine seems to do.

The rest of the weekend in Santa Cruz with my brother followed suit. We decided to go out to a bar to do karaoke, but he didn’t tell me he had lost his ID. He spent half an hour trying to charm the doorman, wholly unsuccessfully, to let him in. He said he knew some bars that would let him in without an ID where all of his friends were at, so we headed to those. At each I watched as his “friends” became visibly physically uncomfortable when he approached them, exiting the conversation as soon as was possible. He didn’t notice, but blazed ahead with a false sense of confidence through the crowd with the swagger of a has-been rockstar that didn’t know he was past his prime. A few times I could tell that the people we talking with were trying to size up my complicity in the situation; some were suspicious and some showed pity.

Later, we ended up at a bowling alley bar with karaoke, where my brother became agitated that the song he wanted to sing wasn’t on the karaoke list. He haggled with the host to try and download the song, to let him hook up his phone to the sound system, and a whole bunch of other dead-ended suggestions. By the time my brother had accepted that he couldn’t find a way to get his song played and chose another, there were too many people signed up and he had lost his slot to sing. That started another whole round of conflict with the karaoke host. I sat by in freeze mode again. Was this just my brother’s normal arrogance and privilege showing, or was this drugs? My brain knew it was both, but I guess it had to keep the question open to give me time to incrementally accept what was becoming blatantly obvious.

In a seedy motel…

Our last stop was his “apartment”, which was a seedy motel room he rented by the month with his friend. My brain accepted it a little more… actually, a lot more. I didn’t want to go in, but I knew I needed to so that there wouldn’t be any question as to my brother’s substance abuse issue. Inside, one bed was propped up against a wall so the floor space could be used by his roommate. It kind of resembled the den of some animal that stole and dragged back useless trinkets to decorate it’s den. My brother’s half of the aging motel room was much more tidy, but was still a smattering of toiletries and trinkets, like maybe you’d see in a college dorm room after the apocalypse. We smoked a cigarette and I processed all the incoming sensory information. It made my insides feel like they were simultaneously dead and screaming. I said I was going back to my hotel room and I would see him tomorrow. It felt like I was leaving a gravely wounded friend to go find help, like maybe he wouldn’t be alive once I figured out how to save him.

For the rest of the weekend, I tried to be a fly-on-the-wall as much as possible, letting my aunt visit with the boy she raised that had graduated college and was walking into the world. I didn’t want to take that away from her until we had left because I knew that she wouldn’t be able to immediately accept it, and because it would irrevocably destroy all the hopes and dreams she had for him.

Radio silence.

Fast forward a few years of minimal contact with my brother, except for Christmas. My aunt kept me abreast of his goings-on and confided in me that she thought he was depressed. He was becoming more and more distant she said, more unpleasant on the phone. He couldn’t find a job and he needed her help to buy food and pay his rent. I tried broaching the subject of his substance abuse again, but she dismissed it. I know the idea lodged itself somewhere in the back of her brain, but she couldn’t accept it yet.

It wasn’t until he went radio silent for a couple weeks that she became concerned enough to enlist my help. For the first time she began to accept that the situation might be more dire than she had previously thought. I got off the phone and started looking up hospitals and police departments. He was being held in jail in Santa Cruz. Having to deliver that news to my aunt, the woman that basically raised us, was intense. I could hear the mix of fear, bewilderment, and parental failure in her voice.

My brother didn’t spend long in jail the first time, maybe two days. He lied to my aunt about why he went to jail, and then they went back to their normal. She enabled and he accepted. I tried discouraging her and discussing the topic of substance abuse, but she still wasn’t ready. It was frustrating and sometimes enraging to have to listen to her complain about all the money she was giving him and how disrespectful and unappreciative he was. It confused my brain as to why she didn’t understand that she was in part creating her own problem, while absolutely hurting my brother.

The second time my brother went to jail…

The second time my brother went to jail started like the first; my aunt had no contact with him for a couple weeks and asked me to check if he was in jail. He was, but what I saw shocked me – he had been arrested for grand theft auto, burglary and possession of a controlled substance. I looked up some possible sentences and tallied up a possible ten years in jail. Having to tell my aunt that her son was in jail again felt different this time; it was sad, but her culpability significantly reduced my compassion for her. It wasn’t just that she was enabling, it was that she refused to educate herself about enabling and substance abuse. If I had a kid going through the same situation, I would have read everything possible on the subject and created a game plan. Actually, that is what I did.

While my brother was in jail in Santa Cruz, he came clean ro my aunt and me about his heroin and meth use. My aunt had no choice but to accept it, then agreed to come with me to Al-anon group meetings. While she still didn’t educate herself to the extent that I think she should have, the meetings did help her see her financial support of him not as love, but as something destructive to his well-being. For eight months we went to weekly meetings until we got the call that he was being released. We went to pick him up and bring him back to San Diego to stay with my aunt.

Two Years Clean

Sometime soon after coming to San Diego to stay with my aunt after getting out of jail, my brother relapsed. Although major by definition, there wasn’t collateral damage, probably because he had just got out of jail and he didn’t have anything to lose. He left our aunt’s house and came to stay with me. For two years he seemed to stay clean, worked and saved money to be able to move up to San Francisco to start his own business. I thought maybe he wasn’t a typical addict and that he had a good chance at moving past that phase of his life and keeping sober. For a few years he did. While I could still feel the fragility of his sobriety, at least it was holding.

Now what’s past is prologue.

In July of 2019, a much-loved family cat of mine went missing. I think this cat was integral to my brother’s recovery when he lived with me for two years. The news seemed to hit my brother in an especially deep way and he decided to fly out to San Diego to help me search for the cat. As soon as I picked him up from the airport, I could tell he was high. The next couple of days were marked by his erratic behavior and arrogant attitude. He was intensely preoccupied with his phone and thought that his ex-employees and friends were trying to hack all his accounts but had no evidence or even reasonable claims. He refused any reasonable advice or offers of help. This was the first sign I ever saw of delusions or psychosis and it was very unnerving. His visit culminated in an argument on the 4th of July and he left my house. It was particularly affecting because in the 34 years we had known each other, we had never had an argument even close to this level; it ramped up with intense speed. I was devastated that he was using again and wondered how far along and how far gone he might be.

Surprisingly, not much far after his visit, my brother came clean to my aunt and me that he had been using again and that it had become unmanageable. He had even contemplated suicide. He was leaving San Francisco and entering into a rehabilitation facility in San Diego. Thrilled isn’t the right word to explain how I felt – maybe a really intense sense of relief. In the following months I could see the positive changes that recovery was having on my brother. He was more respectful, thoughtful, introspective and seemed to be embracing his recovery. Eventually he moved from the rehab to a sober living situation. I felt that fragility again, but I was hopeful.

Then the coronavirus hit.


Stay tuned for Meth Psychosis: A Sister’s Perspective, Part 2.