Community , Culture , Columns

Domestic Violence, overdose or suicide, we can help each other

My sister was in her fifties when she died of an overdose of methamphetamine in 2011. She died alone, separate from her little family.

When Jennie died, I lost my little sister. She was the person who shared my childhood memories. We communicated in the subtle ways of sisters. I’d say, did you hear about—and before I finished, she’d say, Yep.

She was a powerful presence, 5’8”, like my mother. She had a degree in finance, was in control and challenging. Larger than life. She was irritating at times, incredibly hard working and loveable. She had a rippling laugh. She was a bigger presence than a woman is supposed to be in the wider society, and if that bothered her, she didn’t say. She just kept fighting for what she needed and to do it her way.

Saying “Jennie” sounds like childhood. It calls up the happy, little girl in the black and white picture I took in our bedroom. She was in her nightgown, smiling, a tooth missing, her curly hair loose. She was the young girl all of my family fell in love with. She was my one sister, but we didn’t go shopping or get coffee together. She was a beautiful, young woman, but what does being beautiful get you but trouble?

She fought substance abuse all her life, and you could say she came by her addiction honestly. When we were young, Dad drank Old Fashioneds. I remember that I loved the bourbon soaked maraschino cherries. My grandmother didn’t allow alcohol in her house, trying to straighten up her sons, I think. For my aunts and cousins cocktail hour is a family tradition. Some family members drink; some have found recovery, and some died in their addiction.

Jennie had legal problems with drinking and driving in her 20s, and a positive drug test at work a year or so before she died. She was having a hard time financially in the 2008 housing crisis. She had issues with her partner and a teenage son. I live states away, and I’d been calling, but we were losing touch.

The coroner – I imagine an overworked person – writes with harsh simplicity “she kept using until she died.”

I don’t know whether she was running fast emotionally, or whether she noticed her heart swelling, speeding up, or whether the capillaries dilated or constricted as she passed.   

I wish I’d been with her. I met the woman who found her body. It seems I should know the details; it seems they must be essential. At the same time, I don’t want more details because they bring me into the room with my sister on the floor between the sliding glass door and the bed. I don’t know whether she was looking outside when her heart stopped, or whether she was sitting on the bed.

It was hard to turn her over, the woman said.

There’s much more to say here, about the joys of Jennie’s life, the inspiration she was in mine, about the conflict in families and how it plays out, about how some family members turn to drugs or alcohol and others to food for comfort, about the generations of trauma that Osages have lived. About how sometimes, you don’t speak about something painful to spare others their feelings or memories.

I think about how our Nation and our culture supports girls and women and how we sustain each other. Part of me thinks if I’d understood what was happening – how bad it was – maybe I could have helped. I know how hard it can be to find recovery. I wish I knew why one person finds it and another doesn’t.

It’s been six years since Jennie died, and I’ve barely spoken about her death. I’m sharing my experience because I hope if we lighten the judgment and shame some people associate with domestic violence, overdose or suicide, we can help each other.