My Drunk, Dead Cousin

He was my oldest cousin, by about 10 or 11 years. He was the first one to show me the Clash box set. He showed me movie posters from the 1950s. He loved old horror flics, especially with Bela Lugosi. He collected horror film masks and I was enthralled. I was too young for him to really talk to me, but when he did I was over the moon because he was so interesting. His character was especially unique, since his household wasn’t especially creative. Strictly working class and provincial, my cousin’s family was an eastern Long Island stalwart—where a trip to Manhattan was an earth-shattering affair. He would illustrate beautifully. He could talk about classic movies forever. He was an encyclopedia of rock music.

He dared go to college. It didn’t work out after a couple of years. We later figured out that his partying was more than just college guy partying. He hit the sauce hard. So he got a sales job in Manhattan and an apartment. From what we knew he was living large. Our family moved abroad for a couple of years, snobs and elitists that we were, so we didn’t hear many details except on the once-per-year home leave trip we were awarded. Squeezing all the details of life into that short time was impossible, since there was also so much bullshit to pile on.

He liked to drink. Some of his best stories—and they were great stories—involved drinking somewhere. He had such a knack for telling stories, it didn’t matter if they were self-destructive tales, we were all entertained and he enjoyed telling. Though the behavior got kind of trite, year after year at the holiday gatherings, with his drunkenness. But he was really no worse than his sister or father, at least on the surface. But apparently the drinking got bad enough that it was deemed best for him to move out of Manhattan and perhaps with his grandfather in Arizona. And that’s all we knew.

Grandpa was a raging alcoholic, himself, so I’m still not sure what the thinking was behind the move out west. I was in college by this point, so on occasional phone calls with him I learned that he was in so much trouble that he was going to prison. Drunk driving? I didn’t know enough to ask the right questions. He was on a work-release program, where he was allowed to attend his job, but then had to return to jail on nights and weekends. Then the job petered out—how could it have not?

Years went by and I got my own apartment in Manhattan. One Easter hosted at my parents’ house, he came back and the whole extended family enjoyed a reunion. We caught up, talked about movies mostly, and he thought it would be great if he came back to the city with me and my boyfriend. Great, I said, it’ll be fun. We’ll go out, he’ll stay over and take the train back in the morning.

So we all hit the bars that night. Oddly, he kept leaving the bar and walking around outside, clamoring, he said, for New York City air. He hadn’t been back in so long and he missed it so. It was getting late, so we’re going to head back to the apartment. No, he said, he’s going to stick around a while and walk around the village. I gave him a key, reminded him where we live, and we went our separate ways. My boyfriend and I ran into some friends and had one more drink, then onto pizza, some laughs and a slow walk back home.

He was back at the apartment passed out on the couch. On the kitchen table was a roll of tin foil and some matches. Holy shit, my cousin just smoked some goddamned drugs in my place.

Stunned, disappointed, and shaken, I crawled into bed and shuddered all night.

I never mentioned it to him. If he wanted to think I was stupid enough to fall for whatever gimmick he used to explain away the foil and matches, what purpose was it for me to change his thinking. I realized at that point he had been so far gone for so long that nothing I could say or do would make any difference. Now all the disparate details about his life started to make sense. Of course, an addict would do that, I thought.

We only saw him sporadically from then on, and my mother and her sister didn’t exactly share a warm relationship, so the family get-togethers at holidays were getting squeezed out by lame excuses about traffic.

Saw him years later at another cousin’s wedding. He was a fucking mess. Crying all over the place, wildly overweight, and slobbering. He moved back to Long Island and was living in my aunt’s house. He was working as a golf pro, for the time being. He lost his driver’s license permanently. No girlfriend or wife. It’s not like he was a tormented artist—he never even gave himself an opportunity to get there. He got fucked up on drugs and alcohol before he even had a chance.

A couple years later he was at my grandmother’s wake. His state was worse, and he had aged so much he was unrecognizable. He didn’t show up for the funeral; no one knew where he was.

He felt things intensely—that was something we shared in common. I remember when our grandfather died, I was about 15. We were all totally devastated by my grandfather’s death—he was the greatest.  I was standing in my aunt’s kitchen, and he quietly walked in and stood against the counter adjacent to where my aunt was emptying the dishwasher. In a flash, he tore the top drawer of the dishwasher out of the machine and hurled it across the kitchen, with glass shattering everywhere.

I heard that my uncle was a violent guy; or at least beat up on my cousin emotionally. Apparently he was a real bully and took it out on my cousin. I don’t know. I hadn’t spoken to him in the last 2 years, since his father died and he called me for hours at a time. I listened to him talk and said very little.  

Last week he had just came out of rehab, again after countless attempts, this time for 22 days, but his neuropathy was so painful he continued to drink once he got back to my aunt’s house. I guess he had no job either. He was hopeless and in agony. He passed out on the couch watching TV. My aunt couldn’t seem to wake him up to get him to go upstairs to bed. She got Nancy, my other cousin, to try to rouse him but he would just open his eyes a little and go back to snoring. A few minutes went by and they heard a gurgling noise and then silence. They rushed back in the room. Nancy said he was grey. She shouted at my aunt to get out of the house and run next door; the neighbor was a cop. Nancy called 911 and they talked her through CPR, after she tried clearing his throat. He was dying. She tried to revive her brother, riddled with drugs and alcohol and depression for so many years. The EMTs arrived and worked on him for 40 minutes. He was dead on arrival at the hospital.

Last Saturday my cousin died of a massive heart attack. He was 49.

~ by yearzerowriters on November 4, 2009.

12 Responses to “My Drunk, Dead Cousin”

  1. what a sad (but beautifully written) story. So sorry for your loss…

  2. We all have one in the family, and the one I have would surely merit an eulogy of this calibre, Jenn. Magnificently told, not a drop sentimental, and yet filled with emotion.

  3. I too had a cultural mentor within the family – a casual comment about reading Camus’ “L’Etranger” and then going to listen to The Cure’s “Killing An Arab” turned me on to both post-punk and reading (I’d studiously modelled boys’ eschewing of literature up till this point). I like to think I have never looked back from that point. Unfortunately that family member’s adult life has been blighted with a series of tragedies and heartbreak afflicting his own children, but I don’t want to go into that.

    I was also the child of an addict, so I think you’ve done an amazing job of bringing together these 2 human streams in such a clearcut and powerful way that nails both phenomea absolutely on the head. Sadly such salutary tales will be replayed over and over among countless people’s lives, of addictive personalities and fallen heroes. This is why I reject the notion of character arcs in fiction. People rarely change. Such is the nature of addiction and compulsion.

    I did find it hilarious that in such a diminished state, the only job he could manage was ‘Golf pro’!


    • The idea of an “addictive personality” is no longer widely accepted in science, and, while it’s true that many problem drinkers and drug users will die of their habit, many do not. I was a street junky for six years and ended up as Head of School at a traditional university, and I know many others who confounded all expectations. People carry on in the same old rut, and then something can happen to provoke change. Sadly, it is family members that bear the scars, whether the junkies survive or not.

      Jenn’s story is raw and heartfelt, and as Penny says, her matter-of-fact tone delivers it with a massive punch. Another great piece of writing, that gets us all thinking about real-life issues,

      • Science and the human mind… Hmmm. We’ve been here before.

        My family member does have an addictive personality – the nature of the addiction changes, from gambling, to drugs, to crackpot remedies to cure himself (including ECT, lithium & suicide). The notion that he is broken and that can be mended is itself addictive & compelling to him. What doesn’t change is the raging inner need he obviously feels a compulsion to fill through all these external things entering his body and mind – of course he is perpetually malnourished because they cannot do the job. Whether it is worth delineating it an addictive personality type – I think doesn’t matter.

        I applaud your personal victory over your addiction. Proof that people can change but it does always lurk under the surface of their personality. The recovery rates of addicts as reported by the ‘ –Anonymous’ is always terrifyingly small.


  4. I have a gruesome depth of experience in alcoholism/rehabs/drugs & untimely deaths. So, emotionally, this was acutely distressing to read. At the same time, my critical faculties sat back & gasped with admiration at the clear, concise way your conversational tone delivers the heavy goods with force, restraint & no sentimentality.


  5. Thanks all for your notes. I wasn’t sure about posting it. Oddly, I felt a little better after I did. Funny, I just barked yesterday on my blog about how writing without an audience is therapy. Well, this may have been my therapy, so thanks for being the audience (because I’m certainly not sharing it with my family).

  6. Hi Marc, I don’t think science has all he answers either, but the concepts of ‘addictive personality’, or ‘alcoholism’, or ‘addictive disease’ – while they may be useful metaphors, sometimes – are promoted as if they throw light on the aetiology, prognosis and treatment of a disorder – which they do not. The problem with the idea that individuals possess these characteristics permanently is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, an ‘excuse’ to relapse – like AA’s idea that you are a ‘recovering alcoholic’ for the rest of your life. The recovery rates from longitudinal research are strikingly different. People move into and out of periods of dependence, with a tendency to mature out of addiction over time – if they survive. (The classic study is Vaillant’s 50 year follow-up, The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited, Harvard 1995.)

    Sadly there are individuals we all know for whom this wasn’t true. But this isn’t the whole picture, and the new developments in cognitive behavioural therapy provide more effective treatment – as with other mental heath problems.

    Do I think I still have an addiction, 40 years after giving up a habit of 0.5 grams of pharmaceutically pure heroin a day? No. Have I got a substitute addiction? No. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

    Jenn’s prose is so powerful it generates these debates!

  7. Larry: you are amazing.


  8. Well you’re truly amazing, Jenn – amazing talent!

  9. Such a sad and touching story. Coming from a dysfunctional background myself, I can totally relate here. It brings back a lot of memories.

    Anne L-G

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