When Your Family Member is Homeless for the Holidays

Updated: Feb 8

For people who have a homeless and estranged sibling, the holidays can bring a level of grief, anger, and sadness that's hard to explain with any study. I know this because I live with that pain.

My big brother has been without a fixed address for a handful of years now. He's experienced substance use and mental health issues like many others in our family, including myself.

For him, though, it's been a different experience.

I'm sharing this blog post today as a way of moving through some of these big feelings, honoring the person my brother will always be, and connecting to others who are going through something similar.

My only brother is 4 years older than me. He was considered an "old school hippie" who looked like Jesus Christ, smoked baseball bat doobies, and lived in the bush, kept to himself, our dad, and a few select guy friends (and me).

Once upon a time not too long ago, he was a hiker, trail builder, a mechanic. A free spirit, nature guide, and my biggest fan. He told me I should publish Ana, Mia & Me, share it with the world, keep going and forget this bullshit about thinness and bones.

"You need to chill more," he'd say during a hike or a drive or a drinking session. We did a lot of that in high school. Together and apart.

He was a gentle person with a heart that radiated love and kindness and generosity. He was a lover, fighter, and warrior for the little guy. He'd been bullied for being the little guy his entire childhood, so it made sense.

Anxiety was an issue for my big brother. He picked the skin on his fingers like I did (do). He sweat too much around other people like I did (do). He shook and didn't know how to communicate what he was feeling, just like me. It frustrated him. It depressed me. I was put into the medical system for that depression because it threatened my life in my preteens. Anorexia nervosa and depression had me in general, small town, provincially-covered therapy. I learned how to think and act my way out of crisis and how to survive but not how to heal and change the patterns passed down to me.

My brother in his teens thought therapy was for weak people, that it was lame, that he was fine. My mom was always overreacting, right? By his 30s he was driving drunk to work, crashing on the way home, crashing, crashing, crashing. How many times has he crashed?

"Your brother is just like your father. They have nine lives."

This is what I grew up hearing. Early on my brother stopped drinking coffee (unless it was with alcohol) because coffee on its own made his anxious sweats so much worse. He dreaded picking up a coworker whose girlfriend was gorgeous. His anxiety had him sweating and bumbling and when he couldn't smoke he couldn't cope.

Drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis and cigarettes became a pretty reliable way of helping him manage emotions and become able to socialize and make friends. He fell in love a few times and once a big time but he lost it because the routine didn't really work after a while. After a while everything stops working when mental health issues go untreated or poorly treated. Ignored. Numbed. Drowned. Anxiety led him to taking walk-in clinic prescription anti-anxiety meds and, not surprisingly, becoming hooked on their effects. He had no follow-up. He had no relief. He was searching for help. He was drug-seeking.

He was found in a creek enduring a psychosis. Psychosis can encompass many things, but for my big brother, psychosis looked like hallucinating and acting out based upon those visions. He endured alcohol-induced seizures. He endured being strapped to a hospital bed. More than once.

He managed good years, sure, but eventually the dependencies started to take over his entire life in a way they never did with me. I was across the country helping raise someone else's daughter, getting married for a second time, and his life was falling apart.

This happened before he ever had children, the one thing he always wanted.

It's not his fault.

It's not the fault of any one thing or person or trauma or drug, either.

It is all of it together and then some more.

Drinking and smoking and escaping with pills was a learned behavior made worse by genetics, environmental factors, and toxic masculinity that ingrained into my brother that he didn't need or deserve professional help. That stopping medications was okay because he should be able to man up and deal with his issues. That he could just stop drinking. That he could control it. That he had learned his lesson.

More recently, maybe 5 or so years ago, his homeless status and location near social services qualified him to access the type of resources where he was encouraged to stay on certain meds which were covered by the government, he was given housing and help with issues in reducing dependency on others.

Eventually he would find himself chairing meetings. He was coming back around. Mother and brother were coming back together. He was showing a recovery path, and we were all so hopeful.

But these things aren't linear. Someone getting better today doesn't mean they will always move in that same direction. It is damn hard. For my brother, and millions of other people on this planet, it is harder.

He was never one to listen to authority figures or people suggesting they know better than he did- not our parents, not his teachers, not his bosses. He wasn't one for rules, schedules, or feeling controlled, either. He did, however, have some extremely successful jobs (Toyota being one of them)! He once told me that was when everyone else was so happy and proud to talk about him because it sounds good but that's actually when he was feeling at one of his lowest times in his whole life.

When my brother become fixed on something - whether it be knowing the name of every single plant in the local forest or how to completely reconstruct his old Jimmy, he excelled. Extremely intelligent but oh so opposed to taking someone's input into his process.

Not long enough into his recovery, my brother was evicted for breaking curfew, or so we were told. My brother explained there was a person there out to get him. Another person he once idolized turned terrible. This was always the way it went: a landlord or boss were "cool" and "awesome" and different from others because they were old school but then there would be a problem and this person would all of sudden become the biggest @ss my brother ever met. Black and white thinking, splitting, you are either all good or all bad, with him or against, cool or lame. Was someone out to get my brother? Maybe it was the person who offered their summer home for him to work and board and dry out and he brought transient people back inside the home and, story goes, destroyed it. I spoke with this woman and I heard her side. I never heard what my brother had to say. He disappeared again.

And that's the thing about estranged relatives: You only hear stories. Games of telephone and bits of information throughout the years until the information stops.

Is he alive?

Once we heard he walked out of a hospital room without his only items, his backpack or shoes.

Was he okay? Where did he go? You can't go missing from the hospital. They can't hold a person against their will. You can't go missing when you're considered homeless. Without address means without place to be missing from. He is missing from my heart. My life. Isn't that enough?

I try not think about the fact he may be experiencing another, maybe extended psychosis. He may not understand what is happening at all. Why is this happening ? Will it ever end? What will that mean, though? No news is good news, we keep saying as a family.

Starseed people, he tells me about the very last time I see him. He is happy on the outside, smiling, but it's because he's about to score. He tells me he loves the way he lives. Is it hard? Yes, he says. He says it's hard but so it trading time for wages for rent and being boxed in and never having the room to explore the mountains...

I try not to question how living a transient life has changed him and his sense of what's right and wrong. Would I recognize him in his eyes? I see him in every person sleeping rough who is even close to his build. Last I saw, he was emaciated with bruised ribs. It's not a good image to be left with. He hugged me, gave me a nugget of cannabis, and floated off into the wintery wilderness that is the streets of Kamloops.

Years ago now.

Who is he now? Would he want to know who I am today? The last time he saw me, I was so angry. I was angry with him for making me worry for the past months and I was angry at my ex for blowing up our marriage and my entire life. I was so, so angry and my brother was so, so at peace on the outside but brother I swear I could see the shaking under the mask...

I see news of men dying on the streets and in the river and living in tents. I see the tents when I drive around and I wonder. Are you in there? Are you involved with the recent break-ins and assaults and has life forced you to make choices you know will break our hearts? Are you staying away on purpose or are you waiting for someone to come get you...where are you?

Should I be searching or hiding? /

Wondering if a relative is alive or if they are going to survive the winter season because of homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues is a heavy question to carry with you this holiday season.

I want you to know you're not alone and it's not your fault. Homelessness occurs for reasons much deeper than a lack of housing (which is one factor of many).

The truth is, multiple family members brought my brother into their homes, including myself. Addiction and other mental illness don't go away just because you have a roof over your head. My brother, last I saw him, does not want to be part of this society. There are dumpsters overflowing with food, he said. Places to sleep. Things to do and people to save.

Andrew, I think of you with love. I think of you with the kind of love that only exists between a little sister for her only big brother. I wish there was a way for you to honor who you are and to be safe and to be here with us during the holidays, brother. I hope you survived 2021 and will live to see 2022. May we meet again.

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