Mental Health in Maine
Surprisingly, no one in the family died that year, not that they didn't try. Will dove headfirst into the empty indoor pool in Maine one night, and it was a big fat wake-up call. As in, time to get sober. At the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, my brother bunked down with the kind of die-hard alcoholics and addicts that only a state with Siberian winters could produce.

I drove up for the requisite family confessional-slash-shaming session near the end, where those who were wronged get to publicly voice off at the recovering patient, who is now deemed strong enough to take it. It was the first time I'd been Downeast in the winter, and I really got a feel for why Maine has the highest rate of alcoholism and child pornography in the country. At the hospital, my mother and younger brother and I sat with a bunch of raggle-taggle, very local families, in an increasingly odorous room that had speckled blue industrial carpeting and bulletproof plastic seating lined along its perimeters.

In the center of the room a single chair faced a small row of others. Each patient took a turn in it and was confronted by his or her family, who blasted the patient with their declarations of pain. How the guilty ones (now costing the state thousands of dollars to eat four meals a day, sleep in clean sheets, and spend the bulk of their time doing what others merely dreamed of --- talking about themselves endlessly to professional listeners) had hurt them with their drug-ery, or thievery, or drunken fits of rage. The stories revealed in that circle, told by people dressed in an assortment of stretchy clothes and lumber jackets, had a harsh, native reality that contrasted sharply with my brother's entitled misdemeanors.

A seventeen-year-old mother told her husband that she could forgive him for not coming home every night, or even for beating her up, but when he got drunk and set fire to their trailer, well that was bad because now they didn't have any place to sleep. But what really pissed her off was that he had traded the food stamps for drugs and now there was no money to feed the two babies.

When it was our turn, our nervous little group took our seats across from my brother, who bowed his head and seemed to excitedly await abuse as a monk awaits flagellation. There was an awkward silence, because no one could come even close to respectably matching the previous litanies. After a long interval, during which several of the audience members hawked and spat, I managed to timidly say, "Well I guess it was sort of irresponsible that you left your BMW where it could get stolen, and that you spent the insurance money on cocaine ... um" --- I looked around at the slack jaws of the audience, and, even though I knew I sounded like the worst spoiled princess on the planet, I forged ahead anyway --- "and you really scared us when you dove into the indoor pool!" Mouths were dropping. "Yeah. And I can't believe you slept with your girlfriend in front of the living room fireplace last summer, and that the butler walked in on you doing it."

There might have been a round of very sarcastic applause but I couldn't swear to it.

The following year Will was at the Johnson Institute, trading Hallmark cards and crying buckets and hugging big black football players and anorexic girls, and I did not go to family weekend; nor did I go to the one at Sierra Tucson. Or was that Hazelden? Maybe that was Edward --- Lord knows he has a few treatment programs under his belt too. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, throughout his long, but ultimately successful, recovery process, Will found God --- in the form of an Indian guru with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation --- and married his four-hundred-pound therapist.

Edward scraped through a series of high schools, at one point living in a foster situation in Boston and, when that didn't work out, in Marblehead with my mother and the contractor (nightmare), and eventually coming to rest at the apartment on Fifth Avenue and living with our grandparents, where he was pretty much --- no, make that absolutely --- left to his own devices. Those included an unlocked wine cellar and a readily available supply of heavy-duty prescription drugs.

Edward had been smoking pot for years, but in New York he was turned on to coke, and then heroin. He claimed he didn't have a habit because he snorted his drugs instead of mainlining them. His VanderBurden nose was perpetually scarlet and his hair was greasy and he hung out with people much older than he was. He was particularly close to a family that had a house near us in Maine. So close, in fact, that he was sleeping with the chatelaine, a wonderfully effusive and insouciant fifty-something-year-old free spirit who claimed to be a white witch.

When I found out about it, it absolutely enraged me, and I felt guilty that I hadn't been looking out for my very wayward baby brother. It was summer, and I was in Maine, so I marched next door to lambaste the cradle-robbing, pot-dealing sex maniac; but within five minutes, she got me to forget what I was there for. She had me drinking white wine with her (which her adorable husband brought us) and laughing cozily away in her hippie, crystal-strung bedroom that looked out past pine trees and flapping Tibetan prayer flags to the brilliantly blue ocean, and I swear if I had it in me to do it with women, I would have slept with her too. I was glad in a perverse way that my little brother had found someone to mother him, even if it wasn't the generally accepted notion of mothering. In fact, I was jealous.

--- From Dead End Gene Pool
Wendy Burden
© 2010 Gotham Books
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