A djent metal band on tour, driving to their next gig in an Astro van pulls off the sun-seared highway somewhere between the rolling windmill hills of California and the gas station angel sentinels of the Arizona border. I don’t know where we are exactly because the single lane highway to my childhood hellscape has been stopped for several hours in the — I look at the digital thermometer display on my rental car’s dash. An even one-hundred-twenty degrees Fahrenheit shimmers upon the hood. I know they are a djent metal band because I recognized their lead guitarist laughing at a $47 jar of royal bee pollen in a Whole Foods refrigerator last year. That was a lifetime ago. Three deaths ago, a year ago. This is how I measure time now, in the quantity and frequency of deaths. For a moment, I consider pulling off the road to be neighborly in this place where no one dares live and defy the fate reserved for mammals with short ears and not enough fossil fuels stuffed into their gas tanks.
Daydreaming as the A/C styles my hair like Farrah Fawcett, I think about my little sister and gaze into the heat mirage dancing in the distance. Before leaving on this poorly planned manic pixie fiancée road trip, I tried to explain why. I stuttered, searching for a reasonable explanation to give my fiancé. Why exactly I needed to drive across the desert alone in July with our pet poodle. Why I needed to do this a week before we flew east for another funeral. I told him that I had to leave because I was a mess. I am always a mess during my little sister’s birthday, the ironically unlucky date of seven-eleven. Plagued with debilitating insomnia, I didn’t want to subject him to my annual week of grieving. July 11th inevitably conjures memories of who Annie used to be. Before drugs, before prison, before my sister’s pimp pressed charges against her, before I tried to convince my mom to let me raise my younger siblings. Before my mother kicked them out of her house too. When people ask me why, I shrug my shoulders and tell them that my mom just doesn’t like teenagers.
Addiction is a slow death for which there is no ritual of closure.
Addiction is a slow death for which there is no ritual of closure. Annie has been addicted to a molotov cocktail of meth and heroin off and on for ten years. Compounded in my hopelessness for recovery are the problems of access and effective treatment that the NIH and the National Center for Biotechnology Information have documented. The promise of hope is an evergreen snake oil that scammers have sold for centuries, and the promise of sobriety and addiction recovery is no exception. Making addiction treatment even less accessible is the exploitative industry of fraudulent treatment centers that has grown since the Affordable Care Act (nicknamed Obamacare) required insurance carriers to cover substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation.
Without death, without a funeral, you are draped in a cloak of black for years, possibly decades when you love an addict. “But you’re only five years older than she is. You were a homeless teenager,” my friends and therapist insist when I tell them that the survivor’s guilt overwhelms me, when I obsess over how I could have done more to help my younger siblings. Why not me too? I ask myself over and over again. True to my perfectionist form, I aced the ACEs test and have experienced every categorical childhood trauma that the study measures. Statistically, based on our ACEs scores, a test that measures childhood trauma and abuses, I should be addicted and in prison too, right? My chosen vice is workaholism. An addiction for which there are not anonymous meetings dotting every town and city. An addiction for which you receive tokens of insobriety with every paycheck. Workaholism is an addiction that is not only approved of by Society, but is openly rewarded and encouraged. It is still destructive, but at least it won’t land me a prison sentence like my little sister’s modes of escape from our childhood. Statistically, my fate and my sister’s fate reflect the microcosm of race and imprisonment in America. You see, my sister is biracial and I am white. She is in prison, and I am not. According to the NAACP, “[i]n 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population. African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites, [and] the imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.”
The prison system is constructed for punishment and isolation. It is not built to be a user friendly experience for loved ones.
When I try to visit Annie in prison the week before her birthday, I am told that I’m not on the right list. I didn’t know there was a list. I send a letter for a visitation request to be added to a list. When I call to follow up, I am told that I’ve addressed it wrong and that it probably got “lost in the shuffle.” I rent a car and drive five hours on my day off only to be told that I’m visiting on the wrong day of the week. I didn’t know that there is a right day of the week. I am learning just how specifically the prison system is constructed for punishment and isolation. I was aware of all of this before. Afterall, I watched Orange is the New Black. But I did not know these things personally, and not viscerally. Prisons are not built to be a user friendly experience for loved ones. There is no orientation day for relatives and friends, replete with cucumber water and glossy brochures on how to navigate the prison industrial complex. It is complex. It is industrial. It is a prison. Though I pay taxes, prisons have no incentive to accommodate me visiting my historically suicidal sister for her birthday.
I wonder if my sister will get to have any birthday cake in prison. I check my phone again for reception. No bars. I can’t pull up Google maps to see how far I am from Needles, California and I don’t know why we have been stopped here for an hour. The traffic begins to inch forward and I lift my foot slightly from the brake. An hour from now, I will discover that the traffic jam was caused by a very slow freight train.
I don’t pull the car over to help the stranded musicians out of fear that I might not make it out of the glittering roadside quicksand, waving like a parched ocean as it laps at either side of the heat-battered highway. It’s not like I can help, I justify. There are no radio stations here. There are a few cholla, “teddy bear cactus” as my best friend, Josh Rodriguez, used to call them. Here there is only sun and sand, cars and the now-shirtless musicians begging for a can of gas from any pickup truck. The djents walk down the sticky asphalt line, drawn in the desert somewhere east of the Hoover Dam. Like a thirsty serpent’s black tongue jutting from those manmade waters, it is sniffing out its prey.