Fearlessly. Two sisters traverse a wrenching family history and tough subjects in their new book about coping with addictions.
by Jess McCuan . photo by Matt Rose
Their family had a problem. That much was clear. But what wasn’t always clear was how to tackle it—who should speak up, and when, or about what.
Meridith Elliott Powell and Beth Brand, now 47 and 51, were born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, to attractive parents with Ivy League degrees. The McShanes were sociable Irish Catholics. Beth and Meridith had two older brothers, and all four children went to a prestigious prep school. “We were the perfect family. From the outside, it all looked so right,” Powell writes in the preface to their new book, due out next month.
But at some point, things went terribly wrong. Their father, who worked in insurance and real estate, started missing work, getting into minor car accidents and making scenes in public places. After years of confusing, tension-filled family life, he died of alcohol-related illnesses at age 57. Then, the sad patterns started repeating themselves. Brand and Powell’s oldest brother, Larry, was in his 40s when he died of complications from alcoholism. Then, Beth’s husband died of a morphine overdose at 42. Some years after Meridith’s first husband died of liver cirrhosis at 40, the sisters knew they had layers of problems to sort through. They also knew that they would someday write a book, in hopes of getting the word out to others who were living with addicts. They could share both their gathered wisdom and their best coping methods. Sadly, though they started writing in September 2010, the project did little to help their middle brother, Ted, who killed himself at age 52 last May.
“I’ve pretended my whole life that everything is fine,” says Powell, a sought-after speaker, consultant and business coach who has authored two other books, including one with Chicken Soup For the Soul authors Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. An Ashevillle resident and self-described “over-achiever” who serves on the boards of several Western North Carolina organizations, Powell says she’s reached a point where everything is on the table. “I’m living wide open,” she says. “I don’t care who knows.”
Brand, a writer living in Saluda, seems equally brave and utterly self-aware about both their family history and the potential stigma attached to their project. “We were surprised anybody ever dated us again,” she says wryly of she and her sister, after the male casualties in their family started to mount. “Six deaths is unusual. It’s not something you can ignore.” (Both women are now happily re-married.)
There’s certainly no ignoring the startling details they reveal in their book, The Real Dope on Dealing with An Addict: How Addiction Saved My Life, which they will self-publish next month. Since they completed the manuscript a few months ago, they’ve been shopping it to publishing houses, and to addiction treatment centers.
One of the flaws in most treatment programs, the women say, is that they focus solely on drug addicts. “All the energy goes into treating the addict, but the truth is, everybody is afflicted,” Powell says. Brand says that, because everyone in an addict’s orbit—from spouse to siblings to friends—can either enable bad behavior or discourage it, she’d like to see treatment centers spend eight weeks with the addict and one week with the addict’s family. Even after counseling, the families of drug-addicted individuals must educate themselves. “Hospitals and doctors don’t necessarily want to deal with this,” says Brand. “Even though the systems are well-meaning, you are basically on your own.”
Considering the tragedy in their family, you might expect Brand or Powell to be gloomy. But the two women seem personally chipper, and, in addition to being sisters, they are also close friends. “For two people to come out healthy and happy and not angry—the book had to be written,” Powell says. While it does cover sad territory, the practical advice it offers to women (or men) living with addicts is delivered in an empowering, no-nonsense voice. Brand, a freelance writer and editor, agrees they had to get the tone just right. “It’s like What to Expect When You’re Expecting, except it’s a drug addict and not a pregnancy,” she jokes. The two women say that, as they navigated their own situations with addicts, they wished they had had something of a guidebook. For others’ sakes, they’ve written just that.
For more, see www.dealingwithanaddict.com, or follow @addicttalk on Twitter.