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​Remembering My Brother Rob: How His Journey Through Addiction Taught Me the True Meaning of Compassion

Elizabeth Helen Spencer, sister of a Caron alum, shares her brother's story.
Two years ago, my brother Rob passed away from melanoma. He was 28 years old. Before the diagnosis, Rob had plans to attend graduate school. He was active in his local recovery community and enjoyed mentoring others. His friends described him as a person who would happily “give the shirt off his back” to help others. Even as he endured painful cancer treatments, Rob continued on the transformative journey that began at Caron in the fall of 2009.

It was the final semester of his last year at college and something wasn’t right. Rob had become part of the national epidemic of prescription pill abuse. Like most families confronting addiction for the first time, we felt helpless and afraid. We wondered how this could happen within our close, loving family. When we realized Rob needed more help than we could give him, we entrusted his recovery to a well-reviewed facility nestled on a beautiful campus in the hills of the Reading, PA countryside.

One of the most comforting aspects of visiting Rob during his time in Caron’s young adult program was the sight of other families just like ours—mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, all concerned for their loved ones. In the Sunday chapel, patients and their families shared stories of struggle, hitting rock bottom, and recovery. Not all of the stories had happy endings and many were still in progress. But it let my parents and I know that we weren’t alone. Addiction hadn’t happened to our family because of something we did wrong. It had simply developed, a disease like any other.

That radical fact - that addiction is an illness, not a character flaw - was the most helpful thing I learned in Caron’s Family Education Program. I’d been mad at my brother for a long time, furious at him for the pain he inflicted on my parents, jealous of the extra attention he received as they tried to help him. Now I could begin to let go of that anger. Over time I replaced it with compassion.

What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘addict?’ For many people, addiction is associated with poverty, urban decay, and the homeless. Those of us lucky enough to live comfortable lives don’t expect to find addiction in our midst. But it’s a disease that doesn’t discriminate. I’ve encountered many people since Rob attended Caron whose lives have been affected by addiction. Illicit drug use, which includes illegal drugs as well as the abuse of prescription drugs, is on the rise. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 10 percent of Americans, an estimated 24.6 million people, admitted to illicit drug use in 2013.

Some of the most wonderful people I met were Rob’s recovery friends. They attended nightly meetings with him and when he was in the hospital, they visited daily. As my parents and I stumbled through another family nightmare, we found again that we were not alone. As time has passed since his death, Rob’s friends help us keep his memory and his legacy alive.

What is that legacy? Many of its lessons, I believe, originated in the treatment he received and the community he found afterward.

  • Take life one day at a time. That’s all we ever can do anyway, even though many of us operate under the illusion of greater control.
  • Celebrate the good, accept the bad, and keep moving forward.
  • Family and friends are most important.
  • Give back. Find people in need and help them. Share your story to inspire others and let them know they’re not alone.
  • Find joy in the small things: a puppy, the laughter of children, a new Xbox.
  • Know that everyone suffers and react with compassion instead of judgment.

If you’re reading this as a family member dealing with a loved one’s addiction, an alumni of Caron, or a person seeking help, know that there is always hope. Rob lived a rich and productive life in recovery. His loving and resilient spirit continues to inspire all who knew him. We all have a light to shine on the world—what’s yours?