I guess you could say I’ve “known” Dustin most of my life. He was friends with my younger sister when they were growing up. Dustin’s older brother was a friend of my younger brother, Will. Dustin eventually married one of my sister’s friends. And his brother ended up marrying my cousin. Still, I don’t think I had ever actually met him or ever spoken to him until he became someone that I resented most in this world.
In April of 2012 my brother, Will, died. I didn’t know at the time what Dustin’s connection or involvement was, I just knew he disconnected his cell phone and checked himself into a 21 day state supported treatment facility. Scrambling to put the pieces together, we were searching for answers anywhere we could find them. My brother was 29 years old. He was found in my parent’s guest house lying on the bed with no pulse. He was on his back with his right leg bent across his left knee. His laptop was beside him and his spotless white Converse were sitting on the floor at the end of the bed. He had been on ESPN’s website looking at baseball stuff and listening to Jay Z.
I checked myself into a 28 day rehab for alcoholism 49 days after Will died. I had just returned home when we got Will’s toxicology report. He died from acute fentanyl toxicity. An investigation began immediately. In 2012 I had never heard of fentanyl. The SBI (State Bureau of Investigation) got involved. They wanted to know where it came from, who was prescribing it, and who was selling it. They found all of that out.
It was probably 18 months after his death, I was sitting in a regular 12 o’clock 12-step meeting and my phone kept vibrating with texts messages. I walked outside right before the close of the meeting to look at my phone. Dustin had been arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter in my brother’s death. He was the one who sold my brother 2 fentanyl patches.
I wouldn’t say I was happy. There was nothing to be happy about. But it made me feel like Will’s life mattered to someone other than our family. Dustin had gone about his life like nothing had ever happened and I hated him for that. At least that was my perception. We are from a small southern town where rumors spread like wildfire. I had been told that he continued to sell drugs after Will died and that made me hate him even more. I wanted him to be punished. I wanted him to go to jail. I wanted his life to be taken away just like my brother’s had.
The logical part of me knew that Dustin wasn’t responsible for my brother’s death. He didn’t force Will to buy the fentanyl or take it. But he had a part in it. Involuntary manslaughter usually refers to an unintentional killing that results from recklessness or criminal negligence, or from an unlawful act that is a misdemeanor or low-level felony. That definition fit for what had happened and since so much anger consumed my heart at the time, I had no room for compassion.
Things settled down and time went by. Our family was trying to move forward but it was difficult while there was an on-going criminal case. About six months after Dustin’s arrest, I was driving to my sister-in-law’s birthday dinner. It was February 2014 and my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number but I answered anyway.
“Allison, it’s Dustin. I was hoping you might be able to help me.”
I pulled off the side of the road to give complete attention to this phone call. This was the first time I had ever spoken to Dustin and without hesitation I asked him what could I do to help.
You see, I had prayed about my resentment towards Dustin for probably a year prior. And when I heard Dustin’s voice on the other end of the phone, I had nothing but compassion for him. It was like I was talking to my brother. I would have told you earlier that morning that I hated Dustin, but presented with the opportunity to help him, I realized that God had removed that resentment and replaced it with love.
I had plenty of time to think about things I wanted to say to Dustin if I ever got the chance. None of them were kind or pleasant. I also had plenty of time to think that the situation could have been reversed and what that would like that—if Will would have been the one to give Dustin the drugs that took his life and my brother was the one left facing involuntary manslaughter charges and struggling with addiction. That would have destroyed Will. It would probably have sent him deeper into his addiction. I was never able to offer Dustin grace until I was able to look at him like my brother.
It was a gift to be able to look at Dustin and think that it could have been Will on the other end of the phone reaching out for help. I would have prayed to God that someone would have helped Will if he were in Dustin’s position. Not to mention, I was a woman in recovery with a couple years sober at this point. That’s what we do—we carry the message, we extend a hand, we help the suffering. We don’t judge or cast shame. We understand and we extend grace because God knows plenty of people extended grace to me.
And so that’s what I have done over the past few years. I made amends to him and I’ve have been living that amends since. I sat beside him at his court hearing and stood in his defense against the charges he was facing in my brother’s death. He was sober and committed to his recovery at the time and that was enough for our family. The judge had the same viewpoint and his sentence was reduced with no jail time.
I have often wondered over the years if that was the right decision. Not because I wanted him to be punished. Addiction does a fine job of that and no one deserves that kind of hell. But because I’ve watched him go in and out of detox and treatment facilities and I have seen his addiction progress to new bottoms. I have picked him up, dropped him off and spent countless hours having heart-to-hearts with him on our car rides. As the years have passed and I’ve been part of his journey, I can’t help to still think “this could be Will.”
Sure, I would like to think that Will would have gotten clean and lived a happy life alongside myself in recovery, but the reality is, he could still be fighting addition, reaching new bottoms, becoming a person that is unrecognizable to his friends and family both in his actions and appearance . It’s weird to think about. It’s confusing and there’s a weird sense of gratitude that it isn’t Will.
I know there is a part of me that so desperately wants to save Dustin because I couldn’t save Will. On July 21st, I sat outside Dustin’s home to pick him up to take him to a long-term treatment program a few hours away. After several delays and an emotional breakdown on my part, we were on the road to recovery. Literally. We talked pretty much the entire ride. We talked about him getting clean, how much he wanted it and how he wants to help people once he’s mentally, physically and spiritually healthy.
As I was leaving the treatment facility, I hugged him and told him to call me if he needed anything. As I was walking away he says, “I’m sorry.” “I don’t need you to be sorry, Dustin, “I said, “ I need you to get better.” And he replied, “I’m going to. Thank you.”
Not once have I ever looked a Dustin and seen an addict. I see someone hurting. I see someone’s son. I see someone’s brother. I see someone held prisoner by their addiction. I see someone suffering. I see someone who needs help. I see someone who is worthy of life. I see a future success story. And the most heartbreaking-- I see my brother.