Her Story: I Watched My Big Brother Battle with Drug Addiction

From an outside perspective, I have had a typical college experience.  I joined a sorority, was involved in clubs, and went out on the weekends. For many of us, what others see is not necessarily the entire truth. There is more than what meets the eye.

There are two days so far in my 21 years of life that have changed me forever. On November 5th, 2013 I became aware that my older brother, Jake Kline, was struggling with an addiction to opiates.  Less than two years later, on February 8th, 2015 my 24-year-old brother passed away from a heroin overdose.

In college, I watched drugs slowly change and kill my brother.

Jake was extremely charismatic, popular, passionate, witty, creative, and confident. He had the power to connect with strangers in an instant, and made a lasting impression on everyone that crossed his path.  He was envied and admired for his natural intelligence and talent but his effortless confidence forced you to want to be like him. He was unique...but typical. He was that guy that “had it all together.”

A friend of his described Jake best:

“I may never know someone else who could reference Kanye West, French New Wave Cinema, high school parties, and Daoism in more or less the same breath.  The breadth and depth of his engagement with this world was wildly unique.”

Jake was successful in high school and college both socially and academically. In 2009 he graduated from Broughton High School in Raleigh. Because of his athletic ability and grades he was offered a $30,000 scholarship to play baseball at Furman University. After a year, he burned out on baseball and decided to transfer to Clemson for the remainder of his college career. In 2014 he started law school at UNC Chapel Hill, but eventually had to drop out because of his growing addiction.

I was extremely close to my brother. He was more than just a sibling, he was my best friend. I idolized him. He was the person that I loved most in this world.  I knew him better than I know myself. He shaped me into the person I am today. The music I listen to, the movies I watch, my humor, my attitude, everything I am and I value is because of Jake.

I first noticed a change in my big brother when he was a junior at Clemson. He had joined Kappa Alpha Order his sophomore year. His fraternity did not cause his abuse, but that lifestyle started to catch up to him, and he openly admitted multiple times of its effect on his using habits.

Jake’s drug use didn’t start in college, but it did get worse there. It grew from a recreational activity into a problem. I wanted to stress that my brother’s drug use was gradual. He started with marijuana and moved to mixing Xanax and Adderall with cough syrup. He tried every drug in the book and became addicted to OxyContin after it was prescribed to him after surgery. Jake had only admitted to snorting heroin less than 10 times. It is cheaper, easier to get, and gives the same high as painkillers. However you don't know what's in it or how strong it is, therefore, like Ecstasy or Molly, it is extremely lethal.

 Starting with his junior year at Clemson, the way he behaved started to scare me. His voice was different. There was a certain narcissistic manipulation attached to it. He was bad with money, rude, moody, apathetic, and lifeless. The way he acted never added up. Only the people truly close to him noticed because he was good at hiding it…like most addicts are. It started to drive a wedge between us. I would get so uncomfortable that as a defense, my emotions would turn into anger.

At this point, his behavior was not as horrible as it would progress to, but it was still a problem. He went to parties, studied abroad, dated, and even got accepted to law school at UNC.

But like many addicts, as time went on, his addiction and behavior worsened. It wasn't until his first semester at law school in November, that he admitted to my parents and me that he had a problem and needed help. That's when everything changed. I was forced to take on the role of the older sibling.

I have been very fortunate to spend a wonderful 20 years with my brother. However, there are many memories I will never forget, because he turned into someone I didn’t recognize.

I remember sitting with him in our living room. He had his headphones on listening to music on his computer, the TV was on, and a book was open, but he was staring at me. His eyes were vacant and he had a smirk on his face, a kind of haunting smile that will never leave my memory. I tried to wave at him to get his attention but he didn’t move. He just kept staring. The person in front of me was no longer my brother.

I saw Jake as he fell asleep mid-day in the movie theater. Within 30 minutes of the film I shook him to wake him up. He didn’t wake. His body was limp. I kept shaking him until he woke and he tried to play it off. I found out later that he was on heroin that day, and if I hadn't woken him, he would have died there next to me.

I had seen Jake as he hugged me and collapsed in my arms sobbing. He was so afraid to go to rehab and unwilling to accept that his disease was beating him. The person I looked up to and was so proud of shared how depressed, defeated, and alone he felt.

We took Jake to rehab during spring break of my sophomore year.

He wrote me while he was in rehab and I’d like to share it to show you all not only how how he felt during the only several weeks that he was sober, but also how the disease of addiction still was able to consume him and kill him. 

“You are the best sister I’ve ever had….I mean anyone’s ever had. I hope it’s not strange for an older sibling to look up to the younger one, but the again, strangeness never frightened me. You are truly a beautiful and special person and I’m so lucky to have you as a sister, let alone in my life at all. I can’t wait to not only see you everyday and being able to contact you whenever I want, but also for me to be a moral and valuable person worthy of your love. For once in my life I am content and driven and I plan to keep it up. You are my best friend and I’m sorry for hurting you so many times. You’ll have your big brother back soon. I promise (now that my promise is actually worth something). With love from all my heart…..Your brother, Jake.”

At this point, our family and the few friends who knew of Jake’s condition were happy and thought rehab was the cure. After rehab, his eyes were clear and his passion and confidence came back. He learned a lot of new techniques to deal with his drug use, and I spent every day of the rest of my summer with him. 

However, the cravings came back and reality came crashing down. We learned that rehab was an extremely important first step in his recovery process but your cravings never go away; you only learn tools to suppress them.

Again Jake always acted okay when he wasn't. He still didn't accept that he was an addict and again was able to use his strong personality to mask it from us. He figured out ways around drug testing, stopped going to his meetings, and lost interest in things he enjoyed doing and were helpful to his recovery, like meditation. Every time he fell asleep I was afraid. Every time he didn’t wake up before me in the morning I was anxious. I thought "what if he doesn’t wake up?”

Jake relapsed soon after getting out of rehab, a very normal part of the recovery process of addiction. I caught Jake stealing from my parents and selling his favorite things to get money to buy drugs. He lacked control over himself and his actions. Once the cravings struck, it was like he switched into another person. Everything became a lie.

I found out my brother had passed away while I was scrolling through Facebook on February 8,th 2015. On my newsfeed were two posts from his friends that had written on his wall. They read, "I love you Jake" and "I love you man you were a great friend." I texted him immediately and called twice. No answer. I was in denial and shock until I called my mom crying asking her to find out what was going on. My dad called back and I could tell in his voice what he was going to say but I had to hear it. “Jennifer I am sorry to say that Jake has passed away.”

I immediately blacked out and started screaming. It was a kind of scream that I am frightened that I could even make. It was a true out of body experience, full of denial, shock, and a horrifying depression that has lasted until this day. I was in so much pain that a complete feeling of numbness overtook my body. I felt like I was going to float away, that I was in a dream, or more truthfully, a nightmare.

We found out that Jake had been dead for about 24 hours. He had just moved out of the halfway house he had been staying at in Asheville. He was six months sober...but six days after moving out, he had overdosed on heroin and died in his sleep. There were five other heroin overdoses and two other deaths that weekend in Asheville. Jake’s case was under investigation in order to hopefully find the dealer.

You are probably wondering why I want to share my story.

It is not for pity or even empathy. It is to share a story that is not unique, but one that is full of the truth. It is a story that has also happened to our fellow Appalachian students. An addict’s life is rarely heard, but it is time for us to come to terms with the prevalence of this disease.

I am telling you this because my brother can't,  because his friends have asked me to,  because the people I know who struggle with addiction are too ashamed, have too much guilt, and are too defeated to share their stories. I am here with another perspective. From a sister’s perspective. From a someone that watched drugs destroy her only sibling.  

I am also telling you this so I can spread awareness about addiction. So everyone can understand that it can and will affect anyone. No one is immune. If you don't know someone personally who suffers from addiction, they probably haven't told you yet. It affects your family, friends, and doctors. There are addicts who sit next to you in class, who make you your coffee, or manage your apartment. They are everywhere and that is why it is so scary.

Throughout everything, my brother remained someone who no one knew was suffering. Over 250 people from all over the country came to Jakes funeral with only a few days notice. Out of all who were there, only about four of his friends knew about his addiction. None took it seriously or tried to reach out when he was at his worst, but I don't blame them.

Jake had a disease that is unfortunately covered by a stigma of fear and shame, and is not accepted in our culture. It is a disease that many people die trying to hide.

It's an epidemic, but it's an epidemic where the only person who can control it is the person who decides not to sell drugs, not to take that bar, or not to snort that pill.  I want you to think twice next time you or someone you know ask a friend for Adderall, or even make a joke about getting high or being addicted to something.

I want you to think, “Is there more than what meets the eye?”

I'd like to leave  you all with a quote from another one of Jake's close friends:

"One of the things I loved about Jake was that he lived without fear; he didn't care what people thought of him, he wasn't afraid to try new things, and most importantly, he had the courage to follow his own path."

I know you probably have a friend who came to mind just then. I hope by sharing my brother's story I can make a difference in your lives. If you or someone you know is struggling, please just ask that question and have that conversation before it is too late.

Rest easy Jake, I love you.