Carson is a senior at the high school where I work. Until last year most of our interactions were contained to passing one another in the hallways with a quick smile. She had been a freshmen when I first started working there, and her brother Jake was a senior.
Jake was an outgoing and charming kid. Everyone knew him. His reputation around the school was one founded mainly on his gregarious personality, but unfortunately also on his addiction to drugs. One year ago, Jake succumbed to that addiction and died from an overdose of heroin.
Two nights ago, (spoiler alert) I sat through a play in which Carson played an addict who ultimately dies from an overdose. The play, Go Ask Alice, is based on the book by the same name. At the end of the play when Alice breathes her last, and her parents are crying out in anguish, sniffles were heard from every corner of the theatre. Tissues were passed from friend to friend, and eyes were dabbed of tears. For those of us who knew Jake, or any other addict for that matter, Carson’s portrayal was all too familiar. And all too painful.
The show was dedicated to Jake. When the theatre lights went out after the last scene, Carson walked to the middle of the stage. Her recorded voice came over the speakers as she read a list Jake had made of things for which he was grateful. Twenty things he had written in his journal during one of his stints in rehab. There was a sense of hopefulness in his gratitude. An awakening of sorts. But the awakening was never fully realized in this life as his addiction overpowered him and chained him to a darkness from which he could not be freed.
As the dim center-stage light turned up, Carson thanked everyone for coming to the show. She talked briefly about Jake and the mark he left in his short life. How he was finally free from the pain he felt over the loss of their youngest brother and his fight to be clean. (For the background story on Jake, Carson and their youngest brother Max, see this Indianapolis Star article.) I can’t remember much of what Carson said, honestly, as I was trying to hold back any more tears due to her performance. I couldn’t get over how she had stayed true to her character, neither glamorizing drugs nor making the character out to be a horrible demon. She had effectively given addiction a face to which people could relate.
Young Actors Theatre, the organization that produced and directed the play, raised $13,000 for Carson’s college tuition to American Musical and Dramatic Academy, in Los Angeles, where she will attend to fulfill her dream of acting, writing and directing productions that spotlight addiction and her brother’s life.
When I reached out to Carson the day I heard about Jake’s death, she responded immediately with warmth and grace. Since those days of mourning with her, I have come to know a young woman full of hope and passion. In honor of my sweet young friend I’ve created my own list of 20 things I’ve learned from Carson, in no particular order…
20. Give yourself space and time when grieving. Carson knew when she needed a break from people or from class. She took care of herself in those early days of grief (and continues to do so).
19. Share memories with those you love. Carson would often share her favorite stories of Jake from the days prior to his addiction as well as the times he was clean. She was never afraid to talk about him and made it easy for others to share their stories about him as well.
18. Keep your friends close. Carson knew who she could turn to and who her safe people were. Those who were only jumping on the “bandwagon” after Jake’s death did not get her attention.
17. Cherish the journals, photos and artwork left behind. Carson was always eager to show off Jake’s words, art and their photos together. It added to the narrative of Jake beyond his addiction.
16. Find common ground. A month after Jake’s death, another student at the high school passed away. His siblings often sat in my office with Carson and shared what it was like to lose a brother. It helped them feel as if they were not alone.
15. Keep your passion alive. For Carson, acting was her safe place. She never stopped reading scripts and auditioning for parts. She never let her dreams fade, even in the darkest hours.
14. Educate Others. As part of her dedication to Jake’s memory, Carson continued to share stories of addiction and how others have been successful through intervention and recovery.
13. Continue to learn. I can’t count the number of times that Carson has come into my office to read an article that has taught her something new, a poem she has discovered, or song lyrics that have touched her heart.
12. Grow. Carson never stayed stagnate or gave up on life. She interned with the theatre company in which she acts so she could learn the business of theatre.
11. Act humbly. When others wanted to highlight Carson and her story, she conducted herself with grace, dignity and humility never calling attention to herself, rather in the greater story of her life and those around her.
10. Laugh. After the heavy fog of grief lifted, Carson would often bound into my office with a funny story that had us both giggling.
9. Lean on your family. Carson knew when she needed to spend time with her family, whether that was her mom, her dad, her cousins or grandparents. She knew they needed her as much as she needed them.
8. Being strong doesn’t mean you won’t cry. The strength I have seen in Carson often revealed itself through her tears.
7. It’s okay to get mad. When someone you love dies from a drug overdose, emotions can run all over the place. Carson had righteous anger, but she never let it engulf her.
6. Don’t use your trauma as an excuse. There were legitimate times when Carson didn’t feel as if she could sit through class after Jake’s death, but she never took advantage of the situation. She would go to class and if she felt as if she needed a break, she took appropriate measures for self-care.
5. Eat healthy. Carson didn’t fill her body with substances or other addictive types of behavior to cope. Her lunch often consisted of fresh fruits and vegetables and she was careful not to numb herself in unhealthy ways.
4. Keep hope alive. Since Jake’s death, I never saw Carson in despair. By the time she came back to school, and even on the most fragile days, Carson kept her head held high and took one day at a time.
3. Be aware of needs and serve others. Recently while Carson was going to rehearsal, she saw a woman in a wheelchair who couldn’t get to the grocery store due to the snow blocking the sidewalk ramps. Defeated, the woman and her young son had turned around to head back to their apartment. Carson spoke with the woman and told her she would be back to help her later. Once at rehearsal, she took up a collection, went to the grocery with a couple friends and delivered the groceries to the woman and her son. An act of love and compassion.
2. Be brave. Playing the lead role in a play about an addict who loses her life was nothing short of heroic considering what Carson watched her brother go through. She didn’t do it on her own, however; Carson believed that Jake’s spirit, gave her the courage she needed for the show and for several other situations she has faced.
1. Celebrate teenagers. I feel sorry for anyone who dismisses teenagers as shallow, immature or without wisdom. Carson has shown me a depth, maturity and sagaciousness that lies within her young heart and soul. For that I am forever grateful.
I love you, Carsy!