Upside Down Expat



This month is six months since my little sis died, and a year since I last saw her physically alive. We miss her terribly. If something good could come from my sisters premature passing, and mine and my parents’ never ending pain, it would be that society start to treat addiction differently.

It’s been six months this week since my little sister died and undoubtedly the worse six months of mine, and my parents lives.

It’s also a year to the month that I last saw Gem alive.  We flew out to England to celebrate my daughter, India’s, 4th birthday as a family – Gem organised her party. In the months that followed that trip, Gem and I continued, as always, to speak constantly.

We found out that Gem died in her sleep on the 10th April 2017, just weeks away from her 34thbirthday.  The cause was a fatal condition called ketoacidosis. It would have come on very quickly. It stems from the anorexia and alcoholism Gem fought for 16 and ten years respectively.

The results of why she died also showed a small amount damage to her brain. Just one of many physical and emotional marks left from when, at just 16, she was the victim of a hit and run – the driver was drunk. The night it happened, her life hung in the balance but thankfully, aside from several severely broken bones, she made a steady recovery. Though in her hospital notes, they wrote ‘future risk of depression, anorexia and addiction.’ Soon after, mum and dad fought to have her admitted to a specialised eating disorder unit. We were terrified she would die. Eventually, she recovered and seemed to get on well with life, although she never really ate properly.

A few years after that, after a run of bad luck, Gem sadly started to drink heavily. It wasn’t long before it completely took a hold.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the trauma of being left for dead, both emotionally and physically, at a vulnerable age broke far more than Gem’s bones, but her ability to bounce back from subsequent challenges in her life.

It’s funny, because I think there’s a sense of knowing of what’s going to happen in our lives on a level we don’t always tap into. In hindsight, in the months before gem died, between us, there was a sense of recovery and urgency. Like so many people who lose a loved one say, it’s like we were saying goodbye.

One time was during my last visit to England to see her. I went to pick her up, and as happened frequently, she was drunk. This time though, we both handled it differently; we cuddled and we both cried. Later, back in Australia, I asked over the phone if she knew how much I loved her and if I did enough to help her. She said yes – she knew how loved she was by all of us. She said she’d felt ashamed in the early days, lost all of her confidence and, in a vicious circle drank even more to hide the shame.

She also talked for the first time about getting well and trying for a baby. I think she’d believed for a long-time it wasn’t a possibility for her because of her illnesses and the impact they had on her life and body. I was delighted. For the first time, I dared to become excited at the prospect of a future in which I’d be an aunty and love my sisters’ child in the same beautiful way she loved mine.

In another call, Gem said she dreamt I was getting married on a beach and she and I were running along the sand, laughing happily. She joked she must have stubbed her toe on a rock, because for some reason in her dream, something suddenly stopped her running along with me. How strange that detail in her dream now seems.

And the day before my parents were forced to make that tragic call to me, with almost urgency, I emailed Gems local council to enquire about enrolling India at a primary school nearby. Unbeknown to me, when I sent that email, she had already died.

If I there is some good to come out of my sister’s suffering, it would be that society and the medical profession look at and treat people suffering with addiction differently. That, instead of conveniently labelling them by the illness we would prefer not to see – the addiction and associated behaviour –  instead we consider the person and the backstory we can’t see.

Gem had a kind, gentle and caring personality. In fact, I believe these qualities made her even more vulnerable to the disease.

And yet when someone is suffering from addiction, we hear things like ‘they are wasting their lives’, ‘they have to want to get better’ and ‘it’s their choice’. We don’t talk about any other illnesses in this way. And yet, many diseases that are met with sympathy result from a lifestyle ‘choice’ at some point along the way. Yet flip the sequence of symptoms around; an illness from probable trauma that later manifests, and at best it’s met with avoidance; at worst, judgement and contempt.

Over the ten years my sister suffered, she had therapy, went to a rehab centre, was sectioned, was in intensive care, had several blood transfusions, temporarily lost her eyesight and could barely leave the house. And still she couldn’t stop. The reasons and recovery for addiction, like many illnesses, might be complex, but one thing is certain; it is anything but a choice.

I recently read that only one in five people suffering from addiction seek treatment – if it was treated as an illness not only would treatment be more accessible, I’m sure that without the shame and the stigma, more would sooner seek the help they so desperately need.

Our pain as a family is never ending.  As while we have treasured memories – even during her illness, there was always love and laughter – the scars from the fear, distress and frustration of helplessly seeing Gem struggle will never fade. Now we must also bear the deep wound of knowing we will never see her in this lifetime again.

However, losing Gem has also made me acutely aware of the fleeting nature of life; it’s only temporary. For that, and the time that lies in between, during which I’m determind to be happy, I feel grateful.

Because for the first-time, my little sister did something before me. Maybe the next time we meet, since she got there tragically early, she will play the big sister role to me.


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