It is rare that substance abuse speaks this powerfully.

It is, after all, a messy, confusing, gray-area disease. And in northern New Mexico, it's ubiquitous. Even if you've never attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, you probably know what it's like to watch a friend or family member slide slowly, unstoppably into addiction.

But for all we hear about overdose deaths and prescription drug abuse and hepatitis C, for all the laws making DWI penalties ever stricter, the face of addiction and substance abuse often remains hidden. We know it happens, but we don't talk about it. We know it's not our fault when a loved one drinks himself into oblivion, but we can't help feeling frustrated, angry, guilty.

This is where a book by Anna Carvlin breaks new ground. Carvlin, a native Santa Fean, lost her sister to an alcohol overdose two years ago—the tragic end to a long battle with alcoholism.

But rather than dwelling on her loss, Carvlin sprang into action. She conducted interviews with caregivers and substance-abuse survivors in Santa Fe and Chicago, gathering stories of loss, despair and hope. The result is Untimely, a poignant and thoughtful collection. All proceeds from the book ($20; available for purchase at Collected Works Bookstore and on benefit The Friendship Club, which hosts a variety of addiction recovery programs in Santa Fe.

—Alexa Schirtzinger

SFR: What inspired you to write Untimely?

Anna Carvlin: My sister died in early 2011, and after she died I was looking for ways—sort of frantically, almost—to memorialize her. [This project] sort of occurred to me one day in the beginning of 2012. I figured it would take shape over time. I came up with questions that I had been grappling with myself and just wrote them all out and started doing interviews.

You interviewed your other sister, Melea, about your sister Rachel's death. Reading that, it occurred to me that this project probably represented both healing and pain for you.

When I was doing the interviews, I had this sort of neutral self; it was more about observing the person's story. Then, when I was actually editing interviews, I would get really emotional. My sister's interview was one of those, where every single time I went back to it, I was really emotional about it. I guess it was hard to listen to other people's pain…but I felt the work I was doing was really important. I really wanted to do a good job on it. I had a very strong motivation to complete it. It was, in a way, a selfish motivation; I wanted my sister to be remembered in a way that I felt was a good way to remember her.

As a journalist, I'm really interested in how you found people, as well as how you convinced them to talk about some really painful experiences.
I started with The Friendship Club. Then I just emailed everybody I knew, and some people emailed everybody they knew—sometimes it was a separation of five or six people. A lot of people had either worked in substance abuse prevention or were themselves substance abusers or addicted, or just pure and simple lost somebody and wanted to share their story.
The people who actually talked to me really felt, a lot of times, like it was the first time somebody was actually listening to their whole story. People who work in addiction counseling tend to stifle their own story in order to be the receiver of other people's stories. So it was a big relief for them, especially, to be able to share their whole story in detail.

Several of the interviewees describe feeling powerless to keep a loved one from sliding into addiction, and I'm sure you also experienced this. Did working on the book give you any insight on dealing with that feeling of helplessness?
I describe it as a rollercoaster of hope, where you're constantly dipping in and out of being more or less involved in the person's life and feeling more or less impotent and powerless. A lot of times, I would kind of put myself in my sister's life more, and I would see the effects—you know, she would respond in ways. So you get that feedback, and you think it helps, and then they crash and they lose it.
I've attended Al-Anon meetings in my life, and I always felt frustrated by the notion that you are powerless to do anything to change the person. I never accepted that. I always thought, 'Well, yeah, I can, though. I can put my sister in a locked facility if I wanted to. I could create it myself. Yes, I can.'
So it was complicated, and I still do not understand the concept of not being able to do something.

I would imagine this also came up when you interviewed caregivers—how to keep yourself sane while dealing with pain and addiction over and over.
Yeah, exactly. You really have to protect yourself…I think, over the course of doing these interviews, I realized every single person definitely can heal from substance addiction, but it takes a lot of external support, and a lot of systems in place to respond.

Do you think there's political will to change how we deal with substance abuse, or do people still blame addicts for not helping themselves?
I think that attitude is still definitely there—"addicts should be able to help themselves." That's another question I really grapple with: How much is it up to each individual person to take it upon themselves to change? I have a degree in public health, and I focused on communications and behavior change. Behavior change is so difficult for people, for anything. A lot of times, we understand what we need to do. [But] making a leap from knowing—and even wanting to—to the change is so huge that it just is impossible in so many ways. And everybody does it. It's just, the effects are different when it comes to things that kill, like drinking or drugging.

A lot of the stories had more to do with alcohol than drugs. Did that surprise you?

I don't think so, probably just because I've grown up with it so intensely. What was surprising was my thoughts about it in terms of suicide. Like, I always thought that drinking or drugging was a form of suicide, and I changed my mind about that a lot. I actually think it's a person's form of survival; they actually are reaching for the drug or the drink because they're trying to survive.

What do you hope that readers glean from the book?
In a big way, the book was for the people who are in it. I really wanted to do a good job for them. I feel like people who drink and do drugs, they're the throwaways of our society. So people who have lost somebody feel like their family member is—not only are they gone, but they're gone in a shameful way, and that, in a way, they're not allowed to remember them. I experienced that with myself, when I'd tell people about my sister dying…it almost seemed like the person receiving the info was like, 'Oh.' Like, 'I get it. Oh, that.' You know, like it's less sad, or there's something less terrible about it, because it was their own fault.
So I wanted to make sure to legitimize and validate these people's lives, because they did struggle and they did live, and they lived meaningful lives, and they affected a lot of people in a lot of ways.

Excerpts From Untimely
By Anna Carvlin
Judy: Light Bearer

As a parent, what you have to do to survive this is take that pain when you can, take those baby steps to help other people.

I felt like I was down in a ditch, just kept going into this darkness, and couldn’t see any light.

I’d go to work every day after Philly passed and I’d just cry. I’d get to work, bury myself in work and I’d come home and cry. I’d get into the house and I’d just fall on my knees and ask for help to try to deal with the pain. It was just so overwhelming. I’d get up and I’d keep doing that. I remember thinking, I cannot just keep doing this. This is horrible. I was down in that hole with no light.

I realized that, after a certain point, the way you find the light is you find a path where you’re recovering, and then you have to help somebody else. But not just help somebody, because I tried that right away. You have to look at what happened and try to figure it out. Start talking about it to people who love you enough to allow you to talk. What happens is you have these light bearers along the way. I had so many people reach out to me to help me get a grip and understand what happened. Then take that hurt and that energy and use it to help somebody else, because that’s the only way you’re gonna start feeling better. That’s what I try to do today.

I remember reading, ‘You will see a gift one day.’ I didn’t think there was any gift in this, just pain. But I knew it the first time I got that. I’ve seen it. It’s the gift that you take this pain and you turn it around. It’s your job now to help somebody else. You validate the person’s life. You tell people about them. You tell them the struggles you went through and you loved the person in spite of it.

MaryLou: Transformations

I wish that hadn’t happened to her. I wish that she’d had a longer life, that she had been able to get a handle on the issue, and grow from it and learn from it. I really believe in psychological and spiritual transformation.
She was a deeply sensitive and spiritual person, and she was just caught in the grip of this terrible addiction that took her out.

I can appreciate that some people’s lives are shorter than others. To have it end prematurely with severe addiction, it’s hard to feel okay about that. Whereas, I have a friend who lost a nephew to cystic fibrosis, and he was in his twenties. He lived his life, a short life, and he lived it fully. Somehow, I can make more peace with that than I can with my sister dying at forty-eight to alcoholism. We need the time in these human bodies to mature, and wake up and be all we can be. I think she needed some more time to be more fully herself.

Seth: Joy and Sorrow

I can’t remember how many days I was going to quit drinking and then I would get the shakes. I’d have a couple drinks to get rid of the tremors. Drinking, or that addiction, is part of survival for right now. Long term it’ll kill you, but to get through today, it is part of our survival instinct. It’s just a horribly inadequate, dysfunctional one.

I decided I couldn’t drink anymore because it just wouldn’t work. So I decided that my next shot was gonna come from a gun. I took a .45 caliber round and I said, “That’s my next shot. I can have it whenever I want, or not.” And that was it. For a while, I was just sort of going along with life half-heartedly, skeptical that I would be able to live without drinking. I thought I’d try it. The alternative was to check out and I couldn’t go back from that, so I’d try this living without drinking. It was touch and go, really hard for me to imagine wanting to live without drinking. It took some time to find things that made life worth living. I don’t know if it was a better way than AA. I don’t know that I would recommend it.

Melea: Healing Happens

The saddest thing was that during the last year or more, when we visited, she shared less and less with me. I definitely had a sense the last time I saw her, she didn’t want me to know how much pain she was in. She had given up on wanting to get positive feedback and was more concerned about not putting her problems on the people she loved.

I had spent the last year anxious about her. Her situation was getting worse and worse. The dangers and the risks she was living with and putting herself through were becoming more real. She was homeless. I worried she’d freeze to death at night.

The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming. I tried to invite her four different times to come live with me in that past year. I had bought a house and told her any time she could come. I told her in person, by email and over the phone. I did kind of indicate in at least two of those invitations that it was conditional; that if she wanted to get help or wanted to get sober, she could come. I felt later I shouldn’t have said that; I should have just taken her. Then I realized, she may have died anyways. I had dreams where I took her in and it was completely out of control and stressful. She did the same things and I couldn’t do anything about it with her there either.

I couldn’t get a hold of her, which was really stressful. That Christmas, I bought her a phone service and sent her the phone. It was a way to try and talk to her, because the only thing I had to give was comfort or encouragement. I woke up on Christmas morning and I had a vision, a dream vision, of someone hanging on a rope with a long white gown, the back of their head visible, brown hair. It was my sister. It was very vivid. That’s the first time I felt really afraid she would die. Less than a month later, she died.

Chandler: Being Open

I was never a very spiritual, religious person but I’m getting better. That’s helping with my dad too, because before, I just thought he was in the ground. I’d go to the grave and not talk to him or say anything. I’d just look at him and I’m like, Who am I talking to? He’s in the ground.

But something happened a month and a half ago. I went back to Lovington to visit my mom. I went to his grave. Same thing, I didn’t really say much. I just kind of looked at it.

I never knew of his past, why his dad and uncles died so young, but there’s been a line of drugs and alcoholism. His brother died by drinking and driving. He veered in the other lane, got hit by a semi head on.
My dad’s dad died really early on from drinking. None of my dad’s brothers or uncles lived for very long. They all died in their early sixties. I went to his grave a week after my mom told me that. It kind of hit me: It ends with me. I said it to myself, but I wasn’t driving there thinking that. It didn’t pop into my head until I looked at his grave. I guess either he said it or somebody said it. It wasn’t like a gust of wind or a breeze came through—you hear that kind of stuff. It just came into my head: It ends with me.

Anne: Into the Night

She did it because she had to do it, and the consequence was death. But I don’t think she drank in order to die. In Catholic school, we learned in theology the principle of the double effect. You may do something for one purpose knowing it could have another consequence. I think that’s a really good analogy for the alcoholic situation. They’re drinking to kill pain. They don’t have bad intent.

They’re not evil mean people even when they’re doing evil mean things. Of course I could be in denial.

She clung to her life. She read constantly—tough books. She always kept up with her theology. She read Jacques Maritain and other French Catholic philosophers to keep up with the latest thinking. She read a lot of poetry. She’d be up until three o’clock in the morning crying over some Robert Brown, Yates. I know she clung to the parts of her life she could cling to. But she was really unhappy.

When I was young, she was brilliant and funny and kind. She thought about my sister and me, what we needed, and went to big efforts. She didn’t like to sew, but she made me this clown outfit with ruffles when I was five or six. It was incredible! I’ve never done anything like that in my life for anybody.

She had a sense of joy and flair that gradually got squeezed out of her. She was playful when I was very young and sang—very much alive. And she still clung to it in the end with her reading poetry to connect her to feelings. She still reached for it. She wasn’t able to get it. She wasn’t able to get it with us either. I think in our own ways we had all abandoned her.

Germaine: Secrets to Share

I went to funeral homes at sixteen to arrange my dad’s burial and I had no money. I went to quite a few, explaining the circumstances. They didn’t know what to do with me. But at one, they said, “Don’t worry about it. Whatever you want, we will arrange.” It turned out, the manager of the cemetery went to high school with my dad.

I had to go back to the house to get my dad a suit and my house was taped off. I called the police and said, “Hey, can you let me in?” They wouldn’t and I said, “Well I’m going in anyways.” I really felt like because my dad was an alcoholic, society looked at me in a negative way. Because of his sickness—I now know that—because of his illness, they looked at me as a piece of dirt, as garbage, as, That was your father.

Kenny: Cross to Bear

When we buried my friend, I didn’t know how to handle it. So I just kept on drinking, kept on drinking. I’d go to sleep at night and that’s all I would see—his face, covered in blood. I’d see the road coming at me and then I started putting a guilt trip on myself. It’s my fault he’s dead. He wouldn’t have picked me up. I shouldn’t have never moved here. And just seeing his dad and mom hurting like that.

I was working out past the cemetery where he was buried. You could see his headstone from the highway going up the hill. Every morning I’d pass the cemetery going to work and his dad would be sitting out there.
He would not leave. He literally killed the grass around the grave from pacing and pacing and pacing.

So I just kept drinking to try and numb it. Eventually I ended up getting pulled over again and getting a fourth DWI. I didn’t think I was going to prison. It didn’t even cross my mind. I knew it was possible, but I’ve known people who have four and over and they’ve never gone. So I figured, I didn’t get into an accident, I didn’t kill nobody. I’ll end up with more probation, more ankle bracelets, more Sobrieters, more fines.

Jennifer: Chemicals of Happiness

Kids experiment and that’s natural and normal, but now the drugs they’re experimenting with are so much more dangerous than what they used to be, and there’s so many more consequences that are bad. And they’re really easy to get. You ask any kid, I guarantee you, ask them if they can get prescription drugs at their school and they’ll be able to. You can get them anywhere. Heroin is the same way. A lot of kids don’t want to talk about heroin because they think of it as being bad. They don’t see prescription drugs as synthetic heroin. They don’t see the progression. They don’t see the leap until they’re in or if they’ve seen a friend that’s done it. So they’re like, Well they’re pills, prescribed by a doctor, made in a laboratory. They’re not that bad.

The thing about sports is kids get injured a lot so they get access to prescription drugs through injuries.
Cameron was injured wrestling and playing football, three different injuries, and was prescribed prescription opiates all three times. We thought you go to the doctor if you’re in pain, they prescribe pain pills, and sometimes you take them and sometimes you don’t. But we didn’t really know how addictive and dangerous they were. So when he got the prescription he probably took the whole bottle, I don’t even know. Then he got another prescription for another injury and another one after that. Within six months of the first injury is when he first used heroin.

Azul: Paying Back

As I write in my dissertation, most of us learn the pharmacology early. So people that die usually die very early on because they’re stupid about it. But when they’re in their thirties and forties and fifties and sixties, they know their pharmacology. So when they die from an accidental drug overdose with thirty-five substances in their body, which is what I found in my analysis of the data, it’s suicide.

Even the medical examiner admitted to the fact that the majority were suicide. But they don’t call it suicide because of two factors. Number one is because of insurance. The second is because of the fact that most people around New Mexico are Catholic, and if they call it a suicide, they can’t be buried in holy ground.

I start my dissertation with this scenario: You’re walking into an oncology ward with an oncologist. Everybody there’s terminal, stage five, ready to bite the bullet. They’d be in terrible pain if it wasn’t for the palliative they’re given. The oncologist turns to you and says, very seriously, “We really need to cure these people of their addiction.” To me that’s the sort of statement people are making in the valley, We need to cure these addicts of their drug addiction, when in fact most of them are suicidal. They have PTSD. They have what I’ve termed street-level trauma from traumas on the streets and in prison. Also, it’s historical trauma. As they say up there, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” They’re a colonized people.

After her sister Rachel (left) died of an alcohol overdose in 2011, Anna Carvlin began interviewing other people who had lost loved ones to substance abuse for her new book, Untimely.
After her sister Rachel (left) died of an alcohol overdose in 2011, Anna Carvlin began interviewing other people who had lost loved ones to substance abuse for her new book, Untimely. | courtesy Anna Carvlin

Untimely book signing with Anna Carvlin
9 am-1 pm Saturday, April 14
The Friendship Club
1915 Rosina St., 982-9040

Anna Carvlin was born in Santa Fe and grew up mostly in the south suburbs of Chicago. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology with a minor in gender studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as a master's in international public health from Tulane. During a two-year assignment with the Peace Corps, she served as a community health educator in Togo, West Africa. She has worked in resource development at several nonprofits in Chicago and Santa Fe. Currently, she teaches yoga and Pilates, works as a nurse assistant, and continues to write as a hobby in her current home of Fort Collins, Colo.