Seven years ago, my sister was dying. Trembling and incoherent, she once tried to tell me, by phone from Illinois, that flu was to blame for her inability to hold a brief conversation. She resented me for not believing the lie.

I’d moved to Alaska several years earlier. Once, furious with my sister and frustrated by the thousands of miles between us, I slipped out of the house, to ski. I poled as hard as I could over a crust of icy snow. My skis scissored painfully. Fluidity and relief never came. That’s how everything felt that long winter: slippery, arrhythmic, and futile.

My sister’s true disease resisted everything that I – that anyone — could do, or think, or say. She was a drug addict. She had been using cocaine, alcohol and heroin to obscure disappointments; to forget certain traumatic events; to “self-medicate,” as one family member phrased it with a clinical detachment that infuriated me. She was killing herself. I did not expect
her to last the winter.

arts1A treatment program did not work; family interventions didn’t work. She considered visiting me, hoping Alaska’s remote purity might help cure her — until I warned her that Alaska, too, had plenty of places to score. Substance abuse is a statewide scourge, with roots hundreds of years deep. I wanted her to come, but I had to tell her: if she was looking for either a temptation-free paradise or a sensory deprivation tank, this wasn’t it.

She decided to stay home. I pledged to stay connected, but my heart resisted. I loved her. But I hated what she was doing to herself and to us. When we were younger, she’d attempted suicide by slashing her wrists. I was the one who, at 14 years old, had found her unconscious body. This time, I did not want to be the one to witness her slower death.

arts2My sister studied art in college so I was thinking about her already the day I visited the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. Many times that winter I’d gone outside to be alone. This day at the museum, I wanted not to be alone, to be surrounded by man-made objects, traditions, stories, some proof of humanity.

In the contemporary Alaska Native gallery, I noticed a haunting work of wood, aluminum and Plexiglas, by Susie Qimmiksak Bevins. It shows four simplified human figures, bound with sinew, titled “People in Peril – Bound by Alcohol.”

It hurt to look at it, to see the child figure’s abstracted abdomen, broken like an egg into shards of black and white; and the woman’s transparent womb. It hurt, especially, to see the sinews – taut at the ankles, calves, thighs; crossed over faces and black lungs. Pain. Restriction. Facelessness. Vulnerability. The sinews represented alcohol, but for me, they also represented anger – my own cutting anger.

Bevins, an artist with her own history of substance abuse, once said that “sometimes visual imagery impacts more forcefully than words.” The Anchorage Museum has a collection of 20,000 objects; for me, on that day, this was the object that spoke to me and for me, that mattered.

All winter, I had searched for a way to understand what my sister was experiencing. Here it was, depicted by an Alaska Native artist, from a culture that has experienced the same pain, and sometimes triumphed over it. That was hope enough.

Against all odds, my sister survived that winter. She returned to her art. She had a baby and became a responsible and loving mother. She has been sober and healthy now for several years.

This week, I visited the museum to see “People in Peril” again. The first time I saw it, I hadn’t cried; but this time I shed tears of relief. On the way out I noticed another Bevins piece in the hallway. Perhaps it wasn’t there seven years before, or perhaps I wasn’t ready to see it then. It showed three birdlike shapes and a woman, unbound, soaring upward toward the sun.