Heart of the Treasure Valley: Each of them is his brother’s keeper

kjones@idahostatesman.comDecember 15, 2013 

In their separate lives, Frank and Greg Metelski each hit bottom in life. “And then the weird thing: It draws us together,” says Frank. Greg, 62, has physical and mental disabilities from a drunk driving crash 43 years ago and took a downward spiral after a couple of falls more recently. Frank, 64, is a recovering alcoholic. As a result of and as part of the process of recovery, Frank took over as Greg’s full-time caregiver in August 2012. “That’s still part of what you could say is an unforeseen plan. ... His difficulty became my challenge. And salvation, absolutely.”

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com

This story begins on the day he decided to die.

His second marriage had failed five years earlier, and over those five years, any controls he had over his drinking dissolved and he sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism. He lost his job, lost his savings day-trading on the stock market, just lost his way in general.

He says: “I hit that spot where life. … I was failing at it.”

He couldn’t face Monday morning, so he drank. Then he couldn’t face Tuesday or Wednesday. He went on a four-week bender until a friend (“Your angel,” says his brother) became so alarmed that he called 911. Speaking with the bravado of drunkenness, Frank Metelski told police, Oh, I’ll just sober up. But a voice of desperation also snuck out of his mouth:

“(I told them), you guys leave me here, I’m going to finish what’s left of that half-gallon of vodka and probably kill myself. They go, ‘Is that your plan?’ I go, no. I don’t want to die. But I can’t stop drinking.

“And if I don’t stop drinking, I will die.”

Authorities committed Frank to a mental hospital. And that, he says, was the beginning of his life — and the rest of this story.

But first, back in New Jersey, Frank’s next youngest brother was also diving into his own despair.

Forty-three years ago, when Greg was 19, he went to a fraternity house party, which also featured much drinking — and this time, driving.

Greg says: “I imagine I hit that tree about 50 mph.”

Greg was in a coma for two months with a broken arm, leg and neck and a traumatic brain injury. In time, his body and brain healed, although with permanent disabilities. So for those last 43 years, Greg lived with his parents in New Jersey.

Frank: “I fault myself because I should have paid more attention, but I didn’t know. I looked at it: Aw, it was mom and dad’s deal, let them handle it. He was out of state and out of mind.”

Greg was able to work as a school janitor and retired at age 50 in 2001. But without the stimulation of work and physical activity, in 2011, Greg fell and tore the tendons in his knee. Then he fell again, which put him into a wheelchair and started him on his downward spiral.

Frank: “He gets totally despondent. … He sounds on the phone the worst I’ve ever heard him, except when he was first coming out of the coma. I mean, he regressed. You could hear it in his voice and his words. ...

“ Just about every day, he’d wake up roaring with the bipolar anger part (a result of the traumatic brain injury), cursing God, cursing his life (Greg: “Yep.”), going, why … did you let me live? All this stuff. My parents would have to put up with that; they didn’t know how to handle that.” (Greg: “Yep.”)

For Frank, the marvel is that what happened next would never have happened if they both hadn’t hit bottom.

“(Before), I would have been too selfish. … I would have said, Mom and Dad, it’s your deal. Or if they’d say we’re going to put (Greg) in a home, I would have said, well, that’s what you do.”

Instead, what happened was that Frank started his life over again as a recovering alcoholic. Not that any of it was easy.

“I had no idea what I was dealing with. I had taken alcohol to where I was now alcohol-dependent. I had no idea it was not ‘just sobering up’; that was never going to happen. I didn’t know that, but because the state decided to commit me, I had no choice. ...

“ I had crossed the line.”

His detox was brutal: days of being incapacitated, unable to walk, debilitated, hard to even stay awake. But through it all, that little voice that spoke in his desperation became stronger.

“ Help was there and I somehow grasped on to knowing that I needed it. So I said, whatever it takes so I don’t drink again — I’m willing to do it.”

It was challenging to cut through old patterns and excuses and learn a new way of living. But one day, as he struggled in the relapse prevention program, Frank had an experience that cemented his recovery.

“At first I thought I was going to faint or fall down. … I went from seeing dazzling lights in front of me to shimmering silver rain is coming down. ...

“I came into contact with something that told me it’s going to be all right; you’re not in this alone. It’s the first time in my adult life that I felt like I wasn’t in this life alone.”

This all happened in an extraordinary couple of weeks, although his recovery work will be lifelong.

“I took myself to the edge of death; I come through it, I get this connection. I’m so overjoyed.

“So when I left there, I knew I was going to continue whatever they were teaching me — a whole new way of thinking, a new way to look at life. I seized on it. … I stuck.

“ … Now I look back — if I hadn’t been committed, I probably wouldn’t have stayed. They would have sobered me up, cut me loose in three days and I would have been drunk and dead inside of a week. So anything now is like borrowed time.

“Being that appreciative, I just wanted to give back.”

And here’s where the story comes together, for as Greg spiraled downward, and their parents, now in their 80s, reached the end of their ability to help, the siblings called Frank.

“(Greg) becomes where I can put service into action, doing something for another, asking nothing in return. My goal is if I could make a difference and improve on his quality of life, that was good enough for me.”

Their parents weren’t convinced.

“They didn’t think I’d be willing to do the work required. But they didn’t know what I feel like inside, which is: I can do this. I don’t know anything about it, but I’ll do it.”

A year ago in August, Frank drove Greg from New Jersey back to Boise, to Greg’s new home and to his new life; to a new life for both of them.

And it’s not just a change of scenery. Frank is a determined goal-setter, for his own continued recovery as well as Greg’s physical and mental improvement. Greg did several months of occupational and physical therapy, and with Frank’s coaching outside of therapy — plus daily workouts at the gym — Greg is walking better (Frank has stats to prove it), standing better, sitting better — and feeling better.

“This is part of the benefit of day trading. Day trading makes you an astute observer. You observe and watch for patterns. … I go, if it does that, it should do this. …(Greg) takes the place of (work), so I watch him. … ”

And there’s a part of the experience that astonishes Frank.

“I’m taking care of him with patience and kindness and thoughtfulness — nothing that I am familiar with from my life before. I was not like that.”

Greg is a good learner and he, too, is motivated. They have inside jokes to remind Greg to tweak his chronically tipped head (“heads up”); and lines from old movies to remind him to walk instead of leaning on his walker. (“With me, without me.”)

“Making up for 43 years of dealing with his difficulties that created even more deficient conditions. … ”

Greg’s anger is dissipating, too. Frank taught him some of the 12-step philosophy, so if Greg gets frustrated at his perceived lack of progress or wakes up angry, he turns to his dog-eared pages of recovery readings.

Greg: “When I wake up in the morning and all these negative thoughts come into my head, swearing and whatnot, I read these.”

Frank: “I’ll go, so what’s got you angry? He’ll tell me, my life is (not good). I go, no, that’s how you’re looking at it, that’s your perspective. It really isn’t. ...

“If you can grasp that there’s a better way than bitching and moaning and blaming, it’ll lessen your anger, your resentment, your envy, all that ridiculous thinking to where you’re more reality based. … He’s got a way out that he didn’t have before.”

Laughter has come back into Greg’s life — now it flows easily and freely, along with his big grin.

Frank: “He’s good company. We have fun. We get to be silly like we used to be when we were growing up.” (Greg: “Right.”)

Frank remembers there was a point when he had second thoughts about his offer to care for Greg — old-life, selfish thoughts about how his life was going to be constrained. Like maybe someday he thought he’d want to go to Alive After Five, not to drink but to meet people.

“I think, yeah, but I’ll have Greg. I won’t be able to. (But now) I wheel him in there and he just attracts people — because that’s what he does.”

Greg: “My father and others told me the reason you were spared (in the accident) was because God has other plans for you. In a way (I know what those plans are). I make people laugh.”

That kind of light-heartedness and discovery is what their lives have become together. In part, it’s based on making up for those years of distance — and guilt, too: Greg was bringing the car to Frank when he crashed so that Frank could go to work.

Frank: “ I spent most of these 43 years … of carrying this guilt, of that night, of the fact that I didn’t participate in his life more. …

“Because of (us living together), we got to talking and I’m telling him about my guilt and he goes, ‘Oh, Bud.’ He goes, ‘You did things with me; you took me to concerts, we went to festivals, we did this and that.’ I didn’t know.

“He did not look at me as the brother that didn’t want anything to do with him. …Because of us getting close, he allowed me to have release from that.”

And the future looks bright, better than it ever has before.

Frank: “Getting him more mobility, I see us going places, taking trips. … I see things where we’ll be doing stuff — we’ll be doing it together. It’s going to be both of us.”

Greg: “Things are changing for the better. And I love him. Yeah. He’s my brother.”

He sings the refrain.

“I’m saying the world looks good now. Pretty good. Yeah.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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