Kyla Milberger

The Cost of Being Free

In  2017, I spent time with my older brother Justin, photographing him and his daily battles with drug use. He started using when he was only 14 years old, most likely influenced by my dad’s own drug use. It was something they participated in together.I learned that a child is 50 percent more likely to develop a drug addiction if one or both parents use too. But in 2015, drugs would be the cause of my father's death and I never got a chance to really understand the depth of my dad’s problems until it was too late. The Cost of Being Free became my second chance at understanding addiction through my brother Justin’s experiences.


“When Dad moved out he wasn’t at his worst yet. He had the dealer's number and was doing his own thing, started doing heroin 3 or 4 months after he had moved out, which was probably Danielle’s doing, when he was at his worst,” Justin said.  I found out and I remember I called the guy and I was like, ‘I’m gonna fucking find you and kill you if you don’t stop’. But it never stopped and I could never do anything about it.

Justin, 24 years old [now 26 years old], smokes a cigarette out of his bedroom window, a typical morning ritual for him. He has been an on and off again smoker since he was a teenager. In this picture I had just surprised him by coming over and waking him up. We had no concrete plans to hang out, and I think it made him happy, even feel special that someone was thinking of him and wanting to spend time with him. Justin often feels that no one is really there for him or thinking about him. He thinks he has to battle his substance use alone.

“When my kids’ dad died, I had done a lot of work to forgive him for a lot of things. I was super sad but I was also relieved,” my mom said. It’s been a relief ever since because we’re not waiting for the other shoe to drop. We know now. But with my kid, always waiting for the other shoe to drop – it’s a horrible limbo to live in.”

“Sadness, because I’m always living on the edge and I know he’s [Justin] suffering so much. And the suffering it causes everybody around him, which are my other kids and my parents and my marriage; it just tentacles out into everything. Just everything. So, talk about my sadness. It’s kind of hard. There are just so many situations that come up and that’s all I can really say right now about that,” my mom said.

I find other people’s personal spaces to be very intimate. They describe who they are. I remember being in Justin’s apartment once, waiting for him to get ready, so I decided to walk around each room. I wanted to explore and get to know my brother’s space because I felt like I was learning more about him.

Justin is constantly moving from one place to another, never completely settled, and his personal spaces reflect this. The motivation or care to be organized and clean doesn’t seem to exist within his world.

Justin visits Dad’s headstone for the first time since his passing in 2015. This is not an easy place to go for my brother and I. It’s a constant reminder of the permanence of death, the nagging questions of why and how, the never-ending wonder. Watching Justin touch Dad’s grave makes me think about how real this all is, to never see, to never feel, to never touch.

“[When I use] My ethics change, my values change, and I’m just not myself,” Justin said. So that’s why I’m trying to get help. And I’m just sick and tired of lying to Mom and stuff. And it kills Mom… I think she’s proud of me for admitting it to her.” 

Mom holds the door for Justin as he enters the rehab facility. Justin has been to rehab before but this was the first time he made the decision to go on his own. He was proud of himself.

“ I figured I was doing the pills, and I got physically addicted and it got too expensive and I went to other shit,” Justin said.  “I had always shunned it (heroin) because of Dad, but it was kind of alright at the time, ‘cause he did it. We were buddies, ya know, but when he was alive I would never touch it. And I would never have even thought of doing it, and if I’d seen it, I’d throw it away.”

Justin shows me his tattoo, the same one my dad had in the same spot on his body. The M represents our last name, Milberger, and the A, J, and N on the crown are the initials of our family: A for Avery, my dad, J for Justin, and N for Noah. My other brother Alex and I were left out of this tattoo.

“But I had prepared myself for him to die already. I had cried it out, I was ready. I already knew what was going on. I knew if he was gonna continue down this path, there was only so much I could do. I had given up, kinda. I’d yelled at him. I’d done what I could (I thought). And I’d given up and was just waiting it out, really,” Justin said.

© Kyla Milberger 2023