‘Relationships Are What You Remember’


From ‘Spirit of the Butterfly – Peace,’ Suzanne Sahakian 2016

Relationships are what you remember.
Love is what breaks through the barriers.
Peace is knowing who you are and
understanding you are exactly
where you need to be.
Austen Berj Brooks, July 26, 2014

What is a life? A life is precious and complex,  a composite of many things.  Physically it has a start and a finish, but on another level, it has no boundaries – first, because you never stop caring or thinking about the one who is not here, and you certainly never stop loving him and, second, because all lives leave a legacy. The lasting effect a person has on us, the day-to-day dealings he had with us, the feelings, perceptions, thoughts, ideas that the person shared with us – those live on. Even more so when those reflections are expressed in writing.  I am grateful to have Austen’s words.  A life, a legacy that lives on and can be shared.  The lovely gem above is from his ‘Journey Through Sobriety,’ dated July 26, 2014, when he was 22 years old and almost 5 months sober.  A young man reaching for the stars, reflecting, earnest in his hopes, wise for his years:

I want to believe that the sky is the limit. . . . I want to be successful, I want to keep growing and taking off like a rocket. I want girls in my life. Cute girls, interesting girls, dark girls, light hearted girls, fun girls, thoughtful girls. . . .  I’m determined to overcome any obstacle, push through any barrier. Reach for the stars, taste greatness. Average just won’t do, pretty good is not enough. I want to find someone who understands me and who I can be myself with. I want my art to become something I can truly be proud of. I want to be an honest, understanding, funny, confident person. I want to be responsible and reliable. I just want things to start to come together in my life. I am so tired of waiting for it to finally happen. All I can do is try to be myself and be a good person. All I can do is keep working hard, stay sober, stay positive and strive for greatness. . . .  I just need to keep things straight. I just need to stay on top of things. I just need to find that groove where I just follow the natural order of things and fly through life like a slalom skier with speed and precision. . . .

I need to elevate myself.  I need to enlighten myself.  Don’t stoop down to the level of the world.  Stay above the storms and turbulence.  I have to give myself up to the universal forces that govern all of us.  I have to look for the more difficult answer, the difficult path.  After all, willingly or unwillingly, wittingly or unwittingly, this is the path I have followed in my life.  The path of suffering and hard realities.  Big questions and hard answers. There is now light at the end of the tunnel, but I continue to panic and worry that I’m not acting right or not heading in the right direction. This is an illusion.  I want to be back to being positive about my life and where it’s heading, after all, why shouldn’t I be?  I just need to slow down, reflect, center myself.  I want to feel happiness and wonder and amazement.  At least some of the time.  The truth of life lends itself to these emotions as well as their counterparts.  If I can make meaningful progress.  If I can have good relationships.  If I can have fun.  If I can stay positive that I won’t be alone forever. Life is good.

You have been blessed with so much in this unfair world.  The most important thing you have been given a second chance.  Even if your world is not right where you want it to be at this moment, you now have the chance to get there. Almost 5 months of sobriety.  Who would ever thought.  It hasn’t sunk in fully.  Most things never do.  Life is too fleeting.


Photo of Austen taken by his friend Reid Fragel in 2009.

Relationships are what you remember.  Love is what breaks through the barriers. Peace is knowing who you are and understanding you are exactly where you need to be.

If I can love myself then I will no longer need someone to love me and eventually they will enter the picture naturally and we will be a sum greater than our individual parts.
                                                                                                                  Austen Berj Brooks, July 26, 2014


From ‘Spirit of the Butterfly’  Suzanne Sahakian 2016



‘I Need to Stay Calm and Float Along’

Austen started his ‘Journey Through Sobriety,’ on May 15, 2014, 71 days sober.  In other posts, I have shared excerpts from his journal in no particular order.  I am now going through the journal chronologically and selecting excerpts to share using my editorial judgment.  Austen had a keen sense of life and of his particular situation. His words are honest and uplifting, describing the human spirit and condition with a clarity and maturity unusual in one so young. This entry is from May 21, 2014, 77 days out.


‘Saturday Morning in the Tuileries,’ Paris, 2016, SuzanneSahakianPhotography.

I walk the earth alone, I can be close with others, I can love, care for, and sleep with someone, but they will never be as close to me as I am to myself.  . . . So, my relationship with myself is the most important one in my life.  As well as I feel I know myself, there is still a huge amount to uncover and discover about myself.  To figure these things out, and ultimately figure out myself, I have to be willing to be introspective as well as honest with myself and others.  I have to align my actions with my values.  If somebody doesn’t like me that that is their problem, not mine.  All I can control is my own actions.  I don’t need others’ approval and I don’t want to have ulterior motives for my behaviors.

That is what recovery is about.

I’m only 22.  I don’t need any substances, nicotine or caffeine.  Just purity and spirituality.  It’s all within me.  All the wisdom and knowledge of how to be myself and that’s all that matters.  It’s not for anyone else either.  I’m not getting myself right to find my soul mate, although that will come if I get to where I need to be.  I’m doing this because I was put on this earth, in this body, and I have one chance to experience this amazing existence.  With everything that’s happened you have to think I wasn’t put here by coincidence.  I was given a chance not a promise.  That means maybe I’m not here for a reason but I was put here with the potential to fulfill my life.  To be.  To exist and to love, and that’s an opportunity that I’m not willing to relinquish.

There is so much beauty in life and within my self.  We all get used to it, we adapt to it, but it’s there regardless.  The sky, the stars, the sun, the grass, the trees, my mind, my thoughts, my understandings.  Finally, I’m in a position to find out who I truly am.  I’ve done a lot of work already over these 77 days.  77 days of sobriety is a long fucking time.  The longest amount of time that I have ever had since I became addicted.  It’s not great yet, but I’m healing and I will continue to heal.  Everyday is an opportunity to get better.  Once I’m there. . . no, not once I’m there, because I’ll never be perfect and I can start to fulfill my dreams tomorrow.  I want to be a writer, a rapper, a musician.  That’s my dream.  I can pursue that.  I also want to be a psychologist or an addiction counselor, but those are secondary goals.  My brain will continue to heal.  I can write, I can practice.  One step at a time.  But it’s okay to be excited.  It will be exciting.  If I can get this right.  If I can get myself right, and I most definitely can as long as I have the right attitude.  Other people give good advice and I would be wise to listen to it, but honestly, I’m the only one who can fix this.  I need to stay calm and float along.  Sometimes the current will pull me up or down, but I have to just paddle the best that I can with the best possible boat I can create.  Obsession and addiction are the abnormalities that could cause me to capsize.  But only if I let them.  Austen Berj Brooks, ‘Journey Through Sobriety,’ May 21, 2014.


Be A Shining Light Because…The World Needs More People Like That

SOMETIMES we lose sight – it’s easy to do in the daily flutterings of life. What’s real, what’s important, what can wait, what cannot.  Here are some encouraging, lifting words from Austen; although he wrote them to himself, they are generally applicable to living a good, fulfilled, solid-citizen, wonderful life.  May his words bring a positive glow to your day and perhaps a little inspiration. 


“Butterfly At Rest,” Tucson Botanical Gardens, 2016.

From Austen’s “Journey Through Sobriety”:

Sometimes I lose sight of the beauty.  Make music, be exceptional, do things differently, think one step ahead.  See yourself as a viable, flawed but worthwhile human being.  Attractive, thoughtful, intelligent. Ready to take on any challenge without fear.  Courage and enthusiasm.  Once you get a hold of who you are and what you have to offer you can really start dictating things in your life.  Not controlling things, but just making informed choices and decisions.

Lift yourself up.
Dream big.
Think without limitations.
Mature, unflustered, confident, carrying myself with dignity and self-respect. Creative, interesting, different.

 * * * *

You have to be patient with other people as well as yourself.  You have to do things you don’t want to do because the right thing is not always the easy thing, in fact, it’s usually the harder choice.  Deciding not to get angry or going out of your way to help someone.  Eventually all of these positive actions add up.  They seem small and insignificant at the time, but in the bigger picture they are extremely meaningful. Being a kind, good, positive person is the path I want to walk.  It has been the path I have wanted to follow for a long time.  Every since I saw what the world was really about and what actually exists within the darkness.  I need to be a shining light because that is who I am and because the world needs more people like that.

Austen Berj Brooks, ‘Journey Through Sobriety,’ July 23, 24, 2014.


Austen in Tucson, 2011: a ‘shining light’ indeed.


“I Will Be Confident And I Will Be Colorful”

RedFlowersOpiate addiction and depression. It may not be clear which one comes first, but at some point in the process they become intertwined and feed off one another. So, it was with Austen.

He writes that he first took opiates when he was 15 years old, probably sometime in 2007 before or during his junior year of high school, derived most likely from the medicine cabinets of his friends’ parents. Prescription drugs prescribed for pain. He took the drugs when his brain was still forming, when he was a sensitive, impressionable teenager, when he had only begun to experience the vast space of this world and his life within it. Opiates relieved his sadness and loneliness, gave him a euphoric, but temporary, happiness, and forever preyed upon his soul.  (Red flowers photo taken by Austen at the lakefront in Evanston, IL, May 26, 2012.)

Austen considered himself ‘an addict.’ That label was reinforced for him during his rehabilitations and treatments and in the college courses he took as a psychology major. He spent at least six years fighting his addiction and depression, with cycles of ups and downs, valiantly dealing with the constant warring factions of demons and gladiators. He used his intellect to research and understand what was happening to him. He sought help, he used his words and raps to describe his experience, he appealed to a higher order, he fought to be optimistic that he could turn things around, and he felt he was on the verge of doing so.  In July 2012, he wrote, “I like the pieces I have, even if my vices and demons overpower them at times.  I can win, I will succeed.”

I have paired some photos Austen took in late May 2012 with excerpts he wrote in the summer of 2012 about his ‘self’, a self that was synonymous with being ‘confident’ and ‘colorful.’ He was on a visit home from Indiana University before the start of the summer semester. I had loaned him my older Nikon D50, and he and I took an afternoon walk with our cameras.  I discovered the photos on the D50 after Austen died.

These photos were taken by Austen in a colorful alley we visited behind the Prairie Moon Restaurant in Evanston, Illinois on May 26, 2012:


“My self must be celebrated and not shunned.  My belief [is] that there is a force that lives within all of us and within the universe, a force of love and acceptance and great strength, that will help me conquer that which seems insurmountable.  I will be confident and I will be colorful because above all else I will BE MYSELF.”  ABB, July 4,  2012.


“I am about to be 21 years old, I can believe in positivity and hope; I can find the missing pieces of my puzzle.  I have a good sense of humor and I need to use it, you can’t be scared while you’re laughing and life should be fun and joyful as much as [is] humanely possible.”  ABB, August 26, 2012.


“I have to find myself.  Austen. Nice person, thoughtful, funny, sensitive in certain ways, generous, non-judgmental, open-minded, a writer, athlete, cool and unique, a dreamer, intelligent, self-aware, down-to-earth, loving, questioning, and deep. The sea of my soul is indeed many miles, with many intricacies and detours, but I never have lost sight of it, never started believing my own bullshit, never deceiving myself, because I knew what kind of person I am deep down.  In a sea of shallow minds, I refuse to be drawn in even when at times I am an ardent consumer of mass media.” ABB, August 29, 2012.

“I have to be in the moment, I have to be the moment, I have to be as real as real can be.  Look up always.”  Austen Berj Brooks, August 29, 2012.

That’s Life Though

AustenTaxi3-12-12As time goes by, I keep going back to Austen’s writings and find that I am able to read the words now more slowly, more carefully, more calmly, not afraid to breathe them in and let them flow out on their own accord. The excerpt below is from a 20-page document entitled ‘Writing,’ that Austen created on September 5, 2012 and added to in 2013, while he was a student at Indiana University.  It is not clear when he wrote this passage and the poetic lyrics within, but they are laced with tenderness, resignation, and a feeling of resurrection. And then here are the little gems like, “Inadequacy demands action not satiation of sadness.” He ends the passage with the last line from Bob Dylan’s song ‘Like A Rolling Stone’  – “When you ain’t got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose.” I am happy to share this with you and to share my love for a beautiful boy with a luminous mind.

I may not be pure, but my intentions can remain that way. I was blessed with a soul that can feel, a blessing and a curse truly. I let it get out of hand in the past, I swerved into the ditch. My drifter soul is what I need now, my artful essence is what will save me, my expectations thrown out the window, my systems disestablished, the system disassembled. I just have to be me, I just have to live and whatever happens is the story and I accept it. What has already happened has taught me a million things, hurt me a million times, stole from me all the innocence and glee of youth at too young an age, but I am here now, I am here now. Tomorrow I will appreciate the little things, and approach with the eyes of an infant. There is good within me, that’s why I haven’t given up hope, or given into my worst impulses.


Austen walking down W. 54th Street in New York City, March 12, 2012, on his Spring break from Indiana University.  We were staying at The Warwick hotel.

I’ve walked on the softest of streets and the rockiest of roads, I’ve swam in the darkness and laid in the cold, I’ve wondered and wished and waited without you, I’ve called into nothing with hatred and spite, I’ve been told that there’s things that should be left to the light. I’m just trying to live, but to live is to suffer.

I’m hurting, I’m really hurting.
The knife is sharp but not unfamiliar.
I’m crying I’m really crying.
Maybe dying the time moves faster and faster.
I’m talking over what I need to listen to.
My feeling is one in a billion.
The scale is grandiose.

There is no grand transformation.
The steps are bound to be bound by indignation.
A great leap forward’s met by a stretch of retardation
And I can’t see clear with the past in my eyes.
And I can’t hear you dear when all your words are replies.
But I’ll keep running even though this life I do despise.
Aint that dark, aint that cold.


Austen in Central Park in New York City, March 12, 2012.

That’s life though, that’s the brunt of it. The rest is now open. There isn’t nothing I can’t love. There isn’t a thing I can’t change. My heart’s still beating I tell you that much. I ain’t afraid, I ain’t afraid. Inadequacy demands action not satiation of sadness. When you ain’t got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose.
Austen Berj Brooks

Stand At The Junction Of Bliss & Insanity

I remember Austen texting me this photo he took of a snowy evening in Bloomington, Indiana, where he was a student at Indiana University. He later used the photo for a hand-made card he gave me on Christmas day, 2010 or 2011.

 As Christmas approaches, I miss his wish lists and links to possible gifts I could get him and those wonderful memories of he and his siblings padding downstairs at 2:00 am in the morning to see what Santa had brought them. Aside from getting gifts, he seemed to appreciate the magic of the season, the magic of the new blowing snow, of the colors in the night, of the feeling of being truly alive.


Photo taken by Austen in downtown Bloomington, IN, December 5, 2010.

As 2015 comes to a close, words from Austen to take you through the holidays and into the new year with the force of ‘positivity’:

I am brimming with life, with creativity, spirituality, love and even greatness if I believe.  I can change my perceptions.  Nobody is going to love you and believe in you before you do.  It’s not for anyone else either.  It’s not to make someone jealous or outperform your peers. It’s because you know yourself.  You know that you are a person who is worth it. … If my internal world is positive, I can go forward without fear.  You can’t let your thoughts become so convoluted.  This is just a tactic.  Let your love out and breathe it back in.  Open your heart and your mind to the universe. Stand at the junction of bliss and insanity and be brave.
     Austen Berj Brooks, ‘Journey Through Sobriety,’ June 23, 2014.


The Tuesday Before Thanksgiving

Austen Berj Brooks
September 26, 1991 – November 25, 2014


Although Austen died on November 25, which falls on a Wednesday this year, we will always associate his death with the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. We love you Austen and we miss you terribly but we also strive to make you proud of us every day as we carry on with our lives.  Always and forever.


“Infinite resignation.  Untouchable. Unharmed. Act naturally.  I am going to be myself with a passion that I’ve never had before.  I will throw my self-doubt off a sky scraper and dance in the rain of life.”
Austen Berj Brooks, September 14, 2012

An ‘Ofrenda’ In Honor Of Austen Berj Brooks

SugarSkull1Dia de los Muertos, the ‘Day of the Dead’ is a Mexican holiday that is celebrated on November 1 and 2, coinciding with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.  Here in Tucson, the tradition is richly recognized and culminates in an ‘All Souls Procession’ downtown.  Family and friends gather to pray for and remember those who have died and to help support their spiritual journey. Private alters are built honoring the deceased with sugar skulls, marigolds, favorite foods and mementos.  It’s a celebration of life, a joyful occasion of remembrance, in which death is recognized as a part of the natural process of living. 

AfricanMarigolds3After seeing a Día de los Muertos exhibit in Tucson recently, I felt inspired to look outside of myself and focus on Austen’s spiritual journey, especially as the one year anniversary of his death is approaching on November 25. So, in the spirit of joyful remembrance and love, I have put together a little alter – ofrenda – of my own, including some of his favorite ‘mementos’. 


Austen Berj Brooks
September 26, 1991 – November 25, 2014


Soccer    Elite    High School    Travel




Passion    Strong     A Fighter    Fierce






Mitts, balls and bat stored in his closet.


Intelligent Smart            Savvy


High School Graduation from Grosse Pointe South.



Graduation day from Indiana University.



His watch.


His collection of ‘The Hundreds’ shoes.




His prized backpack.


Love & Peace.


Always up on technology.


Looking cool.


Sarma and cheese boereg were his favorite Armenian delicacies.



Austen and Sam in Tucson.


“I don’t want to just say how it is, I want that flair, that personality, that swagger.  I lived it, I survived it, I got stronger, I fought my way back.  Let’s go.

Ride waves of positivity.  Follow the path in front of you. Be right, do right, good night.”
Austen Berj Brooks, July 9, 2014  marigoldscolors

“No One Can Ever Say That I Didn’t Try.”

As it gets closer to the one year anniversary of Austen’s death, I find myself in a more peaceful place, more able to deal with the onslaught of welcome and unwelcome memories, knowing that, whatever happens, I won’t have to go through that horrible day again, and the days that followed, ever. I am proud to be Austen Berj Brooks’ Mom and that will never cease. Here is an excerpt from his “Journey Through Sobriety,” written last year:

No one can ever say that I didn’t try.  That I didn’t look for solutions to my problems.  That I didn’t challenge myself and the world every day.  I’m not done.  I am 23.

The goal is not external success.  The goal is internal. Peace and love consciousness.  Victory over fear, depression, anxiety.  Great confidence coupled with awareness and humility.  Not needing things to be happy.  Not needing money.  Positivity, success and belief. Rising above cultural expectations and social norms.  Becoming a real genuine human being and enjoying my life.  Helping other people and understanding myself.  Being in the moment and being connected with the entire universe.  Seeing the truth and not running away from it.  This is what I need to strive for. Everything else will follow.  I am the first domino in the chain.
                                    Austen Berj Brooks, October 31, 2014


Above, Austen at Scholars Inn Café in Bloomington, Indiana,  2011. Below, Austen having a laugh in a shed behind the house he was living in during his junior year.


‘Thumbs Up’

Austen’s Birthday

Austen Berj Brooks was born 24 years ago today, September 26, 1991, at 6:57 a.m. He weighed in at a hefty 9 pounds, 8 ounces, was 21 1/2 inches long and had a 14 1/2 inch head.  He was almost one week late and looked like a 3-month old. Fortunately for me, he was my third baby and the delivery was so fast my doctor missed the birth.  That was just like Austen – take your time and then when you finally decide the moment is right, go for it.

Austen was named after one of my favorite authors, Jane Austen. I told him this one day when he and I were sitting on the couch watching the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice. He must have been around 4 years old. He looked up at me and said incredulously, “you mean I was named after a girl?,” only he couldn’t pronounce his r’s so ‘girl’ was more like ‘geeil.’ “Well,” I said, Jane’s father was Mr. Austen,” which seemed to pacify him.

Austen’s middle name, ‘Berj’, is an Armenian name which has various meanings depending on the source: superb, sumptuous, luxurious; magnificent, splendid; elegant. When we saw how big he was at birth, we quickly determined that ‘Berj” was a perfect middle name.

Here is what I wrote in “The Austen Journals” shortly after his birth:

Austen has come into the world surrounded by love from his parents, his sister and brother and his grandparents.  I cannot get over the amazement I feel when I look at him — amazement at his very being, his size, his good nature.  I don’t seem to be able to grasp the concept of a third child.  He is not a given, but something given to me as a kind of reward.  I am forever grateful for his being, his conception, the good pregnancy I had, his apparent health and vigor, his beauty, his wantedness.

And today I found a letter my mother wrote to Austen from Longboat Key, Florida, when Austen was 2 months old.  I believe I read this to him when it came in the mail and then I put it away safely in his baby album. At the beginning of the letter my mother presents her ‘resume’ and then expresses her gratitude:

Name:  Roxie Sahakian
Age:  64
Education:  marriage
Experience:  raised 3 daughters
Specialized in:  grandchildren
Courses:  pancakes, gatah (Armenian pastry)
Extra curricular:  loving 7th grandchild, Austen Berj.

How lucky I am to be your grandmother.  How lucky you are to have wonderful parents and siblings.  How lucky we all are to have each other.

As I reflect on all that’s happened, I have concluded that the day Austen was born was one of the best days of my life, a joyous day worthy of the happiest of memories – of all those family celebrations, those children’s parties, gifts, balloons, cakes, candles, birthday dinners in Bloomington, and then in Chicago. I am hopeful that on this day each year I will always feel a serene joy and a profound sense of love and gratitude. How lucky I am to be Austen’s mother.  And as his grandmother wrote, ‘How lucky we all are to have each other’.


Austen’s 11th birthday celebration in 2002 with his maternal grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan.