A personal story on National Sibling’s Day. Some of the information has been changed or edited to protect the identity of the people in this story.
My story is just like many others. I am not special because of what my family has gone through because we are just another number in the statistics of national drug abuse. On the heels of National Sibling day, I am here to tell you about what its like to be the sister of an addict.
My older sister is 9 years older than me. She was the one who started it all. She had our mother all to herself for the first 8 years of her life. Vacations in Mexico, private Christian school in Huntington Beach and Parasailing over the Pacific Ocean at 5 years old.
And then our mother met my father and her family grew, substantially. She became the oldest of four and had a hard time dealing with the reduction in attention she received. Her mother now had 3 littles in a just over 2 and a half years, my older brother and I being born just 9 months apart.
My earliest memories of my older sister were of her and her friends hanging out in her room, listening to Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Stone Temple Pilots and sneaking out to smoke cigarettes, making us promise not to tell our mom. Soon she started sneaking out late and worrying my mother who left for her bread route at 2am when she worked for Wonder Bread.
She started running away at 14 and became continually truant in high school. They found meth in her backpack and she was kicked out of her high school. At 15 she and her friends stole our mother’s car and eventually crashed it into a grocery store almost 100 miles away. My mom woke up to a call from an Orange County hospital alerting her to what had happened.
Later I recall visiting her in Juvenile detention halls. We would pack in the new car and go for weekly visits on Saturdays, go through the metal detectors and sit at an ice cold metal table while she would glare at us and count down the 90 minutes until we would leave.
When she came home I didn’t recognize her, she was standing at our door without warning, the sunset glow dimming, and her frame was heavier, healthier, than when she went in. I ran to her and cried, she told me she would never forget that moment. But I think she did.
Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there, she started using methamphetamine at 14 years old and continued to use well into her adulthood. Becoming a mother was the only thing that saved her when she turned 22. Her son was the light of her life and I became an aunt at 14.
Two years later she gave birth to my niece and we had our first tiny little girl in the family. A mother of two now at 25. She had stopped using the methamphetamine but began drinking instead and the decline began. After a few years domestic violence disputes became more and more regular and eventually she and her husband separated. She came to live with us again in my mom’s new husband’s home and we got to see our niece and nephew all the time. I love my nephews and nieces more than anything in this world.
I loved having them around, I used to put my nephew to sleep by putting on this DVD of old story books brought to life. He loved the movie Cars and Ratatouille. But while I was putting her kids to sleep at 17, she was making new friends in the neighborhood and drinking until she blacked out. I knew she was drinking but I would protect her from my mother. Telling my mom she was tired but wasn’t drinking. I was enabling at 17 unaware of the fact. I just didn’t want my sister and my mom to fight.
Eventually there was an incident that I couldn’t protect her from my mother’s anger. We had taken a trip to our community pool with my niece and nephew. I was playing in the pool with the kids while she laid on a pool chair drinking vodka straight from a water bottle. She became so intoxicated I had to pick up all the kids toys and take her 2 and 4-year-old to the car, then return to drag her back to the car in her drunken stupor. By the time we made the one-mile drive home she was passed out in the passenger seat. I tried to hide her drunkenness and handed my mom the kids and told them they needed a nap. I dragged my sister out of the car while she cursed at me then collapsed on the stairs and fell asleep at my mother’s door. She would be passed out for 18 straight hours, while her children would be crawling on top of her, using their tiny fingers trying to pry their mother’s eyes open. She awoke 18 hours later to a house full of angry and disappointed family members.
There were arguments between my mother and my sister, she had come to live with us, so she could get away from the chaos, have help raising her small children, stop drinking and get a job to support herself. But instead she started drinking in secret, she got a job as a bartender at a local golf course and she would come home reeking of alcohol. Every chance she had she would drink. It was unstoppable and there was nothing we could do or say that would make her stop.
My mother’s relationship with her husband was rocky due to his bipolar disorder and the chaos her family brought to his home. Eventually my mother took a job out of state, we were 19, 18 and 17. She drove to Colorado to take a job in the oil field and my older brother and sister stayed in my stepfather’s home. My little sister and I moved in with our boyfriends.
Once the divorce papers were drawn up, I drove to be with my mom in Colorado. My older sister moved back in with her husband and continued drinking. My little sister stayed with her boyfriend and graduated high school. My brother continued living with my step father until he joined my mother and I in Colorado.
While our family was spread apart her alcoholism grew worse. She and her husband broke up again and she met another man to feed her compulsive need to not be alone. She eventually was arrested for DUI while driving with my niece and nephew in the car. CPS got involved and her children were sent to live with their father and grandmother. My brother, mother and I were 900 miles away and we knew we had to come home. As much as we loved the open world that Colorado offered, our family was in need.
While her children were in the care of ex-husband, she remarried. We didn’t know until 3 months later. But she was getting better, attending her court ordered classes, maintaining sobriety and working at a restaurant during the day. Eventually she reunited with her kids, while her new husband was sent to prison for a theft charge that occurred shortly after my niece and nephew were sent to live with their father and grandmother.
She maintained her sobriety while she held down the single mother role during the time her new husband was serving his 10-month sentence. I helped her take care of her children when I moved back from Colorado 3 months before my mom and brother moved back. Our relationship was strained because I was feeling taken advantage of by my sister and underappreciated, but I put up with it because I loved my niece and nephew so much. Eventually our personalities clashed, and we stopped speaking to each other. She refused to allow us to see her children and it hurt us so much. We only reunited when our grandmother passed away from breast cancer.
When her husband was released from prison they moved into a big house and started raising her family together. She soon became pregnant again and they were happy. They held Christian based recovery meetings in their home on Wednesdays and they were going to church. Things were getting back to normal.
She was a good mom; her husband was ecstatic to be a father for the first time. I was able to be in the delivery room with her and I held her leg as she gave birth to my youngest nephew. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had with my older sister.
For the first 2 and a half years of my nephew’s life, they continued their sobriety. But eventually prescription pills led to alcohol and then alcohol turned into separate secret drug use. The secrets fueled the domestic violence that began to occur on a weekly basis. My sister had a moment of clarity and agreed to allow her now sober ex husband to have full custody of the oldest children and she promised to work on her marriage and try to get clean again. My family was devastated.
But with less children to care for, she began using more heavily. She would sneak away at night and not return for days; her husband would bring my nephew to my home early in the morning while he went to work and I cared for their 3 year old son. I was trying to help but I looked at that little boy and thought “I can’t let you grow up like this”
I was 25 now and I was sick of watching my sister hurt her children. They had seen enough dysfunction to last a lifetime. I began making calls to CPS and explaining the situation. Somehow they were never able to see what I saw. We felt like my nephew would be another child who slipped through the cracks.
My boyfriend and I took my 3-year-old nephew everywhere every chance we got. We loved him. He was so sweet and affectionate and happy. We just wanted to give him a place to play without drunken arguments playing out in the background. My sister was using again and CPS wouldn’t step in.
Eventually the domestic violence took a dangerous turn which led to police involvement and one October morning my sister and my nephew ended up on my doorstep again, along with a police escort.
They moved in with us and slept in the spare bedroom. My mother was away on a job in North Dakota and it was just my boyfriend and I in the house. She began sneaking out at night, and we would awake to my 4-year-old nephew’s cries calling out “Where’s mommy?” at 2 in the morning. He would sleep with us and then my sister would come slither back into the house around sunrise.
I was just waiting for our mom to come home from North Dakota, she would fix this and set my sister straight. But when she came home she was just as overwhelmed as I was. Nothing we would say would stick and she started sneaking away for longer periods of time. I told her she needed to go to a rehab again, we would watch her son and I called around and got a bed for her at a treatment center 30 miles away.
She would become aggressive and unhinged when we would call her out on her substance abuse. I was at my wits end and so was my mother. After a frightening reality check, she took a ride with her childhood best friend and entered into a two-month program. Her husband took my nephew and I was hurt and angry at my sister.
When she graduated from the program she reunited with her husband and her son. I was still angry and now distrustful of her motives. After watching this my entire life, I wasn’t sure two months was enough time to change her. I kept her at a distance and she became closed off to us again. I would ask to take my nephew on day trips to the aquarium and she agreed. She always knew how much I loved her children.
At one point my mother and I were in discord about how much we could trust her, I felt strongly against her being alone with her kids while my mother wanted to trust her. It became the fight that led to us not speaking to each other for almost 6 months. She moved in with my older sister and then took a job in Ohio and left.
I knew my sister had started using again. She stopped answering her phone, she wouldn’t let me see my nephew and I was so worried for him. He had just turned 5.
My boyfriend and I moved into our own place and didn’t hear from my mother or my sister for months. Then I’d heard that my sister’s husband was arrested for burglary and they were being evicted from their home. I offered to help my sister move or watch my nephew while they were moving.
I told my employers at the time that I may need to take some time off to help my sister. Work was getting slow and lay offs where happening everywhere. My boss was a particularly kind man and held onto me as long as he could, and then laid me off so I could be there for my family and collect unemployment.
A week later my sister dropped my nephew off at my house. His father was arrested again for violating probation and his mother was sick. She was going to care for her and needed help with my nephew. I was so happy to have him.
But the overnight turned into 2 nights and then 3 and then it was Mother’s Day morning. The last thing I’d heard was her car had broken down on the side of the road and she was walking to the local bar to drink away her stress. I told her to contact me when she could come pick up her son. Two days later we couldn’t get ahold of her. I called CPS and reported abandonment after being persuaded by my high school friend turned social services worker. The next day I filed for guardianship of my nephew.
She contacted me that morning and told me she had been arrested for possession and drunk in public. But she had been released the day prior and hadn’t contacted us. I felt strongly that the decision I was making was the right one.
She was upset but she knew she had no grounds to fight me for him. She had no car, no money, her husband was in jail and her mother in law in the hospital. She self-medicated and went back to her binge.
I was awarded temporary guardianship after I filed for an emergency hearing three days later. She didn’t show up for court and the judge postponed the next court date another two weeks. That night my nephew’s grandmother passed away from her sickness.
I had just turned 28 and we had moved into a small 2-bedroom home. We were struggling from my lay off and he came to us in ill-fitting hand me down clothes and wasn’t wearing any underwear. I reached out to my community and was shocked at the help we received. We had his room furnished with bunk beds, all kinds of toys and new and used clothes, within 3 days of asking for help.
Every night he would wake up 5 or 6 times, come into our room and check to make sure we were still there. He told us his parents would go into the garage and lock the door, leaving him alone the entire time at night. When they would be in the house coming down off the drugs they were using, he would be put into his room with a tablet and a bag of chips. He told me that we ate a lot, because he only used to eat one time a day.
Two weeks later our next court date arrived, and I reached out to my sister. She told me she was coming to court to fight for her son and I was privately enthusiastic that she was going to try and fight for her son. But when we were called up by the judge in court she was no where to be found. The judge postponed our hearing another day and after I left the court house my brother in law and I went straight to her mother in laws home where she was staying to find out why she didn’t show up.
When I got there what I found was more than I could comprehend. The house was something out of a nightmare and I cried thinking about my nephew living in an environment as horrendous as this. When I opened my sister’s bedroom door we found a strange man sleeping on the ground, and no sister. I took pictures to document the condition of the home and my brother in law took to speaking to the strange man found sleeping mid-day in a home that was not his. He told us my sister had left earlier that morning to go to court and he didn’t know where she was.
Later that day we were able to get ahold of her, she said she was willing to go into treatment but she needed a ride and wanted to go to court for the next appearance. She showed up the next day and we held each others hand as we spoke to the judge. She told him of her intentions of entering treatment and the judge commended us on our ability to work together for the best interest of her child.
That night she spent her last night with us in our home, having dinner and spending quality time with her son. In the morning the next day her ex husband picked her up and drove her to a friend’s house near the treatment center where she would stay until a bed became available for her. Her friend had recently graduated from the same program and was on the path to success.
After 6 weeks she went into the homeless triage center, she stayed there for two weeks and then she was admitted into the Christian program that was one year of inpatient rehabilitation. After she graduated the program would help her find employment and help pay her rent for up to one year after completion. We were hopeful.
But with programs that have such amazing benefits, they are also strict with their rules. She was reprimanded for having cell phones before the program allowed her to. After she was caught for a third time, and under stress, she walked. A week later our mother was bringing my nephew for his second visit and they informed my mother that she had left the week earlier. Our hope was diminished.
My boyfriend and I were busy adjusting to life with a 5 year old. He started kindergarden and I started working part time while he was in school. He was having night terrors and still checking on us to make sure we were home, but eventually he was able to sleep through the night. He started calling me mom two months into living with us and I let my sister know. She was comforted knowing that her son was being raised in a loving home.
Over the next few months my sister started working again, she was determined to stay clean and try to find recovery on her own. We were talking again and eventually she started staying overnight for visits with her son.
Slowly we realized she was abusing alcohol again, she was missing her appointed visitation time and she was secretive about where she was. Our first Christmas with my nephew was bitter sweet, his father called from prison and he spent the rest of the day with my boyfriend’s family and I. That night his mother came to visit and we could feel her resentment. An argument ended the visit and we could tell she was using again. She vowed to fight to take back her son and I asked her to leave.
She filed to take back custody of her son and in February we were back in court again on separate sides of the room. We were required to use character witnesses and testify against one another to prove who was fit to raise her son. It was one of the most painful days of my life.
In the closing arguments my older sister testified that she knew her son was in the safest place, and that she was unable to provide for him the way a child needed to be provided for. The entire thing was a waste of time and emotion, I was crushed to have to speak so publicly bad of my sister, but I had to protect the innocent six year old who needed a stable upbringing.
We arranged for weekly visits and she started renting a room with a friend. Things were better than ever. For mother’s day she got me a card and came to visit for the evening. I was starting to trust my sister again.
Over the summer she started staying over for longer visits and I would have my older niece and nephew come to stay too so she could be with all three of her children. But when I discovered mini liquor bottles in her purse I had to say something. She became defensive again and we were back to square one.
My nephew by this time was starting to become more aware of the changes and more understanding of why he was living with my boyfriend and I. We kept doing what we needed to do, and eventually my sister agreed not to drink around her kids while she was visiting.
A few months later my nephew’s dad was released from prison. He was excited to see his son but I was cautious and protective of my new family. He was safe and we were finally doing really well, our finances stable and he was just starting first grade.
His father was respectful and came to visit at our home, they were calm and enjoyable for my nephew and that’s all I wanted for him.
But soon my sister again reunited with her husband and the past could no longer stay dead. They were back to their old ways and their disfunction started creeping into their visits with my nephew. I would not allow them to see him together because I did not want him to be subject to their unpredictable relationship.
And then they started getting arrested again, one for violating parole, the other for possession. We built up our walls again and they broke up as a couple again. They had burned all their bridges and wrecked relationships with everyone who had helped them. They were alone and addicted again.
The final straw came when my sister had run off with a friend during the holidays. While she was gone I found out my nephew’s father was arrested again but this time for possession and I refused to allow him to visit until he took me to court. I was sick of the lies and them using my compassion against me. A year and a half into raising my nephew, it clicked inside me that I needed to be stronger to protect the now 7 year old boy who called me his mom.
On my sister’s return from her compulsive trip out of state, she called me to ask if I had heard from his father, which I had not because I had refused to allow him to visit. She told me she was worried because the last conversation they had he was saying concerning things and she was worried about his mental state and the possibility that he would be crushed from losing his visitation, enough so to harm himself.
I was upset and torturing myself from the thought that my action may have led to my nephew losing his father. I was a wreck and worried for him as well. A few days later my nerves were calmed by one of his family members who told me he had been arrested a week beforehand.
My sister had known all along where her husband was. And my codependent self allowed me to hold responsibility for the actions of a 35-year-old man.
He called from jail and explained that she had known all along. He did not know she had called me to ask where he was. I was now boiling by the thought of her betrayal.
I called her out on her deceitfulness and she denied it. She said she had no idea where he was until I told her. I couldn’t stand the manipulation anymore. I refused to allow her in my home for visits, she would have to figure out how she could see him because I was doing all of the work, feeding her, paying for us all to be together and all the while she took advantage of our kindness.
That weekend I attended my first Al-Anon meeting. I fell apart. I wanted to keep quiet and hold it all in but I just couldn’t do it. But that released allowed me to feel the full strength and admit my part in enabling and my co-dependent tendencies I had with my older sister.
Although I was not on speaking terms with her, I was worried. On her last visit she had looked disheveled and said some concerning things. That week I made a call to her old treatment center to see if they had an available bed for her. I took down the information and because of the support I found in the Al-Anon program I knew I couldn’t be the one to help her, but I could give her the information she needed to help herself.
A month later she was arrested for possession. I let her know that she was welcome back at her old treatment center and if she could get a ride she would be admitted right away. Our mother took her in and let her stay with her until she got a ride from a friend. She went into treatment again on February 21st, 2018.
While I am glad to see my sister getting the help she so desperately needs, I am also hesitant to allow her into my life at this point. She will forever be my older sister, but when drugs and alcohol addiction take over someone’s life, blood is no longer important. I have been hurt by my sister in ways that no sibling should ever be treated.
We have been raising my nephew for almost two years this coming May. We just had our annual guardianship review and were given the green light for the adoption process. He is truthfully excited at the prospect of us being his permanent parents and asked my long-term boyfriend if he can start calling him “Dad” now. He has had to be informed in delicate ways about his parent’s drug abuse and has told us that he feels much safer with us in our home.
I will always love my sister. But sometimes life takes one role and turns it into another. I was an aunt and now I am a mother. On national sibling’s day, I encourage you to love your siblings fiercely, but to also take care of what’s important, rather than doing what’s more comfortable for the other person.
Most families are unaware of the type of damage they can do while enabling their addicted loved one. Addiction is one of the nastiest diseases one can ever face and while you may have every intention of helping, you help can be furthering their harm. Put yourself in a place that allows you to take care of yourself first, and if they need your help, they will know exactly where to go. To you.
From there you can direct them to the safest place for them and then it’s up to them if they follow through.
That’s what family is for.
Also published on Medium.