I’ll never forget the first day of my substance abuse course — a required class for my undergraduate degree — when the professor brazenly asked who in the class had alcoholics on one side of the family. Subsequently, she asked for hands to remain raised if alcoholics were on both sides — mine remained raised.
“You are what we call ‘gifted,’” she joked, but I wasn't amused.
I later learned that with alcoholism on both sides of my family, there was presumably a 50 percent chance my parents would have a child with risk factors for alcoholism. I am the second-born of their two children — I am the other 50 percent. So that leaves my sister — the one endowed with risks for substance abuse.
As a toddler, I admired my sister. I wanted to do everything she did, and I began to emulate her ways. She and I were almost inseparable despite the five-year age gap.
As I was about to graduate from kindergarten, my parents decided to move the family out of the city and into the suburbs. At my age, the transition was easy, and I was fortunate to spend the entire summer with my sister since neither one of us had the opportunity to make friends in school yet. But the following school year, everything changed.
In the suburbs, grammar school consisted of kindergarten through fifth grade, with grades six through eight attending a middle school in a different location. With my sister in a different building and on a different schedule, we began to drift apart. I was now the obnoxious sibling she seemed to resent. We started having some typical sibling disputes with both of us screaming at each other, but in her last year of middle school, she began to get physical. She would push me into walls, throw nearby objects my way and sometimes even hit me.
Since I was raised in a household where punishments were always physical, I simply thought she was trying to act like my parents, but this wasn’t the case.
During my sister’s high school years, she and I rarely communicated. I envied the bonds that my friends had with their older siblings, but since my sister was never around, I began to feel like an only child. This wasn’t much of an issue until my sister’s senior year of high school, when she was suspended for drug use.
Our house was filled with incessant screaming and swearing as my parents tried to discipline my sister, but the issues only escalated. I would try to fall asleep each night as the screaming occurred in the next room, but I was too scared to sleep. I hated my sister for doing this to my parents and to herself. With everything happening at home, I began to have panic attacks in school, but because I couldn’t reveal the issues at home, I had to lie to my teachers and the school nurse, claiming I was having asthma attacks.
Within a few months, my sister started college, and since she had passed most of my parents’ random drug urinalysis tests and had attended weekly drug counseling, she was allowed to live in a dormitory. But as usual, my sister had us all fooled.
As my sister says, “College was the most expensive four-year hangover.” She experimented with more drugs, engaged in more drinking and managed to get herself arrested.
My relationship with my sister only worsened during her post-college days. “I hate you” became a common phrase between the two of us, and we couldn’t be in the same room without a physical altercation.
A year later, my sister sought help by attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. One night, she asked if we could speak for a few minutes, and I reluctantly agreed. She spoke about her meetings and her struggles with drugs and alcohol throughout the years, and finally, she apologized for not being the big sister that I needed her to be. Since this was part of her 12 steps toward recovery in AA, I doubted her genuineness — but regardless, I accepted her apology.
With my sister finally sober, I thought I might begin to tolerate time spent with her, but I was wrong. Her moods were mercurial, and this exacerbated my own anxiety. I never knew what to expect. A simple knock on her door could result in a happy welcoming or an aggravated retort.
I continued to loathe my own sister and refused to make amends, as I erroneously believed that her substance abuse was a choice.
After studying psychology in college, I began to sympathize with my sister. I realized that the addict was always in her because of our family’s genes, but this knowledge didn’t make our relationship any easier.
Because of her history, my sister tends to be overprotective when it comes to my drinking. When I was above legal drinking age and living with my sister, she would try to lecture me about drinking, which always resulted in angry disputes. As I was heading to a bar one night to meet a friend for a drink, she threatened to call the cops with my license plate number because I was about to “drink and drive.”
Inevitably, harsh words were exchanged as my old feelings of hatred and resentment were evoked. I felt the need to remind her that unlike her, I could drink responsibly. I fervently exclaimed, “I hate you! You’re not my sister — You’re my enemy!” and slammed the door.
Now that I live on my own, my relationship with my sister has improved. Spending most of our time apart has allowed our relationship to mend. We separately work on our issues through counseling, and we find time to share our honest feelings with each other, particularly about the past. All we really needed was time and space to forgive and understand each other.
Throughout the years, my sister has divulged her secret life of drugs and alcohol and has been genuinely contrite for the way this all affected me. By hearing her struggles, I was able to cope with the past and work toward building a rapport with her. I even accompanied her to an open AA meeting, and my parents and I have supported her at the annual AA sobriety ceremonies.
Rebuilding my relationship with my sister certainly wasn’t easy, but when it comes to rebuilding relationships with recovering addicts, David Sheff, author of Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, offers some of the best advice:
“Do whatever it takes—therapy, Al-Anon…be patient with yourself. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Be easy on yourself and extra loving toward [the recovering addict]. Do not keep secrets…openness is a relief…and it helps to write.”
It’s not easy to forgive, and it’s impossible to forget, but I’ve learned that time and distance can help to heal the wounds. As more time passes, I’m finding it easier to love and forgive my sister.