When Your Sibling Is an Addict
What to do when your sibling is a drug or alcohol addict
When someone is an addict, the focus is often on them—and rightly so, to some extent. For those who understand the havoc addiction can wreak within a family, attention is also on the parents who are struggling to help their child or adult child. All too often, however, the siblings of the addict are overlooked casualties of this vicious disease.
Siblings are often left to watch from the sidelines as their brother or sister becomes barely recognizable, and as their parents become more and more distraught, but it is vitally important to recognize that siblings are victims too, and in some ways feel even more powerless in the face of addiction than other family members.
What You May Be Feeling
How you feel about your addict sibling and the addiction issue depends on your age, your own life experiences, your closeness with your sibling, and your relationship with the rest of your family, but in general, siblings of addicts often experience the following emotions:
An Urge to Rescue Your Sibling – You love your brother or sister, and you want to do all you can to save him or her. At various points, you’re willing to put your own life on hold in order to do whatever it takes to get help for your sibling addict.
Because, especially when the addiction is newly uncovered, it dominates everything else in the family; it’s the sole topic of conversation and suddenly your own news, your own achievements, your own problems just don’t seem to have a place any longer in the family dynamics. Your sibling takes up all of your parents’ time and you feel that you’re losing your parents as well as your brother or sister.
Addicts generally don’t treat their parents very well while they are in the grip of the disease. As the addiction progresses, you will feel angry that your sibling is taking advantage of your parents, especially financially, and you will feel angry that their health is on the line too, given the amount of worry and anxiety addiction can cause.
These three feelings don’t come in a predictable cycle, and are often all mixed up together for extended periods of time. No matter how you personally experience it, it’s both normal and natural. It’s perfectly understandable to feel furious with your sibling one day and then protective the next. Don’t beat yourself up about your feelings—the first step to dealing with a sibling addict is to allow yourself to feel whatever you feel.
Tips for Dealing with an Addicted Sibling
1. Learn to set boundaries.
Your sibling is ill, but that doesn’t mean that he or she can behave towards you (and your partner/kids if you have them) in ways that distress or potentially harm you. It’s sane and sensible to set rules like no drug use in your house if your sibling visits you.
2. Settle in for the long haul.
Addiction can be a very long struggle, even if your sibling is getting help. Don’t expect things to change overnight, but always be willing and ready to recognize and celebrate small steps towards recovery.
3. Don’t judge your parents.
It’s not their fault that your sibling is addicted, and it’s not their fault that they are consumed with trying to handle the situation. They are doing the best they can, and now more than ever they need your understanding and support.
4. Do maintain your own relationship with your parents.
Ensure that you make time to see your parents without your addict sibling present, and try to enjoy quality time with them. Make it clear that on these occasions you don’t want to discuss the addiction issue; it’s your joint time together away from that problem.
5. Don’t enable your sibling.
It’s important for everyone in the addict’s family to understand that giving money, however lovingly and for whatever ostensible purpose, is merely helping the addict feed their addiction. Likewise, giving food may just mean that your sibling has more money to spend on their problem. Refuse to cover for them, or to provide excuses for their addicted behavior. Offer love and support, but choose your practical assistance carefully.
6. Always be ready to offer real help.
By real help, we mean help in taking practical steps to deal with their addiction—for example, driving them to meetings or rehab, or taking care of their children while they are there.
It’s never easy to watch a sibling going through the pain of addiction, and it’s never easy for the family as a whole. However, these simple steps will help to make the experience less painful for you, which will in turn help the overall family dynamics too.