Chemical dependency breaks a parents heart but the heart of the sibling of an addict breaks too. It is not uncommon in families that siblings will experiment with drugs and alcohol together. There can be a lot of guilt associated with this scenario when one sibling decides it’s time to stop but the other cannot. When a sibling spirals out of control, and a brother or sister is left behind to pick up the pieces they experience a tremendous wounding plus survivor’s guilt at being the one who survived the trauma of addiction.
The wounding of a sibling can take different forms: some are filled with an intense anger and resentment, not understanding that addiction is a disease. Taylor, the sister of an active chemical dependent had a hard time understanding why her brother was stealing from her: “He’s my brother, why can’t he just ask for something instead of stealing it? And why is he being so secretive? Why is everything at home about him and all his mess?” There is also a shame and embarrassment unique to youth, a wanting to hide out, not let anyone know this is their sister or brother for fear they will be judged and talked about.
Then there is survivor’s guilt that carries a myriad of symptoms with it as well. Siblings can experience anxiety, nightmares, depression, social withdrawal, physical complaints and mood swings. “I experimented with drugs and alcohol…a lot…and we partied together,” Taylor confides. “But now I’m older and I don’t want to wake up fuzzy any longer.” She wonders why he can’t stop using, like her? Taylor has nightmares on a regular basis. “My brother comes to me in my dreams and asks me for drugs and alcohol. Even though I don’t give them to him, somehow he gets his hands on some and relapses in front of me. I feel an intense sense of responsibility and anxiety, like it’s my fault and I wake up with this same feeling and I can’t shake it for days.”
Taylor describes frustration and deep resentment with a personality change she cannot come to grips with in her chemical abusing brother. “What hurts so much is how quickly his personality changes for the worse and how mean he behaves towards my family and me. I remember the sweet, little brother who used to crawl into bed with me because he was afraid of a thunderstorm. I have never put up with anyone talking shit about him, I always backed him up, and I am concerned for him. But he doesn’t think of anyone beside himself and when I call him out on it, he tells me it’s all in my head. He ruins every family gathering and I can’t stand watching him be so mean to my parents.”
There are a myriad of studies done on siblings who engage in chemical dependency together, many cite divorce and other forms of family instability. This may be true, however as addiction is a family disease, there are many siblings who simply started using together because it was the natural next-step in life as a teenager. There can be any number of reasons but those don’t help take away the pain and heartache that one sibling feels when their brother or sister has gone too far and is in danger of never coming back.