My youngest sister is a drug addict. She’s several years younger than I am and I spent a significant number of years practically raising her.
When I was eighteen I moved to Hawaii to escape the grief of an ended love affair. I have never forgotten my little sister’s howls of pain at the airport as I boarded the plane. I know now I left her when she needed me most.
Over thirty years later I see this small shell of a once beautiful woman who mutters to herself, sits drugged in a chair rocking, lost in her drug induced world.
She has a teenaged daughter and a grandson as well as a precious eight year old boy. They’ve all watched her at every ugly stage of her addiction.
To add to this, our father is an alcoholic, mother is a penniless gambler living off another sister, and my addicted sister’s husband is abusive both physically and verbally. As I write this I feel certain it all sounds unbelievable. The gallows humor part of me hums the old Hee Haw variety show song, “if it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all, gloom, despair, and agony on me.” Sorry, but this is too bizarre even for me.
I have another brother and sister and after a bleak series of events over the holiday, we did a sibling, family intervention. It was hard, heart-breaking, and cut me to the depths. At one point I was sitting in a rocking chair and my tiny sister climbed into my lap and curled up like an infant.
As I rocked I wept, wondering how to help her. I live out of state and my siblings and I are desperately searching for a rehab center. None of us has any money of significance and although we have some clues, it’s hard to know where to turn.
I know you can’t cure my sister and I don’t expect a miracle. But can you help me make any sense of this? What are the spiritual lessons I need to learn? I feel fundamentally guilty, as if I failed my precious sister in some way. What is the purpose of this suffering? I’m angry at my parents even as I know they did the best they could.
In many ways I feel the most to blame.
Signed, Oldest Sister
Let me pause here for a moment and sit in honor of your pain which you’ve a right to feel. Your story is so tender and poignant. If only it was unusual but while you might feel solitary in your suffering, there are many families and individuals dealing with various forms of addictions. And having more than one type of an addiction in a family dynamic is quite common as each member tries to find their own form of escape from what is painful.
You might not easily know this because at the heart of all addictions is the persistent pulse and rhythm of secrecy. Not the least of which is secrecy from self. We’re taught to keep everything hidden from others so in one form or another, we’re all in hiding. What we’re really hiding from is fear.
Yes, I’ve come to believe that fear is at the heart of every known behavioral malady attributed to humankind. Whenever there is unkindness, whenever there is cruelty or avarice, whenever there is judgment or behavior of the worst kind, fear lurks only a breath away.
Yet let us not make healthy fear the nemesis it isn’t meant to be. Consider the humble field mouse. When he pokes his head out of his burrow, he’s not looking for the natural grasses, the clear blue sky, the normal chirp and flutter of birds. No, he’s looking for what is dissonant, what doesn’t fit.
His fear and his innate desire for survival keep him in familiar territory and makes him instantly aware of the rush of hawk wings or the trot and dash of a darting fox. Fear is that small mouse’s early warning detection system and it keeps him alive.
So let’s not demonize fear. However, there’s a difference between healthy caution and immobilizing terror.
Why am I bringing up fear? Because whenever we cannot sit unaided in the present moment, it’s due to fear, a fear of feeling pain. Like that scampering mouse scurrying from the jaws of the predator, we run frantically from discomfort and we have myriad ways of doing so.
We over-work or over-play. We buy bigger and better cars, larger and more elaborate houses. We change simple cell phones to technological masterpieces that allow us to turn every moment into a game or app, to turn our minds away from the moment we’re in.
There’s shopping, drinking, drugging and gambling, sexual behaviors that move into the obsessive and damaging, and every compulsive behavior in between. We can take our prescription pills to ease the anxiety and others to keep us alert and motivated. In essence, we can do everything but learn a healthy way to exist with the inevitable chance and uncertainty of daily life.
Sister, like every child of addictive parents you and your siblings learned various tools to survive. I often say that we’re each given a basic tool box at birth. Then we gather additional tools through our upbringing. Later we accrue a few more on our own through trial and error.
These tools are the ways we deal with the stresses and challenges of life. And much as they might have helped at one time, they may now stand in the way of health and joy. When our tool box has been cobbled together through dysfunction, it will eventually meet up with a task it just can’t handle, a pain that can’t be avoided. Addiction then gets added to the arsenal of outmoded tools.
You’ve asked the meaning of this suffering, what lesson you’re meant to learn. First of all, while I do believe in a meaning with a capital M, I also believe in the great Mystery of Life and as such I am not always certain we’ll know the truest reasons until we’re in the company of Spirit. So we find the meanings we can, we glean from every experience the wisdom that can help us live meaningful, loving, and yes, joyful, lives. With that in mind, Sister, I’m brought to think of your compassion.
For many, suffering cracks the granite surface of an unmarred, hardened heart. Just as a seed cannot penetrate a field whose surface is untilled, so love finds a slim foothold in a heart that hasn’t been opened by the suffering of self and others. When you were a willing lap for your sister to climb into, you offered a safe haven of love and acceptance.
Make sure and provide that same compassion and love for yourself, Sister. You are filled with shame and guilt and pain over things you cannot change. In feeling this way you ignore the fact that perhaps your choices were exactly as they were meant to be for the spiritual growth of all concerned. None of us are truly privy to another’s soul blueprint and as painful as your sister’s addiction is, it may be that it serves her soul’s evolution in ways we cannot see.
Identify the emotions you feel, understanding that you have a right to every one that arises in your being. It’s easy to acknowledge the generosity we exhibit when we give to a charity, it’s much harder to look at the jealousy in our heart at the good fortune of another, or the anger over being cut off in traffic.
Yet there isn’t a wrong emotion to have, there’s just the fact of its existence in that moment of time. So honor your generosity. Honor your jealousy. Give honor to your anger. Say, “Ah, I see that I am jealous of so-and-so’s good fortune.” Understand that identifying an emotion is not the same as acting upon it. You merely notice its appearance and then give yourself the compassion of realizing it is yours for now, and for whatever reason.
After you identify and honor the emotion, then you integrate it. For many, this takes the shape of finding meaning in whatever it is that has happened and the emotions it has engendered. Some individuals find meaning in life-threatening illnesses by using their new appreciation for life to open them to greater sources of love and abundance. Others will find seeking meaning to be difficult if not impossible. Neither avenue is wrong or right.
Integration is the process of pulling the experience into the context of your life. You are not your sister’s drug addiction, Older Sister, or your father’s alcoholism, or your mother’s gambling addiction. Yet those elements of your life shape you in some way, creating in you the gallows humor you spoke of, the ability to be present in a supportive way during the intervention, the love that keeps you hopeful and searching for additional help for your sister.
The last step is transcending. You move forward touched and shaped by the wisdom and compassion of what you have experienced. You are not your suffering, or your sister’s addiction, but they have irrevocably been a part of the person you are, the older sister who holds her beloved younger sister and does so with tears in her eyes, and a willingness to be present even in the pain.
Many blessings, Asrianna