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[ Opinion ] [ Personal Narratives ]

Addiction and the Siblings Left Behind

[THERAPY UNSCRIPTED – A WEEKLY COLUMN]

Meet Emma.

Fourteen, blonde, and her favorite thing in the world is cheerleading. She’s already on the varsity team, a tremendous feat for a high school freshman.

She comes to therapy in the evenings after practice, and she usually shows up in uniform, cheeks flushed red from the workout, hair tied up with color-coordinated ribbons.

She is a daughter and an honor roll student and one lucky freshman boy’s first girlfriend. She aspires to be a lawyer- because arguing is fun and I also think I could really help people– and dreams of cheering for a college football team one day. She has two dogs, both rescue labs, and she really wants to visit Italy and ride in a gondola.

She is also the sister of a heroin addict.

Meet Dylan.

Twenty, homeless, addict. He’s been in and out of jail and rehab; no matter how hard he seemingly tries, he cannot stay sober.

At fourteen, instead of cheerleading, Dylan tries painkillers and alcohol. The experimentation progresses to IV heroin faster than any optimistic adult can claim it’s just a phase, and he quickly deteriorates into the black sheep of a high-achieving family. By twenty, he is the fallen hero, the son who chose needles over university.

This is not a story directly about Dylan. I don’t even know him. This is a story about the unspoken victims, about the siblings that addiction infiltrates. This is a story about what it feels to be on the outskirts of attention, about what it’s like to watch a family unravel from the helpless sidelines.

On the surface, Emma presents as positive and upbeat. She enjoys school, even though algebra is tricky, and her friends, even though some of them cause too much drama, and the excitement of her first romantic relationship, even though she’s not sure if she really like likes him. The outside world provides her refuge; it is a canvas where she can maintain a sense of adolescent normalcy.

At home, it is entirely a different story. At home, everything is in shambles. On a given day, she does not know what mood anyone will be in. For years, she has watched her parents fight tirelessly over Dylan. She has watched them lose their own identities for the sake of his addiction. She listens to her mother cry in the bedroom; she watches her father drink beer in front of the television. Though they try to hide it, she knows they sleep in separate rooms.

By fourteen, Emma knows what overdose means. Dylan has outlived four of them.

The first time he overdosed, he was in the hospital for a few days. I was really sad and scared. But, this last time, I secretly prayed he would die. I know it sounds bad, but like, I couldn’t help thinking it. Maybe my parents could finally have some peace…I don’t know?

Emma meets with me because the family therapist she sees with her own parents recommended it. That therapist recognizes that Emma needs her own space and support in navigating her dual role as an emerging adolescent and daughter in this family.

She spends our time expressing what she cannot safely express at home. She channels into the layers of anger she knows will upset her parents. She shares about when her brother showed up at the house, backpack hanging off his shoulder, with sunken eyes and torn clothing and smelling like cigarette smoke. She tells me how he looked so uncomfortable, how he attempted to awkwardly greet her with half a hug.

I don’t even think he knows what grade I’m in. He’s like a stranger to me.

Emma describes how mother fidgeted around the house and pretended nothing was wrong, how she treated Dylan like he was still her perfect son. She describes how her brother and father argued relentlessly into the night. She describes how her brother disappeared the next day.

My mom just locked herself in the bedroom and cried. My dad drank a bunch. You know, same old, same old.

When I ask her if this ever makes her cry, she says he’s not worth crying over.

She tells me she hates heroin, but she thinks she hates her own brother even more.

He’s a liar. I don’t know why my parents can’t just understand that. He’s a stupid drug addict.

Emma prefers to stay with friends. She likes their families because they seem “so normal” and she can just focus on “normal teenage stuff” like  boys, makeup, and music. She loves when cheerleading practice run “late,” even though her teammates complain. Anything to escape being home, anything to alleviate the toxic energy she feels the moment she steps into her own living room.

Sometimes, she goes to Al-Anon and Alateen meetings at her parents’ insistence, but, honestly they’re kind of depressing and annoying. Everyone’s just complaining or crying, and it gets repetitive. She’s tired of talking about drugs and her feelings about drugs.

Emma lives through the encompassing and insidious beast of addiction. She watches as it nonsensically and mercilessly destroys her family. It exists as nobody’s fault, but everybody’s problem. She is a statistic, just as her brother is.

She clings onto the family vacations she went on as a child. She clings onto the faded photo of her and her brother, roasting marshmallows over the campfire, before heroin tore them apart. 

I don’t ever want to talk to him again….I know that sounds bad. 

Emma needs just as much support and compassion and empathy, though she is statistically less likely to receive it. She needs the respect and choice to determine what kind of relationship she wants to have with her brother. She needs to have the encouragement to live her own life.

This isn’t a story about Dylan’s addiction, relapse, or recovery. This isn’t about parenting because her parents do the best they can with the resources they have.

This is just about a young girl, the occasionally forgotten child, the talented teenager who loves cheerleading and astrology and loud music. This is about the chronicles of her own recovery and her own need for individual health, boundaries, and the inherent need for respect and autonomy.

Five years pass.

Meet Emma.

Nineteen, blonde, and last I heard was still cheerleading out-of-state on a full-ride scholarship.



*While these are based on true experiences, all reasonable efforts have been made by this writer to protect utmost client and treatment confidentiality. Because of this, names, ages, features, and identifying details in this piece have been changed, omitted, and/or embellished.

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