A Letter to My Sister

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By Betsy Querna Cliff

I remember when you told us. “I think I’m an alcoholic,” your email said. You were in college, studying abroad and scared. I was thousands of miles from you, in graduate school. I had, that night, been working in the school’s computer lab, only a few weeks away from earning a master’s degree and enamored with a new boyfriend, new job and new life. With that email, I wondered if it was all about to come crashing down.

What Do We Do?

I called Dad. “What do we do?” I asked.
“Get her home as quickly as we can.”
Next came a tense summer, with counseling appointments, tears, and people wondering where you were. Then there was treatment, more counseling and treatment center family week, where we were kept away from you often, regulated and told how to have a relationship with you.

I went back home, across the country, crushed. You seemed so broken, so fragile. Our family relationships had splintered, the emotional house where we grew up burned to the ground.
I wondered what was to become of us as siblings. I knew that our connection at that time was tenuous, had grown very tenuous over the past couple of years. But, I already missed you and I wondered if I would ever really feel like I had a sister again.

I have a sister who is an alcoholic. I’m proud of her.

That was more than 10 years ago. Today, I do know the answer to those questions. I have a sister whom I love. Yes, she is addicted to alcohol. That is a part of her. The bigger part of her, though it went into hiding at times, is still the same warm, funny and wonderful person I grew up with and with whom I have so many memories.

Rebuilding Relationships

The journey from then to now has not been easy. I remember anger from both sides–from you at the way I handled your addiction or overlooked it. And, from me, when you lied. I think we were both scared. We both know the statistics on alcoholics. Watching you live some of them has been heartbreaking and thinking about what might be is terrifying.

Yet, I’ve also come, fairly quickly, to be in awe of what you do each day. In an essay on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s overdose death, the late journalist David Carr noted that Seymour Hoffman didn’t lose to drug addiction. He got in the ring and fought against that demon every day. Every single day. And, one day, the addiction beat him. Just one day. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to have that fight every day. The amount of will and courage and self-containment it takes blows me away.

The author and her sister
Our family has had to build up our emotional house again. It is still built on love, accomplishments and milestones, and we’ve added empathy and forgiveness. I love that I have a sister who knows what it means to fight for herself. My kids have an aunt to look up to, someone who understands the importance of helping the vulnerable and the deep meaning of daily accomplishments. I have a sister who is an alcoholic. I’m proud of her.

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