Lorri A. Irrgang, CPRS

“You are talking about him again? That is all you talk about. I wish you would talk about something else.”

These are the words that finally got my attention. My daughter had heard enough and she started to voice her opinion. As hard as it was to hear, I started to pay attention to how much I was speaking about her brother in front of her. I started to pay attention to how she was reacting to what was going on in our home. I was consumed with fear for months. I spent hours scheming how to fix her brother. I had no idea the extent to which I, too, had become sick- sick in a way that every action and thought was about my son.

Brothers and sisters have a unique relationship. Sibling bonds are innate. Older siblings are role models for younger siblings. Younger siblings rely on older siblings for protection and safety. Siblings often share problems with each other before they share with their parents.

Siblings are intuitive and know when something is up with their brother or sister. My daughter came in the house one day whispering, “Something is wrong with Gannon. He was falling asleep while he was driving. I had to keep saying his name.” Makenzie had that “uh-oh” feeling which drew my attention to his behaviors.

Sibling bonds are deep-rooted and hard-wired in our children. They cannot help but get sucked into the vacuum of chaos as they worry. They are vulnerable, opening them up to manipulation by their brother or sister. They are often asked to keep secrets. Telling lies to help protect their sibling is normal, and providing urine for a drug test is not an uncommon request. They do not understand the possible consequences of what they do to help their brother or sister.

The once playful, fun relationship becomes distant and one-sided. The sober siblings will grasp onto any attention or time they can steal with their brother or sister. They see the changes and feel the loss, but they do not understand why. Sadly, their sibling does not want to be bothered and does not want to be a part of family events. They definitely do not want anyone going in and out of their bedroom as this has become their sanctuary — a place to isolate and use.

My daughter spent much of her childhood watching her brother play sports. She too played sports and thought her brother would come to watch her play. She asked many times, but he always had a reason not to attend. She vividly remembers the one and only game that her brother attended. He was so high that she was mortified. Her resentments skyrocketed that day. The pain in her face was unbearable for a mother to see.

As caregivers, we cannot forget the healthy children in our family. We need to provide for their basic needs and be emotionally present. Our healthy children can become sick and their emotional needs overlooked. They, too, are hurting just like us. They will lose sleep and become obsessed with worry about their brother or sister. Grades may drop. They may act out to seek attention. They may become overachievers in hopes to receive recognition.

Parents become hyper-focused on the child that is using, resulting in our healthy children feeling lost and invisible. Parents do not intentionally move their healthy children to the back burner. We are human beings, far from perfect, and we do the best we can at the time. Putting effort into ensuring the security of my daughter’s emotional state meant asking how she was feeling, talking to her about her school day, and going on mother-daughter dates of her choice. I stopped talking about her brother while she was around. Most importantly, I started to listen more and react less. I did not always understand her feelings, but I worked to respect them.

As parents and caregivers, we can only move forward and make changes based on what we learn. My daughter needed to take care of herself and learned to set boundaries with her brother, just as I did. It was clear that my daughter had valid rights that needed to be addressed. The Sober Siblings Bill of Rights may include, but is not limited to, the following:

  1. The right to be “me” — I do not want to be compared to my sibling. I do not want to be embarrassed by my sibling. I am not my sibling.
  2. The right to be as equally important to my parents/caregiver —I want my parents to love and care about me as much as my sibling. I don’t want to suffer because of the fallout of my sibling’s addiction.
  3. The right to feel safe — I want to feel safe in my own house.
    I don’t want my belongings stolen. I don’t want my sibling to pressure me into drinking or using drugs with them. I don’t want to hear yelling between my parents and my sibling. I don’t want to be driven anywhere if/when my sibling is using.
  4. The right to live without violations of trust — I want people around me to be honest. I don’t want pressure from my sibling to tell lies. I don’t want my sibling asking me for money or to take blame for something they did.
  5. The right to share my feelings and have my voice heard — I can love and hate my sibling and miss them all at the same time.
    I can mourn the person my sibling was before drugs and, or, alcohol. I can be angry at my parents for the time and money they’ve spent on my sibling. I can resent that they are too strict with me because of my sibling’s substance use illness.
  6. The right to celebrate my successes — I want someone to notice the good things that I am doing. I want someone to compliment my good grades, feel excited when my team wins and notice when I’ve cleaned my room or gotten a haircut.
  7. The right to share my experiences and have a supportive community around me — I do not want to keep the family secret. I need to talk about my sibling with a counselor, a friend or a pastor. I no longer want to feel shame, guilt or loneliness.