My sister can’t stop drinking and I feel so powerless
Another family member says I am enabling her, but she’s alone and needs me
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Q I feel absolutely powerless to reach my younger sister and no one else in the family is willing or able to help because they’re tired of dealing with her. My older sister thinks our little sister has to reach rock bottom and ask for help before we can act. I worry that she will die first.
I check on her every day by phone. When I was unable to reach her a few days ago, I went to her flat and banged on the door until she let me in. Her place was filled with empty cans and bottles, she stank of drink and there were bags of takeaways on the floor, mostly uneaten. I asked her when she had last been to work and she wouldn’t say. It was hard to get any sense out of her. I cleaned up, recharged her phone, made tea and tried to persuade her to stay with me for a few days to dry out, but she wouldn’t.
I don’t know what has brought this latest binge on. In the past, she has promised not to drink any more, and managed to stick to it. When I left her, she said she would answer my texts as long as I didn’t tell our elderly parents. She ignored my texts, so after telling myself that I should just leave it, I had a sleepless night, then returned next morning to check on her and she seemed to be hung over. My older sister says that I am enabling her, but she’s alone and needs me.
A You feel alone too, and you also need support, but you are doing the right thing by showing your sister that you care and keeping communication open. Your older sister is misinformed if she thinks ignoring the problem will make it go away by forcing your drinking sister into some sort of mythical “rock bottom” where insight will be granted.
“In my opinion, ‘rock bottom’ is a societal perception that defines nothing, as everyone’s ‘rock bottom’ is totally different,” says Imelda McHugh, a member of the addiction team at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin. “So if no two people can identify a parallel definition, why would ‘rock bottom’ simply be a reason to ask for help?
“Loved ones living with a drinker know more about their drinking patterns and what they think, feel and do than the drinker themselves. After all, it is the family and concerned others who look on with sober eyes.”
Feeling “absolutely powerless” is something that McHugh has heard “many, many times from loved ones living with a drinker”. You don’t know what brought this binge on – probably nothing. “Drinkers really don’t need a reason – they need drink and the feelings it brings.”
It’s a major positive that you are concerned for your sister’s welfare. “Drink can be a symptom of several other issues; therefore it’s really good what you are doing,” says McHugh.
Some people may say you’re enabling, but McHugh doesn’t think so. “The drinker is going to drink anyway, but what the family member is doing is caring for her loved one like she would for someone who has a physical problem and is unable to look after themselves. The family is not buying or giving her sister alcohol – that, in my opinion, is enabling.”
The state of the flat shocked you, but viewed another way the bottles and takeaways mean that at least your sister is accessing the outside world, McHugh suggests. “No one can drink for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So that small window of opportunity [when your sister is sober] could be the time to use to talk with her.”
Drinkers do feel remorse, shame and guilt in their sporadic periods of reality, which is indicated by your sister’s request that you not tell your elderly parents.
This is a good time to “engage with your loved one, to tell them they are loved and to offer help in accessing assistance”, says McHugh.
“Your sister’s promise not to drink any more was probably well-intentioned when she said it, and if she knew how to change it, my guarantee would be that she would live a different way, making better, healthier choices,” says McHugh.
Call St Patrick’s addiction helpline (which is staffed Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm) on 01-2493333, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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