Addiction is becoming a talked-about subject, as addictive painkillers and heroin continue to increase in popularity across the country. It's easy to talk about the signs and symptoms of addiction, withdrawal, crime, abusive relationships, depression, etc. It's easy to report numbers and look at charts reporting addiction statistics. We'll hear success stories, and sometimes, a brave and honest individual will share a personal story that sheds light on the issue.
But how often do we read something and walk away truly understanding the addicted individual and their behavior? There aren't resources to mentally comprehend it, unless you've been addicted to a substance yourself. It takes a lot of thought, compassion and patience to get to the root of why people hurt others the way they do when they're addicted.
So how do family and friends cope with the highs and lows of an addicted presence in their life, especially when they can't understand it? How do they take their hurt and betrayal and transform it into the necessary support and love the individual needs? Whose pain is the worst: the addict's or the supporters'?
It's a constant emotional roller coaster that's difficult to read about, because there are tons of repetitive low points and barely any high points. The addict feels extreme pain. Family and friends feel extreme pain. Soon everyone becomes selfish and thinks their pain is the worst.
It's a destructive cycle that's almost impossible to describe, but Carly and I wanted to try. If it helps one person out there, great. If anything, hopefully it will give an honest portrait of the destructive path addiction creates for every person involved and the best -- and worst -- ways we dealt with it.
Note: This isn't meant to point blame or judgement. We love our sister and friend who dealt with drug addiction -- this is simply an outlet for us to share our experiences. Every part of our stories has impacted more people than the ones we wrote about, and everyone's feelings are equally as important when it comes to the damage caused by addiction. We don't have answers to who's "right" or "wrong." To keep up with this idea, we've excluded her name and tried to avoid specific personal details.
Like a lot of people, Carly and I grew up together. She's 18 and the little sister I never had. I've watched her jump into a pool fully-clothed after trying to save the digital camera she dropped. I've helped her try to get her Beanie Baby off the neighbor's roof when she was 5. I've cheered for her and watched her kick ass at her gymnastics meets. I laughed at her when we got lost in the woods and she peed herself, only because she refused to go behind a tree. She's strong-willed and hilarious. Even though I know almost everything about her, she recently started college and it's exciting to watch her find herself and change over time.
One thing that has brought us closer over the last year is writing, which is what motivated us to collaborate on this post. I've been writing stories and poems and keeping journals since I was in elementary school, but it took Carly longer to be introduced to reading and writing. When she finally realized she loved it a few years ago, I was ecstatic to mentor her and help her find the best career path.
Her sister is also my lifelong best friend. When Carly and I started collaborating, her sister was addicted to heroin. Carly and I were both experiencing a lot of anger, hurt, and highs and lows. Writing poems and expressing our feelings through writing was what helped us support each other and make sense of it all.
Our story isn't anything special. For us, sharing our experiences and emotions together has not only brought us closer but has fueled some of our best writing. We wanted to try writing together and sharing our story with anyone who feels compelled to read it.
Carly: The bond between two sisters is known to be the strongest one possible. Growing up, my sister and I were as close as two sisters could possibly be. I looked up to her for guidance and occasionally copied exactly what she did.
The three-year gap had no effect on us in our younger years. We were consumed with some of the classic 90s activities like playing with Bratz dolls, watching each other make a zoo on the “Zoo Tycoon” computer game, and creating choreography for shows that we performed for our parents. We also loved to be imaginary horses, which involved jumping over handmade obstacles and gracefully frolicking around the basement. We always came up with the most creative ways to have fun and there never seemed to be a dull moment.
Our personalities have always seemed to have their similarities and differences. I always felt the need to be right and I wasn’t afraid to state my opinion. But even with my bold personality, I was looked at as more of a follower. My sister, on the other hand, had never been afraid to bend the rules and believed so strongly in herself. She knew all the ways to get on my nerves: laughing during an argument, ignoring me while I was making my point, etc. Our personalities caused us to fight a lot, but we always found a way to work it out and laugh about it in the near future.
Emily: Like a lot of families, my parents are close with two other couples. Growing up, we spent so much time together. Between campgrounds, forests, beaches, lakes, sleepovers, amusement parks, the basements of each other's houses and tree houses, we have a story and memory for almost everything. There were always fights and tears, but there was also constant fierce laughter, the sound of running feet and scooters, and whispering as we tried to stay up all night: it was the sound of a perfect childhood.
It's these types of lifelong family friendships that set the bar for what friendship is. As my earliest friends, they taught me how to be a friend and commit to maintaining bonds throughout any life change. In particular, Carly's older sister was one of our family friends closest to my age. She was 2 years younger than me, but we wanted to do everything together. We went from playing in sandboxes and running around in diapers to putting makeup on each other, going shopping, taking way too many pictures when the digital camera trend came around, and eventually trying to go on double dates, drinking alcohol, finding jobs, etc.
We couldn't have been more different. I was a naive bookworm with an independent spirit and creative streak. I came up with ideas and made sure they happened. She was more rebellious and didn't worry about rules -- it was easy for her to go with the flow with a fierce confidence. She had the biggest heart for animals, and loved rap music and scary movies. Our differences and age gap could have easily made us drift apart sooner, but we both fed off each other. We were bold, unafraid to say what we wanted, and could make any situation interesting. We were lively and anything but dull. She may be Carly's blood sister, but she was mine, too.
Carly: It was my senior year but I’m not sure anybody even remembered. Everything revolved around my sister. I couldn’t have friends over if she was home. She had no clue I got accepted to college. I wondered if she would even be proud of me. She continuously betrayed me and my family. I didn't want to hear her name. I kept wishing I could stop caring what she thought, but that never seemed to happen.
You could say this all started when my sister met a guy. He was quite the charmer in the beginning of their relationship, but behind closed doors he was abusive -- both physically and emotionally. I watched him break her heart countless times and it was obvious that he had officially taken over my sister’s life.
They were on and off for as long as I can remember. She would call my mom crying to come pick her up from his house and my mom always would. I could hear the faint whimpers of my sister in her room. Occasionally, I would walk in to try and help, but she would shoo me away as soon as the door creaked open.
I tried to tell her what she should do, but she never listened. I tried everything from completely ignoring her to pouring all my feelings out. I slowly started to hide my feelings and distance myself from the situation as much as I could.
I gave up completely when I noticed I was being stolen from. My sister started stealing coins and dollars from me and my family. The stealing continued and I added up the amount she should have owed me -- I was never paid back. After a weekend away, we noticed she had come to the house and stolen my parents’ valuable jewelry and sold it all for money.
My parents kicked out my sister for a short time after she continued to steal from us. But when they eventually allowed her back at the house, I rarely had encounters with her. She was still rarely home and if she was, she locked herself in the bedroom.
When their rocky four-year relationship finally came to an end, her self esteem was nonexistent. We thought she would be able to pick up where she left off now that he wasn’t a constant in her life. Unfortunately, we would only see my sister once every two to three weeks unless she wanted a ride to or from work.
One afternoon I came home from school and my mom wanted to talk. I can see the look she had on her face to this day, twisted with fear, worry and sadness. It was an expression I had never seen before. She told me that my sister had started to do drugs. I already knew this, but it turned out to be more serious than the previous time. My sister had started to do heroin.
I didn’t show my mom any reaction right away. I simply sat on the couch, said okay, and walked myself to my bedroom. When I got to my room, I closed the door, sank to floor, and sobbed until my eyes ran dry. I looked at my sister’s ex-boyfriend and her drug addiction the same way: I had to always remind myself not to believe her when she said she was done with him/it.
I could see that my sister’s actions were taking a huge toll on my parents. Their feelings were all over the place from extreme anger to overwhelming sadness to paranoia, desperation, humiliation and everything in between. They became stricter with me because there was no way they could go through what they were with my sister again. There was constant fighting between them and my sister, especially when they tried to give advice.
The whole situation made me furious. I didn’t understand how she could continue to do something that was harming her and our family. I started using anger to cover up how I was feeling. It was easier. But on the inside, my heart was breaking because I knew I was losing my sister. I felt betrayed, hurt, confused, and so lost. I didn’t even know who my sister, or role model, was anymore.
There was a regular cycle. She would call and tell me she was clean, and I knew never to believe it. The trust had been shattered years ago. She would carelessly crawl back to something that had been tearing her life apart since the day she started it, and I couldn’t understand it. But I endlessly tried to understand her thinking, so I could at least attempt to help.
The way I had looked at my sister when we were younger took a complete 180. I looked at her actions and focused on what I should stay away from. I prayed that one day I could look up to her again, but there came a point when I realized there wasn’t anything I could do to help her. I gave up.
Emily: As strong as I thought my bond was with Carly’s sister, about 5 years ago our friendship started to disintegrate. It faded slowly and was the type of thing I tried to tell myself wasn't happening, but it was.
While I was away at college, she started dating a guy that treated her and her family terribly. He started out just being controlling -- needing to be with her 24/7 and getting upset when she was with someone else. I remember seeing her for the first time in months and she was fighting with him on the phone for hours, going around in circles and eventually taking responsibility for something she did "wrong." She gave him money, bought him cars, supported him when he went to jail, and let him physically and emotionally abuse her.
As her best friend, what was I supposed to do? I went through cycles. I tried to support her at first, then I tried being brutally honest and telling her the hard truth. When that didn't work, I tried slipping in annoying motherly advice, or nonchalantly told her to "do what you think is best." Nothing worked, and I watched her disappear, lose her confidence and lose herself. And that meant our friendship did the same thing.
She never called or texted me to ask how I was doing. I couldn't go to her for advice, because she knew nothing about my life. It became so exhausting and emotional worrying about her, especially when it felt like she had abandoned me. I would get mad and bitter, but I would always end up reaching out to her and making sure she knew I was there. I always told myself the little things made a difference, but the hard truth was they didn't.
She didn't visit me once during my four years in college. Carly visited multiple times. This lasted for 2+ years, and I grew colder until I eventually decided I could only focus on myself.
Until one day she left him for good and stuck to it this time. I thought she would come back--to me and and to herself.
I had just graduated college and was going through some major life changes, both personally and professionally. When I got home, we surprisingly gravitated back to each other like always. It was easy to forget about the last few years and how betrayed I had felt. We always picked up where we left off, and one of the first days of summer was no different. We walked to the creek, and I gushed to her about everything that was happening to me at the moment. She actually cared for once. I was interviewing for a career while she was bartending at a club. We were more different than ever, but like usual, it didn't matter.
Looking back, I should have noticed signs that summer. I should have done something more to help her. I was going to the lake one day when she called me panicking. This was rare, so I should have taken it more seriously. It wasn't typical for her to be emotional or ask for help -- she typically tried to handle things on her own. But that day, her voice shot through the phone, shaking and speeding through her sentences. She said she was up all night drinking and had taken ADD medicine to help her sleep, but it didn't work. She couldn't stop chewing straws, her mouth was cut up, and she kept saying she just wanted to run.
I remember I was scared and told her to be careful. I think I checked up on her throughout the day, and when I realized she was fine, I went through the rest of my summer without thinking about it. She had always been wilder than me, so I figured she could handle herself. She needed help, but I was so hopeful that she was getting back to her old self that I couldn’t see it right away.
One of the last times I saw her was at the end of summer when our families went camping. It was the same as always, but not really. She tried to act like herself, but she wasn't. She was darker and meaner. She had to leave every couple hours to smoke. She got irritable quickly, and she spent more time by herself than ever. When the weekend was over, we left thinking nothing would change. But it did and already had.
I didn't hear from her for a month or two, and I found out she was addicted to heroin. She lost her jobs and started doing heart-wrenching things for money. She lost her curves and became bone thin with stringy hair. I tried to be there for her. I asked her questions and tried to find sober ways we could hang out. I don't remember if we did.
Things were so disconnected, and there were times when she flipped out on me, telling me I didn't understand her and wasn't there for her. Those were the moments that hurt the most, knowing all the energy and emotion I had invested in supporting her over the years. I didn't understand why she couldn't see it. She only spent time with people who supported her lifestyle. I hated her and the decisions she was making, but I couldn't stop caring no matter how hard I tried -- which made me hate myself for letting her control me. Why couldn't I stop trying to help her, especially when it never worked and she never appreciated it?
I started working and focused on my own accomplishments. I thought about her and hoped more than anything that she was alive and safe, but I wouldn’t do anything else. The only thing I felt good about was being there for Carly who was dealing with much more than I was.
I heard about her going to jail for a night. She contacted me shortly after saying she was going to rehab and that she was scared. I had gotten good at understanding her lies, so I was never sure about the truth behind what she told me. But I talked her through it all night and told her I would visit. I was naive and so hopeful.
Then, she backed out. She didn't go to rehab and she fell right back into her lifestyle. She made it very clear that our lives were separate, and it was tiring to be the one always trying to bridge the gap. Am I terrible for saying this was the point where I fully gave up? I had officially failed. Nothing I could do would help her, and I also knew that my feelings were insignificant compared to what her family was going through. I had never been more disgusted with her. It became easy to, finally, cut myself off.
I expected the worst. I was bitter and cynical when anyone talked about her. Really, I was just trying to hide the fact that I was betrayed, frustrated with myself for not being able to 'save' her, and scared.
Carly: Something must have clicked one day in my sister’s mind because she called my mom crying, wanting to come home. We later found out she was going through withdrawal, which explained her odd moods. My sister had been off heroin for about a week when she called us that morning. For some reason, my parents swore this time would be different, but all of my sister’s attempts before this had ended in failure. I couldn’t bring myself to speak to her.
I felt that ignoring and keeping my distance from her was the smartest thing to do. To be honest, I had nothing to say to her. She had already pushed me so far away that there wasn’t one topic I could come up with to talk about. Awkward stares and smirks were the only personal exchanges we made.
After a month or so, I decided that it was time to say something to her. Since she was no longer the same person, I wasn’t sure what she would be interested in. Everything she had ever done for fun had changed. I chose to bluntly talk about her drug use. Little by little, I asked her all the questions I had wondered during the past couple of years. How did you start it? Why did you start it? Did you not see what you were putting your family and friends through? The questions kept coming, one after another. Although some of the answers weren’t what I wanted to hear, I felt a sense of relief when we finished.
Having my sister home had to be one of the hardest changes to get used to. It was an adjustment, unexpectedly seeing her walk throughout the house, accidentally walking right into our shared bathroom, and arguing endlessly about what show to watch. I kept it to myself, but I loved having her home no matter how many times her mood changed throughout the day.
I still don’t trust her. I’m not sure I ever will, but why should I?
I don’t want anyone to think that I’m not proud of my sister for choosing to quit the drug. I understood that it was a huge accomplishment, but I still don’t understand why she let herself start using it in the first place.
She’s been clean for about 3 months now and I pray that she never goes back to it again. I’m now in college, so when I’m home for breaks, I think we try to cherish the time we have together. Of course we aren’t as close, but that was inevitable. I still distance myself from her at times -- I’m scared the cycle will repeat itself.
Ultimately, we’re sisters and no matter how mad I get at her, there’s a genetic tie that will always keep us connected. That fact has become clear to me throughout everything.
Emily: She's been clean for a couple months now. I'm so proud of her. She contacted me when she finally made the decision, and we met up a few times. For once in our life, things didn't pick up where they left off. Things were awkward. I tried to talk about the things we used to, but did they really matter anymore?
I tried to shove away my selfish feelings of wanting her to take responsibility for being the worst friend possible. I couldn't. It was eating at me. But she didn't say much, and I think she half-apologized once. Part of it was that she assumed everyone around her, including me, judged her. Part of it was probably out of shame and embarrassment. It's not that I couldn't forgive her -- that was the easy part. What I couldn't do was bring back the bond we used to have, especially when I didn't know who she was now. She didn't even know herself.
She's doing well now and experiencing some new, positive challenges as she's learning to support herself in sobriety. In her first few clean months, I didn’t see or talk to her much even though that’s when she needed the support the most. I wanted to. I wished I could be a better friend. But I didn’t know how to get past the damage between us. Did we even have a friendship? I felt the same sisterly love and loyalty, and that will never go away, but I didn’t know how to invest myself the way I used to.
It was cowardly, but I didn’t know if I could get my hopes back up again only to watch her fall back down and forget about me. It felt easier to stay away.
Recently, she reached out to me and we’ve been working on our friendship. Things aren’t perfect, but I have more confidence in her and our friendship than I have in years. She’s more determined than I’ve seen her, and she’s slowly regaining the spark and personality that she used to have. It’s refreshing and I know I had nothing to do with it. It was all her.
I’m supporting her as much as I can. Part of me wonders if I’m falling back into my idealistic way of thinking only to be betrayed again. I struggle with my selfish thoughts every day, but I know she’s making an effort this time. It’s only fair that I can do the same.
My favorite things are the simple ones: day-long book binges, cozy candles, dog kisses, ink on your hands, tree stars (leaves for those of you who never watched The Land Before Time) sweater weather, new ideas, local craft beer, punctuation, and knotty saltwater hair. Desserts are my favorite meal. I'm a creative writer and editor, and I created this space to keep my writing reflexes sharp and to share my simple ramblings with you!