Finding emotional support when your sibling has an addiction

Feature for WHYY, May 14 2019

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Natalie is 16 years old, a sophomore at a performing-arts high school in New Jersey. She keeps track of her life through whatever theater production she was in at the time. It was an open-mic night when everything changed for her family.

“I get in the car to go home and, just, the general atmosphere of the car is off,” Natalie said. “So I asked what was wrong. And then my mom told me that my sister went to rehab.”

Natalie was shocked. She had always felt close to her sister, but the news took her completely by surprise.

“I was like, ‘You’re not talking to me, that’s not my sister,’” she said.

Natalie had noticed that her sister was sleeping more — “I mean, she’s in her 20s … it’s not like it’s a horrible thing to take a nap” — but that was all. If something was wrong, Natalie didn’t want to probe too deeply.

“I didn’t want to ask. I kind of just wanted to pretend everything was OK,” she said.

But Natalie didn’t feel OK. She missed her sister, who had gone to a residential rehab program. She was struggling in school, sleeping in class because she was up all night fretting, and her grades were slipping.

And she didn’t feel like she could talk to anybody about it, not even her mom. Natalie recognized that while they were both agonizing over the same person, their experiences were not the same.

“That’s her daughter, but that’s my sister,” said Natalie. “So it’s different for both of us. We both have to heal and move on.”

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Photography by Kimberly Paynter