Siblings also struggle when addiction strikes a family

Feature for WHYY, May 14 2019

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When he was using heroin, his life spiraling, Zachary Romain’s family members felt like they were spiraling too.

He had started smoking pot at 14 and moved on to harder drugs at 16. He joined the Army after high school but was discharged because of his substance use. He moved back into his mother’s home in Franklinville, New Jersey until she kicked him out. Just as he was starting to hit bottom, he realized his older brother, Scott, was using too.

Zach’s younger sister, Sara Romain, was 15 when he started using heroin. He would steal from her to pay for his habit.

“He broke in through my window and stole everything, like anything that was important to me,” Sara said.

“Everything,” Zach said. “Anything I knew that was worth a value, I took it, and I sold.”

Addiction is sometimes called a family disease, so strong are the ripple effects for the parents and children of people struggling with substance use disorders. Many feel they are grappling with their loved ones’ addiction alone. But the adolescent siblings of substance users may feel more alone than most.

Sara resented that Zach’s and Scott’s addictions were consuming her mother and grandmother.  Zach could be highly manipulative, she said, telling their mom that he would kill himself if she didn’t give him money.

“It makes me so frustrated because she thinks she has to give them everything they ask for or they’re actually going to harm themselves,” said Sara. “How can you say that to your mom?”

There are support groups for parents with addicted children, for children with addicted parents, but little support for young people dealing with a sibling’s addiction.

“Kids aren’t prepared for the kinds of emotions that they’re experiencing watching a sibling go through these kinds of crisis,” said Tim Portinga, a psychologist and clinical supervisor for mental health staff at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, a nonprofit addiction-treatment provider with sites in seven states.

“I hear this just consistently over and over again from siblings: that nobody understands how painful it was to have their brother or sister not show up at their basketball games, or to see their brother or sister intoxicated and passed out on the floor, or to try to understand why their brother and sister are in trouble with the legal system again,” Portinga said.

“They don’t know why this is happening. They love their brother [or] sister. They just can’t understand what this is all about.”

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Photographs provided by Deanna Rubles