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One Woman’s Journey of Addiction and Recovery With a Family Member

Photo Credit: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

My younger sister Jackie (not her real name) always enjoyed wine. She couldn’t always distinguish between fine wine and cheap wine, but being “out of control” for her meant nothing more than antics such as making wine spritzers with very expensive bottles and chugging them from oversize plastic cups. People may have been aghast, but no one was overly concerned.

I also remember some wine weekends during which everyone got a little “sideways,” not just Jackie. That’s not to say that our behavior was appropriate, but Jackie’s wine drinking didn’t stand out as particularly troublesome. Everyone would joke, “I feel terrible … I’m never drinking again!” After the hangovers wore off, we would all go back to our normal routines and successfully navigate life’s many demands.

I didn’t start worrying about Jackie’s alcohol consumption until about four years ago. Up until then, she was doing a wonderful job as a single parent of a preteen girl with Asperger’s, was excelling at her job, had lots of friends, and seemed pretty healthy and happy. Although Jackie hasn’t said so herself, I think she was emotionally scarred after another failed relationship; it was her third relationship to end on a sour note within 10 years.

Jackie’s marriage ended in a painful divorce after she discovered that her husband had deceived her for months by not sharing with her that he had lost his job. When my sister would see him off to “work” every morning, he actually went to movie theaters, bars, and casinos (and who knows where else). Without her knowledge, he burned through all of their savings, including a significant amount of money that my sister brought into their marriage. He also duped her into signing an interspousal transfer, removing her from the title to their home; Jackie was told that it was a mortgage refinance application.

A few years after her divorce, Jackie allowed herself to enter into a new relationship. Her boyfriend was a good father to two girls, loved dogs, and had a job with an interior design firm. He made her feel happy again. There was one little problem: He was married, a fact she discovered on her own. A few years later, she fell for another dishonest guy; on a hunch, she ran a background check on him and learned more than she bargained for. I believe that it was the end of this relationship in early 2016 that triggered her serious alcohol abuse. She lost faith in people, as well as her ability to judge a person’s character. The giant hole that this left in her heart left her wanting to feel numb. So, she turned to alcohol. In addition to wine, she began to drink vodka and lots of it.

Jackie’s behavior changed as a result of her excessive drinking. She began calling in sick to work frequently. When she did show up, she was usually late and unkempt. A few of her coworkers even complained about “a strange odor.” She began wearing perfume and popping mints throughout the day to try to cover it up. People weren’t fooled, however, and other issues began to surface – missed deadlines and arguments with coworkers and clients resulted in her eventually being put on probation.  

Fearful that she could lose her job, Jackie opened up about her drinking and asked our family to help her find the help that she needed. I started the process by calling her health insurance company to confirm that it covered treatment for substance abuse. I then looked at a list of behavioral health providers in our area and made her an appointment. I took her to the appointment to be evaluated and, if deemed necessary, come up with a treatment plan. The counselor we met with made all of the arrangements for Jackie, with a week of medically supervised detox in a local hospital as the first step. I learned that many rehabs work in partnership with or have their own detox facilities.

After detoxing, Jackie completed 30 days of outpatient rehab. She chose an outpatient setting so that she could continue to work and care for her child. Jackie would work in the morning, attend rehab in the afternoon, and pick up her daughter (usually at my parents’ house) around 8 p.m. On weekends, she attended two full days of rehab as various family members and friends provided child care.

I didn’t start worrying about Jackie’s alcohol consumption until about four years ago. Up until then, she was doing a wonderful job as a single parent of a preteen girl with Asperger’s, was excelling at her job, had lots of friends, and seemed pretty healthy and happy.

After 30 days, the next step was for Jackie to attend 12-step meetings a few times a week for six months. During this period, her probationary period at work ended. Things were looking up.

I remember praying it would last.

After being sober for approximately a year, Jackie excitedly told our family that her employer was sending her to Italy for two weeks. Although I was thrilled for her, I was also uneasy about the idea. I had spent a semester of college in Florence and recalled my first trip to a market there. I had gone to buy some bottled water, but when I saw that a bottle of Chianti was cheaper than a bottle of water, I decided I didn’t need water after all. Granted, I was only 20 years old at the time, but I still felt that Italy might not be the safest place for someone newly sober, especially someone who loves wine. Furthermore, she was going as part of a work contingent, and I worried about how she might handle others’ drinking.

Sadly, my fears were justified. Jackie lost her sobriety on that trip. She also lost the respect of several of her coworkers because she was intoxicated most of the time. I don’t know everything that transpired in Italy, but I do know that Jackie returned feeling humiliated. 

Back at home, Jackie wasn’t interested in getting sober again. Having lost over a year of sobriety and knowing that she would have to start all over again was hugely demotivating to her. Thus, she continued to drink to excess and experienced the same problems she had when she was drinking heavily before. When it came time for her work contract to be renewed for the following year, she was let go. Probation was not on the table this time around.

Jackie began searching for new employment. She also recommitted herself to being sober but insisted on doing it on her own. Within a few weeks, she received a job offer and was over the moon. After the first day, she said that she was having the best day of her life; the job was perfect, the people were awesome, and she loved the amenities and location. She had no desire to drink.

Four hours later, however, I was at a restaurant with friends when my phone rang. It was my dad. He was in a panic. He told me that he had just received a call from the fire department. “Your daughter is in the ER,” said the representative, who did not know which daughter. Through a process of elimination, we determined that it was Jackie. She had been hit by a car while riding her bike on a major boulevard. She had cracked her head open and injured her leg. She wasn’t wearing a helmet and was riding at night without any reflective gear. After being treated and discharged, my mom asked her if she had been drinking. “No, of course not!” she replied emphatically.

Two days after the accident, my mom took Jackie to a follow-up appointment. After confirming that Jackie didn’t mind if my mom stayed in the exam room, the doctor said, “Do you realize that you could have been killed? Your blood alcohol level was 0.30.” She had no idea that her blood had been tested to determine whether she was under the influence when she was hit. Although she denied it, my mom clearly sensed that she had been drinking. That was my sense as well. This was the day we learned that our instincts were more reliable than Jackie’s words.

Over the next several months, Jackie’s life became increasingly unmanageable. She lost her new job. She frequently fought with her daughter, who was tired of covering for her and wanted to be around her as little as possible. She lost her health benefits because she forgot to pay the premium one month and later ignored the company’s notices of pending cancellation. Then, she went off the grid for several days. We were worried sick. After resurfacing, she called my dad to tell him that she had been in jail for a DUI. I recall being really angry. I also began to understand that every addict has their own “bottom.” While someone else might have hit theirs after losing their job, another person may not reach it until they’ve accidentally killed someone. Fortunately, that was not the case with Jackie, but it easily could have been.

Without a job, Jackie wasn’t in a position to pay for an attorney, so instead, my parents paid for one. She desired professional help again but without health insurance, we weren’t sure how to get it. My dad and I spent countless hours, adding up to several days, looking into how to get coverage for her. Thanks to help from a social worker at a low-cost clinic, she was able to get Medicaid. We then had to find rehabs that would accept Medicaid. After calling at least a dozen places, she was finally admitted to a 30-day residential program (again, with a week of medically supervised detox beforehand). We quickly made all of the necessary arrangements. Her daughter would stay with my parents, a friend would stay at her place to care for her cat and collect her mail, and we would pay her rent and other bills. We were at our wit's end, so we wanted to do whatever it took to get her the help she needed. Truth be told, we also needed a break, and rehab provided one. Meanwhile, Jackie’s lawyer would appear in court on her behalf to deal with the legal ramifications of her DUI.

Jackie’s journey has been a journey for my entire family. Along the way, I have changed for the better. I’ve grown less selfish.

 

I wish this were the end of the story, but it’s not. Jackie was released from rehab on a Friday. I was away over the weekend, so I brought lunch to her apartment on Monday afternoon. I immediately suspected that she was drinking again — just three days after leaving rehab! What were my clues? She didn’t seem happy to see me. In fact, she couldn’t wait for me to leave. She claimed that she had a ringing noise in her ears and couldn’t hear me. She showed me the certificate that she received at rehab, but her words claiming how happy she was about her sobriety didn’t match her demeanor. I was grief-stricken. Driving home, I told myself that my sister was gone. I was preparing myself to cut her out of my life rather than watch her die. 

Over the next weekend, Jackie landed in the ER on three separate occasions. She was convulsing and couldn’t hold her head up. The third time, she went to a different hospital because we tried earlier that day to readmit her to rehab (she wanted to go back), but they wouldn’t take her in the state of mind she was in; she needed to admit herself of her own free will, which cannot be determined when someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. So, we went to the closest ER to the rehab. This was the moment when miracles started to happen. The head doctor there got it. He got Jackie because his own daughter is an addict. He got us because he is us. By the time Jackie sobered up and was released, she was truly ready to get better. Unfortunately, the last bed at the rehab had been taken earlier in the day.

Worried that she would drink again if we took her home, Jackie went to stay at my parents’ house. After three days there, there were still no beds available at the rehab so we began looking into other facilities. After a couple more days, one of the other rehabs contacted us. They had an opening.

That was four months ago. Since then, Jackie has completed 90 days of residential treatment and is now in a sober living house owned by the same organization. She plans to stay there for at least three months and wants to enroll soon in an addiction studies program. She has spoken with her daughter, who has been living at her dad’s, a few times recently and is optimistic about making amends. And just yesterday, we received more positive news. Jackie got a job — her first new job in ages — and she starts next week.

Jackie’s journey has been a journey for my entire family. Along the way, I have changed for the better. I’ve grown less selfish. While I didn’t have to be there for my sister, I felt that I had to be there for my parents. This often meant dropping what I was doing or wanted to do to help them. I’ve also become better at living in the present. Having things in constant flux forces a person to do that because you must constantly reevaluate what’s important in any given moment and focus on that. Finally, I believe I’ve become less judgmental. Having a family member with a serious mental illness has made me more compassionate toward others suffering from a mental illness. I have more empathy for people experiencing homelessness than I used to, as I know that many are addicts just like Jackie. I am also acutely aware of the fact that Jackie could’ve ended up homeless without the support system that she has.

If you are in a similar place with a family member or loved one that I was in with Jackie, I encourage you to reach out for support immediately by looking up whatever services are in your area. As you can see from my story, my family could never have done this without the support of a lot of people who had the knowledge of addiction and the understanding of the services available in our area to help us. 


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