On your addict brother

Well Coke, my brother relapsed. I wrote you two months ago saying my family was giving me hell because I hadn’t yet embraced him in his recovery. Four days ago, he got his 6 month sobriety chip. Yesterday, his roommate found him with a needle in his arm and he was intermittently breathing. I found out while I was at work and cried in front of most of my coworkers, more out of frustration than actual sadness. I think. I don’t know.

I saw him in the hospital room through the door. We made eye contact and he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, as if to say “What are you gonna do? Addicts are going to relapse.” This was the first time since October 2015 that I’ve physically laid eyes on him. I hugged my dad while he cried. My brother fell asleep when I looked at him again.

I don’t know if I have a question, Coke. I’m just so…unsurprised? Frustrated? Disappointed? Mad? My friend at work gave me a hug and reminded me that addiction is a disease, but that just enraged me more. That has always seemed like such a fucking cop-out to me. Plenty of people do drugs (I sure did) and fucking stop. So why can’t he? Why does this keep happening? Why couldn’t he have just died this time and we wouldn’t have to go through this hell yet again?


Yes, I remember what you told me in your first letter. Addiction may be a disease, but your brother is a piece of shit. He really is.

I’m sorry that he’s causing you and everyone in your family so much pain. It’s okay to wish that pain would stop, and I understand why you think his death is the only way it would.

Be careful with that, though. His addiction could very easily end up killing him, especially if his new pattern becomes relapsing after several months of sobriety. (It’s a lot easier to overdose during a relapse.) If he does die, it won’t be what you’re hoping it will be.

That being said, it’s okay if he’s dead to you. When I wrote you back the first time, I told you that you didn’t have to forgive him.

You never do.


36 thoughts on “On your addict brother

  1. Lucy says:

    Hang on. Does she never have to forgive him because this is a particularly awful situation? Or is it just that she doesn’t HAVE to forgive him? You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of forgiveness and the freedom it can give a person, so this advice was surprising. I may be missing the point, because I haven’t really let your answer roll around in my head, but I’m a little surprised.

    • Sel says:

      The latter. You’re never obligated to forgive people who hurt you. Ever. In certain situations, it can be helpful, but that depends on the individuals involved and the specific context. The importance of forgiveness is in forgiving yourself for the things you can’t control, such as the actions of other people, and for the complex feelings you may have in reaction to complex situations.

    • Anna says:

      Forgiveness isn’t about what you should do. It’s about what you want to do.
      If forgiveness is about freedom, what do you do about the people you can’t let go of ? (Drug addicted brothers for instance. Or parents who abandon their families ?) It’s much easier to forgive a person whom you have no material or affective connection too.
      Basically, forgiveness isn’t a universal biblical prescription. It’s about making sense of emotionally attached data in your head.

  2. E says:

    I disagree. Her brother is not a piece of shit from an addiction stand point. He may be a horrible person in real life. I don’t know. But he is an addict. It is not a cop-out. Relapses do happen. This is no surprise in the course of the disease.
    He needs the help of others (rehab, psychiatrist, therapy, NA, etc) to help him through this time and throughout the rest of his life if he wants to stay sober and live well.
    Yes, he is putting his family through chaos and pain. It is absolutely the authors choice to put up that boundary and totally acceptable to do so.
    But really the disease of addiction is so much more than using again. Neuroscientists are now involved in studying neurotransmissions in the brain of an addict and more and more is becoming known about it.
    You can call someone a piece of shit for being an addict but it is unfair. You can call someone a piece of shit for being a piece of shit and that would be an appropriate judgement.
    You don’t know much about him besides the fact that he is an addict.

    • Strangely Rational says:

      Thank you.

      This bugs me SO much: “Plenty of people do drugs (I sure did) and fucking stop. So why can’t he?”

      This demonstrates such a fundamental lack of understanding about addiction.

      He was found with a needle in his arm, so heroin? My husband is a recovering heroin addict – and he became one due to undiagnosed and untreated PTSD. He hasn’t used in over a decade, but he said that he feels that craving every day. He hasn’t relapsed, but he will readily admit that on some days he could if it were in front of him. He describes it as an insatiable hunger, sort of like putting a starving man in front of a table with a feast spread out and telling him not to eat.

      He gets easily addicted to any drug with addiction potential – I’m talking about prescription drugs here that he takes legitimately for his mental illness. I, on the other hand, have had several prescriptions, including strong opiates, and have never had the slightest issue. Same with alcohol – he got addicted almost instantly and I never did. Why can I do it and he can’t? Because he has a different body than I do. It’s really like asking how it is that some people can die of influenza when other people can survive.

      • Gaybeard says:

        Totally get your frustration re:“Plenty of people do drugs (I sure did) and fucking stop. So why can’t he?” but I read it less as a lack of understanding and more as an expression of exasperation. She knows her brother has a problem but she’s just giving voice to a deeply held feeling. It’s one thing to say we acknowledge that addiction is a disease rationally, and another to feel that way and be free from resentment at the person.

        I’m writing from the perspective of a person with a number of chronic issues by the way, so I’m not coming at it from the other side of the fence.

        • Strangely Rational says:

          It was the sentences that preceded it that did it for me.

          “My friend at work gave me a hug and reminded me that addiction is a disease, but that just enraged me more. That has always seemed like such a fucking cop-out to me.”

          That doesn’t sound like someone who understands addiction on even a rational level.

    • Sure, why not. says:

      I’m fairly certain Coquette would not describe someone as a piece of shit worthy of being dead to you based only on this question. It seemed clear to me that there were some additional and very damning details in their first correspondence.

      • Becky says:

        This. Though, let’s be real here: an addict who is using is usually going to at least behave like a piece of shit, even if they’re a lovely person between relapses.

    • PolicyChick says:

      Both the LW and Coke refer to a previous letter from the LW, and it seems from that correspondence Coke saw the brother as ‘a piece of shit’. A determination which appears to be separate from his addiction. If that helps.

  3. christina says:

    I had a sister who passed away almost ten years now. She left behind my nephew too. I go back and forth to this day saying she is a piece of shit, her sadness was too great to ever overcome, to simply missing her. Missing her pure self is the hardest part in all this struggle. I know who she was and i know she had this nasty disorder. I do not see it as disease but, as personality disorder. Sometimes in my heart i feel like keeping that space and letting them work on their issues alone helps them see the magnitude of their destruction. Sometimes it doesnt. Accepting that reality is part of the pain. Some people will never overcome it but you can still love them.

  4. definitely not batman says:

    I’ve often wondered about these situations. We’re always told that addiction is a disease (and a stigmatized one, at that), and that people can’t just “snap out of it” just like they can’t snap out of, say, cancer. If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we can’t ever possibly know what it feels like or what they can or cannot do to help themselves so it feels wrong to have any negative thoughts and feelings about them. We’re supposed to do our best to understand them and be compassionate. Which is all great, of course. But that gap is always gonna be there. Empathy can only go so far. Beyond that line, there’s just blind trust and unconditional understanding. Which can be… a problem. We struggle with empathy enough as it is, but this just seems insurmountable.

    Basically my question is, how do we navigate that gap? Short of becoming addicts ourselves, there’s only so much we can do to really understand this. Besides, not every addict is the same. And how do we then justify cutting off contact/not forgiving them/being angry and so on? Who gets to decide where the line even is? And how can we ever really know if we made the right decision? (OK, I know we can’t really, but y’know what I mean. This shit is too important to half-ass a decision. At least try to two-thirds-ass it.)

    I’m not asking about this particular situation, btw, there’s obviously a lot of stuff we’re missing. Just kind of mental illness in general. I’m getting increasingly frustrated by the “I’m mentally ill – you don’t know what it’s like therefore you don’t get to have thoughts and feelings on it – just be supportive or else you’re a piece of shit” narrative.

    • Rainbowpony says:

      It’s a great set of questions, ones I think about all the time.

      For me, the point of breaking contact was just about taking care of myself. I’ve never struggled with the forgiveness thing. After 10 years with a sibling with a personality disorder, and dealing with lying, stealing, manipulation, drama, a very one sided dynamic, and having no real positive relationship, I realized how much pain the relationship caused me and how it negatively affected other areas of my life.

      Letting go wasn’t easy, I had a lot of guilt about not “understanding”. Also, my sibling is gay so I felt like “understanding” was part of being an ally (whether that makes sense or not). Thing is, I’m not jesus and I only have so much to give. I’m not religious, but this experience made me think alot about the crucifixion story, because unconditionally loving some people really can destroy your life.

      Idk where I’m going with this. Yeah, we all have limits. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that people with intense mental illness issues might have to come to terms with the idea that “understanding” is something I have to do over here, from a safe distance.

    • Giuliana says:

      batman, i think the answer to your question is personal boundary limits. one person might have the patience of a saint and an ability to not let other’s struggles eat away at them. this person could stand by their addict friend until the end of time. another might say, ‘friend, you have relapsed three times. i understand how difficult your addiction is, and i am not judging you for your struggles, but i can no longer support you because it is taking a toll on my mental/emotional health. i care about you, i wish you all the luck, give me a call someday if you beat this thing, i would love to hear from you. please understand i am not rejecting you, i am rejecting your (disease, addiction).’
      i am sure it is more nuanced with family/love relationships. with family there can be pressure, with love the stakes can be higher, both emotionally or if there are children involved for example. but again, i think it comes down to personal judgement of an individual of when they have had enough. i think when ending a relationship because one person is an addict, the most important parting words are “i am not rejecting you, i am rejecting your addiction.” it may not be until later that the recipient understands the distinction, but one cannot control for other’s reactions.

      personally, i do not think one needs to justify cutting off contact with someone to anybody but themselves. we all get to decide our limits and boundaries in relationships. one’s choice to cut out an addict friend/relation/lover/child may upset others, but at the end of the day one must live for themselves first. making a judgement call on protecting one’s own mental health is always justifiable as far as i am concerned.
      as for anger and forgiveness, in my opinion for the case of addictiom, be angry at the addiction, or that the friend got shitty brain chemistry and life circumstances that led to addiction. i am in the camp of, ‘there must be something happening in the person’s brain that makes it more difficult for them to recover.’ but there are always other factors. sometimes the person’s life is bad and they do not have the resources or the knowledge to better their life, so drugs are an easier solution for them to make life bearable. but i think saying ‘if they really wanted to quit the drug, they would just do it and be done forever!’ is reductive, not sympathetic, and probably not accurate to reality of the addict’s brain. one can be kind and sympathetic without allowing other’s problems to cause destruction to oneself.
      when the addiction becomes very personally destructive to oneself, such as in the case of OP, or other examples, like a romantic partner who keeps relapsing, or a parent, or a child, and the addiction starts destroying one’s own life like a creeping rot, of course cutting them out is justifiable. after that, everyone has their way of processing and moving on from trauma/abuse/&c.

      these are my personal opinions on the matter, but maybe something in them is helpful to your questions.

    • Gaybeard says:

      No justification is necessary beyond no longer wanting or being able to be around that person. I don’t think you’re doing much to be a positive part of someone’s support network if you can’t deal with the drama or accept certain things on blind faith. I think a key to being a part of someone’s support network, assuming you want to be, is genuinely internalizing the idea that the only difference between you and that person is one bad day. I don’t think that’s a natural or easy thing for a person to believe. In fact, I’m not sure it’s possible to feel that way internally unless you personally trend towards mental illness at some level. Part of being healthy is being way more optimistic about your chances of survival and success than is realistic. Anyways, I think that being there for a person with a mental illness requires an almost religious attitude to fate, and deciding that being there for someone is the duty you have to your fellow man because you would hope that someone could be there for you in the same way if something like that ever happened to you.

      I think the resentment deficit comes as a result of feeling like the other person is getting away with something, getting a pass”, on behaviour that would be totally unacceptable for anyone else. There’s a deeply ingrained disbelief in us when someone else says they’re feeling pain. This is a weirdly child like thing that humans do, but there are tons of incidents of people dying of allergic reactions because the person serving them food is suspicious and decides to see if they’re lying by giving them something to eat that they’re allergic to. The challenge with anything mental or addiction based, beyond simple disbelief, is that all the action is happening on the inside. Every fight is internal. On the outside we’re just walking around looking fine, so it’s natural to ask “why can’t they just take care of their own shit for christ’s sake!” The funny thing is that the resentment that makes you feel like a person needs punishment for what they’re getting away with actually comes nowhere close to the amount of guilt and shame we feel on a daily basis. If you eventually decide to reject us, the negative feelings that spin out of that will just confirm the narratives of our unworthiness that we’re always writing in our heads.

    • definitely not batman says:

      I understand. But here’s the thing, though. We say that every person has their limits and we shouldn’t fault them for not taking more than they can. And yet we do. There *is* a scale. On the one end it’s the narcissist who will kick you to the curb at the slightest inconvenience to themselves. On the other there’s the martyr, who will destroy themselves in helping you. Both are unacceptable, even though we tend to regard one as reprehensible, and the other as noble. But most of us fall in the middle, grey area. What’s the point of reference in there? How do you find it? We deal with it on a case to case basis but we’re always left wondering if we could have done a better job. We don’t know that we haven’t, either. We’re running blind. Now, I may be jumping the gun here (is that the expression?), but it seems to me that the grey area keeps getting smaller, which makes these situations even more riddled with anxiety. It’s not even anxiety anymore, it’s panic. Everything seems more polarized. We seem to allow for nuance in everything except morality. The values are being so overblown that anything less than “Jesus” is “subhuman.” Does it look that way to anyone else or am I totally off the mark here?

      • Gaybeard says:

        You’re right about the pressure to be self-sacrificing. I think it’s a fantasy and an anxiety that occurs almost exclusively in rich countries where the struggle for survival has been surpassed by enough people that the public discourse is dominated by moralism and a self-flagellation arms race.

        Your personal anxiety can be addressed in two ways:

        1. Reject the social pressure to be seen to be helping people. If you choose to help someone, whatever that means to you, do it for their sake. When you’re genuinely doing something for someone else’s sake then you don’t ask yourself whether it’s enough because your “enough” isn’t being evaluated against what’s expected of you but what the person you’re helping needs.

        2. Everyone does what they can. It’s not your fault if you can’t or don’t want to. Life is hard enough just trying to keep your own house in order, you’re not helping anyone by having one foot in the anxiety pool. There’s no such thing as enough support, or gradations in worthiness of help, or anything like that. Give of yourself if you have something to give, give freely, and do it because it’s right and not because you feel you have to.

      • Rainbowpony says:

        I totally feel that too.

        I think about that every now and then and think it’s related to three societal trends:

        1) increase in moral identity branding and advertising – we are saturated in products that allow us to claim moral superiority if we buy them (GMO free, etc)
        2) increasing polarization between political parties, which is related to
        3) increased interest and pressure toward moral laws and societal norms that will lessen (or entrench, if you are conservative) sexism, racism, ableism, etc.

        Some are good, and some less so, but we’re in a process of remaking the common moral fiber that makes up america. Which side are you on? What is you identity? Moral goodness isn’t just about being a good, it’s about claiming your tribe. And it’s always been a human instinct to enforce and define group boundaries.

      • definitely not batman says:

        @Gaybeard: Yeah, that makes sense, thank you. It sounds so simple. But then again, most truly important things turn out to be that way. 😀 I’ve been realizing lately how many social pressures and fears I’ve internalized without even being aware they existed in the first place. Exorcising them is exhausting.

        @Rainbowpony: I think you’re right. It is about tribes in a way, still. If you’re not a good person, you’re making your tribe less safe, and you get ostracized. Which makes you vulnerable. Of course the predators are a bit different now 😀 But still.

        It’s led to what I can only describe as performative empathy, maybe? I think we’ve legitimately quantified empathy now? And it looks horrible written down, but that’s what it feels like. People competing whose charity is worth more Good Person Points. I mean sure, I can think of worse things people can be competitive over, but this gives me the creeps. It’s like a new form of narcissism in which someone’s suffering becomes your status symbol.

  5. ken says:

    When my drinking became too heavy and too regular my wife told me, “I will always love you, but I can do that from another state.” I didn’t want her to leave and after counseling, time, pain, and forgiveness, we are still together and I’m not drinking. I suppose the point is that addiction is in the hands of the addict and everyone else is collateral damage. At it’s core, addiction is a very very selfish act. As the person close to the addict, you have a choice on just how much damage you want to take. You set boundaries, specify consequences, and if/when those boundaries are crossed, you do what you said you were going to do. If I start drinking, my wife will leave.

  6. Kelly says:

    I navigated here to write you a question about my own addict brother.

    The oldest of my three younger brothers was an alcoholic who spent some time clean, but wound up committing suicide (while very drunk) a couple of years ago. It was in such a way that my youngest brother and myself found his body (he had shot himself in the head).

    Last week, said youngest brother (who also has been an alcoholic for years and was very close to my late brother) badly beat up middle brother in my parents’ home (where both were living). My parents are incredible enablers — youngest brother has no job and no drivers license (after two DUIs), so they get him alcohol in order to avoid his temper tantrums, as well as letting him live with them. My parents have at least not bailed youngest brother out of jail. They are pinning their hopes on forcing him into rehab, but rehab that is gone to in order to avoid jail time… how effective will that be?

    I’m ready (and so is middle brother) to be totally done with my youngest brother, at least until he’s been demonstrably clean for a while. I don’t want him around my stepchildren. I want him to be okay — he’s only 27, for fuck’s sake — but I know that my wanting it can’t make it happen. I love him, but I don’t want to see or speak to him. Am I a terrible person for being ready to wash my hands of him?

    • Daffodil says:

      Two things here:

      – Yeah, most people are going to be totally okay with cutting people off long before it gets to the point of violence.

      – The internet can’t make your decisions for you. You’ve gotta give yourself permission to make this call, and responsibility to decide how to respond to whatever fallout comes of it.

    • Anna says:

      The short answer is no.
      But I’d also like to explicitly encourage to keep yourself and your kids away from your brother, and calmly inform your parents you won’t be seeing them at their house anymore, or on any other occasion your brother might be present. Don’t enable the enablers. I saw my own parent deal with manipulative, exploitative and borderline abusive relatives for years, I feel more out less confident in my advice, even though I know how hard it is to put in practice.

  7. Similar Sister says:

    I also had a heroin addict brother. Month after month, I would receive calls that he was in jail, or had overdosed. He nearly died three times that I know of. At one point, he asked me to drive down to his apartment with him, to help him move out and prevent him from relapsing with the stash that he had at his place. Even with all the resolve and conviction that he seemed to have , as soon as we arrived, he locked himself in the bathroom to shoot up. I quickly noticed and broke down the door to find him attempting to get the last remnants of the stuff out of a spoon and into his syringe. He dropped it and I cried uncontrollably, hugged him as he began to cry. He was put on suboxone, methadone, buprenorphine and all the crap in between. He went to inpatient and outpatient rehabs, all of which resulted in the same vicious cycle… scoring the pills, abusing the pills, anger/violent episodes/relapse. For him, and many others, the current medical path for opiate rehabilitation is not successful. After the final time he relapsed and was taken to the hospital, I threatened him that if he did not tell me where he was getting the heroin, I would personally call his boss and report his drug use. He did tell me where he got the stuff, and I called the DEA and gave them every detail. I realized there were probably dozens more places he knew of… but I wanted to feel that I had done something. I began to feel more and more helpless and every call from my parent, brother or friend potentially became the “death call.” I couldn’t sleep, focus, smile or function. I did come to despise him and my parents for spending so much money on his rehab ( as I was a poor graduate student receiving no help). Eventually I had somewhat of an epiphany. I was studying then, and am now a cell biologist, I knew that more alternative clinical trials were underway for addiction. Most of them were located out of the country, but I became curious about a different approach to opiate dependence. You may already have read that psychedelics such as psilocybin (found in hallucinogenic mushrooms) is showing pretty great efficacy in patients with PTSD, depression and addiction. There are a few controlled studies ongoing as well for this in the U.S.
    I know you may feel psychologically and emotionally enraged or maybe apathetic with your brother and his issues… and that the mention of a psychedelic to treat his addiction sounds like madness, but I promise you that the only insane thing is for him to continue trying the typical treatment. At this point it sounds eerily similar to my own brother’s situation, in that he has nothing to lose. What I ended up suggesting to him was a substance called ayahuasca. I won’t bog you down with the anecdotal stories , sciencey mechanisms of action and what have you. But perhaps you should just look into it, or have him do that. Pretty much every large city, has a community that offers these treatment “ceremonies”. Believe me… I realize this sounds like pseudoscience at the least and horribly reckless at the most, but it saved my brother’s life. He has been opiate free for 5 years now, and he credits the ayahuasca experience. To the sister of the heartbreaking addict, I know that you feel you are not capable of investing further hope , emotion or mental energy on him, but perhaps just give this possibility some thought…

    • Anna says:

      I know as a cell biologist you can’t be expected to know much about epidemiology, but you realize this is anecdotal experience at best ?

      • Gaybeard says:

        Desperate situations sometimes call for experimental science. If the alternative is OD and death then why not try something new, even if it ends up being a placebo?

        • Giuliana says:

          well this “ayahuasca” is apparently a hallucinogenic brew, so i could see that working for some people. hallucinogen use can give some people pretty profound epiphanies. looks like it typically contains DMT, which anecdotelly i know as being a very “spiritual” experience. that is a broad term but in this case, the people i know who have used DMT said they experienced a connection to the universe/an understanding of what “god” meant to them. those kind of spiritual experiences can make dramatic changes in some people’s lives.

        • Anna says:

          Glad you didn’t fall for the cell biologist bait. I fucking love you guys.
          Addiction is a chronic disease. Personally and socially devastating, I know, but it still deserves to be treated like a chronic disease. Patients deserve evidence based treatment. You know nothing about the OP’s brother, you don’t know how many therapeutic options he has exhausted and/or if they were accompanied by proper social and employment rehabilitation.
          Experimental treatments should only be recommended to extremely motivated patients that are in the right (mental, physical) condition to evaluate the risk vs benefit, and who have exhausted all options for evidence based treatment (that’s my ethical stance). It shouldn’t be an offhand recommendation to try psychogenic cacti in the desert and cross your fingers that your addiction goes away.
          I’ve heard similar success stories to your brothers, but my feeling is that it just doesn’t work that way. There is evident selection bias in the people who will go for that (they’re probably younger and more educated), and in self-reporting (people who’ve had serious side effects or for who it didn’t work are less likely to talk about it).

          • Similar Sister says:

            I was not trying to put out bait in talking about my education. Additionally, if you read my first comment, you will see that I specifically stated that my brother’s experience was anecdotal. I actually only mentioned the cell biologist thing, to show that after all his other treatment failed, even I thought he might benefit from trying a different route. (One that I fully admit sounds like pseudoscience/ mysticism BS). You are correct, that I do not know about the other brother’s past treatments. His treatment and abuse history should first and foremost be taken into account, and the evidence based treatment should always apply first, second , third and forth, before ever considering experimental options. I understand, and have worked in evidence based medicine. Admittedly now, I have moved to experimental (human cell therapy clinical trials, CAR-T to be specific.) So by no means do I reject or over scrutinize evidence based medicine. In my career, I support it. Anna, I was merely saying that since this guy is so often on his death bed, it might not be the worst idea to try something different.

  8. Kristen May Lee says:

    Forgiveness isn’t for the other person,it’s for yourself. I don’t know the whole story but I’ve seen so much pain addiction causes. If the person who wrote in would like to reach out to someone who passes no judgement and may be of help,I’m here and if you reach out to me in this section I’d be happy to exchange stories and possibly provide some peace through a phone call or email. Stay strong🙏🏼

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