Letter to My Sister

Close up of white roseThe following is an open letter to my sister Andrea Haber, who died from complications due to alcoholism on 10/31/11.

Dearest Anj:

Just a note to let you know how much I miss you. It’s still so bitterly ironic to me that what killed you is the very disease I’ve devoted my life to battling. But in a way, your alcoholism never gave you a chance.

I’m sorry we never talked about it, although you can’t say I didn’t try. There was a time, a few years back, when you told me you wanted to talk about it, and my heart leapt. But that talk, like so many hoped-for moments, never materialized.

I believe when I first got sober I wrote you a somewhat long-winded, pompous letter about the perils of drinking. I’m sorry again that I preached at you like that. You handled it with grace but I cringe now at the thought of my presumptuous rambling. Newly sober people often think they can save the world with a few well-chosen phrases. I guess I thought there was really something I could do. Naïve, yes, but even at the end, and maybe even now, I often feel the same way.

I miss your letters. They really made me laugh. You were a fabulous writer and I think that you, as with so much else, underestimated yourself. Their absence has created a very loud silence.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Gee bro, nice cheery letter!” I only wish I could be more cheery. This is an occasion I never wanted— that even with the grim medical news coming from Pittsburgh, I never really saw coming. There’s just no good way to spin the loss of someone so young, so beautiful, so amazing. Part of the tragedy for me is, I don’t think you ever truly understood just how loved you were. Mom told me you were shocked when she said to you, near the end, how much you’d be missed should the worst happen. This too, is another symptom of addiction: the disbelief that we matter to people, the certainty that we’re really “only hurting ourselves.”

Hard to be cheery when feeling so cheated…

Of course, denial is the hallmark of this loathsome affliction. We grew up with rationalizations and minimizations aplenty when it came to Dad’s drinking and the family’s Nixonian “cover up”—i.e., “Don’t talk about it, too embarrassing” (Dad’s favorite) and “It’s not that bad” and “Don’t exaggerate,” all repeated like mantras. Even I, near the end, felt that chances were good you’d come around; see the light, get sober. Your disease made a mockery of my optimism.

So hard to sit on the sidelines and simply try to accept. I’ve struggled lately with, “Did I really do enough?” Should I have gone all out and planned an intervention, John Wayne style? Should I have demanded you listen to me until “the truth” sank in? I already felt like a stick in the mud, the voice of gloom, whenever you called or wrote me and wanted to laugh or kid around; I loved the jokes but was so terribly worried about your well-being. We had a trove of inside jokes, a bulwark against the despair of growing up in that chaos and emotional violence. I cherished the humor but wondered what might be going on underneath. There is a pain we can’t hide from, I have found, no matter how clever or humorous we are. When your doctor handed you that grim prognosis last year, that you either stop drinking or die, I thought “well this is it, she can’t ignore it any longer.” Wrong again, bro!

Of course the cliché is that there’s nothing you can do to get a person to stop; no amount of begging or pleading or coercion will ever do the trick. Maybe briefly, superficially, but it’s an “inside job” (as they say) when it comes to lasting change. We can give someone just about anything, except motivation to do the hard but necessary thing. I kept thinking you’d finally “hit bottom” when the doctors told you your liver was shot…until mom told me this wasn’t the case, that she feared nothing was changing. I backed off a bit because I know how she hounded you. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe hearing it from me would’ve got you moving.

I cringe when I see the pride and ego in that last sentence. Yes, you should have heard it from ME, your big brother, sober white knight on the West Coast, brandishing a master’s degree in psych., saving souls and fighting the good fight. I wonder if you’re chuckling as you read this.

Perhaps it’s pretentious of me to think I had the slightest idea of what might be good for you. I had no idea what was really going on in your life, and I suppose it was none of my business. Maybe the long, hard climb back to sobriety might have been too difficult; perhaps too many skeletons, whatever they were, had accumulated in the closet for any one person to face.

But saying “There’s nothing I could have done” doesn’t seem to help. Maybe that’s why I’m writing you now; perhaps, in my Jewish neurotic guilt, I struggle towards some kind of absolution. Doubt has always dogged me; so hard to not look over my shoulder in almost every instance. This is no exception. Could I have somehow said more, done more, pushed harder to help you “see the light”? (Am I hearing that chuckle again?)

Just this morning I advised the mother of a patient that there was nothing she could do to “get” her daughter to stop using and go to meetings. I thought, “Wow she really thinks there’s something she can do!” So easy to sit in one’s cozy office chair and dispense wisdom to the struggling, misguided souls asking for help…

Here’s the hard part (as if there’s an easy part!): You can detach, stop trying, accept another’s addiction, respect their “life choices” and move on. But how to really “move on” when it’s your own flesh and blood? You can stop obsessing, stop letting the person’s disease hold your serenity hostage, attend Al-Anon meetings, seek counseling…but the kind of Zen-transcendent it’s-all-good acceptance I’ve perhaps subtly advocated to others isn’t possible, at least not for me, at this point in time.

Because I can’t stop loving you. Can’t switch off the caring. How could it be otherwise?

Maybe the idea is to make room for both, the love and the acceptance. It’s not either-or (as I’m fond of telling my patients). You can love the person and hate the disease. It’s just hard to stand by and watch a loved one fall to pieces and to try and pretend it’s not happening. It’s like a fatal car accident happening in slow motion right outside your door. I prayed every night for you to find the desire to stop drinking. I struggle to accept it never happened.

I know you meant no harm, Sis, and I never took it personally. I think if you could have stopped, you would have; as I say, the odds were seriously stacked against us from the get-go. I don’t know why I hit the lucky number; I just know it’s a gift that I protect with my life, and I would have given anything to have shared it with you. I tried.

I hope you know that somehow, wherever you are, I was worried but not condemning you. There is so much shame with this thing but I always longed to say to you, How could you not be an alcoholic, with all the crap we had to deal with? Even so, I underestimated the awesome power of this thing, and can only guess at how you suffered beneath the chuckles, the jokes and that wonderful wit of yours. It’s just hard to accept that, in this case at least, love was not enough…so difficult at those times when I think of our private jokes and laugh and want to email you…hard to really accept that my kid sister—my first friend, my loyal ally—is really, undeniably gone…

 Related articles:
The Pendulum of Grieving
Over-Extended: Thoughts on Boundaries in Addictive Families
In Case of Emergency: Seeking Help When a Loved one Struggles with Addiction

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT, therapist in Los Angeles, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Paula

    Paula

    April 2nd, 2012 at 3:08 PM

    That is a very powerful letter, and words that I know you wish that you could say them to her in person. I am so sorry for your personal loss, as I know it is such a tragedy to have something that most of us see as so preventable take someone’s life. My sincerest condolescences to you and your family.

  • Darren Haber, MFT

    Darren Haber, MFT

    April 2nd, 2012 at 4:32 PM

    Thank you Paula. Appreciate you saying that.

  • Beth Lotterstein Fox

    Beth Lotterstein Fox

    April 2nd, 2012 at 5:58 PM

    This letter is extremely powerful and very moving. I am so truly sorry for your loss and the inner struggles that you are going through.

  • Jayne

    Jayne

    April 3rd, 2012 at 4:20 AM

    Alcoholism is such a difficult subject to talk about, especially when it is concerning a family member.

    It’s hard to talk to them about the damage that they are doing to their bodies and their lives without driving an irreparable wedge between the two of you.

    I hope that this letter allows you to know that you did not do anything wrong, that you did what you could to save her.

  • Tammy Blackard Cook

    Tammy Blackard Cook

    April 3rd, 2012 at 5:34 AM

    Darren, this is such a powerful letter. I’m going to print it off and give it to clients and share it with my colleagues.

    I’ve been writing about my grief on GoodTherapy in the loss of my father to lung cancer last year. Your letter reminds me so much of the feelings I’ve (and others in my family, I’m sure) battled or accepted or railed at. My father smoked his entire life, even after the death of his father of lung cancer 25 years ago. And even after his diagnosis in 2002. He got lucky and lived another 9 years, but watching him smoke through it was maddening.

    Ironically, or maybe not, he was also a tobacco farmer.

    Addiction is so powerful. I curse it every few days.

  • Alistair Campbell

    Alistair Campbell

    April 3rd, 2012 at 8:25 AM

    Seeing somebody dear to you go through an addiction is not easy…you are torn between caring for them and hating what they subject themselves to…I have had a brother be taken away from me due to substance addiction and really, your letter moved me to tears.I tried so much to help him but things didn’t quite go the right way and he is no more here…

  • Darren Haber, MFT

    Darren Haber, MFT

    April 3rd, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    Thank you all for your moving posts. It’s stunning to me how many people can relate to what I said, when I was certain it was an extremely “private” thing that few people (if any) could relate to. I so appreciate the support and honesty, it doesn’t make all the sadness “go away” but makes me think that if something good can come of all this, a “silver lining” (even a slender one), maybe it’s a chance to raise awareness and let others know that, if you have a loved one self-destructing, there are others who can relate, understand and offer support.

  • Darren Haber, MFT

    Darren Haber, MFT

    April 3rd, 2012 at 4:40 PM

    ps. To Tammy, I’m honored you feel my letter might help some of your clients and/or colleagues. I’ll look up some of your posts on the site here. Thanks.

  • Genevieve

    Genevieve

    April 4th, 2012 at 1:17 PM

    I cried reading this, because I too have been in that self righteous role thinking that I could change the behavior of others just because I had done it myself. But I think that your letter so beautifully points out that there is no change for any reason other than when you are ready to do it on your own. For your sister, I know she just ran out of time to find that within herself, but I know that if she reads this she will know that you were right there for and with her all the way, rooting for her through the good and the bad.

  • Darren Haber, MFT

    Darren Haber, MFT

    April 4th, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    Thank you, Genevieve.

  • mom

    mom

    April 18th, 2013 at 6:51 PM

    even though i knew it might come someday i am totally unprepared for how it feels to miss her everyday, to have memories appear out of nowhere and not tear up. al anon has helped with the “If only i had.,.” game. i wish i could find solace in the thought that we;ll see each other again someday, but i;ll have to settle for gratitude for the good times. wish we had more of them.

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