BY EMILY BARGE AND CARLY PEREZ
Addiction is becoming a talked-about subject, as heroin deaths continue to increase throughout the country. We hear success stories, tragedies, and sometimes, a brave and honest individual will share a personal story that sheds some light on the issue.
But unless you have been addicted to a substance, how often do we read something and walk away truly understanding the addicted individual and their behavior? Without a full understanding, how can family and friends cope with the highs and lows of an addicted presence in their life? How do they take their hurt and betrayal and transform it into the necessary support and love the addict needs?
The addict feels extreme pain. Family and friends feel extreme pain. Soon everyone becomes selfish and thinks their pain is the worst until nobody can tell who’s suffering the most.
After watching my childhood best friend (who was the closest thing to my sister) become addicted to heroin, I dealt with the destructive cycle of addiction in positive and negative ways. There’s no roadmap for how to support an addict. Ultimately, family and friends experience similar emotions and can choose to come together or drift apart. For me and Carly — my best friend’s sister — it thankfully brought us closer as we struggled with the best and worst ways to love an addict.
Our story isn’t extraordinary or even courageous, but hopefully it gives an honest portrait of the destructive path addiction creates for every person involved. And more than anything, it should prove that addicts and their loved ones always have a way out.
Carly: The bond between two sisters is known to be the strongest one possible. Growing up, my sister and I were as close as we could possibly be. I looked up to her for guidance and occasionally copied exactly what she did.
Our personalities always had similarities and differences. I always felt the need to be right and I wasn’t afraid to state my opinion. But even with my bold personality, I was looked at as more of a follower. My sister, on the other hand, had never been afraid to bend the rules and believed very strongly in herself. She knew all the ways to get on my nerves, like laughing during an argument and ignoring me while I was making a point. Our personalities caused us to fight a lot, but we always found a way to work it out and eventually laugh about it.
Emily: Like a lot of families, my parents are close with two other couples. When we were together, there were fights and tears but there was also fierce laughter, the sound of running feet and scooters on the sidewalk, and whispering as we stayed up all night.
It was these lifelong family friendships that set the bar for what friendship means to me. Carly’s older sister was closest to my age. She was 2 years younger than me, but we wanted to do everything together. I was a naive bookworm with a creative streak. I came up with ideas and made sure they happened. She was more rebellious and didn’t make plans, but had the biggest heart for animals. Our differences and age gap could have easily made us drift apart sooner, but we both fed off each other. Together we were bold, unafraid to say what we wanted, and could make any situation interesting. She may be Carly’s blood sister, but she was mine, too.
Carly: It was my senior year but I’m not sure anyone even remembered. Everything revolved around my sister. I couldn’t have friends over if she was home. She had no clue I got accepted to college. I wondered if she would even be proud of me.
You could say this all started when my sister met a guy. He was quite the charmer in the beginning of their relationship, but behind closed doors he was abusive. I tried to tell her what she should do, but she never listened. I tried everything from completely ignoring her to pouring all my feelings out. I slowly started to hide my emotions and distance myself as much as I could.
I gave up completely when I noticed I was being stolen from. My parents kicked out my sister for a short time after she continued robbing us. When their rocky four-year relationship finally came to an end, her self esteem was nonexistent.
One afternoon I came home from school and my mom wanted to talk. I can see the look she had on her face to this day, twisted with fear, worry and sadness. She told me that my sister had started to use heroin.
I didn’t show any reaction right away. But when I got to my room, I closed the door, sank to the floor and sobbed. I immediately realized my sister’s actions were taking a huge toll on my parents. Their feelings went from extreme anger to overwhelming sadness to paranoia, desperation, humiliation and everything in between. They became stricter with me because there was no way they could go through what they were going through with my sister again.
The whole situation made me furious. I didn’t understand how she could continue to do something that was harming her and our family. I looked at my sister’s ex-boyfriend and her drug addiction the same way: I had to always remind myself not to believe her when she said she was done with him or the drug. I started using anger to cover up how I was feeling. It was easier. But on the inside, my heart was breaking because I knew I was losing my sister.
There was a regular cycle. She would call and tell me she was clean, and I knew never to believe it. The trust had been shattered years ago. She would carelessly crawl back to something that had been tearing her life apart since the day she started it, and I couldn’t understand it.
In the end, I looked at her actions and focused on what I should stay away from. I prayed that one day I could look up to her again, but there came a point when I realized there was nothing I could do to help her. I gave up.
Emily: As strong as I thought my bond was with Carly’s sister, our friendship started to disintegrate. It faded slowly and was the type of thing I tried to tell myself wasn’t happening, but it was.
While I was at college, she started dating a controlling guy. As her best friend, I tried to support her at first, but nothing worked. I watched her disappear, lose her confidence and lose herself. And that meant our friendship did the same thing.
Until one day she left him for good and stuck to it this time. When I graduated from college that summer, we surprisingly gravitated back to each other like always. Looking back, I should have noticed signs that summer. She almost never asked for help, but one day, her voice shot through the phone and she sped through her sentences. She said she was up all night drinking and had taken ADD medicine to help her sleep, but it didn’t work. She couldn’t stop chewing straws, her mouth was cut up, and she kept saying she just wanted to run.
I nervously told her to be careful. I checked up on her throughout the day, and when I realized she was fine, I naively went through the rest of my summer without thinking about it. One of the last times I saw her was at the end of summer. It was the same as always, but not really. She tried to act like herself, but she was darker and meaner.
A few months later, I found out she was addicted to heroin. She lost her job and started doing heart-wrenching things for money. She lost her curves and became bone thin with stringy hair. I tried to be there for her. I asked her questions and tried to find sober ways we could hang out. I don’t remember if we did.
Things were so disconnected, and there were times when she flipped out on me, telling me I didn’t understand her and wasn’t there for her. Those were the moments that hurt the most, knowing all the energy and emotion I had invested into supporting her over the years. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t see it. I also couldn’t understand why I never stopped trying to help her, especially when it never worked and she never appreciated it.
I heard about her going to jail for a night. She contacted me shortly after saying she was going to rehab and that she was scared. I talked her through it all night and told her I would visit. I was naive and so hopeful.
Then, she backed out. She didn’t go to rehab and she fell right back into her old lifestyle. She made it clear that our lives were separate, and it was tiring to be the one always trying to bridge the gap. Am I terrible for saying this was the point where I fully gave up? I had officially failed. Nothing I could do would help her.
I grew to expect the worst. I was bitter and cynical when anyone talked about her. Really, I was just trying to hide the fact that I was betrayed and frustrated with myself for not being able to save her.
Carly: Something must have clicked one day in my sister’s mind because she called my mom crying, wanting to come home. We later found out she was going through withdrawal, which explained her odd moods. My sister had been off heroin for about a week when she called us that morning. For some reason, my parents swore this time would be different, but all of my sister’s attempts before this had ended in failure. I couldn’t bring myself to speak to her.
I felt that ignoring her and keeping my distance was the smartest thing to do. She had already pushed me so far away that there wasn’t one topic I could come up with to talk about. Awkward stares and smirks were the only personal exchanges we made.
After a month or so, I decided that it was time to say something to her. Little by little, I asked her all the questions I had wondered during the past couple of years. How did you start it? Why did you start it? Did you not see what you were putting us through? The questions kept coming, one after another. Although some of the answers weren’t what I wanted to hear, I felt a sense of relief when we finished.
Having my sister home had to be one of the hardest changes to get used to. It was an adjustment, unexpectedly seeing her walk throughout the house, accidentally walking right into our shared bathroom, and arguing endlessly about what show to watch. I kept it to myself, but I loved having her home no matter how many times her mood changed throughout the day.
I still don’t trust her, and I’m not sure I ever will. But I don’t want anyone to think I’m not proud of my sister for choosing to quit. I understood that it was a huge accomplishment — I’ll just never understand why she let herself start using it in the first place. She’s been clean for about a year and a half, and we’re slowly building our trust.
At the end of the day, we’re sisters and no matter how mad I get at her, there’s a genetic tie that will always keep us connected. That fact has become clear to me throughout everything.
Emily: She’s been clean for over a year, and I’m so proud of her. She contacted me when she finally made the decision to get clean, and we met up a few times. For once in our lives, things didn’t pick up where they left off. Things were awkward. I tried to talk about the things we used to, but they didn’t really matter anymore.
I tried to shove away my selfish feelings of wanting her to take responsibility for being a bad friend. She didn’t say much, and I think she half-apologized once. Part of it was that she assumed everyone around her, including me, judged her. Part of it was probably out of shame and embarrassment. It’s not that I couldn’t forgive her — that was the easy part. What I couldn’t do was bring back the bond we used to have.
In her first few clean months, I didn’t see or talk to her much even though that’s when she needed the most support. I wanted to. I wish I could have been a better friend, but I didn’t know how to get past the damage between us. Did we even have a friendship? I felt the same sisterly love and loyalty, and that will never go away, but I didn’t know how to invest myself the way I used to. It felt easier to stay away.
Right after she started getting clean, she reached out to me and let me know she was pregnant. While she was admittedly terrified, something in her was more motivated than ever. My goddaughter and Carly’s niece eventually became the thread that tied everyone back together. With her sparkling eyes, curly hair and infectious personality, we can’t help but think of the present and the future.
Things aren’t perfect, but I have more confidence in her and our friendship than I have in years. For the last year and a half, she has been more determined than I’ve ever seen her, and she slowly regained the spark and personality she used to have. It’s refreshing and I know I had nothing to do with it. It was all her.
Part of me wonders if I’m falling back into my idealistic way of thinking only to be betrayed again. Sometimes I struggle with my selfish thoughts, but I know she’s finally making a constant effort to be a loyal friend and sister. It’s only fair that I can do the same.