By Ethan Tankel, MSEd., LPC, CAADC
My brother and I are nine years apart and by the time I was five years old my brother had begun abusing substances. From age six to eleven, my brother’s addiction dominated my parents’ attention and reshaped our lives.
For me, being the sibling of an addict meant late nights listening to fights. It meant not being able to have friends over. It meant hiding my valuables. It meant getting picked up late from school. It meant feeling powerless and angry. As the younger sibling of an addict, I was along for the ride trying to wrap my head around an issue I struggled to understand. I had a voice but it was quiet and in the face of overwhelming turmoil I did my best to keep my head down and avoid putting anything else on my parents’ plates.
My parents would ask how I felt about my brother and when I answered honestly that I hated him, they did not correct me or encourage me to soften my language. They made space for me to express myself and they acknowledged my hurt. Initially, my family’s problems could be hidden behind closed doors but at a certain point, my parents gave up on trying to conceal the damage. My mom opened the door to supporting other parents struggling with parenting children addicted to substances and I was given full license to share about my experience.
In the 7th grade, my English class required everyone to submit a personal story for a memoir collection that the school would publish.* I wrote about witnessing my brother’s addiction and his recent transition into treatment. Concerned about the heavy content in my submission, the school reached out to my parents and asked if they would help me write another piece. My parents declined and demanded that my essay be shared alongside my peers’. After some debate, the school conceded and my essay was included.
This was the first time that I would go on the record about my experience. It was empowering and from that point forward I felt comfortable sharing openly about the pain that I had kept to myself. You can read that short memoir below. It is worth noting that in the 7th grade, I still did not have a handle on many of the details in spite of my confident commentary on the housing market in 2007.
When I wrote my essay, I was unsure of what the future held for my brother and our relationship. I am happy to say that everything turned out for the best. He got sober and has been in recovery ever since. He became a therapist and my interest in his transformation from my nightmare to my best friend led me to pursue my own career as a therapist. After seeing the work that my brother and I were doing, my mother went back to school to become a therapist. In the years since, my mother and I have gone into practice together at Better Counseling Services where we support families affected by substance abuse.