Siblings in Addiction Recovery – Repairing the Relationship

Siblings in Addiction Recovery – Repairing the Relationship

Siblings in recovery — trying to repair a relationship with a sibling who is in recovery can be extremely difficult and is such an important topic. Today’s guest author, Alexis Harbison, discusses the restoration of her relationship with her brother, a recovering heroin addict. She writes, “In order to do this, we must be willing to go to a dark place that leaves us open for more hurt and trauma.” Alexis is a high school English teacher living and working in San Antonio, Texas. She welcomes reader emails at

Siblings in Addiction Recovery – Repairing the Relationships by Alexis Harbison

When rekindling sibling relationships we must be willing to be vulnerable to be hurt again.  We must be willing to go to a dark place that leaves us open for more hurt and trauma.  If we do not choose vulnerability, we do not allow ourselves a more meaningful relationship, and in more extreme cases, we don’t actually heal ourselves at all.  We are left harboring unanswered questions and resentful feelings.  As I rebuild my relationship with my very own biological sibling that has been tarnished by drug addiction, I have encountered three components of healing.  Although there are many facets of healing broken relationships, these three have allowed me to have a deeper connection to him than I have in all our years growing up.  

1. Honesty and Speaking Truth

Alexis Harbison writes about siblings in recovery and what it takes to repair the relationship.

Alexis Harbison writes about siblings in addiction recovery and what it takes to repair the relationship.

In order for any relationship to thrive, we must be honest.  Although this sounds so obvious and cliche, it must be practiced in every conversation one has with the recovering sibling.  The difficult part of being honest with an addict is one feels like if they are “too honest” you may hurt the addict which could lead to relapse.  It seems counterintuitive to be honest, in an almost shield-like way so as not to hurt them, but in reality my brother should listen to my thoughts and feelings.  Feelings are raw and addicts, who have been using drugs as their own shield, have learned to shy away from confronting emotions, especially those that return both siblings back to pain and anger.  It is not only important to go through this process, allowing yourself to come to this hurt place, but it is also important to recognize that you are here.  This healing of honesty and speaking truth is therapeutic for both you and your sibling. Responding to my brother when he speaks on his addiction requires me to be open to his truth, but also honest with how I feel – shocked, torn, sad and angry.

2. Compassion and Accountability

When my brother came to me after a short stint in jail, no family member wanted him in their home.  He found himself homeless and rejected.  I felt sorry for him.  My compassion, or what I thought was my compassion, overtook me and I allowed him into my home.  I realized after reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfections, that compassion is not a relationship between unequals, the sufferer and the reliever, it is a relationship of equals, where both sufferers.  And the person who is feeling the compassion is in the place of suffering with the other person.  I am in this place with my brother.  I am suffering from his addiction as well.  Although the compassion is now a relationship between equals, the crook of compassion lies in accountability.  Brown goes on to explain that holding people accountable is where one truly experiences compassion. Holding one another accountable for their actions allows one to separate the person, who they are, and their actions, the bad things they have done.  The justice system we have attempts to hold people accountable for their crimes, but it cannot separate the action from the person – to our justice system, they are one in the same.  I as a sister, as a human being, as a compassionate human being, have the ability to be aware of this separation.  I love my brother, and all his wonderful attributes, his character, but I still hold him accountable for his actions.  As he stays with me longer and longer, practicing accountability has been challenging.  Because I love him and do not want him to suffer, my feeling sad for him wants to keep me from letting him “off the hook” or be content with letting minor conflicts go, but if I want my relationship to be restored, I must hold him accountable for his actions.  He must be given bottom lines and consequences for his choice.  If he makes the right choice for his sobriety, then we have both made a leap of restoration, if he does not, I still continue to practice healing because I am now free to separate him, who he is, from his choices.  It frees me from taking it personally or harboring resentment.

3. Forgiveness

Forgiveness, perhaps the most challenging of these three facets, lies in accepting what has happened, what has been done to you, and deliberately saying, “I do not harbor hurt.”  Having a recovering addict in my home has taken me to a dark place of vulnerability.  Knowing that my brother has mercilessly stolen items from loved ones, compulsively and methodically lied to me and others, abandoned his duties as a father, is enough for any person to abandon this recovering   addict.  But when I decided to take him in, I made a conscious decision to take the risk of recovery too.  According to “The Greater Good, The Science of Meaningful Life” website, forgiveness “empowers you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.”  What kind of healing could I actually have with my sibling if I myself have not healed?  Although forgiveness is seen as healing for you, the implication for forgiveness is that it is a process, and must be practiced.  It takes time and energy for one to achieve true forgiveness.  When my brother and I converse, we remember moments in our past, there are times when my eyes fill with dread and my heart becomes angry at his not-so-past life.  I am called back to my trauma again.  This moment is my conscious effort to forgive.  I cannot forget so easily, but reaching for forgiveness allows me peace.  This peace now is not just for me, but his peace too — his inner-peace for sobriety.

In the tornado of addiction, many relationships become tattered and torn.  Some relationships fall to their end abruptly and some stay strained and knotted.  If we do not lean in to the pain, accept it, hold one another accountable and especially forgive, we cheat ourselves of reparations.  We cheat ourselves of knowing a fully-loving sibling relationship.

Works Cited

Brown, Brene?. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City: Hazelden, 2010. Print.

“Forgiveness Definition.” Greater Good The Science of Meaningful Life. Greater Good Science Center, n.d. Web. 20 July 2016.


4 Responses to Siblings in Addiction Recovery – Repairing the Relationship

  1. Norma Varner says:

    I am forwarding this article to my son….. His sister is an addict currently incarcerated, & he recently wrote her a very long letter & told her that he was able to “forgive” her for the many years of heartache her addiction brought into our family. She called me & was crying with joy that she felt renewed in her relationship with her big brother whom she has always looked up to!

    My husband & I are raising our 6 year old grandson, & we have hope that our daughter will be home with all of us in March 2017.

    I love this website… has been such a blessing in my life!

    Norma Varner
    Denton TX

    • Hi Norma – how wonderful for both your son and your daughter (and you and your husband and grandson :)). And thank you for letting me know my website has been of help – I’m so glad. Take care and wishing you all the best for March 2017!

  2. Elaine Wilson-Reddy says:

    My younger brother, who will be 50 in a month, has been in rehab almost two months. He’s been using since he was a teenagers. This is his first stab at rehab. It seems to be going well for him, thank goodness, but it’s such a struggle for me. Sometimes when he calls, he’s an adult and we can have a conversation about whatever- the weather, our family, sports. But most of the time when he calls, he’s the self-absorbed teenager that corrects me, tells me he already knows something, and is generally unpleasant to talk with. I want to support him and encourage him, but sometimes I just do not want to answer my phone. Is this normal? How do I deal with my frustration without disrupting our new relationship and communication?

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