This is a long story, so I’ll try and give you the short version: My sister is in an acute care facility where she is being treated for pneumonia for the next two months. I haven’t seen her for 12 years which is when she started using hard drugs. She has now been clean for 27 days and she wants to stay clean. We’re both nervous. I’m the first family member to visit. I know the big sister role is not what’s needed now. I’m looking for advice on what to say or not say and, most of all, to encourage her to get better and seek recovery after she is released from the hospital. Any advice appreciated. I want her to know she is loved and that her family is here for her. We don’t live in the same city or even the same country. This is an opportunity I didn’t think I would get and I don’t want to screw it up.
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My thoughts are with you and yours as you ready to welcome your sister back to sobriety, back to your family. Don’t forget to reach out for support during this sensitive time of transition. Make sure your most stalwart friends are on hand to help you process all the feelings that are coming up. If you have any close friends that you’ve been too busy to contact in the past few months, try to make time to re-establish connections and let them know what’s going on. I’d consider getting a therapist, if you don’t already have one.
The situation with your sister is going to rely so much on what she is able to handle. You won’t be able to anticipate her needs. Showing up, being loving and honest, both with yourself and her, is the first step. But showing up is also the culmination, the flower, the end goal, as well as the process of being a good friend, being a good sister.
In terms of what to say and what not to say … I think it’s okay to be real with her, though of course be gentle and supportive, as you would with any person who has been sick. If you want to let your sister know she is loved, all you have to do is tell her and just be there.
You mention that “the big sister role is not what’s needed right now,” and I think that’s wise. She’s been through hell. She’s going to have a lot of struggles and she’ll likely stumble on her way to sobriety. I’m not exactly sure what “the big sister role” means to you, but I’d be wary of getting into territory that could be taken as “overbearing.” You want to encourage her to stay sober, to stick with her program — that alone will take a surprising amount of self-work.
It’s heavy and really tricky to love an addict, whether they’re your peer — like a sibling or a lover — or an authority figure to you, as in a parent. People who love addicts can find themselves doing crazy things, like giving of themselves to the point of pain, emptying their bank accounts on behalf of the addict, enabling abusive behaviors, making all sorts of excuses to protect the addict. Even if your sister can consistently maintain sobriety, you’re still dealing with all of these problems in finer, trickier shades. That’s why I’m emphasizing the importance of relying on your support systems. Meditation and/or therapy for yourself might be helpful. It can be difficult just to show up and be real. That’s the extent of the job, as simplistic as it sounds. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be incredibly rewarding, no matter the outcome. A lot is going to come up, and you and your sister and your family have this amazing opportunity to heal together right now.
Love to you and yours,
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Over the span of her career, Jolie Holland has knotted together a century of American song in jazz, blues, folk, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll. A founding member of the Be Good Tanyas, Holland has released a half-dozen critically lauded albums of her own material over the last 12 years. She recently rejoined forces with Samantha Parton — her former Be Good Tanyas bandmate — for a new duo project simply called Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton . Holland currently resides in Los Angeles.