• John Roesch

Guilty as Charged: My Sister's Struggle (and Mine)

My sister, there’s only one way to describe her: that’s Karen*. Karen and I were raised the same; in the same house, with the same values and rules, the same loving and generous parents, the same upper-middle class privileges, the same strong friendships with dear family friends. As the younger sibling, she even had it better than I did (or so I thought) as she followed in my footsteps and was granted access to certain privileges earlier than I was because I was already exercising those privileges in her presence. Yet, despite being raised the same way in the same environment, Karen and I are very different people.

Karen struggled with addiction and depression for years, creating a hectic, chaotic, and selfish tenure that, try as I might, I could not “fix”. Life had become the Karen show. The energy and effort that I dedicated to thinking, caring, worrying about Karen took over my life and my feelings - my needs became secondary to hers.

And then it happened, she hit her bottom, she wanted help, she wanted to get better, and she did. She joined AA and for the first time in a long time, she committed to something fully. She worked hard and though the journey is never over, she has taken better care of herself in these last four years than she had the previous twenty-five.

Suddenly, I could focus on me again. After years of shoving my feelings aside to focus on hers, they came flooding back. What I felt above all was crushing GUILT. Guilty that this happened to her and not me; guilty that I did not appreciate her first attempts at sobriety; guilty that I couldn’t “fix” her; guilty that I was the one who gave her her first drink, took her to her first party, smoked her first joint with her. Guilty that all of these feelings were about me and not her. And ya know what? THAT IS OK!

It has taken me a long time to get here, to get to the place where it is ok to feel guilty and ok to feel selfish and ok to realize that while her journey was for her, mine should be for me.

So how did I get here to this place where it is ok to feel guilty? I worked at it. In the same way I watched Karen find discipline and understanding, I worked to find that too. I attended meetings with her, I talked to others in her situation and mine, I talked to a therapist, and most importantly, I talked to my sister. Karen’s work and program had helped her see that her journey was hers and no one else’s, and she shared those tools to help me find that same logic for my journey too.

I will probably always feel guilt associated with my experience of my sister’s journey, if nothing else, guilt for feeling selfish about making her journey about my experience. But, the fact is, that is MY journey. If being an ally to my sister has taught me anything, it is that my feelings are valid but I don’t have to lean into them. My experience is valid, my feelings of guilt are valid, my selfishness is valid. They are all a part of my journey. It is my decision however, how much those feelings impact my life and, like Karen, I choose to move forward. Onward and upward, guilt and all.

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