Sara Romain, Zach’s younger sister, was 15 years old when he began using heroin. He would steal from her to fund his addiction.
Sara stated that he broke through her window and stole everything, including anything of value to her.
Everything, stated Zach. Everything I knew that had monetary value, I took and sold.
Addiction is sometimes referred to as a family disease due to the profound effects it has on the parents and children of those with substance use disorders. Many individuals believe they are battling their loved one’s addiction alone. However, the adolescents who are the siblings of substance abusers may feel more isolated than others.
Sara resented the fact that Zach and Scott’s dependencies consumed her mother and grandmother. She stated that Zach could be extremely manipulative, telling their mother that he would commit suicide if she did not give him money.
Sara remarked that it frustrates her to no end that she believes she must give them everything they request or they will harm themselves. How can you say such a thing to your mother?
There are support groups for parents with addicted children and for children with addicted parents, but there is limited assistance for adolescents coping with a sibling’s addiction.
Tim Portinga, a psychologist and clinical supervisor for mental health staff at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, a nonprofit addiction-treatment provider with locations in multiple states, stated that children are unprepared for the range of emotions they experience when observing a sibling enduring a crisis.
Portinga stated that he consistently hears this from siblings: that nobody understands how painful it was to have their brother or sister not show up to their basketball games, or to see their brother or sister intoxicated and passed out on the floor, or to try to comprehend why their brother or sister is once again in trouble with the law.
They have no idea why this is occurring. They have affection for their sibling. They simply cannot comprehend what is going on.
SIBLINGS ARE OFTEN FORGOTTEN.
It is difficult to locate treatment for adolescents with a substance use disorder. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last year that only eight treatment facilities in Pennsylvania accepted patients under the age of 18.
In contrast, their adolescent siblings may go completely unnoticed. In contrast to the numerous studies on how addiction affects the relationship between parents and children, according to Portinga, the impact on siblings has received little attention.
He treats patients in their late teens and early twenties at a Hazelden Betty Ford facility in Plymouth, Minnesota, every day. The facility also provides therapy for the parents and siblings of patients. Due to the difficulty of locating programs for adolescents, the center serves patients from across the nation.
According to Portinga, it is evident from speaking with them and their families that siblings struggle in ways distinct from parents. They may feel embarrassed by their brother or sister’s or sister’s addiction, as well as lonely when they leave their lives.
However, the fundamental issue keeps returning to the broken trust, often in excruciatingly painful ways, said Portinga. Therefore, siblings construct these barriers against forming relationships. They become extremely fearful of trust. They have extremely intricate notions of what a sibling should or could be.
Frequently, parents are overwhelmed and unable to function effectively. Siblings may attempt to fill the parental void, acting as a parent to the struggling sibling. Others may feel resentful that their parents are suddenly focusing so much attention on the sibling in crisis.
Occasionally, siblings can influence one another’s substance use.
Under the guise of attempting to be considerate brothers and sisters, siblings will frequently share substances, said Portinga. This is a particularly painful phenomenon. I frequently hear stories from my clients about their first drug use experiences occurring with a sibling.
Such was the case for Zach Romain and his brother. Scott, who is seven years older than Zach, introduced him to marijuana and alcohol at his first parties. When he was 16, Zach introduced Scott to the painkillers he began stealing from the family medicine cabinet.
Currently, Zach is 22 years old and Scott is 29. The year before Zach’s sobriety, his brother was still using. Their relationship has also not recovered.
Zach stated, “I get angry at him for putting my family through what he is doing, but I did the exact same thing.” I simply avoid him, and whenever I am in his presence, I am accompanied by a family member.
A FRACTURED FAMILY
Since Scott overdosed outside their family home just before Christmas, Sara has not spoken to him in over two years. When he awoke, he insisted there was no problem. Sara was revolted.
If you do not wish to assist yourself, I will not assist you, she stated.
Today, at age 21, the relationship between Sara and Zach is more complicated. She stated that they were never particularly close because he had anger issues as children and made fun of her in front of his peers.
Last year, however, Zach’s girlfriend gave birth, and he entered rehab. After a year of inpatient treatment at MVP Recovery in Delaware County, he returned to Franklinville to live with Sara and their mother, Deanna Rubles.
Sara was extremely angry at him for stealing everything. She resented me for allowing him to enter the house. She was so angry with me, and she’s still upset that I let him back in, Rubles explained.
Rubles and Zach have an open relationship as they sit across from each other at a table and tell their respective stories of Zach’s addiction, Scott’s addiction, and Sara’s reluctance to accept either back into her life.
Rubles has also struggled as she attempts to assist her two sons. Recently, she founded a support group for family members of addicts. Those in attendance are also familiar with the challenges faced by siblings. One mother has struggled to explain to her children under 10 their older sibling’s fatal overdose.
Sara has not participated in the group her mother founded. She has less overall patience for her brothers. For months, she refused to speak for this article. Sara stated that she was sick of her mother and grandmother accusing her of being insensitive because of the way she treats her brothers. She stated that she cannot see that they are attempting to get better and that it is affecting the entire family.
Simply put, I want him to move on. It is difficult to watch at this point. She said to do it for everyone else. When Zach moved back in, Sara ensured that her door was secured.
Zach stated that despite their strained relationship, his sister did the right thing. His mother and other family members continued to give him money and support while he used drugs, but Sara was determined to help him stop.
Not communicating with me or assisting me in any way. That kind of made me feel hopeless, which, you know, pushed me to that point, he said, where he wanted to seek assistance.
In the hospital following an overdose, Zach once attempted to make amends.
I broke down, and I told Sara, “I don’t want things to go back to how they were before, and I don’t want to stop talking to you because, like, I love you, and I just want you to understand.”
They’ve made some advancements. Sara is Zach’s daughter’s godmother. They shared a meal on the day of this interview.
Simply put, it makes me extremely happy. Zach stated that he wished his brother was present, despite the fact that he was present.
Zach is unsure if this will occur, however, until Scott stops using.
Some relationships are irretrievable. He stated that this is taught in Alcoholics Anonymous.
And they can be quite delicate. After nearly a year of abstinence, Zach relapsed the weekend following Sara’s interview for this article.
Sara discovered him with the needle still in his arm. And it was Sara who ripped it out.
The basic issue is trust, one expert says: A trust thats been broken by a brother or sister, and sometimes in deeply painful ways.