Are You Your ‘Brother’s Keeper’? Taking Responsibility when a Sibling is an Addict or Alcoholic

The relationships we establish with our family members are the heart and soul of our moral and ethical systems. Before our we accept our responsibility to the rest of mankind we must first acknowledge our responsibility to our parents, children, brothers, sisters, grandparents, and all of the extended family members who have been there for us right from the beginning. Caring and watching out for family is a sacred responsibility, and it is not one we should attempt to dismiss lightly no matter what a family member may have done to alienate our affections.

The relationship between brothers and sisters is especially unique because it generally lacks the intergenerational separation that exists in most familial relationships. In most cases our siblings are not just our loved ones but also our peers, and this gives us an ability to understand them and relate to their problems in a way that is quite different from the way we and they relate to others in the family. Even beyond that sense of sacred responsibility that is always associated with family, the dynamics of the relationship between brothers and sisters means that a sibling may be able to reach another sibling at a level where others in the family are shut out. This implies a special type of responsibility for the others when one sibling runs into deep trouble or has encountered a problem he is struggling – and failing – to handle all on his own.

Addiction to drugs or alcohol is obviously an example of this kind of trouble. The chances are that when someone in the family has fallen under the spell of an addictive substance, siblings will be in possession of “inside” information about how it all went down that others lack, putting them in the perfect position to intervene effectively without having to wade through all the lies, rationalizations, and evasions addicts typically employ. Brothers and sisters will generally know the truth about what has been happening in an addict’s life, and they are unlikely to be persuaded by clever strategies designed to distract attention or hide unpleasant realities.

But chemical dependency doesn’t just enslave bodies; it also warps minds and corrupts souls, and those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol are capable of doing anything to support their habits, including taking advantage of the trust and good will of the people closest to them. Addicts can be selfish to the extreme as they use and abuse people in the exact same way they use and abuse drugs or alcohol, and while siblings may have a responsibility to look out for a wayward brother or sister there is only so far they can be expected to go to help someone who refuses to be helped, or who is willing to hurt the ones who love him the most just to keep his drug habit well fed.

Brothers and sisters do have an obligation to look out for each other and offer their assistance when it can make a difference, and this is a serious responsibility that should never be ignored or neglected. But addicts and alcoholics must be willing to admit they have a problem and accept the assistance that is offered to them without condition if it is going to do them any good. When addicts have not yet reached this stage, and are still putting the interests of their drug or alcohol habit above everything and everyone else, the rest of the family has the right to keep their distance and look after their own affairs by keeping all destructive influences out of their lives. In fact, in some situations tough love may be the only strategy left open to family members who have tried everything else they can think of to get through to a substance abusing loved one. Leaving a sibling struggling with substance abuse alone to fend for himself may seem cruel, but in the long run it might be the kindest thing a brother or sister can do, if it is the only way to get the addict to realize once and for all how much damage drugs and alcohol are doing to his life.

The Ties that Bind

To a certain extent, we are all our brother’s keeper. As members of a society, we depend on the social contract to preserve the overall sense of community that binds us together in a network of mutual caring and support, and we must try to be there for each other if at all possible when times are hard.

This vitally important aspect of our collective group dynamic must start at home, in the family, and we cannot afford to shrink away when substance abuse is threatening to tear everything asunder. Fortunately, the bonds that connect siblings are special and powerful, and in some circumstances brothers and sisters can make inroads with an addict that are beyond the realm of possibility for others.

But ultimately the addict is destined to become an outcast in even the closest family if he is unwilling to accept the truth about himself and agree to take the steps that are necessary to overcome his chemical dependency. The addict must stop making excuses and finally take complete responsibility for his past, present, and future, and only after that has occurred can his siblings reasonably be expected to step in and make a full commitment to act as “their brother’s keeper.”

Compassion demands much, especially in the family. But no matter what happens we always have a God-given right to protect ourselves, our children, our parents, and everyone else we care about from anyone who is harming them in any way, shape or form, even if that person should happen to be our very own brother or sister.