My name is Camille, and I am the sister of someone in recovery. It is easy for family members affected by a loved one’s addiction to focus on the person using, forgetting their own stories. For years, I quietly silenced myself and pushed my own thoughts and experiences away. However, I have come to realize that family members of people in long-term recovery are also important. Our stories, too, should be shared, for we know intimately that recovery is possible and that it allows families to heal.
I was sixteen the first time someone asked me to talk openly about my experience with my brother’s addiction. I was the Alateen speaker at an AA celebration. Although I was honored to be there, I also felt very uncomfortable. As I sat in my chair and listened to the other speakers, I remembered the judging looks and harsh words people at my school gave me when they found out that my brother had been arrested for breaking into houses - their houses - in the middle of the night. Addiction had taught me to be overly secretive and private. I had learned to question the motives of everyone around me. It felt strange now to be publicly acknowledging something that I had tried to keep hidden for so long, and even more to admit that it had affected me so intensely without my awareness of it.
I was the very last speaker of the night. Even though I am not sure exactly what I said, I remember clearly what happened after I finished. I looked nervously around the room, wondering what I would see. To my surprise, people were standing, clapping, and smiling. A man with forty years in recovery who had spoken earlier gave me a hug and whispered, “thank you.” Others thanked me, as well. I was not used to this type of response. It all felt genuine, but I was confused. What were they thanking me for?
At that time, I did not understand that they were thanking me for the decision I had made to speak up and to add my voice to the recovery movement.
For a few years after that AA celebration I did not tell many people about my experiences or how addiction had affected me. My brother had entered long-term recovery and was giving talks in Maine and throughout New England. I thought that my voice would not add anything that his had not already contributed. Then, in August 2016, I moved to Bridgeport, CT and discovered that there was a recovery center near to where I lived, the Bridgeport Recovery Community Center (BRCC). The BRCC is one of three branches in Connecticut of an organization called the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR). I wanted to visit and maybe to volunteer, but I was also unsure what I could offer. Despite my positive experience at the AA celebration, I did not know how I would be perceived, and I thought, I am just a family member of someone in recovery.
As I walked to the BRCC for the first time, I was strangely calm. When I went inside, I immediately felt relaxed and welcomed. People were remarkably joyful. They seemed happy I had come, although they did not know me. It was not what I was expecting. I was intrigued, and I went back and kept going back each week to volunteer. Regardless of what kind of day I had or what mood I was in, I was instantly accepted for whatever “version of Camille” I was in at that moment. When I was troubled, people in long-term recovery at the BRCC sat with me through my tears and unanswered questions. Over the past nine months, they have helped me to think through many of my experiences.
One day, a woman at the BRCC mentioned that CCAR was going to have its 17th Annual Recovery Walk. I decided to volunteer at the event and to walk. I met many people there, and all of them asked me how long I had been in recovery. They seemed surprised that I, myself, was not in recovery and yet still wanted to be at the walk. After I identified myself as the sister of someone in long-term recovery, the people I was with who were in recovery wanted to talk about their own families. They told me about the guilt they felt for having caused pain to their own siblings. One man, almost in tears, told me that he did not know if his younger sister could ever look up to him again, given that he had taken advantage of her trust.
As I listened, I was reminded of my own brother, and I began to think about our relationship. Watching him get well had shown me what it means to have courage and to be resilient. Through his recovery, my family had also healed. Recovery gave us the opportunity to change our dynamic and to rebuild the brokenness between us.
I began to share more of my story with people in recovery at the walk, and I told them that through recovery, my brother had become one of my best friends. Each person silently listened, and I realized that my story was meaningful to them. In those moments, I knew we were celebrating the same thing: recovery works!
Recovery to me does not mean that everything is or needs to be perfect. At times, I am still triggered in ways I do not expect. Recalling certain memories of living through my brother’s addiction can still remind me of an aching anxiety that once was overwhelming; but, I no longer only see pain when I think back. Now, I also feel peace, and I am grateful. I know these experiences have made me more patient, compassionate, gentle, and kind. They have changed the way I interact with everyone around me.
I want to say thank you to people in long-term recovery. Thank you for showing me that my story is needed, too. Thank you for teaching me to look back and explore memories from my past. Thank you for understanding what my relationship with my brother means to me in a way that others are not usually able to.
Every time I share my experiences, I discover something new that helps me to make sense of what I have been through. And so, I keep taking a new breath and learning to tell my story. Each day I have more courage, and I am determined to no longer be swayed by discomfort and to tell what I can, anyway.