Kelly S. Thompson is a former captain in the Canadian Armed Forces and author based in Greenwood, N.S. Her latest book is Still, I Cannot Save You: A Memoir of Sisterhood, Love, and Letting Go.
In my mind, the day I officially cut off contact with my older sister was both devastating and completely unavoidable.
We were at our parents’ home, sitting in the living room. The gas fireplace made it too hot to bear, but so did the conversation: Meghan, who was 25, had just asked us for money, the reasoning murky, as usual.
I seethed as she pouted in the armchair, her arms crossed and her brown hair stringy with grease.
For most of her adulthood, Meghan was hard to love. Some of my sister’s bad decisions were a result of a long-standing drug addiction to cocaine and opioids. But she was also selfish, vicious when angry, and shockingly feisty in a way that made our family walk on eggshells around her.
And here she was, asking us for cash. Again.
I was three years younger than her, but throughout the years of Meghan’s addiction, I’d given her so much money (or she’d stolen it) that I was on the brink of losing my house. As an officer in the military, financial problems could jeopardize my security clearance because I’d be seen as vulnerable to bribes from anyone who wanted Canada’s secrets. But still, I always helped when she asked, even when supporting her meant I couldn’t afford groceries. Meanwhile, our parents were disabled retirees by this point and had more than expended their savings, to say nothing of their sanity. Yet Meghan often had the sense that no one suffered more than she did. She didn’t know I wasn’t eating to ostensibly fund her next hit – but then again, she’d also never asked.
Stealing from her family wasn’t Meghan’s only crime over the course of her 15 years of addiction, a cold fact that will be familiar to others who love someone battling this disease. There were several car crashes without insurance or a licence, for which my parents were on the financial hook. Charges were laid when she stole from a shop she worked at. Promises were made and broken, and lies – wild, ridiculous ones – were told, seemingly without compunction, again and again and again.
But the final straw for me came when she stole from a man with Alzheimer’s while she was employed as his personal support worker. Apparently, she’d hoped that he was too far gone to notice.
“I’m a good person, you know!” Meghan had cried in the living room, defensive and red with fury and shame. She hated these financial requests as much as we did.
“You know, Meg,” I spat, “eventually you have to actually be a good person. You don’t get to just keep saying it.”
There. Right there – that’s when I knew I’d broken her heart. And because I loved her, I hated myself for saying what needed to be said. But I don’t regret it. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, according to a quote often wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein. I could not keep putting my own sanity on the line for the sake of my sister, expecting her to change simply because I wanted her to.
It’s an awful, maybe even impossible awareness to hold – one that is all too common among many families worldwide: Sometimes it just isn’t healthy to maintain a relationship with someone who hurts you, and sometimes those people happen to be family, people we don’t get to choose. But blood is thicker than water, people say; cherish your family, because one day they’ll be gone. I hear where they’re coming from. But what about when those people rob safety, joy and security from your own life? What are you supposed to do then?
When we were little, Meghan was a sister of Hallmark-movie status. She read to me each night before bed, let me sleep in her room when I was scared, and challenged anyone who dared to mess with me. I was a quiet loner who could hardly speak around strangers – not a valued trait when army-brat life forces you into a steady stream of new introductions – but Meghan always welcomed me to play, despite our three-year age gap, because she couldn’t stand seeing me alone and afraid.
Everything changed when she started doing drugs at age 15. She wielded anger to mask her deceit, and I learned quickly that I had to love Meghan from afar, a safe distance away, so as not to feel the burn. Once, I watched her through the window of a McDonald’s as she slurped on a milkshake, her pupils dilated wide. There were marks on her skin and I watched the harsh way her boyfriend handled her wrist, snatching her drink from her mid-sip and chucking it in the garbage. I knew then that I – sober, employed, a foot taller than my older sister – couldn’t shield her from herself. I had to be the big sibling, because Meghan wasn’t up to the task.
So I tried to understand the role addiction played in Meghan’s choices, and to learn how to navigate a relationship with her, despite them. But what all the counsellors said to me – at Al-Anon, in the support groups for family members of abuse victims, my own therapists – was that I had to create boundaries to protect my own heart. It’s like putting on your own airplane oxygen mask before helping those around you. Still, it was so damn hard to actualize that advice. I would hang up on Meghan’s pleading voice while men screamed at her in the background, and sob until my chest ached.
As the years of Meghan’s addiction wore on, self-care became even more vital because I had developed health problems, including chronic depression and anxiety. Mentally, I wasn’t well enough to hold her up – or anyone, really. Still, I was plagued by guilt because everything I knew about love told me that self-sacrifice and a willingness to give were supposed to be part of it. But the cost of supporting Meghan proved too great.
My decision ostracized me. Cutting my sister from my life pitted me against my parents, who sought to help but often enabled her. There were acquaintances of Meghan’s, too, who told me I was awful for “abandoning her.” She needs help, they said; don’t you see?
I never really stopped feeling guilty, although sometimes her absence felt welcome because she wasn’t there to infuse my life with grief and stress. I stopped taking her midnight calls, lending her money, driving to frightening addresses in search of her. It was clear that I had to keep her out of my life until she could move within my boundaries, even when that fact strangled my heart.
Sometimes, the only way to carry on a relationship with someone we love is in the background, where they feel our presence instead of witnessing it. The most crucial piece I had to understand was that help was something only she could seek. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. I’d brought Meghan water so many damn times that I, myself, was parched.
In her late 20s, five years after the living room blow-up, Meghan got help. She became a mom and got married, and we had a frank conversation during which she apologized sincerely. She did not expect a perfect relationship with me, nor that things would be mended right away; instead, she worked to prove over and over again that she would be there, that she would not let me down, that I could call at 3 in the morning and know she’d come running. I like to think I proved the same thing to her.
My sister amazed me – by getting sober, yes, but also by not punishing me for stepping away from her life. In fact, she thanked me for saying what needed to be said, and for the knowledge that I’d be there if she took those first healthy steps. Like a toddler learning to walk, I knew they had to be unassisted.
This reunion was a gift so many people don’t get: an opportunity for resolution and reconnection. People who have lost someone they love to addiction are often left wishing they had somehow done more, worked harder, made that one decision that would’ve changed everything. In her stunning memoir about her son’s accidental overdose, Holden After and Before, author Tara McGuire captures this sense of powerlessness and obsessive self-blame: “There is no way to make sense of Holden’s gaping absence. But I have too much love left unspent to let him be,” she writes. “So I dig. I assume and I sleuth and I speculate and I make phone calls. I close my eyes and wonder where it all began.”
I don’t have the secret for avoiding this awful predicament, despite endless research on the subject. I only have my own nuggets of learned comfort. I learned that we are not bound by blood to love people who hurt us, because that only facilitates a cycle of abuse that serves no one. I learned that we can still love people we no longer see, day-to-day. I learned that sometimes, the best support you can offer is the oxygen mask of kindness to yourself.
But I also learned that none of those rules apply when there is no air at all.
In 2017, just a few years after we reconnected, Meghan was diagnosed with Stage 4 sarcoma; she died in 2018 at 37 years old. Coping with her approaching death often felt as fraught, devastating and painful as her period of addiction, especially as she put up new kinds of walls. But this time, as one of her caregivers, I couldn’t walk away from my commitment to her – nor did I want to. We had come back to one another, and we had to celebrate and nurture that in the time we had left. This time, I chose her – and she chose us back.
From her hospice bed, Meghan asked me to write about her addiction and the way it had changed us. “Don’t leave out the ugly parts,” she insisted. She wanted people to learn from her mistakes, and to leave a legacy that would help others understand what was possible through love, hard work, therapy and treatment. She knew that we don’t heal alone, in a vacuum; in some ways, she knew that before I did. She was scared to leave me, but also knew that in her former absences I had supports outside of our sisterhood. “I always knew you had a different family looking out for you when I wasn’t around.”
Maybe it’s because I’m a veteran that I have never subscribed to the idea that our deepest bonds are with those who share our DNA. In the military, family is made, not born: Anyone who has served will tell you that there is something akin to a familial connection between soldiers. I was lucky to see powerful examples of that during my military career, such as when I broke my leg and my platoon-mate – now my husband – carried me three kilometres back to camp. We give and take in relationships, and while that scale isn’t always balanced, we can’t surround ourselves with people who do nothing but take. Instead, we can choose those who voluntarily stand in our corner. I just happen to be lucky enough that my sister came back to stand in mine.
Inevitably, addiction bruises relationships, but it can also be a scapegoat when family members hurt each other, as we’re destined to do at some point. But if both parties are willing to make reparations, each of them can find opportunities to grow and learn. Yes, Meghan was hard to love – but sometimes, so was I. Both things can be true, in a way that doesn’t hurt so much with a bit more space to breathe.
So put on your own oxygen mask, whatever that looks like. Reach out to those who stand by you and bring you joy. And one day, maybe you will be lucky enough to make peace with those whose choices have hurt you. But even if you don’t, you will have made it through. Sometimes, that is enough.