Jul 232008

If your sibling struggles with alcoholism, you may feel helpless. These six ways to help an alcoholic brother or sister are based on a book called Sober Siblings, and they may give you insight into your sibling’s drinking problem.

How to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or SisterIf you’re struggling to decide what behaviors to accept from an alcoholic sibling, read Sober Siblings: How to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister – and Not Lose Yourself. It’s the first book geared towards helping siblings of alcoholics, and is written by the sober sister of two alcoholic brothers. Also offering expert advice is Petros Levounis, M.D., the director of The Addiction Institute of New York and chief of addiction psychology at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals in New York City.

Here’s what psychologist Mary Pipher says about maturity in relationships: “Maturity involves being honest and true to oneself, making decisions based on a conscious internal process, assuming responsibility for one’s decision, having healthy relationships with others and developing one’s own true gifts,” writes Pipher in Reviving Ophelia. “It involves thinking about one’s environment and deciding what one will and won’t accept.” Maturity – whether or not you’re dealing with a sibling who has an alcohol problem – involves being realistic about what you can and can’t do to help an alcoholic brother or sister who is struggling with alcoholism.

6 Ways to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister

Every sibling and family is different, even though the thought patterns and behaviors of alcoholics may be the same. These general tips for helping a brother or sister with a drinking problem can apply to most families. If your sibling tends to drink more during the holidays, read Family Fights at Christmas – Tips for De-Escalating Conflict.

Learn about your sibling’s perception of alcoholism

The more you understand about alcoholism and the way an alcoholic thinks about his or her disease, the better able you’ll be to help with the treatment process. And, the more open you are about your family history and interactions, the better. “Whatever the reason your brother or sister became alcoholic, it’s helpful for a counselor to hear about your family dynamics in order to know what direction to take,” writes Dr Levounis in Sober Siblings.

Let go of personality differences

Personality issues may crop up, which may or may not be part of the disease of alcoholism. Separating personality differences from real issues that affect your alcoholic sibling may be part of the healing process for both of you. Read How Birth Order Affects Your Life to learn how siblings relate to each other — and themselves.

Stop enabling your alcoholic brother or sister

“Enabling” is allowing or encouraging your alcoholic brother or sister to continue their disease. Enabling an alcoholic includes covering up, providing alibis, minimizing the addiction, attempting to take control by getting rid of the alcohol, and removing consequences (such as bailing him or her out of jail, or lending money). If your sibling is open to getting help staying sober, read 8 Different Ways to Stay Sober.

Recognize what you’re doing

To stop enabling your brother or sister’s alcohol problem, you need to recognize what you’re doing. “You have to realize that it not only doesn’t help your brother or sister but actually allows – even helps – him or her to continue drinking,” write Olsen and Levounis in Sober Siblings. “Sometimes it’s hard to know where to draw the line. No one’s perfect, and things are not always black and white. Allow yourself a few gray areas, for your own sanity.”

In most alcoholic families, events and behaviors aren’t cut and dried – especially during family celebrations! If you find holiday or birthday celebrations difficult, read How to Handle Relatives Who Get Drunk at Family Gatherings.

Learn about alcoholism treatment options

You can’t help an alcoholic sibling by forcing him or her to get treatment, but you can be well-informed about treatment options for drinking problems. If you’re in an alcoholic family, find out about the addiction treatment centers in your area.

alcoholic sibling

“How to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister” image by Laurie

Don’t be disappointed if your sibling relapses

“It’s natural to have hope for your brother or sister, but don’t be disappointed if she stops drinking and then starts again,” write Olsen and Levounis in Sober Siblings. “Relapse is not a sign of failure or weakness; it’s part of the disease, and often more than one stay in rehab is necessary if the person is to be successful.”

If you have any thoughts about helping an alcoholic brother or sister, please comment below.

Article Name
How to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister
Six ways to help an alcoholic brother or sister, based on a book called Sober Siblings, to give you insight into your sibling's drinking problem.

  51 Responses to “How to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister”

  1. Dear Elizabeth,

    Thank you for being here – I’m glad to hear from you! It sounds like you were a bit disappointed about how your older sister reacted to you after you got sober and went into a program. It’s difficult to move forward, past those old hurts and relationship complications and problems.

    What do you think you sister needs from you, in order to move on?

  2. I am an alcoholic, went to rehab, jail and while I was going through it, my sisters just ignored me.
    I used to drink with both of them and we all got into battles sometimes, but also had a lot of fun. I can only relate to my older sister as a drinking buddy. She got me started at 14 she was 18. It continued well into our 40’s until I got into trouble. She refuses to acknowledge that I love her and says that the family doesn’t know what to do about my disease. I was sober for 2 years and in that time tried to reach out and be a part of my family. They will always hate me but they continue to drink and don’t invite me to go to family functions. My older sister lives 5 miles away and never even offered to take me anywhere, even when she knew I was sober and in a program

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences here. You’re not alone in coping with a sibling who is alcoholic, difficult, and frustrating! It’s difficult to know how to respond or what to do, especially when your sister doesn’t accept any responsibility or doesn’t seem to want to change.

    One of the best ways to cope with any type of relationship problem is to figure out your boundaries. Where do your responsibilities end, and were do they begin? I can’t answer that for you, but I am reading an excellent book by Cloud and Townsend. I’ll add it to the body of this article, because it really will help you figure out how to stay healthy and happy, and how to help your sibling at the same time.

    I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers! Please come back anytime, and let me know how you’re doing.


  4. This is sooo very difficult.
    My sister is 6 1/2 years older than I. We grew up in what I always believed and still do was a “leave it to Beaver” life. What I did know however, is that my sister, who is the middle child out of a family of four children, always lied.

    She has always had an extreme, urgent need to be the “favorite” She acutually introduces herself to everyone in that way to this day!

    So, according to my family account, she began overeating about the age of 8. She always had to empty every bowl at the table. She continued to overeat and became overweight. That continued through her life. She did crash dieting and it worked temporarily. She hid her smoking addition. I think she actually kicked that.

    Then about three years ago, she concocted a huge lie that because she had a herniated belly button as a child that somehow this damaged her intestines and now had to have a serious gastric bypass. OK we all just go along with these tales. So she had the surgery, became very thin.

    Then the thing happed. My 82 year old mother had a serious heart attack . She had a triple bypass with numerous complications. My siblings and I all took turns at the hospital which was out of town for all of us for SEVERAL months. It has been a terrible road. Mom survived but life is no longer as she knew it. It is not the same for any of us.

    Well I Believe that is when the drinking began. It started about a year ago. Of course she has conjured many wild tales to cover these drinking bouts, but it came to a head when she actually passed out knocking my frail mother to the ground. Mom got herself to a phone and called an ambulance because she thought my sister was having a
    heart attack. Well boy that was dandy considering my sisters son had just begun his first week as a nurse at the hospital that both his mom and grandmother arrived at!!! I got myself there in ahurry. I saw what the reality was, She was drunk off her butt!! Mom had not known about her drinking up to this point. There was no hiding it now! I thought, great, now maybe she can change. Silly me! She basically tried to deny that it was her fault. Went through weeks of apologizing and using moms illness as the reason. Well It only got worse. She cut herself from friendships. Forgot what she told all of us most of the time. No shows for mom. Showed up at moms 83rd birthday hammered and made weird excuses about medications.
    My brother called her on the carpet. It did not go well. UGH!!! It just goes on and on.

    Bottom line, I love her and want her to get a handle on this. I do not know what on earth to do. I DO KNOW she is the only one who can save herself.

    I DO KNOW, she will try, like she has always done, to somehow make this my fault, my brothers fault, and my moms fault. I do not believe it is.

    I have a hard time standing up to her. I always have. She is mean.

    Life is difficult sometimes. I pray for strength today.


  5. My sister has has problems with alcohol for over ten years now. Things reached the worst they ever have around six years ago, when she was regularly brought home in a state by the police, found sleeping under bridges and going missing for days. Things have since then not been as extreme, but I believe this is mainly because my sister is no longer living with my father. He didn’t force her to leave, she wanted to live outside of the family home and always has wanted her own space. She has lived with a number of partners, all now failed relationships, and now lives alone.

    She has never been able to hold down a job, with her current job of 18 months being the longest she has ever held. Her alcoholism has remained a constant problem over the last ten years, with her turning to alcohol to ‘cope’ with her everyday life. She also has recently in last two years been diagnosed with bi-polar and personally disorders. I feel that now this has been diagnosed, instead of facing up to her problems she hides behind her mental illness, using this as an excuse and even explanation of her drinking behaviour. She has a number of friends through a bi-polar meeting group, but I feel these friendships aren’t healthy for her when she is still very vulnerable.

    My father and I have accepted that she will always have her problems and never recover to have no mental difficulties, and will most likely never live her life without dependency on alcohol or the medication she takes daily for her mental illness and related symptoms.

    However, although I claim to have reached acceptance of this, I am still struggling to move on with my life with a alcohol and medication dependent sibling. I feel as though I am expected to continue my relationship with her and offer support, when I have in truth lost all respect and compassion for her. Of course I will always love her as my sister, but I am afraid I will never be at peace with our relationship again in her current state and lifestyle choice.

    I am struggling more than every recently, after believing for a while she has been sober (16 months) and recently discovering she is drinking. This is not the first time she has relapsed, and I can’t be sure she ever stopped drinking at all. I know you are advised to not feel disappointment if your sibling relapses, but how long are you expected to stand by their side, and be supportive to their lifestyle? Often, this feels as if it is at a sacrifice to my own happiness.

    I am not sure what to do anymore.

  6. Dear Debbie,

    I hate to say this, but I don’t think there’s much you can do to help your sister overcome her drinking problem. You can absolutely give her information for Alcoholics Anonymous or other resources you think will help her re-evaluate her life, but you can’t change her behaviour.

    Many people need to hit rock bottom before they can admit they have an alcohol problem. They need to be faced with the ugly reality of how tragic alcoholism can get, before they decide to take control of the disease.

    It may be most effective not to answer the phone when she calls, or hang up when you realize she’s drunk. Follow up a day later to find out how she is, but don’t argue or engage with her when she’s drunk.

    I’m sorry you’re going through this with her. It must be difficult, to see your sister struggle with this addiction.

  7. My sister is 56. She has been abusing herself for many years.In and out of abusive relationships. using different drugs she always snapped out of it .she married an alcoholic and became one herself.the marriage ended after 10 yrs now she keeps relapsing she can’t hold a job for more than a year she hasn’t gone to any family functions at all.She lives in a house that belongs to her friend.She lives in another state.I called her today she was drunk at 10 am.She won’t come clean about her alcohol intake.I told her she was drunk and not to call me. How can I help her its like she needs a babysitter 24/7.Oh and everything is someone else’s fault.

  8. Jo, I’m sorry I missed your comment. How is your sister – has anything changed since you wrote?

  9. Withdrawal symptoms becomes more severe. This is not a simple job as these facilities require money.

    Remember that alcoholism is, in essence, a Spiritual ‘problem. The estimated cost was 19 times more than the amount collected from taxes on the sale of alcohol. Some of the people accept that this is because conscious concerns and social pressures create a new choice in behavior. If you have a drug or alcohol problem, the first step in rehab is detoxification.

  10. My sister has been over-doing alcohol (mainly wine) for the past 5 years. I remember first noticing it 3 years ago when at her home with a group of friends drinking and having fun. She and I were pretty much drinking the same quantity… it seemed there was a definite point where she just went to another place. That night I ended up literally putting her to bed. I said to her husband, “i’ve never seen her like that”… he commented, “I have; many times”. After that he mentioned to my sister’s best friend and one of our brothers that he was concerned about her drinking. There were other occasions where my sister’s drinking led to embarrassing moments and her not being in any state to take care of herself.

    15 months ago, my sister’s husband passed away suddenly at age 45. She is raising two teenage sons. Her drinking continues and my nephew has told others that he is embarrassed by his mom.

    My sister is a proud woman who will not be easily intervened… I sense she will argue and fight. What are my (and my other siblings) first steps to help my sister? Not only for her sake but for our nephews peace of mind.

    Appreciate any guidance you can give me.

  11. I have a 50 yr old alcoholic brother who is a binge alcoholic. He lives next door to my elderly parents who have been supporting him for most of the last 5 years. Due to real estate crises, he has not made much money as an agent. And he has been in and out of detox and rehab for the last 5 or 6 years, after he had a major seizure at my parent’s house. We were in denial that he had an alcohol problem until the seizure when he was trying to detox himself. My parents were serving him alcohol after he would get sober and be dry for awhile. My parents live in a fantasy world. They have been afraid to not give my brother drinks as they fear my brother will never come over again. I have been the one in the family who has been most involved with my brother in all of his detoxes etc even though I live overseas. Almost every time I have been there for the last 5 years there has been one crisis or another with drinking etc. It is excruciating to be involved with my brother when he detoxes which he often wants to do alone, without medical support.He has deep emotional and psychological problems. He is in total denial over his own situation and I my parents support this by enabling him, financially and even with his ideas about himself. I have become the enemy as I am trying to protect my parents. I am alone with this situation as my parents just want me to stop making waves etc. My brother will not seek help. He doesn’t think he needs it. And, whereas I was the one he would choose to help him go through detox (the only one around other than my parents) I am now the hated one as I have been trying to get everyone to look at and deal with the situation.I know I need to separate from my brother emotionally and this has been so difficult. To see him in such psychological pain when he detoxes has pierced my heart and I can hardly bear it. I think my parents need to get away from living next door!! They are 94 and 90 years old. Neither of them are alcoholics but my Dad is of the generation that pushing alcohol at every social occasion. I have two other siblings but they are of no help. Relationship with one of them has been destroyed due to my brother’s alcoholism…………

  12. I agree with Mary – the best way to help an alcoholic sibling (and yourself!) is to go to Al Anon. You need in-person support from people who understand what you’re going through, who can give you ideas and support and acceptance.

    This article on helping an alcoholic sibling is a good starting point, but if you need more in-depth help, you need to get it in person. Coping with alcoholism can be exhausting, frightening, and confusing.

    That said, however, it’s always good to write out your feelings! So of course you’re welcome to share your stories of coping with a sibling who is alcoholic here. But if you need more in-depth help, please contact an Al Anon support group.


  13. I cried after writting this!

  14. Hey linny I totally undrstand where you’re coming from! I worked in social work (with folk with disabilities) , my sister is 54, she smiles, laugh”s etc, and is the nicest person on the planet! You know what she does next! There are nice and nasty drunks! My sis is the later! The language etc is sometimes intolerable and i still don’t know what to do! I cry, her husband , works away and doesnt want to come back! What do! I don’t know. but sharing my thoughts has to be good.

  15. Hi, my sister is, well seems to be permanently drunk. I don’t know what to do. I think I’ve been kind, gentle, last week I got anoi, I shouted at her! My god the guilt! This she sees as abuse. She stormed out shouting it’s not me! It’s not me!My Mum is still around and witnessed all, of course you only have my word for this, but I beg you for some wisdome, Love Malcolm

  16. PLEASE ,everyone on this site ,GO TO AL ANON ,it will help you if you give it the time .You will find people there who UNDERSTAND .
    I started reading these letters because today I am so hurt about my sister .I know I am not alone and I have been in Al Anon a long time . A person in your life who is drinking cannot be relied upon ,their word means nothing and that is so hard to accept .

  17. My brother starting drinking in his teens and seemed to always indulge too much compared to others. At the age of 33 – we realised he had a drinking problem and started to offer help. We looked into AA meetings, doc’s appointments, sat and chatted for hours about what made him drink, and how we could help him – but very quickly he was starting to have significant physical effects on his body. In summer 2010 he was in and out of hospital with stomach pains, swellings and bleeding. Each time he was treated medically by the doctors but then sent on his way – too ill for a detox programme and too ill to continue drinking. He was needed to get ‘healthier’ before he could be entered into a programme, it was like a viscious circle and he became more and more weak and poorly. Eventually – he was admitted into hospital in the February of 2011 and was diagnosed with accute liver failure and that was the last time he drank alcohol. He was told after 6 months of being sober, he would be entered on the transpant list and finally – i was able to have my big brother back. We chatted and he was clear that he was done with drinking and wanted to start a new life with his 3 year old son.

    Despite best efforts – Matthew passed away June 11th 2011 and my heart was broken. I was there – holding him as he struggled to breath, fluid rushing through his lungs from his bloated swollen stomach, drowning before my very eyes.

    Life for me and my family will never be the same again! By the time there were physical signs of alcoholism – its very nearly too late. 35 years old, and life ended so painfully and traumatic. Dont think for one minute its a quick and easy death – fall asleep and not wake up – OH NO! Its slow, painful, horrific, and more importantly – so preventable. Matthew knew he was dying and felt guilty for in his words – being his own fault. But by the time he realised he was in danger – it was too late.
    Sometimes – tough love is the way to go – maybe if i had been more insistant – or more angry, more determined – he’d still be here. Maybe i should have made th doctors treat him more thoroughly, not like a 2nd class citizen like they did, maybe he’d have got better?
    All i can say – is dont ever give up on supporting and helping someone you love. Theres always hope, and when someone is going through these dark days – its frightning and lonely and you wouldnt want them to go through these times alone.
    Stay strong – keep fighting for them, and never give up.

    RIP Matthew – love you and always will xx

  18. So my brother is an alchoholic. He comes from a long line of alcoholics. Well this week he lost his job. I just don’t know what to do to help him. He showed up to work drunk and there is a possibility he could get the job back but it could take up to a year. In the meantime he is going to have to find a job. I am not sure this is a possibility. I am afraid he is going to lose his house and everything he has worked so hard for. Are there any assistance programs out there? He will now be losing his health insurance in the next month. I doubt he will be able to get unemployment.

  19. I took in my brother 3yrs ago, he has multiple medical issues and is a severe alcholic, he has been in and out of jail all his life, and has no life skills.
    I have gone through a lot the past years keeping him out of jail and off the streets, when he is good (not drinking) he really is a pleasent guy, but I came home form work this evening and he admitted to drinking after I confronted him. I have been dealing with my brothers issues all my life, and I never thought I would ever take him in, but he would of died if I did not, and he is like a very big child. I told him that I can’t live like this. I don’t drink ( rare occasions), but I have changed my life around for my brothers well being, now I don’t know what the right thing to do is. He can be very hard to handle when he is drinking (although it has not got to that point yet, it has in the past) and I can not trust him not to take fom me or bring strangers in the house when I am not here. At the same time I know he can’t live on his own. I already told him, he can’t be drinking and living here, he told me that he can not promise that and he might has well move out, but he will go back to the streets and or jail. Any advise??

  20. My sister is presently in jail due to a failed urine test while on probation/ankle bracelet. She has numerous DUIs and recently was serving house arrest and was taken to jail. I want to write her a card because I can’t go see her (out of state). I have no idea what to say. I am angry with her for the loss of our relationship and the worry and stress the family goes through as a result of her actions BUT want to send her something supportive. Any suggestions on how to handle this?

  21. Hi There,

    My sister has been sober for 10 years now, well this recent thanksgiving I feel took her over the edge. She couldn’t handle it and has started drinking again, and yes of course my mom feels responsible only because she said if she would have stayed with her she may not have started to drink. I told my mom, she can’t feel responsible it is not her fault. I just want to know what can I do to help her. She has stayed home all weekend and just drank. what can i do, desperate!

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