My sister's in AA but secretly drinking

She's living in my house and said she'd pay rent. Now the mortgage is due and she hasn't paid a dime!

Cary Tennis
January 26, 2011 6:30AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Almost three years ago (three years, how did that happen?) my sister's company went under as a result of the recession in California. I invited her to come live with me, envisioning perhaps a year's stay as she sorted out how to go forward. When she first arrived, she worked hard around my place, helping me catch up on what we politely call "deferred maintenance." Soon she found a low-paying job doing something she loved and knew a lot about. However, life in a small town is tricky, and she was soon replaced by a friend of the employer. Since then (two years) she has been unemployed except for very occasional jobs. She never contributed one dime during her working days. I live green; she is a consumer. My utility bills shot through the roof because she refuses the simplest ways to conserve: showering at the gym since you're there anyway, hanging wash on the line, watering the garden with irrigation water instead of treated water.


Three months ago, I closed my business and moved to Portland, Ore., to find work. I left my sister in my house, telling her that she would need to pay rent beginning in December. The February house payment is almost due, and she has paid no rent. She insists she is doing everything she can to find work.

I found work immediately upon arriving in Portland. Granted, I am no longer a professional, and am working at a job some would consider menial but which I love. Most important, to me, I took what I could find until I can find something better.

I don't even know how to think about this. Every day at work I hear from people who have been out of work for two years, or who graduated from college and could find no work. (This raises the question of why they are in a cafe, but never mind.) I know that we are in a whole new world, economically speaking.


This is all complicated by the fact that my sister is an alcoholic who attends AA and Al-Anon, yet secretly drinks. When I hear her pontificating about sobriety I feel like vomiting. Also, she was mistreated as a child, and, while I was neglected, I was not the target of my father's wrath like she was. So I am racked with guilt that somehow her collapse is because she was so badly treated as a child.

I don't know what to do. About any of it. Any ideas? 

Silently Suffering Sister


Dear Silently Suffering Sister,

I'm going to say something about your sister that's going to sound kind of mean. I assure you, I'm not saying it for shock value. I just want to frame this discussion in an uncompromising way, around clear moral principles, because for alcoholics who are drinking, you have to make things pretty stark.


You're allowing a liar and thief to live in your house while you're away in Portland working a menial job to support yourself and pay the mortgage on your home.

The liar and thief happens to be your sister.

Take it from me, a liar and a thief and an alcoholic like your sister, only with 21 years of living sober: You're not doing anybody any favors by allowing the situation to continue.


You're going to have to do something that's uncomfortable for you. You're going to have to create a structure in which your sister is accountable for her actions and you are responsible for enforcing the conditions.

It won't be pretty or easy. But it is necessary.

I suggest you stage an intervention, where you and other people in her life meet her in your house -- the house she is living in -- and tell her that what she's doing is hurting everyone around her, that you know she's secretly drinking, that you do not trust her to live up to her commitments, and that you are offering her a stark choice. She can enter and complete an addiction rehabilitation program or leave the house.


I really think that is the stark choice before you.

Many of us addicts and alcoholics have been in situations like your sister's. Words come out of our mouths that are not exactly true, and things come into our possession that are not exactly ours. But we don't believe we are lying and stealing. We're just not exactly paying our friends back on time, and our plans are not exactly panning out.

And why might it be that things are not working out for us? Could it have something to do with the fact that we're always lying and cheating and we never show up on time and we never do what we say we're going to do? Is that why people tend to give up on us and walk away, why employers find a way for the work to disappear or to hire a "friend instead" and people in whose houses we are living ask us to leave?

Incredibly, we don't consider how we're harming other people. Only later, when we review how we have conducted our lives, do we see that however lofty our self-regard, however mild-mannered we have contrived to appear, in the essentials we have been lying and stealing for years.


In addiction-recovery circles, we use the words "liar" and "thief" because they carry moral weight. They indicate just how far outside the human community our addictions have taken us. I know those words sound harsh to modern ears. But after years of hedging the truth and making excuses, we need moral clarity; we delight, in fact, in having the truth laid out unvarnished.

Later, if your sister does well, and after she makes appropriate amends and heals some of her relationships, she may see how untenable the present situation has been. Eventually everyone may be able to laugh about it.

But for now, I know this is a lot to take in. It would be nice if there were an easier, softer way. The good news is that people do go into rehab and get sober and stay sober.

There are no guarantees of success. There are very real guarantees of failure, however. There is a clear course of growing sickness, increasing dysfunction and eventual death for the alcoholic who cannot stop.


She didn't choose to be an alcoholic. She can't help it. But that doesn't mean you should coddle her. Coddling won't help. She needs to have her choices made clear and stark and unavoidable.

Then it's up to her -- and to whatever greater power she may call upon in her dark night of the soul.

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What? You want more advice?



Cary Tennis

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