How Do I Face Telling My Family About My Sobriety?

By: Holly Whitaker

Dear Holly,

How do I face telling my family about my sobriety? My parents know and are supportive, if a little ignorant sometimes, but I have an older sister who I don't talk to much and I don't know if she knows. And I have lots of extended family on both sides (and just on genetics and statistics it's likely there is an addict in recovery or otherwise on each side too) but I don't know how to tell them. I want to share my sobriety because it's an important change in my life and I'm proud, and also because I want to connect with other sober people. My second year birthday is next week and I want to make a Facebook post just to tell everyone at once but I'm afraid of negative responses, or people telling me that I'm not sober the right way. Any advice?

 —Scared To Share


Dearest Scared,

The first time I attempted to stop drinking was October 2012. I'd come to the conclusion that I needed to stop drinking not because I thought I had a severe drinking problem (which I did), but because I was convinced I had Borderline Personality Disorder (I didn’t)—I'd scored 8 out of 9 on an online test, which I took while drinking a whiskey neat. I was so sick and desperate for help at that point—and so terrified of being an alcoholic—it was actually a relief to know that I was “only” severe mental illness.

A few days after my self-diagnosis I went home to Fresno to throw my sister a baby shower. Hours before she arrived into town my mom and I were out food shopping. We pulled into a fruit stand to get some vegetables, and as my mom went to get out of the car I grabbed her hand and told her that there was something very wrong with me, I was sick, and I was pretty sure I had something called Borderline Personality Disorder. She was sad and terrified and relieved, and we sat in her old powder blue Camry and cried and held hands. Hours later, we both sat my very pregnant sister down and I again explained what was wrong with me. More tears, more sadness, more relief. None of us said it explicitly, but we were all thinking it: Thank God there's a reason Holly's so fucked up.

We wasted no time going to the Barnes & Noble bookstore, and we loaded up on books with titles like Walking On Eggshells. There was finally an explanation for my anger, my irritability, my irrationality, my spontaneity, my bitchiness, my unreliability, my hate, my mess. I was no longer just an immature fuck who missed birthdays and ruined Christmas. I was mentally ill. The literature was clear that I should not be drinking alcohol, so that night we drank water with our sushi, and when I left that weekend we made an unspoken pact: since I now knew I was crazy, the crazy would no longer get a free pass. They would no longer walk on eggshells. The sickness was mine, they were the victims and the ones with the rights, I was the one with the responsibility.

I often think back on this period of my life, try to touch it from here to remember it, remember her and what she must have felt going through all that (and by her I mean me). It's crisp like the fall air and it sounds like a glass breaking in slow motion, the sound of each shard of glass hitting a tile floor. I am dead and I am dying and then I am not anymore, I am just a sick person with a starting point and a very long journey. Or: I am a person who has been asleep for a very long time and I am coming out of a coma. Or: I am Han Solo and I've just been released from being frozen in carbonite. I have hibernation sickness. (I just watched Star Wars for the first time and I've been waiting to use that.) Either way, I am the most fragile thing, not out of the woods because of some admission, but at least the bottom of the mountain. The thing that I remember the most is: I am so fucking alone.

Back then, my mom and sister would have definitely indicated that their lives had been made difficult because of how I was. Maybe not directly, but definitely when pressed. Maybe that's what my mom would have said to her therapist if she'd had a therapist. I know it's what my sister said to her friends because I accidentally read the proof. Holly did it again. Holly ruins everything. They appeared to get the brunt of my dysfunction. My selfishness was strangling us all. Only I was not selfish, I was hollow. A hollow, sick woman who was not surviving very well in the real world. What so often looks like selfishness, I think now, is just the complete and total lack of having one grain of sand's equivalent to a sense of self. But when you're showing up high to a birthday party or hungover to Mother's Day, it really just looks selfish. 

Time goes by. My therapist, the one who specializes in BPD, tells me I don't have BPD: it's *just* addiction, and that's a different kind of a relief because I haven't had a drink in two months when he tells me. I begin to construct a sense of self and a path of my own volition. I begin to, for the first time in my life, trust myself. I begin doing things behind closed doors, in private. Beyond the therapy, there is reading and yoga. There's the Not Drinking. There's the praying. All told, there's a very light attempt at recovery from an addiction I never really admitted to. The thing I remember the most is: I am so fucking alone. 

You say your family was/is supportive. I say mine was/is, too. But they didn't come to visit me after I told them about the BPD, and they didn't ever come to help me. They didn't even ask what I was doing to heal myself. They bought books and cloaked themselves in that gesture as if it was the most sacrificial thing one can do. I think: because we've been told to ask for so little, we expect even less. I also think: because addiction and mental illness are seen as something you perhaps do to yourself, you're on your own with that shit. I also also think: It's just terribly hard for people who don't experience what we've experienced to even know where to start.

By mid-December 2012, because I was cleared of BPD and by all accounts a Much Better Human Being, I was struggling to remember why I'd stopped drinking in the first place. Drinking worked well for me, it killed the things that ate me, and so at Christmas and around my family, I had a glass of wine. Glasses of wine. I smoked pot. It was hard to explain that I was still working to not drink, and working full-time on my mental health and spiritual health and ALL THE HEALTHS, and that I still needed wine. It was hard to explain that sometimes it felt like I was being skinned alive and that pot and wine made that feeling go away. All they saw was someone they had to walk around eggshells with, and by that I mean to say is all they saw was someone who couldn't be trusted to make her own decisions, and by that I mean to say someone who is possibly mentally ill and/or an addict should never be trusted to know what's right for her. I imagine they were just doing what families are trained to do by watching reruns of Law and Order and that one movie with Meg Ryan where she drinks vodka because it doesn't smell (tip: vodka smells). 

No one ever came to visit and help me recover. No one ever drove to where I lived to bring me soup or take me to an appointment or clean my apartment. If it sounds like this still hurts, of course it does. It always will. It's why I do what I do for a living. Because everyone, especially those of us who are sick in this insidious way, deserves to be held when we are at our lowest. Not told to clean up our shit, not told that we are making everyone else's lives miserable with our own misery, not held in contempt and at arm's length, not categorized as selfish. At precisely the moment when we need help the most, no matter what, is exactly when we should receive it. As it works though, more often than not we are just thankful our parents and loved ones still love us, accept us, talk to us, forgive us. We take their squeeze and their understanding to be the gold standard when that's the very least we should expect.

I've been sober for almost seven years now. At a recent family gathering, one which I brought my own La Croix to and one where the rest of the family imbibed alcohol, we talked about what seemed to be everyone else's affairs. I remained invisible. No one in my extended family knows what I do because it's about that thing I may or may not have, that addiction thing. The same way when I turned four years sober both my mom and my sister forgot, even after I'd given them the heads up days before. It's this thing, my thing, and even now that it's prettier people still don't fucking talk about it the way you and I can talk about it. My mom does ask me almost every day about my work, she reads everything I do, she's proud, and I count myself infinitely lucky when it comes to her. She's worked hard to be supportive. But in the larger context of my real life, what I do and—more importantly—what I don't do, are largely reserved for you, for me, for all our friends on this path. Not my family. Because they still don't do what I'd have them do. But then again, what family really does? 

So Scared, here is the punchline: this is something that I've come not just to accept, but to appreciate. It might sound like it's taught me detachment and anger. It has. I'm human, and who wouldn't feel those things or convey those things recounting what it means to deal with your family while you're saving your life from something *good people* aren't supposed to have in the first place? I’ve found detachment and anger can be positive, wonderful things.

But. It's also pushed me to forge a place in this world, to draw boundaries and drop expectations. It's forced me closer to God and the divine and taught me absolute trust in the order of the world and the relationships we are handed. It's propelled me to create a family beyond the one I've been given, with people that know my core and my soul and my heart. It's taught me the power of being my own person—something I never was until I had to be. It's taught me to trust myself, my voice, my path, and absolutely. More than anything: it's taught me to stop giving fucks about what other people say, think, do.

To answer your questions.

First, you asked me how to tell them—your sister, your extended family—about your addiction and sobriety.  I wonder if you think you owe them something, an explanation that will make them feel better? You don't. I wonder if you think you need them to understand and understand completely? You don't need that, either. I wonder if you think that in order for this to be a thing that your family needs to be in on it, to hold it as preciously as you do? That's also something you don't need, and a sure-fire recipe for resentment. My love, you're doing this thing, this beautiful, life-making, perfectly impossible thing, and you're doing it because something inside of you knows, has always known, and you're finally listening to that intelligence. Do you know how big of a deal this is, how big of a deal you are and what you have done? Do you have any idea how many people in this world have the courage to do what you have done? I'll give you a hint: it's a small, small number. If you want to tell your family or your sister, then I think that's beautiful and important. But I also think before you do these things, you need to ask yourself why you're scared, and what you are expecting of it. If it's validation or acceptance or understanding, give those things to yourself first. Then, give those things to your family second. Whatever we want from other people is usually impossible to receive from them, and usually received only by giving it (think of the prayer of St. Francis, “Grant that I not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand…”).

When I sit around the table of my extended family as a mute, when in almost seven years I haven't shared once what I actually do for a living—you see if I start down the path of screaming about what I need from them and what they should be doing (which I do in my mind, believe me), I'm done for. If I think they should understand or hold it as severely as I do or any of that shit that we might expect from our closest people, I am lost. If instead I practice giving to myself and giving it to them, I'm saved. It's the difference between being hooked on what we need other people to do and be, and being free.

Second, you asked me how to come out with your sobriety on social media. Baby, you just come out with it on social media. And OF COURSE people will judge you because that's what people do. You can't make people stop doing that. You will never be able to make people stop telling you that they know better or their way is the right way or that you are a crazy psycho bitch who shouldn't trust herself. So don't even try. But understand that when you put your truth out into this world, the people who so desperately need to hear it will hear it, and those who don't or can't don't matter at all, not in the slightest bit. And it will be terrifying at first, putting yourself out there in the world for everyone to see and make judgments about. But then time will go on, and being the truth teller you are, you will attract more truth tellers, and get used to the power of being naked in this world. And as you practice this way of living in your truth, and trusting in your own voice, you begin to realize that all those challenges you were afraid of, the ones where people say awful things or tell you that you got sober the wrong way or whatever it is you fear, were the things that made you strong. And then someday, maybe five years into this thing, you'll be sitting in your bed, writing on your computer, telling some girl that just hit her 2 year mark who wants to come out with her truth and is terrified of what they might say, that you can't even remember what it was like to think such things. Because at some point you just started telling the truth, and the rest fell into place.

Note: A version of this originally appeared on the Hip Sobriety website, as part of an advice column series called “Dear Hip Sobriety” in which readers asked our founder Holly Whitaker questions about alcohol, addiction, sobriety, and recovery. It’s been re-purposed for our site.