How I Lost My Alcoholic Sister For Good
When you share so much with your sister, how can you rationalize that she's a dying alcoholic and you're not? One writer looks back, two and a half years after she was left behind.
My older sister was green when I visited her at the hospital, her coloring a symptom of cirrhosis. Simply put, her liver couldn’t filter bile, so it shone through the whites of her eyes and her skin.
Cirrhosis is a disease that typically affects middle-aged alcoholics. Céline was 30.
The most recent complication to arise that spring, septic shock, had left her unconscious. But maybe it was a good thing Céline wasn’t cognizant of the bouts of incessant seizing, during which Dad clutched her ankles, Mom steadied her head, and I stood, paralyzed.
By late afternoon, Céline’s vitals plummeted. “I love you so much,” I wanted to shout. By 5pm, though, it was too late. By every medical measure, my sister was dead.
I left the Intensive Care Unit feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and sad, but relieved as well. Mostly, I wondered: What the fuck happened to my sister?
Céline showed signs of alcohol abuse as early as age 23. She was seriously ill by 25. Still, her death was mysterious—not only because it came too soon, but because she was so secretive about her condition. For years, Céline refused to share details about her health with family or friends—and she adamantly refused help. She never completed rehab.
Confronting Céline would have required a role reversal I wasn’t prepared for: When I was five, she famously positioned me at the base of our driveway and screamed lines from the Shel Silverstein poem, One Sister For Sale.
Years after my sister’s death, I yearn to understand her—and by extension, myself—better. Often, I retrace our childhood for signs of when her downward spiral began, and my mind usually lands on the same day: Dressed in shapeless khakis and a button down shirt, Céline, 15 at the time, sat in a church pew next to Dad and me. When I turned to my sister to exchange why-is-our-tone-deaf-father-singing-with-the-choir? glances, she stared straight ahead, fixated on something invisible. She shook. I nudged Dad, who promptly set aside his hymnal.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?” he asked.
As the paramedics went about their business in the ambulance, I recalled eating grilled cheese sandwiches and hanging out with Céline as normal in our living room just hours earlier.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked Dad. But he, too, was confused.
That evening, one thing became clear: Céline had no interest in discussing what had happened. She admitted to feeling anxious, but when we asked her why, she switched off, a labyrinth of thoughts clearly hiding behind her vacant expression. At the risk of upsetting her further, we backed off.
From then on everything seemed okay—for a time. Céline went off to college at Columbia to study classics. Sure, she got wasted sometimes, but binge drinking wasn’t a foreign concept to me either once I matriculated at Georgetown. Like a lot of college kids, although we boozed too much on occasion, we attended classes and received high marks. After graduating summa cum laude, Céline eventually enrolled in a PhD program at New York University. Meanwhile, I accepted a job on Wall Street. Again, we found ourselves living in the same city, and although we led vastly different, busy lives, we saw each other when we could.
On these occasions, it was as if Céline was still 8, and I was still 5. A bad day could be offset by reenacting the scene from The Lion King when Timon asks Pumba: “What do you want me to do? Dress in drag and do the hula?” In fact, we could relive a moment from any film we’d seen together for a reliable laugh. Comedy or not, we cracked up at the exact same moments in movies, often while the rest of the audience remained silent.
Not long into our city lives, I began to smell alcohol on Céline’s breath whenever we’d meet up. She'd excuse herself to go to the bathroom several times during a meal, but I kept my suspicions to myself. I didn’t want to disrupt our precious back-and-forth, so I elected not to pry. In the Dictionary of Addiction, this has a name: Enabling.
In 2005 Mom relayed an anecdote that not even I could ignore. Céline had left the city for a few days to take a trip to the Grand Canyon with my parents, and Mom called me when they arrived.
“Mélanie, they wouldn’t let us board the plane at first,” she said. “Your sister showed up rambling unintelligibly with the stench of booze oozing from her pores. It was humiliating. Security wouldn’t let us through.”
“A lot of people pop a Xanax before flying,” I tried. “What did you end up doing?”
“We waited until she sobered up and caught the next flight. But that’s not the point.”
“What is the point?” (That you were embarrassed? I almost scowled.)
The evidence that Céline was drinking day and night was piling high, but I was mostly angry at Mom for feeling humiliated rather than concerned. It didn’t strike me that my own priorities needed sorting.
Following this irrefutable glimpse that things weren’t right, I mutated into Miss Fix-It. I invited Céline to dinner. I planned to listen for the clanking of bottles in her purse, force her to reveal the contents, then convince her to check into rehab. Simple as that!
The night of my Grand Plan, Céline stood to go to the bathroom in between courses, pink Vera Bradley tote in hand. I heard the jingle of keys, or a pen, or lip gloss against glass. My signal! Before I could stage my intervention, though, she spoke.
“Why do you always assume the worst in me?”
Immediately, the courage I had mustered to “help” Céline evaporated.
Although addicts are notoriously adept at anticipating obstacles to getting their fix, I think I was willing to be manipulated then. Confronting Céline would have required a role reversal I wasn’t prepared for, you see. When I was five, she famously positioned me at the base of our driveway and screamed lines from the Shel Silverstein poem One Sister For Sale. When I was six, she persuaded me to moon the couple across the street with the surname Mooney. When I was seven, she convinced me to wear three pigtails to school. How could I take Céline’s place as the wiser, trickier sister? Things weren’t that serious yet.
A few months later, in December of 2005, my sister went on a New Year’s Eve drinking binge that landed her in the emergency room. Because she'd contracted the Hepatitis C virus, she was at greater risk of liver impairment. Downing a liter of vodka daily compounded the situation.
The day she was released, Céline agreed to check into rehab. When Dad told me this, I wrote a letter to my sister expressing how happy I was that she was getting help. I tucked the note in a box along with a copy of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and a bag of Starbursts. I never understood why Oprah got so mad at Frey. To me, what was important was that the man stayed sober.
Two weeks later, my package was returned. Céline had checked out early.
The next 18 months were a blur as Céline’s problems mushroomed. The events that stand out? Céline pulling out of NYU’s PhD program; Céline losing her temporary job as a nanny because her skin’s increasingly greenish hue terrified the children; Céline showing up to dinner severely bruised, claiming she’d been mugged on a subway platform; Céline failing to pay her rent for several months; Céline having an abortion following a shady-ass sexual encounter.
By 2007, our family was at a loss. Mom and Dad tried group counseling for parents of addicts but found it useless. I went to a meeting of Al-Anon, an organization for people closely acquainted with problem drinkers, but I couldn’t relate to the stories I heard from other attendees. If anything, Al-Anon confirmed that Céline’s case was unique. Most serious drinkers don’t experience the health problems she was having in her twenties until mid-to-late life.
Well-meaning friends had suggestions. Why don’t you have her committed? Why don’t you get her arrested? Why don’t you stage an intervention?
Why don’t you shut the fuck up? I often nearly retorted. Nobody had any idea how complicated it all was. As an adult, Céline had legal rights. It was her choice to forbid us from talking to her doctors. It was her choice not to check into rehab, or to leave a program early.
Words like "bloody vomit" and "endoscopy," when paired with "30-year-old sister," can probably get a person out of anything.
Instead of arguing these tired points, though, I closed off—ironically, just as she had. I stopped talking about my sister. In spring 2007, I stopped talking to her.
For a year, I screened Céline’s phone calls and spent holidays at friends’ homes to avoid her. I told myself I was sending an important message: I can’t condone what you’re doing to yourself. I philosophized that her resistance to treatment was like a cancer patient refusing to undergo chemotherapy. Months passed as I heard from my parents about my sister’s deteriorating health. Still, I didn’t reach out.
In summer 2008, I woke up one morning in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment of the guy I was then seeing, wearing my underwear and his white t-shirt. I rolled over, picked up my phone, and saw six missed calls from family members. I rang my parents.
“What happened to Céline?” I asked.
“She called us this morning, barely able to breathe. She thought she was dying.”
I knew Céline was unwell, but death? “What happened?” I demanded.
“We called an ambulance to pick her up where she was staying with a friend. Mélanie, it’s bad.”
“It is,” I said.
“Do you know what she said before the ambulance got to her?”
“She said, ‘I wish I were Mélanie.’”
Chills, guilt and pain. I was dealt the better genetic hand, wasn’t I? She was more intelligent, but somehow I was better equipped to withstand Life’s Shit. I worked harder to receive better grades, I was cuter, I was better at sports, and now I was on some guy’s Tempu-Pedic while she lay in a hospital bed one borough over.
The following day, I had to visit her. My eyes darted from her atrophied legs to her sunken eyes to the tubes puncturing her veins. In an attempt to mask my discomfort, I smiled, “Thanks for being such a fuck-up.”
“What’s that, Stinky?” she asked, one eyebrow raised in a feat of facial muscle control I could never master. (As a diehard Latin and Greek student, Céline declined everything, including my name: Melanie, Smelanie, Smels, Smelly, Stinky).
“You got me out of work early. Words like 'bloody vomit' and 'endoscopy,' when paired with '30-year-old sister,' can probably get a person out of anything.”
“You can count on me, Stinky,” she deadpanned.
No time-lapse could end our natural banter. But sitting beside Céline, watching her stare into nothingness upon mention of anything medical, I also came to see that no one could stop her from drinking. By that time she saw a therapist regularly, and she took a bevy of drugs prescribed for anxiety, insomnia and cirrhosis. Yet she continued to drink.
Toward the end, Céline shared one gem of a medical detail: Her doctors estimated only two percent of her liver, an organ responsible for 2,000 essential bodily functions, was working properly. Unfortunately, or not, it’s especially difficult for an alcoholic to qualify for a transplant.
In 2008/9, Céline was hospitalized for varying lengths of time on May 11, July 21, Sept 16, Oct 29, Nov 29, Dec 26, March 7, and April 2.
By 2009, I eulogized my sister nightly before falling asleep. On April 8, I delivered the real thing:
“During the last few years, even as her family, it was difficult to be by Céline’s side. Often, admittedly, I was not. But no matter how many months I lost because, out of anger, I refused to speak to her, I feel at ease. I feel at ease because I know my sister. I know that she knew she made mistakes, and that her missteps had a hurtful impact on others. I also know that Céline never sought forgiveness, probably because she felt she didn’t deserve it. Céline didn’t aim to make excuses for herself. Her integrity didn’t allow for that. My sister was too dignified, too self-aware, and too smart for that.”
Addiction brought out the ugliness in Céline, and me. But I'm more than the girl who coped poorly with my sister’s illness—and Céline is more than the young woman who succumbed to drink. In spite of everything—even death—we're sisters.
Mélanie Berliet is a New York City-based writer and producer. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Elle, Self, New York Observer, VanityFair.com, Esquire.com, and Playboy.com among other publications. According to her late sister, she's The Yeats of Acrostic Poetry.