How I Lost My Alcoholic Sister For Good - Page 2

By Melanie Berliet 10/11/11

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.

Céline, a few months before her death

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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,,, and among other publications. According to her late sister, she's The Yeats of Acrostic Poetry.

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Mélanie Berliet is a New York City-based writer and producer. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Elle, Self, New York Observer,,, and among other publications. According to her late sister, she's The Yeats of Acrostic Poetry. Find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.