All profits from sales help us provide free and low-cost resources to communities who need them.

ITC Workbook cover image

The Invitation to Change: A Short Guide is a practical guide to the 9 core topics of the Invitation to Change Approach, the helping approach at the core of everything we do.

Click here for details

View all CMC:FFC publications

Close this search box.

Rethinking Rock Bottom Ep. 2: The Sibling Perspective

June 6, 2024
Picture of CMC:FFC

Rethinking Rock Bottom is CMC:FFC’s new 6-part podcast series. The episodes explore the complicated, and often life-altering, experience of loving someone struggling with substance use. Find other episodes at our podcast page  

On episode 2 of “Rethinking Rock Bottom,” hosts Dr. Carrie Wilkens and Reverend Jan M. Brown welcome Meg and Stephen, siblings who were very close and then grew apart as substance use played an increasingly complicated role in their relationship. Together they highlight the struggles of Stephen’s substance use, the secrets and burdens that Meg felt she had to carry alone, and why she, as a sibling, did not fully understand or appreciate her role in Stephen’s healing journey – landing on the hope they have found in their relationship as they have each healed. 

Listen to Episode 2 and follow along with the transcript below!

Meg: I just have this memory of feeling like I was overreacting. Is it really that bad? Is it real? Should I tell somebody? Should I tell my parents?

Voiceover: This is Rethinking Rock Bottom, a podcast that explores a complicated experience of loving someone struggling with substance use. Hosted by Reverend Jan Brown and Dr. Carrie Wilkins. 

Carrie: By the time they had graduated high school, siblings, Meg and Stephen were already seasoned world travelers with family trips to over 25 countries, a byproduct of living in Europe for much of their childhood. 

Jan: In the midst of so much movement, Stephen and Meg were one of the few constants in each other’s lives.

Carrie: They were so close growing up that when things started changing with Stephen’s substance use in college, it was hard for Meg to even process what she was seeing. Stephen was her perpetually overachieving big brother, and she had always followed his lead. His behavior didn’t make sense. 

Jan: Watching a loved one struggle with substances is always confusing and painful, but from the perspective of a sibling, it can be particularly hard to understand.Even though siblings like Meg often notice the substance use before the rest of the family, as peers, they lack the tools and perspective to fully recognize what’s happening, and including parents can feel like a betrayal. 

Carrie: Recently, I sat down with Meg and Stephen to talk about substance use from the sibling perspective, growing up in Europe, and how substances first fractured their close childhood bond, and then brought them back together again.
Jan: Unfortunately, I missed this interview due to illness. So you’ll be hearing more from me throughout, but for now I leave you with Carrie, Stephen, and Meg.

Meg: So Stephen and I grew up overseas. We moved from New York to Austria when we were six and eight years old, and spent our entire childhood up until we both graduated from high school living overseas. So part of our relationship was, when you move every three years, when you’re a little kid, your sibling is your best friend and your first friend and your only friend for a period of time in those places.
And then, during the summers and things like that, we would often get shipped over to the US, and we would spend six or eight weeks at my grandparents’ house In New Jersey or in Manhattan. Just the two of us, usually. 

Carrie: And Stephen is your older brother? 

Meg: Yes. 

Carrie: You’re not the oldest, right?

Meg: I’m the baby. 

Carrie: And what was it like being Meg’s older brother in all of these adventures back and forth? 

Stephen: Uh, I was always really protective. I definitely took that like role of, uh, the protective older brother. We had pretty small schools that we went to, so they were small American International schools. Uh, so like my graduating class, for example, I think was under 50. So, that means that the whole high school, for example, would be about 200 students. So we all knew each other, we overlapped with our friends. So it was pretty normal for us to be on the weekend, like hanging out together as a big group. I was in a band, so we had that kind of like tie to the music scene. So we used to play shows locally and Megan of course, with her friends would always come. So, our lives were very much overlapping. 

Carrie: And Meg, what was it like having Stephen as an older brother? 

Meg: Stephen’s a big personality, so I was always Stephen’s little sister. I still am in some ways, psychologically speaking. No, but it was great. We spent a lot of time together and because we were so close, I remember Stephen struggling with some depression and anxiety stuff in high school, and I knew about it. I think the closer you are, the more complicated relationships can get. And– so, there was definitely a lot of fighting from time to time and fighting for place in the family. And you know, Stephen’s a very successful person, always has been. He was, you know, the type of kid where everyone was like, “oh, Stephen Murray’s gonna be the president,” kind of thing, which I’m sure created a hell of a lot of pressure on your end, Stephen. But I– I got to exist in this– I was the baby. I was– my parents didn’t think I could speak until I was, I think, four or five years old, because I couldn’t get a word in. So I think the pressure was much less for me. 

Carrie: Or different kind of pressure. 

Meg: Right. 

Jan: Other than the stress of travel and moving schools, Meg and Stephen didn’t face a lot of childhood adversity in the traditional sense. There was still the pressure to perform, especially for Stephen, but mostly he remembers it as a picture perfect childhood in its own way. Nevertheless, even before substances entered his life, Stephen struggled with bouts of anxiety and depression throughout his adolescence. Since they were in Europe, Stephen and Meg were exposed to alcohol at a much younger age than their American counterparts, particularly when they moved to Hungary.
Once Stephen started drinking, it didn’t take long for him to realize that he might have a problem. 

Meg: Hungary was a different animal than Austria. There was just not really a lot of rules. I went clubbing for the first time when I was 12. Smoked my first cigarette when I was 12. You know, I ordered a drink at a bar when I was a 12-year-old, which looking back is wild. It was very normal. I wasn’t a bad kid for going out and doing that. I was one of 30 other kids from my class who were out on the scene. And most parents didn’t really know what was going on, ’cause we could just take public transportation. “Hey, we’re at the mall,” but really we were at the bar in the mall and they were serving us.
It was interesting because we had a lot of access, very young, and I enjoyed that uh, access for sure, all through middle school and high school. 

Stephen: My experience is a little bit different, so I didn’t start as early as Megan did. I was more of like 15 probably when I started drinking. So we actually kind of started going out probably around the same time, even though I was like two and a half years older than her. But for me, I was really into the binge part of the drinking culture. So really quickly, it was like a “how many shots can I take? How many beers can I drink? How can I, down this entire bottle of wine?” Had a couple of blackout events, you know, and like this was all going on at like 15 and 16 years old. So I actually stopped drinking like completely and cold Turkey when I was 16 and a half. And this was like while the band was taking off. And I became part of this movement called the Straight Edge Movement, where it’s like, “we don’t drink, we don’t smoke, we don’t do drugs.” And I had actually never smoked cigarettes at that point, but I stopped drinking and being straight edge became part of my identity. And so I was actually like abstinent purposely and publicly abstinent for more than two years. 

Carrie: And was that because you wanted to be a part of the Straight Edge community, or because you were concerned about your drinking and wanted to change it, or a combination of both? Like how did that happen?

Stephen: I would say it was probably both. I already was concerned with my drinking at that age, because I was losing control a lot and like I didn’t want to get hurt or– we have quite a bit of alcohol use in our family. So I was like, these are like early warning signs that like, I need to slow down or something. And so I, I, I grabbed onto this.
I’m, I’m an all or nothing kind of person as you’ll, uh, learn about me. And so like, I grabbed onto this like straight edge thing and I stuck with it all the way until when my band broke up. 

Jan: Adolescence is a time of incredible turmoil, so the warning signs for substance use issues can be hard to spot in the midst of normal teenage experimentation.
While Stephen recognized his own problems fairly early on, from the outside it hadn’t been obvious. Even Meg didn’t recognize these patterns in Stephen until much later. 

Meg: Looking back now on the fact that Stephen stopped drinking was so abnormal for a 15-year-old. But, I don’t think I clocked that you were stopping because you thought you had a problem in some capacity. I really thought you– you made it so much about the music and so much about being a part of this crew. And in school actually, it was like quite nice for me because when he stopped drinking, he became my designated driver. So he would come and pick me up when I was out and drive me and my friend’s home, which was awesome.

Stephen: Yeah, I forgot about that. So our mom had a minivan, so I was definitely like the community designated driver. 

Meg: And honestly, there were times when I had over-drank. I’m remembering now, and I– Stephen and I were close, and so I knew I could call him and he would basically help me sober up before he brought me home, you know? So that was always a part of our relationship as well. 

Carrie: Stephen chose not to drink throughout high school, but things changed during his gap year when his band broke up after their first disastrous US tour. Without the band, Stephen now had some distance from his straight edge identity, and he was now in a position to reevaluate his relationship with substances. When he returned to Hungary, he started drinking again and tried weed for the first time. When he moved to Miami for college, he gravitated to the kids who were smoking outside the dorms and he quickly fell into the student party scene. 

Stephen: My freshman year, it was very much like social drinking on the weekends, including Thursdays, ’cause it was like thirsty Thursdays, and then go to parties and stuff.
We used to smoke a lot of weed and then also starting to experiment with like hallucinogenics. So I really liked acid and shrooms, and looking back on it, it was very much what I would call like non chaotic recreational use. I was doing fine in school. My social network was growing rather than shrinking. I was really engaged with the political work that I was starting to do. But in April of our freshman year, my friend Kelly fell from a third story balcony while trying to light a cigarette. She like lost her balance and she died within an hour of that in the hospital and it was incredibly traumatizing for our group. Kelly was like one of our very close friends, you know, it just decimated our group. I think that for me as an older brother, I kind of fell into an almost like older brother role in that event, where I was like a shoulder to cry on, and I tried to stay strong for people instead of actually experiencing the grief myself and processing it and crying. Instead, I–I just like repressed it with more drinking and just trying to avoid dealing with the problem. 

Jan: In the aftermath of a trauma, like Stephen and his friends experienced, it’s crucial that we have a chance to heal, and that means processing what just happened. That’s what grieving is, the emotional, messy, difficult way in which we heal from traumatic experiences. Without the tools and space to grieve, we can’t properly heal, and the pain doesn’t go away. Often, as it did with Stephen, that’s when substance use transforms into self-medicating. 

Stephen: Not long after that, I moved into a house with three friends, one of which was selling weed. So, that summer was the summer of weed. I literally smoked all day every day, just basically lounged in a chair and watched Family Guy. During that time, people all were coming in and out a lot because my roommate was dealing, but I also got to know one of his dealers and he was like the magic man of drugs. He used to show up with like a bait and tackle box with everything you could imagine. And I had talked to him a lot and he was a really nice guy and I told him, “yeah, I’m really depressed about Kelly dying, and like, I just still don’t feel great.” And he was like, “oh, you should try these. These will take the edge off, make you feel better.” He is like, “I take ’em every once in a while when I’m feeling down,” and I didn’t know at the time that it was oxycodone. Pretty quickly, loved how they made me feel. For the first few weeks of using them, like I finally felt happy again. What’s interesting is that it quickly flattened to be more of, I just didn’t feel anything, so I wasn’t sad or happy. I was just kind of like there. And I don’t know when the line sort of crossed from taking them orally to sniffing them, but I don’t think it took that long. I think that was like a suggestion that someone had that like, “oh, you’ll, you’ll use less of them and you’ll feel it faster”. So, I had switched to sniffing pretty quickly. 

Jan: Over this period, Stephen also began using stimulants. He’d tried Adderall as a study drug in his freshman year, but now he started using it to balance out his opiate use. When he couldn’t find Adderall, meth was a substitute. Soon Stephen added in another prescription drug, Klonopin, a benzodiazepine to help with the side effects he experienced from the stimulants. Yet even as his life became a precarious balancing act of substance use, Stephen wasn’t slowing down at all. In fact, he was adding to his workload. 

Carrie: When Stephen was a junior at the University of Miami, he ran for city council and he won, becoming Miami’s youngest ever councilman at age 21. While Stephen maintained a public image as a whiz kid, things were beginning to unravel behind the scenes. Meg noticed a big change in her brother’s behavior over the course of two spring break visits to Miami. 

Meg: So Stephen was in Miami, I was in Boston. Because he took a gap year, we were one year apart in school. My freshman year, I took a bunch of my friends and we had a spring break with my brother in Miami. We had fun, we were partying. Everything felt very normal college experience. And then I think it was probably about 12 months later, I came back and I remember sitting in Stephen’s living room and him and his friend– suddenly I like look over and they are smoking pills off of aluminum foil. And now I’m trying to think in my head “is this– this is worse, right? Like this is worse than what I was doing, or what me and my friends are doing. This feels very different. But also, I don’t know, is it that different? You know, he’s not shooting heroin. I don’t know, pills– people do pills.” And I think it may have been that time as well, that I noticed that Stephen was incredibly paranoid. I just remember surveillance. We got in his car and he had all these gadgets that were surveilling, like dash cams before that was a commonplace thing, and cameras outside of his– the front door, and he had like zip tied things. It struck me as a type of person who hadn’t slept in a long time. I started to feel like something was not quite right. He then showed me that he had purchased weapons and was concerned about people following him. I started to then get this larger picture, where I was as a 19-year-old trying to figure out, okay, the drug use feels bad. There’s this other thing where he’s paranoid and now there’s weapons. But again, I just have this memory of feeling like I was overreacting. Is it really that bad? Is it real? Should I tell somebody? Should I tell my parents? 

Jan: In the Invitation To Change approach, we say that ambivalence is normal, but it’s important to remember that ambivalence comes in many different forms depending upon the family context. For siblings, even recognizing that there is a problem can be difficult, and involving parents can feel like a betrayal of trust. Even though Meg was growing increasingly uncomfortable with Stephen’s drug use, it wasn’t until he showed her his stash of weapons, that she felt like she was in a position to talk to their parents. But even then, the discussion surrounded Stephen’s weapons rather than his drug use. But the drugs wouldn’t stay a secret for much longer. Soon, the whole family would understand the extent of Stephen’s issues, when they traveled to Miami for his pretend graduation. 

Meg: Basically, Stephen had– because he was, Stephen had this relationship with the school where he was really successful, but he hadn’t quite finished his credits and so they let him walk his graduation, even though he hadn’t completed the degree. So we all came down for that, and like my parents flew in from Europe and my uncle came from New York and we all flew down to like watch him graduate. And, I stayed with Stephen and he was living in a different apartment at this point, and it was a very scary place to be.
Stephen: I was alone for starters. 

Meg: Yeah. Of a person who was staying up all night smoking cigarettes and doing drugs. And the day that he was supposed to walk for his graduation, I think you were up all night probably. And it was my responsibility to wake you up. I could not rouse him. I literally couldn’t get him up. It took me an hour of shaking him and looking back, I– if that happened now, I think I would call an ambulance. I think I would be scared and would probably call 9 1 1. At the time, I just was like he’s so tired and he just won’t rouse. 

Stephen: Yeah, that was– that was probably an overdose. 

Meg: Yeah. 

Stephen: Yeah. 

Meg: And I finally got you up and we threw clothes on you in a stupor. And I remember you were late running down into the aisle so that you could actually get there. And I’m pretty sure you were nodding out while you were sitting in the audience waiting to go up. 

Carrie: And, your parents and your uncle, they didn’t notice or– what was happening with the rest of the family? 

Meg: It’s interesting. Stephen was very open about the fact that he struggled with sleep. Sleep was very difficult for him. He had insomnia. So I think it’s really easy as a family member that’s not come in contact with someone struggling with substances to go “okay, it’s sort of normal if you haven’t slept all day, that maybe your eyes would be closing and you would not be able to hold your head up in a conversation.”

Stephen: Yeah, I was like a 21-year-old college student partying, staying up all night, playing video games. Like there’s plenty of ways you can explain away behavior, and I was a pro at explaining away behavior. 

Carrie: You also had all of this good stuff, like I’m doing well in school and– 

Stephen: Yeah.

Carrie: Yeah.

Meg: Yeah. And it ended up being our uncle, he was the one who eventually, I think, who said something to them. Kind of like, “I think your son’s on drugs. Like wha–? Look at him. He is like nodding out at the table.” I confirmed it once he brought it up. And I don’t know if Stephen, if you remember this, so our dad is not somebody who ever raises his voice. He had never yelled at me in my entire life, and that day he yelled at you. 

Stephen: I don’t remember that. 

Meg: Never forget that in the parking lot of that hotel.
And he was screaming ’cause he was so scared, I think and so frustrated. And I think that’s still the only time I’ve ever heard him yell in my whole life. And I think that was–

Stephen: Thank God for benzos. I don’t remember that at all.
Meg: Because you don’t remember that. Yeah. He was–

Stephen: No. 

Meg: Scream– screaming at you. And I just remember it was– that it felt like the beginning of it all coming down.

Jan: Over video calls, Stephen had been able to keep up the fiction that everything was fine, but in person it was obvious that he was struggling and needed help. Meg and her parents brought Stephen back to New York, and staged an impromptu intervention. They suggested rehab and he immediately gave in. He said he was ready for rehab. He just needed to go back to Miami and to pack up. 

Meg: So he went back to Miami and my parents, I think ended up having to go back to Greece, and then he just disappeared. We didn’t hear from him again for, I think a month maybe. It was summertime, my family was like thousands of miles away on a different time zone, and we’re all going, “we can’t get in touch with him. We have no way of knocking on his door or figuring out if he’s okay or what’s going on.” And– so I was in the middle of– I remember this, I had an internship at a newspaper that I was excited about. And I suggested, I was like, “I’m gonna go and get him.” And I remember my mom asking if she should go, and I think I was like, “we’re close. My brother’s in trouble. I wanna help.” So I quit my internship and I flew down to Florida. When I showed up at his apartment, and it was scarier than it had been the last time I was there. And he was a complete disaster. And I basically spent a week packing up his apartment, while he was either up all night or sleeping all day. And I slept on the couch in that hell–hell hole.

Carrie: Can I nudge you a little bit? What was it like emotionally for you that week where you’re trying to take care of your brother, you’re by yourself, you’re seeing some scary stuff. What did you see and what did you feel? No jokes 

Meg: I– I have memories of moments of things I saw that stay with me. I remember all of his sweatshirts had a cigarette hole right here. ‘Cause he would smoke and he would nod out and so the cigarette would burn a hole in his sweatshirt. And I think literally every piece of clothing he had had a cigarette hole right here. Think about–

Stephen: Sorry about that. The couch too. 

Meg: Yeah. The couch was riddled with cigarette holes. I remember the smell of it. It was literally like the dogs had like gone to the bathroom ’cause he had been sleeping for 18 hours and so there was like a visceral smell. It felt so out of body given I had never been in a– an apartment like that before in my life. And yeah, it was really scary. At the time though, I also still had this feeling of urgency, like I was in a crisis. And I think it helped that I had a task at hand. I had to clean that apartment up. So when he wouldn’t get up in the morning, it wasn’t like I was trying to wake him up to do something, I would just leave him in there. I’d left him in the bedroom, got the boxes out, and I was just putting stuff in boxes all day long. And I was walking his dogs, ’cause I knew they hadn’t been out in a while and they hadn’t had much attention. And so I really tried to stay focused on task at hand. 

Carrie: Did you tell your parents how bad it was? Or did you just deal with it yourself?

Meg: I call my mom a lot, so I’m sure I was calling her. At that point I wasn’t nervous about telling them, which was helpful. You know, there was no more secrets. I felt much worse when I was keeping secrets. I think at one point she actually offered to fly down and I was like, “I’ve got this. Let me handle it.” I think I felt protective of her as well, that she shouldn’t have to see that. 

Jan: Meg and Stephen made it from Miami to Connecticut in under 24 hours with Stephen driving nonstop while doing lines of meth. While things were clearly out of control for Stephen, he had never been in denial about how bad things were. So for him, rehab felt like a relief, a weight off his shoulders. For Meg however, it was an additional burden, because she’d agreed to care for Stephen’s three rescue dogs. Treatment turned out to be challenging for Stephen. As an atheist, he took issue with the spiritual component of the 12 steps. And the conditions of the facilities weren’t ideal either. As Meg recalls, Family Weekend was a particular debacle, causing more harm than good.

Meg: I have a memory of Family Weekend when they brought us all in, and then I remember they made us take a test to figure out what kind of person we were and who we were within the family. And I got given the title of The Forgotten Child. Which, as a part of a family that I felt like I had put a lot of my life aside, it was like a really weird thing to be told at that time.

Stephen: And all three of you were labeled enablers?

Meg: Right. Yeah. I’m not sure what the point of that was supposed to be. I feel like it almost drove a wedge in. Being told I was forgotten, I think amplified my feelings of– whenever the conversation always had to go back to Stephen, “how’s Stephen doing? How’s he doing? Like, is he gonna be okay?” Da da da da. I was like, now I had this word in my head that I didn’t have before, that I felt I was like a helping force in the family. Like I felt like I was not forgotten. Like I was feeling consistent and helpful and like I’m showing up to rehab and, and then I was given this label. And then as things unfolded after that, that was what was in my head, “oh, this is happening ’cause I’m just this forgotten.” It was weird language to give me to think about my experience. Instead of being like, “Hey, you stepped up and you really took care of your family and like you are like a helpful member of this family.” They were like, “oh no, you’re just a forgotten kid.” 

Carrie: The problem with labels is that they generalize relationships often incorrectly. And yet once applied labels can be incredibly hard to shake. For meg, this feeling of being the forgotten child led to feelings of resentment towards Stephen, especially as he became increasingly self-focused during treatment. Over time, the language from that family weekend created further division between them, especially when Meg turned to Stephen for support when she really needed it and he wasn’t there for her.

Meg: The thing that really screwed things up for us was when I was overseas, I had a sort of traumatic thing happen to me and I was feeling really homesick and I didn’t feel like I could talk to my family about it. And, who do you call when you have something that you don’t wanna tell your parents but you need support for? It was– I was trying to get back to our relationship, the, the pre-time relationship where we would do that for each other. And I called Stephen probably like a hundred times and left him voicemails and saying,” I just need you to call me back. I just need you to call me back.” And I never heard from him. And I felt at that point I had not asked for anything yet. I had given a lot in the years preceding that moment. That was the moment where I was like, “now I need you. I didn’t need you before. Now I need you.” And he was just not there. So it was– that was kind of the, the beginning of the end for probably two, three years after that.

Carrie: What happened for you after that?

Meg: I was like, I’m done. 

Carrie: Mm-Hmm. 

Meg: That, that felt point, it felt conditional, like my unconditional love was gone. I just felt at that moment, if I can give and give and give and give and then he can’t even call me back. The silence of that, of the unreturned call felt, so– I just felt done, you know, because I, I’m not getting anything outta this relationship.

Carrie: And what was happening on your end, Stephen? 

Stephen: At that point, I had fallen into another sort of deep depression. I was sleeping 18 hours a day. I had been trialed on a couple of different antidepressants that weren’t working. I wasn’t making it to group and I wasn’t making it to my appointments. And I always had this issue of my phone feeling like it weighed a thousand pounds. And picking up the phone for help, picking up the phone to answer it, picking up the phone when my parents called, picking up the phone when Megan called, it always seemed so daunting. And it’s funny now, because like my phone’s in my hand all the time and I pick up on the first ring and I don’t think about it anymore. But, at that time, just answering the phone caused me so much anxiety. And, yeah, I mean, of course none of these things are excuses, but it’s just, it was a really dark time. 

Jan: Due to post-Acute withdrawal, change has been a long process for Stephen. He struggled with depression, anxiety, and cravings that caused him to go inward for a long time. He also had underlying health conditions that he needed to address in order to fully heal. 

Meg: Honestly, Stephen just started texting me, constantly, about nothing. Every single freaking day it felt like. And at first, I was just replying because I felt bad not replying and, and I should say we weren’t estranged. We were never like, “I won’t even speak to you.” It was more like we just didn’t talk. But anyway, he just started texting me and I just started responding. And then, slowly, I softened. 

Stephen: You know, I could be very persistent.  

Meg: Yes. Just a very slow year of him caring enough to ask about what was going on in my life. Whether it was, “how was work, how’s your apartment? Have you been on any dates recently?” You know, just little small things. Nothing big.

Carrie: But it sounds like he became consistent again. When you started to text her, was that like an intentional, “I know I need to fix my relationship with my sister, so I’m gonna just keep doing this because I know she’s upset with me,” or what was that? 

Stephen: I don’t really know. I don’t really know why it started. It’s interesting. I didn’t realize Megan was mad at me, for like three years that she was mad at me. Because I was so not self-aware, so self-absorbed. I don’t know. I feel like something just changed in me, that all of a sudden I was receptive to like realizing that, “oh wait, Megan doesn’t like me anymore.” I mean, that’s like a really simple way of putting it. But like she didn’t like me anymore. I knew she still loved me, I guess, ’cause I’m her brother and whatever, but she didn’t like me anymore. That, you know, that realization hurt. It took a long time to realize she doesn’t even like me. What have I done like to like get to this point where my own sister, who I like, spent a million years and hours with, doesn’t want to be around me. I think I realized that like fixing my life wasn’t fixing our relationship, that they were two separate things. For me, I just thought I was doing enough by trying to get better. And not realizing that I hadn’t put the time in to repair the damage, and that the damage even sort of like continued into my own like recovery. And so that was the shift. It was like, this isn’t just about me anymore.

Meg: You know–

Stephen: And like– 

Meg: what this also coincided–

Stephen: What? 

Meg: You became a dad.

Stephen: Yeah.

Meg: It’s not all about you anymore. 

Stephen: Yeah. Becoming a dad– so, to give some context, I went from zero to four kids in one year. My, my wife has two daughters from a previous relationship, and I always say I fell in love with them before I fell in love with her. They needed someone who was gonna show up for them, because their dad wasn’t showing up for them. And she also had just taken custody of her godson, who was 12, who had lost his dad, so he didn’t have someone showing up for him either. And so it was like all of a sudden, I had the capacity to take care of other people again. And like I had become an EMT as well, and so I had like sort of shifted into this caregiving role. And it made me realize like that I– maybe I hadn’t been a good job of taking care of other people in my life and like being there for them. And then, then she got pregnant with our son. And so the second she got pregnant, it was like my whole mindset shifted to like, “I’m a provider, I’m gonna get a better job.” You know, it– it just shifted everything for me. It’s funny, like they’re not a higher power, but they’re a higher calling for me, like having kids that like need me and like rely on me. And that I think was enough to like maybe shift– shift me. 

Jan: Looking back, Meg now understands why Stephen needed to be entirely self-focused in order to heal. But at the time, she felt she had nothing left to give and felt she needed to take a step back in order to grow herself. This feeling of being done with it is a completely normal part of the sibling experience of Substance Use Disorder and something Meg wishes parents understood better.

Meg: I think I would like parents to know that the sibling is going through something just as difficult as the parents are going through, and they’re going through it in a very different time in their lives, in a time of growth and a time when they’re meant to be still focused on themselves. I think parents are used to being in a role of caretaking, and when the sibling is experiencing this, they are being asked to be in a different role, and that’s really hard. And to make space for that person. And I think I just wanna normalize for other siblings that there were times when I was so done. And that’s, I think, really understandable to feel done and to feel like you don’t wanna be a part of it anymore. That it’s okay to feel that way, and it’s okay to come back later on and decide that you do wanna be a part of it again. And it’s not all or nothing, and it is family.

Carrie: One of the questions we ask is, do you have a hope for our listeners as they face their own struggles? Got any hope for the siblings out there? 

Stephen: Meg had access to me that other people didn’t have. You may be the only person that– that the person that you care about trusts to even disclose. Like Megan was one of the only people in my life that knew that I was using. And so because she was the only one I felt safe disclosing my use to, it’s very challenging. But like being able to be the one that has a conversation with them to say like, “Hey, it’s okay that you’re using right now. Like I’m– I’m concerned about your safety though, because this is a very dangerous drug supply.” Parents sometimes struggle with this conversation to be able to say like, “it’s okay that you use,” but I think as a sibling you have a little bit more leeway to say like, “I just want you to be safe regardless of what you’re doing.” Because Megan brought up over and over, she was concerned about the safety aspect. That I was hallucinating, the safety of my smoking cigarettes was nodding out that I could have burned the house down, those are all things that are not totally tied to the substance use itself, but where she could intervene for safety.
That’s just a unique position to be able to like offer that viewpoint without criticizing somebody’s use directly. 

Carrie: Meg, you got any hope specifically for the siblings listening?

Meg: I just hope that in whatever version of the journey that they’re going through, that they get an opportunity to repair their relationship. And whatever that looks like, even if the person is still using substances, if they can, or if they’re able to find a way to connect with their sibling.

Carrie: These days, Meg and Stephen find themselves connected again, as siblings and as friends. They also now work professionally to help people who use substances and to help their families. 

Jan: This time, Meg led the way. She’s the executive director of CMC Foundation for Change, a New York based nonprofit that creates resources for families working through substance use. One of which, includes this podcast. 

Carrie: Stephen is tackling the problem through his role as harm reduction program manager at Boston Medical Center. He directs the overdose prevention helpline funded by the state of Massachusetts. They provide a service where staff stay on the phone with people who are using in case of an overdose, so that they can activate 9 1 1. He was drawn to start this service by his decade of experience as a frontline paramedic, where he found that many people died from overdose because they were in their homes alone. 

Jan: Sibling dynamics are complicated to begin with. And substance use disorder tends to amplify underlying tensions, often pushing siblings past their breaking point. The damage can take years to repair long after substances are gone.

Carrie: We are grateful that Megan and Stephen were willing to share their story, and we hope that in doing so, it shows everyone just how important siblings are.

Jan: Our hearts are with you.

Voiceover: Rethinking Rock Bottom is a production of CMC Foundation for change. If you’re looking for more support, visit

Share this post

Subscribe for Updates

Receive monthly round-ups of updates and resources in your inbox.