"You fucking bitch, you don't give a shit about me or anyone else!" my sister screams into the phone before hanging up. It's been years since she quit using heroin, but nothing feels different.
After returning from her first year of college, my nerdy big sister, a history scholar who spent her teenage years kissing a picture of Johnny Depp on our wall each night before bed, had suddenly transformed. She was gaunt and irritable. She nodded off in the middle of sentences. She brought home an endless stream of men to our mother's house, many of whom thought nothing of slapping my 13-year-old ass or kissing me on the mouth.
"Don't be such a fucking prude," she would say casually, laughing at my discomfort.
Our mother, who had found Alice's dope kit soon after she returned home, was convinced that keeping Alice in the house and finding her a new school would solve the problem. Much like the futility of wishing away cancer or crossing your fingers as a method of birth control, simply keeping tabs on an addict will not make their disease any less real. After abbreviated stints in various rehabs, stealing virtually everything in our home that didn't require a moving truck to pawn, and a series of fights with both me and my mother that grew increasingly violent, she was suddenly gone.
My parents were always convinced that Alice would show up in a few weeks after she cooled off. While we never saw her, hints of her presence lingered. My father's house was robbed of checks and various sentimental items. The doormen in my mother's building reported strangers asking for the key to our apartment, claiming to be plumbers, dog walkers, long-lost cousins.
One day, the sightings stopped. It would be years before we heard from her again. When Alice resurfaced, she called my mother and told her she was pregnant. While we were both apprehensive, thinking it could be a trick, when she called again announcing her son's birth, we hurried to the hospital to meet the new baby. Alice and her fiancé (one of the aforementioned ass-slappers), seemed happy. Their baby was fat and healthy. My mother saw it as a new beginning.
The following month, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. In an attempt to make up for lost time, we welcomed Alice back into our lives. "She's not on drugs anymore! She's a mom!" my mother would coo, explaining why, after years of abuse, Alice was suddenly a welcome, key-holding guest of our home. Within three months, our mother was dead, and Alice and I were trying to navigate our relationship without the benefit of my mother's unshakable optimism. While there was little doubt in my mind that Alice had quit using drugs, it didn't seem like much else had changed.
A year after our mother's death, our father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My brother and sister, who still refused to speak to one another, would call me to relay messages about our father's condition. "Could you please ask Alice to come up to the hospital and see Dad sometime?" my brother would plead. "Could you please tell David that I have a fucking child who will also die if I don't take care of him?" she would snap.
While David and I had come into some money after our mother had died, Alice's inheritance was placed in a trust, which, after a year of mismanagement from my uncle, I dutifully took over. When I became the holder of Alice's purse strings, our relationship took another turn for the worse.
Holding no job for more than a month in the past 12 years, Alice was constantly asking for money, despite the hefty monthly direct deposit already set up for her. She would call at 6:30 in the morning on a Sunday and not stop until the following day. Following the dissolution of her relationship, she would scream into my voicemail, "I'm a fucking single mother! I guess you want my son to die in the street like a dog!" when I would fail to return a text message within an hour.
Alice's former fiancé has been back on and off of drugs for a few years now. Alice appears to be serious about her sobriety, even eschewing painkillers when she broke a rib. But with or without the substances, her behavior is still erratic, and her anger still scares me. On occasion, when we have dinner together, I'll notice her wearing a piece of my jewelry that she never asked to borrow. Without apology, she missed my college graduation and my father's funeral.
When I speak to friends about her behavior, it's sometimes difficult to explain how, despite giving up drugs, my sister's addiction is still there. I wonder if, perhaps, her drug abuse brought out some long-dormant mental illness that has never been addressed. I wonder if something about years of shooting up has changed her permanently. I wish that someday, I could have her over without taking a mental inventory of my valuables, or that my concerns about our relationship could be met by something other than dismissal.
But how do you deal with the drug addict that the drugs have left behind?