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Article posted: 7/13/2012 5:30 AM

Siblings of drug addicts face unique pain

By Jamie Sotonoff

When Chelsea Laliberte's parents broke the news that her brother, Alex, had died of a heroin overdose, she angrily screamed "I told you so!"

Laliberte spent months warning her parents that Alex's drinking and pot smoking had escalated to harder drugs. Their mother, Jody Daitchman, admits she didn't believe her daughter, and was blindsided when she found her son dead in their Buffalo Grove home in 2008.

Alex's death devastated the entire family, but as his sister and friend, Laliberte, then 23, had different emotional issues to deal with than her parents did, including her anger toward them combined with her own guilt and grief.

"That's a lot to carry with me. And after he died, I was expected to support my parents, which I tried to do," said Laliberte, 27, who now lives in Chicago. "There was no support for siblings. I tried to go to a support group, but I remember feeling like I was the only sibling there, and the only person under the age of 40."

Now, both nationally and locally, there is a growing focus on the emotional needs of the non-addicted siblings in families dealing with substance abuse. Addiction treatment centers are offering more sibling support, including a program at Highland Park Hospital, as are national groups with suburban chapters, such as Compassionate Friends, Nar-Anon and GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing).

Laliberte is toying with the idea of starting a sibling support group, offering herself up as someone to talk to who's been down this terrible and difficult road. She's currently working on a book about being a grieving sibling, and finds comfort running Live4Lali, a charity she created in her brother's memory. The nonprofit will host its 4th annual drug awareness-raising fundraiser, "Lalipalooza," Saturday at the Par King in Lincolnshire.

The demand for sibling support is evident at GRASP, founder Denise Cullen said, and she's seen a boom in activity on the group's Facebook page this year. When an addict's sibling reaches out and shares his or her story, GRASP tries to pair that person up with someone in a similar situation so they can chat online.

"A lot of people hide it. So when they finally say, 'This is what happened to me,' and someone says, 'I know what that's like,' it's huge. It says, 'You are not alone,'" said Cullen, based in California. "One of the biggest (problems) I see is that they have to keep it all inside, because they don't want to burden their parents. So who can they talk to?"

When a person's brother or sister is addicted to drugs, his or her emotional needs often fall through the cracks because everyone's focused on helping the parents and the addict, said Dr. Joseph Lee, a child psychiatrist and medical director of youth services at Hazelden, a national addiction treatment center with a location in Chicago.

"Siblings get left out. They're not getting support from their parents, because the other sibling has become a vacuum," Lee said. "Some (siblings) end up trying to be caretakers, some enable, some turn their backs, some won't talk about it, and some are scared so they ignore it."

Addiction is often hereditary, and sometimes the drug abuser can be a negative influence on siblings. In the case of Buffalo Grove mom Wendy Sopoci, it was a positive influence.

Sopoci's oldest son, Aaron, became addicted to opiates in high school. Her two younger sons watched as Aaron struggled to get his life on track, going in and out of rehab, and always dragging his parents into some type of drama.

"My other kids looked at Aaron and thought, 'I don't want to be like that.' They want nothing to do with drugs ... so something positive came out of it," Sopoci said, noting that Aaron has since gotten clean and is working in Minneapolis.

The issues can be especially challenging for young people when their drug-addicted brother or sister is school-aged or living at home. That can bring shame, fear that they'll end up like the addict, and judgment from other kids and parents, Dr. Lee said.

Sometimes people presume others in the family are using drugs, even though they're not, said Tasha Noll, a Palatine native whose brother, Justin, died of a cocaine and heroin overdose in 2008.

Noll said her brothers were teased about Justin's drug addiction, and each of the siblings dealt with it differently. Noll struggled to befriend him. One of her brothers stayed out of it, and another tried having heart-to-heart "I believe in you" talks to try and get him to stop using.

"It's a lot different to lose a sibling than it is to lose a child. It's a different kind of pain," said Noll, 25, who now lives in Texas. "At first, I did not want to tell people how he died. It was very hard for me to say it. But the most comforting thing for me to hear, strangely enough, is when someone understands and who has been there."

Each sibling faces different issues based on the circumstances and family dynamic. Regardless of the situation, Dr. Lee encourages anyone with addiction in the family to reach out for help.

"What I'd say to people who are non-addicted, who have siblings who are addicted, is that you have a right to have time for yourself, and express how this has affected you," he said. "Even if you don't want to get everyone upset about things, resentments build. There's a psychology to it."

Meanwhile, Laliberte is working to raise awareness about the drug problem plaguing the suburbs. She said people don't know about heroin, don't realize how prevalent it is, and don't understand that even kids like her brother Alex -- a sweet kid with a 3.5 GPA who played on Stevenson High School's football team -- can get hooked by it.

Laliberte sets up a Live4Lali stand once a month at the Buffalo Grove Farmers Market, is working to get educational programs going at Stevenson, and hands out "Lali-pops" at public forums where she asks people, "Are you aware of what's going on in our community with youth substance abuse?"

"Some want to hear all about it and some just walk away and don't want to listen. And that's the problem. People don't want to listen," she said. "It's so important to educate (children) when they're young and educate the parents. At this point, nobody thinks they're going to die. But kids are dying."

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