Tough stories bring problems out of shadows

  • Chelsea Laliberte of Palatine is photographed with her brother, Alex, before his death from a heroin overdose in 2008. Laliberte said the Daily Herald story on her Live4Lali support group for people with drug-addicted siblings has changed lives.

    Chelsea Laliberte of Palatine is photographed with her brother, Alex, before his death from a heroin overdose in 2008. Laliberte said the Daily Herald story on her Live4Lali support group for people with drug-addicted siblings has changed lives. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Posted10/4/2015 6:12 AM

Sometimes, it's a story you stumble across that changes your life.

We received a lovely letter from a suburban high school teacher who put a 2012 Daily Herald article about a support group for siblings of heroin addicts on the bulletin board outside her classroom.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

One of her students saw the story, read it, and privately confided that her brother was a heroin addict and her family's life was in turmoil.

The teacher immediately lined up extra support to help the teen. The story, which the student might not have otherwise seen, made a difference in her life, the teacher wrote.

That story actually brought many people out of the shadows, said Chelsea Laliberte of Palatine, who was featured in the article and runs the Live4Lali nonprofit group. By sharing what she went through after her brother's 2008 death from a heroin overdose, she validated the feelings of hundreds of people with drug-addicted siblings. She ended up creating "Siblings Strong," a private Facebook-based support group that now has 210 members across the country.

"People are still reaching out to me from that story," Laliberte said during a recent interview. "(The Daily Herald story) provided the platform for the issue. It brought people out of anonymity and allowed people to have a voice. If you don't know a support group exists, how are you going to find it?"

Newspaper stories not only educate the public, they provide credibility. That makes people more likely to share the story with someone who wants that information.

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"It takes on a new life force when someone as well respected as the Daily Herald writes about it. That says, 'This is important. Read this.' If you go on a blog site, how do you know it's true? If you see it in the Daily Herald, you know it's true," Laliberte said.

Even today, years later, if you Google "sibling addict support," it's one of the first stories to come up.

"A lot of people have been helped because of this," she added. "It's powerful."

This is an abbreviated version of Jamie Sotonoff's original story on Chelsea Laliberte, which ran July 13, 2012.

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 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."

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