My Sister Is Addicted to Prescription Drugs -- What to Do?

Updated on March 13, 2012
M.B. asks from Palatine, IL
13 answers

My 31-year-old sister (let's call her "Sally") appears to be addicted to prescription painkillers, and the rest of my family and I aren't sure how to help her - the best steps to take. Here is the story in a nutshell: My sister lives with my parents, and is a "starving artist" of sorts--but not really, because my parents support her a lot. She does collage art and has concentrated on selling it, but has no other steady job except dog-sitting, and occasional babysitting. So she has no health insurance, but has been going to a pain doctor for back pain caused by herniated discs. The doctor prescribed Norco for her, which she takes. But she not only takes these, she has stolen pain medication from my mom, who has a medical condition. When my mom and dad were on a trip out of the country, Sally went to a neighbor down the street and asked if she could buy some painkillers from him. Most recently, my mom told my other sister that she believes Sally had gotten into my mom's lock box of fentanil (?) patches -- very strong pain medicine often used for cancer patients. My mom also believes that Sally even has tried to use whatever was "left" in the patches my mom has already used. My parents had confronted Sally before this latest incident about stealing the drugs. She denied it, and turned on the tears, so my parents backed down. I believe my sister is really in pain, but is obviously addicted and needs help. What can we do for her to help her admit to this problem and get the help she needs? With her not having health insurance, and having very little money, I don't know what to do. If anyone has gone through this, please give me any advice you have. Sorry such a long post. Thanks!

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So What Happened?

Thank you so much everyone for sharing your experiences and for the great advice. I'm going to discuss the ideas with my family, and we'll go from there.

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answers from Detroit on

They are very addictive. You cannot help her until she is ready to get help herself, but I wish you all the luck!

1 mom found this helpful

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answers from Seattle on

I highly recommend the books, "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts", by Dr. Gabor Mate and "Codependent No More", by Melodie Beattie. Both are excellent resources for those of us who have addicted family members.

I have an older sister whose addictive use started with opiate pain killers. She too had chronic back pain. My sister had been difficult for many years. I had a close relationship with her and cared about her deeply. Too, our relationship was toxic. I found myself resenting my sister very much. After all, I often stood in the wake of her damage. I felt responsible for fixing my sister and I think a part of me hated her/me for it.

Life felt hard to my sister. She had a difficult time maintaining relationships or functioning. She always felt different. Now, I realize that my sister showed signs of trauma and was surviving. Then, I thought she was just being selfish. She was being selfish, but I don't believe out of choice.

Addiction is complicated and stigmatized. We are just starting to understand the physiological basis for it and there are great differences of opinion as to why and how it operates, and what defines addiction.

In the spring of 2010, my sister moved here. By this time, her abusive husband had abandoned her and her daughter. My niece was a toddler and they went from mommy and me classes and an upscale apartment to homelessness. My sister had been in active addiction for years, but it was in a process of progression. Still, she refused help and for many months. When she arrived, my niece showed signs of trauma. It was all very painful. Growing up, my sister had been my hero and my best friend. Even through the hardest of times, we had had each other's backs. By this time though, our relationship become scared.

After months of excruciating mess of emotional punishment and coddling, she went to rehab. Mostly, because we pressured her to. Her daughter came to stay with us. That was 22 months ago. My sister was kicked out of rehab and went to live on the streets. Her daughter continued to live with us. I was devastated and her daughter was in trauma. Trauma, does funny things to a person. It's challenging to parent a child with attachment issues. Now I realize my sister showed signs of trauma, even early on. I believe the use of drugs gave her relief from the internal agony she felt.

When one feels as though they are swallowed in darkness, it is easy to cling to any light, even if it burns your hands.

My niece is healing. It is a slow process, but one that fills my heart with hope and joy. My sister is not doing well. She calls my mom once every few weeks, so that we know she is alive. She made a great sacrifice by leaving her child. Our child. She didn't want to cause any more damage but didn't feel capable of anything else, so she left. I feel a lot of compassion for my sister now. The choices she made her terribly painful and I didn't feel I could walk out on her, because her daughter needed family and stability. I have learned to detach now. Some days are still hard and I find myself unable to let go of my resentment and grief. Other days I am missing her and missing her. And some days, I just feel grateful for the wonderful memories I do have and the joy and love I have for my niece.

I guess from my perspective, intervention is not always wise. Setting an ultimatum because it is what we must do for ourselves, is different then trying to force a person into facing themselves and give up their solution/relief. When a person is not willing, it is not possible to change them.

What would I suggest?

First and foremost, take care of you. Remember you can't change anyone but yourself. Try to bolster up your support network, whether by venting to trusted loved ones, attending support groups, reading books, writing, self care, etc. Practice self compassion. Practice setting fluid boundaries.

Take a lot of long hot baths.

When you talk with her, ask her where she is at. See if she's ready to try an abstinence based method of recovery. She may not be. Opiate withdrawal is not very dangerous for most people, but it is excruciating. Absolute hell of the mind and body. In our state, we have a program called ADATSA, which can help uninsured and low-income individuals enter rehab. You may also want to call your local inpatient rehab centers and speak with a CDC. They can be very useful. There are 12 step based programs that may be useful, either NA or an open meeting of AA. Many people prefer one or another and the suggestion is to take what you like and leave the rest / look for the similarities not the differences. Also to try many different meetings. If you live near a big city, she might also find support groups of a different sort. 12 step is one of many different models.

To know, she may need a dual diagnosis program, one that is equipped to treat her chronic back pain along side her addiction. Sometimes (down the road) massage, acupuncture, cortisone shots, physical therapy, and temp. treatments may be of use. I would caution against down playing the degree of internal or external pain she feels.

'Help' is a subjective term. If she is using drugs to medicate herself, there is a reason for it. If it is compulsive, rather than recreational, it may be providing her with comfort, connection, relief, and functionality. Our version of help might be vastly different than another persons.

Learning to set boundaries is HUGE. You might not have so much of an issue with it as I do, so maybe it isn't as big a priority. For me, it was. I had learned to set "boundaries" and ultimatums as a way to manipulate (re: punish or coddle). They weren't authentic. They weren't useful, either. It's okay to get what you need here too, yah know?

You might look up, assertive vs. aggressive communication and non violent communication. "The Helping Hand", a college textbook, is also very good.

This has gotten LONG!!! I'll jump off. I really wish the best for you and your family and I want to send you a big hug. Good luck!

7 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

There are several things going on here.

1. Your sister is being enabled by your parents.
a. She is 31 years old and still living at home.
b. She has not held a solid job.
So she has no reason really to do anything for herself.

2. She MIGHT be stealing from your parents. If they can't prove it - they need to make it so that she cannot get to the medications they have. Not just locking it up - but taking it with them. If they won't do that - then they need to do some tough love and ask her to move out and take care of herself.

3. While she may be IN PAIN - is doing doing ANYTHING to make it right? I understand lack of insurance and money - however - there are many ways around this and doctors can take payments - however - this means that your sister will have to grow up and become self-sufficient and pay her own way. There are other welfare programs out there as well to help her. If she's just managing the pain with meds and not dealing with the issue - then she might very well become a cripple in the not too distant future.

If she can't go 24 hours without meds - she might be addicted.
If she doesn't admit she is addicted - no matter what you or your parents do - any rehab program, etc. - if she doesn't want the help or admit that she's an addict there is nothing you can do for her but give her tough love. That means no money, no free room and board, no excuses. It's hard. it's tough but that might be the only way to get her to acknowledge her problem.

I wish you much luck and peace in this trying time.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from St. Louis on

intervention time.....& if that doesn't help, then your parents need to stop supporting her. You & your parents can only make recommendations, your sister has to want to stop feeding her addictions.

If your mom has to lock up her own meds, then this is truly an addiction.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Philadelphia on

O gosh M., I really hope you get a good answer. I have been battling this with my sister for ten years to very little avail. You and your parents need to get yourselves (yes yourselves) into a treatment program either just by finding yourselves a Nar-Anon group or by finding a family addiction therapist. Addressing prescription meds addiction in some one who actually suffers from pain is a very difficult and painful path.

Good luck to you all. my heart goes out to your whole family.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

My mom is addicted to pain killers, and she's been in the hospital for an overdose. You're not going to like this, but there isn't a whole lot you can do. Your sister needs to realize for herself that she's addicted. You can try staging a formal intervention, which may be helpful.

The sad part about my mom is even though she's admitted her addiction, she hasn't truly admitted all of it and still thinks she's fine. She's almost been convicted of a felony, was arrested while her husband was in the hospital, waiting to be taken home after an angioplasty, almost missed the birth of my twins and my brother's wedding, and she is still in partial denial. Over winter break this year (she's "supposed" to have been sober for three years), she overdosed on the Fentinol pain patch, wearing two at a time and "hiding" one on her body so well even the paramedics couldn't find it. She stole my leftover pain killers from my c-section. So, even after court-ordered rehab, my mother is still addicted. And, I've come to realize there isn't anything I can do about it. It makes me sad, but an addict has to sober up of her own choice or it doesn't last.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from St. Louis on

Is she actually addicted to pain killers or just trying to get rid of the pain rather than deal with her condition? There is a huge difference between the two.

Like, magic wand her back is cured, would she want or need the pain killers? My husband does a lot of exercise to manage his bulging disks so I know the pain involved. I am more concerned that she is ignoring that problem and could end up with serious long term back damage.

I don't take the pain meds prescribed for my knees because the pain tells me if I am pushing myself too hard. The only time I take them is if the pain is too much to go to sleep. God knows what I could do to myself if I just did away with the pain.

Oh you can report her to the pain doctors, they will cut her off. I work for pain doctors they take that very seriously.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Kansas City on

I have a friend who died from this and it sounds just like what you describe here. She was barely 50 years old when she died. There was nothing anyone could do as the law says you can't make them stay in rehab and when they are fair they can check themselves out which they will do. It was so sad to watch someone die like this and be able to do nothing and worse yet to know doctors keep giving out the medication and it's so easy to get it legally. All I can say if I hope you find someone who can help and get your sister a job, treatment and out on her own, and maybe the Nar-Anon suggested can help you find a way to start.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

I feel for you. My brother is addicted to prescription pain meds, as well. Unfortunately, unless they want to get help or even admit they have a problem, there really isn't anything you can do. It is such a horrible feeling to not be able to help. I finally had to wash my hands clean of my brother's entire situation as it was not healthy for me and my family. Boundaries are hard to set, but sometimes very necessary.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Atlanta on

What can you do about it? Nothing, sadly. Only the addict can deal with his/her own addiction. You CAN (and must) help yourself deal with the impacts of her addition on you and support your parents as they deal with the impacts on themselves. They will need to figure out what boundaries to set with her (and of course, you need to decide what you need to set for yourself, because I bet she will turn to you and other siblings if/when your parents set limits for her. Ditto to the suggestion to locate some Nar-Anon meetings (provide support for relatives and friends of addicts), or Al-Anon if there aren't any Nar-Anon meetings in your area (same 12 Step program, just dealing with the effects of someone's addiction to alcohol). Good luck!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Columbia on

1. Go to a Nar-anon or Al-anon meeting (for friends/family of addicts). I AM an alcoholic, and I think you should be armed to understand the disease and not the excuses.

2. Go to a Nar-anon or Al-anon meeting to talk to other people in your situation.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

I'm sorry you're going through this. Addiction is a beast to battle. My mother was addicted to prescription pain killers for 20 years or so. Hers also started with a back injury. It consumed her life. She was in a drug haze for the majority of my life. No amount of crying or begging from me and my sister was able to break through to her. My mom (unlike your sister) had insurance and plenty of money, and she found a completely unethical doctor who supported her drug habit. He actually told my sister and I to our faces "Your mother has chosen to live her life in a certain manner, and I'm just helping her do that". He didn't say that she really needed this stuff, basically just that she wanted it so he kept giving it to her.

Prescription drug addiction can be particually hard to beat because these people refuse to think of themselves as addicts. They feel like its ok because a doctor gave it to them. They really need it because they're in pain. My mother was convinced that she would die without these pills.

Long story short, we forced her into detox. It wasn't pretty and the "coming out of it" phase was scary for everyone. She basically hadn't had to feel (physically or emotionally) for 20 years. I wouldn't recommend our path. We took her to Alexian Brothers (west of the city somewhere) and they did a complete detox immediately. She ended up having seizures. She's ok now, but it could have been really bad, even fatal. You can't take someone off this stuff cold turkey. You'll need to find an inpatient hospital setting to slowly wean her off of them.

The first step is your parents have to stop enabling them. Addicts are addicts because we help them to do so.

Oh, and my mom who was so sure she would die without them? She doesn't take anything now and she doesn't have pain anymore. But she had convinced herself she couldn't live without them.

Best of luck to you. Feel free to email me if you would like to discuss further. I feel your pain.



answers from Chicago on

No health insurance? there are other programs (Ameriplan for one example) that are not insurance but can help lower costs of medications.
Addiction> Alcoholics anonymous could direct you to the correct programs for this addiction for both her and family
Call local hospitals and ask questions. Don't be shy.
There is probably state aid to help. If it helps in so many other lives, why not try for her?
this actually happened to my neighbor. He was eventually given a box physically put inside his body (I don't know how or the logistics of it). He had an accident and was in pain all the time. The box released a pain killer. He unfortunately drove his wife and children away with his addiction and what it did to his personality. So sad. Good luck!

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