My Sister’s Addiction

Art by Sascalia, click to visit her on Etsy

Art by Sascalia, click image to visit her on Etsy

A few mornings back, I came upon an excerpt from a book my sister sent me a couple years ago, along with a note that said: “This is me! This is me!”

Here’s what she sent:

“I have been learning that the life of a caretaker is as addictive as the life of an alcoholic. Here the intoxication is the emotional relief that temporarily comes when answering a loved one’s need…

While much good can come from this, especially for those the caretaker attends, our care itself becomes a drink by which we briefly numb a worthlessness that won’t go away unless constantly doused by another shot of self-sacrifice…

 At the heart of this is the ever-present worry that unless we are doing something for another, there is no possibility of being loved. So the needs of others stand behind a bar that, try as he or she will, the caretaker cannot resist…” –From The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo.

I think sending this was my sister’s way of saying, See Heather, I have compulsions, too! We’re not so unalike. I understand you and your alcoholism, but do you really understand me? I need to be needed because that’s what feels like love to me.

Something clicked. I understood for the first time ever that I’m not the only one whose compulsions have cost me. My sister has paid a high price for her addiction to self-sacrifice: As long as she kept impulsively giving, she couldn’t grasp that she’d still be loved even if she gave nothing.

During my active alcoholism, not surprisingly, I took my sister’s care-taking nature for granted. Since she liked to be selfless without expecting much in return, I thought I was doing her a favor by cooperating.

When on occasion she complained that she was more invested in our relationship than I was, I blew her off as being too needy and over-sensitive. So what if we don’t talk unless she calls me? So what if I forgot the plans we made? Why did she have to take things so personally?

Thankfully, I’ve changed a lot, and my sister has, too. But both of us had to hit “bottoms” around our compulsions and seek outside help to discover a healthier relationship.

Still, escaping old patterns has been difficult. It’s just so tempting to go into default mode and play a childhood role. Katherine is the dutiful, good girl who takes care of everybody. Heather is the snotty brat who manages to get away with murder.

These roles have been so engrained in us since childhood that trying to change them has at times felt like trying to knock a marble out of a deep groove by simply blowing on it.

Still, more and more, we are learning to love each other with conscious intention. She keeps healthy boundaries and doesn’t take my occasional thoughtlessness so personally. I affirm her importance to me and do my part to tend our relationship.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a beautiful process.

We all know addiction and co-dependency tend to run in families. But guess what? Recovery does too.

I’d love to hear from you today.  Are you a caretaker type of person, or do you attract them?





  1. “Addicted to self-sacrifice”–yes that has been me, feeling in some ways it was my only choice when trying to help my son through a terrible 15-year heroin addiction. I write about some of that today in my blog “A Walk on the Wild Side.” It’s still ongoing. How to untangle the love from the sacrifice is the hard part, how to keep from going crazy with fear and dread. For me, I don’t think it was because I didn’t have more worthwhile pursuits, or that I felt empty. I was already a “caretaker” of so many just causes, a community leader, a teacher, a writer. My life was full. But his addiction became the underbelly of my life, a secretive, shadowy world I lived in, doing desparate things to try to help him, things no one knew about. Like Batman, waltzing around in “high society” by day, wandering through the underworld by night.

  2. I have certainly been the peacemaker in my family, and now an official caretaker. There is lots of food for thought here both in my motivation as well as my relationship with my own sister. Thanks for that.

  3. Heather, this is such an interesting post; what you and many of your commenters have said made me wonder, have you ever investigated the Enneagram? It is a very interesting way of looking at our personal compulsions, the things each of us tends to get “addicted” to and why, and what our path to freedom might look like. Leigh Kramer has done an Enneagram series on her blog recently and it was very helpful ( So I just wondered if that’s something you and/or your readers might have explored that might be relevant here? Anyway, I really appreciate your insights here as always.

    • I have been introduced to the enneagram and I know it’s a powerful tool. One of these days I really want to dig into it. The short test revealed me as a 3, but I know it’s more complicated than that. When I get there, I’ll look you up!

  4. Oh my gosh, Heather. Sharing this on a thread that’s on my page where I posted this anonymous quote, “When we do for other people what they should do for themselves, we both stay stuck.” Fits perfectly into the discussion. Thanks to you and your sister.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I am an enabler or a caregiver… I sacrifice myself for the benefit of others – especially my 23 year old addict son. I have chronic issues related to stress and anxiety, and I never know where to draw the line. I love my son. I have gone to al anon, a Christian therapist, and I’m slowly finding my way. Thank you for calling attention to this issue!

    • Thank you for your comment. Boy do I relate. My son is 32 and has been in recovery for years and I still struggle with these issues. It sounds like you’re taking important steps and on a good track. Bravo to you. It’s never going to get easy, but it does get more clear. H

  6. Reblogged this on The Curious Introvert and commented:
    This was a shining light today.

  7. Wow! I am your sister and you are my sister. I recognized not too long ago that I am addicted to caregiving. I overdosed on it for awhile, and ended up in caregiver rehab (staying at home and away from people so that I could learn to hear the One Voice that is necessary. In fact, I care-givered (including enabling people in an unhealthy church that my therapist called a cult) myself into a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder unable to even function at all. Thank you, Heather.

  8. I can also say This is me. Working on care taking in Al-non

  9. And, I too say, “This is me! This is me!”

    And, this is such a perfectly timed post. I had been talking to my sister about exactly this only a few nights ago! She knows that I need to help EVERYONE ALL THE TIME, but I was sharing that I even DREAM about jumping in and saving the day. Nearly all of my dreams are about helping people and fixing problems.

    I’ve always been the caretaker type. In the past two years though I have realized that this isn’t healthy…at least to the extreme that I take it to. In a way, it really IS sort of an addiction. About two years ago I began noticing that most of my friends were the “needy” type. I guess I subconsciously was drawn to people who needed me to “save” them. I get high off serving and need it to make me feel good about myself.
    I think it is also a way of protecting ourselves (at least for me) from having to be vulnerable. Since I am the one who is taking care of everyone else’s needs I don’t have to ever open up and show my weaknesses. I’ve been working on this though and letting myself be the “needy” one in new friendships that I’ve been blessed with this past year. It is TOUGH though. It is so against my nature to be the one who needs help and care. Honestly, I don’t like it at all. But, I know that this is good for me and so I am forcing myself to open up and be vulnerable.
    Yes, being a care taker is good, but allowing others to care for you is equally important.

    • Wow, this is such a great comment, it should be it’s own post. Thank you Lyndsay for being will to share here so honestly. I bet lots of readers will identify. I’m so proud of you for trying to allow yourself to be in that “needy” position. Yay for you!

  10. Sharon R. Huffman says:

    Yeah!! My birth family is a recovering family. It involves three generations and scores of people at this point. Families do heal.

  11. Geat post and greater insight. I have more adictions than I can count. It is so weird to be half way through life and still finding this stuff.

    • Oh my gosh, can I relate to that statement. The longer I work on my alcoholism and try to help other alcoholics, the more I uncover all kinds of co-dependent tendencies in myself, even though I don’t tend to think of myself as the care-taking type. For example, my son is also a recovering alcoholic and most days I’d give anything if he’d only declare me his Higher Power for just a week. I could totally fix everything wrong in his life. :)

  12. Wow. This is such a great description of codependency. I have fallen into the “good girl” and caretaker roles most of my life and I do consider myself in a process of recovery. My “rock bottom” and “start date” are distinct memorable times in my life. Your insight that your sister was saying “we aren’t so different” brought tears to my eyes. I feel the same way with my brothers, who have followed in my parents footsteps to battle alcoholism and addiction. I know in my heart how easily my codependent compulsions could give way to addictive ones. I think one often leads to the other. I can say with assurance that my story is different only because of God’s intervention. Personally I hesitate to point to common struggles for fear that I will invalidate others that I don’t fully understand. It’s a strange tension and this post challenges me and brings me hope. How is the book you quote on the whole? Always appreciate helpful reading on these things. Appreciate you and all you do here. Thanks so much.

    • Wow, you are one wise lady and your brothers are so fortunate to have you! “I know in my heart how easily my codependent compulsions could give way to addictive ones.” Yep. You say it so well here. The Nepo book I mention is one I actually read every single morning–it’s a daily reflections book that is poetic, spiritual but not Christian, yet filled with wisdom and truth about human nature and the spiritual journey. I love it. I also read my NT every morning, too. And a bunch of poetry books–Rumi and Hafiz say more to me about loving God than most modern writers–but that’s only been the case in recent years. Thanks so much for coming by!

  13. Yes! This is me!

    We’re going to a new church and I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s so hard for me to accept their help with my two youngest and their special needs. Why I burst in to tears in front of a complete stranger (after a biting incident – not me, but my son), sobbing “I’m sorry we’re so much work.” They’re happy to help. They’re doing no more than our old church. But I can’t reciprocate. I haven’t poured myself out for these people for years. I’m just the taker. And I’m SO ridiculously bad at it.

    The phrase that socked me in the gut – the need to “briefly numb a worthlessness that won’t go away…” So me.

    • So you. So me. I so get it! Thanks for this comment and for sharing your struggle. I can’t imagine how hard that would be! I think it’s often the case that a care-taking type person has great difficulty receiving. But then, I’m not necessarily that, and I struggle to receive too. Even though I’m in some ways such a taker!

  14. That quote blew me away. What a smart, succinct definition of codependency. I SO related to it. Thank you for the great post! Love ya.

  15. Wow! This is such a revelation! “That is me, too!” I can hardly believe that all this time I have spent caregiving and sacrificing and putting myself on the bottom of the care list because I thought that’s what followers of Jesus do.

    Thank you for sharing this story. It gives me a base to start to think through my own addiction of caregiving. I can say “no” and still be loved!

  16. Marjie Douty says:

    How about the caretaker snotty brat who always gets her way? Tough shoes to fill but I’ve managed to. Now I try to let others take care of themselves and not lose it when I don’t get my way. And try to figure out what I’m afraid of losing/getting/not getting if I don’t get my way. Aside from my own way!

  17. I was thinking that I am more productive with structure. But this post makes me think I need to spend some time with the thought that my “productivity” might be tied to my care-taking nature more than deadlines. Always something to learn, Heather!

    • Charise, so great to see you here. Thanks for chiming in and it makes sense to me that you have a care-taking nature. Where would this world be without these folks? Sure, it can get out of hand, but I for one know that just because someone veers now and then into co-dependent types of behavior, that doesn’t mean they don’t save the world in the process in some way that really matters.

  18. I was a caretaker of my daughter’s depression and addiction for many years. We think we’re selfless taskmasters, martyrs really, when all we’re doing is filling a void in our own life…and handicapping our loved one. When I ultimately set my daughter free, it freed us both.


  1. […] read My Sister’s Addiction about the compulsive need to be needed. She quotes Mark […]

  2. […] my friend Heather blogged and had this to say. And what I took from it was how am I defining productivity? It struck me how little I value time […]

  3. […] My Sister's Addiction – Heather Kopp […]

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