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In Between

From a very young age I remember that “certain things” were to stay within the family. Period.

I could never quite understand why we didn’t talk about a problem that was staring us straight in the face . Was everyone’s family like this? Did everyone have an older sibling that would disappear for days, weeks, months at a time and would come back rail thin with some new boyfriend and a fancy car? Was this everyone else’s normal too? 

I was in middle school when I first discovered that my older sister used drugs. This didn’t make sense to me. In all honesty, I wasn’t even sure if I knew what drugs were. I was confused because it didn't seem like a good thing. Presenting my curiosity to my parents did not end in a family sit-down talk. It felt more like my sister’s drug use and curious behavior was a ‘don’t ask-don't tell- don't talk about it kind of thing. I’d hoped it would just be gone one day but never was.

 My younger self didn’t understand why we weren’t addressing this very big elephant in the room. I was torn between knowing that what was happening with her was “not ok” and desperately wanting to protect her. I’d find myself vouching for her to my parents and doing just about anything to remain seen by her. Boundaries were not something I understood until I was an adult and let me tell you, not a single boundary was exercised by me with my sister. She would regularly ask me for money and, in my deep desire to hold on to a bond with her, I would scrounge every single penny I kept from babysitting and give it to her. The desperation for connection with her caused me to feel an ache inside of myself that comes from abandoning one’s own needs in order to have the approval of someone else. I knew nothing about healthy boundaries and I would have done just about anything for her to be a “normal” sister. 

Her substance use disorder created a lot of chaos and drama in all of our lives. I didn’t know anyone with a sister like her and I painfully remember times when I would beg her to stay home and hang out with me. I wanted to play with Barbies and paint nails. She wanted to chase her next high. 

What makes my experience seem unique is that I am a sibling in-between two siblings who struggled with substance abuse. My older sister and my little brother. 

Nothing about their experiences looked the same. 

By the time Griffin was born I was so desperate to form a sibling connection that I believe I subconsciously developed a deep attachment with a need to protect him. I didn’t want to hurt him as I had been hurt by our sister. 

The sibling dynamic and bond shapes us as we grow up. Experiencing the toxic and unhealthy ways my sister’s addiction harmed our relationship caused me to feel confused about how to show up for my other sibling. 

Eventually, I realized that I had to distance myself from my older sister. Sadly, we don’t speak to each other. There is no relationship. 

When I finally realized that it was impossible to have anything resembling a healthy relationship with her, I spent a lot of time being angry. 

My decision to protect myself with a no contact boundary is something that brings me peace. 

Fortunately, Griffin and I were close. I was able to show up for him as a loving and supportive older sister.  When it comes to Griffin there is a fire inside of me that wants to protect the way the world sees him. I realize that putting his life and his experience in a bubble doesn’t change the fact that he struggled with substance use disorder. Something I could not “fix” for him or my sister. 

That fire might be my own shame. My shame is always waiting for me to tell a story about my brother then quickly defend him because ‘he wasn’t a normal addict.’ As if we could identify or normalize this beast. My shame is always waiting for me to defend my parents and tell you how amazing our upbringing was. Because what are the chances…two siblings from the same family could not have possibly happened if everything was okay, right? 


This terrible disease affected two people I was raised with. We had the same loving parents.The same comfortable home. The same opportunities.

One is lost to us in the throes of active use and mental unwellness and one died from an overdose. 

My heart breaks.

This cycle of push, pull and protect created a lot of conflicting emotions as I grew into adulthood. It left me with a need to try to protect my entire family from the shame and stigma that far too many people associate with Substance Use Disorder. 

With all of the effort in the world to be their loving sister, I couldn’t save either of them. 

That is something I feel I will carry for a long time. And it is heavy. But I show up everyday determined to fight that fight. For Griffin and so many lost brothers and sisters.


Olivia Harrell lives in Baldwin, Maryland, with her husband, two young children, and a Bulldog named Lola. She lost her brother, Griffin, to an accidental overdose from Fentanyl on September 25, 2023. Her monthly blog examines the twists and turns of grief and healing. Olivia loves to spend time with her family, make sourdough from scratch, and exercise. She is also incredibly thankful for the community of LITT and invites others with a similar loss to participate in LITT’s Sibling Support Group. For more information click here.

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