The Shame of a Privileged Family Dealing With Prison

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This reader was hesitant to share her story and wasn’t sure if we even wanted to hear it:

I thought I would write in case you’re interested in sharing the perspective of an upper-middle-class white family going through this. So many of the challenges in terms of psychological impact and family dynamics are universal, but there is sort of the additional burden of shame, embarrassment, and a lack of people to talk to when incarceration rates are really low in my community. I know virtually no one who can relate. I’m not sure where to start, or if you’re even interested, but I’d be willing to talk with you provided anything written would be anonymous; I don’t want my family’s name made public. It would make me feel good to share our story if it might make others in this situation feel not so alone.

The reader follows up with a detailed story about her sister’s perpetual problems with drug addiction:

The image of a pretty blond Piper Chapman in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs catapulted Orange is the New Black to fame. I’d be willing to venture that the average American was intrigued by the story’s premise. After all, prison is no place for a nice, upper-middle-class girl, but that is precisely the reality my family deals with every day. I wish I could say my younger sister’s reasons for getting locked up were as glamorous as Piper’s—unwittingly involved in international drug trafficking while jet-setting the globe with her beautiful girlfriend—but our story is much sadder and much less interesting.

My sister was incarcerated for breaking into a car and stealing prescription drugs. How on earth she happened to know there were prescription drugs in this particular car, I do not know, nor have I ever bothered to ask her. She has always been elusive on details regarding such things, so I’m not sure I would believe her story anyway.

She spent over two years in prison—a heavy sentence for her crime, but this was mainly due to a parole officer and judge who recognized the extent of her substance abuse problem and realized prison was the safest place for her. While most people would worry incessantly if a family member was thrown into prison, my family couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. At least she was somewhere safe and for two plus years.

During this time, no one had to deal with her endless drama, intoxicated episodes, getting kicked in and out of friends and family members’ homes, rescuing her from the latest abusive boyfriend and her incessant calls to 911 followed by a suicide threat in order to get herself into the psyche ward for a place to stay for few days. Much of this drama played out in my parent’s lovely brick home on a quiet tree-lined street in a picture-perfect Midwestern suburb.

After she was released, she was ordered to stay sober as part of her parole, and after just four months out, she relapsed and was thrown back in for another months. This stint mainly consisting of some sort of prison rehab. My sister has been in rehab so many times over the past 15 years, she could probably teach every course. It’s just too bad she doesn’t have the sobriety to back it up.

My sister’s addiction and eventual incarceration have prevented her from doing anything with her life; she never finished college, has no discernible skills, and has never been able to hold down even a minimum wage job for longer than a few months. I look at her and see so much wasted potential. Children of college-educated business people with means and resources are not supposed to end up like this.

She was released a few days ago and is back living with my parents on the condition of sobriety, so it’s only a matter of time until she gets kicked out. My sister’s 9-year-old daughter bears witness to all of this because my parents have custody of her. They recently formally adopted her—a status that cannot be revoked—after coming to terms with the fact that my sister will never be capable of providing for her own daughter. My niece’s father, a man my sister barely knew, has never been in the picture.

The fact that my parents allow my sister in and out of her daughter’s life, and the fact that they brought my niece to visit my sister in prison, are a constant source of tension between my parents and me. This is just one of the many challenging dynamics within families of addicts and ex-cons—disagreement over enabling the addict, boundaries, co-dependency, and denial. Oftentimes the family is at odds with one another over how to handle the addict. In my family, it has led to secrecy at times on the part of my parents—them not wanting to tell my brother and me things for fear that we’ll just criticize how they’re handling it.

I really do work at how I communicate my frustrations with them so as not to make them feel worse, but when it comes to my niece, this can be hard. How can they not see the psychological damage this is causing her? Why do they sometimes seem to put my sister’s well-being ahead of their granddaughter’s?

As a mother now myself, I have a better idea of the horrible position they’re in and the anguish they must feel watching their child go through a life of turmoil and suffering, but it’s still hard to witness the impact on a child so young. Upon hearing news that mommy would be coming home for awhile, my niece’s response was that she didn’t want her mommy coming home. And while she loves her grandparents dearly, she has frequently told me that she wishes I was her mom. These are truly heart-breaking moments, and I have to be honest, I’m never sure how to respond.

Over the years my relationship with my sister has gone from estranged to cordial to strained and back again. Today, I’d say it is strained mainly because I, like my parents, am just waiting for the other shoe to drop—for her to show up somewhere intoxicated and start the whole downward spiral. I wish I could be more optimistic, but history shows it’s only a matter of time.

It’s hard to talk to my sister because every time she walks back into our lives, she acts as if nothing has happened. She wants to get chummy again with everyone and takes offense if someone is hesitant or standoffish. She’ll also use that treatment as an excuse for relapse.

I’m not sure exactly how to talk to her now or how I even feel about her. Certainly, it’s hard to relate to her; we have little in common anymore. In high school, I excelled at sports and schoolwork, went off to college, moved to a big city, built a career, married a great guy, and waited to have children until I was financially and emotionally ready. I guess I did everything I was supposed to do.

Her life after 16 took a polar opposite path. I’ve witnessed and felt the endless pain she has caused my parents, the toll her life choices have had on my niece. I see the wasted potential. I feel the shame and embarrassment of having to hide this part of my family. I have to skirt around talking about her knowing that most people can’t relate and will likely judge my family for her behavior.

I know my sister feels immense shame too, but I don’t always sense that. At this point, I think her way of life almost seems normal to her. Chaos seems to follow wherever she goes, or more likely, she creates it. I see her consistently exhibiting the same patterns of behavior, and the outcomes are always the same, always disastrous. It is extremely hard to have a relationship with someone like this. It is extremely hard to trust someone like this. It is extremely hard not to hold a lot of resentment toward someone like this.

What’s equally infuriating is that she’s very open about the fact that she was “locked up,” as she calls it. I’ve had to remind her that there’s a stigma associated with having been in prison. Telling the neighbor with little kids is probably not a good idea. In fact, it’s really bad judgment and only ends up hurting her daughter. My sister’s mentality is less like a 30-year-old woman’s and more like an adolescent—something that I’ve learned can happen to addicts who begin using at a young age; they almost become paralyzed in the emotional state at which they became addicted.

For many years, I kept even her addiction a secret. I seriously don’t even think my work colleagues of eight plus years knew I had a sister. I just didn’t talk about her. In my world, brothers and sisters are usually close, and they have similar degrees of success and values. Most women I know might even describe their sister as their best friend. I never had that. Pretending like I do takes an incredible amount of energy, so I’ve found it’s best to just not broach the topic.

Her incarceration is a whole other level of shame, though. Mentioning to someone that my sister has addiction issues doesn’t seem so bad anymore, and honestly it’s not. Millions of people struggle with alcoholism and addiction, and I am in awe of those I encounter who’ve overcome it. Telling someone that your sister is or was in prison, though, is quite another story. It’s the kind of thing people pass judgment on. I certainly would if it weren’t my family.

With the holidays approaching, everyone is particularly on edge, especially my parents. My husband and I are hosting Thanksgiving, and obviously we want my parents to be there, but this means my sister has to come. For many years in my family, holidays have gone one of two ways: either nerve-wracking when my sister is in the picture, because there is always an episode, or with a shadow over them when we have to make up a lame excuse for why she isn’t there—not to mention the sadness watching my mother spend the entire time depressed because one of children is, once again, not there.

I cannot tell you how jealous I am of other families for whom the holidays are just fun. For us, “the most wonderful time of the year” is something we dread and cannot wait to get over with. Dealing with an addict day to day is certainly no picnic, but there’s something about holidays, watching other families just being able to enjoy themselves without a care in the world that makes our situation feel that much harder.

Despite the challenges, I have to admit the situation could be worse. I can’t imagine what my niece’s life would be like if her grandparents didn’t have the means and wherewithal to step in when they did. I don’t think my sister would be alive today if she’d had parents who’d abandoned her or hadn’t been able to pay for so many stints in rehab.

She’s sober and safe today. I think we as a family have learned to cherish that simple blessing and, despite the odds, still hold out a little hope for the best.