Help! My Brother Is Begging Me to “Get Sober.” I Drink One Beer a Week.

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Prudence,

My parents both were alcoholics, and both died of illnesses connected to alcoholism. My older siblings did their best to shield me from the impacts of their parenting in childhood and while it was rough, I think they succeeded at giving me an easier experience. At 29, I drink the occasional beer at a party or a work event, but never more than one and never more than once a week. I don’t consume any other substances or have issues with moderation in general. I know genetics plays a huge role in addiction, but I think I won the lottery and missed this specific bullet. I’m definitely my mother’s daughter but there’s also a degree of family belief that I might not be my father’s, given my mom’s history during my early years.

Both of my siblings are non-drinkers. My sister is a lifelong teetotaler because she discovered compulsive behaviors early on and is trying hard to reduce her risks. My brother went through AA when he was barely 20. We live in the same area so my occasional drinking isn’t hidden. My sister confided recently that she’s deeply jealous—a lot of the horrible family stuff that hit both her and my brother seems to have swerved around me. She also longs to feel completely disconnected from our dad. My brother is constantly trying to get me to quit drinking and is angry that he basically raised me and I still do drink. He’s very strong for quitting but he definitely is a thrill seeker in other ways—dangerous motorcycle, high adrenaline/risk career, etc., so it’s not like he’s above us. I love both my siblings a lot and what they survived is unfair. I got so lucky, mostly because of them! But also, I want to make my own choices here. How do I approach this with them? Honestly, if they weren’t so pushy, I probably wouldn’t even be interested in it.


Dear Youngest,

“I want to make my own choices here” is not something you should have to justify with a long family history, accounting of your consumption, and a note about your brother’s recklessness. Even if you were drinking a lot more than an occasional beer and were definitely at high risk for alcoholism, and even if he lived a perfectly safe life, it would not be your brother’s place to nag you nonstop about this. He’s angry at you? Come on!

But the script I’d normally prescribe here (“Please don’t bring up my extremely moderate drinking again. I’m fine and more importantly, it’s my business. I need you to stop nagging me and I’m going to end the conversation if you do it again”) doesn’t get to the core of the issue here. What’s really going on, in my opinion, is that you and your siblings have been through more than your share of trauma and have decades worth of really heavy stuff weighing on you.
What if you replaced the nagging and spontaneous confessions with a regularly scheduled quarterly sibling dinner where the agenda is to talk about your childhood, how it affected you, what you’re currently struggling with, and how you’re relating to each other? Because it’s not that you don’t want to discuss how alcohol has shaped your family and how you all continue to feel the effects of your parents’ death. It’s just that you want to do it in a healthy way. I think this could provide an important space to connect and heal when you’re all emotionally prepared. And just to keep things simple, let’s make that a dry event—otherwise, enjoy your beer.

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Dear Prudence,

I started dating someone five months ago, and we’re very much in love. We’re so thrilled to have found each other, and I’m often struck by how lucky I feel to be with someone so communicative, fun, and kind. They are a light in my life, and I know they feel the same for me. I thought that we’d shift out of the honeymoon phase with a productive fight at some point, instead it happened with a more serious matter. Days after we said “I love you” and agreed that we want to be partners, their sibling was hit with a life-threatening medical emergency requiring immediate and attentive care. My partner is their sibling’s primary caretaker (parents are not in the picture, we’re all in our late 20s), and has been taking their sibling to appointments and talking to doctors for a few weeks now. There is so much unknown about their sibling’s prognosis and best treatment plan, and it’s been so hard for them dealing with the weight of it all on top of grad school and work. I want to be here for my partner in all of this, and have been however I can. They tell me our walks, talks, movie nights, and outings help things feel briefly normal, and that they’re very grateful for my emotional support. They check in with me frequently, and still find the wherewithal to take vested interest in my life and activities.

My question is this: how do I show up for them while also showing up for myself? And how can I check in with myself and them about our still-new relationship? I know I have a habit of brushing my own needs aside, or pretending I don’t have any to begin with. And at the same time, they absolutely must make their sibling a priority right now. I understand that and am more than happy to rely on friends for emotional support when my partner is at their capacity. At the moment I don’t feel overly burdened, I just take extra time for myself to decompress and recalibrate after particularly heavy emotional conversations/days. I’m trying not to let the anxiety and fear of their sibling’s potential death get to me, as I feel it’s important to be a steady source of comfort and encouragement right now. But I can’t help but worry about how our relationship will be affected, how my emotional capacity for people other than my partner may be affected, how my own self-care may slip.

—New Love, New Fear

Dear New Fear,

I wish overthinking could provide protection against being hurt or disappointed in a relationship. But—unfortunately for people like you who are extremely anxious about how things might unfold and also extremely introspective and thoughtful—it can’t. Your job at this early stage is just to enjoy your partner. And to see if you keep enjoying them as time goes on. That’s really it. As much as you want this to work, it’s not going to happen as a result of your contemplating all possible future scenarios and checking in regularly and coming up with the perfect strategy for showing up or somehow finding a setting on your Apple Watch that buzzes to alert you if your self-care is slipping below a certain level. It will happen because you two really like each other, are compatible, are kind and generous to each other, and generally take responsibility for your own happiness.

Instead of asking all these questions about what might happen in the future, ask yourself “Am I happy?” Right now, it sounds like the answer is yes. Enjoy that! Check again in a week and in a month and any time you start to feel deprived of attention, or brought down by the heavy conversations, or like you aren’t a priority. If the answer is “No, I’m not really happy and maybe it’s because I’ve been so focused on my partner’s struggles I’m not doing the things I love,” that’s your cue to bake a cake or take a long walk or book a weekend trip with another friend, or whatever it is you were doing before you met this person. If the answer is “No, I’m not really happy because it’s been three weeks since my partner and I have had a real date that doesn’t involve talking about their sibling the whole time,” ask them if you can make that happen.

Peace in this situation might actually come from embracing the fact that most relationships end. You two could break up because you lose attraction to each other or you reach an impasse over pet ownership or one person moves for their job and long distance doesn’t work out.
Or something else that you’re not even contemplating yet. I don’t want you to let worries about what might go wrong stop you from enjoying it before it has a chance to be whatever it’s going to be.

Dear Prudence,

I am in an unhappy marriage. It feels lonely and empty. I am in love with our kid, though, and fear what will happen to him. I opened up about this to the person I have always loved and trusted, and we set up to meet after 20 years! We talked about the rules of this meeting, since I am married. He canceled the meet only a few hours before, saying he can’t do this. He has been gone since then. Not a word! I am devastated and cannot move on. He has been there for 20 years and I cannot let go! How do I heal? How do I live without him?

—Can’t Let It Go

Dear Can’t,

I know this is hard to believe, but your love interest did you a favor. You can now decide to work on your marriage or leave your marriage or ask your husband for an open marriage with a clear conscience, and without complicating things with lies and guilt. Your eagerness to meet with this guy was a huge warning that something has to change. I’m sure he’s great, but I’m even more sure that your marriage isn’t—and that you need to do something to fix it, even if that something is divorce. Take this information and use it to get closer to a life where you can feel the love you think you feel for him for someone (whether your husband or a completely new person) who returns it.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

I’ve been married just over two years, and if you had asked me two weeks ago, I would’ve said my husband was near perfect. We’d been trying for almost a year to get pregnant, so I was over the moon to show him the positive test result. Then everything came crashing down when he asked me to take a paternity test for his “peace of mind.” Am I overreacting?