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Her Story: My Sister Died of Alcoholism at 30

If Céline had been conscious, she would have thought we looked ridiculous at her side, dressed in matching yellow hospital gowns and latex gloves. “Who among the four of you deemed it wise to impersonate an overgrown patch of dandelions?” she would have asked, one eyebrow raised in a feat of facial muscle control I could never master.

Had she been conscious, she would have seen me swallow as I tried to contain my involuntary response—one of too unsympathetic repulsion—to her appearance. Even after years, I was embarrassingly unaccustomed to the physical manifestations of cirrhosis: green skin, bloated midsection, flaps of flesh hanging from atrophied arms. In my 30-year-old sister, the brilliant Columbia graduate turned Ph.D. Classics student turned teacher, these symptoms of advanced alcoholism were downright terrifying—only marginally less bearable than the clumpiness of her deep chestnut colored mane, washed too infrequently during I.C.U. stays, and the puke bucket by her side at all times.

But she was my sister.

She lay, comatose, unable to speak, let alone laugh; unable to appreciate our dandelion outfits; unable to learn, as I did, with unwarranted frustration, that our papery gowns were not a protective measure on her behalf, but necessary to reduce the risk that we might contaminate other patients with the E. coli bacteria threatening her defunct immune system. Other patients? I didn’t have the bandwidth or the will to worry about anyone else.

I was the last to arrive on Sunday, April 5th, 2009, the third consecutive day we all showed up to the hospital in Stamford, Connecticut since Céline first lost consciousness. Uncertain how long my sister would remain in a vegetative state, and how many forthcoming treks I’d have to make to the suburbs, I had originally planned to stay in the city that day. Did she have to collapse in Connecticut? I admit it—I had that thought.

Towards the end, Céline spent most of her days in Staten Island, where she lived with her 73-year-old boyfriend (or “companion,” as Mom called him), Johnnie, in between prolonged hospital stays. Increasingly often, Johnnie, who always wore khakis and a safe colored shirt, would transport my sister to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan’s West Village, which was conveniently close to my office. It was a habit of mine, in fact, to exploit Céline’s sickliness, telling sympathetic colleagues that I had to leave early or show up late because my sister was “having a procedure.” Words like “endoscopy” and “bloody vomit,” when paired with “30-year-old sister,” are exceptionally effective when you need to weasel out of something, be it an hour of work, or a blind date. Naturally, my manipulative behavior was the theme of jokes between Céline and me.

“Thanks for being such a f*ck-up,” I’d say.

“No problem. It’s your soul,” she’d counter.

Evidence of my humanness pleased her.

At St. Vincent’s, I would sit with Céline while Johnnie trotted around outside, seeking food she could eat without regurgitating. Céline adamantly refused all hospital food, not because it was terrible (it was), but because spurning it with a dramatic, how-dare-you-suggest-I-eat-that expression was intrinsic to who she was.

“You plebeian!” she used to accuse me growing up, mocking my preference for pasta over Mom’s home-cooked chicken cordon bleu or steak au poivre dishes. By her late teens, Céline could whip up a sauce béarnaise expertly and do things like flambé. But by her late 20s, Céline’s illness prevented her from digesting fancy food.

Meanwhile, through a relationship with a college boyfriend who introduced me to Quaaludes, cocaine, hallucinogenic chocolate mushrooms, and food, I’d cultivated a palate of my own. How I managed to avoid a serious recreational drug habit, I don’t know. Unlike Céline, though, I always knew when to say “no.” Maybe discipline was ingrained in me during my early years as a serious gymnast. Maybe self-control is hereditary, and Céline got f*cked out of a genetic trait. Maybe it has to do with consequences, or lack thereof. I experienced hangovers. Céline claimed she did not. But why did I get so lucky?

Truthfully, as time went on, I looked forward to hospital visits. I can’t say that I stopped by every day she was a patient, because I didn’t. I may have done the bare minimum. But those recurring stays had an upside: At the hospital she was sober, by way of saline solution drip and lack of access to alcohol. Never mind the backless robe that fell at unfortunate moments to reveal her sagging breasts, or the terrycloth booties that screamed I’m sick louder than any pair of socks could. In the I.C.U. she may have been a shell of herself—spans of Morphine-induced haze punctured by moments of half-clarity—but she was not drunk.

When it came to appointments on the outside, it was impossible to predict if my sister would show up, let alone if she’d be sober or drunk. I counted myself lucky to see her walk through the door of a coffee shop on time once, until I realized that she was too inebriated to stand up for more than 30 seconds. Eventually, Johnnie collected her wobbly a** and drove her back to Staten Island in his defective red hatchback. There, she slept off whatever quantity of raspberry flavored vodka she’d purchased, with whatever loose change she’d found, or stolen, at whatever liquor store she’d managed to pop into when unsupervised. Later, she’d awake to a threatening message from me, if Johnnie chose to relay it.  “Pull that sh*t on me again, and you’ll lose the right to talk to me—ever,” I had instructed Johnnie to warn her. Did I have any other leverage?

Céline wouldn’t listen. Wouldn’t go to rehab. At least, she wouldn’t stay. And as an adult, she couldn’t be forced, plain and simple. The few times Céline agreed to undergo in-patient treatment, she manipulated whoever diagnosed her mental condition. Could I blame her? Recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) requires recognition of a greater power—a notion that’s been anathema to Céline and me since I can remember. I’d laugh in the face of that sh*t just like she did.

Moments after reaching my sister’s bedside on April 5th, I witnessed the new foreboding symptom that had prompted my parents to demand my presence in Connecticut a third day in a row: incessant seizing. Random, impossible-to-watch-without-weeping convulsions had interrupted my late morning meeting with a college friend in Williamsburg; forced me to get on the train to Connecticut; caused my dad to part with characteristic composure in screaming at me over the phone.

“Get on a train now, Mélanie. I do not want to have to ask again. Now.”

Death, when it looms, fosters unprecedented transformations. It also breeds love and quick absolution.

At the Stamford Hospital, I found my forgivable father grasping his eldest daughter’s hands to stop them from twitching near her chest. Mom flanked Céline’s face with her palms to prevent head shaking. My brother, Damien, clutched her ankles. Before all that uncontrolled movement, I stood, paralyzed. Perfectly ironic, right? That seizure lasted minutes. Throughout the afternoon, it happened again and again.  

It had been difficult enough to stand by the limp spinach noodle that was my sister for two days pre-seizing, monitoring her vital statistics. Those numbers, though I made little sense of them, were a welcome distraction from the tubes inserted down her throat—one charged with breathing, the other with sucking blood from her abdomen. The crevices between Céline’s straight white teeth, the sole physical trait about which she used to boast regularly, were blood stained. Was it best she’d never know this?

Come day three, the additional shock of unpredictable writhing was too much. I knew this had been coming.

But she was my sister.

Mélanie Berliet is the author of Surviving In Spirit: A Memoir About Sisterhood and Addiction. She has written for Vanity Fair, Elle, Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic, among other publications.


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Mélanie Berliet is the author of Surviving In Spirit: A Memoir About Sisterhood and Addiction. She has written for Vanity Fair, Elle, Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic, among other publications. Her favorite color is navy blue. www.melanieberliet.com