I can’t remember the last time we had a normal conversation. The last time we hugged without feeling forced to hug. The last time I hugged you and you didn’t smell like an ashtray. When I was younger, the secrets made sense. Everything you did to hide who you had become, the shame you must have felt leading two lives and pushing the closest people to you out of that life. As I have gotten older and began to understand your illness, I’ve learned to slowly let you go. Everyday is another step to understanding the mind of a drug addict.

Everyone has that friend (or two) with the perfect family, house, car, and Abercrombie model boyfriend, but that was never myself. I spent years looking at other siblings, wondering why they could go Christmas shopping together, and spend all night talking about cute boys, but we couldn’t manage to hold a conversation without someone screaming. You may have heard the saying “black sheep” and that every family has one. Mine happens to be a cocaine addict and alcoholic. Dealing with one of these family members is one of the hardest and most intense situations a young person can be exposed to.

I’m not writing this article to “out” this person in my life. I’m writing this article to help you (and myself) deal with this. There may be one or 1,000 people reading this article who can relate to having an addict in their family. If you’re like me, you’ve spent every waking moment trying to figure out what was wrong with yourself. The addict has probably told you you’re the problem, the reason they feel so destructive. If you haven’t realized this family member is an addict, you are still trying to figure out why things don’t add up. That was my family and myself for several years.

I’ve been told I was the reason I screwed up her life, the reason I destroyed her marriage or her family relationships. She’s called me fat, insecure, entitled, a bitch. At 12 years old, I let myself believe these things. How could I not? No one was there to tell me what was really going on. People used to make assumptions. There were rumors. People knew more than I knew. You can tell when someone is using. I was too young to know, but everyone around me did. I remember the screaming, the cursing, and the way she would react to people around her, her family. This was my entire fault. When she began to self-destruct, she took a part of me down with her.

It never was my fault. Nor is it my fault now. I’m older, so I know how to react to when she screams, when she curses, when she tells me I messed up her life. Dealing with an addict can tear someone apart. It’s impossible to fully detach yourself from someone you love. They say family is everything, but how can you rely on someone that’s disappointed you over and over again, or that has been there one moment and gone the next?

Getting older has given me knowledge into the illness. Being addicted to any sort of substance or drug is a disease, one that tears apart the addict, their family, friends, and life. The minute I took the attention off of them and trying to help this person, was the minute I began focusing on my health and myself.

As the addict’s life unravels, their relationships with family and friends fall apart. Their moods become more extreme and unstable. The more the others around them need to get help for themselves. I have found out that this help comes in many ways. My mother spent years in denial, my whole family did. She tried to get me to go to counseling, but the idea of sitting and spilling my life story to a therapist who knew nothing about me killed me. I didn’t want to be known as the girl who appeared on TV with perfect hair and a great outfit but had a screwed up family life behind her. I felt ashamed of who she was and who I had let myself become due to her. After months of a painful desire to talk to someone, I decided to see a therapist, which was one of the best decisions I’ve made. There are 12 step programs for teens to go to and talk with other young people facing addiction in their family. The meetings are free and across the country, so everyone has a chance to go and get support.

What helped me more than any therapist could ever help me with is realizing I am not the problem. You are not the reason their life turned into a downward spiral. Talking to someone can help you get past his or her addiction and realize how to focus on yourself. The most important key will always be to love yourself for who you are, and never let anyone tell you you’re less than that. You first have to take care of yourself before you can help anyone else.