Miss Conduct

Advice on discussing a relative’s addiction

How to respond when questions feel intrusive. Plus, awkwardness around party invites.

Illustration by Lucy Truman

> My oldest sister has had many alcohol-related health problems, made worse by self-neglect. She was recently hospitalized, and family and friends seemed determined to hear me say it’s all because of her drinking, saying things like “This should be a wake-up call” or “Do you think it’s because of her drinking?” I am livid. I wish I had a good comeback.

L.O. / Medford

Take a deep breath and back up for a minute. You’re too close to your emotions right now. Do you realize you went from telling me that your sister’s health problems are largely the result of her drinking to expressing fury at friends and family who make the very same connection?


If casual acquaintances are blaming the victim, shut them down and move on. But if the caring and curious are trying to make sense of what has happened and what the future likely holds, how can you blame them for asking? Don’t you have some of the same emotions of frustration and fear? Whom do you ever get to share those feelings with? Have you always run interference between your sister and the rest of the family?

This may strike you as inappropriate psychoanalyzing, in which case I apologize. But you need to understand that a “good comeback” is not the answer to your problem.

I talked to a friend of mine, a therapist named Erika Shira, about your problem. Her advice is the best I can do: “Remember that addiction is an illness, regardless of the stigma around it. Acknowledge it just like you would if people were asking if her diabetes or asthma caused it, and assure everyone that we’re advocating for the best treatment. And just as you would with any illness, speak up if anyone says anything actually inappropriate and remind them that it’s an illness. Acknowledging that she has alcoholism is appropriate. Calling her an idiot who can’t control herself is not.”


I hope that helps. And my sincerest sympathies to you and your family.

> I like to host bridge parties. I belong to three different groups and invite members from each, though I don’t invite everyone from every group. I always issue my invites via phone or e-mail and ask guests not to bring up the party at one of our group meetings, but inevitably someone says something. I find this very awkward and do not know what to do to ensure the parties are not talked about in front of those not invited.

Anonymous / Boston

How impressive that you can concentrate on bridge while simultaneously calculating what secrets need to be kept from which guests and who is most likely to spill the beans and how to divert them from unwittingly doing so.

If I were your opponent, I’d be tempted to throw you off at a crucial moment by casually saying, “Last Monday was so fun — did I leave my umbrella?” Or is that the kind of unsportsmanlike behavior that gets people kicked off your invite list?

Relying on others to keep one’s own secrets is never wise. And by keeping the parties that hush-hush, you’re making it paradoxically much more likely that the excluded will feel deliberately left out, instead of happily assuming — as you want them to — that you simply haven’t invited them yet.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

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