Calgary·First Person

Each time an addict stumbled off the train, I was angry at my sister. Now she's gone

With her sister trapped in an alcohol addiction, Calgary resident Sara Murray felt bitter and angry against every drug user she met. Catherine's death changed Sara's attitude toward addiction.

I can't explain her addiction even though everyone wants an answer

Two women sit in a restaurant booth and smile at the camera.
Sara Murray, right, with her sister Catherine in a photo taken in 2009. (Submitted by Sara Murray)

This First Person column is the experience of Sara Murray, who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

The call woke me in the middle of the night. My dad's voice on the other end of the phone, "She's gone. Catherine's gone."

In January, my sister died after a 14-year severe addiction to alcohol. She was 29.

I didn't cry that night. Instead I made phone calls, first to my mom, then to my brother. I wanted to know they were OK. I wanted to pretend that my sister's death didn't affect me the same way it did them.

Early the next morning, I drove with my husband and children to my brother's house. Our family and friends gathered in his living room to listen as my mother outlined Catherine's burial plans. Still, I did not cry. 

After the gathering, I found a quiet room where I could message the people in my life that I thought should know about her death. At the end of the message, I wrote "her struggle is over." The truth in those words released a part of me that I had thought I had lost. My husband found me curled into a ball on the floor, gasping for air through my tears. 

But there was relief — I had finally forgiven my sister. 

I spent a decade being angry with Catherine. Her alcoholism fractured my family and robbed me of a meaningful relationship with my only sister. Frustration toward her addiction spilled over into many corners of my life. 

Every time I picked up drug paraphernalia on my lawn from the addicts stumbling off the CTrain, I was angry with Catherine.

A broken door on the left. A playground with a sign on the right.
When Sara Murray's door was kicked in and jewelry stolen, left image, the perpetrators were never caught. Police told her addiction likely played a role. A Canyon Meadows playground, right image, had a sign indicating it was shut down because of drug use. A new sign says there are increased police patrols in the neighbourhood. (Sara Murray)

When my daughter and two sons would return from the park moments after leaving the house because there were people sleeping at the playground, I was angry with Catherine.

Then there was the night I made beds on my bedroom floor for my children because they were terrified by the intruder who had kicked down our door and stole our jewelry. There was no proof addiction was the cause, but I was angry with Catherine.

I saw her in the face of every addict I encountered. I became bitter.

A large part of my frustration came from the confusion I felt toward her struggle. Growing up, there was rarely alcohol in our quiet, suburban home. Our parents were married and worked jobs that provided us with a comfortable life.

During my third pregnancy, the midwife asked me if I had a family history of addiction. I told her about my younger sister. She glanced at my age on her chart, then became alarmed. 

"How could your sister be an alcoholic? She must be very young."

Catherine was young — she was only 22 at the time. I can't explain her addiction even though everyone wants an answer. There are no real answers.

Three children sit on a couch.
A photo from happier times: Sara, middle, with her brother Donald on the left and Catherine on the right. (Submitted by Sara Murray)

My sister first started drinking in her teens. When she still struggled after high school, my parents sought help. My mother works in the human services field; she understands the system. But even for her, it was not easy to navigate Catherine's addiction. Trips to the hospital left my sister feeling judged — she was yelled at for trying to detox at home and she had seizures when she tried to stop. 

Society's opinion of addicts created shame. She needed help for a possible borderline personality disorder. But did that predate the addiction? My mom couldn't find resources to manage both.

In pain, I pushed Catherine out of my life. But I'm thankful I picked up her calls during the pandemic. A phone call a week before she passed will be my last memory of her. 

But I don't like to think of my sister as an adult. When I remember Catherine, I think of the little girl that left half finished art projects scattered throughout our house. The wild, middle child with the wicked sense of humour. 

From my back deck, I can see the Canyon Meadows train station. I avoid riding the train these days — too much yelling, smoking drugs in the train car. The random acts of violence in the news don't help. But when I see people in my neighbourhood, I try to find the empathy that I wish I could have given Catherine. 

She was so much more than her addiction. Maybe those addicts are, too.


Telling your story 

CBC Calgary is hosting a series of in-person writing workshops all across the city to support community members telling their own stories.

Check out our upcoming opportunities at cbc.ca/tellingyourstory.

For more on our series exploring safety on Calgary Transit, visit cbc.ca/transit

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Murray

Freelance contributor

Sara Murray lives near a CTrain station in Calgary with her husband, three kids and two dogs. She has a passion for organic gardening and believes you can never own too many books.

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