I have a younger sibling, let’s call her Sarah. Who has a severe alcohol and drug addiction problem. I’m talking 9 separate rehabs, 10 in hospital detox’s and 4 different events in which she was almost dead and luckily saved by people smart enough to call for an ambulance at the right time.

We grew up in a small town where everyone knows each others business and my parents are very well known in the community. It doesn’t help that my parents are extremely wealthy and own businesses that draw attention to that fact.

Because I’m married, financially independent and live outside of their area I don’t usually get inundated with the ridiculous gossip that goes on in their town. I also have been able to avoid being constantly questioned by people regarding gossip about my family and their personal struggles, because I kept away from the area for the most part for several years.

However, in the last 2 years my sister has been overcome and destroyed by her addiction. She has decided she only wants to deal with me instead of the rest of the family.

Recently she had a dangerous situation occur that landed her in the ICU, on a ventilator, feeding tube, restraints, deep sedation and a personal nurse. She almost died, and due to the fact that the hospital told my family she will not be able to live through another detox and/or survive another bender, my family has started telling people about her situation. At the moment, we don't know where my sister is.

Now I’m being inundated with phone calls and texts from people outside of our family. I feel hounded and harassed yet the messages I’m receiving are asking about her welfare and updates and such and seem caring. The problem is that I cannot discuss and explain my sisters situation with these people as it’s too complex and overwhelming to try to do at this point (we don’t know where she is.)

I also don’t want to spend my entire day responding to people’s questions about her because it saddens me and I need to have a life separate from this.

What can I say to people who keep asking me about this? How can I politely let them know this is a personal issue and is painful to discuss without being rude or sounding unappreciative about their concerns?


5 Answers 5


You have a great start in your question. "Thank you for asking. As you can imagine, this is hard for all of us. I'm going to respect her privacy by not giving out any information other than what is publicly available; I'm sure you can appreciate our desire for privacy right now,"

I'd also take up the practice of responding slowly to these requests. They mean well, but you are correct that if you are the only person responding, it can take a lot of your time. By deliberately not prioritizing this, you send the subtle message that you have other things to do as well. People may ask if they haven't heard back; I'd respond that "I'm sure you understand how many people ask about this. I haven't had time to respond but will when I'm available to do so." Don't sound apologetic; it's your life, too. You, I suspect, want to focus on your sister's healing and not being her information officer. That doesn't mean you act like a jerk about but it does mean that you prioritize your health and sanity above all else.

(Credit to Martin Bonner for the following suggestion.) There is a certain cultural component to this, but in cultures where honesty and direct communication are valued (Northern European and North American), most people won't be offended if you say that you don't want to talk about it. There will always be some people who insist on sticking their noses where it doesn't belong (such as asking why you don't want to talk about it), but I believe that for the most part this would be respected.

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    +1 for responding slowly. You could even extend it to not at all, which would still accomplish OP's overall goal of remaining polite so long as he still handles it well whenever someone brings it up in person
    – Jesse
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 2:21
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    One additional point: most people won't take offence if you are fairly direct about not wanting to talk about it (at least in England). Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 14:19
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    Saying US culture values honesty and direct communication seems like a fairly controversial claim, although this seems to be more about respecting privacy and accepting evasive responses. Why do you consider a response that doesn't convey any information to be "honesty and direct communication"?
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 17:43
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    @NotThatGuy You are honest because you don't lie or get around the problem. The problem is that you want to keep the family's privacy, and that's also what you communicate outside.
    – yo'
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 10:30
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    @NotThatGuy If you ask me something and I don't want to tell you, then "I'm not telling you, don't ask again" is an honest and direct communication. Not polite, but honest and direct. And it gives the exact information that I want to give you: That I'm not going to tell you, and that I don't want to be asked again. It's culture dependent. In some cultures, it's fine. In others, you put this into more evasive wording, but in those cultures people know what you mean even when you never said it. When different cultures meet, you get problems.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 15:03

When I faced a serious health crisis (I may have come within a day or two of dying; I certainly would have died over a year ago if not for an experimental treatment) I asked a handful of close friends and family members to "run interference" on communication. Basically I would give one update, and everyone else had to ask their "point person" if they had questions. For example, my siblings had to ask my mother. My inlaws had to ask one selected inlaw, and my friends naturally split into several groups and I chose one person from each group. Importantly, I chose people who did not have "work to do" around my illness. Not my husband, not my adult children.

The first thing that was great about this was that people stopped asking me stuff at a time when I had a lot to deal with and didn't feel up to answering things, especially the same details over and over. The second is that it motivated me to send out updates to my "captains" instead of waiting to be asked.(I sent emails and now, looking back, they are rich in details I had forgotten.) And the third was that my captains were great at telling people either "I don't know" (when they didn't) or "actually I don't think Kate needs you to know all the details" to a lot of questions. There were people I was going to give details to but friends told them "it's a personal thing that needs a lot of her attention" and it turns out people were fine with that.

So, find someone who will do this for you. Or several someones if need be. Then change your voice mail to say

Thanks for calling. I'm not answering live calls because I'm very busy with a family situation. If you know Steve Jones or Jane Smith, you can contact either of them for updates on that situation. If you don't, please be patient and I'll update you when I can. I probably won't return your call; you can text or email if you like, but I can't promise I'll reply. Thanks for thinking of us!

Don't give contact info for your "captains" -- nosy people who don't know how to reach any of your contacts probably don't need an update. Finally, stop answering your phone unless it's your parents or someone else you know will not be pestering you for updates. Let the voice mail message do its job. Play the messages if you must but you don't have to reply -- you said you might not, after all. Email your captains once in a while. Don't feel you owe replies to people who are curious, but don't understand you are getting 20 or 50 of these every day.

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    A friend discovered his genetic degenerative disease and made a long post on Facebook about that. To inform the friends and telling he will not discuss this problem on internet and for the closest friends: "We can talk about this drinking a beer" Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 13:33
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    I hope youre better now Kate.
    – Mafii
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 14:31
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    twitter.com/gregcons/status/960153549870063616 Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 15:35


I never liked facebook but maybe something like that is exactly what you need. Just create a page for her and put lots of information on it. And if you have any updates then update the page. And if people ask you tell them to look at that page because it contains all the detailed information up to date.

Maybe it even helps your sister when she sees it and maybe people comment on the page that they miss her and wish her all the best etc.

I guess some people might say this is confidential information and not for everybody. I think in principle that is correct, but I am pretty sure in real life lots of people will talk and lots of people will pretend they know the newest info and there will be correct and incorrect information out there. I think the best way you can control this is by publishing the correct information.

If you or your family have the money and want to spend it on this maybe ask a PR specialist how to handle this best.

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    Worth mentioning for the OP, that doing big public updates like this will see a huge surge in not-actually-very-close people coming out of the woodwork to try and be involved someway or another. There's a good chance it will do the opposite of what the OP is trying to achieve.
    – user10883
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 13:23
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    I commented in other answer: A friend discovered his genetic degenerative disease and made a long post on Facebook about that. To inform the friends and telling he will not discuss this problem on internet and for the closest friends: "We can talk about this drinking a beer" Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 13:36
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    I am not sure myself is fb makes sense or not. But I am pretty sure it makes sense in the way that any misinformation (which will be out there) will be replaced with real information from the OP. I am sure he now has to answer questions like: I hear this and that, is that true? And maybe he has to answer: true, wrong, half true, outdated, etc. All that is solved by having one page with true up to date information.
    – user8838
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 13:44
  • Personally, I think this or an email that you allow people to redistribute are good solutions if OP wants to provide others with this information, but don't want to have to repeat it continuously (especially if a note at the end explains that the situation is overwhelming and asks for space right now). If OP wants others to allow the family to handle this privately, then it'd be bad.
    – dbeer
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 20:27
  • @dbeer: Good comment, I would put the note at the beginning of the explanation. Lots of people don't read to the end...
    – user8838
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 23:48

Personal life is private, people know that and they will feel it from you if you are upset from being asked about her, but they're just worried, they don't mean to upset you for sure, i know it's a bit disturbing, so you can just do it in two ways:

1- If somebody asked you how is she you can reply with another question "Can we please talk about something else?" so they will feel that you had enough questions and you need a break from that topic.

2- Another way (which i do not prefer but sometimes it's a must) is to say that you don't want any questions in that topic ever, like "I'm not comfortable anymore talking in that topic." so i prefer the first one but second may be less polite but we sometimes use it to let people understand that we really mean that we don't want to talk about it.

I hope all the best for you and your sister.

Remember that it's not what you say but how you say it. :)

So you can let them know how you appreciate their attention to your sister's health and let them know that it means a lot to you but you just don't want to talk about that anymore.


I agree with screening all call with a voice-mail message thanking the caller for their concern but also asking for respecting your family's privacy (dont mention your sister at all) As far you should be concerned they could be simply calling to confirm a rummer.

To help the information seeker or the condolence caller understand why you are asking for space, you may what to include something about how personal privacy is disappearing at an alarming rate and to "please respect the little privacy we have thank you for your concern."

keep in mind there is a school of thought that the only way to de-stigmatize addiction is speak openly about it. I have mixed feeling about this. Addiction is not just a physical dependents but a failure to see a way out of it and to the productive life all addicts wish they had. Parents tend to feel like more disclosure is best but it's not there decision and unfortunately it takes even leaves the one suffering the addiction with the feeling of loosing control how they are seen by others.

some advice that goes beyond the question but be considered

When she is located my advice is to convince her that the best path forward starts in another town or state where your family is not known or that she don't know. Small towns suck when it comes to privacy. moving away from old routines, and the scenery that invokes memories can be very helpful. If I could have gone on a extended holiday while during my first attempt at recovery there never would have been a second attempt. When the brain seen and dose the same day in day out life gets bewaring (at least for me) when one is in an unfamiliar place the brain begins to make new neural connection (memories) that can help break the old ones that were wired for complacency and dependent. This should only be after the physical dependency has been broke. It a way to prevent relapse and discover the the best part of sobriety, the freedom to see the wonders of the world with out the chain of addiction.

Please don't take this a professional advice. rather experience.

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