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Norfolk/Wrentham - Local Town Pages

Sibling Support Group marks 5 years, led by Millis resident

Millis resident Judi Earnest helps facilitate Supper with Siblings, along with Gilbert, a world-class service dog.

By Grace Allen
A local support group for siblings affected by substance use disorder has been meeting for five years now, a significant milestone in the area. “Supper with Siblings” meets at Gilly’s House in Wrentham once a month and offers a safe place for family members to connect with others grappling with similar issues. 
While there are all kinds of support groups out there, there is little support for people dealing with a sibling’s addiction or death from substance use disorder. That is slowly changing, however. It’s now recognized that addiction is a family disease, says Judi Earnest, a Millis resident, and Milford- and Wrentham-based clinician who facilitates Supper with Siblings.
“It used to be thought that the person struggling with addiction or in recovery suffered alone, but what we’re finding is that the whole family suffers,” said Earnest. “And if the family isn’t in recovery to deal with the issues too, it doesn’t work well.”
Earnest, who lost a brother herself to substance use disorder, is well-versed in the emotions unique to siblings of the addicted. Siblings, she says, suffer in ways that are distinct from parents, especially if the family member dies from an overdose. They may blame themselves, because often they were aware of the addiction before the parents. Or they may be resentful of all the attention, albeit negative, an addicted sibling receives. Parents are often overwhelmed when a child has substance use disorder and siblings may think they should step up to help but are ill-equipped to do so. 
“The sibling that is not using can get lost in the chaos,” Earnest said. “It’s a very complex issue, especially if you know what’s going on but no one is asking you. Or when parents make the decision to start setting some boundaries, the focus is suddenly on you.”
The peer-led Supper with Siblings is structured around a shared meal, usually donated by a community member. No one is ever turned away from the gathering, and it’s open to ages 16 through adulthood.
The meal is then followed by a free-flowing group forum. A candle is lit, and participants can welcome loved ones into the room who are struggling or who have passed.
“It’s a spiritual or emotional ‘bringing into the room,’” said Earnest. “If there’s anyone on your mind because of an anniversary, an important date, or that you’re worried about, they are ‘welcomed’ by us.”
Earnest’s role is to help set boundaries and offer coping skills and grounding techniques, if necessary.
A recent addition to Supper with Siblings is Gilbert, a service dog who has undergone two years of training by NEADS in Princeton, MA. 
“We are an ADA-certified team, but his service is to the people I work with,” explained Earnest. “He’s a wonderful asset to have in the group because he is very in tune with emotions. He’ll say hello to everybody but if someone needs more attention, he offers it to that person.”
When Supper with Siblings first started, it was the only resource of its kind in the area. Now, however, there are three other similar groups, two of which are also facilitated by Earnest. Change, she said, is happening, but slowly. 
“It’s generational, I think,” she offered. “There are so many diseases out there and I don’t think a lot of people understand this is a disease too. My brother didn’t wake up and say, ‘I want to be an addict.’ Families need to understand this is not a dirty little secret. My goal is to take the shame out of it. Maybe then we can start to change the culture around addiction.”
Earnest says not everyone is ready to take that first step and attend a group session. That’s okay too, she said. 
“People should take the information and when they’re ready, then go to the meeting, or even just text or call me. Know we’re there, and that’s the biggest piece, even if it takes time to emotionally come to that place. Because it can be scary.”
Supper with Siblings takes place on the third Tuesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. There is no charge to attend, but registration is requested for planning purposes. Participants can bring a spouse or a friend. Visit to register.
Contact Earnest at [email protected] or 508-944-5308 to connect or just to ask questions about the program.
Gilly’s House, located at 1022 West St., Wrentham, offers a comprehensive life-skills transitional program for young men who have successfully completed a residential treatment program. The non-profit was established in memory of Steven “Gilly” Gillmeister, who lost his battle with addiction in 2016 at the age of 25.