One of the hardest parts for me in having a family member with a substance abuse problem has been striking the balance between being involved and staying detached.
For a long time, I thought that I could help my father, that if I could say the right thing or be the right kind of person, I could help him stop drinking. As I grew older, though, I came to see that the opposite is true: I have no control over him, no ability to force him to make different choices.
This is both terrifying and liberating. It's terrifying to care about someone and to see them making a royal mess of their life and to watch them continue doing so, and to feel and know that there is nothing I can do to help. I saw my dad a few weeks ago and was, honestly, aghast at how he looked. In the past (although thankfully, it's long in the past) I have seen him drunk and belligerent, as he apparently was last week, and it's beyond ugly. The wasted potential of his life is heartbreaking.
I also hear the strain and tension in my mother's voice, feel her despair and pain, and it's awful to know that I can't make her be any different than she is, any more than I can make my father different. I can listen, I can offer support, I can make suggestions, but ultimately the decision how to live her life resides with her.
This is also freeing, to some extent. You don't need to carry around with you the burden of responsibility for someone else's life -- and that's an awfully heavy burden. I've often taken crap from my family for not being around them more -- for not moving back to my hometown, for not visiting often enough, for missing certain events, and yet this is a strategy born of self-preservation. Being too involved with them is painful to me (and not just painful, but downright harmful to me). I've spent a lot of my adulthood trying to find a balance between their expectations and my needs, enjoying some of the time I spend with them but finding other times just crazy-making. I had to be able to step back and let them do as they wish. Accept them as they are, and know that they and they alone decide what they're going to do. But also accept that I don't have to participate. I've created my own kind of life and it's different in many ways from theirs.
I've heard many people say that they've had to cut off toxic family members and I understand this completely. I've been lucky in that I've been able to maintain a close relationship with my mom. But I have consciously kept my father at arm's length. I believe there are people so fucked up that they just aren't capable of having real relationships. My father is one of them.
What it boils down to is that sometimes, when someone in your life is messed up, you have to make a choice: you or them. It sounds harsh but it's true. You have to realize you can't stop them from doing what it is they want or need to do, and you will only lose yourself and your own happiness trying. I see how my mom was never able to realize that, or else wasn't capable of carrying through with the choice of walking away. I don't blame her for that. It's easy for me -- a woman born into a generation where divorce is common and most mothers work, a woman with an advanced degree and lots of career options -- to envision kicking an alcoholic husband out and moving on with my life. It's not so easy to imagine my mom -- a woman born into a generation where divorce was unknown, where "good mothers" stayed at home with their kids, a woman with a high-school education in an economically-depressed region -- doing the same.
But as much as I hate the thought, I've got to detach somewhat from her, too. My mom told me this week how the emergency room doctor gave her the battered woman talk. She told him that my father was verbally abusive but never physically abusive to her, which as far as I know is the truth. But the vision of a doctor in an ER trying to reach out to my mom to help her was like a knife in the gut. It made my stomach ache for my mother, for what she's going through and for having spent fifty years going through it. And it made me feel guilty -- should I be trying harder to help her?
It's painful to watch her right now, but it also has the capacity to eat me up if I get too emotionally invested. Because I've danced this dance before. Father slides downward, his behavior gets more and more out of line, there is some major nasty occurrence, he swears he'll stop drinking, he never does any of the things that you need to do to stay sober, he starts drinking again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Just a few days ago, a few measly days after he swore off the bottle, he went for an overnight visit to a hunting cabin with my brother and some of their friends. To a place where after the hunting and fishing is over, the guys hang out and guzzle beer. So is a guy who's really serious about his sobriety going to go to a place where everyone around him is drinking and more likely than not encouraging him to drink? Probably not.
There's that famous quote from Tolstoy: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But what I find striking is how these patterns of dysfunction are nearly identical in Tom's family. My M-I-L is the one with the "issues": bipolar illness that she's never committed to managing. She goes off the meds, slides into mania and often psychosis, and after some shocking event ends up with her in the hospital, she takes her meds, she talks the talk about staying on them, eventually she stops taking them again. In the meantime, she does nothing to improve the odds of her staying healthy -- no exercise, no talk therapy, no support groups, no internet chat boards, no nothing. Lather, rinse, repeat.
All of this is a long, long way of saying that my challenge right now, and Tom's challenge, too, is trying to straddle the line between staying supportive, doing what we can to help (with a clear-eyed view of how much we can and cannot do), and then knowing when to step back for self-preservation. Thank you for all of your kind comments and emails; they have helped tremendously. Just knowing that I'm not alone in this struggle is a tremendous help.