Sunday, July 06, 2008

Lather, rinse, repeat.

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.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's odd how things happen. I needed to read your entry. Right now, the right words, the right everything. Thank you. I hope you have a good day, week, year.

DreamWoven said...

hugs to you.... it is never easy and your post was both thoughtful and honest. straddling the line will never be easy, nor should it be... what i've always done is tried to remember that the only way I could/can make sense out of alot of things is to keep myself 'safe' and 'clear'... i am of no benefit to anyone if i am entrenched and involved.

here is hoping you retain your 'safeness and clearness'... help where you can, but do it realistically.

again...... hugs to you for your courage and bravery in dealing with this.

Lorena said...

Bravely, honestly spoken. Yes; you are not alone.

Katie K said...

It's taken me a long tome to realize that the adage that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink is so true. Don't let rescuer number 1 become victim number 2. Have a great day!

Elizabeth said...

Hang in there Carol. And you know, keeping your distance isn't just for your own self-preservation, but for your kids, too.

I'm the drunk in our family, so I always have a vein of empathy for the alcoholic who still suffers. It is hard to watch, but ultimately no one can get another person sober. We (the recovering) can share our experience, strength, and hope and that's it.

Cetta said...

Everything you've said is so true. My father is an alcoholic, too, and as I'm the only child he has in the area (my brother moved out of state)other family members think I should be "helping" more. We both know, though, that there is no helping until they want to help themselves.

jillian said...

I think just knowing that it is both healthy and sometimes necessary to step back from these situations shows that you have the needed wisdom!

I agree and deeply empathize with your relationship with your father. Like so many, my dad was also an alcoholic and verbally abusive. It wasn't everyday, he didn't drink when he had to work, and somehow everybody tolerated it.

Over 10 years ago, my mom suddenly fell ill and passed away. My father's actions during and after showed he had actually been Mr. Nice Guy all those years.

The week after her internment I called him and told him I did not consider him my father and he would never see or hear from me again, because of his actions. I disowned him. Taking myself out of that relationship, and his whole toxic, substance-abusing and/or just plain mean side of the family was one of the best decisions of my life.

I rarely meet someone that doesn't think I overreacted. And I am glad that they have never known someone that would require this sort of action. But I have never doubted or regretted it.

I am in NO way suggesting this as anyone else's course of action. Just empathizing and supporting your decision to stay away from emotionally harmful influences.

I strongly believe everyone is responsible for their own actions, and you simply can't help someone that doesn't want to be helped. No one has the right to hurt others and expect them to stay around and take more.

Good luck!

Nell said...

You are definitely not alone. And I'm glad you are taking care of yourself. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to make that choice. Lend support as you can but eventually, their behavior is their choice. Good for you for recognizing that. Not at all an easy thing to do.

Marilyn said...

Sweetie, get you to either an AlAnon or Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting. As a daughter of an alcoholic as well, I got a great deal of help from AlAnon.

You've got the right attitude, for sure. You can't carry this burden emotionally and you have to detach yourself to a degree. But sometimes, it's good to hear and be with people who've been where you've been. As for your MIL, there's nothing anyone can do for her until she gets religion about the meds. Which, sadly, I think is unlikely at this point. Far be it from me to point the finger at her but there are just some hardcore cases who never respond to anything. Yes, she has to want to manage her disorder but that requires a certain amount of background wellness that seeps in during the craziness. I'm not sure she has that or has ever had that, given her lousy track record.

Just remember that I love you and empathize with you. Me's got a shoulder for you, always.

no-blog-rachel said...

I've been in a relationship with an alcoholic and another with an abuser. You put it so well. If someone can't try to help themselves, you can't help them. It took me a long time to figure that out.

Sending good thoughts your way; you're not alone!

manic knitter said...

Dear Carol, I wish I could give you the hugs and support you need right now in person. I watched a year ago as we buried my 21 yr. old nephew after his second overdose. He spent 4 days on a ventilator in ICU while I sat alone in the waiting room just the year previous to that after his first overdose. When he woke, after a cocaine-induced heart attack that time, I used every inch and ounce of pull I had in the mental health community to get him a free stay at a 30 day rehab center, convincing the mental health clinic to use some of the very precious grant monies they had to fund this and got him to agree to go by 2 means-first, I told him if he didn't, I'd swear to a magistrate he was a danger to himself and others and get him committed involuntarily and second, I told him I'd not help him in any shape, way, or form. He went. For exactly 1 day. Then his girlfriend showed up at the rehab center and he left with her. I kept my promise-I won't pick him up if I passed him walking and I only gave him birthday and Christmas cards because I knew anything else would go for drugs. The day my mom found him dead the first thing she said to me was "he said you hated him". As I directed traffic for the police interviewing everybody, cleaned up the "crime" scene mess they left, fed my brother and mom, and made the necessary calls and arrangements. I tried to straddle that line between my mom and brother, who enabled Jamie to do the things that led to this end and I cleaned up after the mess was over. You can't make an enabler seek help anymore than you can a user. But you and Tom can love each other.
I'm so glad you've shared this. You don't know how alone I've felt in my family, first with my own father's alcoholism and then with all the drama and trauma and waste of the Jamie years. I'm crying as I write this but I write it so you know you all aren't alone either.

moiraeknittoo said...

It IS hard to do the "you or them" thing, but in the end, if you want to survive and try to thrive, it's what you have to do. I've learned that I can't have any contact with my emotionally, verbally and sometimes physically abusive father. He tries to live his life through his children, and it will never, ever work. I can channel money through my siblings who do still talk to him to try to help out occasionally, and now perhaps for them to arrange for in-home care as he's beginning a decline, but I can't get more involved than that. I just can't. Not and try to stay afloat myself.

So good for you, and stay strong!

Judi said...

You are most definitely NOT alone. There are many ways for dysfunctional families to function, none of them pretty. You have to do what YOU think is best for YOU.

I have taken care of quite a few seriously bipolar patients and i think that there is no way they can manage their disease independently - someone has to be in charge of making sure they take their meds - easier said than done since this takes trust and they aren't the most trusting individuals.

The only way to break these cycles is to not be IN the cycle. Good luck and best wishes to you as you disentangle from them

Anonymous said...

Carol, the abuser, whether of substances or people, will wear out those who love them, if boundaries are not established and maintained. Know that you are in my prayers and that you did the right thing for you and your children. You saw the need to put yourself and your children ahead of you father. Congratulations. Now live your life and help them with theirs.

M-H said...

My dad was an alcoholic, and I understand your pain. My mother died suddenly in 1981 and dad lingered on for nearly ten years after that,. After Mum's death his life was a cycle just as you've described. My sister got sucked into all the dramas, and I was 'the bad girl' for keeping as clear as I could. It still hurts, nearly 20 years later. But I still know that I did the right thing. We couldn't save him.

puffthemagicrabbit said...

Ears and hugs- always.

Anonymous said...

I support your arguments about this entirely. And it sounds like you have been in there trying for some time. You are entirely right.
It wasn't until I was in my late 40s that I finally realized that I could not change anything with my family either. But the major reason for creating the same kind of distance you describe was this sense that I would have nothing to give to anyone else if I didn't get out. A person can truly end up being enveloped in the darkness of it, incapacitated oneself to give to others.
So, again, you did the right thing for sure.

Gina said...

I almost stopped reading when I saw...alcoholic father...My Mom died 30 years ago and my husband and I took my father into our home. An alcoholic to the end, his last words were..."I guess the party's over"...it took me a long time to figure out I was not responsible. I still took care of him but with a detachment that kept me from being angry all the time. He died two years ago and while this may sound terrible, I was happy it was over for me. I am just now starting to remember some funny things about him. And while I won't forget how bad he was, I don't have to worry about it anymore. What you're feeling and deciding right now about your attitude towards your parents is good. Keep on that path. Don't feel guilty about it. Good luck.
Gina

Adelle said...

Reading this is like reading my life story, except with my mother being the one who drinks. She was sober for the past 9 months... until this last week. I cried so hard when I found out. I understand everything you are feeling and thinking and wanting to do. But you are right, there is nothing we can do. I still struggle with that same concept all of the time...

cheesehead with sticks said...

Just wanted to give you a virtual hug and to say you are doing the right thing, and it does stink to have to do it.

You can't help your mom anymore than you can help your dad - just like no one could help me see my husband for what he was until I realized I needed to help myself, and I only had 10 years invested.

Just let her know you love her.

Jodi said...

Oh Carol, my thoughts are with you. It's a tough situation. At times I'm so grateful that I'm 2 states away from my challenging family issues; at other times I wish I were there to help.

Anonymous said...

HUGS!!! You're doing what you need to do and being who you need to be :) MORE HUGS!! Terry

Carry said...

(long time lurker, first time caller)

Wow, it sounds like not only aren't you alone, but you've struck quite a nerve with a lot of people, including me.

I grew up in an alcoholic family as well but have since then poorly chosen life partners who all seemed to have the same issues. I just left my last one this last winter and I'm really hoping I've made the change finally.

You definitely have it right though, "them or you". It's a hard lesson and I've been struggling with it all my life. Kudos to you for recognizing it.

Thanks for your entry, your honesty and your openness.

Sarah said...

Thinking of you and your family as you make your way through the balancing act of life.

Lisa said...

You are very wise. You and your family will be in my thoughts.

kmkat said...

Re: your bipolar MIL. My husband, a psychiatric nurse, says that bipolars often have trouble staying on their meds because being manic is fun. Weird, but true. Depressed people tend to be very, very faithful about taking their Zoloft/Prozac/Celexa/whatever because depression is such a drag. But if one could count on flying high for days at a time as a bipolar might, would she be inclined to take something that leveled her out? Very likely not, to the great distress of everyone around her.

Not that this excuses her actions or lack thereof, but it may help you.

Carol said...

Yep, we have heard that. Tom and have had long conversations about that, and reading An Unquiet Mind (which is fascinating and beautifully written) has given us some better sense for what it must be like. Kay Jamison, who wrote Unquiet Mind, is a medical doctor and bipolar and she writes quite honestly about her experiences -- well worth reading even if you don't have a bipolar in the family. It is also worth noting that when you are manic, you become excessively confident and know-it-all-ish, and often paranoid, so that just when you need the advice of those around you the most, to say "hey, you're going manic," you are least likely to be receptive to it. What's also interesting is that my MIL doesn't have euphoric kind of mania; hers is very anxiety-fraught and mean and hurtful. We've talked about the fact that it doesn't LOOK like any fun -- she is not all happy and euphoric but rather grim, driven, sleepless and mean. Real mean.

Mel said...

Carol,

It doesn't take something as significant as alcoholism for your words to ring true. My family has their own form of dysfunction, and it has taken me years to stop feeling guilty for moving away from them and parceling out interaction in order to maintain my own sanity. I thank you for this post - it made me realize that someone understands.

I'm sorry you have to be that someone, but thank you anyway.

Anonymous said...

You've just put into words exactly how I feel about my family situation. Only I still struggle occasionally with thoughts of being a "bad daughter" for not participating more.

Your strength, serenity, and acceptance are inspiring and comforting. We all have to remind ourselves from time to time that we do not have to play the assigned roles in the family drama.

Thank you for sharing this.

Laurie said...

I have never found any support from others who haven't gone through the toxic family exercise. "But they are FAMILY." As if that is a magic incantation that explains why we should take the continued abuse. I finished with my brother 10 years ago. Best decision of my whole relationship with my family. It is a lonely decision, and one that you come to terms with only over time.

It takes a fair amount of strength to get past the negative feedback, AND your family's anger.

cici said...

Thank you for your courage, honesty and openness. It helps all of us.. and yes.. you are not alone.. :D

cici said...

Thank you for your courage, honesty and openness. It helps all of us.. and yes you are not alone. thanks.. "D

Marilyn said...

Jamieson's book is brilliant. It is possibly the best look inside a bipolar's brain. I'm glad you read it, although I would have guessed you'd have ferreted it out.

Let me say one thing as a bona fide bipolar I--yes, mania is a trip and a half. It's certainly exhilarating to know that you're the Queen (or King) of the Known World and that you can spend all the money you want because you can write a bestseller and thereby recoup your losses.

Yeah, right. Mania always ends up with El Crasho Grande. Always. If Carol doesn't mind blatant self-promotion, come see me at Swing Time, my blog about being bipolar. Some of you I know already read it. But everyone's welcome.

Mary Lou said...

I second Marilyn - al anon or aca, they have both helped me more than I can say. Seeing you are not alone is huge.

Kathleen said...

Carol, once again thank you for your honest and thought-provoking post. Your predicament in regards to your father is one of the reasons I left my husband - I did not want my little girl (two at the time) to suffer through the burden of an alcoholic father. Luckily, before we left I learned the lesson you mentioned, that you cannot change or control an alcoholic. What a difficult lesson for a Type A person!

Anonymous said...

This is a strong post Carol. And you are a strong, woman.

My family's issues are different but I came to many of the same conclusions this past year. I had to back away and make peace with leaving everyone in their own mess. It has been hard and I'm sure it will continue to challenge me.

My mom continues to need, and ask for, support. Last year I gave it to the detriment of my home life and my business. (MANY missed children's events and a 30% loss in business!) When acts and deeds by my family derailed months of research and planning for them, I backed out. The hardest thing is the inquiries from my friends. How are your parents? How is your Dad? And...I have no idea of what to say. It is sad and hard for me to acknowledge that they are only ok. Things won't get better.

A recent week with family has convinced me that I can and should continue to love my family. But, I don't need to agree with them, eat like them, consume like them, raise my children like them, or support their decisions.

That said, it is important to keep that connection to them. To share in their joys and woes non judgementally. This I am still working on...