About once a month for the past few years I get a call at 2 o’clock in the morning from my brother. Most of the time I don’t even notice the call because I leave my phone in the kitchen when I go to bed (partially because at one point these calls were so frequent that it was a big sleep interruption). He’s an alcoholic, he’s wildly unpredictable (because of his drinking), he’s difficult, and I love him.
“Difficult” can cover all manner of things from substance abuse, untreated mental illness or just general jerk-itude (although to my knowledge jerk-itude is untreatable). There is no shortage of ways for your family to be difficult.
My brother’s wild antics and hell raising have always made for some great stories. I was telling one of these tales a few weeks ago to a group of good friends and an acquaintance. The acquaintance scolded me, and explained exactly how to fix him — get him into a rehab, get him counseling, schedule an intervention, or cut him out of your life. Apparently it’s very common for people who know nothing about you to give you advice (or so my friends with kids tell me). So I ignored her.
It’s not the first time I’ve gotten this advice and it probably won’t be the last. My little brother will be 23 this year and he’s had issues with alcohol, drugs, and just general defiance since he was 12 or 13. He has said horrible things to me, to my husband, and to my mother on different occasions. He has shown up to holidays drunk and late and a bunch of other stuff too (I try not to keep track). No matter what he does he’s still my brother and I love him and I decided I’m not going to cut him out of my life (unless he cheats at Monopoly — then I’ll never speak to him again).
Now that you know where I’m coming from I’m going to give you my advice for dealing with a difficult sibling or family member you want to keep in your life.
Know your limits
Set parameters for contact, make them clear, and make them something you can live with. I won’t drive anywhere in the car with my brother if he’s been drinking at all — but he knows why and he knows the deal. If he calls me for a ride that’s the first question I ask him.
How strictly you set the parameters will probably determine how often you see the person. If you aren’t comfortable with how much you’re seeing them you might have to adjust your parameters. I know I won’t see my little bro very often (maybe at all) if I refuse to see him when he’s been drinking, so that’s not my rule. I’ll hang out with him, have dinner and if he gets rude or ugly I leave. As for those late night calls — I answer if I’m already up and if I see it the next day I return the call.
Know that you can’t fix them
They are who they are (right now) and no amount of forcing, cajoling, arguing, or blackmailing is going to change that. People will tell you that you can force them into rehab or AA meetings by cutting off contact with them (cutting off contact is usually the consequence set up in an intervention). It might work, I’ve never done an intervention or threatened this because I know I’m not going to follow through. What I do know is that most rehab options are voluntary because people don’t get clean and sober because someone else makes them. It’s something they have to decide themselves and something they have to work at. You can’t help them until they want to be helped (it’s trite but true).
Let them know you love them
One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I think my middle brother (who had very similar substance abuse problems) might have died thinking I didn’t love him. That he should quit drinking and get his shit together was the thesis to almost every conversation we had. So I don’t end a conversation with my baby bro without telling him. I haven’t given up my right as a big sister to attempt to boss him into another lifestyle, I’ve just accepted that he probably won’t listen and let him know I still love him when he doesn’t.
Don’t be an enabler
I have been called an “enabler” by some for not refusing to cut my brother off. I disagree. If I were buying him booze or drugs I would definitely be enabling and encouraging his self-destructive behavior, but I don’t do those things. I’ll buy him dinner or groceries from time to time, and I still buy him birthday and Christmas gifts. I think these are things an older sister who had a “normal” brother would do from time to time for her baby bro just starting out in the world. But this, like many things, is a matter of degrees and you have to decide what you’re comfortable with.
Even though my brother has issues and I am almost constantly worried for him I still love him. His addiction is going to take a lot of things from him. One day (hopefully) he’s going to wake up and wonder what happened to his twenties and as he gets older I think his future self is really going to regret some of the decisions he’s made. But I’m going to work hard to not be one of the things that this takes from him. And it’s worth it when I get a call at the wonderfully reasonable hour of 10 in the morning from a sober little bro asking for a ride to mom’s house for a family dinner.
I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that anyone stay in an abusive (physically or emotionally) relationship. If my relationship with my brother took a turn in that direction I’d make the drastic changes necessary to protect myself.
So let’s hear it with your advice. REMINDER: We’re not here to bitch about our family members or compare horror stories — we’re here to share survival tips for dealing with the drama.