The Vine: November 20, 2013
My older brother is an alcoholic. He's following in a long family tradition (my dad, both paternal grandparents, a couple of cousins, etc.).
His oldest son is a recovering alcoholic after a few stints in rehab.
Drinking's always been a part of my brother's life, but this past year, he's devolved into pretty much a fall-down drunk. It started with a DUI in February and culminated with my mom kicking him out of a rental house she owns, with lots of drunken buffoonery in between. He's on the outs with our dad and our younger sister because of his behavior, and his current situation hurts my mom so much she can barely talk about him most of the time.
We get along, but mostly because I'm in the military and haven't lived near him for over 20 years. I think in closer proximity, we'd probably be at odds as well. I did some Al Anon work in college because of my dad, and I feel pretty well able to cope with what's going on (aided by distance). The most I can do for my mom and my sister is let them vent when I call.
To the point…my family and I will be visiting home for the holidays, and I do and don't want to see my brother. My kids (teens) don't know their extended family as well as I'd like because of moving around, but I don't want them to see their uncle if he's a mess. I've been honest with them about the family history, and they know it's a disease and not an easy battle. I've debated writing him a letter (e-mail isn't an option and I think a phone call would get too emotional and get off-track) telling him that while I love him and want him to get better, I can't see him if he's drinking. Then I wonder if that letter would do any good or if it's really just a selfish way for me to vent my worry and frustration. When he's sober, he's one of the best people I know. Unfortunately, that's not nearly as often as it once was. I know I can't make him stop drinking. I know he's got to find his rock bottom on his own, but…he's still my big brother. I'm at a loss for what to do, if anything.
I'd really like to introduce him to Bill W.
A letter is a great idea — but for you, to help you clarify your thoughts, set boundaries, and be real with yourself about what you hope will happen; what you dread happening; and what is likely to happen. Your mileage may vary, but for me, the tricky part of that disease isn't so much bracing for or managing the "buffoonery" you mentioned; it's remembering, when there isn't any buffoonery, when everything's fine and good behavior rules the day, not to cherish false hope. So I don't think you should necessarily send the letter, but I think writing it is a great idea, and then putting it in a drawer for a few days, and then looking at it again with (or revising it for) your family so you can have a plan.
The other tricky part, as you know, is not letting the disease control every single aspect of the family and the holidays and every gathering and blah blah blah. You can't control what Brother does, or drinks, as you know — but it's really hard not to gnaw your figurative cuticles ahead of time about it. Should I drink in front of him? Is he going to drive to Mom's? What if he slips on the front walk again? What if it's like Thanksgiving '09 when [insert uncomfortable incident here]? And then, of course, to resent that you all have to think about it and plan for it.
But: you actually don't. Make a very simple plan, draw a very broad line for yourself re: what behavior of his you're not going to deal with, and then don't deal with it. Talk it over with your own fam first and get on the same page, but you don't have to notify anyone else, or him, that (for instance) if he's visibly intoxicated, you and your family will be leaving. You just have to decide for yourselves, selves, life's too short to pretend he's not ripshit or convince him to pour himself into a guest bed for a few hours or try to talk over his slurry rambling. Alcoholics are almost always wonderful, interesting, generous people; the disease is a boring, weird, selfish asshole, and you're not doing anyone any favors pretending that isn't so. You don't get any extra points for gutting it out with that bullshit. You just get bullshit.
So. Write the letter. See what comes up. If you'd like to strategize with your mom and sister, great, but don't go too far down a rabbit hole of "if we talk/bitch about it enough, we can control it somehow" — that's a mirage. Decide what best protects you and your kids emotionally; this isn't about teaching Brother a lesson. This is about saying, for your own sake and for the sake of what you model for your children, I'll have a relationship with you but I'm not hanging out with your illness like it's all cool.
And finally, if you don't end up sticking the landing or something upsetting happens, it's okay, and it's going to be okay. The responsibility for preventing or managing Brother is his, not yours, and I get that "if I just double-bag him THIS way, maybe it'll work out this time" mindset, I do. But when it doesn't, have a "you've had too much to drink; we're going to go, see you later" rehearsed and ironed clean of any tone, do it, and be okay with it.
It's really hard. Keep talking with your kids about it and maybe hit an Al-Anon meeting or two before your trip. This is happening all over the country for the next month; you're not alone. Let us know how it goes.
Speaking of holidays! TN is on hiatus November 22-29 for ye olde honeymoon. I'll bump a few pieces from the archives in the meanwhile. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Tags: happy hellidays kids the fam