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The Vine: November 20, 2013

Submitted by on November 20, 2013 – 3:31 PM27 Comments


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.

Dear Intro,

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!




  • Jen says:

    Intro, I want to highlight something you said: “I don’t want them to see their uncle if he’s a mess.” This sounds to me like you think he might not be a mess. I think you should go in knowing that he will be a mess, 100% guaranteed. He might not be drinking that very minute but he is an alcoholic perpetually. The disease will show up for Thanksgiving for sure because it’s a part of him. I feel like recognizing this is part of not cherishing false hope, as Sars puts it.

    Also, I’m with you in solidarity on the alcoholic family member front. It completely sucks.

  • Brad says:

    There’s something a little hinky with this letter that I can’t quite put my finger on. If Brother is straight-up alcoholic, and its causing a rift with the family, why would the LW be so concerned about seeing the Brother? Would he be around anyway? Are they afraid of him getting drunk and then coming over to where the rest of the family will be?

    And then, if the family has a long tradition of alcoholism, why is it so difficult for the family to deal with the brother? I mean, I get it’s probably never easy, but a lot of that comes from people who have never dealt with alcoholism being confronted with it. What things did the family do to deal with the other members who suffer from this illness?

    Lastly, is it possible this has been blown up because the LW is getting a lot of secondhand information? They say they haven’t been around the brother much for two decades, but “hearing about it” and “living through it” are two different things.

  • Been There, Left That says:

    And as both a recovering alcoholic, and someone with a family history of alcoholism, I heartily sympathize with all parties involved in this potential drama. Sounds like LW is very much aware that you can’t blame, shame, mad, sad or guilt someone sober. Their sobriety is lovely when you get to experience it, and you have every right to hope for it and encourage it if you want to or feel you can. But someone else’s sobriety (or lack thereof) is exactly that: THEIRS. Not yours. He is as caught as he chooses to be (and I am thoroughly of the camp that feels that, at least until the first drink goes down, you have total control over whether you’ll be drinking.)But you don’t need to get out your dance card for the ‘will-he or won’t-he waltz’, either. Sars is right, have your plan for what you will do if he displays this particular behavior, and execute as needed. Do not make this about you, or engage in shaming–just quietly go. God speed, and YMMV on everything I mentioned.

  • attica says:

    Holidays suck for lots of people/reasons, and I think it’s okay to give yourself a ‘you know, I’ve done my time, I’m out’ break.

    I want to caution you about wanting your kids to know The Extended Family as some idealized thing. In theory, that’s nice and all, but theory doesn’t give a shit about you or your kids. Don’t think that your family stories are somehow less valid because the kids don’t have first-hand relationships. Protect them from Drunk Uncle, since he’s who’ll they’ll see, not some awesome dude that lives in your memory.

    On the other topic: I offer my felicitations, congratulations, and best wishes to Sars and NewHub. TomatoNation hugs!

  • scout1222 says:

    Sars said: “This is happening all over the country for the next month; you’re not alone.”

    Boy, she is not kidding. This letter is dredging up old memories of being a kid in my dad’s car while he drove home drunk from Thanksgiving. Memories of the Christmas where my dad got totally blotto, talked shit about my mom to the family while we were around, and how when we got home and she put him to bed (we had to stop on the way home so he could get out of the car and puke), she sat me down and said that in the morning she was going to be asking him to leave.

    So yes, holidays can suck for this stuff. (Hey, look how I made this comment All About Me, sorry about that.) I distanced myself for awhile, because hey, I became an adult who could do that, but for YEARS (and even still) the holidays were filled with this kind of dread and angst. So I hope you find peace in how to deal with this.

  • Sue says:

    I agree with Brad, something’s off. In my family (of equally complicated drinking history and dividing people up at parties to avoid confrontation), “on the outs” means “not invited to family gatherings.” So LW would have to seek him out, it seems to me…but meeting up seems like it’s happening?

    Everything’s right about getting LW into a mindset of being able to cope, but I also see that perhaps this isn’t the time or place for LW’s family to meet the full extended family. No judgement, here, from me. There are some family gatherings I wish I could have avoided, and depending on the age of the children, this may be one where it’s better to just hear about an uncle who’s not in the best place right now.

  • Debineezer says:

    Um, gee…I don’t have much in the way of alcoholism in my past, but plenty of other abuse and the letter makes PERFECT sense to me. “On the outs” can mean a lot of different things. I was “on the outs” with my stepfather for the better part of 10 years before I decided to stop showing up at family gatherings where I’d see him. And I’d stress every time and have nightmares but couldn’t see that taking care of myself was more important than showing up at Christmas to see my family (he became my stepfather when I was 5, so it was my family, too). Not hard at all to understand why the BB and Dad might not be speaking but mom would still invite BB to dinner. (And for the record, there were members of my family who knew, and they were very supportive, but yada yada.)

    As for the kids, they’ll be fine. They’re brats (military kids) and brats have an amazing capacity for taking things in and rolling with them. If he’s a douche bag, they’ll understand and not feel victimized for having seen it. Leaving their best friend in the 3rd grade was harder. I suspect the same is true for many kids, but brats are a breed apart. Just like military spouses.

    You’re TOTALLY right to worry about this, but I agree completely with Sars and others. Decide at what point it’s not ok any longer and leave. And damn I wish I’d had THAT foresight 10 years earlier.

  • anna says:

    I don’t necessarily think there is anything ‘hinky’ going on with this letter. Background, I’m a adult child in a large family, most married, numerous grandchildren; we’re currently living in the middle of a number of extended family messes, including an alcoholic in-law who has successfully cut off most of our family’s contact with my brother and their kids in a power play that my brother has allowed; according to him, she’s ‘not’ drinking, but because everything is OUR fault, including numerous arrests (for child endangerment, DUI, public intox, etc.), we cannot see them. With other adult siblings and their families who live outside the area coming to visit for the holidays, they are broaching the possibilities of visiting this family. Another out-of town sibling saw all of them a few weeks ago, and said it was not an unpleasant interaction. I think family members living at a distance can have a different view on interaction with alcoholic relatives. Sorry for the rambling, still processing our situation here, and I can feel some pretty deep empathy for this person.

  • Jaybird says:

    Congratulations and God bless, Sars!

  • Letter Writer says:

    To bring some clarity to the family dynamic (omitted previously in the interest of brevity)…my parents are divorced (since 1989…alcohol was a big factor). My dad doesn’t drink any more but there was never any formal rehab or counseling…he wouldn’t do it. In more recent developments, my brother got pissed at my mom for calling him on his crap (again) and hasn’t spoken to her in about 2 months.

    When we visit, we stay with my mom and make trips to my dad’s house across town. Because of limited interaction, and the fact that I haven’t confronted him on this, my brother would probably tell you he thinks our relationship is problem-free and is expecting to see us when we hit town.

    As for the situation being “blown up”, see again: DUI. I’d also add in 2 divorces and sporadic employment over the past decade. Additionally, my mom is one of the strongest people I know…she doesn’t exaggerate situations to garner sympathy. It is what it is.

    Finally, I appreciate the insight and the feedback…it’s hard to admit I can’t fix this.

  • shani says:

    honeymoon? congratulations, sars!

  • JenV says:

    I totally missed your note at the end about HONEYMOON until it was mentioned in the comments! Yay! Congratulations, Sars! Hope you have a great time.

  • Sallie says:

    LW, I’ve been there. Alcohol abuse is rampant on both sides of my family, and both of my parents are alcoholics. I just want to lend you my virtual support. It sounds like you’ve dealt with this for years, you understand the disease, and you have good coping mechanisms at hand. Trust yourself and protect your kids. If I were you, I’d print Sars’s response and keep it in my wallet during the trip. (Hell, I might do that anyway.) What she wrote about the “‘if I just double-bag him THIS way, maybe it’ll work out this time’ mindset” almost made me cry at my desk. I’m sorry, and you aren’t alone for what little that’s worth.

  • Leslie says:

    How did I miss the news that you are getting married! CONGRATS! I have no advice for the letter writer, other than to say I am sorry that it sucks.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Thanks, guys! I didn’t want to do a whole post about it and be That Guy, but I might as well now, right? Hee.

    We got married in July; we’re just now getting around to ‘mooning.

  • Congrats on the marriage, Sars, that’s awesome! C’mon, be That Guy and do a whole post.

    LW: sorry, I got nothin’. Sounds like you know what you’re up against and got some good advice. Wishing you luck with it all.

  • Kristin says:

    Congrats, Sars, and will ‘moon over the ‘moon elsewhere, but….

    Letter writer, I’m going to make this a bit goopy. See your brother. Alone or with your kids, whatever makes you “comfortable.” See him, because alcoholics have short life spans and you may need to see him for yourself. And to be able to help your mom, and his son, etc. My father was a fall-down drunk, and I cannot express to you how hard it was for my sister and I, but we were super-grateful for the family members who made the effort to see him, because it made us feel less like we were alone in dealing with him. And I’m talking those who came over on the Christmas morning after my mom left him, and helped us deal with that day. He didn’t make it a year after that – his liver gave in when he was still in his early 40s. It’s been a lot of years and it still hurts. So see him. Because your whole family will appreciate it – it may suck, but I promise you the intervening 21 Christmases and knowing it was a disease and all of that shit didn’t make me not miss my dad. I’m sitting here crying, and NO, it’s not about me, but there’s a me in your family (it might be you) who still thinks about “what else could we have done.” Tell your brother you love him so you know you did that, just in case. And then distance yourself for your health, but get the I love you in there, so that everything else centers around that. Sorry to be so emotionally direct, but there it is. I wish you luck.

  • Erin McJ says:

    Sars, decade-plus lurker here — I had no idea you’d gotten hitched. Many congratulations. Now I’ll have to read old posts and see if I can figure out whether your beloved has a bloggy nickname. :)

  • Kat From Jersey says:

    Original poster… been there, done that. It sucks. I totally agree with Sars’ suggestion to write a letter, and then not send it. It always seems like a good idea at the time, but once you mail it, it’s out there (not to sound like Harry Burns here, but you know…). In my experience, letters or e-mails mostly make things worse, since those are words you can never take back. I agree about setting limits and sticking to them (e.g. if you get plastered, we’re leaving) as well. Whatever happens, hang in there.

    Congrats to Sars! I caught a comment about ‘the spouse’ in one of your Previously TV recaps, and was like, huh?!?

  • shani says:

    oh yeah, I think a post of some kind about this is in order.

  • Maggie L. says:

    Kristin, hugs for your grief. You said it’s been a while, but I still feel the rawness of your loss through your comment. <3

  • Gracie says:

    I didn’t find it weird that the brother is on the outs with some family members but there’s still a possible visit in the works. One of my relatives just spent the better half of a year going “I don’t want to see any of you! Don’t call me, don’t text me, don’t send me thank you cards, etc.” …and then calls us for babysitting. Or to make Thanksgiving plans. Or someone’s birthday is coming up.
    And this person’s in-laws are the same way, right down to the drinking to the point that I was thinking LW is someone I know.
    Anyway, I second Sars’ advice here and the advice that you don’t [i]have[/i] to have some big, sappy movie-style forgiveness scene with your brother or to expose your kids to him. Only do what you feel comfortable with. Good luck.

  • Kristin says:

    Hug back to Maggie, and thanks.

  • pomme de terre says:

    “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.”

    A thousand times yes. In advance of my sister’s wedding, one of the groomsman was in (very shaky) recovery, and my mom, in insane wedding planning mode, would NOT quit talking about the many good/bad/ugly scenarios that might unfold. There was NO way to know what kind of shape he’d be in on the big day and thinking about all the possible scenarios and how to counteract them was so stressful and unproductive.

    (For the record: Groomsman was fine on the wedding day, has sadly struggled a lot since then.)

  • Meg says:

    I’m awake in the middle of the night because I’m so stressed about Thanksgiving in a few days. Holidays are not fun with alcoholic relatives (especially when one is hosting and therefore has no reason to slow down drinking, like my mother this year). I’m practicing my best lines for leaving and going home, myself. I’ve found that having a plan does help — not a plan for how to try to change someone else’s behavior, but a good exit strategy for me and mine.
    Please know that the rest of us are wishing y’all the best.

  • Mary says:

    >>And then, if the family has a long tradition of alcoholism, why is it so difficult for the family to deal with the brother? I mean, I get it’s probably never easy, but a lot of that comes from people who have never dealt with alcoholism being confronted with it. What things did the family do to deal with the other members who suffer from this illness?

    I know this is kind of late, but I just wanted to say, woah, does that misunderstand alcoholism in families.

    “My family has a long tradition of alcoholism” almost never means “my family has a long tradition of coping with alcoholism”. It nearly always means “my family has a long tradition of being in denial about alcoholism, working around alcoholism without challenging it or upsetting the alcoholic, enabling their alcoholism, discounting the harm caused by alcoholism, hiding the alcoholism from others and focussing all our energies on basically all the most unhealthy things you can do around an alcoholic/s. And even after we’ve acknowledged that that thing is alcoholism, we will probably continue some or all of those behaviours”.

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