Here’s a question we pose to our resident advocacy professional, Joe Schrank. Joe’s been a social worker for 25 years. He’s also president of Remedy Recovery and co-founder of The Fix. Our topic today: how to detach from your alcoholic/drug addicted family member without feeling guilty. Joe’s helpful responses to some obvious questions begin right below this bold paragraph.
- So my son/daughter/mom/dad is still out there, drinking, actively using and making everyone’s life HELL. I hate to treat them so callously during the holidays, but I want the rest of my family to not suffer. Is that selfish?
Welcome to choose your lousy emotion. Do you want to feel guilty or do you want to feel resentful? What about the option of being right-sized and forgetting expectations? We’re all too consumed with holidays and the competitive nature of it.
But I’ll answer: Choose what’s going to make you feel less terrible. The Al-Anon crowd will advocate for tough love – lock them out, cut them off, detach. I’m not opposed to that, but I’m not a mother sitting at Christmas dinner wondering where my son is. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the message: “Look, I get it, you’re a drug user, you can do that, but just not here.” It’s appropriate (and needed) in many cases.
The tough love route rarely, if ever, produces the desired result. We’d all like to think: “Sitting alone on Christmas will show them, that’ll be the bottom!” The problem with this premise is it presumes logic and logic seldom, if ever, applies.
2. Well, how do I let other people in the family know what’s up without being too melodramatic?
Honesty! Have your celebration and let your guests know it’s very possible that the identified patient will be drunk, maybe/possibly/more than likely belligerent. Just rid yourself of the eternal hope that this time will be different. The percentages show that it won’t and that’s a set up for further disappointment and anger. Deal with what’s in front of you, but don’t make it worse.
3. OKAY, AND THEN WHAT?
Sooner or later, it becomes a team decision. What’s best for the team? (The team= the non-addicted, not disruptive part of the family.) It’s not really fair to ask everyone to have the same feelings, meaning while some are good with keeping that shit out, others can’t tolerate the guilt.
Especially during the holidays. Detaching over the holidays is one of those problems where everything is right and it’s clashing with everything that is wrong. Families who decide to say “You’re not welcome” are 100% correct in doing so. Many have been through the mill financially, emotionally, and quite simply have reached the end of the road. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that message: “Look, I get it, you’re a drug user, you can do that, but just not here.” It’s appropriate (and needed) in many cases. But it’s not a magic wand to make an individual comply. It’s just a fence around you and the other members of the team. For families who can’t tolerate that and tell themselves “We wouldn’t cut him off if he had cancer,” they’re 100% correct as well. It’s a brutal situation!
4. Do you find yourself getting more calls between October and January? Is there a holiday uptick?
I dread this time of the year. The holidays are chaotic. I have long-time clients calling me with what I’ll generalize as “The Tommy Problem.” One mother called me in tears to say she’s gotten pressure from her Al-Anon group to shut her son out, but she just had lunch with a friend whose son recently died: “What if Tommy dies? What if he dies because I locked him out over the holidays? Will I regret it?”
My best advice to her and anyone else is to stay in your honesty. If that means locking out your Tommy, do it. If that means including them, that’s ok, too. The deeper trouble is the expectation of magical Hallmark cards and harmonious family time. There will be the chaos in your face, or the guilt of building a fence around it.
But look, it’s just Christmas, it’s not the end of the world and there will be others. Taking off my social worker empathy hat here for a second, I side much more with the “fuck them” response. Why should the whole system suffer? My own personal experience looked like this: My sister made the tough decision to exclude our alcoholic father from her wedding. The lead-in was tough. He was, on many levels, sick through no fault of his own. He had served multiple combat tours in Vietnam and never really recovered. The wedding went off without incident. Were he to attend, there would have been chaos without a doubt. Would my sister have preferred a functional man who could participate? Of course, but that was a fantasy. The reality was much different so choosing honesty paid off for us.
Again, figure out your family’s own honesty and stay in it. Maybe next Christmas will be different.
Joe Schrank is Executive Editor of The Small Bow. If you’ve got a suggestion for what we should ask Joe next, please email us here.