MLC: I have a very dysfunctional family, and over the years I have distanced myself from most of my immediate family, except for my brother.
Our relationship has had its ups and downs, mostly related to his drinking, bipolar disorder and PTSD but I love him and have tried to be supportive, and he tries to be there for me and usually has a kind heart. I recently moved 10 hours away. It was a plan years in the making that he was fully aware of. In fact, during the Spring, when he received a large sum of money, he offered to give me a portion of it to help with the move, saying “Don’t worry about paying it back anytime soon”, then later telling me to consider it a gift and don’t worry about paying it back ever. He was very supportive of the move.
Then we actually moved. After the move, he became full of rage and resentment. Each call he got angrier and angrier, then in one of his calls he declares that I now need to pay him back the money he lent.
He vanished for almost two weeks on a binge, then I found out from his neighbor that an ambulance had come and taken him to the hospital. I was worried because a year ago he had attempted suicide. I was able to track down the hospital he was at but he was too incoherent to talk. I called every day and left messages with the nurse.
When he finally called me it was from an alcohol treatment facility and the entire call he just shouted about how everyone just takes advantage of him, said I needed to pay him back the money he lent me or “I guess I no longer have a sister” and then hung up on me. He did that once more from the facility (where I was unable to call him back) and then a few weeks later started sending me angry texts saying that I needed to pay him back and to start sending him $80 a month.
So, after small novel of texts in which my brother continues to TELL me to send him money, says if I don’t then I’m not his sister anymore, proceeds to insult me, digs up his twisted version of the past, says I’ve never done anything for him, calls me names, and otherwise try to blackmail me, manipulate, and control me, I’ve reached capacity.
I sent him the same reply over and over again “I love you. I’m sorry you feel this way. I’m not going to send you any money but I’m happy to discuss what you feel I owe you if you wish to ungift your gift, but not over text and not until you’ve gotten yourself sorted and can have a calm rational conversation”.
So, my question is, when is it just time to let go? I love my brother but he’s an addict and bi-polar and struggling with PTSD and TBI from his military service. I’ve stood by him all these years. I tried to convince him to move with us.
My kids love their uncle, but they also have vivid memories of me having to call the ambulance when “[he] was in the bath and wouldn’t wake up”. They have to see me stressed when he disappears and I worry and they had to see me in tears and a mess when he tried to take his life last year and was in the ICU in a coma for 10 days.
Are we better off just cutting him out of our lives? I love my brother, so I don’t want to just cut him away forever, but it’s reached a point where I fear he’s never going to change and I really do not know how you come back from someone telling you “give me money or you are no longer my sister”.
Thanks for your help.
Wow. What a difficult experience for you. It’s sad to know that your brother is unwell in several different ways (e.g., addiction, bipolar disorder, PTSD, etc.). It’s also sad to know that you and your kids are put in the ringer, trying to love and care for him while being on the receiving end of angry, erratic behavior that is damaging and painful.
Your instinct about keeping your kids away from this as much as possible is absolutely correct, in my opinion. They should not witness erratic outbursts or abusive language/talk. They should not have to worry about his potential death, or watch you struggle with that worry (where avoidable—some matters of life or death arrive without warning, and we must all deal with those the best that we can.)
I also think it is critical to talk to them, at the level of their maturity and understanding, about the diseases he suffers. It is important for them to know why his brain is making it harder for him to be steady, kind, able to engage in self-care, etc. If you are not sure about how much/how little to tell them, or how to best approach the subject, I highly recommend speaking with a family counselor or therapist about it. He or she may be able to facilitate a discussion where you can talk through your brother’s conditions, as well as your own fears for your brother, whilst not frightening your kids—having a professional available to make sure the kids see you handling things (even as you are rightfully emotional) could be life-changing for your family.
Your approach—remaining calm, limiting contact, being willing to discuss the money return, etc.—is sound. I know that he must have been particularly healthy when you made your plan to move, but I imagine at least a part of you understood that he might eventually react negatively, given his history and his conditions. I’m sorry this is the case.
You can trust yourself in this relationship, but you can’t fully trust him right now. You can love him, you can offer him emotional support, and you can continually encourage him to seek out treatment, but trusting him isn’t safe.
You know that phrase, “Good fences make good neighbors?” I’d say that “Healthy boundaries make safe relationships.” Until he is able to deal with you in a way that is safe and secure, having appropriate boundaries in terms of contact is critical to your own health and wellbeing.
Let’s be honest, these are conditions which he will have to manage his entire life. I would never suggest you shut out a person completely because they might relapse, or struggle, or fall down and need help in the future. That said, you are not equipped to assist him in the way that professionals can right now, and it is an act of love to safeguard your future relationship with him by availing him to the help of those who have the training and wisdom to really address his diseases and behavior.
As for a recipe, I have a suggestion for you and your kids: I want you to try to make a Baked Alaska together.
Baked Alaska isn’t difficult, per se, but it takes time and patience. It also requires that you do a bit of magic—you must place ice cream in an oven, and attempt not to melt it while putting a brûlée coating on a meringue. If this isn’t a metaphor for the relationship you are in—trying to keep something beautiful and intact while exposing it to conditions that are harsh and antithetical in nature—I don’t know what is.
The BBC has a terrific, chocolatey version of this classic which I think will dazzle you. For a posh, multi-ice cream version of this dessert based on the original one served at Delmonicos, go with Martha Stewart’s recipe. And if you want to start simple with a basic (but always delicious) vanilla version, where cake and ice cream marry like they are at a birthday party in your oven, check out this option from Allrecipes.
Best of luck with your brother. I wish you much peace and happiness (along with meringue-coated ice cream) in your future.