Enabling or Decency and Caring?

Kaypacha Pele says that this week’s mantra is:

“I feel that Life is upping the stakes,
Just to see what it will take,
To get me to stand up tall and straight.”

Oh, so very true! I’m in a difficult situation, one in which there is no real solution, no right way of dealing with problem, no wrong way. And the situation keeps escalating beyond anything I’ve ever had to deal with before. (I was going to say escalating beyond my power to deal with it, but that isn’t correct. I am dealing with it. Just don’t know what the right way is, or if there is a right way.)

In Applying the Lessons of Grief, I wrote about a homeless sibling who is depressed, possibly bi-polar, probably an alcoholic, verbally abusive, furious, manipulative, desperately needy, and relentless in pursuit those needs. (He’s also brilliant and exceedingly creative, and spent most of his life composing music and writing songs.) He has been living here for several months, and therein lies the problem since his anger now seems to be focused on me. (He thinks I have it easy looking after my father, and doesn’t see how stressful it is being torn between the two of them, as I have been my whole life.) If I could find out what he wanted, perhaps I could help, but he is cagy (paranoid is more like it) and talks around his needs. (He hates being a charity case, hates when people do things for him, and hates even more when people don’t.) He won’t go for treatment, blames everyone else for his problems, and doesn’t know how to take care of himself. Mostly, it seems as if he is lost inside a whirlwind of unfocused energy.

Although my father would like to invite him to live here, it’s not possible. My brother is restless, doesn’t sleep, is unable to stay still. He’d wander away in the middle of the night, leaving the front door wide open. He is a pack rat, surrounding himself with piles and piles and piles of trash, never shuts up, drinks constantly, all of which made my 97-year-old father a nervous wreck. And me, too, actually. When my brother stayed in the house, he used to come into my room every night and scream invectives at me (“porky pig” and “whore” are about the two nicest things he has ever said), because he thought I was working against him in his efforts to reconcile with our father.

For the last few months, he’s been camping out in the garage, which has seemed to be the best solution all around. My father could relax and go about his business of growing ever older and at the same time could be assured my brother was taken care of. Of course, that care fell on me. I’d make sure he had food, clean clothes, access to a shower, arranged for dental care and even made sure he kept the appointments. A couple of times when he was too crippled with sciatica to make his daily trek to the liquor store, I made the trip for him. (I can hear you screaming “enabler!” But it is not my place to decide when he is going to stop drinking.)

When he gets wound up in his whirlwind of unfocused energy, he becomes relentless in his need to be heard. He often knocks on my window at night, wanting to talk, and I used to answer the knock because . . . well, isn’t that something we all want? To be heard? Unfortunately, what he usually wanted to tell me is how fat, lazy, stupid and useless I am, living in a cocoon of ease that I don’t deserve. When I refuse to answer his knock, he bangs on the window every few minutes for hours. I’ve gotten used to it, and ignore it, though a couple of times the neighbors called the police. (I asked the police what they could do — they said they could arrest him. “Then what?” I asked. They said, “We let him go. If he comes back, we can arrest him again.” I asked, “Then what?” “We can arrest him again.” I said, “Then what?” “Arrest him.” Oh, yeah, like I want to spend the rest of my life caught in the hamster wheel of the justice system.)

It all came to a head yesterday. After a sleepless night due to his shenanigans, I went out to tell him I’d be gone most of the day (to keep him from disturbing my father with his endless pounding on my windows for attention) and found my car covered with invectives written in black marker. Some of the markings came clean with toothpaste (makes me wonder what it’s doing to our teeth if it’s such an all-purpose cleaner) but other markings didn’t come clean at all, not with Windex, Magic Eraser, isopropyl alcohol or any of the other possible solutions I found on the internet, so I painted over the words with acrylic paint. He was lying in his sleeping bag, laughing drunkenly at me while I was cleaning my car. I was so angry, I kicked him and kicked him again. (Not something I am proud of. I also almost strangled him once and slapped him another time. Never in my entire adult life have I lifted a hand to another human being, not even in self-defense, and yet somehow, he raises true homicidal tendencies in me.)

I cleaned my car, went to an exercise class, and at lunch afterward (well, we had to replace all those burnt calories, didn’t we?) I mentioned my problem. Later, I got a call from one of the women, a retired psychiatric nurse. She was kind, but pointed out that I was enabling him. That I had to call the police, get him out of here. At the very least, she told me I needed to start keeping a journal of his abuse. (I started last night.) She also suggested my leaving for a while or spending entire days or weekends away so that my father wouldn’t take me so much for granted. (He can still mostly take care of himself, so it’s not a problem if I leave.) Told me that I’m being torn between two puppet masters.

Oddly, hers wasn’t the only unsolicited advice I got yesterday.

A friend who is a holistic therapist with Buddhist leanings told me that there was no right or wrong. That if I kept helping my brother as a fellow human being, that was okay, just not to take his karma on myself.

An astrologer told me that according to my horoscope, I need to let go of being attached to a past dysfunctional emotional pattern or pain that began in childhood. (Oh, so true! One reason I am sympathetic to my brother is that I remember the bewildered boy and angry teen trying to deal with a my-way-or-the-highway father.)

A writer friend told me to keep a journal of what my brother does, and to write a book about it someday.

This is all so complicated. I do understand about enabling and tough love and all the rest of it, but where does one draw the line? It’s important to me to be decent and caring. It’s also important to me not to end up in prison for manslaughter. (How fitting that word is! The “mans laughter” was the final straw.)

I considered leaving and letting the two men fend for or fend off each other, but I am making friends here, have made various plans for the next couple of months, and am not yet ready to be homeless myself.

In the end, it was my own response to my brother’s abuse that turned something off inside of me. I can see that as a fellow human being, he deserves certain basics, such as cleanliness, so I told my father that from now on, if my brother wanted to take a shower, he was to come to the front door and ask. If he wanted food, he was to come to the front door and ask. Since this is my father’s house, it is up to him to allow my brother access or not. I don’t want to have anything to do with my brother any more. While I might be sympathetic to his plight, he made choices that I never did. (We both knew from a young age that we inherited a tendency toward alcoholism and substance dependency. I stayed away from both; he ran toward them with open arms.)

Life. Such a strange thing it is. I hope I am standing up tall and straight.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

33 Responses to “Enabling or Decency and Caring?”

  1. Paula Kaye Says:

    Oh My Goodness. The burdens that we all carry with us everyday. I have a drug addict son that we finally just gave up on and he quit coming around. I blame myself even though I know I am not to blame. Tough love is tougher on the lover for sure. I guess, as you said, it is your father’s choice. I offer you my thoughts in your efforts. It sucks!

  2. Coco Ihle Says:

    Pat, you’re a stronger, sweeter, person than I. I really don’t think I could handle what you have had to. Bless you. You are in my prayers!

  3. Joy Collins Says:

    Pat, I have to agree with the psychiatric nurse. Maybe because I am one myself but also because I think it’s the right answer. Your brother is ill. He is also abusive and a danger to himself and others. He belongs away in a safe place – safe for himself and others. When you place restrictions on his behavior – like telling him he needs to come to the front door – he might respond with anger – or worse. He has already destroyed property. He might take it to the next level. This is more than just a philosophical cause for thought and musing. It is now cause for action. He might be bipolar. He might also be schizophrenic. He has the added problem of substance abuse. He needs to go. I would call the police and have them arrest him and hopefully have him evaluated and committed. You can’t be everyone’s caretaker. It’s time you were your own caretaker. You deserve better than this. The only one you should be enabling is yourself.

    • 22pamela Says:

      What Joy said….plus tons more. Two major words of wisdom 1) Turn this into a novel…and 2) Keep putting on your own oxygen mask first. You can’t take care of your Dad or your brother until you take care of yourself first. Exercise and luncheons are definitely moving in the right direction. Peace to you, your house and all you care for.

  4. Eleanor Anders Says:

    Sending prayers for all.

  5. Juliet Waldron Says:

    Oh, Pat! Another resounding vote for what Joy said! You are both good and great–and you too are talented! YOU have a right to a real life, a life in which you care for yourself. It’s time to stop carrying the cross that is your male relatives.

  6. leesis Says:

    What I love about your writing Pat is your honesty. Its such a painful thing to watch people doing themselves in. And more it can be so hard in that they can bring out parts of ourselves that we aren’t particularly fond of and that can make us even madder. Your right it’s so darn complicated and judgements about enabling are…well, judgements and I reckon judgements suck. I don’t think there are any rights and wrongs here. You hang in there, indeed being as decent as caring as you can, until you can’t anymore. xx

  7. writecrites Says:

    I am in total agreement with Joy and the psychiatric nurse. There are very real (bad) health consequences for you if you don’t eliminate this extreme stress in your life. Stress can make you ill, sometimes seriously. You might be able to handle it now, but your body is feeling the effects whether you know it or not. And truly, while you are letting yourself be abused, you’re not really helping your brother cope with his problems. Commitment to a psych hospital would be more merciful even if it means a trip to jail to start the process.

  8. Pat Bertram Says:

    Thank you all for your caring words of wisdom. I will take what you say into consideration. As of now, it’s not possible to get him committed — he would need to do it himself. As for calling the police — I know people with mental problems who got stuck in the penal system because there was no place else for them, and that isn’t an option I can live with. To be fair about the vandalism to my car, he thought the marker would be easy to remove — he didn’t intend it to be permanent. So far, he’s sticking by my rules. I’m monitoring the situation, and at the same time, spending more time taking care of myself. I’m doing a lot of physical things such as hikes and exercise classes, doing fun things like going to shows and luncheons, And of course, blogging. It still is the best stress reliever I know, besides garnering much support and advice. Thank you.

  9. mickeyhoffman Says:

    Your story worries me. So here’s my advice:
    The aggression can easily escalate. He will keep doing what he’s doing as long as he’s rewarded for it. The rewards don’t have to be logical to us, they only have to satisfy something inside your brother. One big reward is the attention he is getting. Why else knock on your window?
    He’s getting attention from you through negative behavior. He probably learned that years and years ago. Now it’s either all he knows or the only thing that gives him rewards in his brain. Having worked with people with mental issues, I can tell you they’re just as manipulative as anyone else.
    It is possible if he got positive attention, he wouldn’t be so negative. But he’s got entrenched habits now. At his age, it is likely he won’t ever change and will never cooperate with anything you try to do for him. I agree the justice system isn’t good for people with mental issues. But it’s also true many of the homeless today would have been in mental institutions several years ago. Is he really happy in his “freedom”? Are you happy? And are you safe? Or are you just letting him run you?
    I would contact someone with social services or in an outreach program and discuss your options with people who deal with this type of thing. I’m sure there are lots of people in similar situations.
    If you need to run away for a few days you can drive up here.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Of course — I should have made the connection. In my family, it was only when someone misbehaved that they got attention. Good behavior was never rewarded with attention or anything else. I’m actually the one who should be nuts. I often got punished for doing nothing but reading because usually I was the only one in the house when my parents discovered something one of my brothers had done.

      I do know he won’t change. It’s me I’m trying to change. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life dealing with past issues. When I leave here, for whatever reason, I want to be done with the past. The future will be uncertain as it is, and I need to be strong to deal with it.

      My father is just as much to blame for the current situation as my brother. He always escalates the situation, and then threatens to call the police. Cripes. I really should run away.

      • Joy Collins Says:

        Think of it as standing up for yourself, not running away. It’s claiming your life for you. Let your father and your brother do their dance. It works for them. But you don’t have to play. You’re not a helpless child any more. You are Pat, adult and strong. Be good to you. Be your best advocate. Give up the old script. Write your own.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          That’s why I’m here. Not for them — for me. To learn how not to play their game. If I feel unsafe, I’ll leave. But the truth is, I am learning. I’m finally separating myself from both of them and their manipulations. To be honest, I’m just fed up with them. I know neither of them will change. They will continue their pattern of mutual disfunction for the rest of their lives. Each will also continue to play on my sympathies and try to get me on his side. I’m through taking sides. I have other things to do instead of pandering to their selfishness. Never once in all these years have either of them ever given a thought to me and how their actions have affected me.

          I feel good, actually.

      • mickeyhoffman Says:

        I think you should play Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”

      • mickeyhoffman Says:

        Listen to Bob Dylan’s song, “Maggie’s Farm.”

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          I like that!

          Well, I try my best
          To be just like I am
          But everybody wants you
          To be just like them
          They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
          I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

  10. mickeyhoffman Says:

    PS, I think he knew the marker wouldn’t come off the car. He wanted to hurt you and if it washed off, there would have been no point.

    • Joy Collins Says:

      I am in total agreement with Mickey. This is a classic abusive situation with mental illness superimposed. The fact that you think you can control the situation just reinforces that. Don’t all abuse victims think they can control the abuser’s behavior “if only…”. We can’t make you do anything, of course, but we can point out from our uninvolved position that this is not a good situation, and may, in fact, be downright dangerous. Despite his mental illness, your brother knows exactly what he is doing and it’s working for him. Otherwise, he wouldn’t do it. I strongly urge you to see assistance from whatever social services or mental health agencies are available in your area. You owe it to yourself and your father to protect yourselves – and your brother deserves some help. How do you know he can’t be committed? And even if he can’t, he can be removed. Knocking on windows in the middle of the night, destroying property – this is only going to get worse. How many horror stories have we all heard about family members snapping and doing harm? I have been in psychiatry for over 40 years, Pat. This is not a good situation and I worry about you being in this position. You need some peace right now.

      • Pat Bertram Says:

        There’s nothing to commit him for except alcoholism. He spent seven months in jail and underwent all sorts of evaluations. They didn’t see any reason to commit him.

  11. Carol Wuenschell Says:

    It’s impossible after reading something like this to click a button that says “like.” But I want you to know that I did read it and that my heart goes out to you. The difference between helping and enabling often isn’t clear-cut and people on the outside aren’t always well equipped to see that. Substance abusers are often trying to self-medicate. I don’t doubt that your brother is suffering, but you are too because of him. You didn’t make this problem, and you don’t know how to fix it. Neither do I. It may not be fixable. The limit for you, though, has to be your limit – what you can bear or are willing to bear. Nothing else is fair to you.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Good point about substance abusers trying to self-medicate. i know he does. And an even better point about my not making this problem. It’s been a major influence in my life, and it’s not until recently that I realized the truth — I did not make this problem, and though I wish it were different, there is nothing I can do to fix it.

  12. Thank You | Bertram's Blog Says:

    […] Enabling or Decency and Caring? […]

  13. Malcolm R. Campbell Says:

    The journal provides documentation–for what I’m not sure. Asking your father to let your brother in and out by the front door might provide control while (possibly) demonstrating parts of the problem your father doesn’t see clearly when you are stuck with every part of it. Can you get a good night’s sleep by staying at a nearby motel/hotel once in a while? Is it possible that the very reactions (surprise, anger, certain verbal responses) he gets from you are the very one’s he trying to get? If so, maybe you surprise him with something else. Some would say, show no emotion when he’s “bad” and show positive emotions when he’s “good,” but that’s such a slow process and it still keeps you in the middle of it. I’m sorry I missed this post when you wrote it. It’s both a mess and a frightening situation, especially when one has to wonder with every thing that happens what it’s all leading to.


    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Malcolm, You make a good point about my giving him the reactions he wants. I just haven’t yet found a reaction that defuses him (if it’s even possible).

      I really don’t know what the situation is leading to. I have a hunch my brother is here on a “death watch.” With his lifestyle, there is a good chance that my father could die and he wouldn’t find out until long afterward, and so he wants to be where he could be notified.

      As for letting my brother in the front door, my father already ruined that idea. He told my brother not to come to the door — he’s punishing him for . . . I’m not even sure what. Maybe knocking on my window that night. Or maybe interrupting his prayers. So we’re back to me letting him in to take a shower.

  14. Carol Says:

    Like Malcolm, I missed this when you first posted it. Having had a sociopathic adopted daughter who manipulated everyone around her for her own purposes, I learned a hard lesson. I didn’t have to do anything to be an enabler. Doing nothing made me one. Doing nothing just about ruined my life, too, until I finally acted.

    You can’t change your brother or your father, but you have the ability to change how the situation affects you. It’s your right to do nothing if that’s what you choose but it could have a very negative outcome so I hope that’s not the choice you make.


    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Carol, I still don’t know what I’m going to do. I appreciate your telling me your story. It helps knowing that sometimes it’s necessary to act even when we don’t want to.

  15. Charlotte M. Liebel / @Sharliebel Says:

    Pat, Only caught your ‘Thank You’ message late today. You’ve received such excellent advice about moving-on for reasons of safety, well-being, and counseling for your brother. Because of your strength and your feelings of support for your family, you know what you ‘should’ do but the guilt of walking away has a tendency to eat at a person of conscience like you. Make a plan for this time next year and it will happen.

    I’ve lived through numerous demanding experiences, which taught me to eat-my-heart-out because nothing would change. It all starts when we’re very young. And without a mature adviser to guide us, the errors become ingrained until the child becomes a ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ Some feelings we learned were unintentional. With sweetness, my little brother cried to my mother that he didn’t understand how to study. Immediately, I felt ’empowered’ to ‘ask for my needs’ because I needed help, too. Poor woman had a night job, housework, and was doing an art project for extra money. What I learned was to do the best I could without support. My ‘power’ was snuffed.

    It was when I walked out to reconnect with myself that I attended college, earned degrees, and began to see that life could change, even after a lifeless marriage. That’s not to say that all went smoothly, immediately.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      All the pieces of the puzzle seem to be coming together. We never had support growing up, so I learned to do the best I could on my own until I met Jeff (my now deceased life mate/soul mate). And now I am on my own again, trying to do the best for everyone.

      I like your idea of making a plan for next year. Makes more sense than trying to do it all immediately.

      Thank you.

  16. All Is Calm, All Is Bright | Bertram's Blog Says:

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  17. Narcisstic Rage | Bertram's Blog Says:

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  18. lvgaudet Says:

    Such a tough place to be in. I don’t evy you. How do you choose between what you must do for yourself and feel like you are letting everyone else down, or letting yourself down perhaps in order to help those you feel you cannot abandon?

    It sounds like he is suffering from his own childhood problems, that big grizzly bear in the room that nobody wants to touch yet touches those who have not been able to escape them. Jealousy, perhaps he’s always seen you as favored above him in your father’s eyes. Jealousy that you seen to be doing so much better than he sees himself doing, and maybe it’s always been that way.

    At the same time it sounds like he’s stuck between mental health problems and trying to escape them through alcohol, both of which are probably feeding his anger, jealousy, and resentment.

    I think you have taken the right stance in deciding you will no longer accept responsibility for what you cannot control. It is your father’s house and his to say whether or ot he’ll allow your brother.

    But I worry for you. Your brother sounds volatile and filled with so much anger. Anger and alcohol make an ugly pair without the possible mental health issues. Look after yourself first, because if you don’t you can’t look after your father, and who knows just where your brother’s breaking point is where verbal attacks and attacks against your property can become a physical attack on you. Keep safe.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      There are some wonderful things in my life that help offset the horror, which makes it all very strange. I don’t think my brother is violent, but rather incites violence in others. There have been a few times I would have liked to throttle him or beat him, but the odd thing is, that as soon as I left his presence, so did my homicidal urges.

      I appreciate your concern. It is a difficult situation, but I am hoping what I am learning will help me become the person I need/want to be.

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