#776: “How do I help my recovering friend navigate a visit with his abusive family?”

Hi Captain

My best friend, “Toby” has been living in my city for about a year now and over that time he’s gone from being homeless and alcoholic to having a sweet flat and ten months of sobriety under his belt. I’m trying to be as engaged in his recovery and support as possible because he doesn’t really have much of a support network around him – the mental health system in this country is a joke and he hasn’t ever received the help he really needs for his STPD, anxiety disorders, alcoholism and BPD, he has only a few other friends in town none of which he knows as well as me and his other closest friend and sister live across the country and overseas, respectively.

He and his sister “Jackie” were raised in a horribly abusive household – less violent than psychological, verbal and financial – rich parents who had children for appearances and ignored them to the point of neglect when they weren’t belittling them or loudly expressing their anger at both children being gay, as well as things such as encouraging the eating disorder that has been dominating his life for a long time and having family pets put down once they began to bond with the kids. Jackie bore the brunt of the abuse and has not talked to them for years and has been written out of their will etc, but Toby was the preferred kid and despite being loudly and aggressively disowned by them last year still says he hasn’t made up his mind about them and brings up things like “well, they bought me a car, so they must love me”.

He’s currently in a psych ward on a short stay and got a call from his parents out of the blue. They want him to come up to his hometown to stay with them for a week next month (with the potential to stay longer) and seem to think that they can play happy families and ignore both a lifetime of abuse and a year of no contact despite hearing second hand about his homelessness (during which time the mother volunteered for the Salvation Army and refused to contact him), alcoholism and a near-death experience at the beginning of the year. During that time they were telling the rest of the family to never mention the fact that they had children and had changed all their phone numbers so Toby and Jackie could not contact them. Now they say that they have changed their names and have distanced themselves from the rest of the family and want to make amends – though their phone call contained no outright apologies and skimmed over the major problems in their relationship with Toby and Jackie.

Recently I was with Toby when he ran into his uncle (his mother’s brother) in a store so we think they may have heard about that from him. He is considering going up to visit but I’m not sure what their motivations are and I’m very worried. These people have shown themselves to have only his worst interests at heart and I’m not sure anyone else other than me is in a good position to give him advice or keep an eye on what happens. He recently got out of a very physically and mentally abusive relationship as well and I’m worried that he will transfer his dependence back to his parents which will undermine his recovery and – generally – stable mental health.

I’d like to give him some scripts to take to his parents once he is up there because we both at least agree that they shouldn’t be allowed to to treat the visit as a Fun Family Getaway if he takes their offer of a plane ticket.

– Worried and suspicious

Dear Worried and Suspicious:

This is for Toby:

Dear Toby,

If you want to visit your family, then you are the only one who can make that decision. Your friend the LW and I can be all “BAD IDEA JEANS!” and throw ourselves in front of you in slow motion saying “nooooooooooooooooo this is not the tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime,” but don’t beat yourself up for having an open heart and wanting love and a place in your family, even if it seems impossible, even if it is impossible. If being back in touch with them is a mistake, you’ll figure it out quickly enough. You have all the information that you need to make a good decision about how to handle your family. You’ve survived everything they’ve ever thrown at you or withheld from you, and you will survive them again if you need to.

EDITED TO ADD: Planes, roads, and phones work both ways and your parents could come visit YOU instead of summoning you home to their turf on their terms. Think about it. [/edit]

From what your friend tells me, I think you know that your parents are unlikely to give you an apology for how they’ve treated you and you are unlikely to have any kind of real accountability or reconciliation. It is very difficult to call people who have abused you to account, because their narcissism (or whatever the hell is going on) prevents them from seeing themselves as the bad guy in any situation and their highly selective memories will remember everything you did wrong with complete clarity while deleting their own bad behavior entirely from the record. You come ready to finally hash out all The Stuff and they act like The Stuff literally never happened and that you are crazy/too sensitive/vindictive/evil/petty/unreliable for thinking that it did. Gaslighting like this can make you feel even worse than a visit where they pretend not to be assholes, and if you are already feeling vulnerable it can be devastating. A fake pretend Fun Family Getaway might be a slightly preferable first step toward Family Glasnost than using this trip to sort out all The Stuff.

My hope is that you’ll your expectations low and not take your cue from movies where dysfunctional families work it all out in some big dramatic scene with hugging and crying and speechifying. Look at the Peanuts comics where Lucy yanks the football away from Charlie Brown if you need a visual “keep your expectations low” reminder. Above all, remember, you are not the one who needs to be forgiven right now. You are not the one who needs to make amends for homophobia, for abuse, for neglect, or for cutting off contact and expressing public shame about you and your life. If your parents behave badly, it is not about you, and you didn’t cause it. Maybe your mantra can be “I am responsible for me and what I do, and I know that I am living with as much integrity and grace as I can in a difficult situation. I am not responsible for them and what they do.” Sometimes being able to know that you tried your very best and gave people every chance to rise to the occasion is a powerful tool in finding peace and closure with a difficult situation.

If you do visit, stay in a hotel/AirBnB or with nice, trusted friends or relatives or friends to give yourself a little distance and privacy. See your parents in smaller doses. Consider driving instead of flying, or consider renting a car when you are there if that is possible so that you always, always have your own escape route and can’t be stranded. Also, if you do a 12-step program for addiction, I think it’s important to find a meeting nearby and to go every day (and even more often than that, if you need to) so that you can be among people who aren’t your folks and to get frequent support and reality checks. Always keep your cell phone charged and with you, plan breaks where you get out of the house for solo time (running errands, taking walks) and some privacy to check in with your sister/friends/sponsor/counselor. I’m told the forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com sometimes have threads for peer support and recovering addicts and abuse survivors, so check in there from time to time if you need a sanity check or some kindness from strangers.

There is a non-zero risk that your parents will try to use the visit to have some weird intervention and/or forcibly check you back into a hospital or rehab facility or otherwise try to control your life. If your parents tell you that they want to “help”, it more than okay to ask for the kind of help you actually want and need and to reject “help” that doesn’t meet your needs. It’s also okay to say, “I don’t want help from you, I just want to spend a little time with you.” Struggling in some areas of your life doesn’t mean you have to automatically accept the role of lost sheep who needs help.

For example, if your folks offer you any ‘help’ that carries a condition of coming back under their roof and their control or if they try to persuade you to sign anything or do anything or agree to anything, be very, very skeptical, ask for time to think, and NOPE THE HELL OUT of there if you start to feel unsafe. Scripts could be “Thank you, I’ll think about what you said” or “Thank you, can I think about it and let you know?” or “Thank you, let me have my lawyer look at it/let me talk it over with my counselor/friend” or “Thanks, let me go back home and think it over. When do I need to let you know?” If they challenge you on this, like, Why would you need time to think? or What is there to think about? or Don’t you trust us? or Come on, no need for that, we’re family, that is bad. If your request for time and outside review unleashes a recitation of your perceived failings and wrongs or threats of consequences, be afraid. You have a right to think about big decisions at your own pace. Someone with your best interests at heart would want you to take your time and to have whatever advice and support you need.

Try to remember that your parents had the opportunity to be a kind and positive part of your life and that they *often,* *repeatedly,* made different choices. Please don’t ever assume that their money and age and fancy house or status as parents means that they know what’s best for you or that they can tell you anything about your current life. You are the boss of your own life, and you deserve credit for the way you’ve taken care of yourself and turned your life around. You’ve been able to be sober for an incredible 10 months (congratulations!), you’ve escaped from a bad relationship recently (that is so hard to do, and you did it!), you’ve found a good place to live (how fortunate!), and you have a caring friend in the LW and in others who love and support and value you. You are healing, so above all be very kind and gentle with yourself and do things at your own pace.

Letter Writer, this is for you.

You can’t save Toby or fix this for him. You can love him, you can be his friend, but you can’t save him. Your love can’t prevent a relapse in his sobriety, it can’t prevent unhealthy family and relationship dynamics, it can’t save him from abusive people. If visiting his parents is a mistake, then it will be his mistake. If he is going to relapse, then it is his relapse, and there is nothing you can do or could have done to prevent it.

I say this because when I read sentences like “I’m trying to be as engaged in his recovery and support as possible…” and I’m not sure anyone else other than me is in a good position to give him advice or keep an eye on what happens,” that may be true, but it’s revealing of how much of your well-being and identity has been invested in helping Toby. In addition, hearing that you’re “the only one who understands” or “the one totally indispensable person who gets it and always comes through” can feel good when it’s someone you love and even provide an ego boost, like, “I have my shit together enough that I can help my friends out and I am being a good friend, go me!” It can also be a red flag for dependency or codependency if it’s a self-designation or a role that you become attached to because if you are always the helper than something must always be wrong for you to feel/be important and that can get really fucked up over time. If Toby were to say “I don’t know what I’d do without you” or “You’re the only one I can count on” that’s a heartfelt and wonderful thing to express in terms of gratitude, but on another level, it’s not *really* a compliment as much as it is a statement of need. In my opinion, some healthy answers to “You’re the only one” or “I super-need you above all others” or “What would I do without you?” statements from Toby are:

  • “Well, I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re a great friend!”
  • “I’m so glad you moved closer to me and that I get to see you all the time now.”
  • “Fortunately you live here now so we don’t have to find out! You would figure it out, though. I believe in you.”
  • “I am rich in friends, and so are you. We’re lucky to have each other.”
  • “Plus I’m freaking delightful and gorgeous, as are you. Let’s take a walk outside so that other people can envy us.”

In other words, affirm your affection for him vs. the role of #1 helper.

Please also make sure that you are taking care of yourself and that you are giving and receiving love and support and attention and time from other friends. Please make sure that you are caring for your own housing situation, your own job/career/education situation, your own family relationships, your own romantic life (if that’s a thing you care about), and your own health. Crisis/Caregiver Fatigue is a thing, it’s especially a thing with addiction and recovery, it’s still a thing even if the person you are helping is lovely and wonderful and doing the very best they can. If this whole thing with Toby’s family turns into the shitshow that you fear, I don’t want your life to go sideways if the wheels come out from under his for a while.

You probably deserve a ton of credit for how well Toby is doing right now, and Toby probably legit needs a shitload of all kinds of help and has benefited greatly from your support all this time as he goes through truly hard stuff. As you transition out of crisis management mode (hopefully) and into friend maintenance mode (hopefully!), it’s important that your conversations with Toby don’t immediately become “You poor thing! How can I help?” conversations and also that you don’t cast yourself as an authority on his life…even if you think you know better…even if he is fragile and not making great decisions or is too close to the situation and you actually do (objectively speaking) know better…even if it his expectation that you will immediately offer help and that is the established habit of your dynamic together.

Furthermore, if he makes a decision about his life that you think is unwise or unsafe, it’s going to be essential to your well-being and to your friendship that you NOT take it personally. For an empath like yourself that is going to be the hardest thing in the world and it’s why helping professionals a) go through years of training b) are available for small, scheduled sessions with set beginning and end times and c) have mentoring and peer support so that they can offload their own feelings somewhere that’s safe to the patient. Toby is your friend, not your patient or your child or your ward, and even if you have the proper training you would be ethically prohibited from being his [insert chosen variation of social worker/helping professional]. You can be totally right, he can make the wrong decision, and it’s still not your job to prevent it or fix it or your responsibility to convince him otherwise or put his pieces back together. Some other scripts for you in speaking with Toby might be:

  • “Your parents, really? What do you think you’ll do?”
  • “That sounds like a terrible idea to me based on what you’ve told me, but you can handle it.”
  • “How do you want to handle it?”
  • “It sounds like you are handling this beautifully.”
  • “I hope the visit is everything you want it to be. If you need me, I’m a text or a phone call away.”
  • “What do you think/how do you feel about [their offer][that plan you are thinking about][your next steps]?”
  • “Wanna run through the Escape Plan again? Does Shaking The Dust Of This Godforsaken Town From Your Feet come before or after hiring the skywriter to scrawl ‘EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT SHITTY PARENTS YOU ARE, FIRSTNAMES LASTNAMES” across the sky above their house?”
  • “That was unexpected. Do you think it’s sincere?”
  • “That escalated quickly. What do you want to do?”
  • “That could have gone better, but it could have gone worse. How are you holding up?”
  • “That sucks. Are you able to go to a meeting today?”
  • “That sucks. What does your counselor/doctor/therapist/sponsor say?”
  • “That sucks. What do you think you’ll do?”
  • “Do you want my opinion/advice, or do you just need to vent?”
  • “Wow, that sucks. Do you want to talk about it?”
  • That is not the choice I would make in your shoes, but what I think isn’t important. What do you think/want/feel?”
  • “Now is not a good time for me to talk. Can I text you tomorrow/later?”
  • “I’m in the middle of something. What’s a good time to call you back?”
  • “Wow, stressful. My day was also a doozy, let me tell you about it!”

Yep, you read those last couple of scripts right. The comfort in-dump out principle applies, especially just now when your friend is in hospital, but a stable, reciprocal friendship sometimes means that you sometimes ask Toby for things that you need, within reason. “I’m happy to make those phone calls for you about your [thing you need]. Can we Skype on Saturday and you can help me choose a Halloween costume?” When friends are down, we sometimes worry about over-burdening them, but being asked to contribute can feel really good and remind your friends how much they are valued. I know that when my boyfriend got out of the psych hospital, he needed support and love, and he also needed to not be treated like a patient.

All love to you and to Toby. May his family take a break from sucking so very hard, may his recovery continue, and may your friendship transition beautifully.

My self-care today involves saying “no” to involved comment moderation, so, no comments this time.