My experience with dishing out different shades of tough love the last fourteen years has not always been productive. I have made so many mistakes. I have gotten it wrong time and time and time again.
My resume as an enabler is expansive and reaches the darkest parts of my personality. My propensity to honor the codependent that lives in me is a force to be reckoned with. I can easily form dysfunctional relationships with people who have very real needs, leaving my own sanity trailing behind me, struggling to keep up with my rationale.
It was one thing to accept the tough love that was shown to me during the hardest time in my own life, but it is another to be faced with whether or not to give that kind of ‘love’ away to someone else.
When it comes to my little brother I tend to be territorial and protective. It took a very long time to work my way up to a place where ‘tough love’ was even a considerable option. It wasn’t my number one pick. I spent years tirelessly working to reduce his stress levels in any way that I could manage, hoping to ease his urge to escape his reality. I made phone calls. I set up appointments, called treatment centers, picked him up from prison, dropped off food, gave clothes, and other things that I was more than happy to do. He doesn’t owe me for any of that stuff. That was my way of showing him that I love him. As his condition worsened his treatment of me did as well, as it typically does to the people closest to us when we are self-destructing. Our relationship went from imbalanced to dangerous and I felt like I had no choice but to hang up my Big Sister hat for a while.
Two years is a long while.
I went into the realm of tough love and enforcing harsh boundaries completely blind. It absolutely KILLED me to hear updates about his situation and not respond. I worried and cried and stressed myself into migraine alley a dozen times.
I felt so much anger toward the family members who spent their time gossiping, judging my decision and criticizing me, accusing me of being cruel, too good, or cold-hearted without even considering that the decision I had to make was not done lightly.
Following through with no contact never felt natural or easy for one second.
Last week my brother found himself sleeping outside. After two years of not seeing him or speaking to him, I made the decision to see if adjusting my boundaries could be an option. I felt an overwhelming pull to do something. I knew he was out there walking around in a neighboring city close to where I live so I drove around the area for two hours. I stopped at every single gas station along the highway. I checked behind dumpsters and buildings, inside storefronts, and checked the sidewalks and bus stops. I didn’t care if I hadn’t seen him in two years and I hoped he wouldn’t either. I was determined to get him to a shelter or into my van for a while. I didn’t have a plan and I had no idea what I was going to say if I did find him, besides ‘Get in the van, sucka.’ The second I stepped outside I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. The temperature here in Missouri dropped down to below freezing and some nights the wind chill sent what it feels like outside into negative numbers. It was so cold you could feel it in your throat when you inhaled the frigid air. I stopped several other people walking along the roadside wearing masks to shield their face from the weather. I couldn’t find him. That day and I went home feeling defeated. I did the only useful thing that I knew to do and I prayed for him. I added him to every single prayer list I knew of and asked everyone in my life to join with me in praying for his life.
Tough love is not something that I am good at but I have concluded that it did help me to reestablish boundaries I let blur into nonexistence. It was a good way to reset our relationship and I think he and I needed that.
I saw him face to face last week for the first time in two years. I got to hug him and look into his eyes. We had a short conversation and I took that time as an opportunity to tell him unequivocally that I am not in any way ashamed of him. I had told myself that if I saw him again I was going to tell him the important things. I told him that there is nothing that he has done that could change how much I love him and that he was important and that he matters. I told him that I talk to people every single day who have been where he is who have slowly been able to build a new life. I told him that there is hope and it’s there even when we can’t feel it yet and for the first time ever I was purposeful in holding back any lecturing whatsoever. I focused on what I would say to him if I didn’t ever see him again because that’s where we’re at. That is how far down his alcoholism has dragged him. Both of our eyes welled with tears as we spoke and he didn’t say much other than that he is just really tired.
I feel a thousand times better knowing that he knows how I really feel. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring but I feel peace knowing that I shared how I really feel about him.
If there is a lesson in this tough love thing for me it is that maybe it’s not for every personality. The tough love approach worked for me when I was at my lowest, but it might not work for everyone. Also that I might not be a tough love giving kind of person. Maybe for me, this can serve as a lesson about learning to be more bold and courageous in regard to clarity and balance. It’s okay that I don’t cut people off like they don’t exist, leaving my heart in excruciating, throbbing pain and my mind in a constant state of limbo. I am not capable of that. I have learned that it is okay to be less rigid and more welcoming to adjustment. Speaking the clear truth in love holds a lot of weight. It is scary to do sometimes. There is a chance of being shut-out or rejected, but from my experience, it is easier to do than other alternatives.
So just for today, I am beyond grateful that my brother is alive and is even showing signs of optimism. From now on I am going to try to apologize faster than usual. If I want someone in my life I will tell them without worrying about how they will respond. I am going to let fear have less control in 2018. Life is too short not to speak up or to stand up or to own up.
Please continue praying for his strength, and pray that he does not believe the lies that scream he is less than or too far gone or not worth the work. Please pray that our family as a whole can come together for him and that none of us shame or condemn him, as he is already doing enough of that to himself. I am more than confident that he is going to kick alcoholism’s ass and that he will have a brilliant testimony to share with other people someday. I believe in miracles.