Have you ever felt helpless trying to help a loved one?
We know the stories: the alcoholic mother/brother/friend who keeps getting in trouble. The father who has been borrowing money from his adult children with the intent to pay it back but never following through. The troubled teenager whose antics torment their family, keeping them up at night. The friend who won’t leave her abusive relationship. The depressive sister who can’t get out of her rut.
And you: the siblings, the parents, the partners, the friends alternating between helplessness, anger, resentment, mistrust, and the power of our own denial. If I just give them one more chance, maybe this will be the time they change. A parade of resourceful people continuously trying to help, sharing leads, bailing them out at ungodly hours of the night, pleading and threatening. We’re hopeful. We’re terrified. What if our loved ones do something to themselves if we don’t step in? Even if they’ve not engaged in suicidal tendencies, we fear their impulsivity. That fear grips us by the belly. Most of the time, we live in the I’m going to save you mode, but then comes the exasperation—if you want to waste your life, just do it.
Internally, the destructive loved one may feel weak and depleted, but interpersonally they wield so much power. They activate the entire system—their family and community—to try to get them out of their hole. It’s often a Sisyphean effort. For those of us attempting to help, every time we try to lift them, they defeat us. The more we overfunction; the more they underfunction. And, in the end, we are as stuck as they are.
“Your mother,” he told us, “has multiple sclerosis.” Whatever that was. I carried on with my day like any other on that trip, going swimming, having...