My uncle is slowly killing himself -- and dragging us down

I'm stuck in a fateful spiral like something in a Faulkner novel

Published June 20, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I can't say how glad I am to see your byline again after such a serious illness. I hope you're taking the return to work just a bit more slowly than you think you can stand — don't let us letter writers use up all the energy you need to heal!

With that said, I'm hoping you can help me help my family stay together after my uncle finishes the process of self-destruction he has dedicated himself to for the past 40 years. I suppose in an average family, one in which the parents were not alcoholics, one in which the mother did not commit suicide at 52, one in which the father was able to survive his wife's death by more than four years, the daughter — my mother — might have been able to stand up to her brother without feeling she had broken her promise to take care of him.

Perhaps she wouldn't have called her daughters in tears, over and over, about him and his disregard for her property, her reputation in the neighborhood, and her marriage. Perhaps the cycle would have been broken by her refusal to participate in it, or instead of breaking his promises, he would have stopped collecting broken-down cars and parking them closer and closer to her; he would have paid rent, or at least utilities, for his use of the property; he would at least have given the mange treatments and vitamins to the dog he couldn't take to the vet himself, leaving his sister to watch the veterinarian use his hands to read the story of the Chihuahua's broken teeth and mysterious back fractures. He would have cleared up the area around his motor home, washed his piles of untreated laundry, gotten mouse traps, stopped dumping his sewage tanks in the creek behind her home.

Perhaps he would have made it possible for her to talk about his drinking and abuse of prescription narcotics, to express her support, suggest a treatment program, do something about it without fearing his anger and insanity. In this imaginary family, when he sat at the table and made sparkling conversation on holidays, or when he charmed her friends with tales of his latest trip to an exotic locale, his niece could be full of admiration every year, never going through the disillusionment of knowing he would never change and that her mother would never stop tearing herself apart expecting him to do so.

Our family not being this average family, my uncle continues to use and drink, has never stopped taking emotional and financial advantage of my mother, and he has just had his second heart attack since March. His uncontrolled diabetes has damaged his foot, which is now infected with MRSA, and it looks like there is finally nothing she can do to prevent him from killing himself this time. He always threatened suicide in a roundabout way whenever she tried to make him leave her property (he came for a visit in the late 1980s and got sucked into the family web of enabling and abuse). Somehow it got written into their relationship that his job was to destroy himself, and her job was to do everything possible to stop him from doing that, often at great personal cost. She is already devastated, and of course she will be after his death, and she will probably want to continue to call and lament with me for hours at a time about this sad loss.

My question is, I've always resisted her attempts to make me pretend he is a father figure to me (she used to nag me about sending him a Father's Day card), but what can I do to help them heal once he is gone? There's no longer any benefit to me in refusing to play the family game, but I'm strangely attached to my role as the "Don't let him take advantage of you, and you'll both be healthier" jerk in the family. Would it be better for me to act like my sister? When Code Enforcement laid down the law about the abandoned vehicles, cargo container and general litter on my parents' property, she offered to take my uncle in, which we all know would have been a 30-year commitment, even though all of the junk was his and would probably come with him. Sometimes I feel like we're living in a Faulkner novel. Are we?

Well, hopefully you can show me the way forward so that we don't end up hating each other. ("Dad" is likely to say some pretty uncharitable, but true, things, and I'll be willing to bite my tongue if it helps everyone hang on.)

Thanks for your help and good luck with this one!

Anse Bundren's Niece

Dear Niece,

"I'm strangely attached to my role," you say. And that, I would say, is the place for you to start unraveling the knotted ropes that bind you.

No matter the circumstance and history, no matter the right and wrong of it, no matter the promises made: You are more important than this postage stamp of land you come from; your mission is larger, your spirit is fresher, your purpose here on earth far different from this collection of characters. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to become unattached to your role.

This means, in a sense, becoming naked; it means walking away from everything that clothes you in pity and self-denial, in self-righteousness and toughness, in being the knowing one, in being the one who broke the chain or led the family out of its chaos or rescued her mother. It means stepping out of the narrative, if you will. The narrative is powerful, but it is not everything. It is not the spirit. You have a mission apart from your involvement in this family. I suggest you turn your attention to your own personal mission.

I often suggest to people not that they change their lives wholesale but that they make small adjustments in emphasis. I do this because I have observed that change is a slow process. We are like huge ocean liners at cruising speed; we cannot turn on a dime. When we commit to making changes, we find many, many ongoing processes resist the change. We are like factories or cities; there is a lot going on behind the scenes. We meet resistance. We are like presidents who would like to decree and find their decrees obeyed. There are entrenched forces, committees, whole armies working silently against us when we decide to change. So it does not happen fast. So we begin by shifting our emphasis.

I suggest you shift your emphasis from what to do about your family, and how to do it, to what to do. Ask yourself what you want to do. Not what must be done or should be done but what do you want to do. What is it that's been nagging at you? And you might even ask yourself what great but daunting task or adventure you have been using your family to avoid. If your family went away, what would you do with your time? Find this thing, or if you know what it is already, then simply admit it to yourself wholeheartedly: This is the thing that gives me happiness and meaning! This is the thing I was put here to do!

Then do that thing. Accept the torment and brokenhearted outrage that your movement out of the stifling circle of family dependence will spark. Move out of this cycle of violent degradation. Accept that you cannot fix these people or change these people or rescue these people. Accept that life goes on. Find your path and walk it.

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By Cary Tennis

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