At the heart of this letter, I am asking you: What can you do when you've tried everything else? How can one meaningfully do nothing?
My sister is an abject alcoholic. She's a former social worker who knows the ins and outs of "the system" and thus is cleverer and more capable manipulating authorities than any of us. It's been about two years of absolute chaos and my parents' health is being affected. Her house was foreclosed on, she quit her job, she abandoned her daughter. And her ex-husband (who was abused for years before the final two years of total chaos) is finally moving on. She's also totaled cars, destroyed a family cabin in the woods that she would go to when all of her drinking buddies were fed up with her, and, oh, yes, SHE FAKED CANCER in order to manipulate and financially con the family. Our story would not be a believable Lifetime Movie of the Week because it's too bizarre.
Last night, she left the rehab facility that the family had scraped together what remaining funds we have to try to get her uninsured ass into (though it's a state-subsidized facility, so thankfully my parents didn't bankrupt themselves to get her admitted). She was picked up by her alcoholic friend who is also a licensed social worker and counselor, of all ironies. Suffice it to say that her friend is a particularly heinous woman, more of a functioning alcoholic than my now completely nonfunctioning sister.
The night before rehab my sister had drunk a box and a half of wine, and while in rehab she continually broke the rules and got other addicts to break the rules for her (such as calling us incessantly to bring over creature comforts) and apparently she charmed many of the other addicts to a degree that was concerning for the staff -- was she starting a cult? She is so manipulative and smart, she can charm other manipulative addicts! She is an evil genius -- and right now she's at that idyllic (though trashed) cabin in the woods.
What we've tried: Al-Anon and family therapy (though only a few sessions because they emphasized how much Al-Anon would help us, so we started going). Al-Anon wasn't particularly helpful; you've mentioned it whenever someone writes in about their alcoholic family members/friends, but it was very churchy and the fundamental message every time we went was "trust in God, give everything up to God" -- umm, we're non-theistic Unitarians. That "God provides" shit ain't flying with us.
The day we are dreading is when she shows up at one of our houses, via a taxi that needs to be paid because my parents' house is in the burbs, and demands to come in the house. Right now, the plan is to call my brother and have him (and maybe me) take her to a homeless shelter -- she cannot stay at any of our houses, that is our united front, but my parents have never been able to resist her before. We've decided that my mom can't answer the phone because she might cave, but my dad is only a teeny bit more capable of holding his resolve ... When she called to try to finesse the situation, we were luckily a couple of steps ahead of her because my parents had just returned from the rehab center where they were supposed to attend a family support meeting and that's when they were informed that she had checked herself out and left the previous evening. They were humiliated in front of the parents of other addicts, so when she did call to start to weave a new tapestry of bullshit, they knew that she wasn't "in the out-patient stage" like she purported.
There's one other dimension that I haven't mentioned (this letter is already too long, sorry!), but that is: Her biological father (and father of my brother) committed suicide. My mother has already had to live with the bullshit guilt of not being able to "save" her first husband, and now my sister may very well take her life (she certainly has threatened it enough if we didn't give her what she wanted). She reaps chaos and pain, and her death would reap more, so we've tried everything, but how do we essentially do nothing? I think nothing may be the only thing we haven't tried.
Lifetime Movie Extra
Dear Lifetime Movie Extra,
"How can one meaningfully do nothing?" you ask. One can meaningfully do nothing when one grasps the profound purpose and meaning of doing nothing. This may take some facility with paradox, or it may take an ability to make a leap of faith. But that is exactly what I believe: that one meaningfully does nothing once one grasps the profound purpose and meaning of "doing nothing."
One realizes that "doing nothing" is a lot like doing everything. One sees how activity and stillness merge. One intuits certain principles.
What you do when you've tried everything else is you realize that "everything" is wrong. There is no such thing as "everything." There is only the next thing. "Having tried everything" is a state of mind, a state of mental exhaustion and an error in thinking.
You have never tried everything. That is what we find through long experience. Even when we think we have tried everything and then with exhaustion and no hope of success we repeat what we tried six times already, and on the seventh time it works, we find that those six times were not repetitions. Each repetition was new. And on the seventh try of what we thought was the same thing, something was different. Because on the seventh time it worked.
What was different? Was it the moisture in the air? Was it our subject, miraculously improving in spite of us? Was it that our technique had progressively improved on each of the six previous tries, which then in retrospect can be viewed as rehearsals?
We live in mysterious time. I'm not saying we live in mysterious times. That is a cliché. No: Time itself, in which we live, is mysterious; its currents shift about us invisibly. We are in the mixing bowl, being stirred by something unknowable. A mix of atoms swirls like cake dough around us. We are in it. We are part of the recipe.
Dumb pride makes us think we know something. In a thousand years we will seem more primitive than the people we look back on a thousand years ago. Things are moving faster now than they were then. It will seem far stranger.
Remember when God was a given? No, you don't remember because we weren't living when God was a given. But we can imagine that in the Middle Ages when God was a given, God was seen as concretely as we now see the ocean or the ground we walk on. We assume the ocean and the ground we walk on are real. But that might turn out to be just as silly a fallacy as we now regard God to be.
Why are we so fixed in our view that what we know now is the sum of attainable knowledge?
You haven't done everything. You have done certain finite things. What you experience is the feeling of repeating things but the things you are doing are not repetitions. They are discrete moments in time. You will never have done everything. You will never repeat anything. Not even when you're dead will you have done everything. There is always more. All we do as humans is keep mastering the process. We keep aiming for another breath and hoping it comes. Is breathing boring because we seem to have done it a million times before? Is each breath now a boring repetition of the last one? Does our heart become bored with the endless repetition?
It's an arrogant error, this belief that things repeat. Nothing repeats. Everything is new. Everything occurs in the medium of time. The old hand in the river. The water we drink from the river. The place in the river that it flows by. Are we standing in one place when we stand by the river?
So what to do about your sister? Knowing what we know about how little you know, you can do all the professional and social and family things our culture allows us. You do these thing not because you are laboring under the illusion that they are solutions, but because they are rational responses. They are ongoing practices that mitigate certain effects of the pathology and create a statistically greater chance that you will encounter helpful people. You keep going because it's the only thing to do. You keep going to counseling. The experience of powerlessness deepens. You start to see things you didn't see the first time you went. You get over the discomfort and stop focusing on how stupid the idea of God is.
You stop focusing on everything that is wrong and realize that all your efforts to control your sister have come to nothing so maybe it's beyond your control so maybe you'd better just keep going to counseling and going to Al-Anon and all the rest of the things that don't seem to help one bit because you don't know what else to do and at least doing these things puts you in contact with others who may, one day, if only through happenstance, prove to be helpful -- if only by being there when something truly grave occurs. And something truly grave will occur eventually if nothing stops your sister's current trajectory.
You can seek counseling and therapy for yourself and for your family; you can involve social agencies and lawyers; you can avail yourself of self-help groups; you can telephone the central office of Alcoholics Anonymous; you can go to meetings of Al-Anon; you can talk to psychiatrists and doctors; you can change the locks; you can take her keys away.
You can keep doing these things, repeating them in a litany of apparent action punctuated by occasional stillness.
And you can detach.
This is what it is like. There are no certain answers. The only things etched in stone are the names of the dead.
What? You want more advice?
- Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
- See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
- Ask for advice. Letter writers: Please think carefully! By sending a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org, you are giving Salon permission to publish it. Once you submit it, it may not be possible to rescind it. So be sure. If you are not sure, sleep on it. You can always send tomorrow. Ready? OK, Submit your letter for publication.
- Or, just make a comment to Cary Tennis not for publication.
- Or, send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.