My family is out of control

My husband went to rehab and my 13-year-old left home. How do I make this work?

By Cary Tennis

Published August 24, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am sitting in my mess of a kitchen, in my mess of a apartment because I just don't care anymore. I have been miserably married 13 years and we have five children -- two girls and three boys, ages 13 years to 17 months. I love my children more than anything, and have a great relationship with our four youngest. The oldest won't live in our house (she stays close by at my mother-in-law's) because, she says, "It's disgusting." I've just given up on cleaning in the last few days, by the way, and she doesn't have her own room, and she hates her siblings, but she's an issue for another letter.

The biggest issue is my husband, whom I feel like I have been carrying and picking up after forever. He's had addiction issues and a huge inability to accept responsibility for his actions.The man is a brilliant entrepreneur and could sell a guy sand in the desert, but he is impossible when it comes to handling money. He's erratic and inconsistent.

It is virtually impossible to keep a solid routine in our house that involves him. He'll take our eldest boy out to run an errand and won't return home until 1 a.m. Six months ago he reached the height of a crack/heroin addiction. I was home schooling our two middle kids, caring for the babies, and running one of our stores. Then he sold an antique van for $1,000, and that was the last straw. So I had him committed to a rehab -- where he stayed for 16 days and then they kicked him out because he was physically clean but he'd pissed off everyone there, and he's not allowed back. The day he went in, the court psychologist recommended that I not let him back in the house unless he did 90 meetings in 90 days. And maybe not ever because he is emotionally abusive. Sigh. He did maybe a week of meetings while living with his mother, another piece of work -- if anyone was ever the apple tree, it's this woman. I tell my daughters to be sure to vet the family you choose to marry into. Anyway, I considered us to be separated and had filed for divorce. I went away for a weekend and when I had come back, he was back. But he was committed to staying clean, and he has been for almost five months. But I had to go and add another twist to our drama. While I was away on my weekend, I had a one-night, or rather a one-hour, stand with some random guy and then made the huge mistake of telling a female employee whom my husband ended up firing, and whose wife continued to work for us but was then let go -- and out of anger and spite, she called my husband and told him about my tryst. So for the last month I have been trying to help him through this, but I've returned to hating him and resenting him and I don't want to be with him at all anymore. But I am scared.

I have five kids, no degree, no job skills to fall back on and no money. My family was once wealthy, but the money was squandered and all we have left is property, which means I have an apartment to move to, on the other side of the city, away from our community, and I would have to find a job, and probably put the kids into public school, but it kills me that they will be behind, even though the boy is great at math and the girl is an avid reader ... Ugh, I am just so afraid.

I once was the kind of girl that believed in throwing the chips up in the air -- because they land where they are supposed to. But I have been catching bombs for so long, I can't let anything land anywhere for fear of explosion. I cannot seem to find the courage -- where is it hiding? Please direct me toward the light, because I can't seem to find it on my own.


Dear Chaos,

What I perceive is a family system running too fast and out of control.

One way to slow it down is to link the family with neighborhood institutions so that outside schedules and values can moderate its energy.

For starters, contact Al-Anon about how to live with a husband who's seriously out of control with drugs.

Don't leave your community. The light you seek is in your community. The courage you seek is in other people. Strengthen your connections to your community. Move the center of your life from your immediate family to the social and neighborhood institutions around you. Open your family up to its surroundings.

At the same time, you need to take care of yourself. Find an oasis outside the home, a place where you can talk about what's going on and let others help you develop new ways of making decisions. When a family system is running too fast, bad decisions get made. If you can slow things down by soliciting outside opinions, your decisions will improve. Follow this rule: Always sleep on it. Whenever you have a good idea, talk to someone else about it and then sleep on it. This will help you slow things down.

When you find this oasis -- maybe it is some kind of 12-step meeting, or maybe it is a church or a club or a group that meets in a coffee shop -- build it into your weekly schedule. Al-Anon may prove to be such an oasis. Or you may find it somewhere else. But that's what you need: A place where you can go every week or maybe even every day, and talk about what's going on, and take suggestions, and help others deal with what's going on in their lives as well.

Look for community projects you can get your kids involved in, like a neighborhood cleanup, or community garden.

Talk to people about your situation. Involving others in your decision-making means giving up some control and autonomy. That may feel uncomfortable. If you are accustomed to being the one who makes the decisions, recognize that there will be some value in letting go of some control. Look for ways to involve others in doing the work that needs to be done -- the housework, for instance, which is understandably beyond your capacity to do, what with everything else that you do.

Get involved with your children's school. Spend as much time there as you can. Befriend other parents. Spend time with them.

It doesn't matter so much what institutions you get involved with. You don't have to agree with them. They don't have to have the ultimate answers. The main thing is to have outside people and institutions involved in your family, so that there is more input in decisions, and so that decisions are made more slowly, and so that the daily family life is more structured.

This is what I suggest for you. It's not an overnight solution. It's a slow reorientation. The idea is to integrate your family with the surrounding world so that its motion is slowed down and regulated.

Seek balance. Find joy. Think long-term. Get some sleep.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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