Relationships and Toxicity

There are times I wish that real life was like a television show. Play your part, learn your lesson, everything wraps up neatly in under an hour. But alas…

Full disclosure:

This is something really, really personal, that I don’t think I’d tell if most people knew who I am. So, thank everything holy for next-to full anonymity. But as it is, I think it’s a good thing to air out for anyone else who may be dealing with something like this.

And so, story time.

In the beginning, he was perfect. Happy, sweet, caring, giving, fun-loving, and I adored him. Then, for a long time, he was wounded. Sad. Beaten down by life. Eventually, he became very flawed, unhealthy and prone to anger, but I still loved him.

Over time though, anger took hold of his entire personality. It turned from anger to rage. And his demands became unbearable. I owed him time and mental and emotional energy that I didn’t have. I had to be sorry. Things like “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about…” or “that’s just stupid…” or flying off the handle over nothing more than the words he put in my mouth. I still loved him. I tried my best, to listen, to understand, to guide him toward mental health professionals. Each time I got shot down, I told myself I’d back off, that I’d mention it again later and I’d think of a better way to phrase it.

When I’d slid down to the end of my rope between trying to work a full-time job, raising my kids, and managing chronic illness, when I felt like I just dragged my corpse around day after day, when I was tired to the point that I couldn’t think straight, I began to simply avoid talking to him when I didn’t have the energy to be put down, raged at, belittled. I often just didn’t have the mental fortitude, and he would never accept less than full attention, would never accept an “I don’t know,” would take it personally if I said I couldn’t carry on the conversation anymore.

He never, at any point in the past 20 years, hit me. Never physically hurt me. He cut me with words, with anger, with screaming and swearing and yelling. With putdowns. With insults. With dismissiveness. With belittling. With demands. With twisting my words, arguing with me about things I didn’t say, insisting that I was just covering up if I said I did not say or mean that. Telling me how I meant things I said, telling me how I felt. Expecting everything from me while giving nothing. Expecting my full attention. My care. My coddling. My vindication, my agreement that yes, he is a victim and the deck is stacked against him, nothing is his fault, and most of all, that he has a right to be angry because to his mind, his reactions are reasonable.

Sometimes he was sorry. Sometimes the nice guy came out. And the nice guy was so, so sweet. Thoughtful. Caring. Those times, we could have a fantastic time together.

For virtually the entirety of this year, he hasn’t been nice. Nor sorry. Nor has he cared about me, my issues, what I’m dealing with, how I feel.

I severed the relationship this past spring. It was a hard decision. I told him I couldn’t handle him and his issues anymore. I finally tried to set boundaries, even though I hated it, even though I wished I didn’t have to, even though I still worry, even though sometimes I want to cave in, as if that would make everything better.

I still love him, and I always will… because he’s my brother.

The truth is, I’ve cut ties with a lot of people this year, mostly family.

I’m finished with my husband’s family; mother, brothers, sister – for various reasons but in the end it comes down to the fact that they’re just toxic people. I tried for over 20 years, while I was being conspicuously left out of anything important, while my queen-of-all-that-is-passive-aggressive (and aggressive-aggressive) mother-in-law ran hot and cold, snarked at me, ignored me, yelled at me, talked down to me, and gossiped about me. I have a lot, a lot of stories that I could tell about my years of dealing with her, but this isn’t about that and I don’t want to drift away on a tangent.

My late father-in-law treated me more like family than anyone else, and was the closest thing I had to a father, I felt. But he very pointedly favoured my husband’s brother and sister, and when he passed away, we were left very little and the family did not see fit to even that out. Quite the opposite with his brother taking advantage and using what we did have to the point that we couldn’t even use it ourselves. It’s not a matter of greed to me, it’s a matter of fairness and none of this feels fair. My husband is the baby boy of the family and has been treated like a baby boy his whole life – he can’t argue back, there’s no respect there for him. The dynamic is too deeply entrenched. And to me as the oldest child, it’s infuriating both that he is treated this way even with regards to our own family, and that I, by extension, also have been treated this way.

The point is, I don’t care anymore and I’m happier without them in my life. I realized how awful it had been for me when they didn’t bother to speak to me for a full year, and I really, truly enjoyed it. When I said I was done with them, I felt nothing but sweet, sweet relief. I’d be lying if I said I’m not still angry about certain things, but I know that at least I’ll have very little of it to be upset about, to have to think about, or to be involved in from here on out.

My brother, he’s a whole ‘nother story.

Because all I want is for him to get better. I’ve tried, our sisters have tried, for years and years; to be there for him, to listen, to give advice, to nudge him toward professional help. He’s been increasingly hostile, and it’s painfully obvious that everything we have done to date has not helped in the slightest. Instead, it seems to have enabled him so much that he’s gotten worse. It’s been a downward spiral with him his entire adult life, a spiral that continues to this day, and we have never been able to fix it for him as much as wish we could.

I asked him to just make the effort, commit to getting better. Go to therapy. Try some medication, if that doesn’t work, try different ones, and then some different ones, just keep trying. (Fun fact: we are all bipolar, mom too, except for one sister).

I have begged him to just make the effort. Just commit. I’m not the only one who has. I was willing to search for resources for him. I was even willing to help pay for private therapy if no publicly funded therapy was available in the meantime. We all tried to do everything short of knocking him out and dragging him a doctor or therapist, to support him. He has refused, over and over and over. He has trapped himself in the past, refusing to get on with life, and sadly poisoning not only himself but everyone around him.

I feel a heavy, almost crushing loss. There’s often a feeling in my gut that perhaps I’ve lost my brother and he’s never coming back. That maybe this is who he is now. That after the years of hate, of anger at every person and situation in his life, of outbursts and rage – that he’s steeped himself in that for so long that it’s just who he is now, and he refuses to part with it. That maybe it’s just his identity now. I’m scared that there is no coming back, that I’m just not facing reality in hoping for all of this to be just a crusty, mentally unwell exterior that still houses the sweet boy he used to be, inside. The hope that that that boy is still there, that the outside that we see isn’t the real him, that it’s just some kind of twisted and obsolete coping mechanism. Slowly I am stepping back and seeing it all for what it is – a horribly abusive situation for my sisters and myself. An emotionally exhausting and damaging relationship. We all want to have him in our lives, but can’t, not anymore.

Not as he is.

And that hurts too.

It’s tough to lose a person who’s still alive, to spend too much time worrying about them while it feels they don’t even care about you beyond what they can use you for. We are 4 siblings who grew up facing enormous amounts of ongoing and traumatic adversity. We were all close in age, there are 7 years between me as the oldest, and our youngest sister. We were feral little creatures sometimes, trying to navigate a life that could be unbearable at times. And we fought, sometimes we fought brutally, but we were also the only ones who always, always had each others backs. We understand each other and each of our pasts more than anyone else ever could.

Losing my brother in this way feels like losing a limb. I think it feels this way to all of us in a way, we don’t feel whole, as a group, there is something, someone, missing. There are four of us, there have always been four of us, but now there’s only three. Three sisters and the spectre of our brother and who he used to be, who he might not be anymore.

Since I told him we can’t have any sort of relationship as things are, there have been times when I’m really angry. Times when I’m just sad. Times when I feel like I’m grieving, and sometimes it’s like my brain tries to reject this reality. I start thinking that maybe if I could just find a way to try harder… but it’s guilt-inducing and it’s futile, and I circle back to how little he cares to try, even for us, and I get angry again.

I think about him every day. I dream about him, I dream about all four of us. It’s just hard for me to admit that there’s something I can’t fix, no matter how hard I try. That I can’t force a grown man to be well.

At what point, and how does a person determine whether their loved one is simply damaged horribly and in need of help, or whether they’ve become a genuinely bad person? I don’t know. Maybe only time will tell.

I have photos of myself as a pre-schooler feeding my brother in his high chair. I’m grinning at him, and he’s beaming back at me. There’s a photo of us around those same ages, under the crib with the bars pulled down because we used to do that and giggle that we were in jail. I remember him being my shadow and wanting to do anything I did. I remember when, as a bullied 8-year-old with less than zero self-esteem, my little brother told me that I was beautiful and reminded me that he loved me.

It’s so hard to let go of those things. Of the genuinely interesting and enjoyable conversations we have had over the years. Of the things we always did together. Of the hobbies we shared, the music we both loved, TV shows, movies and games that we clicked on, things he’s given me, so much reminds me of him.

I love him so much, and miss him deeply. I also understand that a relationship with him is harmful to my own mental health right now. That he has been abusive. That he doesn’t see things the way they really are. That he expects the world to change to suit him, rather than admit that he needs to change. That ultimately, I can’t sacrifice my wellbeing for him – especially when it doesn’t make anything better for him regardless.

I realize that I would not accept this from anyone else in my life. Neither would my sisters, nor would I accept it on their behalf; husbands, boyfriends, friends, anyone else. We would’ve walked away a long time ago, each one of us. Years ago.

We all deserve better. But there’s no option that’s good right now, no magic fix. Just worry and grief, anger and sadness and hurt. This is, for me, the best option available and it sucks, just, brutally hard. The thought never occurred to me, at any point in the past, that I might have to cut ties with any of my siblings. We have always been so close. It was just so far off my radar. It wasn’t even a thing. And yet, here I am.

I’ve always told people dealing with family members who are toxic to them, that being family doesn’t give license to treat family deplorably. That if anything, family should treat family better than the average person, because… love. We don’t owe it to anyone to take their damaging behaviour. We don’t owe anyone the sacrifice of our own wellbeing.

Now I’m having to practice what I’ve preached.

It has been 5 months now, with no effort made on his part. And sadly, I’m losing hope.

This year has been just the worst. And this is just one of the things that’s helped make 2020 the spectacular bonanza dumpster fire extravaganza that it really is.

I don’t know what the future will hold for all of this. For the pandemic, for financial recovery, for this relationship, for my own health both physical and mental, for my family, for survival.

I’m trying to navigate all of this and more.

And I’m so over all of it.

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