“I Moved Back to My Home Town and Now My Family is Falling Apart”

Three years ago I sought out-of-state treatment for alcoholism. While my family supported my recovery, they didn’t want much to do with me afterward, and, with no money after treatment, I couldn’t afford rent in my hometown. But their lives improved so greatly without me around, not to mention their relationships with each other, that I was happy being alone. So I threw myself into my work and began making a decent living through self-employment. After two years, I was finally making enough to move back to my home state. Then everything fell apart.

See, while my brother has always been the responsible one, he’s arguably been as entitled as I. When my mom received inheritance after a death in the family, almost all of it went toward his student loans. When her business achieved success, she used a large chunk of the profits to buy and renovate a house for him. But there was a catch. The house had two units, and she wanted to move into the second unit when she got older. Until then, he would rent out that unit for extra profit.

Now the two of them will not speak because my mother feels that he stole the house from her. He doesn’t want her moving into the other unit because of her turbulent relationship with his fiancée, but she turned down his offer to give her the entire house outright because he refinanced it last year and she can no longer afford the mortgage. (I think that’s the issue, anyway. I know nothing about real estate.) She feels he’s reneging on an agreement, whereas he says the house was a gift. I wasn’t there when they bought it, so I have no idea. The only part I understand is the fiancée bit, which even my mother admits would make for an uncomfortable living arrangement.

Here’s what I do know: The situation is making life tense for all of us, and I feel stuck in the middle. What’s worse is that I find myself resenting both of them. It makes me angry to hear him complain about the woman who paid off his student loans, especially when I’m still struggling to pay off my own. It makes me angry to hear her call him names and threaten to destroy his business out of malice. No matter whose side of the story is true, they’re still family. They’re all I have, and I should be allowed to love both of them without taking sides.

They’re now threatening court against each other, and I’m worried that my refusal to testify on behalf of either one will result in my losing both. I already lost them once because of my own screw-ups. I cannot lose them again. At the same time, I’m starting to feel like I was happier when I lived farther away from them although I know that’s an awful way to feel. Please tell me how to fix their relationship. I’ll do whatever it takes. — Clowns to the Left of Me

You can’t fix their relationship — only they are in control of that. What you can do is tell them that you love them both and that you don’t want to be in the middle of their feud, especially after successfully completing treatment for alcoholism. Ask them to leave you out of their affairs, but expect that this will probably be challenging for them both, especially considering the close proximity of the three of you living in the same town and being so seemingly intertwined with each other.

It’s not “awful” that you felt happier living farther away from your family. It’s actually a good thing that you were able to cultivate enough independence to feel happy on your own, and I suspect one of the reasons you’re unhappier now, besides feeling caught in the middle of the tension between your brother and mother, is that you don’t have much life outside of them and your work. You say they’re “all you have.” That’s not healthy. You’re a grown adult. Why do you not have friends, hobbies, interests that you are pursuing? If you had these things — if you fostered a bit of a life for yourself — then I bet you dollars to donuts that the lives and drama of your family wouldn’t feel so all-encompassing to you. Would you still feel caught in the middle? Well, yeah, there’s a pretty good chance you would. But there wouldn’t be this desperation of losing them for fear of having nothing else. And without desperation steering you, you’d feel stronger setting boundaries and making sound, logical decisions that support your own well-being and continued recovery from alcoholism.

Finally, you know: there’s no shame in moving away again. Sometimes distance from the people we love but who drive us a little crazy is the best thing for everyone. You were happy living farther away, you say your family was happier. Maybe that’s the key to maintaining a good relationship: keep at least one state boundary between you. When you have trouble creating your own boundaries, there’s no shame in letting geography create them for you.


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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.


  1. Sue Wilson says:

    WWS, you need a life outside your family, and if your hometown is too small to give you that, give some thought to leaving (you don’t have to go to far; you might not need a whole state boundary, but you might need a 2 hour drive round-trip, you know).

    Also, it seems to me like you’re letting the mistakes you may made which damaged your relationships with your family when you weren’t coping with alcoholism affect how you see your place in your family now. Like since they, you feel understandably, let the relationship go before they might do so again fairly easily. But it’s not a good idea to feel like you have to walk on eggshells because your relationships are tenuous. I would suggest therapy. Even if you’re recovering, it might be a good idea to get some help with disengaging from letting how other people may see you affect you emotionally. Just because your family set some boundaries with you doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to your own.

  2. artsygirl says:

    LW – Congratulations with your ongoing recovery – as someone that unfortunately lost a close relative to addiction, I know how each day is a triumph and struggle. One question you need to ask yourself is, are now in a place where external tensions could cause you to relapse? Obviously you are miserable and I doubt the situation will get better in the near future since both your brother and mother seem intent on escalating it. Take Wendy’s advice and look into finding other outlets and possible move away for your health and happiness.

  3. for_cutie says:

    WWS. For me personally, moving away from family was the best thing for me and the family I was making. I love my family, but it was really hard when faced with their flaws, in-fighting, and lack of compassion on a weekly basis. Having the geo barrier means I know there is a start and end to visits. It also means that when we talk on the phone it is less about their day to day annoyances and easier to steer it in a positive manner. My family is less likely to complain to me about something that I am not also experiencing – i.e. I hear less of the “so and so said this” at the family BBQ…

    Congratulations on your recovery, and please think about what is best for your mental and emotional health moving forward.

  4. Avatar photo Raccoon eyes says:

    Hi, Clowns to the Left of Me. Im Raccoon Eyes, and I am an alcoholic.

    (You know where I am going with this, dont you?) Look- everyone above has good advice, but it sounds to me like you need to get back to some meetings. It doesnt sound like you do that now- and I know they arent necessary for everyone, and maybe you had a bad experience or whatever. But really- get back into the program. It will help you SO much- in terms of getting out and about with people (not just your family and work), working on yourself and your mental health, etc, etc.

    Whatever reason(s) you may have for not going to a meeting/meetings regularly need to be pushed aside. Your town is too small? Travel to another town/city then. There are meetings EVERYWHERE and OFTEN. You didnt like the ones you tried before? Cool, but again, there are TONS of them. Go more than once to each one- then pick one or more that you enjoy. Get involved. Talk at the meeting, talk to ppl before/after and get yourself out there. There is really no excuse to avoid AA.

    You are still blaming yourself for a lot of things- things that are TRULY out of your control. You need a healthy environment- like many meetings can provide.

    Do it. Please.

    1. Avatar photo Guy Friday says:

      I can’t agree with this enough. I know one of the biggest struggles I see many of my clients have is the stigma they feel comes with substance abuse and addiction, like if you are an alcoholic you’re somehow “less than” others. And I’m not going to tell you that it’s right or wrong to feel a way you feel, but the beauty of meetings is that that stigma disappears. You’re an alcoholic? Ok. So is the guy to the left of you, and the girl a row up. You don’t know how to re-enter the social world without alcohol? Well, someone there has been where you are and can give you the playbook. I tend to link to this a lot when talking about substance abuse, but this is, in my opinion, the embodiment of the principle of these kind of meetings, even if it wasn’t written in direct reference to that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VM56KXM4y4c

      Also, and perhaps I’m reading too much into the letter, but I worry that you’re defining yourself by your alcoholism (i.e., “I’m an alcoholic who [insert job here]” rather than “I’m a [insert job here] who’s an alcoholic.”) Again, if it helps you to stay sober, I won’t tell you to do otherwise, but I just hope that you cut yourself some slack. You’re human; you make mistakes, or choices that don’t work the way you want them to. But what matters isn’t the mistakes you’ve made but the fact that you’re trying to fix them. You’re staying sober each day, and you’re trying to live a good life. Please don’t let your human flaws define your life in your head, because even without knowing you I can be certain you’re so much more than your issues.

  5. From the way you describe your family, I think it more than likely that they had something to do with your becoming an alcoholic. As a recovered alcoholic, you don’t need this stress and aggravation. It sounds like being back near your family is hurting rather than helping you. It doesn’t sound like it’s making you at all happy. As a recovered alcoholic, you need to take care of yourself and not assume responsibility to fix what is wrong with your family. You were happier and creating a good life for yourself out of state. You should get back to it. It sounds like you crave validation from your mother. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s likely, whichever choice you make. Your family’s dynamic is big mess, don’t take that on yourself.

    1. Ding ding ding! That bell rang for me too. I have an alcoholic father and a sister who struggles with addiction, and while family dysfunction/addiction may be a chicken or the egg scenario, I know that I have had my healthiest relationships with them, and a healthier relationship with alcohol myself, when I have lived further away from my family. It’s ok to need space so you don’t get sucked into their issues like this.

  6. Anon from LA says:

    LW, you need a support system. You need friends who you can have fun with, who can provide companionship and take your mind off of your family problems. You need to engage in some serious self-care (whatever helps you de-stress: working out, taking long walks, reading a book, etc.). You may also benefit from professional support (AA, therapy, etc.) to help you bear the weight of all this family drama. It sounds like you feel like you have to solve your family’s problems yourself. You don’t–that’s not your responsibility and, in fact, even if you want to, you can’t. I think having more support might helpful you realize that and it might help you unplug from your family.

    P.S. Congrats on your three years of sobriety and the new life you have built for yourself!

  7. WWS. I so understand the impulse to want to fix your family’s relationships with each other, but it’s not your responsibility to be their go-between. Their tricky situation is of their own making and they’re going to have to figure it out or blow up their relationship. I agree with others that AA meetings could be helpful. Therapy could also give you the tools you need to navigate this (I know therapy helped me to rethink my role as family peacemaker). Either way, you need support you can rely on, not family who cuts you out then puts you in the middle of their drama.

    And it sounds like you need the space you got when you moved away – it’s not awful to feel that you were doing better in another state, so stop beating yourself up about that. In fact, I think that moving away again could do you a lot of good, so I hope you consider doing that.

  8. dinoceros says:

    Most situations related to other people are a two-way street. Unfortunately, you can’t unilaterally decide not to lose someone. You can try not to do things to hurt them, but if they are going to decide that not taking a side is worth ruining the relationship, you can’t do much about that. You’ve got to let them do their thing and then hopefully they will be mature enough to understand why you are not getting involved.

    It sounds like you’re overcompensating for having left and for their issues and trying to be really, really enmeshed in this. That’s not healthy for anyone, but particularly not for someone who is recovering. You need to actively seek to stay away from drama. So, try to build a life that doesn’t revolve around them. You may live in the same area, but you need to have other people in your life to rely on because these people aren’t reliable.

  9. LisforLeslie says:

    Good for you on your sobriety. As others have mentioned, get to some meetings because this is one of those things that you can not change. You can not make your brother see reason. You can not make your mother see reason. If they choose to go to court, that’s on them and you don’t have to testify. It’s unlikely that it would go to court as it is so don’t worry about what might be.

    It’s very likely that after having been the screw up you’re putting a lot of effort into not being the screw up: Being there, being supportive, being responsible. Your brother and your mother can be screw ups without having alcoholism. That’s on them. So you need to start setting limits and boundaries. When your mom starts in on your brother you are allowed to say “Mom, that’s between you and brother. I can’t be entirely objective for either of you so I would prefer to not be involved. If you keep discussing it, then I’ll have to get off the phone.” and then do it. You don’t have to be mean.

    As for your brother, same thing. “I’m not going to agree with you because I think you changed the deal, but it’s not my deal, it’s your deal to deal with.”

    You don’t have to take sides. You can stay out of it. Just say “I love you but I don’t want to be involved so I’m going to go now but remember, I love you.”

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