Update: “What to Say?” Responds

updatesIt’s time again for “Dear Wendy Updates,” a feature where people I’ve given advice to in the past let us know whether they followed the advice and how they’re doing now. Today we hear from “What to Say?” whose sister’s SIL, a drug addict, was on life support in the hospital after OD’ing again. She wondered what she should say to her sister’s in-laws when she saw them again: “[they] are good people, they tried their best and will spend the rest of their lives wondering if they had made different choices whether things would have been different. I didn’t often agree with their choices, but I also recognize that in the last several years they didn’t really have many options.” Her update below:

Well the group appropriately chastised me for my very bitter and judgemental letter. Here’s the update:

The family made the very, very difficult decision to remove her from supportive equipment. She languished a few days and then they moved her to hospice. In doing this, she could no longer donate organs. She passed away peacefully. Her parents and her husband were understandably devastated.

The parents brought the husband and stepson up to their northern state for the funeral. One of the long time rabbis spoke very kindly about her but didn’t really touch upon the last 10 years of her life. One of the newer rabbis speaks fluent Spanish, so he translated the rabbi’s eulogy for her husband and stepson. I watched remotely via Zoom. I sent a note to the parents and to my BIL.

At this point, I believe the husband and son are still living in the apartment the parents own. If he made her happy in her last months, that’s reason enough to let him stay. The son graduates in a year or two, and at some point the husband will start dating again and they’ll either give him the apartment or ask him to move so they can sell it.

In its own way it does provide a little peace of mind; I know the parents were worried about what would happen after they were gone and they knew that my BIL and my sister would not be financially supporting his sister. It was never discussed – that family does not discuss things like that, but it was tacitly understood.

The whole mess reinforced that my BIL’s parents simply don’t treat him the same way they did his sister. I won’t go into details. Money is definitely involved as is just general emotional support and encouragement. And honestly, I don’t think this horrible situation is going to change anything.

Can’t say I blame anyone for the proverbial bitch slap I received, but I’m not sorry that I told the tale I told. I’m sad for her parents, I’m sad for the people who loved her. But I’m not sad that she is gone. It’s a hard truth and I own it.

That’s a fair and understandable response. I wish your sister and her husband and their family peace. Thank you for sharing the story.

If you’re someone I’ve given advice to in the past, I’d love to hear from you, too. Email me at wendy@dearwendy.com with a link to the original post, and let me know whether you followed the advice and how you’re doing now.
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  1. Bittergaymark says:

    It’s interesting to me that this bothered you so much. As you are — admittedly — rather removed from it all. This is your sister’s sister in law…

    So I wonder if this isn’t especially rankling you as you are projecting your rage onto this dead woman because there is a very much live person mucg closer to you burdening you in a much more substantial way…

    At any rate — she’s dead. And it’s about as over as things get.

    1. ele4phant says:

      Oh, I can definitely see your sister being heavily impacted, and feeling angry/upset about that.

      The impacts of addiction have a far reach, far beyond the person struggling with substance abuse.

      I am very sorry for any family that has it end this way, instead of the person finally getting treatment and being able to live a sober life, but there also is a relief to the situation finally being over.

      My thoughts to OP and her sister (and her sisters-in-laws). For OP, you can definitely feel what you feel, and more than anything, I hope you can be a good support for your sister, who undoubtedly has her own complicated feelings but is in a position to support her own husband and child. Be her outlet.

  2. It’s fine and normal not to be sad that she’s gone. But I am still confused by the anger toward her. Would you feel the same if she had a mental illness like depression or schizophrenia or something rather than addiction? Or do you feel like whatever was wrong with her, she should have been able to overcome it and live respectably?

    1. ele4phant says:

      Honestly I totally get the anger. It isn’t necessarily logical.

      I have a cousin whose been using herion off and on for more than a decade. I’m obviously closer to her than OP is to this woman, but…it’s hard to watch people you love (for me, it’s my Aunt and Uncle, for OP her sister) deal with years and years of heartache and stress. You do start to have ugly feelings towards the source, which is the person who is using.

      Yes, addiction is a disease. Yes, it’s not people’s fault if they have that disease anymore than it is if they had, say, breast cancer. Yes, there is a stigma to it, and yes, there aren’t great treatment options (and those that do exist can be hard to access). But, it’s hard to watch. It’s easy to get frustrated that the person isn’t able to maintain sobriety, even if you’re family throws everything you have at helping the person.

      It wears you (and your empathy) down.

      An allegory I found useful is that my brother lived with a kid who had type 1 diabetes. He was born with it, obviously not his fault. But, he wouldn’t manage his diet, he wouldn’t check his blood sugar – and as a result he went into shock a few times around my brother and then it became my brother’s responsibility to save his life. If he had been driving or something, he could have harmed others. What he was doing had an impact on others, and it wasn’t okay.

      I see addiciton as something similar. It’s not addicts fault they have this disease, it’s not fair their brains are wired a certain way, but…life isn’t fair. We have a responsibility to do our best to manage our conditions. And when people don’t – even though yes managing an addiciton is much more complicated with many less resources available than managing diabetes – frustration is warranted, sometimes.

      And even if it’s not logical or valid, those feelings still happen. Because it’s hard to witness, it’s hard to escape the symptoms that come along with being close to someone in active addiction (or even being close to someone that is close to someone).

      1. I don’t think it’s the same as the diabetes example. I babysat a kid like that, so I get it, but someone with diabetes doesn’t actually have a mental illness. They are (or should be) capable of managing their disease.

        Anyway, my cousin is an addict and I know his sister feels a lot of anger toward him… I guess I get it, but I really actually don’t. My brother is super fucked up and I have issues from being the sibling of someone like that, but I’m not angry *at him*. I’m just angry at the situation. I know my dad feels anger at him because he feels my brother is capable of more, but I don’t even know if he is.

      2. Honestly I feel a lot of anger toward my parents.

      3. ele4phant says:

        I think my point is, the situation is hard. There’s not really a right or wrong way to feel about it, and telling someone they “shouldn’t” feel angry it someone, even if logically it’s the correct answer, doesn’t make those feelings go away.

        The fact is, OP doesn’t have a connection to the woman who passed, she does to her sister, and it’s been hard for her to watch her sister struggle.

        OP can feel however she wants internally. She asked for advice about how to handle the situation outwardly, and I think she got (and took to heart) the advice to be sympathetic and kind to those closer to the loss (that is, her sister, her BIL, his parents) and not put her own feelings on them.

        But privately, yeah, she can be pissed at who she wants, even if it’s the woman who passed. It’s not about being right or wrong, it just is. She can have the feelings, she can vent about the feelings to those outside the situation, what matters is how she acts with her sister, with her sister’s in-laws. And sounds like she’s being kind, or at the very least, not letting them know her private feelings.

      4. Yeah, sure, you can be mad at whoever you want.

  3. LisforLeslie says:

    I suppose the two families are generally closer than most in-laws are. They are my mischpucha – family by marriage. I know some people whose parents all get together without the kids. My mom and her SIL are good friends and my mom will always ask about all of her sisters. Same for my aunt and her in-laws. It never seemed unusual to me.

    In any case, this woman made my sister’s life more difficult for years. My BIL had to have the discussion with his parents that he, his wife and child were his family unit and that they would make decisions that were best for the three of them, and they may not take his sister’s needs into account. Because everyone always bent over backwards for her. And his parents expected that any decision my BIL and sister made, considered his sister’s feelings.

    They had to take her feelings into consideration when they got married, or bought their first house. Or got jobs. Eventually my BIL had the discussion and his sister always blamed my sister for the fracture.

    And yes, my sister and I talked very openly about her feelings and she’ll get nothing but support from me.

    But again – I appreciate the feedback. I am incredibly judgemental and should be kinder as a general rule.

    1. I’m incredibly judgmental too! And I’m not telling you who to be mad at, but I’m curious why you’re not mad at the parents for always bending over backward for their daughter and giving their son the short end of the stick. Just genuinely curious. I can’t stand some of my own family so I’m not one to talk.

      1. LisforLeslie says:

        I feel both pity and anger at the parents. They enabled her behavior. They set up these conditions. But they were held hostage in a way.

        She’d fuck up, lose her job, fail a drug test, whatever and it almost always coincided with someone else’s accomplishments. They were too close and never saw the pattern. Someone’s birthday, anniversary, graduation, she’d manufacture a crisis and they had two choices: help her or ignore. If they ignored her, she’d escalate. This was happening even before drugs were in the picture. I believe the drugs were initially a way to manufacture a crisis or escalate if she felt she wasn’t getting enough attention. Eventually they took over.

        Had they tried a tough love approach this ending would have happened much earlier and they wouldn’t be able to forgive themselves. As it is, they will have to live with questions whether they could have done more, should have done less, should have done this or that.

      2. Thank you for explaining. I can see how that behavior would be anger-inducing. I also think if someone is acting out like that and even harming themselves “for attention,” it’s a cry for help, and something is deeply wrong. I have two family members who don’t function as adults and have seen firsthand what went in in their childhood homes and at school that contributed to them being that way. There’s so much pain there that’s so unbearable and they will do anything not to feel it, whether that’s drugs or disordered eating, or putting on weight literally to feel bigger and less vulnerable. I agree, by the time parents realize how bad things are, a “tough love” approach isn’t really on the table, so they throw everything they can throw at the problem and it just becomes a tragic cycle. Everyone is doing the best they can, probably, but those are some of the reasons it’s so difficult if not impossible to get out of these situations.

      3. It’s also very possible there was some kind of trauma or abuse in these situations that the family doesn’t acknowledge.

      4. From what I’ve been told, she’s always been like this, even in childhood. I don’t believe there was any abuse, I don’t know if there was any trauma. But what’s trauma? For some people being teased is traumatic.

        All of this really kicked into high gear when my sister started dating her brother and he started moving forward. He was always the family fuck up and when he started dating my sister he realized my sister was driven and ambitious and she wasn’t going to wait for him to get his act together. So he did.

        My arm chair diagnosis is possible BPD, but what the hell do I know? She saw a lot of therapists but as soon as the therapist keened on to her alternative account of the narrative(s) and would challenge her and she’d drop them like a hot potato.

        I believe she had a unsatisfiable need to be loved unconditionally. That this behavior was pretty much “what about if I do this, will you still love me if I do this?” and that unfortunately led to this.

        She never took accountability for herself. Ever. She was never responsible for herself. If she was schizophrenic or diabetic and didn’t take her meds, and then blamed everyone but herself for the results, I’d feel the same. Even when she was in active recovery and touted the

      5. Oof – when she was working the 12 steps, she never actually took accountability for her behavior. Her apologies were of the “I’m sorry if you got hurt” not “I’m sorry that this specific action had this specific impact on your life. I’m working on being better by taking these specific actions.” which is what is generally recommended.

        And she never apologized to my sister – only her brother.

      6. What is trauma? How about an accident as a child that caused TBI and your parent was supposed to be watching you? Or being abandoned by two different fathers? Or sexual abuse by a family member? Or having extreme learning disabilities that couldn’t be treated with the resources available? Or being horrifically bullied and beaten up? Or even just getting really upsetting messages from a parent. These are all things that can happen to someone that you might not know about. You may be 100% correct that nothing traumatic or bad ever happened to this woman, that she was just an asshole. But generally people don’t act out in those kinds of ways when they’ve had a wonderful life. At a minimum it sounds like mental illness there. And it’s ok to be angry, I would really just encourage people to be open to the idea that someone acting like that is trying to manage pain that’s too big.

      7. @Kate – She did not have a TBI as a child – I can say that with a very high degree of confidence.

        My question “What is trauma” was an ineloquent way to say what you are saying. Trauma is hard to define. What some experience as traumatic is simply unpleasant for others. It’s entirely possible that there was a specific event or sustained set of events that created this gaping hole in her self.

        Nonetheless, we all have our issues. We all have our neuroses and issues and at some point you make the decision to get the fucking step stool out so you can get over yourself.

    2. ele4phant says:

      I get how you feel.

      And, this is very messy. With time and distance, things may sort and become more clear.

      But you can be mad at whomever or whatever you want, so long as to your sister you are supportative and focus on her needs and feelings, not your own.

      In my personal opinion and experience (and this is very much my own personal viewpoint, I recognize it’s not shared by everyone), I disagree that we just have to accept people with substance abuse as they are, that they can’t help it, that we can’t be upset or frustrated with them. It’s a balance, but that’s pretty disempowering attitude I’d say. People *can* get out of that cycle. Yes, its sure as heck hard, but just because you are suffering from substance abuse and/or mental illness, that doesn’t automatically mean you are incompetent or incapable of getting treatment and managing your condition.

      Endless compassion and understanding doesn’t always practically result in compassionate outcomes. Sometimes it just enables.

      1. Do you also think people in fat bodies can lose the weight and it’s ok to not accept them for who they are? Again, I’m genuinely curious. I think we established that you can be mad at who you want.

      2. Ele4phant says:

        Well so…I don’t inherently believe fat = unhealthy. There are plenty of healthy people that appear overweight and plenty of skinny people will really bad habits that contribute to their ill health, even if they are skinny.

        So anyone, overweight or not, does have a responsibility to themselves for doing things that are harmful to themselves. And you can’t judge someone’s health and habits just by looking at them.

        And…I do think when it comes to your personal habits and how that impacts your health…at the end of the day that impact is still pretty personal. I know there are fatphobic people that will make the argument that people that don’t take care of themselves puts a drain on our healthcare system and therefore it does impact others and blah blah blah. I don’t accept that, there really isn’t a direct harm on anyone else.

        I see in your experience, sometimes addicts are also just hurting themselves. And sure, I suppose sometimes that’s the case.

        And sometimes it’s not. My cousin stole from her parents, stole someone’s car, caused accidents (thankfully she never hurt anyone but she easily could’ve killed someone). That’s harm on others. Quite direct harm.

        At the end of the day – we’re all dealt different hands, and we can’t help what we get and nor is our fault. It is our responsibility, however, to deal with it and manage it as best we can.

        Whether that’s someone with bad eating habits that cause chronic health conditions, or a diabetic that won’t manage their blood sugar, or yes, an addict that won’t sincerely work a program and acknowledge real harm they’ve caused others.

      3. ele4phant says:

        Well, see I don’t necessarily see those as equivlant.

        Overweight doesn’t equal unhealthy, and you can’t look at someone and know their health or their habits. There are plenty of people with certain metabolisms that are otherwise healthy; and plenty of skinny people that have lots of harmful habits but look “fit” aesthtically.

        Furthermore, impact really does matter. Someone who is in ill health through fault of their own actions (or inactions), that really doesn’t impact others. I know, there are some real fat shamers out there that like to argue that fat unhealthy people put a drain on our healthcare system and yadda yadda yadda yadda, but I htink that arguement is a reach. At the end of the day, someone with habits like overheating, eating an unehalthy balance of food, not exercising, that impact is pretty limited to that person.

        I realize you say in your experience, your cousin was just hurting himself. And, that certainly can be true. But, in my experience, my cousin has casused a lot of harm. She’s stolen from family. She’s manipulated people. She stole someone’s car. She’s caused accidents (thankfully no one was hurt, but very well could have been). Those may just be symptoms of her disease, but none-the-less, real tangible harm was inflicted on others.

        At the end of the day – no one gets to control the hand we are dealt. Its not fair or right, but that’s life.

        Someone with a substance abuse issue is no more at fault than someone that has any other disease. But, we all have a responsibility to manage as best we can the lot we got in life. You don’t get a carte blanche to hurt others. You own some accountability for harm you have caused. If you never make a sincere attempt to get ahold of your addictions, to work a program, to acknowledge the wreckage you have caused, people have a right to be frustrated, angry, and disappointed with you. If you are hurting from a trauma that is too big, yes you are entitled to help and support, but also, you have to be the one to commit to doing something to overcome it. No one else can do it for you.

        Also – just because someone has a mental illness or a substance abuse problem is not a guarantee that they are a lovely person that is suffering.

        Just as their are sober, non-addicts that are natural a*holes, so too can someone both be an addict AND a natural a*hole.

        That can be hard to sort out, but you know, having a mental illness or substance abuse issue isn’t a get out of jail free card.

        Sometimes there is a reason a person is so warped and a jerk – regardless of whether or not they are an addict, and sometimes…people are just jerks.

        I say this all coming from a very personal place, from my own experiences. I get you come at it with your own informed experience and you view it very differently than I. But, this is where I am.

      4. Okay, love that for you. Still don’t get it, but nothing new to add.

  4. A comment on Kate asking if ele4phant would also “judge” obesity.
    I think it is a somewhat different situation. Over weight people are not hurting/impacting others with their actions. They may or may not “need” to lose weight for their own health, but they are not causing worry and stress and strife for others around them, in general.

    1. Addicts aren’t necessarily hurting anyone either. My cousin lives on a different coast than his mom and sister. He’s basically just hurting himself. But his sister is angry that their mom feels she has to give him so much attention. Disordered eating could be hurtful in exactly the same way.

      1. I am very overweight and I know it causes my mom worry. That said, I do work on the issue, albeit less successfully than some. Altogether I’m a fully functioning adult. I deal with the issues I’m dealt with. I don’t ask people to manage my feelings. I don’t rely on others financially or otherwise.

        If I were so obese that I couldn’t function – that’d be a different story.

  5. True. No situation is always black/white the same. People can also be exposed to the same scenario and each react very differently ,from not being bothered at all to highly upset.

  6. I love you guys. All of you in this thread. I admire you so much! You have all the words! So smart and so able to articulate your complex thoughts, and feelings, too. Whatever would I do without you? I didn’t learn how to do that during past many years, but I appreciate it so much when I read it 🙂 Well, just go along as usual, but, thank you again Wendy and best community.

    1. Well where have you been?!

      1. Hi Kate! I am still alive lol. I live in a very nice old folks’ apartment building now. I still read what you guys write! Everyone always has covered all the best advice already, and I am slow on that stuff, so…
        Healthy enough, vaccinated with J&J.
        Thanks for writing good and interesting things to read.

      2. Noticed avatar is missing and there are other differences. That’s fine 🙂 DearWendy has a huge audience, which seems appropriate!

      3. I see your avatar. Who cares if someone already said it, you should still chime in!

    2. Oh my gosh! I was literally just thinking of you a couple days ago, wondering how you’ve been. Thanks for popping in! Nice to “see” you again after all this time. Hope life is treating you ok.

      1. Thank you for being so kind, dear Wendy.

  7. In my old, simplistic terms–we can be angry because we wish so much more success for the people we know and love. But we try, and we try and we try, and, the reality is that only they can can operate themselves. It does make me angry and it does make me try to do it for them or to help them. Even if we are a super strong person, we can only help all the other people as much as they can accept and utilize the extra help themselves. I think it is okay to be angry if they wont try.

  8. anonymousse says:

    It’s okay to be angry at whoever, but if that anger is really affecting you, I know it’s said over and over but, if you can- see a therapist. Sometimes even just a few sessions can help you work out some of those feeling you don’t get to express the way you want to.

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