How do I deal with an unwanted Christmas guest?
December 7, 2011 1:48 PM   Subscribe

My brother-in-law may be back on drugs, or possibly beginning to show symptoms of mental illness. He's recently become verbally abusive to my mother-in-law. He's also been invited up for Christmas with the rest of the in-laws. Of course, things are complicated.

First off, I am the partner of the person who wrote this question: How to handle my brother being raped, and it is the rape victim, let's call him John, who has become abusive.

John is a recovering cocaine addict and is still an alcoholic. He's a thirty-year old burly guy from a small town, and is completely uninterested in therapy or getting help for his addiction, which he doesn't acknowledge. He says that only "women and sissy gays" go to therapy. He has a very manly career, no health insurance, and lives with his mother and younger brother in their small, rural town.

Since I've known him, he hasn't seemed like a bad guy. When I first met him he was still on drugs and I was a little scared of him. But since then, he got off drugs, threw himself more into his career, takes care of things around the house, and, from our outsider's position, seems like a fairly decent guy. I was really impressed with him kicking his drug habit. Sure, we'd see him drink some, and yes, he smokes some pot, but we never saw him become belligerent, much less violent.

We didn't know the extent of his abuse until recently. A few weeks ago we found out about ongoing physical abuse against his younger brother. We knew John was sometimes cruel to him, but didn't realize how bad it was. Two weeks ago, out of the blue, he began verbally abusing my mother-in-law. She told us some things he said (she's fat, a horrible cook, etc.) but couldn't bear to say the worst things. We also found out that he's actively going to bars and being belligerent, apparently to get into fights. We always knew he drank, but I don't think either of us realized what a problem it was for him.

My mother-in-law is convinced she can get him committed against his will, since he refuses to see a mental health professional. Their family has a history of mental illness, and she's convinced that he's losing his grasp on reality. She sees his story of the rape, along with other crazy-ish things he's said, as evidence of this. She can try to kick him out, but he has little money and no where to go, and I worry he'd become violent with her.

Christmas is, for the first time, to be held at our house this year. It's our son's first Christmas, and we're so super excited about it. My partner's family, John included, has been invited to come up for it. John is so unstable right now. We don't know what has caused the sudden change in his behavior (although I suspect he's back on cocaine) but I know it's nothing I want around my son. But on the other hand, he's had a horribly traumatic experience recently, and being uninvited from his family's Christmas won't help.

I go back and forth from just pretending like things are ok until Christmas is over with, to demanding my partner uninvite him, to cancelling Christmas all together and buying plane tickets to the Bahamas. I am genuinely scared for the safety of my mother and brother-in-law, and now, for my own family, especially my son. Right now, I do not want him in my house. I even wish he didn't know where we lived. But I may be overreacting.

So, I guess this question has two parts. My partner and I have very little power here, but we can try to give advice to help out her mom and younger brother. What can they do? Can her mom really forcibly commit him to a mental institution? And what should we do about Christmas? Thanks so much in advance for your help.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I can only try to help by making a suggestion about Christmas, which is that you have a dry holiday. No booze. No booze in the house at all. There isn't anything in your narrative that indicates you have a reason to be afraid for your safety. Bar room brawls, while extremely sub-optimal and not an attribute of someone I'd want to be in a relationship with, don't by default translate to Horrific Family Christmas.

And you do have the power, by the way. Your house, your rules, your local police if the worst case scenario happens and he needs to be removed.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:11 PM on December 7, 2011 [6 favorites]

In terms of forcibly committing him -- which is called a 51/50 hold where I am -- this is, unfortunately, very difficult to do. (I know this from personal experience.) If "John" can hold his shit together for a few hours at at time, and appropriately answer such questions as, "Are you planning on harming yourself?" and "Are you planning on harming others?" then it's highly unlikely that it will work.

If there is a physician or psychiatrist already treating him (sounds like there isn't) then that person may be of assistance, but I have literally watched a similar situation unfold in front of me and been unable to have the person hospitalized. So sorry.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:13 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

This sounds very much like my younger brother, whom we learned had been self-medicating his schizophrenia for years. I lived awayvand did not believe until after our mother passed and was around to see more. In any case it's clear that your brother-in-law needs help. The more involved his family can be in his treatment the better. Is there anyone whose opinion he still values who can reflect some things back and take him to treatment? You want a progressive medical lead with lots of compassion.
posted by R2WeTwo at 2:14 PM on December 7, 2011

Are they coming from a distance, will you be putting them up? If so, get them hotel rooms. Seconding the no-booze idea. If you or your partner drink at all just announce to the family that you've both decided to quit drinking for a while. As far as getting him committed goes, it is very hard unless he's threatening to hurt someone, and even then they're more likely to just put him in jail unless you, or his mother, can show that he has a documented history of mental illness. Is there an AlAnon group near your mother-in-law? Urge her to attend it and get some support for herself and her younger son. Your partner might consider checking one out too.

Is there some project at your house that John could help with while he's there? Something that keeps him busy and allows him to shine?
posted by mareli at 2:30 PM on December 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

With a baby, you are going to spend Christmas terrified. It's not rational, but completely instinctual. That doesn't make it not real. I suggest cancelling Christmas at your place and instead having your partner go visit and exchange gifts sans baby.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:56 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am not an Addict. I am not your Addict. But I once had the opportunity to stay for 18 months at a Veterans homeless shelter where 90% of the people there were in an AA or NA program. SO I learned quite a bit about addicts and even went to some AA meeting out of curiosity and friendship. So I know something about addicts.

I have no idea if your brother-in-law's problem is psychological or addition or what amounts of either. I do know that if he switched from cocaine to alcohol and pot then he's just switched one addiction for another and still has addiction issues. All the behaviors that you described fit in very well with an addict's behavior towards others so in that vein to answer your questions:

What can they do ? 1. See these people (al-anon) 2. Realize it's not their problem directly and they are powerless to force chance on their son. All they can do is suggest 3. Disassociate themselves from him if he does not clean up his act

Can her mom really forcibly commit him to a mental institution?
Possibly but are they sure that's the real issue?

And what should we do about Christmas?
If they are truly concerned about their son's recovery they should have a no-alcohol policy at Christmas (for anyone). They need to explain the rules up front to their son and let him know that if he shows up drunk or drinks (or smokes pot) while there he will be asked to leave.

On more thing. If he is drinking and using pot then he is most definitely not a recovering cocaine addict as you stated. He is a current addict who is still using. Get him in an NA/AA program
posted by Poet_Lariat at 3:09 PM on December 7, 2011

Making your celebration a dry Christmas does not guarantee that your brother-in-law will show up sober. It also does not guarantee that he will not attempt to bring alcohol, pot or cocaine into your home. Are you prepared to go as far as calling the police to have him forcibly removed if he creates a problem and refuses to leave?

I understand that being uninvited from Christmas will not help him to deal with his traumatic situation. But I also think that inviting him when he is acting in an abusive manner towards his brother and mother and leaves you in fear for your family will not help him face the consequences of getting drunk, high and behaving in an abusive manner.

Your first obligation in this situation is to protect your family. If you are scared, then you need to pay attention to that feeling and bar your brother-in-law from your celebration.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 3:47 PM on December 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have a new baby, too.

Cancel christmas and go on holiday.

With the other stuff, I hope your brother in law and family get the help and blessings they need.

But, yeah. Don't do Christmas at your home.
posted by jbenben at 3:51 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Poet_Lariat: "On more thing. If he is drinking and using pot then he is most definitely not a recovering cocaine addict as you stated. He is a current addict who is still using. Get him in an NA/AA progra"

Except that no one can make him get into AA or NA, perhaps not even himself.

And if he's still drinking/drugging he is absolutely not a coke addict in recovery, exactly as Poet Lariat says here. He may not react *as* badly on pot or drinking as on coke; no telling. But long years of experience has shown many AA and NA people that going from one substance to another is not usually going to help anything.

I agree with the idea of getting the holiday celebrations away from your home as the best way to deal with this, preferably by going elsewhere, totally. And you need say nothing to anyone about why, just that you've decided that you want to do this trip to XXXX for your holiday celebration.

Having come from a really wacky family, my tendency would be to say "Aw, it's going to be fine, you can handle whatever might happen, etc and etc." But having read years of calm, rational responses to questions like these written by calm rational people who were not bent by craziness in their own experience and who know how to look after themselves and their children, I suspect that those calm, rational voices would mostly be saying "Nope. Not gonna happen. And here's how.."

It's not going to be easy maybe, might be that John will feel what's really going on. Too bad. Things like this happening to addicts are what can bring them to get help, if anything is ever going to do so.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 4:03 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please call the National Alliance on Mental Illness and talk to someone about your concerns. You can find a specific office in the state where your family lives and speak to someone familiar with the laws in that particular state.

Committing someone is not easy. It is made deliberately difficult for a number of reasons, primarily that 24 hour supervised care for mentally unstable people is an expensive, unpredictable, sometimes dangerous, woefully underfunded situation in most states. Also, you cannot simply say someone is mentally ill and have the authorities lock them up. If you could, we'd all be sitting ducks to anyone with an axe to grind. It's hard and it's not likely the simple course of action his mother thinks it is.

The more tenable option is having him arrested for assault the next time he attacks his brother or mother. It might then be possible to alert a state's attorney and a judge to his dangerous behavior and his alcohol and drug use. They might be able to order him into treatment or refer him to a psychiatric facility for evaluation. No one wants to wait for this kind of thing to happen but, unfortunately, that is how our system generally works. This is another thing that someone at NAMI might be able to advise you about, if it is the case that he is using alcohol and drugs to self-medicate his mental illness.

Another option is for your mother to institute a tough love campaign where she kicks him out and refuses to provide for his needs. Now, this nuclear option is nigh on impossible for many people, but in truth it's the only way for drug addicts and alcoholics to pull themselves out of the well they've thrown themselves down face-first. It sounds harsh, particularly if he's mentally ill, but the alternative clearly isn't working. Perhaps his mother and brother could contact a local drug and alcohol treatment center and obtain information about staging an intervention. Regardless of whether or not he's going crazy, he's drinking and drugging, and she is enabling the behavior by caring for his basic needs. When and only when no one else will do that for him will he be forced to figure out how to care for himself. Mentally ill people who still have some contact with reality figure out how to feed themselves when others will no longer do it for them. He has his "manly" career still, yes? Well, then. He shouldn't be living at home anyway. Without appropriate boundaries set and adhered to by his mother, he will continue to take advantage of her and abuse her and his brother.

If it is the case that he is the sole bread-winner for his mother and younger brother, then they will need to find another source of income, I'm afraid. It is better than living under the same roof with an unmedicated mental patient, a using drug addict or alcoholic, or both. Again, NAMI can help talk out possible options here.

FWIW, it sounds to me like either textbook PTSD or some kind of psychotic break, or one stemming from the other. I'm not a doctor, I can't diagnose anybody with anything, but I've dealt with mental illness and its aftermath all my life in my family and this all sounds very familiar. It would help to know how old he is; most serious mental illnesses with the symptoms you describe come on in the late teens to mid-twenties. At least, that is what we've been told by my brother's doctors, and that is when his disease manifested. It could also be that his drug and alcohol abuse have damaged his brain. It's impossible to say. Again, this is where advice or guidance from NAMI could be invaluable.

Lastly, I wouldn't put my son in this situation, frankly. The holidays can be horribly triggering events for people without the sort of quantifiable emotional and mental issues this man's clearly suffering with, so god knows what you'd be opening your child up to in this situation. There's no telling what you might bear witness to or bear the brunt of. I'd beg off without humiliating him or anyone else; I'd just say we're overwhelmed and [partner] will drop off gifts and visit for an hour while I stay home with the baby.

I wish you the best of luck with everything. This is a really hard thing and my heart goes out to all of you. Contact NAMI. They should be able to help you figure out the next steps.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 4:19 PM on December 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Your description is making me all tense on your behalf. I vote to not have the holiday at your house. You are not comfortable with the brother. You'll have two people there who are being abused and doing nothing about it. You're going to feel complicit in doing nothing about the abuse with them there. This is what happens when a family is dysfunctional. Walking on eggshells around a ticking timebomb is no fun and especially with stress of the holidays. I'm sorry your family is going through this but you need to protect your immediate family first and that includes you.
posted by amanda at 4:24 PM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

You have a family crisis; get the most helpful people in the family together, via conference call or in person, and make a plan for protecting MIL and bro-in-law from abuse. That's the most important thing.

Get a hotel room for John, so he has a place to go if he goes out and gets drunk. If a person is abusive and becomes dangerous, you call the police, who lock him up or take him to the ER. This is the natural, logical consequence of addiction and mental illness. MIL should take a similar approach. If the police visit several times, and find a scary guy on drugs/booze, they become a resource for mental health commitment, which is possibly the best way to get John some help.

Be wary, have 911 on speed dial, and try to give John the opportunity to behave appropriately.
posted by theora55 at 4:29 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Google Alanon and find a meeting near you.
posted by nestor_makhno at 4:42 PM on December 7, 2011

TryTheTilapia gave some excellent advice, and I nth it, but at the very least Christmas at your home with your young child, abuser brother in law, and abused mother and brother in law, with you on eggshells, sounds like a bad idea.

What's your partner's take on this? You said "demanding [my] partner uninvite him," and I don't wish to misinterpret that statement. Also, who else is invited for your Christmas? I am wondering how feasible it would be to simply celebrate baby's first Christmas as just the three of you -- as much as it seems unfair to leave mom and bro in law out. Otherwise, I'd just disinvite him, telling him that you don't know what's caused his recent behavior but that both you and your partner feel that it's not a good situation for the child.

I basically do not advocate having him there at all, even if there's no alcohol involved. I'm so sorry that your family is going through this; I have been there and it is indeed a rough road to hoe.
posted by sm1tten at 5:57 PM on December 7, 2011

Oh, gawd, what an awful mess. I read your partner's question, and was horrified then that he'd had that happen to him, and am horrified now that your have to deal with his going to a very bad place with a baby around.

As much as this might hurt your partner's brother to go on vacation, what about this upside: Your MIL is going to have to protect herself and her younger son. IANAL these days, but an involuntary commit on her say-so seems iffy.

What she can do, though, is call the cops the next time he threatens her or her younger son. Then maybe the intervention of the police would get him in a psych ward for some time(probably small, unless he goes along with it). But this time might a) Give the guy the help he so greatly needs b) Give your MIL time to do what she has to get a restraining order or whatever other legal options are. I realize that this is a small town and that complicates things; cops can be assholes and that's not good either. But it might be the least worst solution, for her to get law enforcement involved.

And maybe your canceling the holidays will help her realize that she needs to do that, that something is serious fucked in Denmark, and she needs to act.
posted by angrycat at 7:55 PM on December 7, 2011

Or what TryTheTipila said.
posted by angrycat at 7:57 PM on December 7, 2011

First you need to talk with your husband and get on the same page. Once he acknowledges your concerns, you can work together on a plan for damage control. If they are coming from out of the area have them stay in a hotel, as mentioned above. Be aware that you can't control his substance abuse if he's in a hotel room, but you can lay the ground rules that it will be a dry Christmas at your house. Tell them ahead of time that dinner will be at a certain hour, please be there only a half hour early, and then make it a short afternoon, tell them it's for the sake of the baby. Then they can head back to the hotel. If they are at your house and a problem arises, husband asks him quietly to leave. If he doesn't go, women and children quietly exit to a locking bedroom, dial 911, and wait for the police. No confrontations.

If they're local, you can choose to go out to a nice restaurant for dinner, exchange gifts, and not invite them to your house at all.

Alternatively, cancel Christmas at your house and explain to M-in-L why. She needs to practice some tough love for herself and the sake of the other brother and the rest of the family.

If your husband can't be persuaded to get on the same page with you on a plan, you may choose to spend the holidays with your family or on a nice vacation with the baby.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:20 PM on December 7, 2011

Don't bring this drama into your home and around your new baby. Your first responsibility is as parents and inviting an abusive addict into your home is not good parenting. You need a plan B, because your plan A is no good.

Thinking that instituting a policy of a "dry" Christmas will keep him from using is just naive, plain and simple.
posted by hazyjane at 12:34 AM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would not have Christmas at your house -- risks too great, rewards not big enough. You can have a private Christmas celebration with your husband and baby, and another maybe in a public place with his extended family, or maybe at the mother-in-law's house when the brother is out, but I can't see any real advantage to having this unstable and scary person in your house at Christmas, other than that it would be kind of nice -- in a totally different situation than this one.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:08 AM on December 8, 2011

Comment from [partner of] OP:
I am the partner in question (not a husband), and I want to clarify a few things.

1. The abuse of my younger brother (who is 24) is on the order of high school bullying. It's throwing food at him, and picking at him, and basically similar behavior to walking by someone in the hallway and "accidentally" knocking books out of their hands. It's awful, it's certainly abuse that is both physical and powerfully emotional, and my younger brother needs to get out of there (he's working on it), but it's not necessarily indicative of crazy violent behavior. This and the barroom provocation--which have NOT, to be clear, resulted in any kind of brawls so far--are the only signs of violence he's shown. My therapist (a professional!) doesn't think he sounds like someone who is going to get violent. That is not to say that he couldn't be on the verge of something much worse, mind you, but I wanted to clarify this a bit.

2. The brother in question is 30. Someone asked. It was in the original post, but.

3. I am, of course, supportive of the OP's feelings in this. We're working on a solution together. I am also nervous about all of this. However, I have been dealing with an addict brother for a very long time (I keep contact minimal, or I did until he was raped and needed me), and that is not what's at issue, though it's obviously a piece. What's alarming here is the recent, swift change in his behavior towards my mother. That is not normal for him; he's not like this.

4. They're going to be driving 2.5 hours to visit us. My proposed solution is that my mother decides, for herself, because she's an adult, whether or not she wants to bring my middle brother with the problem, given how he's been talking to her. She's thinking about this, but knowing Mom, she won't be able to not bring him, no matter how shitty he is. I am also going to talk to my younger brother about this. I am also going to give the brother in question a call (after my EXAMS, though, GOD) and try to gauge for myself how he's going to speak to me. I am willing to disinvite him if they request it or I feel it's needed, and it's not necessary to just cancel Christmas if we decide he's too unstable to be around. There is actually a chance he just won't come at all, of his own accord, because he hates leaving our small town and will probably see it as a chance to get fucked up and watch all the TV he wants. If he does come, we set our own boundaries, and we prepare for the eventuality that I have to ask him to leave my house (we find out which cab companies are open on the days in question, and we have a little bit of cash on hand to give him for a cab ride. But we don't force him to get in the cab).

Oh, and they're already getting a hotel room, and I've told my youngest brother to stay here with us. I invited Mom to stay with us, too, but she probably will just go back to the hotel.

Ideally, they'd drive down in time to have dinner with us on Christmas Eve, come over on Christmas day around noon for lunch and gifts, and then go home. I think that's a manageable amount of time. In the end, if my partner is too frightened for even that, I will probably defer to her. But that's going to be a hell of a conversation.

5. For whatever it's worth, I think my mother should kick him out and let him fall on his ass--I essentially agree that even if he's mentally ill, he'll feed himself. And he works, yes, so it's not like he's broke. He's just not really a functioning adult outside of that work, so he's never gotten his own place. Mom has tried to make him leave before, but she always ends up relenting and telling him to come back when he does things like sleep on the front porch or end up in a sketchy living situation. It's a very, very unhealthy situation, and it's not something we can just fix by telling her to go to al-anon or whatever. Frankly, my brother isn't the only person in my family who doesn't cope well with life and has patterns that need breaking. Mom is currently trying to find a local therapist to help her figure out what to do, a positive sign, a break from normal for her, but I am afraid she's not going to find the answer she wants, which is "here is how to help him and completely ensure his safety while relieving yourself of this burden."

But if you're not inside of this, if you haven't dealt with this, you have no idea how hard this will be for her, and you probably have no sense of how this is for me. It helps that Mom watched my grandmother be an enabler for her entire life and doesn't want to repeat that.

6. The "history of mental illness" in my family is schizophrenia and addiction, basically. I didn't know you could self-medicate for schizophrenia. Lord, I wish my brother would go to a damned therapist.
posted by taz at 5:28 AM on December 8, 2011

I think it's perfectly fine to not invite an abusive person into your home. While this sort of thing may be silently endured by the victims, you do not have to put him up for the night. You are not out of bounds for not wanting your child to be exposed to this and for not wanting this in your home.

Make your choice and then other people will make their choices around that. Don't invite an abusive person into your home EVER.
posted by inturnaround at 6:37 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I also think your partner gets two votes in this. This is *your* family and while you feel like you can predict everyone's behavior based on your familiarity, just keep in mind that your partner has no such feelings.

Good luck - I hope the holidays go well and that your family gets the help they need.
posted by amanda at 7:29 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Listen to your partner's worry and take it seriously.

I am genuinely scared for the safety of my mother and brother-in-law, and now, for my own family, especially my son.

He doesn't have to be violent to be scary. He doesn't have to be scary to you to be scary your partner. Your partner's opinion is worth more than your therapist's opinion.

I also see no reason why it would be a good idea for your mother--part of a highly dysfunctional family system--to make this decision when your partner is so adamant that they are afraid.

I also don't see why you'd refuse to make your brother get into a cab.

Listen to your partner. Put your partner and your son FIRST.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:18 AM on December 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

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