Hesitant to insert myself into messy family issue
December 28, 2017 1:50 PM   Subscribe

Am I obligated to involve myself in this awful family drama? Is there anything I can do to help without being pulled into it?

I have been estranged from my parent and step-parent for about 20 years, due to step-parent's emotional abuse and untreated mental illness. Parent has not been actively abusive, but has ignored, enabled, and excused the abuse. My removing myself from their orbit (moving to another state, not speaking with them except on holidays, disconnecting from them on social media, only seeing them once or twice a year at large family gatherings) has also meant that I have been largely cut off from a relationship with my half-sibling, who is much younger than I am and who has also struggled with mental illness. I have felt guilt about not intervening on behalf of my half-sibling, but also have felt that it was critically important for my own mental health that I not have much contact with these people.

This separation was holding up pretty well until just recently. I would dread any contact with my parent and step-parent, but it was minimal and mostly manageable. I was also beginning to forge a tentative online relationship with my half-sibling, apart from our parents. But last week I was contacted by my parent, who let me know that my half-sibling had "gone nuts" and that my parents had called the police and had my half-sibling arrested on a domestic violence charge.

I have no doubt that whatever this incident was, my step-parent had some role in it, if only by having abused this mentally ill young person for years, to the point that they lashed out. In the moment, on the phone with my parent, I expressed shock and said that I was sorry that the incident had happened. They sounded very sad and in a moment of weakness, I told parent that they should feel free to text or call me if they needed to talk.

Now, parent has actually reached out, trying to connect with me on social media, and all I can think is, "Oh no." I do not want this mess in my life again. I feel terribly sorry for my half-sibling, having to deal with all of this, but don't know how to help them. It's not currently possible for me to provide half-sibling with financial support or to offer them a place to stay. It feels like a thing that I should want to do, but the idea fills me with dread and also isn't practical. I fear that the horrible circumstances will drive my half-sibling to take their own life, but I don't know if that's a realistic fear.

Part of me feels like I should help, but I don't know what to do. Part of me feels like I should continue to stay far away from the situation, to not allow them a toehold in my life. I'm paralyzed and don't know what to do, and could use feedback. If you have ever been in a situation like this, did you help or stay out of it? What was the outcome? Did you have regrets about your choice?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total)
This sounds like a "put your own oxygen mask on first" sort of situation, and I don't think you're obligated to become more involved simply because you share DNA with people. It sounds like the person you would most want to help is your step-sibling, but also wanting to help someone won't magically make you have extra cash or space in your house. I think it's really important to be realistic about what sort of support you can offer to people, and what that support can do. I can't tell if your step-sibling has actually shown signs of being suicidal or if you're just worried about that possibility, but realistically I feel like a relative who they've had limited contact with online and who lives in another state is not going to be the person who prevents a tragedy like that, even if you had unlimited financial/space/emotional resources to share. Perhaps you could reach out using whatever online medium you have already been using to say something along the lines of "Hey, I'm thinking of you in this difficult time, given what I know about the family context I believe you aren't fully responsible for whatever happened, and I wanted to pass along this phone number in case it would be helpful to you"...and then share a suicide hotline number or some other type of mental health hotline. Someone who is trained and doing their job, and has more emotional distance, is probably going to be able to be much more helpful anyway.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:05 PM on December 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

You could tell your mother that she might want to talk to some people who know more than you about how to help in this situation and then give her the contact for the local group at NAMI. They have great resources for parents as well as services of the people dealing with mental illness.
posted by metahawk at 2:20 PM on December 28, 2017 [11 favorites]

I would tell parent that I prefer to contact them only by the means I wish, rather than social media.
posted by brujita at 2:47 PM on December 28, 2017 [12 favorites]

They sounded very sad and in a moment of weakness, I told parent that they should feel free to text or call me if they needed to talk.

You're allowed to change your mind. That is a thing that humans get to do. If it were me, I'd respond with, "I realize that I told you could reach out, but I now feel uncomfortable about this level of contact. Please don't contact me again."

If it were me and I could, I'd probably also reach out to the half-sibling and let them know that I was available in whatever limited way I could manage -- text? email? letters? -- if that were true.
posted by lazuli at 4:37 PM on December 28, 2017 [9 favorites]

Definitely don't connect on social media. You are entitled to maintain whatever boundaries you like. Keep reaching out to your sibling.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 4:39 PM on December 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

The parent didn't do what you offered, which was text or call to talk about this particular situation. Instead the parent overstepped and tried to gain long-term open-door immersion into your online life, which you had kept away from them.

No. You do not have to engage with this person online. You can take their calls and reply to their texts at your discretion, on your schedule, and with your boundaries intact.

And if you change your mind about calls and texts, or if the parent continues to reach out after this instance is over, then you can rescind the offer.

Your life. Your call. "No" is a complete sentence.

And as far as your younger sibling is concerned, even in ideal circumstances you have no control over their choices. Love and support them as best you can, but take care of yourself.
posted by headnsouth at 5:51 AM on December 29, 2017 [8 favorites]

Online media and texting have nothing to do with the appropriate communication and support that could occur.
posted by lathrop at 7:57 PM on December 29, 2017

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