I’ve read your advice to other people. I’ve suffered for a long time with my own financial and family problems. I would value your thoughts.
My younger brother developed a lifelong drug addiction when he was a teenager. My father, who grew up in an orphanage, provided him with financial support that enabled him to, as my brother once said, have a home and family while “being too drugged to ever see them clearly.”
He saw his whole world through a haze. He also said that getting off drugs was difficult enough, but when our parents financially support his addiction life became impossible for him. My father purchased some things, including my brother’s house or cars for him, but kept them in his name so my brother could not sell them.
He created opportunities for my brother to steal from him. Sometimes he would send my brother to collect thousands of dollars from a customer, and the money would of course go missing.
“‘My father created opportunities for my brother to steal from him. Sometimes he would send my brother to collect thousands of dollars from a customer, and the money would go missing.’”
Another time he sent my brother to his house and left several bank passbooks on a counter. These situations let my father claim that he was robbed by my brother, and that he was not giving my brother money to buy drugs.
This went on for decades. I often had nightmares that my brother needed me to rescue him, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Of course, I pleaded with my father many times and even had thoughts of harming him to free my brother.
Once I called the district attorney’s office and begged for help. I was told that no crime was being committed.
Question 1: What else could I have done?
After my father died my mother continued this practice, with excuses like this, “He calls me for money. He says it’s for medical bills or to pay gambling debts.” She told me, “I can’t say no to him.”
She also distributed almost all of my father’s estate to his children. I used my own share and other savings to take advantage of a really good real-estate opportunity. Along with my small pension, I have lived very modestly for 5 to 10 years.
“‘Eight years after my father passed away, my mother asked me to return the money she gave me from my father’s estate. Of course, she really wanted the money for my brother.’”
Eight years after my father passed away, my mother asked me to return the money she gave me from my father’s estate. Of course, she really wanted the money for my brother. She said that she was at the end of her life, and she didn’t want to die penniless. I told her that I needed time to liquidate the land.
She became very angry with me, saying that I had money to live on and I should give her those funds. I explained that I had enough liquid assets left to live for a few years, but if I gave her what she wanted I’d have to try to sell my real estate during the 2008 financial crisis.
I was in good health, close to 70 years old. I was planning to sell the property when the market recovered and use the funds to live on for the next couple of decades. Liquidating my investment in 2008 would put me in poverty for the rest of my life.
My mother was always a very frugal woman and even at this age her intellect and personality had not changed. She would never imagine wanting to die holding a large amount of cash. It had to be my brother’s idea.
“‘My mother enlisted my sister and my son to help her. We all agreed that it was her money and I should return it. They all felt I should give her the money immediately.’”
My mother enlisted my sister and my son to help her. We all agreed that it was her money and I should return it. They all felt I should give her the money immediately, and after that my finances would be my problem.
Whether she wanted the money for herself or my brother didn’t matter to them. I felt that after holding the money for eight years I should be allowed some time to liquidate the property efficiently, which I did. My mother remained angry with me for the remaining two years of her life.
Over the years he frequently called me asking for money. I always told him I loved him then turned him down. Once I agreed to meet him, but instead I took him to a good rehab center. He always appreciated me, and told me he loved me. Not being able to help him was the curse of my life.
Question 2: What, if anything, should I have done differently regarding my mother’s request?
For years my mother took her three children out to dinner at least once a year. After the main course my mother would always order cake, or ice cream or pie for my diabetic brother. He never asked for it, nor did he refuse it.
I’d get angry with my mother and protest that my brother had severe diabetes, which was already destroying the nerves in his feet. She, being obese herself, would respond that nobody had put me in charge of his diet and that he deserved some sweets just like the rest of us.
I always let it end like that until one dinner after my mother had died: I was visiting my hometown when my sister and her husband invited my brother and me to dinner at their favorite new restaurant.
I was surprised that she invited my brother, but I was happy to see him. During the dinner she took charge of the ordering, even requesting a very expensive wine, thus making it clear that we were her guests, and she was paying for the evening.
“‘After the main course my mother would always order cake, or ice cream or pie for my diabetic brother. He never asked for it, nor did he refuse it. I’d get angry with my mother and protest.’”
After the main course, she ordered dessert for herself and for my brother. I wanted to object again, but seeing that my objections didn’t matter when my mother was alive, they probably wouldn’t matter now that my sister was taking over.
Besides, the people that think it’s a good idea to give cake to a very sick diabetic aren’t going to listen to what I have to say. So I yanked the plate of cake away from my brother. My sister became enraged. The whole family descended on me in a rage: “You come for a visit and think you’re taking over? He can decide for himself!”
Question 3: What should I have done at the dinner?
All I could say in my defense was that he’s my little brother, and he’s sick and I need to protect him. In the days to come, my daughter and other family members all unanimously agreed that I was an evil, controlling person.
One person came up to me, hugged me, told me he loved me, and thanked me: My brother.
A Brother and Son, Who Tried to do the Right Thing
Let me answer your questions in reverse order.
You did what you did. When you’re dealing with a family member who has a substance abuse disorder for most of his life, and your family has chosen to enable his addiction, ignore his addiction and/or finance his addiction, you do not need to be forgiven for intervening in an act of frustration and pain that was decades in the making. We are all human.
Snatching the plate away was a minor infraction of dinner-party etiquette. Their response was completely over the top, and totally out of proportion. Your family did not see red because you yanked a plate with a piece of pie on it, they lost the plot because you addressed the elephant in the room — not your brother’s diabetes, but his long history of addiction, and hour family’s willingness to turn a blind eye to it.
Your brother has two diseases: Addiction and diabetes. Your family’s motto was built on sweet desserts and secrets. You had the courage and the tenacity to unmask that. Your father enabled your brother. He did not grow up with the tools to fix the problem. Your mother may have stood by and done nothing and/or asked for your inheritance back to ensure he had enough money to live on.
Your sister, for better or for worse, is your mother’s daughter. She grew up with the same lessons that the best thing to do was to ignore your brother’s addiction issues. Nobody in your family had the knowledge or capacity or, perhaps more accurately, the willingness to address this problem. Your sister played along, and she showed her love and support the only way she was taught to do.
“‘Your family did not see red because you yanked a plate with a piece of pie on it, they lost the plot because you directly addressed the elephant in the room.’”
You were all taken hostage by your brother’s disease, and your family’s unwritten rules and values. You found a rehab for your brother. But he, and only he, has to want to get better. You tried time and again. The dessert was the last straw. Frankly, I think you did exactly the right thing at that dinner. You pointed a big neon sign at decades of silence and facilitation. You broke their rules.
Question 2: You gave up your inheritance. What could you have done regarding your mother’s request? Yes, you could have said no. It was your money. But as your brother’s relationship with the rest of your family shows, this is not a family built on people saying “no” to others. It is a family based on “yes.” But always saying “yes” does not leave room for our own happiness. You did the best you could at the time.
As to Question 3: What else could you have done to protect your father from your brother? Your father may have felt under pressure to help your brother out financially, but he was not under your brother’s care, and you did not cite any other signs of emotional abuse, aside from the manipulations of a person who was and is in the throes of the disease of addiction.
You could have staged a family intervention, but you would have needed the cooperation of your family. You could have looked into rehab facilities, but that would have required the cooperation of your brother. You can’t live other people’s lives for them, and it’s a mistake to punish yourself for not doing enough for someone who could not or would not help themselves.
No one thanked you for selling the land. Instead, your mother was angry that you did not do it on her terms and, lest we forget, her anger helped persuade you to hand over the money. You stood by your brother, a man who acknowledged that one person at that dinner table was strong enough and bold enough to set a boundary in order to protect him. Forgive yourself for doing the best you could do.
You loved your brother, and you protested at how your family enabled him. They knew this, but they acted as a tribe that does things their way. Your brother took drugs and he ate sweet desserts. Your family was beholden to his addiction, and tied to the ways they have always done things. You tried to break those rules. I’m not sure even Mahatma Gandhi could have succeeded where you did not.
We are all a product of our upbringing. The 12-step program Al-Anon has a very simple message for families of people who have drug and alcohol problems, and have spent their lives putting other people first: “You didn’t create it, you’re not responsible for it, and you can’t cure it.” Your family’s habit of being quick to anger, and history of acquiescence may go back not years, but generations.
You did enough.
You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at email@example.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.
Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.
The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.
More from Quentin Fottrell:
‘This has bugged me all my life’: My estranged father gave me $1,000 a month to buy a house in California. My brother cried foul, and told me to stop. Who’s right?
My stepmother has been less than ethical’: I suspect my stepmom removed me as beneficiary from my late father’s life-insurance policy. What can I do?
My mother cut me from her will and my sibling cashed out her annuity, on which I was a beneficiary. Should I sue?