Monday, August 24, 2009

Ties That Bind

I hear tell that in the past week various weather events and CWA resolutions and other notable happenings have been going on in the wider world.

We've been rather preoccupied, you see, within our own family circle.

Fellow Traveler's sister and nephew came up from Florida last weekend to visit us and other FT family members. The plan was for them to bivouac with us for the second half of their stay, and go with us on a day trip to Mackinac Island, which our nephew had never visited before.

FT's sister is an alcoholic. Her drinking and other substance abuse problems have led to catastrophic consequences in her own life, including incarceration several years ago; she's a convicted felon. These days she maintains a certain level of functionality during the day -- she has a steady job and can pay her own way -- but as soon as she leaves work she starts drinking, and drinks for the rest of the day. She has a significant other who is also an alcoholic; her nights-and-weekends drinking buddy. Their home life is as dysfunctional as you might imagine. Her chain smoking has led to COPD, so she is never far from an inhaler and a portable nebulizer.d

Our nephew's dad, the sister's ex, is another substance-abuse casualty of the 60's and 70's. He is homeless, dying slowly of COPD and other health problems, and more or less lives on our nephew's sofa because no one else will take him in.

Our nephew -- who, FT tells me spent his early years being dragged by his neglectful, itinerent hippie parents from place to place, and who even spent time in foster care -- is a lovely, smart, funny and gentle young man who has, despite incredible odds, not only survived his childhood but has thrived in adulthood. He has a position of responsibility in a large company; he has a full-ride university scholarship and takes classes in addition to his full-time job. But he bears the burden of caring, in various ways, for two seriously damaged parents; he seems older, sadder, more serious, than his peers.

So he and his mother arrived this past week. She was edgy from the rationing of booze and cigarettes necessary in order to stay at her siblings' homes; she was also especially wheezy from COPD, spending a lot of time taking breathing treatments, and nursing a bandaged knee that she was reluctant to explain.

Our goal, as a household, was to help our nephew have as good a time as he could on what was also his vacation. And we knew that he was very much looking forward to a Mackinac Island experience, a place he'd never gotten to visit during his childhood. So we marshalled our resources for a fun trip to the Island and invited one of his other cousins to join us.

We arrived on Mackinac Island on Wednesday around noon and had lunch just a half-block from the dock, with plans to take a carriage tour around the Island afterward. FT's sister had become quiet during the meal, which we attributed to simple fatigue after our long car ride up north; but after a short trip up the street to find the departure point of our tour, we came back to find her in acute respiratory distress, purple and gasping for breath. Our niece said that as soon as she'd gotten on the main street sidewalk she'd started having a severe asthma attack. She'd also failed to pack the steroidal medication she is supposed to keep on hand for such incidents.

FT, seeing the stricken look on our nephew's face, said, "Why don't you and your cousin stay here today. We'll take your mother back to the mainland, and take her to the ER."

So that's what we did. FT's sister seemed to rally even on the ferry trip back; the quick exit from the proximity of horses and the fresh lake air seemed to do her good. By the time we reached St. Ignace she was breathing more smoothly, and insisted that she was fine, that she just needed some rest, and that she'd be happy to simply sightsee from our vehicle until it was time to pick up the kids. So we did that for an hour or so, up to the Les Cheneaux area and back.

As we approached St. Ignace and the ferry dock, FT's sister began to struggle with her breathing again. "I think you'd better take me to the hospital after all," she rasped. Fortunately we knew where that was, and got her to the ER; she was so weak she needed a wheelchair. We were both terrified -- especially from my own experience with my mother -- that she was on her way to a full-blown heart attack. FT stayed with her at the hospital while I took the Jeep back to the dock to pick up our nephew and niece.

We wound up spending the night in St. Ignace...and another night...and another night; with an intervening trip back home to drop off the cousin and find FT's sister's insurance card. It turned out that FT's sister had the beginnings of pneumonia. The doctor was also concerned about her health in general, especially after FT filled the staff in on the alcohol abuse and smoking and general life chaos. On Saturday morning, before she discharged FT's sister, the doctor had a come-to-Jesus chat with her, with her son and FT present, about the consequences of her addictions. "You have COPD. Your smoking, especially, is going to kill you," she added. "If you're not ready to die, you need to stop now."

FT's sister was defiant. "When I quit, it's going to be on my own terms," she announced to her crestfallen son, who'd told us he'd hoped that her cold-turkey three-day cigarette respite would somehow get her over the hump of at least that addiction.

So that's how the drama ended; with FT's sister self-absorbed, surly and demanding for the rest of her stay -- and not only that, but displaying actual aggression and cruelty toward FT, who has done nothing but help her these past few days -- and our nephew trying to put on a brave front for us while running interference for his mom; something I'm sure he's had to do his entire life for both his parents.

It takes a lot to make FT cry, but she cried herself to sleep last night. She is completely spent from this drama, angry at her sister and heartbroken for our nephew.

Addiction, up close like this, looks like a black hole whose voracity swallows everything in its path. It is not only self-destructive, but incredibly selfish.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I am extra-feeling for you because my best friend recently initiated an intervention for her dear sister. I don't know if she has gone into rehab yet, but the primary care doc did get an evaluation rolling. The family and best friend sought help from a pastor who helps people with interventions and is a "been there, done that" person in regards to alcohol.

But after one confronts the person, if even that, one can only pray and let go. And AA would tell you that too.

Mary Beth said...

Aw man. Hugs to you.