Dear Fuck-Up: Can I Beg My Brother to Forgive Our Alcoholic Mom?

I am distraught at the thought of losing my family.

Diego Eidelman / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

Dear Fuck-Up,

I come from a fucked-up family: both my parents are alcoholics, and my brother and I both have a collection of mental illnesses resulting from assorted childhood traumas. For a long time I lived at home and longed to get out, but now I have a good life for myself; in a few months, I'm getting married. My brother has had a rough go of it, though, and he's living with me and my fiance.

Last winter, my brother was between work and struggling with his mental health and I encouraged him to go live with our mother, who was alone because of COVID and also fragile. It went very badly. One night in a fight I still don't understand, my mother — no doubt extremely drunk — kicked my brother out of the house, and I guess this was the last straw. My brother has cut our mother out of his life, and insists he never wants to see or speak to her again.

My mother is bereft. She is suicidal. And she is leaning on me, the only person in the family everyone still speaks to. I do not know what to do. I want to beg my brother to make peace because the loss of my family as a family is agony and because I am scared for our mother. But so many people are encouraging my brother to never have anything to do with our mother ever again. Our cultural scripts towards abusers, addicts, narcissists etc. are so black and white. Fuck-Up, can I ask my brother to make peace, or would that make me an enabler? And if I can't, how do I bear the loss of my family?



Dear Grieving,

I am somewhat of an expert on unrequited feelings. I have a long and mortifying history of falling for people who do not share my affection, either in degree or in kind. This may not seem like it has a lot to do with your question, but bear with me for a moment. The lesson of unrequited love — the simple, humiliating lesson I have had to learn over and over again — is that there is no feeling strong enough that you can feel it on behalf of another. Feelings like love and familial devotion can be sincere, sincere enough that you may stake the very meaning of your life to them, but ultimately they are yours alone and you cannot make someone else feel the way you want them to by sheer force of wanting.

Nor would life be any kind of thing worth living if we were all walking around with that power. That is the wonder and the torment of the world: it is filled with other people who get to make the decisions that are right for them. I agree that we are often too quick to recommend extreme measures when it comes to those society deems in any way “toxic.” The internet is full of strangers urging everyone to cut off contact with their friends and family members for the slightest transgression. This isn’t a great state of affairs, and it tends to strip people down to only their worst actions. But that doesn’t mean your brother was wrong to make this choice.

You say your mother is bereft and suicidal. You do not say she is offering to do anything that might make it easier for your brother to continue to be around her and feel safe. You may have developed your own tools over the years that allow you to withstand her whims, but you are also aware that your brother is more vulnerable than you right now. Your life is going pretty well, his less so. As fragile as your mother may be due to things beyond her control, your brother is also fragile due in no small part to those very same things.

I understand wanting him to forgive her. I wish I had any kind of answer for you but the desire to protect both your mother and your brother from the consequences of her actions are fundamentally in conflict here. It may not always be this way. There could come a time when your brother decides it is worth the risk of having your mother in his life. That is his choice, not yours.

In the meantime, I can only urge you to still think of the people you love — your mother, your brother, your soon-to-be spouse — as a family. You haven’t lost them, but you might if you try to force them into the shape you want.


A Fuck-Up

Have a question? Email