I come from a large, close-knit Italian family that lives in a small town about eighteen miles south of Boston. When I was first being diagnosed with MS, my little brother was on a downward spiral into the world of drug addiction. He is only eighteen months younger than me and as a result we have a lot of common friends. During this time, my friends were telling me about his erratic behavior that was putting himself and others in danger. I decided, as the big brother, that I needed to talk to my parents about his condition and as a family we needed to intervene.
The reaction I got from my family was unpredictable. My entire family turned on me. My mom and dad told family, friends, as well as, people at church and at the country club what a horrible person I was. They were spreading lies about me which was turning people in the community against me. My mother eventually wrote a letter to me disowning me from the family.
My family’s public smear campaign deeply impacted me. The stress of being disowned was exacerbating my MS symptoms. In a small town, gossip travels fast. I was uncomfortable going to public places in my hometown because of the stares and judgment that I felt when I ran into former family friends. The problem still remained that my brother’s addiction was progressing and no one was doing anything to stop it. Rather, they were doing everything to enable it.
As my family relationships deteriorated, the tolls on my health were evident. Even though I loved my family enough to tell the truth about my brother, it was apparent that my decision to do so cost me most of my life-long relationships that I had in my hometown. The only way I was going to be able to stop the stress that was killing me was to eliminate these toxic relationships. I had to come to terms with the fact that I had done all that I could do and that their reaction wasn’t about me, rather it was their denial about my brother.
With my family bonds destroyed, so were my ties to my hometown. Jocelyn and I decided to move back to Arizona, where we met during our college years. About that time, my brother’s drug problem had boiled to the surface. He was now a heroin addict entering rehab. It was at this time that my mother realized what she had done.
Right before we left for Arizona, she came and apologized. After that, my dad came and apologized, as well. They both claimed that they didn’t know how bad it had gotten with my brother and that they were in denial. They said that they didn’t mean to destroy their relationship with me and pleaded for me to let them back into their lives. I forgave them and let them back into my life and let them establish a relationship with our children.
The broken chains of our family would not be fixed overnight. My brother’s heroin addiction has now taken an emotional and financial toll on my parents. My brother also contracted Hepatitis from sharing dirty needles. During one of his rehab stints in Arizona, he apologized to me for everything that the family did to me in order to protect him. He was broken hearted that I had been cast aside for trying to stop him from destroying his life. He said that I was the only one who ever tried to help him before it was too late.
Working on these toxic relationships has reduced my overall stress level and has been beneficial to my health. While it was hard to cut the ties, the decision to do so has put me in a better place overall. In my case the old adage was true. I loved them so I let them go and the ones who truly loved me returned. The ones who didn’t are no longer a part of my life. As a result, my life is happier, healthier with a greater sense of self-worth than when I was fostering those toxic relationships.
This was adapted from a passage in my second book, 7 Steps to Living Well with a Chronic Illness. It is accompanied by a Toxic Relationship Exercise and strategies for how to reevaluate toxic relationships in your life. If you are interested in my brother’s story you can learn more on my blog.