Not Helping Family Members Who Won’t Help Themselves

unhappy man holding face between hands in distress

January was the fucking worst for my family. We’re talking job struggles, multiple illnesses, the consequences of alcoholism, hospitalizations, restraining orders, massive arguments, physical fights, mental health breakdowns, financial hardships, broken relationships, police calls, charges filed, and a surprise-to-the-family newborn . . .

I’d like to say that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not.

However, I’d like to thank The Universe because, for Hubster and me, January was delightfully boring.* We ate pies, hand pies, and pizza pies. We completed a timeline rewatch of all things Star Wars. And we saved a lot of money by eating at home way more than we usually do. I barely left the house. We rested a ton.

Old Me would’ve felt guilty about that. New Me feels a different struggle.

While I’m fine with how nice things have been for us*, my struggle is the compulsion to help my family. I’ve always been there for them, but I low-key resolved that this was the year of boundaries. For example, I’m not saying “yes” to things I don’t want to do, I’m protecting and respecting my space as my sanctuary from the outside world, and I’m not stressing myself out to help people who aren’t helping themselves.

Or at least I’m trying not to stress myself out. When my loved ones have struggles, my standard reaction is to listen, to be the one who hears them out. I typically offer advice, though I’m slowly learning to keep my advice to myself unless it’s requested. I check in. I offer resources. I’m not very good at physically being present, so I give my all when it comes to being the shoulder to cry on. I am, informally, the family therapist because several of them won’t go to or can’t afford therapy.

Unfortunately, I also think their problems are my problems, and I absorb emotions. I spend my time worrying about the other person and thinking up solutions. Worse, if they asked for advice, the teacher in me keeps tabs on their progress. That’s fine in the classroom, but in life, it absolutely does not work. People are shit at taking advice, especially family, and most especially my family. When I say I’m a Professional Contrarian, it’s because my family is from the planet Contrary.

That’s exactly why I didn’t know what boundaries were for the longest time, and why I’m just now resolving to create and maintain them in my mid-40s. Tell someone in my family not to call you before 9 a.m.? Guess what’ll happen the next morning. Tell them you don’t like something they did? They’ll immediately do it again. Recommend they stop drinking? They drink more. I can cite examples of actual incidents here, but I’m not out to embarrass my family to the extreme. Just a little bit.

Therefore, I squirm at my latest boundary. It’s a no-win. I’m either worrying about their problems or worrying that I’m not helping them.

Mind you, I’m still hearing about their struggles. But because of my need to divest from other people’s problems, I have to remind myself multiple times a day that nothing is required of me. I’m literally repeating this in my head: “You don’t have to do anything.” I concoct whole plans of how to help a loved one, and I have to remind myself to file that plan away, redirect the energy, and let people experience their lives how they’re shaping them. The control enthusiast in me hates that shit.

It’s not that I refuse to help. It’s that some of my family members know full well that their behaviors are leading them into harm. Drinking, not taking meds, living in denial—these keep my loved ones stuck, and there’s only so many times you can remind them of what they already know. It sucks, and it hurts to watch them suffer. Every bit of me wants to rescue them from themselves; however, it occurs to me that my internalization of their stresses aggravates my fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety. At some point, I have to put my health first.

Earlier this afternoon, I got a text about more of these family struggles. It upset me. I reacted by formulating a plan to help. Instead, I spent a minute telling myself that I didn’t need to do anything at all, then I tried to figure out what to do with the energy and compulsion to act. I considered emailing my therapist.

Instead, I wrote this.

*Let’s pretend this delivery guy is me knocking on wood.

superstitiously hoping my family has better luck; man holding terminal and bag knocking on door
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on

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