As the sister of an addict, I struggled with a litany of feelings through my adult life: disappointment, anger, embarrassment, fear, impatience, misery, frustration, exhaustion. And love: I struggled to love her.
That sounds terrible, I know. You are supposed to love your family unconditionally. But what is unconditional love, really? Simply defined, it means love without conditions--restrictions or limits. Such a simple definition is ill-suited for complicated matters of the heart.
I struggled to love her.
I have heard some people argue that all love is unconditional; if there are any limits, then it's not love. I disagree with that notion. Limits are necessary, boundaries are healthy. I think it's the placement of limits that matters.
Are you establishing your own boundaries because you love yourself? Good for you. To love yourself unconditionally, you have to set limits on how you will allow other people to treat you and what you will tolerate. Upholding these boundaries may require you to make difficult decisions with people you love.
Are you helping your children learn to establish their own boundaries and recognize and respect someone else's boundaries? Great job! Thanks for doing the hard work of parenting and teaching your kids about healthy love. If you raise your child without limits or boundaries, let's be honest: your kid is probably an a-hole.
Are you putting conditions on someone to restrict your love? Well, this is where is gets tricky. If you tell your wife that you won't love her if she gains weight, you're a jerk and probably don't understand love at all. This is not an acceptable condition for loving your wife, IMHO. But if you have young children and your husband is abusive and unwilling to seek help, then you bet your ass you must put conditions on your love for your husband. You must prioritize your unconditional love for your children and yourself. You might love him, but he has to go.
Pretending that we don't have limits is silly and, quite frankly, a bit dangerous. I hope you have limits! Establishing your own boundaries is different than putting conditions on others as the basis for them receiving your love.
I love my husband unconditionally. When I asked him to please stop "helping" with the laundry, I was not saying, "I won't love you if you keep folding wrinkles into the clean clothes." I was not creating a condition in order for my love to continue. I was simply saying, "For the sake of my sanity, please understand that folding a stack of clothes that looks like this (my shirt, husband's unpaired sock, one son's shirt, other son's pants, husband's shirt, my underwear, husband's different unpaired sock, etc.) is more than I can handle." If I told my husband that I would not love him anymore if he continued to fold laundry, that would be conditional love. Surely, I will survive if my husband screws with my laundry system. This is not a personal boundary where I need to set limits for loving.
All loving requires communication, cooperation, and compromise. But loving my sister as a young adult was different level hard. Unconditional love is not earned. I offered it freely. But once it is offered, must it continue to be offered at any expense? Is there a point at which we are allowed to say enough? And if we do say enough, that means there is a limit and if there is a limit, is it still unconditional love? This is complicated stuff.
My sister was addicted to cocaine.
My sister was addicted to cocaine. For like, a long time. At one point she was acting so crazy that my husband and I actually feared that she was sick enough that she would be willing to sell our child in exchange for her next high. It hurts me to type that sentence, but that was the reality we were living in. It will hurt Jean to read that sentence, but she was too addicted to care back then. I had to say enough. I loved my sister despite what she was doing to herself and to our parents. Despite the lies, the stealing, and the hurt, I loved her and I worried about her. I endured things simply because I loved her. But when I became a mother, a new kind of unconditional love took over my heart. Things changed. I built a fortress to protect my kids from the madness of Jean's addiction. Ultimately, I had to let go of Jean, emotionally. I felt nothing. Not hatred. Just, nothing. I'm human. I'm flawed. But it's hard to love someone who keeps hurting you. Did I "only" love her conditionally? I don't know. I think I simply prioritized my children.
Watching my mom and dad wrangle the demons of my sister's addiction is one of the great sorrows of my life. They loved my sister through some horrific shit that caused great damage in our family, but they never gave up on her. Not once. Parents have the privilege, the joy, and the burden of true unconditional love.
Fast forward. We are now 8 years into my sister's sobriety, and I am thankful that we are reclaiming our relationship. We had to re=establish a foundation shaped by effort, patience, and trust. It took a long time for me, a really long time. But slowly, I found my sister again. I missed her. Because I love her.
Written by Laura B. Demers, © 2020 Reclamation Sisters