Dear Harry and Louise,
My brother (let’s call him Douglas) has had difficulty with drug use for many years. He is now forty and in a minimum security prison because he was caught doing drugs at work and stole prescription drugs from a family friend he was housesitting for. Before this happened, my parents arranged for him to go a well-respected rehabilitation center in another state. While Douglas was there for many weeks, I visited him once. The family was discouraged from visiting–except for that one visitor weekend. I will visit Douglas again in prison, but the problem concerns my husband and children.
My husband insists that our children (ages 9 and 14) are too young to visit their uncle in prison. I want them to go with me when I visit my brother. I love my brother, and I will be there for him no matter how long it takes for him to be well. I don’t see the need to hide his struggle from my children. My husband does not trust that my brother will ever be well since the rehabilitation did not work and he quickly returned to using drugs. Our lives can be described as charmed since our biggest concerns revolve around showing up to soccer games on time, making sure homework is done, and deciding where to eat out on Fridays.
Should I insist that my children accompany me during my visits to see my brother?
• • •
I agree with you. You should not shield the difficult reality of your brother’s drug use from you children. They are old enough to understand that life is not always pretty and that sometimes people we love have to deal with addiction or mental disease or physical illness or bankruptcy. . . . The list of life’s perils is a long one. Not one of us will live an unscathed life. We will either come face-to-face with one of life’s tragedies or someone we love will face it, and we will want to be by his side. Your children will learn from you that even when life is excruciatingly difficult, you will love and support your brother. Your love for him is unconditional, but not irresponsible. You would never sacrifice the well -being of your immediate family to support your brother, for example. All you want to do is visit your brother so that it becomes very hard for him to discount how much support he has.
Now I believe you must honor your husband’s wishes on this one. This is not counter to anything I just wrote. I agree with you, but I am not married to you. Your husband is flexing his protective instincts, which tell him to watch over his pack. The parental protective instinct is probably more powerful than that other love and adore one. Your husband is not the bad guy in this scenario because there is no bad guy. He doesn’t trust your brother, he wants to keep your brother from having an influential part of his charges’ lives, he wants to maintain the charming life he established with you that involves schlepping the kids to soccer practice and eating out on Fridays. He’s a fine, fine dad.
You should visit your brother alone. You should continue to discuss the visits with your husband–out of earshot from your children. Your children are also old enough to sense the tension that may grow between mom and dad over this issue. They won’t be completely shielded from that tension either, but they also don’t need it blaring right in from of them. As part of a compromise, explain to your husband that you while you disagree with his decision to not allow the kids to visit Douglas, you will honor it. In return, you need him to allow you to talk openly with the kids about your visits. You want to share parts of your conversation with Douglas. Douglas may have made you laugh until you cried. Douglas may have opened up about his plans for the future. The two of you may have recalled a poignant childhood memory. Sharing these conversations is a way to include your children in this very serious family issue without having them front and center during the prison visits. With time (and time could make this situation easier for everyone to absorb), your husband may change his mind. While he may have no interest in forging a bond with Douglas, he may realize that his children can. His charges can create a connection with Uncle Douglas and still have the sweet life of daily homework, soccer practice and pizza on Fridays.
• • •
I say take your children to jail. At 9 and 14, they are of age. If they were under the age of eight, they might find it too scary and out of their cozy, little worlds. But by 9, and certainly by 14, children have been admonished at school and in the media about the evils of drug addiction. They might know of kids in their school–or soccer teams–who have experimented with pot. Perhaps an older sibling has been busted. Hello, gangsta rap?
Having spent time in jails and prisons–both on assignment and as an inmate–I know that visits are highly organized and choreographed, dare I say sanitized, certainly safe. I also agree that kids raised in “charmed” environments can benefit from experiencing the cold, rough, confined existence on a corrections facility. And visiting a family member would certainly be more meaningful than a sterile, school trip. You described your love for your brother. Do your kids share that feeling? Are they close to him?
There is the matter of volition. I’m not sure I would force the children to accompany you to see your brother. Perhaps the older one wants to go, but the younger is not so eager. Honor their feelings. Here’s where your husband enters the picture. In the best of all possible worlds, you could convince him to come, too, and you could visit your brother as a family. Short of that, make sure you and your husband work this out in private, away from the children, so you can present the decision–to visit or not–as a clear one.
Ultimately, I believe that people can come back from addiction. It does not have to be a life sentence. It requires, therapy, rehab, inner strength–and love. You are right to want to keep your brother close.
• • •
This is not a tough-love, scared-straight, dangers of drug use issue. This is about family supporting family, and a dad who has a protective eye. Be patient with dad while providing support to your brother. Wait a minute–did you say inmate??!!
• • •
Not tough love: brotherly love and love for an uncle. The reality check comes with the love. Inmate? Once or twice. OK, three times.