Tough Love: What does that mean?
A few years ago, Lynn was so worried about my brother, James, and his drinking habit, that she wanted to stage an intervention. She was worried he’d lose his kids if he didn’t do something about it. I was roped in, to take up the sympathetic role, because of my drug history, which at that stage my sister believed was something firmly in my past. Though the term ‘tough love’ was never applied to that situation, to that intervention, that never happened, the principles of diving into someone’s life and derailing the course they’re on, in order to stop the calamity and damage they’re doing to themselves are absolute ‘tough love’.
As time passed I was using more and more meth – one gram a week became three. Three grams a week became one gram a day, then three. As my mind started to unravel with the prolonged periods of sleepless paranoia, and my cash demands more frequent, more pleading, more frantic, my family couldn’t ignore the signs anymore, and once more, the intervention machine was started up, this time, for me.
Living so far apart, in Lydenburg, Musina and Dubai, my brothers and sister could in reality only intervene, as it were, via email and telephone. My sister, ever the brave one in these situations, but also, the more diplomatic, took charge and phoned, and in a calm way she put the family’s suspicions and fears and confirmations forward: I was smoking crystal meth, they had it confirmed from my dealer, who was a family friend – and that fact was a hard blow in itself, to my family – and spending vast sums on the drug. They were cutting me off. There would be no more money from the family, and I would have to sort myself out.
Was that tough love? No, though this time my sister actually used the words, but it wasn’t tough love, it was dissociation.
Dissociation because all those years ago, when Lynn wanted to help James, I told her not to. I convinced her – and most sincerely, too – that if an addict didn’t want to be helped, that if a drunk didn’t want come to you for help, and see and agree that they had a problem that needed help, they would never be helped, could not be saved. Not unless you were prepared to step in and help with the care for their family, the paying of their bills, recreating the very infrastructure and support basis that they would need as you swept in and destroyed their existing life. You couldn’t simply be a catalyst, drop a block of concrete in front of the runaway train that was their life, and escape from the ensuing wreckage. You had a Responsibility, with all the pomp and circumstance and duty and obligation of that capital ‘R’.
My family could not give that, via the telephone, in mid-2012. Even if they could, I would not have accepted it. Though my sister’s voice remained calm, for the most part, except of course for the parts where I reduced her to tears, my responses were anything but – I screamed, I shouted, I denied, I lied. And moved ever closer to breaking point, and rock bottom.
And so little by little, I instituted tough love on myself, by myself. I pushed them away, pushed them out of my life. I attacked George with the most vicious, cruel and cutting emails – he is by far the most sentimental of the four of us, so I went for the jugular, ripping at every part of his history, of his life, denigrating, obviating, loathing, hating, destroying the bond that brothers have. When Lynn called a few days later, I laid into her like she was the enemy. I laid into her extra hard, because she is the tough one, in the family, tough as nails. She’s the one you think is the fragile flower, she’s the most compassionate angel you could possibly hope to meet, delicate, tiny, so beautiful and so soft in nature, but she’s the one who pulled this family together when my dad died; she rolled in on her white charger, heroine, with her husband, to save the day, when my mother needed frail care, uprooting her family from Cape Town and moving them to Jozi, to care for my mother as she slowly wilted, and died. She’s the one who drove me to meet up with my step mother, after 12 years, to sort things out that I had wrong about my folks’ divorce in 1980. This meeting was just before my step mother died. It wouldn’t have happened were it not for Lynn. When Brother James emailed in a group email – I tread more carefully. As a former addict himself, he is like me: an accomplished liar to cover his addiction and has a hard outer shell that nothing cracks, though in truth, out of the four of us, he is the most fragile, while being such a pillar to his family. He is the most sensitive, the one most ready to open his arms, and hug you, in compassion. I tread more carefully, and then pulled the cruellest move of all – I ignored him. I simply wiped him out of my life, not deigning to make bold statements in his direction, least he call me on them, and strike a nerve. I attacked my brother-in-law, Joe, who’d acted as father when I lost mine at age 13. I attacked his mother, who’d spoiled me rotten like I was her very own grandson, all these years.
They didn’t have to give me tough love, I gave it myself, and left myself, open, vulnerable and alone as I continued to drug myself out of a sea of vitality, of friends and family, into a desert of insanity, and solitude.
When the final straw broke, when I pushed Cris beyond breaking point and he snapped, and attacked me, and I had nothing left to give, nowhere left to turn – no job, no car, no friends, no more lies and no more meth, that is when they should have abandoned me, and shown me what tough love was all about. It happens every day. You see them everywhere – the people who have been thrown away, whose families have given up on them, who are surplus to requirements and who scavenge on the detritus of urban life, living off the shit we throw away. You are what you eat, they say – well, my cupboards were bare, and my life was over – I had nothing to eat, and so I was nothing.
But that is when I learned about the true meaning of tough love. And it’s a hard truth to bear, so hear me out, it gets rocky from here on out, where before it was all plain sailing (though there was a hole in the ship, and the sails were torn in the storm-in-a-teacup that was all I could see of my life.)
My family became my God, when they turned on me: and what they turned on me was God’s own infinite mercy. Though I’d lied, stolen, hated, screamed, hurt, viciously struck out with my words and emotionally bullied – oh yes – I forgot about that: my Brother George and my Brother James and my Sister Lynn, they’re not the only powerful people in this family, not by a long shot! George is Most Sentimental and Most Capable. Lynn is Most Delicate and Most Tough. James is Most Sensitive and Most Loving. I am Most Vicious and Biggest Emotional Bully. I have other qualities too, good ones, but during these years, these two were my stock in trade. So though I had attacked, gone for all the vulnerabilities that only family members know about each other, though I said things that I’ll be paying for well into my next lifetime, my family stepped up to the plate, when I called out, brazenly, for help. Though they should have let me rot in the gutter, to prepare me for the rot of Hell, they swept in, and picked me up, with no criticism, with no anger, but with love, and hurt. You couldn’t miss the hurt, it was there, in their eyes, changing places with confusion and fear, at that pathetic man-turned-monster I’d become.
And this is the tough love part – this is what they did – they brought me back to life. Slowly, isolated, with much expense and pain to themselves, with much frustration and more compassion than a family should rightly have to dole out in such constant and vast amounts. They gave me a place to stay, something to do, bought me clothes, provided entertainment, care, love, warmth, a roof, a bath, an ear, support.
THAT, my friends – for I do still have friends despite my terribleness – THAT is tough love.