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Families in Crisis: Unable to See the Forest for the Trees

Written by Arden O'Connor
Published on May 31, 2016

FamilyCrisisI hate when my mother is right. She has been a wonderful role model, and remains one of the kindest people I know. She possesses one characteristic that cuts both ways – a well-honed level of skepticism, a “spidey” sense when someone is lying or something is wrong.

It drove me crazy in high school when she predicted which friends or boyfriends weren’t telling the whole truth. Three years ago was no exception. I’m at our first company outing on a Friday night at a bowling alley. We have about fifteen employees enjoying snacks and drinks, and I proudly look on. As I am preparing to bowl my first round, I glance down at my phone to see that I’ve missed 3 calls from my parents.

I call my mom back and she says, “Your brother Chris has relapsed – I know it. He sounds funny on the phone.” Despite many years of her intuition surpassing mine, I respond, “He is three years sober, you are being paranoid.” She insists, “Call him yourself right now.” I obey and once I get him on the phone, I knew she was right – Chris was slurring his words and speaking nonsensically. This one, three-minute phone call erased three years of his hard earned sobriety. Three years of my faith that he may live into thirties and achieve all the things he was capable of: graduating from school, starting a career, having a family.

While I was sad for Chris, I was mostly sad for us – Matt, Mom, Dad and my sister-in-law, Liz. We had just started to turn off our phones at night, believing Chris would be okay. Chris had come back for the holidays and felt like a true member of the family again. This phone called ensured that our family dynamics would return to the chaotic state of the prior 7 years.

My role felt different this time around, however. Three years prior to this call, I started O’Connor Professional Group, a company dedicated to helping families like ours with behavioral health issues. I had a team of 25 people at this point, a successful model of services and a growing client base. I was supposed to know the answers. I should have known my own brother wasn’t doing well; it shouldn’t have been my mom who figured it out.

Now that I knew, it was up to me to model the behavior that we talk to our clients about: coming up with an action plan, setting healthy boundaries, using leverage to get my brother to comply, and most of all, managing the family’s emotional fallout. My parents were looking to me to intervene. Did I follow the steps eloquently outlined above? Absolutely not.

Instead, I called my brother’s boss and screamed at him for not telling me that Chris was struggling. I called my brother’s girlfriend and told her to keep him in the house, informing her that I would grab my rescue mobile from Boston and head down to NY immediately to pick him up. My mom and I did exactly that, leaving Boston in the pouring rain at 10pm on a Friday, arriving at Sam’s apartment after 2am. After some brief cajoling and a promise of a stop at the liquor store, I took my high-as-a kite brother into the car outside, where my mom sat nervously. We got on the road, and I drove to detox.

These actions don’t make me a hero. If anything, the story above illustrates that even those of us who understand the disease and its effect on family systems and work as professionals in the behavioral health industry have trouble maintaining our objectivity when our own family members are involved. My lesson was simple – it’s easy to give advice, not as easy to take it. I pray that I won’t have to worry about a similar situation with Chris again, but if I do, I will turn to a trusted colleague to manage the crisis, and I will stay where I belong – as Chris’ supportive sister.

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