Ask Katie: Why Won't My Cousin Talk To Me?

By Katie MacBride 03/07/17

Here’s the thing about being in recovery: we are not entitled to anyone absolving us of the shit we did when we were using.

A woman with a grumpy face
I hurt them, but I'm better now. Why won't they talk to me?

I’m three months out of rehab and things are mostly going well. I’m seeing a therapist that was recommended by the hospital where I got treatment and I go to meetings and work with a sponsor. I did some messed up things when I was drinking and using–-drove when I shouldn’t have, lied about where I was and, more than anything, lied about if or how much I had been drinking and using. I know that I hurt my family and friends with those lies and I feel terrible about it. Still, they’ve mostly been kind to me since I got out of treatment and they have all told me that they’re just happy that I’m sober. I know I will owe them amends when I get to that step, but it doesn’t seem like an immediate need.

The exception is my cousin. She and I have always been super close, we’re only a few months apart in age, we grew up near each other, we’re more like sisters or friends than cousins. Honestly, she’s the person I would have expected to be the most understanding and forgiving out of everyone. We used to laugh at the grudge-holding capabilities of the rest of our family! Since I got out of rehab, she treats me like a completely different person. It’s obvious she doesn’t want to talk to me, she won’t let me be alone with her son–-my three year old nephew–-and glares at me any time I play or interact with him. I could understand this if I had been around him drunk a lot or, worse, something bad had happened to him while he was in my care, but that’s not the case. My cousin was only living in our hometown for the last two months of my drinking/using, and I barely saw her or my nephew. She’s not usually melodramatic but it really feels like she’s being ridiculous now. I know I need to talk to her but what do I say? I know starting off by telling her how stupid and frustrating it is that she’s making this about her, but that’s all I want to do.



Dear J,

One of the most disappointing realities of life is that if all you want to do is tell someone “how stupid and frustrating” they are being, it’s probably a bad idea. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad idea to tell someone what you think of their behavior–-it can be a valuable part of communication. But if you have that “all I want to do” urge, the I cannot possibly rest until I inform this person of what a complete ass they’re being feeling, it’s almost always a bad idea. I don’t know about you, but I find this incredibly disappointing. I thrive on righteous anger. When I have been wronged (or think I’ve been wronged), it can consume me. I want to set the record straight immediately, let everyone know exactly what I think. If I don’t? It aggressively nags at me, like I think it’s aggressively nagging at you, J.

If I were to let that feeling drive me into, say, a confrontation with my cousin, it would be incredibly satisfying to angrily outline the many injustices I believe have been perpetrated against me. Well, it would be satisfying for about 35 seconds. I would say my piece but because I’m going into it with the fresh rage, I’m very likely to get carried away. And by very likely I mean I’m absolutely guaranteed to say something I will later regret. So the satisfaction of letting out my anger is immediately followed by the thought shhhhiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit, what did I just do? Perhaps you are a more tranquil, articulate person than I am, J. But I think it’s a good rule of thumb to, if possible, wait until the anger doesn’t feel quite so immediate before approaching your cousin for a chat.

That’s not to say you should ignore your frustration and anger. Recognize it, maybe write down all the things you wish you could say to your cousin–-and don’t hold back. Then, rip up or otherwise destroy that piece of paper (if you have ever seen a television drama, you will know why this part is important), and move on. Temporarily. You probably will talk about this with your cousin at some point. Your questions are valid and I understand why you feel the way you do. I just don’t think talking to your cousin right now is going to be helpful to either of you.

As for why she’s behaving the way she is: I obviously can’t say for sure, but I have a couple of guesses:

  • She’s scared. It may be coming across more like anger, but I think she’s dealing with some very valid fear. Look at it from her perspective, she had been been living out of town for however long and she returns home to find you drinking/using and in need of inpatient treatment. Not only are you not acting like the person she knows so well (because few of us do when we’re in the throes of our addiction), she doesn’t know who you are. You’re unpredictable (because all of us are when we’re in the throes of our addiction). She was likely scared for you, your health, your safety.

On top of that, she has a three year-old child to think about. Her first priority is making sure that he is safe. By not wanting you alone with him, she’s not saying that she absolutely doesn’t trust you, she’s saying that she can’t be 100% sure you are going to be reliable and responsible with him. It’s hurtful, I know, but it’s also understandable. She needs to watch you interact with him before she’s going to feel comfortable.

  • There’s also the possibility that you did actually do something that gives her reason for concern, you just don’t remember. I wasn’t present for your drinking/using, so I could be wrong but many of us, myself included, have significant gaps in our memories, especially toward the end of our drinking and using. I shudder to think about the things I might not remember I said to loved ones. You have to at least consider the possibility that you said or did something you don’t remember that’s warranting this behavior. That possibility might increase your desire to pull your cousin aside and ask her, but I would continue to hold off.

Here’s the thing about being in recovery: we are not entitled to anyone absolving us of the shit we did when we were using. It’s lovely and compassionate if the people around us choose to do that, as it sounds like many of the people in your life have, but that’s not something we’re owed. Even if the things we did can’t be measured in tangible, concrete harm, small things can build up into an overall sense of mistrust. Things like repeatedly not showing up/being late, going MIA, obvious lies. When we’re active in our addiction, these are just normal parts of life. But they hurt other people, probably more than we’re capable of realizing at the time.

So why shouldn't you just apologize? Because you’ve probably done a ton of apologizing that didn’t result in any changed behavior. When I was drinking, I know I would repeat how truly sorry I was for [fill in the blank with any number of crappy things] and promised to change/never do it again. I was convincing because I really believed it. I really was sorry and I really was determined to change. Without willingness, a program of recovery, and help, I wasn’t able to keep those promises. I disappointed my loved ones again and again.

Even though you’ve been sober for a few months, your cousin is probably a little skittish. She’s heard profuse apologies, and/or seen you apologize to others. You just have to understand that you need to regain trust based on your actions, not your words. It’s not for you to determine how long that should take. It can be frustrating but that’s just one of the parts of being a recovering addict that you have to learn to accept. She’s family and you have been close since childhood. I’m very confident that you two will work it out. Just let it happen on her time frame, not yours.

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at