Dealing With an Alcoholic Parent

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Dealing with any addict is difficult. Those fortunate enough never to have had to do so often underestimate how devious, manipulative, and ruthless they can be. Addiction changes people. Even the most loving and kind-hearted can transform into whiney, self-pitying monsters. Of course, when that monster is your parent, the pain is all the greater. And alcohol addiction is among the most dreadful to witness.

Understanding

The children of alcoholics, indeed the children of any addicts, are often irritated, even offended, by the suggestion that they try to “understand.” Many will justly reply, “that’s easy for you to say, you weren’t the one who had to come home from school to find his mother passed out on the sofa, surrounded by empty beer cans and still wearing her dressing gown.” Only those who have been there ever really know what it’s like.

But understanding is not the same as forgiveness, or even acceptance. A good example of this is provided by the British novelist Edward St Aubyn. Aubyn’s mother was an alcoholic, and he suffered appalling sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of his father. When he later wrote a series of novels based on his childhood, however, he was careful not to depict his father as a mere psychopath. Instead, he made it clear that this was a man in pain. Acknowledging the fact that your parents were neither monsters nor gods, but fragile, flawed human beings can help a great deal. It is also a sign of maturity.

People become alcoholics for all sorts of reasons. Some have addictive personalities, others use alcohol to blot out their loneliness and depression, or to help them overcome shyness and poor self-esteem. For many, alcohol provides a means of escaping their thoughts and memories. What do you know of their childhoods? Were their parents alcoholics? People often repeat the behavior they witnessed as children. Maybe they suffered abuse and neglect and chose alcohol as an escape.

If you feel it would help, maybe you could ask them why they drink. It is a simple question, and an obvious one, yet it is one that many never ask. Wait until they are sober and reflective, of course, and the two of you are walking the dog or sitting in a car. Understanding why they behave in so dreadful and self-destructive a way does not mean you must forgive them. If you choose to, then that is fine. But even if you cannot, such understanding may still bring you a little peace.

Make Some Rules and Stick to Them

Addicts can be astonishingly manipulative. Their focus, remember, is on their high. In many ways, dealing with an alcoholic parent is like dealing with a badly behaved child: they will push and provoke until they find the boundaries. So make some rules and stick to them. If you have allowed them to stay in your home, for example, do not slip back into your childhood role. This is your home, not theirs.

Do not be unreasonable, however. And do not set these rules when they are drunk or emotional. Wait until they seem in a good mood and then make it clear what you will and will not tolerate. And explain what the consequences will be if they break these rules. But do not set these unless you are prepared to back them up. If you have children of your own, these rules must be even more strict and even more ruthlessly enforced. Your parent has no right to put his grandchildren through the same thing he put you through – and you have no right to let him.

Above all, make it clear that you will not facilitate their drinking. Never offer to go and buy them alcohol. And be very wary of lending them money. Again, do not underestimate how sly and sneaky alcoholics can be. And do not underestimate how gullible their loved ones can become. Those who love an addict want to believe his lies. If your father asks you for money so he can take your nephew to the park, you are probably right to be suspicious. But you will also want to believe him.

Compassion and Your Right to a Life of Your Own

The life of an alcoholic is rarely a happy one. Yes, they are selfish, and yes they cause immense harm to those who love them. But to alcoholics, like many addicts, their drug of choice often brings enormous suffering. People may choose to drink and take drugs because they enjoy the buzz and the high. But no one would choose to become addicted. Again, being aware of this may help you come to terms with their behavior. Often, the addiction is beyond their control. Indeed, that is almost the definition of an addict: someone who has lost control. Try and have some compassion for this person. Almost certainly, in spite of the raging and violence, you are looking into the face of someone in pain.

That said, you do have a right to your own life. This does not mean abandoning your parents. However, you cannot allow their addiction to ruin your career or relationship. And you cannot allow it to spoil precious time with your children – time you will never get back. Unfortunately, alcoholics, like most addicts, can become very childlike. Rather than a strong, mature adult, they will often alternate between bullying tyrant and dependent child. Do not allow them to turn you into the parent or to convince you that they are your responsibility.

It’s Not About You

The children of alcoholics, especially when young, will often blame themselves for their parent’s addiction. They may come to believe that their father drinks because they misbehave or are a disappointment in some way. And these beliefs are often reinforced by the terrible things alcoholics say during their drunken rants. Remember, they rarely mean these things.

The children of alcoholics also tend to feel immense shame. Children are supposed to bring their parents happiness, they reason. After all, why else would they have them? If my father (or mother) were happy, they wouldn’t drink. Obviously, then, I don’t make them happy – so it’s my fault they are killing themselves like this. Again, these thought patterns are common among small children.

In fact, it probably has nothing to do with you at all. In many cases they are drinking to help them cope with events that occurred long before you were even born. Or maybe they are drinking to help them endure some kind of physical or mental illness. This is not your fault.

And even if, in a moment of spite or self-pity, your parent does blame you, they are probably deluding themselves. Addicts will look for any excuse to keep going. If your alcoholic mother were to say “yes, I drink because I am depressed,” the obvious thing to do would be to stop, get a prescription for Prozac, and commit to a course of therapy. But she probably doesn’t want to do those things. So, instead, she screams that it’s all your fault, because you married that awful man and moved away and broke her heart.

Let Your Feelings Out and Let Other People In

Dealing with alcoholics is not only exhausting and heart-breaking, it is also lonely. Teenagers, for example, often feel dreadfully embarrassed and ashamed and will do all they can to keep school friends away from the house. Others will become the class joker, or the school bully – anything to stop people from talking about their mum or dad. But even adults can find the whole business lonely. For a start, caring for an addict costs time – time that could be spent making new friendships or renewing old ones.

You must make the effort however. It might help to join a support group of some kind. If you cannot find one, try starting one yourself. You could begin with online discussion forums, for example. Just put up a thread explaining your situation, that it is stressful and lonely, and that you would like to meet other people who are caring for an alcoholic parent. If alcoholism is too specific, meet people who are looking after addicts of any kind. You will probably find that, for example, the brother of a heroin addict is experiencing many of the same things as you.

If you are still at school, it is even more important to reach out. Your parents ought to be the ones guiding and taking care of you, not the other way around. You need support and love. You could begin with the school counsellor for example. Or try talking to a trusted friend. Do not bottle up your feelings. If you have no outlet at all, try keeping a diary. Or you could try posting updates online – maybe even start a blog.

Dealing with an alcoholic parent is a painful, heart-rending, and thankless task. At times, you will be swept with feelings of rage, impotence, and despair. And the sheer, stupid futility of it all can be terribly depressing. But no matter what people may say, most children know that if they walked away and left them to their fate, they’d feel even worse.

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Mark Goddard

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