Is my mom an alcoholic? What do I do?
May 27, 2010 9:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm planning on moving in with my parents at the end of August, but I think my mom might be an alcoholic. I don't know what to do.

I'm 23 and I haven't lived at home since I was 18. I went to college, graduated, and have supported myself since then. But times are tough and when my lease is up at the end of august, I plan on moving in with my parents for a year while I work and apply to grad schools. They seem excited to have me live with them again and I am very grateful that they are letting me do this. It will save me a lot of money and we generally get along well.

However, in the past few years my mom has been drinking a lot. She comes home from work at 4pm and has a drink going until she goes to bed around ten. I would say she probably has four or five large drinks a night. I don't know if this is really abnormal drinking, but I don't really like her behavior when she drinks. She talks like a baby, has no short term memory (asks me the same questions over and over, repeats stuff) and gets really emotional.

I've talked to her about it before, both when she has been drinking and the next day when she is sober. When she's sober, sometimes she gets mad but sometimes she says that she is trying to work on it and thanks me for bringing it up. But when she's drinking she absolutely ignores me and talks over me.

My dad says that he has talked to her about it and she doesn't want to do anything and ignores him. She doesn't drink during the day and she doesn't get totally wasted to the point of passing out on the couch. It's just like she gets "super tipsy" and I don't like being around her.

I have been seeing this guy for a month and I really like him, and I brought him to my parents house for dinner. My mom always seems to drink more when other people are around, and she was acting all weird and I was so embarrassed. I had to have that conversation with him way earlier than I wanted to.

I just talked to my dad and told him that I didn't want to move home if my mom kept up with this, and he was really sad and asked me to talk to her about it. But she has said in the past that she will cut down and she never did. I feel really bad for my dad, but it makes me really sad to be around her when she is like that. It's like she thinks it's super fun, but nobody else does.

I really don't know what to do. Maybe it's worth saying that her brother is an alcoholic but has been sober for 18 years.

I can definitely afford to live on my own, but it seems like I'm just ignoring the problem and giving up on her. I want her and my dad to be happy. But if she's not willing to do anything, do I do nothing? Please help. I'm so, so tired of this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your mom is an alcoholic. I know this because my mom is too, and has exhibited the same behaviors as your mother, but for a much longer period of time.

"I can definitely afford to live on my own"

Do this. Your mental health will thank you.

"but it seems like I'm just ignoring the problem and giving up on her."

You're not. You've expressed your concern, which is often difficult for children of alcoholics to do.

"But if she's not willing to do anything, do I do nothing?"

You can't force her to do anything, she has to want to get help. I know it sounds trite, but it's true.

You need to focus on yourself and your plans for grad school. Just tell her you love her and that you're concerned for her physical and emotional health. This is what happens to alcoholics over time - they drive people away. Some of them figure this out, and get help, others don't.
posted by HopperFan at 9:20 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, when someone is an adult, and they have a problem and they don't want to do anything about it, there's really nothing anyone can do to force them, especially if they are able to hold down a job and function. Usually when people do interventions, the person has gotten to the point where they're totally dependent on others so the family has that for leverage. And even then it often fails.

I don't think that you'd be "giving up on her" by staying out of the house and maintaining your independence. It's probably the best thing you can do, while continuing to address the issue with her.
posted by cottonswab at 9:23 AM on May 27, 2010

If she won't do anything, the only thing you can do is watch out for yourself. I'd suggest talking to your uncle. He may have some useful advice. Read the other AskMe threads on the topic of alcoholism. It's not pretty.
posted by Goofyy at 9:24 AM on May 27, 2010

My mother's drinking is a problem as well and aside from telling her how her drinking makes me feel (concerned for her well being, anger at the fact she never remembers what I tell her or what she's told me already, embarrassment around non-family members, etc.) and not enabling her (offering her a drink, refilling her glass, buying wine, etc.) there isn't anything else I can do.

You can't change another person. You can help them once they decide to make their own changes, but trying to do it for them is a painful exercise in futility.
posted by cecic at 9:25 AM on May 27, 2010

You can't fix her. You can't make her stop drinking. She will stop when she wants to stop badly enough. Ultimatums ("If you don't stop drinking, I'm not moving home") don't work.

Find an Al-Anon or similar support group, and go to a couple-three or more meetings. I went to it for a while when I was coming to terms with my mom's drinking, and it helped me get perspective. I'm generally someone who wants to fix a problem. Al-Anon helped me understand that it was not my problem, and I could not fix it.

If you can afford to live on your own, then do it. If you want to save money, live with housemates.
posted by rtha at 9:27 AM on May 27, 2010

Maybe it's worth saying that her brother is an alcoholic but has been sober for 18 years.

Can you talk to him directly? He might have more insight, and a better idea about how to approach her, provided they're close enough. Taking him into your confidence is probably appropriate if he's truly sober, as he won't be offended or off-put by it, as he most likely knows, too. She sounds like she's definitely headed downhill, but getting someone to want/ask for help is dicey. He's probably a good resource for advice & help.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:31 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can definitely afford to live on my own, but it seems like I'm just ignoring the problem and giving up on her. I want her and my dad to be happy.

I know what you mean, but the brutal truth here is that you have no control over your mom's behavior. Neither you nor anyone else can help her unless she wants help, and she won't want help until she can see that alcohol has done serious damage to her life. Your presence in the house will not save her. Your absence will not doom her. If you imagine that you'll move in and somehow her alcoholism will magically go away in one year so you can leave for school guilt-free, then you are kidding yourself. Keep in contact, provide support when she's ready to accept it, but don't let her problems drag you down too.
posted by jon1270 at 9:34 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ultimatums ("If you don't stop drinking, I'm not moving home") don't work.

This is totally true. Often, presented with the "ultimate" ultimatum, "If you don't stop NOW, you're going to DIE," an alcoholic still has trouble with that "choice." Real alcoholics will tell you to just go away if it's them or the booze. If you make that call be prepared for her to choose the bottle over you, then be prepared to stick to your end of the bargain. In the short run, walking away sucks, but in the long run, it can be one of the consequences of drinking that piles up, leading to an eventual reaching-out for help.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:39 AM on May 27, 2010

I really don't know what to do.

I think the problem may be that you do know what to do, but it makes you sad. You need to not move in with her. My father is like your mom. Starts drinking at 5 pm, no matter what else is going on. Is "super tipsy" in an hour or two and I don't like being around him. Embarasses me around my boyfriend. Occasionally is nasty and says hurtful things. For a long time he had a wife who sort of enabled this "Can I get you a drink Jess? No? You sure...?" My pattern when I go to visit is to hang out during the day and then go do my own thing as soon as he starts drinking, no arguing, no fighting. He knows how I feel (I've told him, when he's been sober) and he's an adult who can make his own choices.

So I've gone through the whole grieving thing, about not having a "real" parent, about having a parent who cares about me and yet "chooses" to drink over spending time with me, etc. I felt bad for my Dad's wife who seemed nice but really out of her league, or maybe she had a drinking problem too, not my business. My boundaries are that I won't be around him when he's drinking and that if he comes to me with a problem that I think is drinking related ["I got up in the middle of the night and fell and the doctor thinks I broke a few ribs"] express some concern that this might be a drinking related problem. And then I leave it alone. Nagging him doesn't make me feel better, and it makes him shut down and ignore me, so it solves to real-world problems. I decided at some point that I'd rather have a relationship with him than write him off, but it's on my terms. Not perfect [and still agonizing for me in many ways] but workable.

So, back to you. I don't think you should live with your mom. I am sorry for your dad but him asking to talk to your mom is sort of typical and not that great either. He's got a limited toolkit for dealing with this sort of thing and he's made whatever calculations he needs to and decided to stay in the relationship. That's his choice. You're not responsible for them. Adult children of alcoholics can tend to be "fixers" I'm sure there's some feeling in your head that you maybe would move in and put your foot down and somehow your mom would develop a conscience, look at herself in the mirror and change her ways. Maybe, but unlikely. More likely is that she'll try to hide her drinking until some point where she can't [probably a point where it's "really important" and then everything falls apart in a dramatic fashion] and then you'll realize you're trapped in a situation where you're not happy, where no one's happy, and you get sucked into your parents bad system.

So, if your dad is at least on board with the "mom drinks too much" maybe the two of you can do a little healing together, go to ACOA meetings together, develop strategies together that you can at least enforce when you're all together [i.e. mom doesn't have more than two drinks with dinner or dinner's over - this is embarassing but maybe less embarassing than having a parent drunk at the dinner table?] and learn to distance yourself a little from your mom's drinking. It's not about you, which is upsetting to deal with in a parent, but at least is true. So you need to stick up for you. My sister and I deal with my dad differently. She'll actually hang out with him when he's drinking. I refuse to. If the phone rings and it's him and it's after six, I don't pick up. I don't respond to emails from him after six. I sleep late, but when I'm at his house I don't get up earlier so we can spend more time together, he's the one that has the crazy schedule.

You can't maybe have a life that isn't sad, at some level, but you may be able to have a life that isn't organized around someone else's drinking. Don't move in with your mom. Decide if you want to tell her that you're not moving in because of her drinking. Tell her that you'd consider moving in if she sobers up. Don't expect anything. Sorry about this, living with an alcoholic parent is tough.
posted by jessamyn at 9:39 AM on May 27, 2010 [22 favorites]

I'm really sorry for what you're going though. This stuff is not easy, because we really want our parents to seem like they're beyond these kinds of behaviors. First of all, your mom's drinking does sound a bit out of line; if she's drinking like that every day (or even two or three days out of a week) then it would seem to be a problem—both in terms of her health and her ability to carry on relationships with you, your dad, or anyone really. I'm not a therapist or SA counsellor, so YMMV.

Speaking from some experience in a remarkably similar situation, I can say that ultimately your mom will have to decide when these actions and behaviors aren't working for her anymore. The sad part is that can take a very long time. In the meantime, it may only get harder and harder for you and your dad. If your mom has been through some kind of stress or trauma recently (job changes or upheavals, family changes, death of a loved one), or even not so recently, that may go a long way towards explaining her behavior. In that case, it may just be part of her grief or coping, and it will go away in time. But with an alcoholic brother, it's more likely that it's a genuine problem with a deeper, possibly genetic, root. Either way there really isn't a whole lot that you can do on her behalf.

Living on your own if you can afford to would, in my estimation, be the easiest way to avoid uncomfortable situations with your mom. In the long run, I think it's best to limit how much discomfort her problem causes you. It doesn't mean you're giving up on her as a human being, but rather that the current version of her doesn't provide you with the support and parenting that you need. I would also avoid being the one to talk to your mom about it over and over again. It's especially troubling that your dad has asked you to do that very thing. If anyone should, it's him. The perfect situation would be some counseling for your mom—not even necessarily about the drinking; maybe just about the problems or stressors she's experiencing first. However, I know it can be difficult to talk someone into therapy.

If things get really bad emotionally for you, do not hesitate to go to the nearest therapist or SA counsellor and talk it out. There's no harm in that and it can definitely take some weight off your shoulders.

Again, to be perfectly clear, living your own life and making choices that prevent you from being dragged down by what your mom is going through does not equal abandoning or giving up on her. You have every right to happiness even when others can't find it. You can love your mom and hate her bad habits a lot better from a distance than when you're living in them. Good luck and I hope you can figure something out.
posted by littlerobothead at 9:40 AM on May 27, 2010

I am 26 and live with my mom and step dad. They both are big drinkers. My older sister also lives with us along with her 8 month old daughter. Both my sister and I have expressed our concerns about their excessive drinking. My step dad agrees that they need to tone it down, however my mom doesn't see that there is a problem. She says, "I'm in the privacy of my own home, I'm not going anywhere, nor am I hurting anyone. I'm fine". you're not fine. I often find her slumped over on the couch snoring because she is so wasted. My eldest brother has stopped talking to my mom because of her drinking. I no longer hang out downstairs with my folks. I am often up in my room or out with friends. Unfortunately money is tight and I am not able to move out quite yet.

There isn't much else I can do. I really sympathize for you. It is not easy to deal with. We, as adults, need to do what is right for ourselves. If you feel that you would be uncomfortable with moving back home, then don't. However, if you were to move home, your mom might realize the problem and stop. You might be a positive motivator for her.

Hang in there and I send lots of hugs!
posted by zombiehoohaa at 9:40 AM on May 27, 2010

I don't know if this is really abnormal drinking

Yes, this is abnormal. It's not borderline abnormal, or just a little bit abnormal. Your mother is an alcoholic.

People often have a misconception of what alcoholism looks like. They think it means passing out every night in a puddle of vomit, showing up to work drunk and getting fired, everything falling apart catastrophically.

When I say people have a misconception, I mean alcoholics too. Especially alcoholics.

The truth is that most alcoholics are fairly high-functioning. This enables them to tell themselves, "So what if I like to have a few drinks to unwind? Everything's taken care of, what's the harm?" They may have had a few close calls now and then, a few really bad days when for a moment, they catch that ugly glimpse of themselves. But most of the time, to the outside world anyway, things seem okay. So why fix what ain't broke?

It's only the ones who love them most that suffer.

Maybe it's worth saying that her brother is an alcoholic but has been sober for 18 years.

Speak to him. As a successfully sober alcoholic, he should have valuable insight into your mother's state of mind. Unfortunately, I suspect he'll tell you what everyone else upthread has already stated - that alcoholics can only quit when they want to quit.

Most alcoholics will never reach the catharsis of rock bottom - there is only a slow deterioration over the decades. I am so sorry you're going through this. My father is the same type of alcoholic, and I have pretty much given up hope for him. I have been thinking of posting a similar questions myself and will be following this thread closely.
posted by keep it under cover at 9:56 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ultimatums ("If you don't stop drinking, I'm not moving home") don't work.

This may not work your your mom, but it works for you. You need to be able to tell yourself, "if she doesn't stop drinking, I'm not moving home" and be OK with it. No excuses, no negotiation, just the hard and fast rule. She's not going to stop drinking just like that, ultimatum or not -- if her problem is as broad as you've described, she needs a lot of help -- but you need to be able to tell yourself, "I'm simply not going to play along." Don't let yourself say, "well, she's trying, and she's my mom and I love her so I'll try to accomodate her." That absolutely will not help anybody, and it's setting yourself up for pain. Set your boundaries and be 100% confident that you're doing the right thing, and it will go a long way in helping you get through your mom's troubles.
posted by AzraelBrown at 10:23 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also wanted to nth that living with her and witnessing her alcoholism won't be of any help to her, and will cause you tons of stress and heartache. One of the saddest consequences of alcoholism is the loss of family relationships. By keeping some separation between your mother and yourself, you are doing the best thing you can to preserve the relationship.

Don't feel guilty if you choose not to move in with your parents.
posted by keep it under cover at 10:23 AM on May 27, 2010

She talks like a baby, has no short term memory (asks me the same questions over and over, repeats stuff) and gets really emotional.

My mother did this in her sixties and she never drank. The not short term memory and asking questions over and over could be just lack of focus as much as it could be damage from too much alcohol. My father, who did drink, did this in his seventies.

I didn't catch how old your parents are, but aside from your mom's dependence on alcohol which is unhealthy and unfortunate, parents age and they get older and they change too. She probably is very depressed and has a lot of emotional stress, from who knows what, and I think just labeling her as an alcoholic is dismissive of the larger picture. It seems easy to say, oh, if she would just stop drinking then she would be able to work on her anger and be free of unhappiness. My gut tells me that's a lot to ask for. She's drinking because she's hurting. She's hurting because she's hurting. And I can't think of what would hurt me more than, as a daughter, seeing my mother or father hurting. I would feel helpless and be helpless, even if I was able to help everyone else in the world not related to me.

I don't know how a person could stop hurting when they've spent a long time hurting. Maybe a psychiatrist and medication and therapy.

As for you, I think you should do what's best for you and lets you have a good, healthy life. To me, that sounds like living on your own or having a nice roommate. You're young, give yourself a stable foundation and build a life where you have the emotional support you need. Don't try to fix your parents' problems if it's hard on you, but don't create unnecessary unhappiness in your life, which is what might happen if you become too involved in your mom's problems. You're young. Don't let her problem take over your life or you will be miserable.
posted by anniecat at 10:27 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing you should not feel guilty for not moving in with your parents, okay? In case it isn't clear from what I wrote before.
posted by anniecat at 10:28 AM on May 27, 2010

Mod note: From the OP:
Thank you for all of these responses. I talked to my mom last night (when she was drinking) and this morning she and my dad talked, and then she and I talked, and she said that she wanted this to change. She and my dad both seem to think that she can try to just drink in social situations, or just have one drink a night. I don't know if this is going to work but there isn't much else I can do.

And for those of you that suggested I talk with my uncle, thank you but he has other current substance abuse problems (heroin) and he is semi-estranged from the rest of my family because he tries to borrow money a lot and kind of guilt-trips everyone. She would get mad if I talked to him about this, and my uncle might even hold it against her.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:31 AM on May 27, 2010

She and my dad both seem to think that she can try to just drink in social situations, or just have one drink a night.

I have never heard of this working with alcoholics - it's typically all or nothing. Others with direct experience may correct or support me on this.
posted by Dasein at 10:57 AM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

"I think just labeling her as an alcoholic is dismissive of the larger picture"

I don't think it's dismissive, it's simply answering the OP's question, "Is my mom an alcoholic?"

I don't feel qualified to ruminate on possible depression or other issues, since I'm not a mental health professional.
posted by HopperFan at 11:00 AM on May 27, 2010

"I think just labeling her as an alcoholic is dismissive of the larger picture...

I don't know how a person could stop hurting when they've spent a long time hurting. Maybe a psychiatrist and medication and therapy.

You clearly don't understand what alcoholism is. Really, you don't. Alcoholic isn't a "label." It's not being mean or dismissive to state that someone is an alcoholic. It's just the plain, bleak truth.

Yes, many people use alcohol to cope. Many people demonstrate alcoholic-like behaviors during tough times, and certainly that's how many alcoholics get started. But alcoholics have both emotional and physical dependencies on alcohol that go far beyond "hurting." You can't "cure" alcoholism by sticking someone on antidepressants or other psychiatric medicine. God, I wish it was that simple.
posted by keep it under cover at 11:03 AM on May 27, 2010

I agree with Dasein. My mother attempted the "I'll only have one drink, just to relax" on a few separate occasions over the years, was successful for a short period of time (days/weeks), and then fell right back into her old habits of drinking 4-5 drinks a night.
posted by HopperFan at 11:04 AM on May 27, 2010

Please try Al-Anon. Try a few meetings. Try a few different meetings, 'cause they're all different. Try this before you move in. If it starts to be something you like, and are getting into, maybe you'll try to bring your dad one time. Your mom's an alcoholic, and moving in with an alcoholic, even if she is your mom, is going to be extremely difficult and unpleasant.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:29 AM on May 27, 2010

"She and my dad both seem to think that she can try to just drink in social situations, or just have one drink a night."

That's not going to work. Perhaps your dad would be interested in reading up on alcoholism. For his own sake, he should know what he's in for.

My personal experience is that alcoholics who promise to limit their drinking to "just one" either:
a) start secretly having extra drinks, or
b) start sliding right back down that slippery slope in no time

For years now, my dad will drink a couple of beers before coming home from work. He acts completely normal and fine with just two beers under his belt. Then he'll chill in front of the TV with drink number three, "just unwinding after a hard day's work." Then onto drink number four, "just having a little something with dinner." Somewhere between drinks three and four it becomes painfully obvious that he's already done some "pre-drinking" before coming home. He'll be acting all weird, like your mother, and we know he's drunk, but he'll swear up and down that he's only on his second drink, so how can we say he's had too much? He seems to believe that he's got us all fooled... but it's just wishful thinking because he can hardly fool himself.

The "one drink in a social situation" seems the most harmless, but I assure you that it can be the worst. I DREAD going out to dinner or to a friendly gathering with my dad. He starts out with one. Then it's, oh what the hell everybody's having so much fun! Let's have another! Then it's, people are offering drinks and topping up his glass and it would be rude to refuse! If he's hosting, he'll make a big show of buying everyone round after round, or keeping glasses filled, and it's "okay" because he's only being a generous and gracious host, right? The fact that there are others around is not a deterrent. In fact, it is encouragement. For one, unlike drinking alone at home, everyone else is doing it so he doesn't have to feel like his behavior is abnormal. Second, he can count on the fact that none of us will want to make a scene by trying to cut him off. It's a nightmare.
posted by keep it under cover at 11:33 AM on May 27, 2010

She and my dad both seem to think that she can try to just drink in social situations, or just have one drink a night.


Seriously, just get a place on your own. Neither your father nor your mother are serious (enough) about her problem to get it under control, and it sounds like you'll only get more frustrated when she inevitably starts moving on to drink #2, then drink #3, then drink #4 . . .

You asked a question and you've received many good answers (and a great answer by jessamyn, btw) that all coalesce around one central point: go live on your own. This is good advice, and you should follow it.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:59 AM on May 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

The "just one drink" rule only works for a minority of people in clinical studies; the majority will relapse within five years with that approach. But if she can keep the problem behaviors under control at that amount, great. If not, she'll need to consider abstaining completely.

You can try support groups for her and for yourself, and don't feel like if one isn't a great fit that she's doomed or that no treatment option will work. In the end, it doesn't matter if you follow the same 12-step program that another guy did, it just matters if the bad consequences of her drinking stop.

You can look at the clinical diagnostic criteria as guides for the behaviors she needs to change. If she keeps racking up items on that list, it's time to see a psychiatrist or other mental health professional.

Please don't hesitate to remove yourself from the situation if it starts to impact your life. If your mom is willing to work on it, then that's great that you can offer her support, but you are in no way obligated to, and your support is no substitute for a professional. If it gets that bad, you won't be able to help her even if you want to, so you might as well protect yourself.
posted by slow graffiti at 12:26 PM on May 27, 2010

Your mom and dad are wrong about cutting back to one drink. It really is all-or-nothing. Don't get your hopes up on that.

Give your mom whatever support and encouragement you can. There's no one solution that's right for everyone. None of the cajoling or efforts I put in had any effect on my mom until the day she accepted it herself. And then my support helped give her the strength to cut it out completely.

But take care of yourself first. This isn't your fight, it's hers. Support her when you can, but what you do won't fix her. Good luck. Seems a few of us here have been through this before, so hopefully knowing you're not alone will help you.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 12:49 PM on May 27, 2010

It's useless to talk to a problem drinker while she's drunk. You need all your conversations to take place when your mother is sober. This is very, very difficult, but that is what has to happen. "Mom, I wanted to talk to you last night, but you were so drunk, there was no point. So I'm talking to you now." Then proceed with what you have to say.
posted by Elsie at 1:32 PM on May 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can't make your father and your mother happy. You can't make your mother stop being an alcoholic. All you can do is support your father when you're able, and be honest with your mother when you're able -- and in the meantime, don't put yourself in a position where you'll have to deal with this every single day of your life, lest you get so deep into it (or so used to it) that your perspective gets thrown off-kilter and it impacts the rest of your life.
posted by davejay at 2:10 PM on May 27, 2010

And for those of you that suggested I talk with my uncle, thank you but he has other current substance abuse problems (heroin)

You mentioned him being "sober" -- Sober & heroin don't go together. I had assumed you meant like actual AA clean & sober. I'm not sure how someone could see that they have an alcohol problem, then move to heroin instead, but I can see why my suggestion to involve him is kaput. I'll add to the chorus of "First, don't move back home," though. You'd be setting yourself up for misery & failure.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:19 PM on May 27, 2010

I suggest you attend an Al Anon meeting near you. The people who attend have friends or family what are alcoholics. Talking about the issue within your family won't give you the same level of support and objectivity, in part because some may be enabling or engaged in their own addictions.
posted by cmccormick at 7:27 PM on May 30, 2010

« Older He lives on the west coast. I live on the east...   |   EC Book, you'd be well advised to at least list... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.