How do I deal with my alcoholic parent?
February 7, 2011 9:38 PM   Subscribe

My alcoholic parent is causing me stress and keeping me from living my life as well as focusing on my college work... What should I do?

I am writing this here because I cannot afford to see a therapist or clinical psychologist to get help with my problems. I also think that people who have experienced anything close to what I have experienced will probably have better opinions than any doctor can give me. Sorry if it is really long but in order for you to help me you must know my situation fully.

Just to give a little more insight to you all about my situation, I am 19 years old and a sophomore in college. My mother has been an alcoholic for the majority of my life, although I wasn't truly aware of how serious her problem was until I was in high school.

About a year ago my mother had gone 3 or 4 days without a drink for the first time in years. She had a seizure from the withdrawal from the alcohol which caused her brain damage. She was in the hospital for 2 weeks, tied down with restraints because of the intensity of her withdrawals.

For my entire summer I waited on her hand and foot taking care of her trying to get her well after her seizure. I was spending so much time taking care of her that I quit my part-time job, lost my girlfriend and majority of my friends, just to take care of her and make sure she wouldn't drink. She had gone about 2 months without a drink and had started going to Al-Anon meetings as well as therapy through the hospital for her drinking problem. I even attended AA meetings with her to get more insight into the life of an alcoholic.

At the end of the summer I attended college again, and without me at home to watch her at all times, she started drinking again. She kept attending AA meetings, but always came home drunk.

For months my father and I had taken away her alcohol when she came home with it and taken away her keys, even money and credit cards at times in hope that this would stop her from getting the alcohol, but I was wrong. She was at times walking miles from our house just to get the alcohol while I was asleep. She always had a way to get it and this disease seemed to of overtaken her to the point of no return.

My grades are falling behind horribly and I am usually a 4.0 gpa student but I recently was removed from the business school at my college and my gpa has dropped to around a 2.2. I can't focus on my work because she is always on my mind and I am always stressing and worrying about if she will make it home each night or if she will wake up each morning.

She is so deep into this disease that I am scared to leave her, even though recently I have been trying to avoid her in hopes that I can save my college career and social life. If she goes one day without a single drink her hands tremble a lot and she cannot sleep, as well as mood changes and talking to herself quietly at all times.

One side of me just wants to move out of my home and get on with my life so that I can be successful and graduate college. But another part of me doesn't want to just leave her behind, as well as leave all the stress of her addiction for my father to deal with.

I don't have a clue as to what to do, I can't focus on school or my social life like I should be. I am constantly stressed out, losing weight, and at times have anxiety. Please if anyone has ideas for me or opinions for my situation, they would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you.
posted by tommyboy to Human Relations (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
As a fellow child of an alcoholic, I would strongly recommend counseling. You say you can't do it because you can't afford it, yet:
1. there are groups like NarAnon which are free support groups for children/family of substance abusers
2. you're in college, and most likely your school offers a student psych clinic that is covered by your student fees (this was the case at both my undergrad and grad schools)

These types of support groups will help you learn to cope with that feeling of stress and worry about your mom. They will teach you to focus on your life and be your own person.
posted by joan_holloway at 9:44 PM on February 7, 2011 [8 favorites]

You can't help someone who is not willing to be helped. This is a very sad situation, but it sounds like despite all the love and assistance that you and your Dad have offered, your Mom isn't ready to stop drinking yet. I would suggest continuing to offer her love and support, but stop participating in trying to help her quit drinking - unless and until she asks for help.

Time to focus on school, keep physically active, and your grades and your sleep will both improve with time. Also, though you may not be able to afford a counselor, there are often free/sliding scale mental health clinics available. Many colleges have counselors on staff who see students for free (or for a very very low rate), why not see if your college offers such a service?
posted by arnicae at 9:45 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sucks that you have to deal with this. I'm sorry I'm not so eloquent, but it really just sucks.

I've never dealt with anything like this, but I'm willing to bet money on the fact that your school has counseling services, or has connections that can help hook you up with some. This is what you need. Contact your school's health office.

I also think that people who have experienced anything close to what I have experienced will probably have better opinions than any doctor can give me.

I'm sorry if this sounds jerky, but you don't need opinions or to listen to other people's stories, but you need someone to help you deal with shit. This is what a therapist does.
posted by AlisonM at 9:45 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

AlAnon is for people who are in relationships with alcoholics. It's free group therapy; there are lots of groups and they all have different flavors, so go until you find one you like. There may be Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) meetings or AlAnon meetings with that particular focus, so check that out, too.

I cut my mom off for a while because I couldn't deal with her drinking. I was older than you, but not by much. What I learned from that is that you can't keep her from drinking if she wants to drink, and neither can your father. You cannot save her. She has to want to save herself, and she may not want to, now or ever. This is very hard to come to terms with, and what it means is you have to take care of yourself, first. Focus on school; go to meetings; investigate counseling through your school's health services. This is something that reading a few paragraphs on the internet really can't solve, in the long term.

I'm very sorry you're going through this. You can't save her. Find meetings and go to them. Take care of yourself.
posted by rtha at 9:52 PM on February 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

I am sorry you are feeling this way and that you are in this situation. I had to move far away from my alcoholic parent in order to be able to have a life that was mine. I eventually moved back and now I have a relationship with my alcoholic parent that has very very strict boundaries.

1. I will not be with them when they are drinking
2. I will not take phone calls from them when they have been drinking
3. I will not pretend that they are not an alcoholic to help them save face
4. I will not harangue them about their drinking but I will make it clear that I believe it is their biggest "to be solved" problem
5. I will not engage with them in the magical thinking that often goes along with drinking half of their life away.

You have a parent who is not acting like a parent. You are feeling that you are trapped in the caregiver role and that you are integral to their well-being. While it's admirable that you helped your mother, in order for her to make real progress, should she decide to, she'll have to be able to do it without your help. That is to say it's great for you to be supportive of her, but that she and her father, her partner, will need to do the work. You did not willingly enter this caregiver role with her and it's not an appropriate relationship for you to have with her.

Feeling that you are responsible for the literal life of your alcoholic parent is one of the really shitty side effects of having one. I've had to make my peace with the fact that if my father falls when he's doing his every-night drinking thing [as he does sometimes] and he doesn't get up, that's terrible and that's sad and I'm sorry, but it's a trade-off for me for having my life back. And that's not selfish, that's an appropriate relationship for a young adult [in your case] to have with their parent.

You may want to consider heading to an Al-Anon meeting or two on your own just to see how very sadly familiar your story is. It might help to realize that the drama and the highs and lows and the "I MUST save her" feelings are felt by many people with alcohol-addicted family members who they care about. Seeing your concerns reflected in other people may help you get some perspective on the more insidious parts of this mess that you're in.

I would suggest a few steps in addition to Al-Anon meetings

- setting up some boundaries with your mom, the levels to which you will help and the levels to which you won't, learn to say no
- talk to your dad about things and see if there are things you can both do, to help your own situations
- talk to friends and don't have your mom's problem be your secret shame
- take time for yourself and stick to it, don't let family drama that is really the same old thing keep you from going to school or having real friends
- consider therapy or some other "people to talk to" situation outside of your own house
- consider moving, when you can; having your own place will really help ease the always-on concerns

Above all, watch yourself and make sure you're not slowly repeating the same old patterns or dating people who do. I am so sorry. I know just how you feel.
posted by jessamyn at 9:55 PM on February 7, 2011 [29 favorites]

Bless you. It's not your problem and you can't fix it. Al-Anon is a good resource. But please, don't blame yourself. I'm speaking as a child of an alcoholic, an alcoholic, and the mother of an addict. Take care of yourself. There is nothing you can do. It may sound harsh, but it's the truth.
posted by wv kay in ga at 10:03 PM on February 7, 2011

If you go to Al-Anon and find that the meeting doesn't suit you for whatever reason, please try a different meeting. Every one is different. You may even find a meeting on your campus primarily filled with people your own age -- that may be particularly helpful in terms of hearing stories & solutions that might be similar to your own case.

Good luck -- and remember, you deserve to have a great life. You do.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:05 PM on February 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

You are not the parent. You are the child. Your job is to take care of yourself. Don't give up your life. Don't feel guilty for living.

Talk to the Dean of Students about your grades and any support they might offer; go to AlAnon; contact your campus's Student Health Center and especially the Mental Health Services (your school must have something like this, probably for free); and move out if you can. Please take care of yourself. This is not your fault or your responsibility.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:01 PM on February 7, 2011 [8 favorites]

I'm so sorry this is happening to you. I know how horrible it is because I lived through it too. A psychiatrist once made an analogy that made sense to me. You know how in airplanes they tell parents to put their oxygen masks on first before they put the kid's mask on? The natural inclination is to put your kid's mask on first because you love your child, but if you do that you'll pass out and you'll both die. But if you put your mask on first, then you can take care of the kid. Well it's kind of the same thing here. If you put all your energy, time and effort into caring for your mom, she'll take you down with her. If you take care of yourself first (yes, go back to school, study, and have a social life, be a 19 year old kid!), then you can help her by being an example, by giving her something to live for. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself first.
posted by bananafish at 11:11 PM on February 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

I see one or two glaring faults with your logic.

" well as leave all the stress of her addiction for my father to deal with."

You are 19 and in college. Your father is the adult in the situation who has been living and dealing with your mother for years. In your narrative, your father has no responsibility. Why is that?

"...and without me at home to watch her at all times, she started drinking again."

In fact, the way you told the whole story, that you had to care for your mother 24/7 this past summer, etc., etc., it's like there is no one else available in the entire world who can care for, help, or handle your mother. BULLSHIT.

Besides having a dad, and I assume at least some adult family, there are also treatment programs for your mother and heaps of options out there that include rehab + appropriate medical care. And it really sounds like the medical care is key for your mother. Speaking of which, you know you are not an addiction specialist or a medical professional, right? Again, why does this story place the entire burden of your mom's well-being on you?

Well. You asked for advice or an opinion - you got it. If you wanted a good reason or two to take all the good advice to see a counselor showered upon you by my fellow MeFites, I hope you now have all the reason you need.

Buddy. You're not thinking straight about any of this.

You do not have the professional crisis training or life experience to sufficiently help your mother. She needs professional help, most likely treatment in a facility designed for people with her physical and psychological requirements in mind. Your father and her other adult loved ones need to find and place her in this type of facility -- not you.

You have written a reality where you, personally, are your mother's only source of sustenance... bypassing her own agency and the presence of your father in the equation. No doubt you've been guilted by someone besides yourself towards this warped viewpoint. Make no mistake though, it is an extremely warped viewpoint. Seek counseling because you have taken on some version of the twisted thinking inherent in addiction. You've joined your mother in her illness without even cracking open a bottle yourself.

Seek counseling to straighten yourself out. You've let this get too far for your own good.
posted by jbenben at 11:43 PM on February 7, 2011 [8 favorites]

I left college to help my alcoholic mother after she called me constantly telling me how broke she was and that she and my little brother were going to be kicked out of their home. I went home, got a job, and guess what....I spent 20 more years getting the same phone calls. I never got my degree, and it's one of the biggest regrets of my life. She's still an alcoholic, my little brother is now a violent alcoholic, and as far as I know, living in a shelter. Me....I'm still dealing with the fricking trauma of it all.

I know you think that not being there to "help" your mom is going to be your biggest regret. But let me tell you, it won't be. You can pull the bottle out of her hand 100 times, and the 101st time might be the one that gets her. It's not your battle. IT'S NOT YOUR BATTLE! One life is already being destroyed. Don't make it two. Go talk to someone at your college about the stress you've been under. There has to be some sort of department that can help you find campus housing. Go to Ala-non - hell, go to Ala-teen if that's all you can find, but find a way to focus on yourself and get out of that madness. This shit destroys everyone.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:55 PM on February 7, 2011 [14 favorites]

Good advice about Al-Anon and about setting boundaries. If you can find an Al-Anon meeting for yourself, go to it and ask them to help you set your boundaries and figure out what not to do and then help you stick with it. Keep looking for a member of that group who is experienced and wise and will give you a steadying hand as you set out to change your life for the better.

Find the best academic advisor you can at school for your special circumstances and ask them to help you organize a plan to get back in b-school and rehabilitate your grades if you are still interested in a business degree. Ask for help you might need with scheduling, counseling, part time work, financial aid, housing, anything and everything that gets you back on track for your degree and a successful career.

Those two paragraphs are what you should be doing. The reason you should be doing those things is because you cannot solve your mother's problem and spending any more of your resources of time and attention to keep her from drinking or to clean up after her drinking is perpetuating the problem.

This is stark and raw and painful but please pay attention to this: you must not throw away your life walking in lockstep with an alcoholic's slow-motion suicide. Stop doing it. Move out if you have to.

Get a copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous and read it all the way through. It will help you to understand that your mother has a fatal disease and that you cannot manage it. You cannot fix your mother. No matter how much anybody loves her, nobody can fix her. She has to want to stop drinking. When she does want to stop drinking, be sure to get her some medical attention so that she does not have seizures again. That is a frightening problem of withdrawal she needs professional care to deal with.

I wish I could give you the warmest hugs and bake you cookies to thank you for all the days you keep on being the best person you can be. I think you are awesome and beautiful and your story breaks my heart. My family has been through this pain. I know the implications and the difficulty of what is being said here, by you and by me. Now, choose to live the life that stretches before you, the life you have been given, please. That is the most loving thing you can do. In the most profound way, it honors your mother.
posted by Anitanola at 12:07 AM on February 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

An old girlfriend of mine had a similar situation. So, for a time, her problems were my problems too.

The absolute best thing you can do is keep yourself together. If your mom were lucid she would tell you the same thing.

Let me put it another way. If your mom broke her leg, you'd send her to professional help, you wouldn't try to fix it yourself. If your mom got lung cancer, you'd send her to an oncologist, you wouldn't treat it yourself. Same with alcoholism, whether you consider it a disease, or consider it a willpower thing, you can't fix it yourself. Professional treatment is in order. Residential treatment. As for yourself, keep yourself together.

(So the old gf kept her life together, (with assistance from me and others) maintained a 4.0 GPA in prof school, and after that was in a much better position to help her mom.)
posted by coffeefilter at 1:54 AM on February 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

One of my college roommates went through something similar.

1. Join Al-Anon. It was a huge help to her.

2. Do you live on campus? I wasn't totally clear. Anyway, tell your roommate and/or your good friends about your parent's drinking, at least in general outline, if you feel even the tiniest inkling you'd like them to know. I finally flat-out asked my roommate if her parent was an alcoholic and she burst into tears because it was such a relief not to have to hide it from me and to have someone to talk to about it. She gave me some Al-Anon materials to read so I'd understand better what it was like for her. We didn't really actually talk about it very much, but the ability to come home and say, "God, my parent was being an alcohol-related ass today," without it being like, "OMG, WHAT?" was huge for her, to have her "home" be a place she could talk about it if she wanted to and get sympathy and at least vent. And really? IT COULD NOT BE LESS OF A BIG DEAL to other people. For you it's this huge thing that dominates your life. For your friends, it's a sucky thing you have to cope with and they want to sympathize, but we've all had alcohol education and we know it's a disease, we know it's an addiction, we know it's not your fault, and we know it's so hard on the family. I know there's a social stigma, but you will find it's not as big FOR YOU as you are afraid it might be; most people will be wholly sympathetic.

3. Campus resources. You need to go to the counseling center AND to student affairs (whatever your college calls it)/your advisor/your dean/whatever and a) get counseling and b) get student hardship support. There are people at the college whose JOB it is for you to go and say, "Look, my GPA is cratering because my alcoholic parent is spinning out of control, WHAT DO I DO?" There are do-overs; there are supportive services; there are limited schedules; there are waivers and probation; there are strategies they can help you create to fix the GPA problem -- but you have GOT to get the counseling and get your head back in the game. (Or take a leave of absence from college until you can -- which is probably a bad idea, but is another option if you must.) Tell student affairs that you can't concentrate because of your mom's drinking and ask them what free services are available to students for counseling.

4. My roommate had to detach somewhat from her family in order to protect herself. You may have to do the same. You cannot save your mother, and you are not the adult. I think if your mother wasn't in the grip of her addiction, what she would want for you is for you to finish college and succeed as the 4.0 student you can be. She would not want you to waste your potential and your future on her illness. At least, that's what I would want for my kid. Other people have given you much better first-hand advice, but second-hand, detaching from her family was very stressful for my roommate BUT her stress level did go way down and she was on a much more even keel afterwards. (She has a closer, heavily boundaried relationship with them now as an adult; the situation seems a lot less complicated now that she's a "real" adult rather than a semi-dependent semi-adult.)

It sucks you have to go through this and good luck.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:30 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

You cannot stop your mother from drinking.
You cannot stop your mother from drinking.
You cannot stop your mother from drinking.

posted by endless_forms at 5:52 AM on February 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Please see the pdf link (top right) called The Bridge in this previous comment by kalessin - I think it could be helpful to you.
posted by analog at 6:16 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was in your shoes 11 years ago. My alcoholic father had a stroke, required constant care while recovering, then started drinking again as soon as he was able to walk and talk again. It was incredibly frustrating, because we watched him almost die from drinking then turn right back to it again.

I went away to college and left my mom at home with him, but spent many nights on the phone with her, trying to give her the strength to deal with him. Eventually she told him he had to choose between being a part of our family and drinking, and unfortunately he chose drinking.

You cannot make your mother stop drinking and you cannot make yourself responsible for her welfare. You can take care of yourself and be there for your father. I'm so sorry that you have to deal with this - it is so frustrating to watch someone you love deteriorate in this way. I promise that if you take care of yourself and remember that you cannot change her, you will get through this.
posted by elvissa at 7:07 AM on February 8, 2011

Your job is to take care of yourself. Don't give up your life. Don't feel guilty for living.

A million times, this.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:23 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Al-anon, or the like. These things exist for people who can't afford anything else.

The best help you can give an alcoholic is to let them hit their own bottom. Alcoholism is different for almost everyone, but a common feature is that they somehow never had to fully deal with the consequences of their actions. Along the way, there were always codependent people to clean up their messes. After months/years/decades, they lose the ability to cope with anything, expect procuring more alcohol. They are almost always super-competent at that. Continuing on that path won't help anyone.

So you make the choice: continue to take care of these people and giving up your own happiness so they can maintain their misery, or let them go.

I've had this conversation with people. They say "oh, we need to do something, take away their booze, take away their credit card" whatever. And my response is "do they know they drink too much? Yes? Then nothing we say or do is going to change them until they decide to do it for themselves." Doing that stuff makes US feel better, but it does nothing for them. In fact it harms them, because prolongs their suffering, and makes them feel even more worthless. They need a "come to Jesus" moment where they realize that they have to be responsible for themselves.

It is harsh to say that, and people will come back with all kinds of horrible things that can happen if we don't be all co-dependent with them. And the answer has to be, that unless you are willing to spend every waking moment with them to prevent them from harming themselves, or are willing to get them locked up in rehab, leaving them be is the only other answer. Doing any less is simply masking our guilt and not actually helping them.

Advice: you did your job. You grew up, left the nest and are making something of yourself. It is time for them to do the same.
posted by gjc at 7:38 AM on February 8, 2011

Tommyboy, it's not right that your Mom and her disease are putting you in this situation. I think you have to decide to either make her your responsibility, and drop other projects, like school, or give up the responsibility of caring for her, and move forward in your own life.

Sadly, maybe even tragically, your Mom is on a scary path. You've tried hard to divert her, but she will not be diverted. I recommend that you move forward with your own life, and learn how to cope with the grief of loss. You've lost her as a parent, you've lost the potential Mom who takes care of you and is an active healthy part of your life. You can be compassionate towards her, but you can't save her without her cooperation.

Al-anon is free and helpful. Your school may have some resources. Even if those resources, and Al-anon, are imperfect, use them. You need help. Jessamyn's comment describes pretty much how I interacted with my alcoholic/bi-polar parent. We didn't have the relationship I wanted, needed or deserved, but we had a relationship that wasn't based on manipulation and dishonesty. And I was able to own my life. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 8:35 AM on February 8, 2011

The Al-anon mantra (or at least one I took away from it)

You didn't cause it.
You can't control it.
You can't cure it.

Also: take care of yourself first or you'll be no use to her or anyone else. This includes going to school and setting aside enough time to study, sleep, socialize and eat. Put your own oxygen mask on first!

For me, one of the most valuable things I got from al-anon was a group of people. I had gotten SO isolated! Most people can't identify with what you're going through. Al-anon people will really get it. I don't know about you, but for me just that was an enormous relief.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:09 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was where you were about a year ago, with my dad. It's so tough to study when all you can think about is when you'll get the call that they crashed somewhere, that they have cirrhosis, that the police arrested them, that they've been gone for a while and don't you know where he went? It was driving me crazy, and I was worried sick. I left home when I got married. That was very tough on my dad, because I was the "caregiver" that kept him sober. He drank worse than before. I moved two hours away, and set myself some ground rules very similar to the ones jessamyn mentioned. Since he was drunk pretty much all the time, this meant that I barely spoke to him. Privately, I also talked with my mother and sister. This gave my mother the courage to leave (to Mexico) and my sister to go with her. My dad drank worse than before. He lost his job, lost my mom and I hardly ever spoke to him. Then, one time, while drunk, he got lost. He called me, and I ignored his call. By the time he had found his way back home, he'd realized he hit rock bottom. He sought help. He got (wooed, even!) my mother back. He's been sober since, and he's gone back to being the amazing man he was before alcohol, and he and my mother have since rekindled their marriage.

Notice that NONE of this would have happened if I had continued to "care" for him, and if my mother had stayed. He had to hit rock bottom, and realize that NO ONE wanted a drunk around. The hardest thing to do is to step away. Please make sure you have support. Your school has many amazing resources. Don't be embarrassed to go. They deal with this all the time.
posted by cobain_angel at 3:08 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

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