What to say to my alcoholic dad
June 20, 2013 10:38 PM   Subscribe

I feel compelled to say something to my dad about his drinking, after he hurt himself while drunk recently. I don't know if I should even bother.

My dad gets drunk every night, and has for several years now. He's not violent/abusive but he has a tendency to be very morose and self-deprecating. I'm a young adult living home--I'm planning to move out at the end of the summer.

The approach I've been taking to cope with his drinking is to completely ignore it (but definitely have been suffering silently). I avoid him at the house for the most part. If I find leftovers from his drinking the next morning (lately I've been finding a bottle of wine on the floor of the living room, or a glass in more than one room of the house) I'll firmly say something like "Can you clean up the wine glasses you left out. There's one in the office and one in the living room." He gets embarrassed and quickly complies.

Two nights ago he fell while he was wasted and cut his back really badly. He has a HUGE, deep gash. The doctor covered it with antibiotic cream and big gauze patches. When I saw that, all of the feelings I've sort of been suppressing came to the surface. I just felt so uneasy, as if his drinking had crossed some imaginary threshold where he had become a danger to himself. Of course this isn't true-- he drives home drunk about once a week and wasn't any drunker than usual when he fell, so it really could have happened before. It was like my fears regarding his alcoholism were creeping closer to actualization.

Anyway, he took tonight off from drinking and said to me that he's been thinking about how he could've died if he had hit his head instead of his back on one of the many corners in his room. I feel like that was my cue to say something meaningful. But all I could muster was a nod and a sympathetic look. He barely remembers how he fell/what hit his back, etc. I feel like he definitely knows he has a drinking problem, but he is SO depressed and really has no appetite for life. His awareness is very low, and he is the type of person who thinks everything bad always happens to him, the world is unfair, believes God must hate him and therefore doesn't believe in any sort of spirituality whatsoever. He also blames himself a lot and has really low self-esteem.

Is it worth having a conversation with him about his drinking? I've read "Codependent No More" but I can't decide if my saying something would be codependent or not. I feel like I have an obligation to say something. To tell him that I'm worried about him and that his drinking upsets me. But the thought of having that conversation is so uncomfortable, and I don't want to make him feel worse about himself than he already does. I wish there was something I could do. I feel so helpless. I vacillate between extreme anger/resentment at him for not getting his act together, to this deep profound sadness where I feel so bad for him and take on his melancholy and feel guilty that I can't fix it.

Do I just sit back and watch him kill himself?

He's pretty shaken up from his fall, so I feel like I should gently suggest something while he's semi-maybe-reevaluating his decisions? It just feels strange to me that I don't address it whatsoever.

I think his main issue with AA is that he thinks it's tied to religion, which he is firmly against. I don't know how to explain to him that it's not; he's very stubborn.

I went to a couple of Al-Anon meetings a year ago but I get the sense that I could really use it right about now. I'm also in therapy though not finding it super-helpful.

Any advice you can give will be deeply appreciated. Thanks in advance.
posted by DayTripper to Human Relations (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think all you can really do is tell him you love him and that you wanted to let him know because you expect one day he'll die from drinking. You should also report him to the police somehow for drunk driving so he doesn't kill someone else's dad, mom, grandpa, grandma, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, or kid. That's bound to happen, and you can't rely on him to make it not happen. You can't force him to stop drinking or acknowledge his problem, but you might be able to stop him from killing someone else.
posted by Dansaman at 10:48 PM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

he drives home drunk about once a week

Try to find it in yourself to take a stand on this issue. Tell your father you are going to call the cops and tell them he is driving while drunk and give them his vehicle description, plate number, and route he takes. Then do it.

If he wants to drink himself to death, fine, but please eliminate the possibility of him killing someone else.
posted by mlis at 10:51 PM on June 20, 2013 [18 favorites]

What a sad, difficult situation! I can relate: my mother is a recovering alcoholic and drank for decades. I can understand so well your feelings or anger and resentment. I still feel angry at my mother for what she put me through, back when I was in my 20s and still needed a mother.

While your father's drinking is awful for you, and you have every right to tell him your feelings about it, it can feel so unfair to feel responsible for your parent's behavior. Maybe someone closer to your father's age can get involved and talk to him? Do you have another involved adult in your or your father's life? Your mother, aunts, uncles, grandparents?

It does sound like this is the right time to express your unhappiness and maybe help your father--if you want to, that is. You might think of telling him how frustrated and unhappy and scared you are. You could focus more on saying how his behavior affects you and makes you feel, rather than thinking of it as trying to make him change. It sounds like he's reaching out and asking for help. AA may be incredibly helpful for him, as it is for so many, many people. Regarding the spiritual aspect of it, I know lots of people are like your father and object to that part. But I know that AA will not try to impose any type of beliefs or religion on your father. Many people choose to think of the Higher Power invoked by AA as something else than god or any deity. Some people may think of it as an inner part of themselves that they can invoke to try to change and grow and improve. Also, many AAers keep in mind to take what's helpful about AA and leave the rest.

And you may be right, it might be a good time for you to try Al-Anon again. You definitely need to take care of yourself in all this.

Good luck to you.
posted by primate moon at 10:56 PM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

You sound really shaken up and understandably so. I also have lived with an alcoholic parent as an adult child and I completely understand why you've been keeping quiet so far. I also understand that all of that hurt and pain has been just pushed down and packed away so far so something like this that breaks the sad status quo can just bring everything to the surface.

The first thing I want to check is that you are getting support. This is so hard on you and you don't have the escape hatch of drunkenness that your dad is using to avoid all of his difficult feelings. Al-anon may help but also please, please reach out to other friends and family. I felt very ashamed and never talked to anyone about my parent's drinking. Now that I live away and my parent has found sustained sobriety I mention it from time to time and I can see how ridiculous that shame was. His drinking is about him not you. You've done nothing wrong.

In terms of talking to him about this. I'd say yes, do it if you feel you need to. But please don't expect anything. In all likelihood this will not change anything and he will drink as before. At best, one day when he is really ready to stop he will remember your words and they will be a motivator for him. But really he will only stop when he is ready and you need to truly accept this.

A final note, when you move out in a few months please take the time to really focus on yourself and your growth. It's very hard to do this but it's important for you to define yourself outside this dysfunctional situation with your dad. Good luck. I did this and I know you can, too.
posted by Dorothia at 12:43 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Say something, but try to make it extremely non-critical and non-judgmental: it's very hard for people to accept this kind of thing and it will be harder if it's dramatic and important. Don't go in with trembling lip and tears in your eyes however upset you may feel about it. It depends on your relationship, but if it were me (and I foresee it may be in a year or two), I'd try to open up with a casual remark like.

"You know, Dad, it's unfortunate, but I think you might be hitting a time of life when you need to cut back on the drinks a bit - do you think?"

He sounds as if he would be open to something like that. Stay neutral, even cheerful. Try and make it seem like you're going with him on something he's decided himself but needs a bit of support with, not like something you're pressing him to do or condemning him for not doing.
posted by Segundus at 12:57 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes you tell him the truth about how his addiction is hurting him and you. You know that is about as much as you can do. Becoming well is entirely his responsibility. I feel for you.
posted by BenPens at 1:45 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think what you want is a positive conversation about practical ways he might limit his drinking and ways you might help. Maybe agree some regular days off it. Maybe offer to go with him for a drink so you can help limit it and/or drive home.

I think going big on the emotional pain and damage and risk and alcoholism or addiction and the police will reduce your chances of a positive conversation and might even make things worse. I could be quite wrong: you know your father best and maybe he needs shock treatment. But you say he gets embarassed about it, and once gave you a sort of opening to talk about it - he sounds open to discussion to me.
posted by Segundus at 3:20 AM on June 21, 2013

I think Al-Anon sounds like a good idea, especially if you were already leaning in that direction. This isn't the kind of thing that you should have to deal with alone.
posted by empath at 4:32 AM on June 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

Injuring yourself because you were drunk is kind of a big deal. It's something that rarely happens to people who aren't drinking abusively, and I don't think you are wrong to take it as an indicator that things are getting worse with him.

I don't think it's "co-dependent" to have this conversation. If anything is co-dependent sounding in your question, it's you worrying about how this would make him feel, which seems to me more like his concern. I know that sounds somewhat cold. But he's responsible for his feelings, not you, especially when they are related to his drinking.

Unfortunately, there's no tried and tested formula for what you could say to him that might help him change this behavior. I quip sometimes that the only person I know how to get to quit drinking is myself. That's not really very funny, but I'm serious about it. But doing nothing also seems intolerable. It's a very tough situation to be in. Going to talk to Al-Anon people (this is a support group for families and other loved ones of alcoholics) would probably be a good idea, since there you will meet other people in your position, whose experience and advice could help you determine what to do.

On the encouraging side, the back injury thing may be scaring him to the point where he's ready to get some help. It can have this effect. A guy I used to drink with got sober after a head injury that he doesn't even remember. He came out OK, and he decided he didn't want to see if that would also be true next time.

Good luck to you both.
posted by thelonius at 4:50 AM on June 21, 2013

I think what you want is a positive conversation about practical ways he might limit his drinking and ways you might help. Maybe agree some regular days off it. Maybe offer to go with him for a drink so you can help limit it and/or drive home.

I respectfully disagree here, this is a good way to become enmeshed in the cycle of enabling through trying to help.

While the idea that this person's father is cheerily driving drunk is, to say the least, alarming, Normalizing the behaviour and even supporting it by drinking with him, even with the idea of simply doing so to be there as a ride home simply offloads responsibility onto the OP without really giving any sort of framework for them to be able to stop.

OP needs things like Al-anon and the father needs medical intervention, and possibly legal intervention, since he shouldn't be licensed to drive if he's not being safe about it.
posted by Phalene at 5:15 AM on June 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think what you want is a positive conversation about practical ways he might limit his drinking and ways you might help. Maybe agree some regular days off it. Maybe offer to go with him for a drink so you can help limit it and/or drive home.

Yeah, seconding that this is an awful idea and basically the worst thing you can do for an alcoholic.
posted by empath at 5:21 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your father sounds very depressed. I think if you want to help him you should focus on trying to help with his depression. Though that's much harder and doesn't have the standard pat answer that is "Go to AA"
posted by aychedee at 5:23 AM on June 21, 2013

Please go to Al-Anon! It will help you so, so much.

My dad was an alcoholic. Nothing I ever said to him made any difference at all. Over time, I came to learn that if I said things to him, I was doing it only to make myself feel better, because there was no reasonable expectation of him receiving my words in the way I wanted him to hear them, and especially very little hope of him changing his behavior based upon what I said. Still, sometimes it did make me feel better to say things, just to get them off my chest.

But yeah. Go to Al-Anon.
posted by something something at 5:28 AM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing going back to Al-Anon. Both for yourself and your dad. Also, while there you can see if there is a person who is recovering from alcoholism as well that you get along with, is in your dad's general peer group, and has experienced your dad's resistance to AA (as mentioned, many many people have) You can explain the situation and see if they would be willing to come to the house and have a simple conversation which could happen to "turn" to their experiences with alcohol and recovery.

The appropriate person will know how to bring up the topic without raising rancor or speaking from a moral hilltop about stopping drinking and/or spirituality. And as a recovered alcoholic they are uniquely suited to discussing this with someone still struggling.

They may not get him to go to a meeting or even get him to stop or reduce intake, but the seed may get planted to enable future willingness when he is ready.
posted by Debaser626 at 5:47 AM on June 21, 2013

Can you leave an "Am I an Alcoholic?" pamphlet / questionnaire from AA on the kitchen table?

I am really really really sorry to hear of all this. Alcoholism is a disease of low self-esteem, poor emotional coping styles, and selfishness. Please get help for yourself.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:58 AM on June 21, 2013

I can't decide if my saying something would be codependent or not.

It doesn't matter.

I had a conversation with my mom a long time ago, where I told her I didn't like how much she was drinking, and I didn't her behavior when she was drunk. It didn't make her stop drinking or cut back.

I also went to Al-Anon; I felt much less alone, and I learned some decent coping skills. Your dad's objection to AA's religious bent is both valid and an excuse. At the time I was going to Al-Anon, I also went to a few AA meetings, partly to get some perspective and partly to scout in case my mom expressed an interest in going. I found a couple of different meetings that were not at all religious - their conception of higher power was basically "universal chaos, a thing I cannot control, but which exists" (or thereabouts - it's been a long time). But I'd bet money that even if he was fine with the religious angle, at this point he's find some other reason why AA wouldn't be for him. The real reason is he doesn't want to change right now. His perspective is deeply skewed by depression (and alcohol, of course).

I think you can express to your dad how his drinking makes you feel without being co-dependent, and I think you can urge him to get help - for the drinking and for the depression - without being co-dependent. (And if even if does "make" you co-dependent, for some definitions thereof, so what? Expressing your concern/anger/frustration/love is sometimes going to be both co-dependent and necessary.) What it won't do is make him stop (probably).

I'm sorry this is happening. I know how hard it is.
posted by rtha at 6:20 AM on June 21, 2013

Could you go to an al-anon meeting before saying anything to your dad? It might help you get your thoughts together and decide whether or not it would really help you to say something. You could even go to a couple of different meetings if they are available in your area...at the last meeting I went to there was someone who had been to several meetings that weekend while dealing with something.

At the very least going to the meeting first could help you feel like you're not alone in this.
posted by fromageball at 6:42 AM on June 21, 2013

Dad, I wish you loved yourself as much as I love you.
posted by myselfasme at 6:46 AM on June 21, 2013

Addicts do not respond positively to shame or ultimatums. Almost universally, they already feel plenty of shame. That's usually what they are trying to drown out.

How to help? Be supportive without being codependent. Meaning, you support their efforts to make good decisions, and you don't help with rationalizations or "just one more night" kinds of stuff. Make the path toward sobriety and good decision making the easiest one. Like the guys with the scrubbrushes in curling, you want to smooth the path for their momentum toward a positive goal.

Other things: no important conversations or confrontations when they are drinking. They won't remember the point of the conversation, only the anger and shame they felt. Now you are the bad guy instead of whatever the subject of the conversation was.
posted by gjc at 7:34 AM on June 21, 2013

[A couple comments removed. If you're hollering at the asker about it being their fault if someone else does something crappy, you are not using Ask right.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:34 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

My husband comes from an ACOA (adult children of alcoholics) background. It was really interesting when we got together; the close friend who had introduced us was both a heavy drinker and the daughter of alcoholics, so we had a lot of experience discussing what it meant.

One night we took our friend out for dinner and a movie, and she was still drunk when we took her home. I lost patience with her after one too many snarky comments and said, "Saaaaay, B, how much HAVE you had to drink?" and she shut up right quick. We got home, and my guy said, "Wow. You do NOT call people out on their drinking. "Uh, YEAH, I do," I said. "Well, sure, but that's what you do when you're normal. When you're in an alcoholic situation, you NEVER question the drinking. You just try to keep things on an even keel. That's just the way it is," he explained. (OP, I'm sure you already know this all too well.)

So it's a really tough balance to keep. How can you be supportive of positive change while still pushing your dad to do good things? He's probably drinking both because he wants to be the one controlling the way he feels and, simultaneously, NOT be in control. Kind of an impossible equation.

He's not going to change unless he wants to change. Your own therapy and Al-Anon visits, looking for ACOA resources, etc. can help you deal with this, and you'll be able to let him know that you're there. But you need to be very careful with the patterns you've developed around his drinking.

Do what's best for you to stay safe and sane. That's ALWAYS the best option. But remember, too, that your sanity may need you to make some hard choices about what you're willing to ignore or bring to light.
posted by Madamina at 7:42 AM on June 21, 2013

I've been there. So has Jessamyn and maybe she'll pop in, but if not you might take a look at her history because she's given some excellent answers. Watching a parent descend into alcoholism is one of the hardest things you can go through. They're supposed to be the parent, so it's hard and painful to switch roles. But it is good to talk to him because he loves you and you are the best reason he has to quit.When mom quit go real, she called me up on Christmas and told me that was her Christmas present to me and my brother. So I think we were a large part of her motivation to quit.
posted by bananafish at 7:55 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Drinking is a tough behavior to change. It has mental and physical draws to it. Your dad has had a decent scare so he's motivated right now. The best luck I've had with getting someone to change their behavior is to focus on why it would make their life better.
Can you sit down with you dad and talk with him about drinking. Tell him you're worried, that the drinking doesn't seem to be making him any happier and is putting him in danger. Ask him if he's depressed and if he says yes, say you could look into what might help, medication, exercise, going out with him to get some social interaction.
This gives you a way to bring up what you feel is a major trigger for drinking for him without him feeling attacked. If you can focus on treating the depression with other options besides the drinking your dad does now, it might give him some tools to cut back on or stop drinking alcohol. Do what you can to encourage healthy decisions but realize this is your dad's choice to make. Best of luck to you and him both!
posted by stray thoughts at 8:54 AM on June 21, 2013

Oh hey, it's the old "Dad cut himself while drinking, it feels worse than usual..." problem. I am so sorry, these situations are terrible. I sympathize. Your dad is being a bad dad. Whether this is because he's got an alcohol addiction or just a personality thing, it's totally okay for you to think that stuff sucks for you as well as for him. Al-Anon can help, and maybe you need a different therapist if your isn't helping. As for your dad, I've been there. I backed waaaay off when my dad got to the "injuring himself" stage because we'd already had a few short emotionless conversations like "I'm not going to actually step in here because it's totally inappropriate for you to put me in this position. Get some help or don't but I'm not sticking around for this" and then didn't. It's an awful thing and I still have deep pockets of rage for my dad for putting me in this position for so long as well as a lot of sadness because I think he was stuck and couldn't get out.

So this is what worked for me, more or less. My father died a few years ago and it's been a tough road since then not because I miss him (though I do) but because I realized just how much spending any time with him at all was a bad unfun situation and how free I feel not having to clean up his blood or listen to his excuses.

- Make your own decisions for you that are not grounded in "But how will dad manage if I don't help him?" He's not your partner, he's supposed to be your parent. Al-Anon is helpful. Work on setting good boundaries and sticking to them. Don't clean up after him. Don't beg or plead with him. You can have short "This happened because you were drinking, that is a problem" conversations with him that don't put yourself into the story. These can be helpful for you as well as him.
- There are other options besides AA. It's super simple for drunks to be all "Well AA is religious and I can't do that so I guess I'll have to keep drinking!" Tell him to talk to his doctor (maybe now while the iron is hot...) and see if a medical program might work (detox or there are medications that can help). Often trying to find ways to work on the anxiety that can come along with quitting drinking is helpful to people. He might also just benefit from going to a therapist during the daytime to work on the other issues of esteem and whatnot.
- Tell him you will call the cops on him if you know he is driving drunk. It's easy to feel like this is your private shame, but this one has serious potential outside-the-family repercussions and is worth being a hardass about. It's not your job but it's a way you can be more responsible to the world around you.
- And yes, move. And don't keep his secrets for him. The "secret shame" thing can be awful especially if you are getting pressure from other family members to not "make it worse" and then everyone acts like we have to bear this terrible secret together. Fuck it. Go live your life, have your friends, chill your relationship with your dad (or say you'll only interact with him when he wasn't drinking, that was my plan and it worked out okay) to a reasonable level. Support him if he decides to make a change. Understand that this is unlikely. Talk to people who can understand and support YOU and don't turn this into an all about him situation.

This sucks and I am sorry you have to deal with it. Poor drunk dads. This is not your problem to solve.
posted by jessamyn at 8:54 AM on June 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm going to build off of what jessamyn has written - it's good advice. I also want to say that I've been there and would still be there if I hadn't gotten myself out.

The first thing that you need to realize is that drunks will quit drinking when they are ready to quit. I know that everyone says this but it's something you need to understand and internalize. Their drinking isn't about you, so it's very unlikely they will quit for you. Talking about how their drinking is affecting you can be cathartic, but it will do nothing to change their drinking other than to make them try to hide it (for a while) and give them another resentment - this time directed at you.

From your post, it seems that your dad's alcoholism is a relatively recent thing. It's possible that this is true, but it's also just as likely that he's been teetering on that edge for a long, long time and now either can't control his slide, or you are just now truly seeing it, either by him relaxing his vigilance or you become old enough to recognize it. If it is relatively new, you may be able to reach him by talking about his safety and his future. You can point out how drinking until you hurt yourself is a big deal and that when you move out, he will be by himself the next time it happens. Make it a health and safety issue. Make a big deal about the drunk driving. Try and get him to open up to his doctor. Try and avoid the shaming aspects of the conversation and make it concrete. He's already thinking about this so now's the time to bring it up.

Just be ready, though, to have this conversation turn ugly. There's a boatload of denial in drunk land. Based on my experience I've come to believe all addictions are emotionally based. There's so much twisted self-worth and denial and resentment and despair and simple fear in a person that gets to this point that it makes real self-awareness almost impossible. Loss of control is a scary thing, and pointing out that someone has lost control can get you some very extreme responses.

I realize this is getting long, so here's the wrap-up: I think you feel you need to talk to him, and it could (maybe) help. However, all you will be doing is adding a data point to his own internal conversation about this, so it's anyone's guess if it will be the final fact to make him decide to get help. You need to protect yourself emotionally and financially. Don't expect this to do any good. Don't stay in the home any longer than you have to. Ideally have this conversation when you feel strong and live in your own place. And finally, don't keep secrets about this. Talk to your friends - you'll be surprised how many people have gone through this and having support right now is really important.

Good luck, and take care of yourself.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:28 AM on June 21, 2013

In line with what jessamyn and others have said, the Parable of The Bridge can help sort out when folks put you in a position to be responsible for their life. It especially sucks when you love the people who do this to you, but it boils down to the fact that they are responsible for their own fates, even if they raised you, even if you love them.

It sucks that your dad's behavior is sucking you in, but you have to live your own life and not be responsible for his. He is responsible for his life, his alcoholism, his recovery. I hear that Al-Anon and other recovery programs and programs for relatives of those addicted help reinforce this idea.

But definitely get help, take care of yourself. Find community and common ground and do what you can to not take responsibility for your dad. That's his deal.
posted by kalessin at 12:57 PM on June 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks so much for all the support and advice. Really.

I'm going to an Al-Anon meeting this week, hoping it helps.
posted by DayTripper at 10:24 AM on June 22, 2013

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