Alcohol crises with parents and myself - request for advice
July 30, 2021 5:16 AM   Subscribe

Dear mefites, parents were taken in an ambulance to hospital because of drinking last night. I am looking for advice please to help me with how to deal with my parents, their drinking, ongoing crises, and my own issues with alcohol and associated fallout. There is a lot of background to this question and include a TLDR at the end.

I (40F) heard from my brother (37M) this morning that he was called by a paramedic in the night trying to get my parents (early and late 60s) into an ambulance because both were extremely drunk, and my mum may have overdosed on some medication. I don't know what to do next..

Regarding the incident last night, there is some confusion about what actually happened but they were taken to hospital (they live about 4 hours from where me and my brother live in the UK). Brother called my Mum this morning, but she said they were home fine, didn’t want to talk about it, and then and he was on his way to work on a train so left it. He called to let me know but we won’t get a chance to talk about it until the weekend. My brother has sent them a note saying he wants them to get help and is willing to help but is, of course, disappointed, again.

This is part of a repeating issue with both parents. Both have had falls/injuries, and who knows what else because of drinking over the last five years. We (brother and I) have tried to help, offered to go to AA/counselling/anything. We have both sent them letters/emails saying how serious this is and that we want to help them, but nothing much has come of that. We have also both reduced contact with them, and after an incident where my Mum was drunk and abusive to me over the phone, I went no contact for a while. I am in touch with them now but have made clear my boundaries – including the fact that I cannot be with either of them in person if they are drinking. This, in effect, means I haven’t seen my Dad for 2 years and cannot visit them at their house. I have seen my Mum when she has visited my brother and his family (they have young kids so that is always a distraction). I’ve also had to enforce that, although I am willing to take part if they seek help, I am not available for her to talk about my Dad’s drinking and behaviour as it makes me too upset and she won’t acknowledge her own problem.

As an added complication, I also realised earlier this year that my own drinking was out of hand, and I have been sober for 4 months. I have been going to online AA and seeing a therapist, but my drinking has caused big problems in my relationship, and I’ve been living apart from my partner. I have not told my parents about this, as my Mum would make it about her, and my therapist has agreed this isn’t a great plan for the moment. My partner and I are talking but things are very uncertain and there are some logistical disruptions that will be tough us both, albeit fair between us. I am trying to work on my own guilt and shame and realisation of how much alcohol was controlling me, but am mostly in a better place. My partner is coming back up to our house next week for us to talk, and I’ll be staying at my brother’s while they are on holiday. Obviously that’s going to be really hard, but I have plans in place (therapy, AA buddies, self-care strategy etc).

But hearing about this has really affected me and I’m looking for advice on what to do today. Should I call my parents and see if they are ok? Should I send them a note like my brother did? We have done that before, and it did help in terms of going through my own feelings and getting an apology, but then it didn’t really change anything. These incidents used to make me very upset, but today I feel more angry and resigned. I feel like I am getting a better handle on my own problems but that they are tangled up in my parents relationship to alcohol and my childhood and everything, and I just don’t know what to do. I’m supposed to be working but am super distracted and getting upset.

I am worried about them, but also really fed up. I have gone to Al-Anon before, and am reaching out to local groups but no answers so far. I would really appreciate some advice or thoughts, especially if you have been in similar situations.

TLDR: my parents were taken to hospital last night due to drinking, the last instance of a long line of drinking-related incidents. I have recently realised that I am also an alcoholic, and have been sober for 4 months, but have a lot of difficult stuff coming up in the next few weeks. What should I do today? Should I call my parents to find out what’s going on and see if they are ok? Should I just leave it alone? Any advice and thoughts very welcome, especially if you’ve been in a similar situation.
posted by sedimentary_deer to Human Relations (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: First off, congratulations on four months of sobriety! That's fantastic!

This incident might be hitting you especially hard because you are sober and there is nothing to anesthetize your feelings. Your parents push your buttons effectively because they installed your buttons, and for the child of an alcoholic there is no button more sensitive than the "mom and dad are drunk and there's another crisis and oh my god THEY NEED HELP RIGHT NOW!!" button. The hardest thing for the child of an addicted person is to stop responding to that button and start acknowledging the deep, deep grief that comes from a lifetime of emotional neglect.

Being close to an addicted person, especially being raised by an addicted person, can really do a number on your psyche. I grew up with an alcoholic father, and the entire family was obsessed with his drinking -- how to control it, how to predict it, how to stay safe when his mood turned ugly. Dad's addiction was drinking, and our addiction was trying to control HIS addiction. It was a mania that ruled our lives, day in and day out, year in and year out. But the truth was that none of us ever had a chance of controlling his drinking. Ultimately, I went for six years without seeing him or communicating a single word with him -- no letters, no texts, no phone calls -- and I only started visiting him (a) after I got sober and (b) after his drinking had landed him in a nursing home where he couldn't access alcohol any more. Under those terms, we actually had a pretty good relationship for the last few years of his life.

When your family member is in active addiction, the only way to win is not to play. The best thing -- the only thing -- that you can do to get your parents to change is to stop shielding them from the consequences of their own actions. That means you have to stop pretending that any of this is normal: it's not. Including that whole shopworn routine of rushing around and being a caretaker for the people who were supposed to be taking care of you. Nope, that isn't normal either. I'd recommend no more strongly worded letters and no more emotional appeals, because addiction does not respond to emotional appeals in the first place and because it's part of that same horrible routine where your whole life revolves around their latest drama. The life of an addicted person lurches from one crisis to the next, and in many cases the whole family is conditioned to dutifully leap into action every time. Letting go of that perpetual drama and tension is TERRIFYING, in large part because of the very real underlying fear that this addiction could kill someone you love. But the hard truth is that putting a stop to this is not up to you, and it never was and it never will be. It's up to your parents. The thing you need to focus on right now (and in perpetuity!) is your own recovery and your own health.

Hope you stay well and stick close to your friends in recovery! You can send me a MeMail if you want.
posted by cubeb at 6:38 AM on July 30, 2021 [47 favorites]

What if you...did nothing?
Your parents know your stance. They know how to get your and your brother's help if they need it. They know you are worried. They don't want to talk about last night and neither do you! What would be the point of calling them?

You are the only one whose drinking you can change. You've done so much work on that and so successfully! You owe it to yourself to take care of yourself now. You are your biggest responsibility. Nobody else can do it for you. Do whatever helps you most.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:41 AM on July 30, 2021 [28 favorites]

Hey, so you're now realizing that you're a "double winner" in recovery terms. You've got the AA part dialed in. Keep working on getting the Al-Anon part humming as well. Sounds like you could probably use an Al-Anon sponsor right now. Put all your energy into your recovery because you cannot, under any possible circumstances, control your parents' recovery.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:44 AM on July 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

I haven't been in your exact situation but I do have parents, one of whom has a mental illness, that do things that impact their health negatively.

I ignore them and focus on me handling my feelings. What would help you today with those feelings - going for a walk/run? Curling up with chips and a comedy? Calling a friend? Whatever it is, you deserve support and a chance to process the reality of alcoholic parents.

Your parents don't need you right now (they are as safe as they were two days ago, even if their drinking makes that not 100% safe - they've received medical attention and can talk on the phone to your brother) and there is nothing you can do that this situation doesn't offer them as learning. You're okay to let them continue their adult lives.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:29 AM on July 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

Do nothing for them -- there's nothing useful you can do, and they ran out their help-and-favors account with you long, long ago.

Do everything for YOU. Take care of YOU. You need the care, from wherever and whomever you can get it, and you deserve it. You deserve it and always did.

Wishing you the best, as another adult child of an alcoholic.
posted by humbug at 7:47 AM on July 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Sorry, friend, this is a tough spot. Congratulations on your sobriety. I know how much work you've put in to get here. It sounds like you have put together a solid plan to keep putting sober days together. I wish you happiness and health.

Getting sober was the most selfish thing that I have ever done in my life. It was all about me. Just me. What I put in, I got out. Nobody could make me succeed or fail. I would focus on your wellbeing. In your early sobriety, in my opinion, you need a tight focus on yourself. The margins of error are thin and the repercussions are consequential. Your self-care is the sole focus right now. As you get your bearings fully, as you sustain sobriety, I think you may find bandwith to engage other people with their sobriety. You are relearning how emotions feel, your brain is trying to clear the fog, your body is trying to recalibrate to not receiving alcohol on a schedule. There is *a lot* going on right now. Give yourself space to deal with everything. If you don't, it will not happen.

You control you. That's all. At the end of the day, that's your responsibility. They need to do what is best for them. Addiction is a bear and some people never quit. Understanding that fact helps me stay clean.

Be well.
posted by zerobyproxy at 8:01 AM on July 30, 2021 [7 favorites]

Also, I want to emphasize that you are allowed to do what *you* want and what feels right to *you.* Taking care of yourself and keeping your side of the street clean is the important bit here. If you want to call, call. If you don't, don't. Just like you, your parents have to work out their own relationship to alcohol, and nothing you can say or do will make them more or less ready to do the work they need to do. So take care of you.
posted by shadygrove at 8:24 AM on July 30, 2021 [6 favorites]

What would be your goal in contacting your parents today? What is the upside? It is pretty clear what the downside is. Not clear at all what the upside is.

I would not call. I would maybe send them an email that says, "Heard about last night. Glad to hear you are both ok. When you are ready for AA (or help), feel free to ask me for help. Love you..."

You have too much on your plate right now to get dragged into someone else's problem even if that someone else is your parents. Work on you then work on your relationship.

Good luck. I am pulling for you.
posted by AugustWest at 8:36 AM on July 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

I don't think your parents are in a position to be helped by ANYBODY until they are ready to ask for it. Your brother can't do it, you can't do it, the hospital can't do it, they either have to reach documentable incompetence or the decision is theirs to make.

As far as YOUR wellbeing, which should be your priority here, it sounds like your best options are either do nothing or maybe send a note encouraging them to get help. In either case, I think minimal or no contact is appropriate.

They have their own problems. You can't make them your problems; that's not how their problems will get fixed, it'll just leave you with a bunch of unfixable problems which will get in the way of your own problems which at the very least are mostly theoretically changeable in some way by you.

This sounds like the absolute worst possible time for you to be sidetracked in the work you are trying to do for yourself. It might even be extra tempting to put on the comforting coat of getting sucked into your parents' drama instead of participating in your own production right now, because it seems less hard and probably more guaranteed to not really go anywhere. Don't do it.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:47 AM on July 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

This may sound cruel, but you have to realize: they have to first admit they have a problem in order to solve a problem. You can't "remote" control them to a solution. They have to WANT to solve the problem first.

To put it more bluntly: you can't save them. They have to save themselves. You can help, but they have to WANT to save themselves first. Else they'll just drag you down with them.
posted by kschang at 9:02 AM on July 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I just want to thank everyone so far for their answers. I am in tears, but all your points are so useful. I think just writing this question helped me realise how messed up this whole situation is. As in, unable to communicate with paramedics messed up, and how messed up I am because of it. I've often felt that its wasn't so bad because their drinking didn't seem to get super problematic until I was an adult, but then, I'm sure it was there before...

I think the suggestions to leave it alone are probably best and I really appreciate the hard check on what would actually happen/change if I did contact them. I know the answer. I guess I feel like it would be weird just to ignore that I know about it? As though we were all just having a stiff upper lip? It's my Dad's birthday on Sunday and I already sent a card and would normally phone. So I suppose my original idea was to contact them and be angry and say I'm not contacting you any more because of the drinking, but I can see the logic of just not doing any of that. As many of you have very correctly pointed out, what will that change? I know the answer to that as well.

Will stop threadsitting now, but thanks all so much for your answers so far. It's really helpful and lots to digest.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 9:18 AM on July 30, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Hi, my parents were both functional alcoholics, and so was I. I say this in the past tense because drinking was related to my mom’s death, my dad's current wife doesn’t put up with his drinking nor enables him, and while I struggled for a long time to have a better relationship with alcohol I ended up giving it up in January 2019 to get back on medication and enjoy my 0% Heinekens and mocktails.

I’m also a firefighter/EMT. We transport drunk people to the hospital all the time. Simply put, if a patient has altered mental status and there is no one there to watch over them, we have to transport them to the hospital, at least in the jurisdictions I’ve worked in here in the US. We can’t leave them because of negligence, duty to act, etc.

The point of my comment is to tell you that all you can do is support your parents. They’re going to make their own decisions. You should continue to maintain your boundaries for your mental and physical health. Also, that this internet stranger is proud of you for making healthier decisions for yourself. You may not be able to change their trajectories; that sucks, and it’s ok to Feel and to Think and to Grieve. However, you are making awesome strides in changing your own trajectory. Lead by example. Good luck, and if you need anything, feel free to reach out.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 9:21 AM on July 30, 2021 [14 favorites]

Your own sobriety must be your top priority. Yes, the situation with your parents is awful, but you can't let them drag you down. When their shit hits the fan (and you know it will), you need to be able to help them.
posted by SPrintF at 11:12 AM on July 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

I wish I could favorite cubeb's answer a thousand times, especially this part:
The life of an addicted person lurches from one crisis to the next, and in many cases the whole family is conditioned to dutifully leap into action every time.

As the daughter of alcoholics, and the sister of one, I just want to echo everyone else who is saying that there's nothing you can do to control, or fix, or even help, this. My dad successfully quit, but my mom died from her alcoholism and my brother is well on his way. It fucking sucks. Know that you are not a bad daughter if you don't 'help' them. (I really struggled with this.)

One of the things that helped me step back was realizing that it's never just one bad decision that can be undone or fixed. They are making their choices, over and over again. They are (presumably) choosing not to change after this incident, which landed them in the hospital. Just like they chose not to change after the last fall, and the one before that, and the embarrassing incidents before that, and you cutting off contact with them, and all the times before that that you asked them to stop, tried to help or get them to change their ways. They are actively making their choice to continue to keep drinking, and you are powerless in the face of their cumulative decisions. There is nothing you can do that could help them make meaningful changes. That has to be done by them, just like you are doing right now. One step and day at a time, and dealing with fallout all the while. Change is HARD, and you're doing it. Serious respect to you.

I wish you peace and the ability to let it go. (As I wish for myself, every time I hear a new story about my brother.) So proud of you for sobering up and turning your life around.
posted by widdershins at 1:46 PM on July 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

So I suppose my original idea was to contact them and be angry
It might help to figure out a little more what the anger is about. There are so many really good reasons to be feeling angry:
- I'm scared that someone I love might have been really injured by this drinking
- I'm angry that you are making choices (drinking) that put someone I love (my parents) in danger
- I'm worried that things will get worse and I will feel like have to fix it and I don't have the energy to deal with all of that
- I'm upset that you took away my coping mechanism -now I can't pretend that my parents' drinking isn't really that bad
- I'm protesting that you don't hear me when I try to talk to you about this
and a bunch more.

Figuring out why you are angry and what else you feeling can help you get more perspective on what's happening for you and help you make better decisions on what to do next.

And also, I guess I feel like it would be weird just to ignore that I know about it?
If you don't angry, does that make you complicity in the pretending? Because I think you can imagine how dysfunctional that would feel, especially now that you are working on being honest about the role of alcohol in your own life.

Just want to offer two other options to getting angry/cutting them off or pretending. First you can speak your truth just to hear yourself say out loud to them, with no hope that it will make a difference to them. It is like going on the record. Second is where you decide not to say anything, not to pretend it is all OK but that not saying what what is healthiest for you, given how they are likely to react. In any case, I am another voice saying it is OK to prioritize your own needs here.
posted by metahawk at 2:16 PM on July 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

In terms of your parents, if I were you I would be guided by what you'll regret least in the future. I don't know your parents' respective ages, but if anything happened to them, would you be okay just letting it go? That is not to say I'm suggesting you parachute in. Rather, I think the suggestion to write a brief caring email is a good one.

On the larger question of their alcoholism and yours, I just want to comment that although
AA is the predominant treatment for alcohol in the U.S. (I don't know about the U.K.), there are other approaches that treat it more as a medical problem, which, in my opinion, is what it is. So I've read, for example, that Finland tends toward the Sinclair Method or some variant, which relies on naltrexone. I've also read Bacofen therapy is common in France. If you, or your parents were interested, it might be worth exploring these because among other things they make withdrawal a heck of a lot easier. That's not to say that medical treatment will solve everything: There is likely enough hurt to justify therapy for all three of you. Still, I would argue that a medical framework is an especially humane starting point.
posted by Violet Blue at 4:06 PM on July 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

We (brother and I) have tried to help, offered to go to AA/counselling/anything. We have both sent them letters/emails saying how serious this is and that we want to help them, but nothing much has come of that. We have also both reduced contact with them, and after an incident where my Mum was drunk and abusive to me over the phone, I went no contact for a while.

There is absolutely nothing you can do to change the behavior of an alcoholic. Those attempts are a dead-end road.
posted by bendy at 5:16 PM on July 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Favoriting everyone here telling you to take care of yourself first. We have a saying in recovery around here: "Put your own oxygen mask on first." You can't help anyone with this disease if you're in crisis yourself.

One of the hardest things I go through is watching another alcoholic not get better. It reminds me that as powerless as I am over my own alcoholism, I'm doubly powerless over someone else's.

When I was in active addiction I was completely immune to consequences, or help, or concern, or anger, or interventions. I had to decide to get better, no one could make that decision for me. We have another saying: "Recovery is an inside job." I had to be willing and do the work, no one could do those things for me.

You're still early in recovery, I wouldn't try to convince a loved one to get sober or do any interventions at that stage. Active addicts are like the proverbial crab bucket. The crabs in the bucket aren't malevolently trying to prevent each other's escape, but their instinctive, reactive grasping pulls the other crabs back in. I've seen it too many times.

Also, you may be too close to these people to help them with this problem. Familiarity can be a real hindrance here.

I'm currently reading How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics. I recommend it.

Congratulations on 4 months, good job!

I work with quite a few alcoholics, some of whom are delightful human beings and some of whom are completely frustrating, many are both. I wish you the best of luck. I haven't been exactly where you are, with parents as the active users, but I've been to that neighborhood.
posted by Horkus at 5:55 PM on July 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Is there an Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) meeting near you (or an online one)? I found those meetings resonated for me even more than Al-Anon meetings, but they can be harder to find.

Aside from that, I just want to nth everyone who says put yourself and your sobriety first. And read cubeb's comments as many times as it takes to sink in. I grew up with in a family with massive addiction/enabling issues, and cubeb really gets to the heart of what that's like, and how it can really mess up the everyone involved, especially when you're growing up in it.

Congrats on 4 months of sobriety!
posted by litera scripta manet at 6:23 AM on July 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Okay, one other thing:

Some therapist I saw at one point gave me a metaphor that's really helpful (it was more applied to internal situations, but applies to external situations as well). Basically, it's like you (and your brother) are in a tug of war with your parents. You're trying to pull them over to the side of health and sobriety, and because they're resisting that, they're pulling you towards addiction and sobriety.

But the key is, you can just drop your end of the rope. All you're doing is hurting yourself by becoming enmeshed in their drama - you can't help them because they don't want to be helped. The best thing you can do for everyone is to just let go.
posted by litera scripta manet at 6:25 AM on July 31, 2021 [5 favorites]

Wow I love the Tug of War analogy, that's really apt. I was coming in to say something like that, but I don't think there's a better way to put it other than, "Just put down the rope."
posted by WalkerWestridge at 7:15 AM on July 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

There are tons of ACA meetings online. I found it immensely more helpful than Al-Anon. cubeb’s answer is spot-on. The ACA literature is so helpful, and the meetings are so kind and lovely and healing. It’s amazing to go to a meeting with so many people who have had such similar experiences, and are actively involved in their own recovery. (Tons of double winners.) I found the fellowship after being sober for 4 years, and I can’t say enough about how much it’s helped me see things in a new light. You are not alone, not by a long shot.
posted by blazingunicorn at 10:59 PM on August 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone so much for your thoughtful comments and advice, and to those who got in touch on memail. I have talked with my brother and we have both decided to 'drop the rope' as suggested and let them get on with it. I've also talked with my brother about my own sobriety and he was very supportive, which was helpful. If anything good can come out of this it's that we are getting a bit closer.

I will also definitely check out ACA online as that looks really good (although my brain is not yet awake enough on a Monday morning to figure out sorting by time zones). AA is working for me at the moment, although i'm mostly just going to (virtual) meetings and not doing the steps yet, and the groups I've joined are very low-pressure.

It's tough, but just a few months ago I would have used it as an excellent excuse for my own pity party and drinking, and so that has changed at least.

Thanks again all.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 12:29 AM on August 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

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