My dad is an alcoholic

I'm uncomfortable with him, but I feel I ought to see him. After all, he's my father.

By Cary Tennis
August 18, 2005 3:32AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I am a 24-year-old male and I recently graduated from college. I have never felt comfortable around my father. He's intimidating, inappropriate, unpredictable and has different awkward personalities: goofy and annoying, angry and mean or half-assed and overly fathering, where he pretends to be a parent based on what he has seen other parents do and say. He's an alcoholic and smokes a lot of pot. On top of that, he has no idea, or at least won't admit, that he and I have a bad relationship, despite the many times I have told him.


About two years ago my father claimed that he needed time to reconsider his marriage, so he moved out of the house. It wasn't long after he left that my mother found out he was cheating on her. They were separated for more than a year, over which time my father tried about seven or eight times to reconcile with my mom, saying that he realized his mistake and had changed; each time, it was discovered that my father was still with the mistress. In fact, in June they eloped in Las Vegas, having only weeks before told my mother that he broke up with the mistress and wanted to come back home.

Out of my own weakness and passivity, I agree to see my father on occasion (I live with my mother over an hour away), even if it's with his new wife. I would be content to never see him again, or at the very most a few times a year -- I think. It upsets my mother and sister a great deal when I see my father and his new wife and, for that matter, I don't enjoy seeing them. We argue a lot at home over me seeing my dad, but I feel as though I still have a responsibility to have a meal with him, at the very least.

It's hard for me to tell him how I feel because he makes me so uncomfortable. I think growing up with him has affected me in all sorts of ways; I have horrible self-esteem issues, and still battle with depression and anxiety. I'm going to therapy, and since I recently graduated from a good college I feel like I have some possibilities in the future, although finding a good job has been difficult, and I am ready to move out of the house to start something new. My question is, What responsibility do I have regarding my father? How can I feel better about our relationship, and how often do I have to see him, if ever? Thanks.


Son of Clueless

Dear Son of Clueless,

You're probably right that growing up with an alcoholic father affected you in all sorts of ways.

You are not alone in this recognition. There are lots of people in your situation -- so many, in fact, that, as perhaps you know, there is a group for them called Adult Children of Alcoholics. Why don't you take a quick look at this list of traits that author Janet Woititz, in her book "Adult Children of Alcoholics," suggests are common to many, many adults who grew up with an alcoholic parent. You may share many of these traits. Also take a look at this similar but somewhat expanded list. If these traits strike a chord with you, I suggest you make contact with a group in your area. They can help both in dealing with an alcoholic parent's behavior and in understanding how you yourself have been shaped by that behavior.


You know, I must confess, I have known for some time that I am an alcoholic, but it was with some shock that I saw how accurately these traits of the adult child of the alcoholic describe me as well. The puzzling fact is, neither of my parents drank! In her book, Woititz claims that these traits appear to be characteristic of not only children of alcoholics but people who grew up in a variety of other types of "dysfunctional" families as well. I never really thought of my family as all that dysfunctional, just eccentric! Oh, well, stay tuned: The boy's in therapy!

If you find that your problems are similar to those of other adult children of alcoholics, then discussing your question about your responsibility toward your father with others in a similar situation may yield some positive results.


Because an alcoholic parent does not adhere to rules and is not predictable, it is often the child who must erect the structure. Often in dealing with an alcoholic parent one finds one has to set rules and conditions for oneself in order to make the meeting bearable.

So you might say to yourself, Here are the conditions under which I will spend time with my father: I will only meet him for meals. I will not meet him in a bar. I will only spend two hours with him and no more.

You might also have a list of situations that are deal breakers and would trigger your departure: For instance, you might say to yourself, If he is drunk, I will excuse myself and leave. If he begins talking about my mother, I will ask him not to talk about her, and if he persists, I will leave. These kinds of boundaries can keep you out of the weeds.


And you can have predetermined methods for achieving your exit. You can tell him at the outset, for instance, that you have an appointment. You may learn more about such things, I imagine, if you talk with other people whose fathers are also alcoholic.

But what if you see no resemblance between your own problems and the problems of other adult children of alcoholics? What then? That is a giant question. (Have you read "King Lear" lately?)

Logic suggests two approaches to this question. First, we should consider how the condition of alcoholism affects our responsibilities toward any alcoholic, irrespective of our relationship -- whether the alcoholic is a friend, lover, parent, child, employee, etc. Then we should consider what responsibility all children bear toward their parents, regardless of what their parents are like and how they have treated their children.


As to the first question: If we are to discharge our responsibilities toward something or someone, we must first, at a minimum, be able to locate it. We must be able to make contact with it, and it must persist in its current form long enough for us to discharge our responsibility toward it. We cannot discharge our responsibilities toward something that we cannot locate, something that might disappear before our eyes.

So one cannot reliably discharge one's responsibilities toward an alcoholic, no matter what those responsibilities are. An alcoholic is like a bird that changes shape and flies away. One cannot be responsible for feeding such a bird or clothing it or protecting it or even meeting with it regularly. One cannot be responsible because one cannot plan. If one does not know if the bird will be there when one visits, then one cannot be responsible.

So our responsibility to the alcoholic, no matter what our relationship, shrinks considerably; we find all we can do is simply maintain our own health and sanity so that if and when the alcoholic should require our aid, we will be able to provide it. Our only reliable responsibility to the alcoholic is the responsibility we bear to ourselves. Perhaps this sad fact is what makes for the isolation and inability to love so common to children of alcoholics.

As to the responsibility that all children bear to their parents, this is a different question, with a profound and awe-inspiring answer: We owe our parents gratitude for our very existence. But how does one express that? This profound awe and gratitude for existence may be both so difficult to express and so difficult to comprehend that our chances of getting it across to our parents is nil. Perhaps only to feel it, to know it, is enough. Though I suppose it doesn't hurt to hazard an impoverished word or two on the off chance that it might somehow cross the great yawning chasm of meaning.


So, toward your alcoholic father, I would say that you have the responsibility not to be his prisoner, but to take care of yourself and to be healthy and available should he ever need you. And you have a responsibility to accept with appropriate gravity his gift of life to you, to cherish and care for that sacred gift.

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