My family treats my dad like dirt

I can't believe the cruelty and I don't know what to do.

Published January 25, 2006 11:05AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have been living in New York City for the past 12 years. I originally come from a small, unimposing town in Massachusetts and, like many people, I usually spend some part of the holidays visiting my family. This year was no different. But I am finding that every time I visit, however short and infrequent those visits may be, I just get more and more enraged.

Here's a little background for you:

My dad is 70 years old and a recovering alcoholic. He hasn't had a drink in approximately 25 years or so but, having never attended 12-step meetings, he still displays the "dry drunk" behavior that comes with such a disease. He's never been a great provider, which has caused my mother a great deal of frustration over the years. At heart, however, he is a good man and an extremely loving father. He's also the son of two alcoholics himself and came from an extremely fucked-up family situation that no one could have gotten out of without some amount of damage.

My mom, on the other hand, has always been the center of the family. She was the one who somehow managed to pay the bills on time when my dad was bingeing, keep the children clean and well fed, and, basically, keep things from falling apart. Obviously, this created much anger and dissatisfaction for her over the years.

However, as tough as my mom has always been, there was another side to her. She was (and is) fiercely controlling. When it came to her home and her children, it was understood that she was in command. She was the disciplinarian and many of us lived in a certain amount of fear should we do something wrong -- however slight.

Along with that control came a burning desire to always be right and always be needed. Her opinions were accepted as gospel. In addition, her children were taught from an early age that they could only get so far in life. College was out of the question (We don't have the money for that!) as was any kind of success whatsoever. We also had to suffer her angry mood swings. God help us if she came home from work in a bad mood. She would go from one of us to the other and rip us all to shreds with her words. In the end, all of her children were left with a troubled sense of self and very low self-esteem. I am the only one who moved away to achieve a modicum of success, although I have always been haunted by towering self-doubt.

As things are now, my mother and father are still living in the same house I was born in along with my oldest sister and only brother (both in their 40s). My siblings have no idea of the world outside of their little circle and are dangerously enmeshed with my mother who is, perhaps, even more controlling than she used to be. She has also managed to enlist my brother and sister against my father. This has resulted in my father becoming a literal shell of the man he once was. He is all of 100 pounds and spends most of his time being screamed at and verbally abused by my mother, my sister and my brother. His only respite is to smoke endless amounts of cigarettes out on the back porch, and drink coffee incessantly -- actions that only seem to provide fuel for the fire. He eats little, is very unhealthy and, if I didn't know any better, I'd say he wants to die.

Whenever I return to Massachusetts (as I did for Christmas) I am enraged at their behavior. It is almost as if my mother has spent the last 25 years or so getting back at my dad for his drinking. She screeches at him, insults him and has made him her lackey. My brother, who is himself a mountain of anger, does nothing but bully him and my sister does the same. They believe my mother is an angel, possessed of nothing but generosity, kindness and selflessness. But they refuse to see the other side of her personality: that of a verbally abusive, controlling martyr/monster. My dad has been stripped of every ounce of power, dignity and self-respect. And I don't know what to do.

Tired of Dad Bashing

Dear Tired,

I see you coming up the steps with your suitcase, the son who left, the son they fear, the son they find a little uppity now with his education and his job and his ideas, coming up the old steps you used to play on, carrying your suitcase into this haunted house, a little lost and blind in the sudden darkness after the winter sun, everything so incredibly dark and so incredibly the same after so many years, and you tug your suitcase a little tighter, your suitcase, your ticket to goodbye. And there's your father on the back porch smoking and drinking coffee, taking it and taking it and taking it because after all he was a drunkard all those years so it's his job to take it now, whatever they can dish out. After all he made them out of his own flesh and blood so whatever they've got, bring it on, he's got his coffee and his cigarettes, he's got his place on the back porch. He drank it all away so now he absorbs the blows, the insults, the daily onslaught of unrelieved resentment and fury and loss. There he is, killing himself, killing off his feelings with every puff, living on coffee and cigarettes till the end. And there you are carrying your suitcase through the house and finding him on the back porch and thinking, What in God's name am I going to do?

Maybe he'll say something like, "At least I'm keeping thin, son. Looks like you put on a little weight down there in New York City."

What in God's name can you do? Where do you even begin? And what do you say when your mom comes out and tells you not to bother with the old man, he's not worth it, and the old man chuckles like it's a fond old joke.

You could take him to a meeting, you know -- those 12-step meetings he never went to enough of. You could call up and find out. Call AA, for heaven's sake, it's in just about every town on the planet, and ask if there's someplace for an old alcoholic to come and get some kindness and coffee -- coffee no better than the stuff he's drinking now, and possibly worse, but free.

That's the only thing I can think of. He could go and spend some time with his kind -- not his kin, who are eating him alive, but his kind, who will nod and say, Yeah, I know what you mean. Even once a week if he could just sit with other old guys who've blown it in perhaps far more spectacular ways than your dad -- guys that have killed children on the highway in blackouts, guys that have awakened on desolate roads in unknown towns with inexplicable bruises, and guys that have just lived miserable little medicated lives of dim depression and unvoiced despair but who are now, amazingly enough, pretty much happy and OK! -- if he could just spend some time with guys like himself maybe once a week, and maybe chuckle or just laugh out loud at it all, and let go, and learn how to live as an old alcoholic, maybe it might help.

But you're thinking, If only there was a way I could fix this awful family of mine -- the way they treat him! Well, listen, my friend: Back slowly away from the hope. You're not fixing your family. Nobody is fixing anybody's family -- not today, not any day.

The one guy you're concerned with is your dad. There are things you can do for your dad. I'd leave it at that. But that's plenty right there.

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