Can I stop my dad from drinking? Should I try?

His doctors told him he had to quit, and he did for a while, but now he's back at it.

Published September 18, 2006 10:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My 68-year-old father lives abroad and has for most of his adult life. He has always been a drinker, with the exception of a brief interlude of sobriety from his 40s to his 50s. At that time, his doctor warned that he needed to stop drinking immediately. He admitted to being an alcoholic and quit on his own, cold turkey, without any counseling or support groups -- since he doesn't "believe in" them. He never gave up going to bars or his old drinking buddies.

Then, his job required him to move back to the States for a while. With no one around to keep him honest, he started drinking again. When I became aware of it, I had a long emotional talk with him about how much he meant to me and that I did not want to see him relapse because of the health consequences. It didn't make any difference. (His response at the time, "Well, you started smoking again," is indicative of his maturity.)

A little over a year ago, Dad started complaining about a lack of appetite. He underwent medical tests and discovered that he has an enlarged liver. He has gained a lot of weight from the drinking, and has been taking medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol. His way of "dealing" has been to cut out the cholesterol medicine, because "it may cause liver damage." He knows that the alcohol is the real issue, and we've acknowledged it to each other, albeit rather obliquely.

He has not gone back to have his liver or his cholesterol checked since. Otherwise, he continues to lead an active social life, traveling and going to concerts, soccer games, movies, etc. with (drinking) buddies.

He is coming for a weeklong visit next month. My question is: Should I try to talk to him again about the drinking? Is there anything I could say that might even make a small difference? My husband thinks that I shouldn't rock the boat, just let Dad have his wine and beer, because "it makes him happy." If his health didn't hang in the balance I'd agree, but because of his condition, I feel like I'd be giving up on him. I believe that one should approach the later years of one's life, and especially death, with lucidity and awareness. Plus, if he should become incapacitated, it's likely he'd wind up being my responsibility.

Complicating the issue is the fact that my father and I are not particularly close. I've seen him three times in the past seven years. Growing up, he was largely absent from my life. (My parents split when I was 6, bitterly.) Dad has never been much of a parent, but because his own childhood was full of deprivation and losses, I feel for him. His own father died when he was 7. The oldest of three children, he was raised in cold-water flats in Brooklyn, N.Y., and had to work several jobs even as a child to help make ends meet.

One man's battle with the bottle is not the most pressing problem of our time, but I'd like to do the right thing and would be grateful for any advice or insight you might have. I don't harbor any illusions that I can make an alcoholic stop drinking, but it seems wrong to say, "OK, Pops -- have another. Here's to your cirrhosis!"


Dutiful Daughter

Dear Dutiful Daughter,

Your dad isn't having fun. He's killing himself. Nothing would be more sadly outrageous than to stand by and watch as he does so.

He's going to have to stop drinking.

Here is what the Columbia University Medical Center has to say on the subject:

"The most important measure in the treatment of alcoholic liver disease is to ensure the total and immediate abstinence from alcohol. This will sometimes require admission to an in-patient medical ward for prophylactic treatment of withdrawal symptoms such as delirium tremens and seizures ... Once the patient is medically stable, he/she should receive on-going treatment to ensure abstinence from alcohol ... Cessation of alcohol use will reverse fatty liver and alcoholic hepatitis. Although cirrhosis is irreversible, alcohol abusers who stop drinking will often have a good prognosis in that progressive liver deterioration can be avoided."

That's the crux of it: Drinking is no longer an option for your father. He needs your help. I think you need to intervene.

It is clear from his past that he can be influenced to stop drinking. He is not a hopeless case. He just needs help.

Your intervention could be done either with a grand dramatic flourish, as on the television show "Intervention," or it could be done quietly, in a way that gives him some feeling of choice and dignity in the matter. I suggest that you arrange for another problem drinker, one who has recovered, perhaps one who has also had the medical problems your father has, to come and speak with him. Such a visit could probably be arranged with a phone call to your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Such a simple visit can have a profound effect. In fact, this was the fundamental discovery that led to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous and eventually the modern 12-step recovery movement: No one can help an addict like another addict. It's as simple as that.

It doesn't have to be like some corny thing he might have seen on TV. It's not like that.

Frankly, it doesn't matter how your dad quits drinking. Maybe he can do it the cold turkey way again. It doesn't matter. It's a medical problem. He has to quit.

You say that your father doesn't "believe in" support groups, counseling and the like.

What if your dad didn't "believe in" heart surgery?

If you need heart surgery, you go get heart surgery. If you need to stop drinking to protect your liver, you quit drinking. If you can't quit on your own, you go find some people who have successfully quit and you do what they do. At least that way you have a chance.

Heart surgery doesn't save everybody. Not everybody who quits drinking stays sober. There's no guarantee. But it's worth a shot -- especially when it's about the only shot you have.

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