My whole family is alcoholic. How to protect the kids?

My mom says she won't drink when she's around them, but then she'll have a beer.

Published June 12, 2008 10:14AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm not even sure where to start with this one, to be honest. I just have a gut feeling that maybe you'll be able to help me think about all of it from a different angle, and that is exactly what I need.

I was raised by a family of alcoholics. Not just one or two, no. Everyone, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, everyone for generations back on both sides of the family. Sometimes this wasn't a bad thing. Happy drunks are lenient caretakers, and it meant that my cousins and I got away with a lot that most kids our age would not have. I like to think that I'm the better for some of our adventures. (And we never got arrested, so that has to count for something, right?)

Unfortunately, my parents cannot be counted as particularly pleasant people when they're inebriated. My mother, especially, has a Jekyll/Hyde thing going on after two beers. She turns into a giant toddler, throwing things in temper tantrums and screaming the most hurtful things that come to mind at anyone for any slight. These can be, and often are, imaginary transgressions. After a certain point, she starts verbally abusing whoever is near, be it a baby or the mailman. Obviously, my upbringing was a bit ... tumultuous.

But, I survived. I moved away from our little town to a "big city" as soon as I could, didn't fall into the trap of alcoholism that has claimed most of my cousins and siblings, and found myself in a healthy relationship that produced children. I distanced myself from my family more than most people would consider acceptable, but I continued minimal contact with my mother because I felt that my kids needed to know their grandmother, at least the not-drunk version. Now I'm wondering if I made a mistake.

We saw each other on holidays, she would sometimes ask to watch my children, and we occasionally chatted on the phone. The rule was that we would not be around (or answer the phone) if she was drinking. We discussed it, and while she was not happy with the idea of a "kid" setting rules for her in her own house and bitched about it extensively to other family members, she did respect it. For a little while.

Then she would wait until we left our kids with her and open a beer under the guise of "I just opened this one once you called to say you were on your way!" I could tell she'd had more than one, and thus our children stopped staying over without us. Then she would want to have "just one" right after we'd arrived for a holiday visit, which then turned into three and soon she was stumbling and slurring while holding the baby. So we stopped going to her house, preferring to meet her in public at an establishment that didn't serve alcohol. She would call me and leave abusive messages on my voice mail at all hours, send me vitriolic texts to my cellphone and send paranoid e-mails.

Now, my mother and I get along fine when she's sober, though we don't have a lot in common and I know that everything I say is being exaggerated and retold to other family members. (I'm the one that the family likes to gossip about, because my life is simply scandalous! I like to go to concerts and I don't watch Fox News.) But sober Mom has been pretty much exterminated. She's sober at work, and that's almost the extent of it. Apparently she's also added prescription drugs to her nightly regimen because just being drunk wasn't enough anymore. After a particularly inane temper tantrum via e-mail, I finally snapped and told her not to contact me until she could control herself.

She did not reply to my request, didn't speak to me for months, then sent one of my children a birthday present. A few days later she wrote to ask how they liked it, knowing that I wouldn't be able to reply, "Thank you for Susie's present. She enjoyed it. Now, are we going to have a conversation about you getting help or at least forgetting my number when you're drunk?" Even if I did, she'd just ignore me for a few more months, then contact me again pretending that nothing happened.

So, here I am with this woman who won't respect my boundaries because she's my elder and thinks that I don't deserve to have boundaries. If it were just me, I'd lay it out for her, then block her e-mail and change my phone number. But it's not just me anymore. I'm torn between the need to protect my kids from her particular brand of insanity and their unconditional love for their grandmother. They're too young to get the concept of alcoholism, though I've approached talking to them about addiction in general terms.

We're separated by several hundred miles. I could just let the kids correspond with her in letters and thank-you notes, because I doubt she'd be able to write while intoxicated and it's not like I don't screen their mail anyway. Or I could just refuse any contact until she either promises me that she's going to respect my boundaries or gets help for her addiction and underlying psychological issues. One seems almost passive-aggressive and the other seems too harsh. Are there other options? I don't know. Maybe there's an obvious fix, a clear path, but I can't see it. I've been dealing with this for so long that I can't seem to find my way out.

As I said, I'm the anomaly of the family. No one else would dare suggest that my mother needs help, because they all have the same problem. I have no backup. This is just me, by myself, trying to do what I need to in order to keep my kids safe and myself sane.

So, what say you, Cary?

Too Exhausted to Come Up With a Snappy Sign-off

Dear Exhausted,

Think of the family as a system that is not working right. As a system, it is unreliable. As a system, it cannot be depended upon. As a system, it is dangerous. As a system, you might say, the whole family has alcoholism.

Everyone has it. You have it, your kids have it, everyone in the family has it. But individuals are not to blame. It is a system.

Because of alcoholism in the family, promises are not kept. Because of alcoholism in the family, people are wounded. Because of alcoholism, facts are sometimes incorrect. Because of the alcoholism, you cannot have what some might consider a normal family life -- you cannot make the plans that so-called normal families make because alcoholism prevents things from happening as planned.

In a family like yours, the alcoholism may not be operating on every individual in the same way at the same time. It might be in remission in certain individuals and flaring up in others. But it is present in the family as a phenomenon regardless of who is drunk at any particular moment. It is a presence, something you work around.

I cannot tell you how to handle specific situations. But approaching it in this way, as a systemic condition, may help you frame the situation and make it easier to make decisions that might otherwise seem cruel and draconian. It's a dangerous situation in which you have to take precautions.

It looks like rain, you take an umbrella. You can't bargain with the weather any more than you can bargain with an alcoholic. You cannot use "if" statements, because for an active alcoholic, drinking is not an "if" proposition but a "when" proposition. So it is fruitless to try to make deals with your mom. Face it. Your mom is going to drink. She can't stop. She won't be able to stop until she reaches that point where she unreservedly desires change. And there is no guarantee that she will ever reach such a point.

So do not make agreements with your mother that require her to be consistent, or to refrain from drinking. Assume that she will be drunk. Even if you could map out reliable days on which your mother could be said not to drink a drop, you must bear in mind that she may be abstinent, or dry, for a period of time, but the risk always exists that she will suddenly drink, or drink secretly, or be under the effect of a binge that happened as long as a week or two weeks ago. She may drink so much that the effects are felt for days; the impairment lingers. If you are depending on your mother to possess the motor skills needed to keep small children safe, her current blood alcohol content is no determinant; she may be hung over; she may be having the shakes; she may be in that tortured, inattentive state of anxiety that is the blasted precursor to a royal binge. She may be under the effect of the other drugs she is taking. Any of these states can be sufficient to cause her to make dangerous mistakes. In short, she is not actually "sober" until she has quit drinking for good and is taking positive steps to maintain her life as a sober person, and has demonstrated repeatedly that she can be relied upon. Anything short of that is no guarantee at all.

So if you are going to err, I would err on the side of toughness. You cannot fix the psychological damage. You cannot control people's feelings. What you can do is limit the risks of real physical damage. If you were lenient and something catastrophic happened, could you ever forgive yourself?

Your family has alcoholism. It is a tough disease. It requires tough measures.

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