My dad, the surgeon, is drinking

He's hiding drinks and breaking things, and I don't know what to say

Published August 12, 2009 10:12AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My dad is in his 60s and has had a fantastic career. He is a well-respected surgeon and has dedicated much of his life to his job. He has been working 80-plus hours a week for almost 40 years.

These past few years have been hard for him at work -- some office politics, some big egos, some crushing bureaucracy-vs.-professionals kind of stuff -- and he has taken to having a drink. Actually having a lot of drinks. He stashes cups of alcohol around the house, he has drinks at lunch, and he drinks when he thinks nobody is looking. I sympathize with him -- he is a successful man who gave up his prime drinking years to be in the operating room; he deserves a kick-back cocktail now and then. But the drinking is getting worse, and combined with his crazy, sleep-light schedule (which includes constant international travel) and his aging body, I am worried something bad is going to happen. Accidents are already happening -- broken glass here and there, and some new dents in the car, which apparently he thinks we don't notice.

Although I live in a different state, my sister and our mother live at home with him, and are financially dependent on him. We are all worried, but don't know what to do. He has a lot to lose: his professional reputation, his professional accreditation (imagine if the hospital found out!), his relationships. And of course his driving puts his life -- and others' -- at risk as well. He lives in an area where not driving isn't really an option. Plus he is likely relying on alcohol as a crutch to get through hard work times, and taking it away could raise additional troubles.

How do we talk with him? How do you tell a smart and successful doctor, a surgeon no less, that he is at risk of becoming a drunk? And how to do it without tearing apart the family?

Really look forward to your advice,

Drinking Doctor's Daughter

Dear Drinking Doctor's Daughter,

I suggest you begin by attending a meeting of Al-Anon. There you will hear stories from other people who have been through such things in their families. You will realize that what is happening in your dad's life is not so unusual, that it follows a pattern.

For some people, though, a group is not the answer. If so, then visit a psychotherapist or counselor who has expertise and experience in drug and alcohol addiction, perhaps a marriage and family counselor with knowledge of how alcohol and drugs operate in the family context.

A good overall place to begin looking for help is with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

I am referring you to groups and experts rather than trying to answer your questions myself directly because, in my view, you are at the beginning of a long process, and how you personally go through this process will depend on all the particular facts of your own life. Your situation is not unique. But you are the one who must begin taking action. The action you take should be the action that feels right to you. What I do say, emphatically, however, is: Begin the process. Begin the process of accepting that there is indeed a problem and you must indeed take action. This is not going to go away. This is a serious, life-and-death matter.

Treating it as such may be strange to you. I sense that up until now, alcohol has been a good friend to your family. It has played a positive role in your social lives. It has been a reward, not a curse. It has been something to look forward to.

So to view it as a threat to the well-being of your father, his profession, his family, his patients and his fellow drivers may be hard. You may initially resist the idea that this wonderful elixir is a deadly threat.

Dealing with alcohol as a threat rather than as a reward involves adopting a new paradigm. In this new paradigm, what you thought was true is no longer true. You may hear such phrases as "we are powerless over alcohol" or "we are powerless over others' behavior" and think that they sound self-defeating or just plain odd. It will be important to come to understand the context in which people say these things, and what they mean when they say such things.

I don't know if the following analogy will be helpful or whether it will just sound confusing, but you might liken what you are about to embark on to what happens when one begins law school, or medical school, or divinity school: You have to shift your paradigm. You have to accept a new set of operating assumptions. The world of problem drinking is a new world with its own rules.

I am just trying to prepare you. Some of what you hear at first may sound strange. On the other hand, you are sure to hear stories that sound eerily like your own.

As to the many specific questions you have -- What would happen if someone at the hospital found out? (Someone at the hospital probably already knows.) What should you say to him? Is a formal intervention a good idea? Should you talk to his colleagues or boss? Should you try to hide the liquor? -- rather than try to answer them, again, I suggest that you attend a meeting of Al-Anon, or contact an alcoholism and drug addiction specialist, one with experience in how alcohol affects the family matrix.

I also suggest you take really good care of yourself as you go through this. Get plenty of sleep. Exercise. Take care of yourself. Pamper yourself, even. Get a massage. Go to a spa. Seek support from your friends. And consider yourself lucky that you're not the one who is drinking.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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