My dad's an alcoholic and he won't stop drinking

He's been hospitalized but he won't get treatment. My mom has threatened divorce, but she's still there

Published September 8, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 30-year-old woman. My father's side of the family is full of alcoholics. My father, his two sisters, my grandfather, my great-great-grandfather and many of my grandfather's brothers and sisters (12 in all) are all alcoholics. My grandfather died from organ failure caused by his alcoholism. He went through in-patient treatment numerous times but never got clean completely. My father's younger sister was sober for years and then had a relapse and committed suicide by taking pills and drinking a bottle of vodka. My father's other sister is a retired teacher and used to keep alcohol in her desk drawer during work. I know this because I had her as a teacher when I was 13.

My father is a 60-year-old "functioning" alcoholic -- whatever that means. My parents own a business together and he goes to work every day, comes home and makes a lot of money. None of us in my immediate family realized he was an alcoholic until about eight years ago when he had to go to the emergency room for acute pancreatitis. It was horrible; he was in a sort of coma, going through DT's, and he nearly died. The doctor told us that he was an alcoholic and that he had to quit drinking. Looking back, I can't believe we were all so blind to what was actually happening. I always thought he drank too much, but it never really occurred to me that he wouldn't be able to stop. We are a fairly stereotypical family with an alcoholic. We all play our roles. I'm the one that tries to keep the peace.

Needless to say, he hasn't stopped drinking. He has tried a couple of times. He saw a therapist for a while but then quit. He went with my mom to therapy a couple of times but quit because he didn't like the therapist. He hides the drinking from everyone and thinks we don't know. He drinks at work and hides bottles around the house and garage. My mom has threatened divorce, but I don't think she will leave him. She is miserable. They are in a cycle that you can predict easily. He drinks for a while and then he gets caught. She gets angry, he apologizes and says that it was only that once. She forgives him after a while. He drinks only enough to maintain and then starts drinking more and more until he gets "caught" again. My mom is obsessed with when, where and how much he is drinking. My father denies drinking anything even if you have the evidence in your hand. My mother can't tell if he has been drinking unless it is really obvious.

A couple of years ago he almost ran her over with a truck while he was backing up because he took sleeping pills (or pain pills) with alcohol. He is emotionally abusive to her and threatens to commit suicide if she left him. He flies off the handle about little shit and blames her for things that don't make sense. He sleeps for days when he is depressed or when they are fighting. He forgets things he has done or said. I won't ride in a car with him anymore because I am usually certain he has been drinking. Lately, I just try to avoid him because it is just easier.

Sometimes he has moments of clarity where he realizes what is happening, but it doesn't last long. Without alcohol he goes into a deep depression. He didn't have the best family life growing up and his body is beaten up from so many years of working doing manual labor and all the extra jobs he did to support his family, and he uses this as an excuse. He also says that he is "different" and that treatment won't work for him and that he can do it himself.

In the last couple of weeks, my mom gave him an ultimatum. Either he goes to inpatient treatment or she is divorcing him. Nothing has happened. He hasn't gone to treatment and she is still with him.

I guess my question is, is there anything that I, my mom or my sister or anyone else can do about this? Does he have to lose everything or die before he will go get help? We have all tried to talk to him about this, but it doesn't matter. I have given up. I don't even like to be around him and have checked out emotionally from him. I love him, he was a great father but I can't deal with this anymore. The train is coming and he won't get out of the way.

Daughter of an Alcoholic

Dear Daughter,

First, I suggest that you and your mom and anybody else in the family who is concerned about your dad contact Al-Anon and attend a meeting. Do this no matter what else you decide to do. It will help in many ways.

Then find out what your options are and make a plan of action. This may mean staging an intervention, arranging for involuntary commitment or both.

Here is a pretty good article on interventions.

If you stage an intervention and it does not have the desired result, you then might turn to involuntary commitment. I talked to my good friend Jim Segal, a marriage and family therapist in Florida, and he said that in Florida this would be accomplished through the Baker Act. Here in California we call it a 5150. Both of these laws have come into the language colloquially as verbs: In Florida, you can "Baker Act" someone.

In California, if you're out of control, you might get 5150'd (pronounced "fifty-one fiftied.") Or, in your case, the relevant section might be 5200.

Get a qualified legal opinion on this.

"Most states have similar mechanisms," Jim says, "for someone who is so under the influence of drugs and alcohol that they are a danger to themselves."

So find out what legal options you have.

If your state has no such legal provisions, and you stage an intervention which does not result in his volunteering to go into treatment, then I don't see why your mother shouldn't go ahead with divorce plans. You have to do something. You can't just keep slowly sliding down the hill. The sane people who are affected by the alcoholic have the right to salvage their own lives.

You are not doing your dad any favors by hanging around trying to make things easy on him. If there is anything I have learned from the many alcoholics whose stories I have heard, it is that time and again the apparent catastrophe turns out to be a blessing for the alcoholic.

I wish you the best of luck in playing your role in what must be a devastating situation.

So let me say it again: First, get yourself and your mom and any other concerned family members to an Al-Anon meeting for guidance and support. Then proceed with whatever concrete steps are available to you to intervene and separate this man from the family that he is slowly tearing apart.


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By Cary Tennis

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