My mom's an out-of-control alcoholic

How do I deal with the DUIs, the accidents, the broken bones? Day after day, year after year? Alone?

Published June 8, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)


My mother is an active alcoholic. She typically binges for a few days, swears off of it for a couple of weeks and binges again. This has been going on as long as I can remember and I'm now in my 40s. She has numerous health issues that are probably exacerbated by the drinking: diabetes, obesity, liver problems, depression, etc. My mother and father are married, but separated and living in different states for at least 20 years. My dad still supports her financially so she doesn't have to work.

My mother moved to my town to be closer to me and my family about five years ago to "help" us. It was her idea, not mine, but I was wishy-washy with her, so, here she is. The crux of my issue is that I am really tired of going from crisis to crisis with her. I work full-time for a busy nonprofit company, my husband works full-time, and we have two small children whom we are constantly ferrying around to scouts, sports, lessons, etc. It's a busy life.

Every 10-12 months, there is always some alcohol-induced crisis with my mom. Last year, she got her first DUI. That is still winding its way through the court system. Before that, she tripped over something in her home during a weekend-long drunken binge, shattered her ankle and had to be in rehab for a while. She wanted to live with us to recuperate, but my spouse said "absolutely not" and now she frequently makes references to how my husband must "hate" her.

She has lost apartments because of the drinking in the past. She has, in the not so distant past, called me at work slurring that she was going to kill herself. I dropped everything to go to her, insisted she go to the hospital for an evaluation, but nothing came of it as they let her out the next day once she was sober.

She has been in and out of rehab, has attended AA (but not recently) and, I think, had a sponsor. It doesn't seem to help much. I am tired. I am the only child, and my dad and my mom's sister don't want to deal with her at all. I am über-responsible and always the one who picks up pieces when there is a problem. I ran over to the jail when she was arrested and brought her diabetes medicine to her. I bonded her out. I picked her car up from the tow place. I took her to the DUI attorney and I talked my dad into paying for the attorney. I visited her in rehab. I cleaned her place up after she broke her ankle, including taking out at least 30 big garbage bags of empty liquor bottles and half-eaten rotten food containers. Whatever I do isn't enough for her and she sees herself as a victim. Suggestions I make about volunteering, doing some activities or just finding some friends in town are met with resentment so I don't suggest anything anymore.

She wants to be included in whatever family outings my family goes on, but I'm ashamed to say that I usually hate to have her around. In her favor, she's never drunk around the children, but she is like a dark cloud when she's there, especially with the hostility that she exudes toward my spouse. Anyway, I could go and on. How much is too much? I don't want to abandon her, but I seriously can't stand to be around her at this point. Is there even a way to extricate myself after so many years of this?

Alcoholic's Daughter

Dear Alcoholic's Daughter,

It must be satisfying to be a doctor and be able to bind wounds. It must be satisfying to see a patient who has a condition that can be treated and who wants to have the condition treated properly and to treat it properly and move on to the next patient. Likewise, it must be frustrating to doctors to see alcoholic patients for whose fatal disease medicine alone seems not to be enough.

One also wonders if doctors do not tire of dispensing the same medicine over and over, even though it seems to work. Don't doctors on occasion wish to improvise, just for fun? Don't they get bored prescribing the same medicine over and over? But they stick to the routine, don't they? That's why you go to a doctor, not a writer.

A writer longs for novelty. But the answer to your problem appears to be the same as it has been for many years and for many other people whose lives are disrupted by the alcoholics in their lives, by their DUIs and diseases and broken bones and embarrassing public displays.

The same thing seems to work. It is repeated thousands of times a day all over the world. It works in a simple way. One gathers with others who also have alcoholics in their lives. One follows a set of steps that allow one to see the phenomenon clearly for the first time. One sees that it has a predictable nature. One is no longer surprised by it. One sees that one can operate according to a set of principles. One learns to act according to these principles, rather than according to one's continually evolving sense of improvisation and outrage.

Through acting according to principle, one develops a calm. One's options become clear. One does not have to invent new solutions every time the alcoholic does something new. In one sense, alcohlics will always be doing new things. If they have climbed the Brooklyn Bridge and threatened to jump off, next time it may be the Golden Gate Bridge. If they have awakened from a blackout in the outfield of AT&T Park, they may awaken next time from a blackout at a monster truck rally. Instances of escalation will vary in their details, but the principle of escalation is predictable. Every time the alcoholic escalates, and she will escalate, one does not have to escalate in turn. One has a set of behaviors that one can live with. One has a set of responses that do not vary. In this way, one can maintain an orderly family life no matter what happens in the life of the raging alcoholic. One can bear whatever happens, knowing that one has done all one can do.

That doesn't solve the problem. The problem cannot be solved. Part of the solution is accepting that the problem cannot be solved. It can only be contained. Sometimes alcoholics get better. Those around them can sometimes influence their recovery. But it is best to work on the principle that the alcoholic's nature is beyond us to fix. We must maintain on our own defenses.

So that is how you do it. The basic vision is this: Structured detachment from the practicing alcoholic, regular support from those in similar situation, and active contribution to those in similar need. The people who know how to handle a situation like this are other people in the same situation. Where you find them is in meetings of Al-Anon.

Call Al-Anon. Go to some meetings. Learn what you can. Take what you need and leave the rest.

And that is how one maintains a calm center in the midst of daily tragedy and horror and heartbreak.

It is ever thus.

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By Cary Tennis

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