sober questioning

‘How Do I Stop Enabling My Alcoholic Dad Without Losing Him Entirely?’

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Ana,

I just hosted my alcoholic dad and his (now three years sober and lovely) wife at my home. I love my dad and we’ve always been very close, but there’s always been trauma in our relationship due to his erratic behavior while drinking and, more recently, his insistence that he’s sober while he continues to spend 90 percent of his time drunk.

He thinks he’s sneaky. He’ll ask me for a beer in the afternoon as if it’s the only one he’s having — while downing a six-pack outside in a matter of minutes. I always find the evidence later, usually in our trash cans or the trunk of his car.

He loves to boast about how he “doesn’t get drunk anymore” and any suggestion otherwise is met with disbelief, anger, and attacks toward me that I’ll “never understand what he’s been through.” We made it through the five-day visit, barely.

I hate him when he’s drunk. I hate even more that my only option seems to be to play along or risk an awful blowup and be blamed for his depression and dissatisfaction in life.

I love my dad and want him involved in my children’s lives, but he’s an awful person when he’s drunk. I hate that I have to be complicit in his lies to maintain any semblance of peace or pleasant interaction.

What now?

Paternity Tested

Dear Paternity Tested,

Dealing with a parent’s addiction in adulthood makes navigating the already tricky transition from being the cared for to the caregiver even more fraught. My mom was an alcoholic my whole life; figuring out how to protect myself as a child was less emotionally painful than figuring out how — and if — to deal with her as an adult.

After I got sober and she continued to drink, she would barrage me with calls and emails accusing me of various betrayals or simply pleading with me to come visit her. When she was diagnosed with cirrhosis, I felt I should go see her. She married but was still lonely and sick. A good daughter would visit. A good daughter would do what she could to help. But the odds she would be drunk or dishonest about drinking were too high. Whatever positives I could get out of seeing her would be outweighed by the negative — arguments, tears, recriminations, and lies.

A sober friend helped clarify the situation: Which was more important, feeling as though I satisfied the traditional obligations of family or keeping my own sobriety safe? I had to figure out what I could handle, not what would look noble to others. The calculus was easy: If I let her troubles intrude too much into the delicate environment of my early recovery, well, we’d both be lost. I wound up cutting off all “real-time” communication — no phone calls, emails, or texts because it was too easy for her to spontaneously reach out while she was drunk. I wrote her actual physical letters and told her she could write back.

Her husband thought I was a monster. She told me he said so.

Your situation is different — it’s a lot harder. I could always recenter the prime directive of an alcoholic in recovery whenever I felt guilty about the boundaries I’d drawn: Nothing is more valuable than my sobriety. Nothing. But you have more variables at play, more priorities that vie for the top spot.

Only you can rank what you value, and now is the time to do that ranking. Among everything you want, where do “semblance of peace” and “pleasant interaction” lie when weighed against exposing your children to behavior you say you hate? Which do you choose: “the risk of a blowup,” or enabling his dishonesty? Is playing along with the charade of his sobriety worth the anguish of knowing you’ve been lied to? You want him involved in your children’s lives; is that more important than teaching your children they can draw boundaries if they need to?

Obviously, there are costs to attenuating family ties. In my case, my mom’s drinking compounded her cirrhosis to the point where she was not capable of writing letters. She developed alcoholic dementia and needed around-the-clock care in a nursing home. I did visit her then. By waiting, did I miss out on creating memories I’d want to keep? Did she continue to drink in part because I’d hurt her so badly? Maybe I could have seen her and stayed sober. Did I inflict needless pain?

I have to live with those questions, even if most of the time I’m at peace with my choice. So I’m not suggesting you cut him out of your life or your children’s lives — really, I’m not suggesting anything. For one thing, there are levels of mediated communication before you get to “cut out completely”: limited visits, rules about alcohol in the house, ratcheting down communication if you find out he lied. Finding other people who’ve been through similar things will give you even more tools to negotiate the relationship. I’ve written a little about Al-Anon, the 12-step group for the loved ones of alcoholics and addicts; it’s not for everyone, but it might be a place to at least start looking for resonant experiences. Some therapists specializing in addiction have group sessions for friends and family too (whether or not your loved one is a current patient). And of course there are lots and lots of books. Don’t forget to ask the people who love you for the support you deserve.

More than anything, I want you to understand that it’s okay to make a choice that might not look very loving to people who aren’t where you are. My sobriety gave me the permission to do what I knew other people saw as selfish; I want you to know you can give yourself that permission, too.

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‘Can I Stop Enabling My Alcoholic Dad Without Losing Him?’