My alcoholic dad: How can I reach out to him?

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I know he’s screwed up, but as a little girl I idolized him

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 25, 2009

Dear Cary,

This is an epically long letter — sorry. To some extent, I just needed to put it all down on paper so I could get a grip on it: see the patterns and find some coherence in the whole thing. What I’m writing about is such a large part of me that I can’t find a way to edit it down. I suspect you understand.

I need some advice about dealing with an alcoholic, specifically my father. I’m 21 and my dad has been drinking since I was about 4 years old. I guess he’s what you might call “high functioning” — he has a stable job as a department manager, doesn’t get violent or abusive in any way, doesn’t drink hard alcohol as far as I know, just beer. Because of this, I didn’t know he had a problem until I was a teenager. Looking back, I realize that almost every memory I have of him until I was about 12 includes a beer can: doing work around the house, working at his desk, watching TV, on camping trips. I think he’s not really meant to have a family and a high-pressure job. My impression today is that he began to feel trapped and depressed, and started dealing with it by drinking. But of course, I thought it was normal and everything was great.

I adored my father, like many little girls do. I was born 10 weeks premature, which resulted in my mother and I being not at all close, so my dad was often the one who was there for me. He was the more patient parent, introverted like me, and the polar opposite of my mom, personality-wise. She came from a highly dysfunctional family full of alcoholics, failed marriages and absent parents. In spite of it all, she came out shockingly sane, but chronically depressed and not at all familiar with “normal” child development or child-parent relationships. My brother and I were expected to be emotionally competent far beyond our years — many confrontations between us revolved around my inability to be adequately “grateful for all that she sacrificed” to raise us as a stay-at-home mom. So, naturally, my father’s alcoholism really messed with her and the more he drank, the more she leaned on her kids for support.

Finally, when I was maybe 12 or 13, she sat us down for a talk with my father present, and informed us that he was an alcoholic. I really didn’t understand the ramifications of it, but I took on her anger and betrayal and joined her in a messy confrontation with him. Looking back, it must have been absolutely shaming and a really ineffective way to handle the problem. He agreed to go to counseling, but quit after a couple of sessions. Over the next few years, things were tense, to put it mildly. My parents were miserable — my mother furious and my father beginning to withdraw — but neither was willing to divorce, which was my greatest wish. I wanted the whole thing to be over with, for everyone’s sake.

For a little while after the “intervention,” I continued to be closer to my dad, but it was obvious that I was expected to choose a parent’s side, and as he began to withdraw emotionally, I switched to my mom. A year or two later, he and I had an enormous fight (I think he must have been drunk) which culminated in him bitterly observing “I used to be your hero,” to which I shot back, “Well, I found out you’re not so perfect.” After that, we were done. I felt angry and betrayed and he refused to reach out to me again, so we just quit having a relationship.

Actually, he quit having a relationship with anyone. He lived in the house, but worked and slept in a basement room, spent a lot of nights out (presumably at work, though we never asked and he never said), and quit eating meals with us. I refused to have anything more than a curt conversation with him. He continued to drink, though he kept it as hidden as possible. Over time he became more and more irrational and moody. My mom continued to bend over backward to keep him happy, but I decided I didn’t want to play the game and just went through daily life in the house like he didn’t exist unless I absolutely needed something from him.

Finally, two years ago I moved out to go to college on the other side of the country. My little brother left last year. I’ve been home for some vacations, but I’m staying away this summer for my own sanity. On top of all this, I took my mother to see a family therapist this winter, at the suggestion of my own therapist who had been helping me work through the mess of all this. My mom felt instantly betrayed by the mere suggestion that she had been a less-than-perfect mother and the idea that I might want to be my own person instead of her support system. I managed to set up a rule that I was no longer going to be dragged into her passive-aggressive conflicts with my father, which has been helpful for me. However, she has now withdrawn from me, rarely initiates contact, and doesn’t really have much to say to me anymore. I have no contact with my father outside of short discussions about financial aid or the family health insurance, which require his input. Once every few months he tries to start a conversation with me over e-mail, but they never go anywhere. When I’m at home, we ignore each other’s existence.

So, I’m sitting here, on the verge of being a grown-up, feeling kind of disjointed and parentless. Now that I’ve broken out of the messed-up dynamics of my childhood and set some boundaries for myself, I’ve started to revisit this history with my father, and it turns out that, angry as I’ve been with him, I really miss having him in my life. He was the parent my mother couldn’t be for me when I was little. And I have a hard time letting him go because I see so much of myself in him. But at the same time, he’s chosen alcohol over functional relationships in his life. He controls my mother’s life because he controls the household finances and she’s co-dependent with no real income of her own. My brother still talks to him; I guess that’s the side he chose when it reached that point. My dad spends a lot of money on him instead of time and genuine effort. I expect any day to get a call saying Dad has been injured or killed driving drunk.

I know I can’t make him change. I know he’s pretty dysfunctional and to blame for a lot of things. But I also know he must be as miserable as the rest of us, and I’m starting to wonder (here’s the point to all this): Am I being unfair to him? Does he deserve, simply as a human being, to have a daughter who will talk to him? What can I expect from him, if it’s even possible to have some sort of relationship with an alcoholic? I’m worried that I’m being immature and immoral by shutting him down so completely. But I never, ever want to stoop to his level like my mother has, and I don’t ever want to be used emotionally by him. Is it time to just give up or is it time to reach out?

Thanks so much,

J

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Dear J,

It’s true that your letter is long, but I agree that each part of it is important, and the task is to find the pattern in it. I am glad you wrote it all down. Each time someone tells their story, people who also have grown up with alcoholic dads are helped.

I have two main responses. One concerns how you as an individual will navigate between two poles of being. The other concerns your father’s alcoholism, and how he might get some help.

On the first point, let’s just say that one pole of being is the you as a completely unique individual. The other pole is the you who exists in knowledge of and opposition to your parents – the you who has made a pact with herself never to repeat the mistakes of your parents.

Neither of these poles represents an absolute state; rather, you are a unique individual trying not to repeat your parents’ mistakes. You are trying to have a relationship with them as you are, not as the circumstances of your upbringing might dictate that you be. We are a synthesis of utter uniqueness and the shaping forces of experience. We live in the tension between uniqueness and repetition.

As we question and challenge our parents’ negative examples, we also must question our own iron-clad determination not to repeat those negative examples.

Determined not to repeat “my father’s mistakes,” I am in the process of repeating them even as we speak. I am so afraid of abandoning plans, and thus repeating my father’s pattern, that at times I have been rigid, and so have not become conscious of what is the next thing, and so have missed opportunities, and in that way have replicated my father’s pattern! In being so determined to make a marriage that works I have at times failed to live authentically in the life of the marriage, have administered the marriage instead of living in it, like some remote bureaucrat in a desert highrise, grading the marriage’s adherence to program. In resolving not to let my inherent wildness destroy me, I have destroyed some of my inherent wildness and with it some of my life force and love and beauty and desire and music. I have been so fearful of repeating my father’s impulsive changes that I have in my own life become a little rigid and conventional, although at heart I am naturally intuitive and thus blessed with the ability to act with wise impulse.

The focus on not repeating negative examples seems to bring them to life!

The “not” part does not seem to be as strong as the “what” part.

In playing tennis, we avoid saying to ourselves, “I must not hit the ball out.” Our brain does not seem to get the “not” part. We must instead visualize the ball going in. Likewise, in life, we visualize what we are trying to bring into being, instead of focusing on what to avoid.

So to the extent that you can survive it, I think you must have a relationship with your father. This relationship with your father can be your laboratory for growth. There are probably areas of life in which you did not grow because of your truncated relationship with your father. Coming back into his life can be a way for you to build, piece by piece, your way of relating.

So I suggest you forge a framework for relating to your dad. Identify safe, relatively neutral areas in your home town where you can go with your dad, where he feels comfortable and where you feel comfortable.

If he drinks steadily throughout the day, you may want to identify a time when he is not too hung over but not too drunk — perhaps mid-afternoon. Or perhaps lunchtime at work is a time you can visit him, if his workplace is governed by corporate norms.

If being with him is too difficult, too upsetting, too dangerous, then you will need to back off. But I think that measured, regular contact with your dad is better than cutting off contact altogether. There is something there, even if it is buried and distorted by the alcoholism. There can be at least a continuum of contact. If nothing else, by staying in touch, you will have up-to-date contact info.

As you occupy this difficult space, notice yourself in opposition to your parents. Then notice yourself in the absence of your parents. Each is an abstraction, a false pure essence: the you that is only you, and the you formed by your parents. Neither is real. Find the middle. Live in the tension between these two. Notice how it feels to move from one to the other. Notice how narrow is the space where you only oppose your father or your mother. Notice how narrow is the space of your own uniqueness. Notice the power in these poles of attraction and repulsion.

To be more concrete: You love your father. Your father has a disease. The disease distorts his personality and his thinking and causes him to act in ways that are harmful to himself and harmful to others. But there is a man in there who is your father and he has been the most important man in the world to you. You love him. Because you love him it is painful beyond words to see him distorted and destroyed. Your task is to handle it with boundaries.

I know how difficult this father thing is.

I know how difficult it is to accept that in spite of the many, many ways he can be helped, you cannot help him until he is ready. In spite of what I know, I find myself thinking, Couldn’t you cook up some sort of real intervention? — not the shaming and self-serving drama that your mom concocted (wow, what a scene that must have been!) but a professional intervention, with a treatment option. Why not try that? I mean, it sounds like he hasn’t really tried …  and I have just fallen again into the same old trap everyone falls into, haven’t I? I know that we are powerless over the alcoholism of others and yet, and yet … I cannot let this go! (Why not? Because I’m no different from anybody else!)

Has he ever said he wants to quit? Has he ever admitted he has a problem? What was this family conference about? If he went to a counselor for a couple of sessions, perhaps he at least had an inkling of his problem. And then maybe the shame and trauma of the family conference just shut him down completely, and now he is all alone and full of self-pity and whatnot.

But maybe he is ready. You could at least try to find out. (See how tenaciously I cling to the belief that he can be helped, that he can be changed?!)

You might at least have someone who is a recovering alcoholic come and visit him and see if maybe he can relate, and maybe give recovery a try. There are people who would make the visit, I’ll bet, if it’s even remotely possible that he might be interested in some kind of help.

So that’s the alcoholism side of it: He might be ready. Who knows. It’s possible.

You and I know you cannot change him. Yet let’s hope you can forge some kind of relationship in which you take strong precautions not to be burned, but are still close enough to feel his warmth.

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