A recent study reported in The Washington Post revealed that 1 in 8 American adults is an alcoholic. That means you may be sitting across from someone struggling with this addiction at your Thanksgiving table. It may be your sister, your mother, your Uncle Joe or cousin Sue. Maybe everyone in the family knows that your dad is an alcoholic. You all call each other ahead of time to discuss how you are going to stick with the boundaries that have been set and ask him to leave if he becomes too inappropriate or aggressive in front of your 8-year-old nephew. You feel anxious leading up to the dinner but find relief as soon as you get in your car to go back home. You survived the five hour meal hearing your dad slur his words, but luckily he was a happy drunk this year. You are able to separate yourself from him and have a choice about when you will see him again. Maybe it won’t be until next Thanksgiving.
Johnathan is 15-years-old and his mother drinks her vodka in her coffee container on the metro north every night on her ride home from work. She earns a six figure salary, works out every morning at 5:00 am and packs him his lunch every day. She also vomited on the car ride home from her niece’s wedding last weekend, falls asleep most nights on the couch by 7:30 pm and cannot remember a single thing Johnathan tells her from Friday night to Sunday morning. But no one talks about his mother’s substance abuse in Johnathan’s family. Because she is functioning. Well at least is looks that way on the outside. She is going to work, getting the groceries, paying the bills and looks like she is in “good health.” I mean, who isn’t when they burn 400 calories on their Peloton every morning?
Johnathan’s father has never once spoken to him about his mother’s behavior. He explains that she just likes to relax with a few drinks because she works so hard. Why disrupt the milieu? Everyone seems happy and Johnathan will be off to college soon and he will deal with it then. He thinks Johnathan doesn’t even notice. Plus, it’s not like she is one of those “alcoholics” who wakes up every day and has to have a drink. Right?
Johnathan is starting to hate his mom. She embarrasses him when friends come over because she makes absolutely no sense after a few glasses of wine, so he doesn’t even invite them to his house anymore. She recently called his school counselor and told him that Johnathan is withdrawing socially. If she only knew why. Everything seems to easily irritate her and she’s often yelling at him. He misses when they used to sit on the couch and watch Modern Family together. She is usually snoring by the time the show comes on now. She also slept through his soccer game last Sunday, but that’s ok because he’s getting used to her emotional and physical absence in his life.
Many teens do not have the choice to leave the holiday dinner and separate themselves from the chaos. They go home with the alcoholic. Most are too scared to speak up to their parents about what they are seeing and they feel powerless in the situation. Teens with alcoholic parents usually come in to my practice with another presenting issue but then slowly reveal what is happening at home with their parent. After earning a teen’s trust and they indicate readiness to confront the situation, we invite his parents into a family session and he shares his perspective on how his parent’s drinking is impacting his life. Some parents are able to listen and ask for help after those sessions, but others remain in denial and continue their behaviors. In those cases, I teach the teen how to set boundaries with this parent and we discuss Al- Anon’s 3 C’s:
- You didn’t cause it – it is not your fault that the other person drinks, it is their private battle
- You can’t control it – you have no power over the other person’s desire to drink
- You can’t cure it – it is an illness that cannot be cured through any known medical remedies
I encourage many families to support their teen in attending Al-A-Teen meetings where they can learn more about how to cope with a parent who struggles with substance abuse and be around peers who are experiencing similar conflicts.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, don’t hesitate to get help. There are resources in your community that support you through the journey to recovery. You can start by calling SAMSHA’s National Help Line- 1-800-662-4357. You can also call your insurance provider and ask them to provide you with contact information to licensed substance abuse counselors and programs in your area.