Mr. Atwater: We have had more than our share of hard times this year, and I know that these things make it hard for my son to stay sober.
He has struggled with drinking for most of his adult life. His wife left this past year, and all he had left was his job. He lost that too about six months ago, and now he has nothing. He tells us that he has no reason to stay sober and gets angry when we won’t give him money or car keys because, despite what he says, we know he’s buying alcohol.
We are older and would love to have our life back, but he tells us that if we want him out we will have to evict him. We can’t stand the idea of him on the street especially this time of year and besides, we are a little scared of him. What can we do?
Dear Reader: Like many people who write to me, the story sounds pretty hopeless, and I’m sure you are feeling that way. What you are feeling is probably exactly what your son is feeling, and like many folks, it’s easy to confuse immediate relief and real solutions.
Immediate relief requires a short-term, black and white answer like “kick him out” or “call the police,” but if short-term answers would work, you already would have taken them and not be writing to me. So let’s take a longer view and look at real solutions.
You have clearly tried to “manage” things like car keys, money and alcohol consumption but continue to “take on” the responsibility by mentally and emotionally excusing him. The real difficult part of detachment is the emotional letting go, and you and your husband still are feeling sorry for him and blaming the external events for his drinking problem rather than seeing that the drinking caused the problems.
The emotional work of letting go has little or nothing to do with your son or his alcohol consumption but is the first step to the real solution. You might want to read up on Al Anon and try some Al Anon meetings, because this is the precise situation for which Al Anon was created. Once you start to address your own denial and have some emotional distance, it becomes easier to see the difference between his problems and your problems. It becomes easier to know what you can and cannot control, and you will be better able to make decisions from a perspective of loving action.
You may find that you are slowly rescuing less, holding accountable more, and that this alone will, over time, make it uncomfortable enough that your son will want to get help or find a less demanding environment where someone else rescues him. He eventually will run out of rescuers, but it no longer can be your job.
The process starts with the recognition that you have little control over his actions and attitudes but some control over your own, that alcoholism is a disease not a habit caused by unfortunate outside events, that he isn’t doing this to you but to himself and that with patient, steady recovery your attitudes and actions can be a model of recovery for him to see.
• Richard Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He can reached by email or by visiting northwestcommunitycounseling.com.