Carolyn Hax: Adult child grapples with alcoholic parents

Carolyn Hax
Columnist October 14, 2013

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I am an only child (grown) to two parents who did a really stellar job in a lot of concrete ways — encouraged my development and growth, paid for a top-tier college, introduced me to lots of positive and varied experiences, and loved me very much — but were also uncontrolled alcoholics for much of my childhood and adolescence.

This had (and continues to have — and yes, I have done a bunch of counseling) a lot of consequences for my mental well-being. My relationship with my mother was particularly fraught, and although she would very much like us to be close, we are not.

She is now taking steps to get better. She has been sober for a year and seeing a psychiatrist for almost two. I feel obligated to be supportive — and I am, in broad ways. I tell her I am very glad she is taking care of herself even though it is hard, and that she is doing the best possible thing for herself.


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

It is obvious, though, from conversational hints and direct requests, that both she and my dad would like more from me. He texted me asking me to send my mom a note on her one-year sobriety anniversary. And as always, I feel totally conflicted: Do I write something effusive that I know would thrill her but isn’t terribly true? Or do I write something that expresses support in a more objective and rational way, which would be true for me, but not what she wants?

I feel guilty and also resentful of being in this position. In the past, I’ve straddled a middle ground that satisfies nobody. She does not tend to handle honesty well, even in this post-therapy world.

Faking Feelings?

That’s a heavy load to carry around. I’m sorry.

A couple of things you probably know already: 1. Ultimately it’s your prerogative to decide what’s right for you and to live your life accordingly. True not just for you, but for everyone. 2. An alcoholic parent interferes with that process, because the addiction is that parent’s North — which means you’re trained to see it as yours as well. Next thing you know, your compasses are taking you to all kinds of strange places. Enduring legacy: nagging uncertainty about what “normal” is and what you “should” do.

Don’t repeat that navigating error here by responding to your parents according to what you think they expect from you. Just don’t do it. As hard as it is to tune out your parents and figure out what you actually want out of any given exchange — and out of the relationship in general — that’s what you need to do, here and henceforth. You need to set your compass to that.

Your mother’s difficulty with honesty does have some bearing on the outcome: It obligates her either to do the hard emotional work to learn how to hear the truth gracefully or suffer the consequences of not doing that work. She cannot, however, pass that responsibility off to you; you are not obligated in any way to say what she wants to hear or give what she wants to receive.

Tomorrow: I mean it.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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