DEAR KELLY: My parents are alcoholics. They drink a bottle of wine with dinner every night, then put down all kinds of drinks all weekend. Last weekend they had my 17-year-old brother be a designated driver for them because they wanted to go with their friends from a restaurant to a friend’s birthday party, and they knew they would be smashed after dinner. My brother said that all three couples were so drunk in the car and one lady was cussing and making obnoxious sex jokes the whole time in front of my brother. My brother told my parents that he would never do that again. When we go boating my dad drinks all day on the boat and gets angry if anyone asks if he’s OK to still drive home after drinking all day. No one wants to make him mad, so everyone just gets into the car and says a prayer that we make it home safely. Honestly, he’s not some loser dad, he has a good job and makes a lot of money. People think we have a good family, and it’s a joke because people don’t see that he’s an alcoholic.
What should I do? My brother and I are so sick of them getting loaded on the weekends and acting like a bunch of stupid kids who have to get buzzed all the time. Like my brother says, we are the adults in this family.
When I told my mom that I wanted to talk with someone about their drinking, she freaked out and said that they weren’t alcoholics, that I was overreacting and that I would embarrass them if I told people that. She told me that I could ruin their reputation by telling people that they are alcoholics. Any advice or suggestions?
– A Teenager Who Hates Alcohol
DEAR TEENAGER: Sometimes what starts as a very bad habit can become a big problem. Your parents may view their drinking as “recreational,” but clearly it sounds like more of an issue than they are willing to admit. Alcoholism is a disease, and like any disease, it needs to be treated.
One of the hardest things about growing up with an alcoholic parent is that you can’t control their choices. It’s important to remind yourself that you are not responsible for your parents drinking too much and you are not the cause of their decision to drink. What you can control is how you respond, who you surround yourself with and the choices you make in your life so you don’t continue the pattern of behavior.
Your parents’ decision to have your brother be a designated driver seems to have backfired. While they were trying to show responsible drinking by not driving, their friends acted immaturely in front of your brother and put him in an uncomfortable position. Were they smart to not drive if they knew they were going to be drinking? Yes. Was your teenage brother the best person to act as chauffeur to a bunch of drunk adults? Probably not.
Contrary to your mother’s belief, you need to talk about what is happening and how it’s making you feel. You and your brother need a place to talk where you are supported and learn coping skills for living with an alcoholic. Ask your mom if she is willing to have your family go for counseling. If not, try to find a trusted adult in your life you can confide in. If you can’t talk with an adult (teacher, coach, youth pastor, neighbor, family member), then start by contacting Al-Anon/Alateen. They have a 24-hour hotline at (800) 344-2666, or go online for help. They can help direct you on places to go for support and how to help yourself through this difficult time. Attending an Alateen meeting could be beneficial to you to help learn coping skills and strategies on how to live with an alcoholic as a teenager. Getting support is vital to you being able to make healthy decisions for you and your brother.
You need to develop a plan on how to handle situations, like when you go boating, where you and your brother no longer are put in danger by riding home with your parents after a day of drinking. Your father’s decision to drink all day while he drives the boat is risky enough, but to get in the car with him is not safe. There needs to be better options available in situations like that where you are put in danger of being hurt. This is where talking to a professional can help.
Your family needs to have set boundaries and limits on what will happen if mom and dad drink. Pre-set conditions need to be established so when he drinks, he isn’t surprised when family members either take away his keys or refuse to drink in a car when he is driving. Maybe you and your brother can take two cars boating so if dad refuses to give up the keys, you are aren’t being forced to get in the car with him. Being prepared for different scenarios will give you options to keep yourself and your brother safe in all situations.
Being the child of an alcoholic can be very difficult. You sound wise and aware of what this is doing to your family. Trust yourself and listen to your inner voice that is saying to reach out for help.
Kelly Richardson, a Folsom therapist, works with adolescents.