Teen Talk

Stepfather’s ‘closet alcohol’ problem strains family relationship

Kelly Richardson
Kelly Richardson Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

DEAR KELLY: My mom got married about a year ago to Pete. He seemed cool and OK. They dated for about a year before getting married. After about six months, Pete changed completely – like scary changed.

Pete is friendly and social to everyone, so people think he’s a great guy. But when it’s just me, my brother and my mom in the house, Pete is a jerk. He has a rule about everything being so quiet when he sleeps that whenever we make a sound he freaks out and yells that we’re so disrespectful of his house and his sleep, even if it’s like 8 p.m.

Some days he’s not so bad and more chill, but you never know when he’ll start yelling again or just go off on one of us for no reason. One day I came home from school early and he acted so mad that I was home and stomped around the house cussing and mumbling something about his house. I just left and went to a friend’s house just to avoid him.

The other day Pete borrowed my car because he needed a truck and let me use his car. I went to put something in the trunk and there was a pack of beer and some empty beer bottles. When I looked in his glove compartment, there was a half-empty bottle of vodka and in the center compartment there were like three for four empty little alcohol bottles, like from hotels. I told my mom and she said he’d flip if he knew I was snooping in his car and not to tell him. She said she’d deal with it and she’s noticed he seems to drink more than she knew before.

What should I do? If I tell my dad, he won’t let us come over here anymore and it could start more drama between my parents. I feel stuck.


DEAR TM: You did the right thing. You told your mom what you discovered, and now it’s up to her to figure out how to handle Pete. It doesn’t sound like you weren’t “snooping,” you simply found his stash. To be angry with you for looking in the trunk is unreasonable and unfair. Living with someone with an alcohol problem is not easy. Until your mom confronts Pete on his drinking and actions around the house or in his car, he will continue these destructive behaviors. The main thing is to remember that it’s not your fault and you did nothing wrong.

Often referred to as “closet alcoholics,” the signs can be much more difficult to notice, which is why you might not have known before you started living together. While it seems like the signs of an alcoholic are obvious, people can spend a great deal of time with someone without ever realizing they have a drinking problem. People with addiction issues often hide or deny the extent of their addiction issues. Alcohol could be the factor affecting Pete and his relationship with your whole family. Since it is a disease that is progressive, the longer it goes on, the more destruction it will do.

The first step in living with an alcoholic is accepting that while we can’t change him, control him or cure him, but we can take care of ourselves. You have a few options to help you set boundaries and protect yourself. You can tell your mom that until Pete gets his drinking under control and addresses the mood issues he is subjecting your family to, you will go live with your dad. You aren’t trying to threaten her, just protect yourself emotionally. Living with someone who insists on a quiet house and who has irregular moods or fits of anger is no way to live.

You and your brother should not be subjected to walking on eggshells until Pete is ready to address what he is doing to your family. If this causes drama with your parents, it’s not your fault. They are the adults and they need to put your welfare and best interest ahead of their personal issues with each other.

One resource that would be great for you would be to find an Ala-teen or Alanon support group. Teenagers who live with an alcoholic – whether they be a closet alcoholic, functioning alcoholic or raging alcoholic, can benefit from getting support from others who have lived in similar situations. You can Google Ala-teen meetings and it can point you to one that is close to your home. Or you can call 1-888-4AL-ANON (1-888-425-2666) for meeting information. Going to a support group can help you learn effective ways to cope with living with someone who has a drinking problem.

If your mom doesn’t support your doing a support group, ask to speak with a professional counselor. You might begin with individual counseling and eventually do family therapy to address how it is affecting everyone.

Internalizing all of this is not physically, emotionally or mentally healthy for you. Tools such as a journal, sketchbook, physical exercise or listening to music can be helpful ways to release stress. You don’t need to be the secret keeper of all the negative that is happening behind your doors at home. You need to be in a safe place where you can rest, laugh and be yourself.

Get yourself professional help and support so you can be a healthy, productive and happy teenager.