Ask Katie: Why Should I Forgive My Alcoholic Dad When I Still Have To Clean Up His Messes?

By Katie MacBride 01/24/17

Dealing with a heavily-drinking father can be frustrating, especially when you have to act as a parent in his place.

Image: 
A cartoon of an angry kid walking by a seemingly drunk adult.
Be mad, but don't give up on family.

A few months ago, my father got his second DUI and now his license is suspended. As a result, I have to drive my younger siblings everywhere, do the grocery shopping, and run other errands while my dad sits at home. I am in high school and already have an after school job and tons of homework every night. My mom works full-time and also takes care of her mom, who is sick. I know my mom feels bad that I have to do all this stuff, and my dad says he does too, but it’s hard not to be angry at him. He isn’t working right now and this is not the first time I’ve had to take on extra responsibility because his drinking has gotten in the way of stuff. He’s been going to AA meetings (there’s a place within walking distance from our house) for the first time and it seems like he hasn’t been drinking since, which is good. Mostly, I’m writing because I understand that he struggles with not drinking and that he doesn’t want to be this much of a slacker, but I’m still so angry with him. I’m 16 and more of an adult than he is. I feel like I’m not supposed to be angry with him, especially now that he’s been sober for a little, but honestly, I’m just as mad—if not more—than I was before this short period of not drinking (and I don’t even know if him being sober will last). My mom says I should try to forgive him because he’s really trying now, but I don’t feel forgiveness towards him at all. Why should I forgive him when I still have to be the person who cleans up his messes?

From, 16

Dear 16,

I am sorry that you are in this position—it’s absolutely unfair to you. You’ve already got a full load with school and a job. That’s plenty to focus on and it’s completely understandable that you’re angry for having to manage your father’s responsibilities. It’s perfectly natural for you to be upset about this. You don’t use the word “alcoholic” in reference to your father, so I won’t either, but it’s fair to say that growing up with a parent who is a heavy drinker—and whose drinking has negatively impacted the family as a whole—is challenging. Your attitude about the situation is quite rational: you understand that your father struggles with alcohol, you are happy that he’s addressing that issue, but you don’t quite trust it. And it doesn’t outweigh the damage that’s been done thus far. From where I’m sitting, that’s a very reasonable reaction to your situation.

It makes sense that you’re more angry with your father now than you were when he was drinking. When he was drinking, you were probably worried about his safety, caring for your family, and myriad other things about the situation. That kind of stress can put you in constant survival mode—you just push through it and take care of what needs to get done. It doesn't leave a lot of time for processing your own emotions. When that fear is diminished—even if the responsibilities you’re saddled with are still there—you're able to feel the impact of everything you've experienced. It makes sense that your anger would increase now. 

Just because your reaction is normal, however, doesn’t mean it’s easy to deal with. You’re having to act as a parent for your parent, and that’s both crappy and confusing. Before you worry about whether or not you should forgive him, you need some time and help working through everything that’s happened in the past. As I said, I think your reactions to everything that’s happening are totally reasonable. You have a good head on your shoulders. Anyone in this situation would benefit from walking through the ins and outs of everything that has happened with a professional. Even just having someone to vent to when you’re pissed off that you have to drive your siblings around, can be helpful. My guess is your school has a counselor available; everything you tell that person should be confidential (though they are likely a mandated reporter). Other mental health resources can be found here. Programs like Al-Anon and Alateen can also be helpful in meeting people who are going through the same thing as you. You don’t have to go forever, but it’s always nice to see for a fact that you’re not the only person dealing with this stuff, and to have people to commiserate with.

When someone is first getting sober, it can be tempting to treat them with extra fragility. Certainly, it’s important to try to empathize and be compassionate. You don’t, however, have to tiptoe around your dad or pretend you’re happy with the situation when you’re not. It might be uncomfortable to air how you're feeling to him and you may not be ready to do it right away, but you don’t have to hide your feelings if you don’t want to. One of the things that talking to a counselor can help with is figuring out when you’re ready to talk to your dad about this stuff and how to go about it.

Along those lines, don’t be afraid to ask your father to help with some of the non-driving work. If you’re doing the grocery shopping, maybe he can come with you so you don’t have to watch your siblings and grocery shop at the same time. If you need help keeping your siblings out of your hair so you can get your homework done, ask him to help with that. If there are other kids in the area going to the same activities as your siblings, explore if carpooling is an option; if so, maybe your dad could work on coordinating with the other parents and figure out a schedule. This may make him feel more useful than he currently does, but the more important thing is that you don’t feel like you are in this alone.

And if you’re still mad, be mad. That doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk to your dad, but you don’t have to pretend like everything is perfect, either. An important part of getting sober is taking responsibility for your actions, and he can’t do that unless he knows how you really feel. I know this is a tough situation, but you’re handling it really well. Just remember, you don’t have to do it all on your own.

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at www.katiemacbride.com.

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