On Reconciliation With an Alcoholic Parent

By Shannon Luders-Manuel 06/17/16

Four adult children weigh in on what mended their relationship with their alcoholic parents—or why it was past repair.

On Reconciliation With a Sober Parent
Getting sober is only half the battle.

For many parents who struggle with addiction, getting sober is only half the battle. Children often become “young soldiers” in an effort to protect themselves and those they love, including the parent. As the child gets older, forgiveness and reconciliation can become more difficult, even long after the parent has stopped using. My father never stopped using. My mother read an article recently in which I discussed the “demons” my dad saw as he was dying of lung cancer. “He was probably going through withdrawals,” she said. In the fifteen years since his death, I had never made that connection. 

My dad died at 71 and he never had an extended period of sobriety. Our “reconciliation” was based on boundaries I’d created to keep myself safe. Sarah, *Heather, Ava, and Jessica also have parents who abuse or have abused alcohol, with Jessica’s father also having struggled with a gambling addiction. The four adult children weigh in on what mended the relationship—or why it was past repair. 

Heather grew up in a Christian enclave tucked away in the California mountains. The zip code is largely made up of the Christian conference center, with many of the town’s residents either working at the center or commuting to outside jobs. For Heather, the alcohol abuse was a family secret. “I remember as a kid listening through the furnace vent down through the garage,” she says of her hypervigilance regarding her dad’s secret. “’Yeah, I heard the can pop open,’” she says, imitating her childhood voice and speaking in a whisper. “Then one day there it would be in the fridge again.” 

Like Heather’s father, Sarah’s mother was also a functioning alcoholic. “Although at points she was also low functioning,” she says. “There were times in her life she held positions of major responsibility (editor at the New Yorker magazine, photojournalist at Magnum Photos) and others where she was unable to get out of bed before noon.” Sarah and Heather both use the term “elephant in the room” to describe their home life growing up. Heather says, “No one ever said don’t tell anyone, but Mom’s not mentioning it to anyone so you’re not, and you’re just this kid getting angry inside because you can’t talk about it with your friends.” 

“Children of addicts and alcoholics can face unimaginably difficult hurdles in life,” says Stephanie Arnold, an adult psychiatric and mental health clinical nurse specialist, and Dyan Kolb, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in addiction and dual disorders. “They may face abandonment, neglect, trauma from emotional and physical abuse, confusion, witnessing violence, exposure to crime, chaos, involvement of government agencies like DCFS, etc. As a result, they may feel profoundly hurt. The may be very angry.” 

Jessica is one who experienced exposure to crime at a young age. She says of her father who was also an alcoholic, “When I was about in grade three, my dad actually went to jail for perjury and fraud. As I young kid I didn’t really understand what that meant.” Jessica’s father had a gambling addiction, involving buying and investing in businesses or real estate and gambling in sports. Still, she says, “I never thought he would turn against me—I’m his kid.” Jessica also remembers getting in the car with her father when he’d been drinking, and wondering if she would get home alive. 

Heather, too, remembers fearing for her safety as a child. “[My mom] was the one who, when [my dad] was drunk, still let us all get into the car and be driven by him. I’ve been scared of driving for years. I’ve always hated driving.” Heather and her father had a close relationship when she was a child, which she attributes partly to his being sober when she was very young. “I sort of defended him. I don’t know why. I always root for the underdog I guess.” As she got older, however, her attitude toward her father began to change. “I just started to treat him very coldly and very meanly, and that was not good. I came home on a break once, and I saw my sister treating him how I had, and I thought, ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ I could see it then because it wasn’t me. But I knew she had learned it from me.” 

Ava also had a complicated relationship with her mother, who died of an accidental overdose when Ava was 25. “My mother tried to get clean. She did rehab. She’d have periods of sobriety, but she’d always relapse.” As an adult, Ava created boundaries with her mother, which occurred naturally when she went off to college. “That was my primary means of escape and of distancing myself from what was happening,” she says. “I saw her every few months and spoke with her on the phone frequently.” Even with this connection, the instability took an emotional toll on Ava: “Sometimes it was nice, and sometimes she was blitzed and it was horrible. The drug abuse almost drove me to cut her off, but I never did.” 

For Jessica, a complete separation felt like the right move, especially after her father’s gambling addiction took a very personal turn. “The gambling didn’t affect me much because I never thought it would happen to me. I didn’t see how I could possibly get involved in it.” Then when she was an adult, she says her father defrauded her $20,000 and she had to take him to court. When he still didn’t repay her after the court’s decision, she charged him civilly and criminally. “I won the case and he had to repay me in garnished wages.” 

Jessica’s father died about ten years ago, and she never reconciled with him after the trial. “My sister did, and it was hard for her,” she says. “She has children and she wanted them to get to know their grandpa. But she also had to experience a lot of broken promises along the way.” According to Arnold and Kolb, “If family members are reluctant to reconcile, it may mean that they are feeling unsafe, unsupported, or unable to cope with what they have experienced. Showing family members that you have been sober, stable, and engaged in your own mental health care for an extended period of time can help.” 

Heather was able to mend her relationship with her father during her second year of college by speaking openly about the family secret in letters. “I asked for forgiveness, saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been mad at you because you did these things’ and I listed them. ‘I forgive you, and [your alcoholism] doesn’t give me the right to treat you the way I’ve been treating you.’” When she came home for break, her father enrolled in a rehab program funded by his work. “For Christmas break, me and my brother went and dropped Dad off at rehab and we all got to go to one of the family meetings.” Arnold and Kolb say, “Addiction does not arise in a vacuum. It’s a family disease, and the whole family needs support and treatment.” Even though it ended well for Heather and her father, she’s quick to say, “There’s no magic formula. You can do everything right as an ex-addict and be clean and sober and do what needs to be done, but your child—sad as it may be—they have the choice. All you can do is know you did what you needed to do, and sadly there’s consequences.” 

Sarah’s family had a different response when she confronted her mother about her drinking. “When I was 18 and a sophomore in college, I decided it was time to stop the charade and I called a family meeting to discuss mom’s drinking. I was thrown out of the house.” While Sarah’s father did acknowledge her mother’s alcoholism shortly after the discussion and began attending Al-Anon, Sarah’s mother was never able to overcome her alcohol addiction and died at age 61 of an aneurysm. “She never sought treatment and we failed her by not intervening,” Sarah says, despite the family meeting. “It remains my biggest regret in life. She struggled with addiction, and I believe it was because she had larger issues (chemical and emotional) that she couldn’t face. I believe that had she gotten help for those issues, she would have stopped drinking.” 

Even when a parent does stop drinking, it can be hard for the child to fully regain trust. “Things were really good with my dad for those last ten years [of his life],” Heather says, “but I don’t think your trust ever gets back to the same spot. I was always listening for the signs, because it would always start the same way.” She remembers seeing her dad passed out drunk on the garage floor when she was young, and the trauma the experience created in her life. This traumatic event, in addition to the years of alcoholism and secrecy, resulted in a fear that never fully subsided.

Ava, who lost her mother and has gone through periods of reconciliation with her alcoholic father, says, “There are cycles of forgiveness and un-forgiveness with this kind of reconciliation. There are times when connection is necessary, and there are times when distance is necessary. I am currently in a cycle of un-forgiveness with my dad as I nurture my own young children. Abandonment, neglect, addiction—these things are anathema to me right now, and they should be.”

If my dad had managed to get sober before he died, there is a chance we could have reconciled. But it would have taken months, if not years of sobriety, an honest discussion with an honest apology, and a real noticeable change. I also would never have stopped looking for his vodka bottles under the sink. This lack of trust has nothing to do with the current trustworthiness of the parent, and everything to do with the coping mechanisms adult children of alcoholics have learned in order to survive. 

Even with my boundaries in place, I knew my dad loved me. I had to experience that love from a safe distance in order to heal. Before his terminal lung cancer, I wrote him letters, I saw him in person in daylight hours, and I never cut him out of my life. I simply had to invest in the relationship on my terms, in order to protect myself from more emotional harm. 

Arnold and Kolb give the following advice to parents who have attained sobriety and wish to reconnect with their children: “The recovering addict may have to take a real hard look at whether or not that family member is safer on their own. The best a person can do is get themselves healthy and say, ‘Come back when you’re ready. I’ll be here for you and I’m ready to listen.’” 

*Names have been changed for confidentiality.

Shannon Luders-Manuel is a freelance writer living in LA who is currently working on a memoir about her father. You can follow her on Twitter @shannon_luders.

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