This week's problem: Paula would like to get on with her university life but she's haunted by the situation at home. Her mother frequently rings in tears complaining about her alcoholic father. Her mother has taken him to AA; he frequently promises to give up drink but always relapses, and Paula's even gone with him to the doctor. What can she do about a situation that's breaking her and her mother's heart?

The first of the famous Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous runs: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable." Fair enough for the old soaks, you might think, but, interestingly, exactly the same steps are followed by members of Al-Anon, the group that helps families of alcoholics - a bit of a surprise since many friends and relatives barely touch a drop except a glass of champagne at Christmas.

But alcoholism is a family illness. Paula's father may be the alcoholic, but booze also wields its insidious power over Paula's mother as she gets more and more involved in her husband's addiction. Its tentacles have even reached Paula, who hasn't yet learnt that no one, but no one, can help alcoholics or addicts. They can only help themselves.

Indeed, it's unkind to try to help too much because, as they leaf through phone books and trawl round doctors, concerned family members are removing responsibility from the person who should be doing something, namely the alcoholic himself. And despite what she says, deep down it may suit Paul's mother to avoid her own problems and blame her husband for all the unhappiness in her life.

Paula's doing the same. Worrying about the situation will soon affect her work. If only Dad would get sober, then my mother wouldn't be so miserable, then I'd be fine, she may think. But how she feels shouldn't be dependent on her parents' state of mind. She has to "detach with love", and she'll find that putting her emotional energies into accepting that her father is probably a confirmed alcoholic is far more constructive than banging her head against a brick wall by trying to get him to change.

Her mother's a big girl now, a free woman who can make choices. She can either accept that she lives with an alcoholic who has absolutely no intention of giving up, or she can leave him.

And rather than provide a passive rubbish bin for her mother's anxieties, it would be kinder if Paula told her mother to let her father stew in his own juice, and then let her mother do exactly the same. My own mother was an alcoholic and I wasted precious years trying to fix her until she died. A totally thankless task.

Paula really would be helped by at very least reading the Al-Anon literature, to help her to understand that she must live her own new life at university to the full, and that her guilt and anxiety should be handed back to her mother, who should in her turn hand it back to her father, which is where it really belongs.

Al-Anon and Al-Ateen (for teenagers): 0171 403-0888 or Drinkline (help for all alcohol problems) 0171 332-0202.

The caring son

A caring person can be greatly disadvantaged in life. While an insensitive creature can walk away from a problem, someone who cares has to try to find a solution.

My father is an alcoholic who has ridden roughshod over his wife and family and, as a 40-year-old son who has tried everything - including becoming an alcoholic himself - I feel very authoritative on the subject.

Don't feel guilty because your mother will survive. We live in liberal times today and your mother could leave if all else fails.

Work hard at university and pass your exams. That will help to ease your mother's pain. She may have lost out in marriage but you can replace some of that sadness.

Anon, Cornwall

The voice of experience

Your situation brings back memories, none of which I relish. You're in a no-win situation and whatever you do will cause pain. My mother is an alcoholic. No matter what I try to do or say, she will never stop drinking. I hope your father will decide one day that he wants to stop, but in the meantime you must realise that neither you nor your mother can influence his decision. Pushing him to see doctors or to attend AA meetings may just have the opposite effect.

You need to realise that you have a right to live your life, that you are not responsible for your parents. Use your time at university to make yourself strong enough to cope for yourself, to live for yourself, and then maybe you'll be able to help your parents. I wish you all the luck in the world, and wish I'd known this when I was your age - it might just have saved me from depression.

Anon, London

The mother's critic

While my alcoholic father was alive, my mother wanted to leave him every week. She (as in Paula's case) would take him to AA only to be disappointed by her wasted efforts. She cried, prayed, asked for help, shouted and did anything to avoid acknowledging that it was her responsibility that she had decided to stay with him. In the long run she never left him, but she made sure that everybody knew about her pain. Everybody and anybody that was prepared to hear.

It took me a long time to realise that she just wanted to be heard. She did not want anything to change. She had grown accustomed to her house and her possessions. To be the "lady of the household" mattered to her and for all that she was prepared to compromise her inner tranquillity. She never knew how or wanted to take responsibility for her own life. Somehow it was easier for her to be the victim for circumstances. At 72, my mother is still waiting for life to deliver the promised paradise and, unfortunately, I cannot deliver it.

Even after my father's death, my mother still wants me to fill the void that could only be filled by herself. But somehow I have grown tired of listening. I am tired of taking responsibility for her life, for her unhappiness, for her lack of wellbeing. She still wants me to provide the answers: answers that I haven't got for myself. And I still love her, and her pain still touches me. But I think I have realised that regardless of what I do, regardless of how hard I try to provide the answers, she is not ready to hear them. It might sound hard, but the only solution I have come up with is to listen and to detach. To realise that her pain is not my pain; that her suffering is not my suffering and that unless she chooses to be in charge of her life, there is very little I can do to alleviate it.

Anon, W Sussex

The medical analyst

Paula has pleaded with her dad to stop drinking, but all the pleading in the world cannot keep an alcoholic from drinking. For an alcoholic, drinking is not a matter of choice, it is an addiction and a disease. It is like pleading with someone who has diabetes to give up their requirement for insulin or someone who has lost an arm in an accident to screw it back on again. Alcoholism needs to be recognised as an illness and it would help a lot if the image of the sufferer were not a shabby, dishevelled, unshaven down and out with a meths bottle in the gutter. That is the far end of the spectrum. It is a progressive and degenerative illness which for the large part is a well-kept secret by close family members, who enable the alcoholic to go on drinking by covering up for their behaviour.

Alcoholism is often called the family sickness because it affects everyone who comes into contact with the irrational and confusing behaviour of the alcoholic, in turn making the family members unreasonable and devious.

Anon, Somerset

N E X T W E E K' S D I L E M M A

Dear Virginia,

My godmother is 60, and she's always been a wonderful person, helping me with advice and money; and she's been endlessly kind and concerned. The problem is that she's incredibly right-wing. She believes that homosexuality should be illegal, she refers to black people as niggers and is none too keen on Jews. She thinks benefits should be cut and people be forced to find work. I need hardly say that she has one extremely good homosexual friend whom she dotes on, and she is a firm favourite at her local Indian supermarket, where she takes a keen and kindly interest in the family lives of all the employees. I'm going to stay with her for a long weekend soon and know that her remarks will get on my nerves. I also know if I say anything, we'll have a long and unpleasant argument with both of us getting upset. Should I just keep quiet? When I do I feel terribly guilty.

Yours sincerely, Mandy

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate.

Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, the Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2162, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share, let me know.