I'm just about to go off on a gap year before I start my studies at university, but I'm really worried. My mum and dad have always smoked dope in the evenings occasionally, even though I've never liked it much. But Mum told me last week that Dad is hooked on cocaine, and she's worried sick. He's spending too much money and he's getting paranoid, even though he still works at the ad agency he's always worked at. I feel I can't leave Mum alone but so want to get away. Should I go? What can I do? Yours sincerely, Georgie
Virginia says... What a particularly nasty time for this to happen! Just at the very time you need, like a young bird, to be testing your wings and making your first awkward flappings out of the nest, your squawking mum is doing everything in her power to hold you back. It's not fair. It's exciting, I know, going on a gap year, but it's daunting as well and I'm sure there's a bit of you that feels that actually you'd be safer staying at home – as well as feeling responsible for your parents.
But the truth is that as you have to learn to live on your own in future, so, too, do your parents. If they're old hands at dope-smoking, they obviously move in circles in which drugs aren't exactly unknown. I'm sure your mother must have had suspicions that your Dad was into coke for a while. It's not as if they're a completely naïve pair who've suddenly been struck by this terrible affliction: addiction. Almost certainly they know people who've been in rehab, or 12-step groups. They can't be strangers to this risky world.
You, on the other hand, are a stranger to it. You've never been very keen on the scene. Why should you, by staying at home, get sucked into a no-hope world of trying to help an addict, trying to help your mother, and nurture your own feelings of guilt and helplessness? You can already see how you've been affected by your father's addiction. You're feeling guilty at the idea of going away. Cocaine has got to you, too, in its insidious way, and is trying to drag you into its creepy sphere of influence.
If your mother wants help, she can find it from her friends and contemporaries. She can join Nar-Anon, set up specially for the families and friend of people addicted to drugs. They'll give her brilliant coping skills that will help her remain sane while living with an addict. But there's no need for you to have to learn such skills as well. With any luck you will stay free of the world of addicts and never have to learn to become free of them.
Try to see your mother's emotional blackmail as the cocaine speaking, not her. Resolve to say "no" to it, and leave. This will, in the end, be the best for you, but also for your parents. They need to find a way to live by themselves, not to depend on you as a kind of carer at a time when you should be getting out and exploring the world on your own.
Go and enjoy life
Just as parents have to learn to let go of their children, so children have to learn to leave their parents to deal with their own problems, especially while they are behaving irresponsibly. It's when they are older that they may really need you.
It's tough for your mum, but why is it only now, when you are preparing for your gap year, that she has told you about your dad's extension of their drug habit? Go out into the world and enjoy your own life while you can!
They must let go
I have two children, both now in their twenties, and was tempted to do anything to keep them close when they announced their intention to go travelling. For a mother to see her children grow and go is agonising, but it's part of her job to give them wings and let them fly, no matter what difficulties she is facing in her own life. Fly the nest and send her emails often. It's your time now and you'll return full of the wisdom independence and experience brings. She'll be as proud of you as I am of mine and she'll manage your Dad!
Next week's dilemma
Dear Virginia, We've been invited to a no-kids wedding abroad at the end of the school holidays. We thought we'd extend it and have a week's break. My parents would be delighted to have our two kids – aged three and five – to stay in the country, and we were booking our flights when a friend – another mum – said it would be a really bad idea to leave two children so young for so long. My husband says it's ridiculous but I'm not so sure. I suddenly remember how anxious I became when my parents left me in a similar situation when I was small. What do you think? Yours sincerely, Jen
What would you advise Jen to do? Email your dilemmas and comments to email@example.com. Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucher from the wine website Fine Wine Sellers (finewine.sellers.co.uk)
Virginia Ironside's one woman show, 'Growing Old Disgracefully', will be at the Gilded Balloon at the Edinburgh Festival