Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: alcoholism

Dear Virginia,

I am beside myself. My son of 30 has just moved in with us. He's lost his job and his girlfriend and it is clear why: he is an alcoholic. He doesn't get up till 3pm and while he does a few chores round the house and cooks dinner for us, he doesn't contribute anything. He just sits in his chair drinking himself dumb with alcohol, bought from his dole money. My disabled mother lives with us so he keeps an eye on her, which is a help, but he is in complete denial about his drinking problem. What can we do? Yours sincerely, Susan

For a start, get this idea of "denial" out of the way. Very few people are in denial about anything, when you get down it, particularly drinkers. Presumably your son is not a blithering idiot. He must know there is a strong connection between his losing his job and his girlfriend and his drinking. At the moment, however, he would just prefer to drink than not to drink. He prefers drinking to a job and he prefers drinking to his girlfriend. There is no denial going on here and to suggest there is seems rather patronising. Give him credit for making a deliberate choice. It may not be the choice you would make, it may not be a sensible choice, but it is a choice and he has made it. If he wanted to give up drink he would. But he doesn't want to at the moment and there's nothing you can do to change his mind.

I can understand your unhappiness, however. You must look at him and think of all the years you've put in to making him a happy human being; no doubt you've had ambitions for him, for grandchildren. But it hasn't worked out that way. So far. But he's only 30, so there's plenty of time for him.

Obviously you've suggested AA and he's poo-pooed the idea. He might find more acceptable a book called Rational Recovery, by Jack Trimpey, which, rather than encouraging the alcoholic to see himself as a helpless being in the grip of alcohol, recommends him taking control of his life and, very simply, deciding to stop. Easy to say, but this book says it in such a convincing way that it's difficult to resist.

You, of course, would find it useful to attend Al-Anon, for relatives and friends of alcoholics, where you'll learn that the best way to cope with alcoholics is not to do their worrying for them. Don't pick at him. Don't throw drink away or make remarks about how horrible he is when drunk. He knows.

In the meantime, look at the advantages. He's not sleeping rough. He's not stealing. And he's actually making a contribution at home. Some parents, with lazy sons lolling around at home at the age of 30 who are stone-cold sober, would be envious of your having a son who is at least engaging with family life.

Praise him

You say quite a few nice things about your son without realising. He does a few chores around the house. It may not seem much, but it's something. Praise him for it or at least acknowledge it every day.

He cooks for you. Every evening? Quite a job. Thank him every day!

He keeps an eye on his disabled gran, which you say is a help. Do acknowledge that you're grateful.

Alcoholism is one of the worst illnesses, especially as people assume it's self-inflicted, which it is not. He knows what's wrong with him but it's understandable that he doesn't want to talk about it. If his family could acknowledge the positive things he does, perhaps he'll come around to feeling that he can do other things as well.

I've got one bright and beautiful daughter who I thought I treated well. She, however, thought I was on at her all the time. It took some effort on my part to see her perspective. I hope you'll be able to concentrate on your son's good behaviour and ignore his drinking.


By email

Point out the limits

Considering your son does not get up until 3pm, he must act like a whirling dervish, doing chores, cooking your supper, and looking out for Grandma before settling down to some serious drinking. Doesn't sound like an alcoholic to me but someone with nothing better to do. Perhaps you are overprotecting him. His losses are unfortunate, but that's life. At 30 he should be able to get over them. Running home to Mummy is an easy option. You must make it clear that unless he makes an effort to get back on track, the free board and lodgings will dry up. You say he has just moved back home so it's early days, and many of us turn to drink in times of stress.

I'm sure this is only a temporary situation. Try leaving a few hints – the situations vacant or lonely hearts page open on the table. If this doesn't work, explain that leaving a vulnerable, elderly person in the care of someone under the influence is tantamount to neglect and that he must leave before anything unfortunate happens. Good luck!



Alcoholic – or just low?

Your son has suffered two huge disappointments. His self-esteem will be low. And being back in the family home will be a daily reminder of what he perceives as his failings.

The drinking and oversleeping sound like an attempt to blot things out. But his help at home shows that not all his waking hours are spent in a drunken stupor. So are you perhaps overdramatising by branding him an alcoholic? Do you know enough about the condition – or his actual intake – to be able to do so?

Your letter sounds angry – you say he's "just" returned home, and yet your patience is already thin! Have you tried talking sympathetically? Could you get him to open up about his current lack of independence, and plans for his future? You could gain a greater understanding of his suffering and thus feel better equipped to help. From there, perhaps air your concerns about his drinking ("I'm worried about your need to blot things out" rather than "I'm worried about how much you drink"). The important thing is to help get this lad back on his feet. He needs a self-confidence boost, which loving parents ought to be able to supply.



Next week's dilemma...

Dear Virginia,

Three years ago I had a son who was so severely disabled that he now lives in residential care. He needs 24-hour nursing. I try to visit him every week, but my husband – who I've now split up from – refuses to go to see him.

He says there's no point as our child doesn't recognise him, but I feel that my son does know me when I see him, even if he isn't necessarily able to show it.

I wish I could convince my ex-husband that he really could play an important part in our child's life, despite everything.

Do you have any ideas?

Yours sincerely, Yasmin