Virginia Ironside's dilemmas: How can I help my son with his alcohol addiction?

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to dealing with alcoholism

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Dear Virginia,

My son’s 30 and he’s never had a job because of his drinking. While he refused to believe he was an alcoholic for years, now he’s admitted it, but says he can’t help it because it’s a disease and can be inherited. I see this is confirmed by a lot of literature on the subject. But how can he be helped? We’ve offered to pay for him to go to rehab, but he keeps saying he’ll give up, and does for a week or so and then starts again. My brother was an alcoholic and my wife has alcoholism in the family, so perhaps there’s something in what my son says. What do you think?

Yours sincerely, Derek

Virginia says...

Having grown up with an alcoholic parent and been involved with several alcoholics in my life, I’ve often revised my views on the subject. At first, I couldn’t understand why alcoholics didn’t just give up. Then, realising it wasn’t as easy as that, I went along with the idea that only way for an alcoholic to recover was for them to join the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, the fundamental premise of which is that you are “powerless over alcohol”. You then put yourself in the hands of a Higher Power and try to live one day at a time, constantly going to meetings to reinforce your belief.

Then I read a marvellous book, Rational Recovery by Jack Trimpey, which said that AA was a load of tosh and that the way to beat alcoholism is to say that, actually, you aren’t powerless over alcohol, but it is powerless over you. You must see alcohol as a beast that keeps popping out and tempting you, and you must keep saying no to it.

Then, of course, there’s the genetic model and the disease model. Confusing.

Nowadays, I feel that in the end, there’s no right or wrong. Whatever works, works. But one of the problems with the disease model, rather like AA, is that it continues to make the alcoholic feel like a helpless victim. “It’s not my fault, I’m in the grip of a disease. Not only that, but it’s in my genes.” This is where your son is at at the moment. But let’s go along with this idea, because that’s the one he’s fixated on. If he were suffering from, say, diabetes, he wouldn’t just say, “it’s a disease” and do nothing about it. Having admitted there’s something wrong, he’d try to put it right. He’d take the insulin or change his diet. If he had a broken leg, he wouldn’t go running marathons, he’d put it in plaster and give it time to heal. If he had cancer, he’d have chemotherapy.

So, if I were you, I’d go along with the disease theory, and say to him: “Now what are you going to do about it? Rehab does seem like one answer.”

Another tactic is to leave him to deal with it on his own. While you’re fussing about suggesting rehab and cures, he’s able to sit back and drink. Someone else is doing his worrying for him. At Al Anon – which might help you, as it’s for the families and friends of alcoholics – you’d be advised to detach yourself and not to nag. Otherwise, you become as much a slave to the bottle as he is.

Alcoholics have to find a moment in their lives when they want to give up. In the end, all you can do is to give your son as much information as you can about how he might do this once he’s taken a decision, and then back off.

Readers say...

This is the life he’s chosen

Alcohol abuse is a lifestyle choice, not a disease. It is not contagious. It is not inherited. He’s just making excuses. Maybe he likes the life he’s chosen and doesn’t feel inclined to give it up. Until he wants to live differently, I think there’s very little that you – or anyone else – can do for him.

Sandra Griffiths, by email

It’s complicated

You seem very certain of cause and effect in this situation: your son has never had a job “because of his drinking”; he’s been drinking because he’s an alcoholic; he’s an alcoholic because it runs in the family.

Is it just possible that things are a tiny bit more complicated? Could it be that his excessive drinking springs from a sense of failure due to his being unable to get work (it’s not that easy these days, you know) and that the situation has been allowed to spiral out of control? I’m also curious as to how he finances his drinking. Does he live with you? Are you subsidising his lifestyle?

Robin Pinguey, by email

He has a duty to get better

There is a great episode of South Park devoted to this: a guy in a wheelchair demands to jump the queue to see a statue bleeding out of its backside, saying, “let me through, I’m an alcoholic!”

Disease it may be, but your son still has to try to make a life for himself, like other people with diseases. I do not wish to take a stand on whether or not it is a disease, or a predisposition to addiction, lack of control or whatever. Neither do I wish to support one type of coping strategy over any other. However, it is clear to me that other people with illnesses, weaknesses or shortcomings make strong attempts to lead relatively normal, productive lives. It is your son’s duty to his family, to society and to himself to make the effort. Declaring illness and taking to bed or bottle is not the answer.

Cole Davis, by email

Find him a new addiction

I once read that the best cure for an addiction is another addiction. The writer in question became a golf fanatic. Instead of trying to persuade your son to “give up” something, why not try to persuade him to “take up” something? Anything would do, but how about volunteering, maybe even abroad ? Seeing how much difference he could make to the lives of other unfortunate people would be a tremendous boost to his self-esteem, which is probably what he needs. 

Mary Lees, by email

Next week's dilemma

A friend of mine was clearing out her late mother’s effects. Her mother was a great friend of my mother, who’s also died. She came across a whole bundle of letters my mother had written to her mother, and asked if I’d like to have them. Of course I said yes, but when I read them I was really upset. There was so much about how thoughtless I was and how badly behaved, and how she thought I didn’t care for her – a string of complaints and unhappiness about me. I don’t think I was anything more than the usual teenager, but  now I wish I’d never read the letters, How can I stop myself feeling guilty?

Yours sincerely, Mike 

What would you advise Mike to do?  Write to dilemmas@independent.co.uk. Anyone whose advice is quoted or whose dilemma is published will receive a box of Belgian chocolates from funkyhampers.co.uk (twitter.com/funkyhampers)

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