Question

I have a 38-year-old daughter who is a functional alcoholic. She has two teenagers, owns her home, and has a well-paying job. Her ex-husband died of an overdose over ten years ago. 

My daughter started drinking in high school. She struggled in ways none of our other kids did, but we recognize that children come with their own set of trials and challenges, and we were always close to her. My husband and I did everything we could think of to help her when she was in high school: alcohol counseling, family counseling, encouragement, enforcing consequences, starting over in a new environment, etc. Things improved greatly until she met her ex-husband shortly after high school and started on a downward slide. Of course, I know we weren’t perfect parents or a perfect family, but we have never given up on trying to make things better. 

Her daughters are very difficult. One is on the autism scale and has Tourette’s as well as social issues, but she excels in many parts of her life. The other child has severe learning disabilities, anxiety, and anger issues. Over the years, my husband and I have maintained a close and warm relationship with my daughter and our grandchildren. We spend time together, we work on projects together, we take them on vacation with us once a year, we take care of our grandchildren so she can work, we are available to talk whenever we are needed. I really love my daughter and recognize how tough single parenthood is. My own mother was widowed when I was an infant. I’m very familiar with the stress and loneliness single mothers experience. However, our daughter often leaves our grandchildren alone for long periods of time to go out drinking with friends. She recently admitted that she has driven drunk. She comes home drunk several times a week, and her drunken behavior scares and angers her kids. She’s frequently too hungover to take kids to school. My granddaughters often refuse to get in the car with her because they think she still may be drunk. My daughter struggles to love her kids (her words). She often leaves her kids without food or rides to school and appointments. These problems have increased gradually but steadily over the years as her drinking problems have increased. 

I feel my daughter has just given up on parenting. I’ve raised my kids and I don’t want to raise my grandkids, but here I am. I‘m sad that I’m so enmeshed in the neediness of this family.  When my granddaughters call, I feed them or take them to the places they need to be.  I love my granddaughters dearly, but it breaks my heart that I’ve taken the place in their life that belongs to their mom. I’m the one that hears about their day, the new friend they made, what they learned in seminary, what classes they hate and which ones they love. I’m the one that hears how angry they are that their mom isn’t there for them. I hate that I’m parenting again- all of which I’ve shared with my daughter. I feel when I go feed the grandkids (which I only do when my daughter is out drinking) I’m somehow relieving her of her responsibilities, but I don’t know how to change things without making life harder than it already is for my grandkids. And as children of an alcoholic, their life is very hard. 

Her dad and I have confronted my daughter several times, most recently today, and offered to pay for alcoholism help or any other kind of services she thinks would be helpful. She agrees there’s a problem but is unwilling to do anything about it or even talk about it. We’ve participated in Al-Anon and I understand the limits of helping those who don’t want help. I’m reaching the end of my rope. My husband is terminally ill, I have six other children who are stable, happy, and have families, including a daughter with a serious chronic disease who needs help and support when she’s hospitalized. All of them live in other states.  I’d like to be able to visit them more often instead of them visiting me but leaving our local grandkids without support feels undoable. I‘d like to spend time with my husband that doesn’t involve our kids and grandkids before he’s no longer with me. I’m feeling so burned out. What more can I do to help my alcoholic daughter and my grandkids and myself?

Answer

It’s deeply moving to see the love and devotion you have for your daughter and grandchildren, especially during such difficulty. You and your husband are a resourceful and committed couple who have stretched and strained every emotional, relational, and physical resource to preserve your family’s safety. Devastatingly, your daughter isn’t working with you to improve conditions for herself or her children. In fact, it only seems to be breaking down even further. As you know all too well, this is the tragic nature of the progressive unmanageability of addiction. You’re now at a crisis point where you’re now the one breaking down along with everyone else. Let’s discuss your options.

First of all, family and individual recovery from the effects of addiction is such a long-term play that it’s important for the helpers to make sure they are taking care of themselves. Clearly, you and your husband are the main helpers in this scenario and it’s essential that you do whatever is necessary to preserve your strength and sanity. Your daughter and grandchildren can’t understand that you have a limits, as you’ve always seemed to pull off a miracle supporting them in one way or another. You can’t wait for them to understand this before you take action and care for your own emotional and physical needs.

I’m guessing you’ve been avoiding the need to care for yourself for fear that it would place your grandchildren in harm’s way. You can easily predict the outcome if you were to pull back and withdraw the generous support you’ve freely offered over the years. However, despite your Herculean efforts, your daughter’s behaviors are outpacing your ability protect her and her children. I can’t even begin to imagine the personal anguish you’re experiencing as you battle between choosing your own sanity or protecting your loved ones.

As I think about your options, one scenario comes to mind that could meet the needs for everyone involved. It will undoubtably cause short-term angst for everyone involved, but I don’t believe this option will cause more harm than the effects of allowing this situation to continue uninterrupted.

My recommendation is to report your daughter to law enforcement and social services for failure to protect her own children. So many of her choices are illegal and destructive and need to be immediately stopped. She’s not stopping herself, her children can’t stop her, and she’s not open to your influence. It’s heartbreaking, but the worst thing isn’t that she has legal consequences. The worst thing would be for this to progress and destroy her and her children.

I recognize that this option has likely been on your mind as the last possible option, but it’s still an option. You’ll have to decide if you’re ready to follow through with this, but you’re in the best position to make this call and describe what you’ve seen and heard over the years. No parent wants to give up, but please recognize that you haven’t given up. Your daughter is the one that gave up on herself and her children.

The child welfare system is far from perfect, but it’s safer for your grandchildren than driving around in a car with their intoxicated mother or not having food in their home. This is a harsh solution, for sure, but less harsh than the unthinkable tragedy awaiting your grandchildren if they aren’t protected by responsible and caring adults.

It’s highly likely that the authorities will turn to you as an option to care for your grandchildren. I recognize that you are burned out and may not have the emotional or physical stamina to continue carrying the baton in this exhausting family relay. However, recognize that your involvement will likely feel less chaotic and tiresome once you’re able to care for them on your terms. Trying to protect someone else’s children while they’re actively harming them creates a perfect storm of powerlessness and anxiety. I don’t know what will be asked of you, but once you know they’re in the custody of responsible and safe adults, you can begin to rest your anxious mind.

It’s time to care for yourself, your terminally ill husband, and your other children. Your grandchildren also need adults who are attentive and supportive of their special needs. It is simply more than you can do alone. Your daughter’s addiction is selfish by nature and doesn’t care about anyone else. It doesn’t even care about her. Remember that true love isn’t without limits or consequences. You’re a smart and motivated woman who is a blessing to your family. You can bless your daughter by allowing her to experience the bitter fruit of her choices so she has a chance to escape the darkness. Your refusal to allow this to continue may be one of the most loving things you can do for her.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

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