My alcoholic daughter, 26, must leave home – or I will

This was a Guardian Dear Mariella letter in June that garnered almost 600 comments so clearly it is a subject that hit a collective nerve that prompted people to offer advice and share their perspective.  An alcoholic daughter cared for by ageing parents who have had enough and write in asking for help.

The dilemma I’m a 69-year-old retired engineer with two children; one who lives abroad and seems to be doing well, and the other, my 26-year-old alcoholic daughter.

She appears incapable of holding down a job, is a strain on our resources and frequently goes on binges during which she might fall and get bruised.

I am her enemy, it seems. Today she told me she wishes I had died when she was 15. Yesterday the police called because she had gone to the local shop, bought cheap spirits, and was outside in a stupor.

I want her out of my house. I am depressed by the constant arguments between her and her boyfriend (a decent sort of guy), her and her mother, her and me. She behaves like a devious psychopath, manipulating others.

Unfortunately my wife keeps enabling her behaviour. I think I am going to have to leave to preserve my sanity. I hate to seem as if I am attacking my wife, but I can’t see any other way.

Mariella replies How sad. Your daughter is an addict plain and simple, but it’s not just her own life she’s destroying. One of the frustrating aspects of addiction is how useless it can make those around feel, even when they are doing their utmost to be helpful.

Your daughter needs professional help, ideally a clinical stay, but as you’ll be all too aware you can’t force her to seek that out. You can, however, make it less easy for her to dodge the fact that she is making a problem for all of you.

All addicts become adept at manipulation, as deluding others is often their only way of maintaining their habit. Lying becomes their lifeline. It’s easy for me to say this, but you must try – no matter how terrible the things she says – not to confuse your daughter with the creature her addiction makes her.

The day she liberates herself from her dependency on alcohol she will be an altogether different human being, so please don’t abandon hope for the return of the girl you once knew. Insisting, if she’s to remain living with you both, she attend AA meetings would be a step forward, but you would have to be prepared to go through with the alternative of her leaving the house.

Have you tried family counselling? It can be a helpful step towards getting the person to realise that they need to look to themselves instead of attacking those trying to firefight for them. At present she’s casting you as a demon, but that would be much harder if you and your wife built up some solidarity. Parenting in partnership is one of the most constructive things you can do with children generally. Speaking in one voice is one of the toughest collaborations to maintain, but it’s indispensable when dealing with an addict. A united front helps to create a sense of security, offers less chance to indulge manipulative tendencies and presents a clear idea of where the boundaries lie. Your daughter is over-stepping every one of those lines and it may be that things have to get worse before they can improve. What would be really destructive would be allowing your daughter’s behaviour to drive a wedge between you and your wife.

Don’t underestimate the immense strain you are both under, which is clearly having an impact on you both in different ways. Your wife’s enabling of your daughter’s behaviour puts her in a majority. There are very few parents who come around easily to abandoning their child in the hope of them hitting rock bottom – it’s an incredibly hard choice to make.

However, your girl needs to see that there are expectations and consequences, and the life you are all enduring is unsustainable and damaging. If you haven’t tried family counselling it’s worth investigating. There’s no downside to having an honest discussion and there can be surprises for all concerned. No amount of therapy, however, will cure her addiction – she is an alcoholic and needs to understand that whatever is at the root of her problems her addiction to alcohol is only exacerbating it.

Maybe her dependable boyfriend can help convince her of the invaluable support available at her local AA meeting. This is an issue for expert advice, not just an email to an agony aunt, so do ensure you’re in touch with the organisations whose expertise has helped many a family, including Al-Anon Family Groups (020 7403 0888) and adfam.org.uk.

Ultimately, the best I can offer is my certainty that you won’t be able to make changes until you and your wife find common ground. Leaving won’t cure the problem and removing yourself will be a temporary respite at best. Refraining from calling the family home “my house” as you do in your letter is one small correction to your own approach that you might make. The way forward will take compromise and a willingness to accept change from all concerned to dig you out of this dark hole.

I liked her advice and thought it was sound – what did you think?

6 thoughts on “My alcoholic daughter, 26, must leave home – or I will

  1. Wow! Good letter she wrote. At the first read I had problems with her comment on calling the family house ‘my house’ because I tend to side with the father. At a second read I realised that this exclusion which at first might seem futile in the eyes of the reader (myself) might as well be a big stimulant in the addiction process. ‘Not belonging’ and ‘not fitting in’, ‘feeling excluded’ were big stimulants in my own addiction process. So yes, I think a good catch there since it does set the tone of the letter and I assume (as assuming goes; it is only assuming) the tone of any conversation in their house. I am happy that there are people out there who can write such good replies. 🙂 <3
    xx, Feeling

    1. Thanks for sharing your view of the letter Feeling and I agree! 🙂 xx

  2. I had to reread it again, as I wanted to be sure I got the full message.
    I think it was a really good response, and especially to have him go to Alanon, to learn some coping tactics.
    I know, when my dad started drinking heavily, I was out of the house, but I went to Alanon and I learned some things that helped me.
    He’s in a hard situation, and sadly, many families are in situations like this.
    xo
    Wendy

    1. Thanks Wendy for sharing your experience of Alanon as I’m sure it is really useful for people who read the blog to read about someone who has been to these meetings and found them valuable! 🙂 xx

  3. Something that struck me when reading the comments was the number of people who made highly bitter and negative comments about the alcoholic in the scenario, or as generalisations. A typical such comment was that the alcoholic is ‘manipulative’. It is easy to forget in the safe space of the sobersphere that addiction is still so often met with hostility and hate – neither of which are known for their ability to give rise to good things…

    I also noticed the repeated statement that ‘no-one can change unless they themselves have decided to’. The heartbreak of situations such as the one described in the letter is perhaps that as a whole our society leaves some of its members until they have a highly visible and deeply entrenched problem before seeing that there is any necessity to change. By the time of the DUI, the hospital admission, the being brought home by a policeman, the addiction will have its roots in deep and will not give up easily…

    1. Very true Prim. I disclosed recently to a patient who was in recovery that I was too and his wife’s response was telling. She said you ‘don’t look like one’ to which I replied “you can’t tell from looking at us” 🙂 There is so much of the them and us about alcohol dependence which obscures the humanity of us all.

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