Hax: When alcoholism impacts the kids

The Washington PostOctober 15, 2013 

Adapted from a recent online discussion and continued from Monday.

Carolyn: With my parents, I feel like I am in a similar position (as Monday’s “Faking Feelings”). My mother has serious mental illness and has been emotionally abusive in the past. She is now in treatment and it is clear that she would like a closer relationship with me. However, given our history, I have a hard time feeling motivated to share personal details or put effort into our relationship.

I’m not sure your answer about her mother’s alcoholism being “north” fits “Faking’s” position — it doesn’t seem to be about her alcoholism; it’s more about her mother wanting to be closer and her daughter being ambivalent. So, when Mom makes an earnest effort to change, is it our responsibility to repair that relationship?

ANONYMOUS

It’s about the effort Mother has made, the atta-girls she seeks, the closeness she wants, the responses she does and doesn’t take well — so, with all due respect, it is still about the alcoholic dynamic where the addict takes and everyone else gives. The only difference is that, instead of liquid pain-relief, the mother craves relief in the form of (compulsory) intimacy.

That emotional give-and-take isn’t supposed to be 50-50 between parent and child; the parent is supposed to do all of the giving in the child’s infancy, and over time the child matures and starts to shift the balance toward, ideally, equilibrium by the end of young-adulthood.

With the alcoholic parent, small children are asked to give early and often and badly out of proportion to what their own needs dictate.

So, I’d say the adult child in this instance has better justification than most to hang on to what s/he thinks is right, instead of deferring to her parents. They imposed an imbalance on her that took her years to sort out, so it’s only reasonable that, any time she’s unsure what constitutes balance, she errs on the side of taking care of herself, versus taking care of her parents.

If that doesn’t feel right to you in your situation, that’s OK — the whole point of my answer is that you get to follow your own sense of what is right.

Email tellme@washpost.com. Chat online at 10 a.m. Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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