Q. I really dread the holiday season and other family events because it means having to spend time with my father. I know that sounds harsh, but growing up with a father who has a drug and alcohol problem isn’t easy. Going away to college was my saving grace. Now I’m 32, on my own, and holding things together, but for some reason, whenever I have to talk to or see my father, I revert to the anxious little kid I used to be. When he’s using, he’s verbally abusive and a real jerk. He’s been to rehab many times, but it never holds. My father could never hold down a steady job, got arrested for DUIs, and cannot stop hurting himself or our family. I still love him, and it’s a horrible way to think, but I expect one day to get a call that he’s dead. Therefore, most of the time, I try to keep my distance, as you suggested to the woman with a toxic brother. During the holidays, though, and other family get-togethers (there’s a cousin’s wedding coming up), if I want to attend, I have to see him, too. Do you have any advice for dealing with a self-destructive family member?
A. I’m very sorry you are dealing with such a heartbreaking situation. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common scenario. It may or may not make you feel better to know that you’re not alone—not by any stretch! I’m wondering if you ever attended Al-Anon or Nar-Anon. Some people find comfort and wisdom in support groups like those. Otherwise, staying away from toxic people, even if it’s your dad, can be helpful, too, as I suggested, but you are right, during holidays and other family events you shouldn’t have to excommunicate yourself because of him. Therefore, here are three ideas that may help you cope:
First, take care of yourself before and after the get-togethers, whether it’s talking with a therapist, meditating, going to the gym, taking a peaceful walk, or doing whatever it is that has a calming and grounding effect on you.
Second, stick to soft drinks when your father is around to make sure you “keep your wits” about you. Not only will it set a good example, but it will help you to act responsibly should an unfortunate situation develop.
And third, when you are together with your family, focus on the positive. Maintain conversations with those you can speak easily to. Compliment the people responsible for cooking and decorating. And when conversing with your father, keep the conversation as light, pleasant, and non-controversial as possible. If he begins to act out anyway, diffuse the situation by going into another room for a while or walking away to chat with another family member or friend. Don’t engage!
One thing I’m glad to see, is that you don’t seem to be so intertwined with him, or have that unrealistic sense of control that makes people become enablers or victims of addicts. It seems like you’ve learned to avoid the emotional turmoil and “detach with love” as the aforementioned support groups teach. That’s a great accomplishment for a child of an addict, so give yourself a pat on the back for staying strong—and for knowing that ultimately, only he can save himself.
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