Q & A Today: Is Alcohol Hurting My Family?
By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC
Posted on July 4, 2021
It’s hard to stop someone drinking if they don’t want to stop.
Welcome to Q&A Today, a column designed to answer your questions regarding challenges and concerns in everyday life, from family to coping with current events. A popular topic today revolves around the coronavirus. All questions are fair game. Just send me an email with your questions or concerns, and watch for the answer in upcoming editions of the Tasmanian Times. Q&A Today is published on the first and third Sundays of the month. If your question is printed, only your first name will appear in this column.
Q: My husband and I are confused and in some disagreement about his father’s drinking. My father-in-law is a partner in a large law firm. He works long days during the week and on most weekends he’s playing catch up, trying to finish work that didn’t get completed during the week. It used to be that at dinner he’d have a beer, commenting that it helped reduce the stress accumulated from a tough day at the office or courtroom. But now my mother-in-law tells me he’s drinking as soon as he’s put his brief case down at the end of the workday, and that his usual one beer has become three before dinner followed by another during dinner. He then often falls asleep on the sofa shortly thereafter in front of the television. My mother-in-law feels lonely, saying she feels ‘like a widow with a husband’.
Lately when my father-in-law comes to our home to visit his grandkids he first heads to the refrigerator, telling the kids he’ll play as soon as he gets ‘a cold one’. And then he wants to drive them down to the park to play. I suspect he isn’t performing as well as he should at work. A couple of times this year he’s insisted my mother-in-law notify the office that he would be in late because he had appointments in town, when in reality he was at home nursing hangovers.
I say he’s got a drinking problem that needs to be addressed pronto. My husband is very concerned about this change in his father’s behaviour. But he’s also conflicted because he wonders if his drinking is really that big a problem, pointing out that his father is high functioning, excels at work and is a super grandfather to our kids. My husband says men are in his family have always liked their beer, and wants to know where does one draw the line?
Who is more right, my husband or me, and what path do we take? We’re both waiting for your opinion and guidance. Thank you. – Eleanor
A: When do we decide that a drink of alcohol is more than just a drink? This is a difficult situation, Eleanor, because in our society we start a typical day with a drug (caffeine in our coffee, soda or energy drink) and we then take our prescription medications. If tense during the day we reach for medication to relieve our headache. If we celebrate an event with others or get together socially we likely consume alcohol. We live in a culture of legal drugs and can lose sight of the negative physical and psychological impact some can have on our brain circuitry.
Alcohol is one such drug to watch out for. Alcohol dependence is a progressive process and advances slowly. It can sneak up on a person and be difficult to detect. It causes the mind to start deceiving itself, resulting in the person being unable to realise that they have reached a point in which their tolerance for alcohol may be dropping and they’re needing more to get the same good feeling. Responsible drinking becomes at-risk drinking when the individual shifts from the attitude of finding alcohol relaxing, enjoyable and they really can take it or leave it to not wanting to engage in activities without a buzz because they want to avoid going back to the baseline feeling of sober.
It appears alcohol is becoming a problem because you’re seeing your father-in-law’s behaviour being compromised inside as well outside the family. Your husband suggests that in his family drinking was modelled for him as an accepted behaviour of males. Liking beer, as do the men in your husband’s family, is not a problem in and of itself. But if there is a family history in which the amount of drinking increases over time, and if there are related consequences such as interference with meeting work or social obligations, or risk taking behaviours such as driving while intoxicated, there may be a genetic vulnerability.
Genetic predisposition is only one risk factor for developing alcohol dependence and there are many others, including stress. None of us can tolerate being exposed to prolonged stress and some seek alcohol to help self-medicate for these painful feelings. Most jobs carry a degree of stress, and your father-in-law’s career is no exception. In fact, law is ranked by the 2021 US News and World Report as being the seventh-highest stress career. Continuous pressure from this honourable but often adversarial profession and dealing with deadlines can interfere with one’s ability to manage stress. Also, personality types such as those who strive for perfection tend to be overachievers, putting additional stress on themselves.
A lot is going on in the brain when we drink. Alcohol releases the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter dopamine. Alcohol also releases serotonin, which helps the person feel calm and happy. I like to view these situations as the individual is not weak but that his brain is starting to lie to him, because prolonged use of the alcohol can result in the brain being tricked into thinking one’s fine as long as he is drinking.
Whatever the cause for your father-in-law’s drinking -genetics, stress or one of a number of other reasons – where do you go from here? It isn’t easy to address the issue of someone’s drinking, and you and your husband are likely to experience conflicting emotions concerning getting involved. Your husband may question whether he can challenge his father, whereby you may be experiencing more frustration or anger with him. Both of you may struggle with feelings of dread and worry about what to do.
Tension will likely continue if your father-in-law drinks to excess and you are not both fully on the same page as to understanding the severity of his problem and how to move forward. I encourage you to reach out to Al-Anon. Al-Anon is a worldwide organisation that provides meetings for friends and family members who are worried about a loved one’s dependency on alcohol. These meetings aren’t about changing your father-in-law’s behaviour. Rather, they can provide you with emotional support and an opportunity to learn from others who have experienced similar situations. They can help share tools on how to cope with your father-in-law’s drinking if he doesn’t want to change. Al-Anon meetings are held at no cost and are located in each state in Australia.
In the meantime, attending an Al-Anon meeting does not take away the importance of family members attempting to have a loving dialogue about serious concerns. I recommend that you and your husband select a time that feels safe for the three of you to broach the topic of your father-in-law’s drinking. This means selecting a time when you’re relaxed and without pressure to go anywhere. Choose a time when your father-in-law has not been drinking and there aren’t children around.
Your goal should be to have an open conversation, which you won’t get if he feels attacked or judged. Tell him what you’ve observed and the concerns you have for him and the family. For instance, you could say, “I’ve noticed that you’re drinking more, and we are concerned.”
You can ask, “Have you had any concerns that your drinking has impacted negatively on other aspects of your life?”, or “Have there been times when you were just going to have one drink but it became more than expected?”, or “Have there been times when you felt ill after drinking so you had to change your plans?”
Don’t be surprised if your father-in-law gets upset about the topic of alcohol being brought up. If you keep the focus on the alcohol and don’t allow the conversation to become personal, the likelihood increases of his not getting defensive and shutting you down. Allow him the space to share his perception. You may be surprised to learn that he has concerns, such as feeling depressed or anxious or buried under by the workload. He may deny there is a problem. Or he may be silent and simply say nothing. But if you’re successful at not getting emotional and not engaging in an argument, you’ll have successfully planted the seed for him to start evaluating his drinking and perhaps being more receptive to having a conversation with you, if not now, then at a later time.
Now is also the time to be firm with your expectations of your father-in-law and yourselves. You can ask your father-in-law if he wants to modify his drinking, or if he wants you to help him get professional help, but you cannot stop him from drinking. If he does not see the need to change his behaviour you can talk with him about how his drinking impacts on your family.
If your concerns involve the impact his drinking may have on your children, you have the right to set boundaries. You can request he not drink in their presence and not have a drink before seeing them. Or perhaps your concern is more limited, such as his not driving a vehicle with your family in the car if he has had any alcohol.
Initially alcohol dependence affects the user but quickly becomes a family matter. I commend you and your husband for the obvious conversations you have had with each other, trying to better understand what your father-in-law is going through. Continue what you’re doing as a team. It will help reduce the struggle for you, be a stabilising influence on the children, and provide a consistent message of concern, clarity and expectation for your father-in-law.
Wishing you my best,
Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC is author of Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, by Australian Academic Press. Eileen is a life and business coach and public speaker residing in the United States. She has spent her professional career working in medical and psychiatric hospitals and in her private practice, counselling people experiencing emotionally traumatic events.
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