Mother's struggle with alcoholism puts a strain on teen-ager


June 07, 1994|By Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe | Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe,Special to The Sun

Q: My mother has had a problem with drinking for several years but it got bad enough to the point where I had to go live with an aunt.

My mother finally got some help and I went back to live with her.

She was fine for a while but now she started to drink again and is going back into treatment. She told me she would be OK and not to worry, but that is my question.

At 17, I am tired of worrying and I don't even know if I should care about her anymore.

A: We hope you will find it in your heart to continue to care for your mother even though her drinking problem -- which we call alcoholism -- had had a disturbing effect on your life.

It may help you to know that you are not alone in what you are experiencing: estimates are that as many as 1 out of 8 children or teen-agers grows up in a alcoholic family. Since may teen-agers (and adults) mistakenly believe that the only alcoholics are the "skid-row bums" portrayed on television or in the movies, they are reluctant to reveal a parent's drinking problem to anyone for fear of being called crazy. As a result, they feel isolated, ashamed and overwhelmed. Without a chance to share their feeing with others because many teens try to cover up for alcoholic parents, they never come to realize what a common problem this is.

Alcoholism is a chronic disease, just like diabetes or arthritis; over time it may get better and then worse.

Individuals who worked with teen-agers from alcoholic families like to emphasize three points: You didn't cause your mother's drinking; you don't control your mother's drinking; and you can't cure it.

Only she can take control and responsibility for the problem. At the same time, however, we hope that you can understand that because alcoholism is a disease, her inability to control her drinking is not due to weakness on her part or a lack of moral character. No matter how hard she tries to remain sober, there may be times when she reverts to drinking and has to start the treatment process all over again. Wanting to re-establish a normal relationship with you is one powerful motivation for her to become abstinent again.

Because many of the normal family relationships are disturbed when there is an alcoholic family member, we are not at all surprised that you may have a lot of conflicting feelings about your relationship with your mother.

We encourage you to attend an Alateen meeting where you can join with other teen-agers who have grown up in similar families. You don't have to reveal your name. In Baltimore, the number is (410) 832-7094; in Anne Arundel County, dial (410) 766-1984. Meeting with them may help you to gain a fuller understanding of the problem and decide what you want to do.

Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.

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