Why Is It So Hard to Talk to My Mom About Her Drinking?

A woman with dark hair looking out at sea

My mother has an alcohol addiction. 

I’ve read dozens of stories about how alcohol addiction has affected people’s lives. But I have never really seen myself or my mom reflected in those stories. My mom stopped drinking about a year ago, but doesn’t think she has a substance use disorder, and says she’ll never give up drinking permanently. 

In our small town in the south, my house was always full of friends and family, and there was always good food and good drink around. My parents were hospitable and warm, and their drinking didn’t affect me negatively as a child. I always felt safe, and our home was stable.

But after I became an adult, my mom’s drinking escalated and when she drank, there were problems. 

Slurred speech, repeated stories, the inability to walk up the stairs without my dad’s help, lying about how much and when she was drinking. 

We begged her to stop drinking, but she was put off by all the recommendations her counselor made. She didn’t want to try a 12-step program or harm reduction. She quit cold turkey without any group or professional to help her. This has left me in a very uncomfortable place, always wondering when she’ll open a bottle of wine and what to say if she does. Can I say "You’ve been sober for a year so please don't drink that wine?" Would it be easier to talk to her if she openly admitted she had a problem?

I’d love to tell my mom that I understand how much shame she’s feeling.

I want to tell her how her drinking affects me — how I don’t share things with her anymore because I know she’ll forget, and that I’m scared and worried all the time. She’s 76 years old — and very healthy and young for her age — but when she drinks, she is unstable on her feet. I’ve seen her try to climb the stairs and lose her balance. I’m terrified that she’ll lose control of her body while drinking and hurt herself. I worry that one night my dad will call to tell me she’s dead.

So why won’t I tell her that? Why is this so hard?

I reached out to a few friends and did a little research to help myself figure it out. Here’s what I learned.

Picking the right time to talk is hard.

It can be hard to find the perfect opportunity to have a difficult conversation with someone, especially about their drinking or substance use. As long as my mom doesn’t drink, I’m confident she can live a long, healthy life. So while the sense of urgency is gone because she’s stopped drinking, I still feel like we’re in crisis. But for many people, a conversation like the one I wish to have with my mom might be what helps get a loved one who’s suffering to get help. The best time to talk is when your person isn’t under the influence and when you — and they — can be calm, rational, and non-judgemental.

Talking to your parents as an adult child is hard.

Growing out of the parent/child dynamic is hard. How many of us as adults are reduced to angsty teens as soon as we step back into our parents’ home? But when talking to an addicted parent, roles are reversed and the child is put in the position of offering guidance and establishing boundaries. Al-Anon is a great resource to understand codependency, as well as community-based discussions on TheMighty.com.

Setting and maintaining boundaries is hard.

The differences between what can help and what can hurt someone with addiction can be very hard to discern. Helping my mom might be educating her about other kinds of treatment besides 12-step programs. Hurting my mom might be allowing her to drink in my home. Whatever boundaries you establish, keep them! Your responsibility is to yourself first, and protecting yourself from emotional or mental harm is paramount.

I’m really lucky that my mom and I are close and we have a loving, supportive family. I know talking to her is going to be very hard, but with the help of this Shatterproof community, I’m not alone.

September 2021

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