How Do I Deal with a Mother with an Addiction?

Question: I’m embarrassed to admit this but my mother is an addict. She’s been an alcoholic for a long time and recently added prescription medication to the mix. She’s been to rehab several times. It works for a while but then she starts using again. It was hard growing up with her drinking so much but, out of my siblings, I’m the one who got along with her the best. They’d always tell me, “You deal with Mom!”

I thought things would get better once I moved out and started my own family but it’s only gotten worse. She calls me and I spend hours listening to her talk. My own mother doesn’t ask about my life but instead rambles on about who’s upset her lately. She has few friends, so usually she’s angry at her sisters or ex-husbands but sometimes it’s my siblings or me because she says we’re not taking good enough care of her. Mom complains that we never call or invite her to visit. If I try to tell her about my life, she changes the subject.

It’s true that none of us really want her around because, when she is, it’s usually a miserable experience. She frequently shows up to family events drunk or high and makes a scene. If she’s sober (which is rare), she comes late and makes everything about her. It’s no fun trying to celebrate a major event, like a wedding or a birthday, only to have your mother hog the spotlight and drive everyone crazy. And then we have to figure out how to get her home without letting her drive! Sometimes it’s worth the explanations about why she’s not there just to have some peace.

My brother and sister want to cut her out of our lives completely but I think that’s too harsh. I recently had a baby and want my child to know her grandmother. She’s still my mother and when she’s sober, she can be interesting and fun. I’m also scared to think about what would become of her if we just abandon her. How can we deal with her addiction?


Answer: Interacting with someone struggling with an addiction is hard. It’s frustrating because their behavior is unpredictable and you often don’t know how to help them. There’s also anger because their behavior negatively affects your life. Then there is the worry about their well-being. All of that makes for a strained relationship at the least.

One of the best things you can do for yourself and your family is to set some personal boundaries with your mother. Personal boundaries are the limits you have in order to protect yourself from being manipulated and used by others. Boundaries let us decide how we’ll allow others to treat us and determine how we treat others. In this case, it sounds like your mother frequently has disappointed, embarrassed and worried you. As such, you need to set boundaries to prevent that from happening as much in the future.

You mentioned that she calls you and rambles on for a long time. One boundary would be to determine how long you are willing to listen to her. Set a fixed amount of time, maybe 15 minutes. After that time has elapsed, either change the topic to something you want to discuss or gently end the conversation. This way you hear what she has to say while not overly burdening yourself.

Similarly, set some boundaries around how she interacts with your child. Children can get frightened by watching someone who is not in control of themselves, so making sure that your mother is sober before interacting with your child is important. I also recommend providing a structured environment for such a visit and perhaps even a time limit. If your mother is sober and delightful, you can always extend the time you spend together. If she’s behaving erratically, you can shorten the visit or cancel it altogether. The key to boundaries is that you are in control.

Dealing with addiction is one of the most difficult things a family member can experience, primarily because you feel so helpless and out of control. Setting boundaries is one way to regain some control. Another way to help may be to attend a support group like Al-Anon, which is specifically designed for the family members of addicted people. It may be helpful for you to find other people who are in your situation and have good advice and support to offer.

Share Your Thoughts