What can I do about a religious stepdaughter who drinks in a dry state?


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Dear Stanton:

My 16-year-old stepdaughter got her driver’s license less than three weeks ago. She has appeared to be a very responsible adolescent and has been very active in a local Pentecostal church, which has very strict beliefs about alcohol, etc. Neither my husband nor I drink now, but my husband is a recovering alcoholic and has been sober for 10 years. My step-daughter’s mother, on the other hand, is a very active alcoholic. She has never worked, was until recently living with an abusive boyfriend and is now homeless because he kicked her out. She is addicted to Tylox pain killers and has lost her driver’s license as a result of DUI convictions.

Last Friday night Elizabeth went to spend some time with her mother, who is currently staying with her 22-year-old brother. She drove our van there, and when I returned from an evening appointment I called to check on her and thought she sounded uncharacteristically LOUD and sloppy in her talk. She said she was driving to a neighbor’s house to visit a friend. To make a long story short, her friend called me moments later, saying that Elizabeth was too drunk to stand up and had almost gone over the mountain in the van, had in fact left it in gear and running, sideways in the driveway. When I went to get her she fell several times making it out to the car, but kept insisting that she could drive.

Elizabeth now tells my husband that this is the first time she has ever drunk anything, that she doesn’t know why “God let her down” and “let her give in to temptation.” I am ready to have the mother arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, but I also doubt Elizabeth’s word. From what I’ve heard and observed, only a seasoned drinker would have had the wherewithal to ATTEMPT to drive in that condition. I wonder how long she’s been drinking, and how to break through the denial, if she is.

I don’t want to be a Pollyanna about alcohol, but the lives of her mother and her two brothers have been seriously affected by drunken driving, multiple arrests, and poor work histories. My husband and I have had full custody of Elizabeth since she was 5-years old because the court recognized the mother’s problems, but I don’t know how to break through the Pentecostal double-talk to get her to face the dangers that being related to, or around, an alcoholic family involves.

Help! I apologize for the longwinded nature of my question.

Madeline in Kentucky

Dear Madeline:

First, let me deflect your apology. Your mail was succinct, covered all the important points, and was well-written. It’s one of the best-written letters I’ve received.

But we might have two different points of view. Or maybe not. One point of view is that alcohol corrupts, and a person who is exposed to it is doomed. This occurs in places where many people abstain, where religion and culture distrust drinking, and where, in order to drink, people often become outcasts.

In another view, if people accept their drinking, take responsibility for it, and integrate it into their lives, at whatever level they chose to drink, then they can manage alcohol.

In the first view, you need to abstain. Now, this is possible in some environments, but it is often difficult. And if you fail at your efforts to abstain, then you tend to go all the way overboard. I don’t know whether Elizabeth has drunk much or not. But it is possible that she hasn’t drunk before (or not often), really doesn’t want to drink, is very guilty that she did, and REALLY plans not to drink again.

The only problem is that such vows often fail. One question you have to ask yourself is, “What will happen the next time Elizabeth drinks?” Will she go overboard, hide it, deny it to herself and others, do something life-threatening like driving drunk?

Or can you/she control the uncontrollable? Can you work with her to see that drinking is one problem, driving drunk is another. Can you indicate that you don’t want Elizabeth to drink, at the same time that you show support for the fact that if she drinks, she is not a bad person who is going to Hell. Because if she feels the latter is true, then she will not turn a drink into a drunk into a life-threatening episode.

Another critical issue is how Elizabeth is to relate to her mother. You already have custody of Elizabeth. Her mother is in bad shape, according to your account. Elizabeth is going to see her mother. Are the only choices for Elizabeth to (1) desert her mother or (2) become a drunkard? How can you prepare Elizabeth to see her mother without either imitating her or pitying her, but dealing with her with compassion while protecting herself.

Perhaps there are religious precepts to help in this process. I am not a religious expert. In psychology, we arm people with (1) awareness of self (What am I like and what am I likely to do?), (2) awareness of situation (What situations cause me to act in different ways?), (3) plans for coping with anticipated situations (How can I respond to my mother in a way that isn’t damaging to her or to me?) (4) which combined give them a feeling that they can control their lives. This much religion I know: “God helps those who help themselves.”

I hope this gives you a start in thinking about this situation.

Yours best,

Dear Stanton:

Thank you for responding so quickly.  Good points to consider.  How much judgment can we expect from a teenager?  I don’t know.  You’re right about the extremes though. I neglected to mention that we live in a “dry” area in the mountains of Southeastern Kentucky, in the Bible belt.  And it is true that people either tend to be religious fanatics or drunks who are also addicted to prescription drugs.   I sure don’t see many role models in this part of the country of people who use AND lead productive lives, be it culturally conditioned or what.

Madeline, Stepmother in Kentucky

Stanton Peele

Stanton Peele , recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts by The Fix, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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