More threads by Daniel E.

Daniel E.
If you want to know how to help an alcoholic, you're asking the wrong question
by Patrick Strudwick
January 17, 2014

Alcoholics can't be fixed by their loved ones. But the attack on Sir John Gurdon by his son reminded me who really needs help

Trying to help an alcoholic is, at best, like trying to water a dead plant. It is not a case of diminishing returns – there are none. Only two answers surface, therefore, to the question of how any of us with loved ones who descend into dipsomania can help. First, you cannot. Pleading, screaming, reasoning, removing their stash, calling their GP, frantically Googling AA meetings, phoning the police, the ambulance, their parents, or children, or anyone – no, it is all useless.

Second, it is the wrong question, and one that cloaks the question we can't reach (because a carer's work is never done): how do we help ourselves? And then, where is the help for us?

I ask because these questions never occurred to me during the two periods I lived with alcoholics, yet were triggered by reading of another's predicament. Nobel prize-winning biologist Sir John Gurdon, 80, and his wife Jean, 77, were, a court heard this week, attacked by their alcoholic son. John confronted William, 40, in their kitchen over his drinking – he had tried the Priory. William lashed out.

"You got drunk and pushed your mother over so she hit her head on the floor causing injury," said Ken Sheraton, the judge who gave William Gurdon a suspended prison sentence. "You then pushed your father on to the floor and grabbed him by the throat and attempted to strangle him."

It was not this that winded me; it was another crushing detail. When his mother smelled booze on his breath at 8.30 that morning she cooked him a fry-up. Of course she did. He is her son and it is what we do. Give them food. Make them a coffee. Listen to their looped anecdotes. Mop up their self-hatred. Reassure them. Help them.

The unkind call this enabling. I call it caring. Because what else are we to do? What is the best response to stepping in urine because you made it to the toilet in the quiet of night but they had not? How are we to respond when we hear a thud and it is them on the stairs? Or when they burst into our bedroom raging?

I did not know what to do when one of the alcoholics I lived with left the front and back doors open (a billboard advertisement for burglary in north-east London). I did not know what to do when all the reasoning ran out and the research ran, rather inaptly, dry. Try to find an NHS rehab bed for someone. Try to find free counselling. Try even to get them sectioned. It is almost impossible. At this stage there isn't even water for the dead plant.

Some suggest Al-Anon, the organisation for those affected by alcoholics, and no doubt they are excellent, but what I needed was a functioning, able NHS and social care system that takes addicts off our incapable hands.

Alcoholics talk of "rock bottom": theirs, not ours. I reached mine in October 2007, not because I couldn't cope any more, but because he was drunk on a Sunday morning and my then four-year-old niece was due to come round. No child should see that. Yet, according to Alcohol Concern, 2.6 million children are living with parents who drink "hazardously". How are we to respond to that gutting, jeroboam statistic other than to conclude: we do not care about these children.

The privileged – by which I mean not just the John and Jean Gurdons but any adult who, unlike children, has choices – can at rock bottom go nuclear: kick them out or phone the police. I did the former, grabbing his keys, bagging up his belongings and dumping them on the street. But what are you left with?

Guilt for sure. More worry – will they die? And, in my case, a bedroom reeking of the dozens of vodka bottles stashed inexpertly. There wasn't even anyone to help me clean it up.
Thanks for this post it hits home
"The unkind call this enabling" I call it caring.

For the people who judge the ones that do care they have obviously not been there.
Wish there was a place to get help for our loved ones but as you say they have to want the help It takes so much strength to make that decision to help ourselves first because we are not taught to not care to turn away we are taught to do what ever we can to help the ones that are suffering.
Just wanted the thank you for your post.
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