Dear Ms. Peirano,

My mother died very unexpectedly two years ago. What remained was my father, now 81, an alcoholic for as long as I can remember, with many health problems, care level 3. He is very dependent, and until her death he was practically completely cared for by my mother.

A nursing service comes twice a day to provide the necessary medical care.

I had a very stressful childhood and youth. No physical, but enormous psychological, verbal violence due to his alcoholism and his emotionally cold, performance-oriented personality. If I didn’t work, i.e. brought home extremely good grades, etc. there were humiliating tirades of abuse and that was followed by days of ignoring and Be silent. Criticism, sarcasm, malice (for example regarding my physical changes during puberty) were my everyday life. I developed an anxiety disorder at the beginning of puberty.

My mother has been the typical codependent over the years. She protected her husband wherever she could, always took his side and would have rather sacrificed our children than deal with him and his addiction. When I wanted to take my own life at 15 with pills – luckily the wrong ones and far too few – she took me to the family doctor the next day, but refused any therapy or psychological help for me because then she would have told him about it must…

When I went to another city to study after graduating from high school, I was finally able to breathe a little easier and do some therapy. So I managed to organize my life pretty well. When they moved back near me 20 years ago, I maintained contact; I didn’t want to take my son’s grandparents away, but every visit was an emotional effort for me.

Now he is alone, a helpless old man and on the one hand there is my guilty conscience, which torments me and accuses me of having to take care of him, a moral obligation, also due to pressure from outside (“He is “Your father despite everything”) and on the other hand, this still-present aversion, the downright reluctance to enter the house and the (also physical) discomfort in his presence.

I keep the visits as short as possible, a little forced entertainment and shopping for him, usually once, occasionally twice a week. Accompaniment to doctor’s visits. But I feel bad in the days before, I don’t sleep very well and I just notice how much this situation is weighing on me. My panic attacks are back.

I’m thinking back and forth about how I can get more out of it emotionally. I’m looking for a strategy for myself that simply lets me organize the necessary care – I can’t escape that. If I had the choice, I would happily take care of anyone else, just not my father.

Best regards

Martina G.

Dear Martina G.,

You obviously suffered a lot in your childhood! This sounds like some serious emotional abuse you’ve been through. And unfortunately, this is exactly what is not uncommon for children of alcoholics and other seriously mentally ill parents. What is particularly distressing is that the sick parent usually includes either a parent who has fled or – as in your case – a codependent parent who is covering for the abuse and denial. Otherwise you can’t stand being with an alcoholic. You already know a lot about family dynamics through your therapy, which probably saved you, but maybe the book will still help you:

“Family disease alcoholism”. In the wake of dependency” by Ursula Lambrou.

I have had several patients who had a similar fate, and many suffered for decades: everything from moderate to severe depression, anxiety disorders, psychosomatic problems, addictions, impulse control disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders and attachment disorders were observed.

I work as a behavioral therapist and love coach in private practice in Hamburg-Blankenese and St. Pauli. During my doctorate, I researched the connection between relationship personality and happiness in love and then wrote two books about love.

Information about my therapeutic work can be found at

Do you have questions, problems or heartache? Please write to me (maximum one A4 page). I would like to point out that inquiries and answers can be published anonymously on

Many of these sufferers have undergone years of therapy (often inpatient) in order to free themselves and build their own lives.

I have tremendous respect for the effort that those affected (and you too) have made to free themselves and heal!

Like you, I have often seen the parents who caused this suffering eventually grow old and sick. It is more the rule than the exception that alcoholics become sick and in need of care in old age because of the consequences of decades of alcohol poisoning: organ failure, dementia, inability to care for themselves, memory and concentration problems, falls and broken bones, neglect apartment etc.

It’s a terrible fate for everyone!

But also for the children of these alcoholics, who had struggled to distance themselves and free themselves. They were then essentially tied to themselves again by the sick parent. I have heard patients use words like “octopus,” “slimy snail,” “avalanche,” “prison,” and “monster” to describe the sick parent. That describes the suffering quite aptly…

It means a retraumatization to have to go back into the sickening environment as an adult against one’s own will, and many have reacted to this with panic and anxiety disorders, depression or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many had to take sick leave or had problems managing their own everyday lives.

These therapies were always about demarcation and dealing with feelings of guilt.

Together with the patients, I have always worked out the differences between “normal”, loving families and such abusive families. It was important to understand that in such a sick family of origin the rules of the game are different than in “normal” families. Imagine that in a relationship the man beats his wife black and blue. And then the woman’s (unwitting) friends say to her: “Well, every marriage has its ups and downs. Maybe you should just spend more time together, that always helps.”

What do you think of this advice? I find it grotesque and completely inappropriate, because the woman should actually be advised to separate and report this man. It’s not a “normal” marriage with its “normal” ups and downs, but a toxic, violent marriage. And that’s exactly what you should understand and name.

I would also advise you to find clear words and thoughts: Be aware of WHY you don’t want to have anything to do with your father and why it makes you sick to go in and out of there. Your father has based his life around addiction and accepted that his family will suffer because of him. He appears to have neither sought addiction treatment nor thought about how to protect his children. Rather, he dominated the family and drained its energy (I’m thinking of your mother). He hasn’t cared about what his bad relationship with you and his addiction will mean for him in his old age, namely that he will be sick and lonely. Do you feel sorry for him or do you think it’s his own fault?

It would definitely be helpful to exchange ideas with other affected people in a self-help group, e.g. Al-Anon for the relatives of alcoholics. The other participants will definitely know what you are talking about! And that helps and encourages you to listen to yourself and believe in yourself.

Support yourself with people who think similarly and understand you well. A book that also brings new ways of thinking is:

“Why we don’t owe our parents anything” by Barbara Bleisch.

Another helpful approach: Imagine you have an adult daughter who has suffered from her alcoholic father and wants to distance herself from him but feels guilty. What advice would you give her?

Of course the same applies to you too! Write it down, argument by argument, and read it over and over again. Read it out loud in front of the mirror and prepare answers for people who say: “but it’s your father”

Have you learned to feel and express anger in your therapy? That would also be very important, because anger is important for demarcation. Only when I am angry and allow myself to be angry can I say: This far and no further!

I hope that you listen carefully to yourself and allow yourself to differentiate yourself harmoniously.

Kind regards,Julia Peirano

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