Love, Responsibility and Addiction: Growing up with an alcoholic aunt

A few years ago a young woman, Sally (not her real name), came into my office and began to talk about her favorite aunt. “When I got that bad perm in middle school she was there to show me how to make it look better. When I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to college or Peru, she helped me decide. When I was positive I’d never talk to my parents again, she listened and gently guided me back home. The problem is my aunt is an alcoholic. Over the years she’s tried more rehabs than you can count, more programs than you can remember, and more counselors than you can imagine.

I’ve learned that I can’t will her sober, love her sober, pray her sober, wish her sober, or make her sober. I’ve read the literature, done research and gone to meetings. I know what enabling is and how to avoid it by setting boundaries. I don’t see or talk to her when she’s been drinking; I never send her money. Other counselors told me that my boundaries aren’t strong enough; I need to cut off all contact until my aunt stops drinking for good. But what if I cut off contact and never see her alive again?”

Sally’s story is a familiar narrative I’ve heard from hundreds of friends and family with a loved one facing addiction. Some stories have happy endings of rehabilitation and recovery; others end in tragedy and heartache. In these difficult and complicated relationships the lesson that continues to reveal itself is this: we can’t change anyone else, only ourselves. Together Sally and I discovered what tools were helpful for her, focusing on what she needed to do to keep herself healthy and safe. And although she continues to love and pray for her aunt, wishing one day she will find consistent sobriety, Sally finally believes that she is no longer responsible for her aunt’s choices.