In the “Consulting Therapist” series, I will answer all your questions about mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with mental health, coping with anxiety about life situations, or just looking for insights from a therapist, a question. Please pay attention to my answer to your question every Friday Healthy Mind Communication.
A reader asked
My adult son is very depressed, and he is an alcoholic. He often calls me when he is drinking to tell me how bad he feels, but he lives in another state and I don’t see him often. How can I help him?
——Johnny, 66 years old
It is difficult to provide remote assistance to people with substance abuse and mental health problems. And I’m sure you’ll find it hard to hear him share his pain knowing that he is far away. Fortunately, if your son wants to make some changes, you can take some steps to support him.
Provide emotional support
You said your son would call when he was drinking. Did he remember these conversations when he was awake? Have you discussed those calls when he was not drinking?
Talk to him about what happened when he was sober. You don’t want him to be ashamed, but you do want him to know that you are in pain when you hear him.
Don’t say, “You called me last night because of how scary you felt,” but say, “I want to continue our conversation from last night. It sounds like you are in a bad mood recently.”
Well, just listen.
Allow him to talk openly about what he is going through without providing advice-at least not for now.
Test his feelings by saying similar things, “That feeling must be difficult.” Restrain the urge to cheer him up, and don’t tell him that things will get better. Now, right where he is—in a rugged place—see him.
When he is sober, he probably doesn’t want to talk about things. He might be embarrassed because he called you after drinking. Or, when he is not drinking, he may feel better-therefore, he may insist that what he says is no big deal.
If he doesn’t want to speak, don’t force him to speak. Just let him know that you are by his side. When he is awake, continue to invite him to talk regularly.
If you can, visit in person
If you can visit your son in person, it may be a good idea to meet him face to face. Seeing him may give you a better understanding of his true situation.
This may also give you an idea of how much alcohol he drank. This might let you know how frustrated he really is. When he talks to you on the phone, he may try to minimize these things.
A visit in person may also give you the opportunity to tell him some facts. Saying things like “You have lost weight since I last saw you” or “I noticed that you start drinking every afternoon” may open the door to sharing your concerns.
Encourage your son to seek help and provide him with some basic information about where he can turn. He may talk to his doctor first, and the doctor may refer him to a therapist, substance abuse consultant, psychiatrist, or even an inpatient rehabilitation center based on his needs.
You can also encourage him to try treatment. If he is unwilling to talk to someone in person, he can try online therapy.
There are many online treatment services and providers that can manage mental health and substance abuse problems online.
Remember, you are only there to provide encouragement. Don’t waste time researching his insurance options or having a therapist available in his area. If he is interested in seeking help, it is his job.
Take good care of yourself
Of course, if your son doesn’t want it, you can’t force him to ask for help. However, sometimes you may decide to establish some healthy boundaries.
For example, if these calls make you feel uncomfortable, you may decide to stop talking with him while he is drinking. You can say something like, “I would love to talk to you about this when you are sober. I am going to end this call now because you have been drinking, but I will talk to you tomorrow.”
Your boundary should not be to control your son’s behavior, but to address the steps you need to take care of yourself. If answering the phone when he is drunk will put a lot of pressure on your life, you are not obliged to call directly.
If you want someone to talk to, please seek professional help for yourself. There may be many things to deal with when dealing with relatives’ drug abuse and mental health problems. Whether you participate in a support group like Al-Anon or see a therapist in person, you can get the support you need to feel best when dealing with this difficult situation.
Get advice from the VigorTip Mind podcast
This episode of The VigorTip Mind Podcast, hosted by LCSW’s editor-in-chief and therapist Amy Morin, shares tips on how to set boundaries.