I am sorry for the pain you and your family are in. Yours was a tough email to read, as I caused my parents and my family a lot of pain as a practicing alcoholic. I certainly didn't want to. I definitely didn't mean to. But -- and here's the hard part to fathom about alcoholism -- while I am responsible for what I did, I was powerless over my addiction and how it rode me. I had no more choice in the pursuit of drinking than an epileptic has the choice of stopping a seizure without medication.
So whatever you decide, remember that while there is a behavior modification element to recovery, you are ultimately dealing with a real and diagnosable disease; you can no more "cure" addiction with strong consequences than you can get someone up out of a wheelchair by making rules about how long they're allowed to sit down.
Yes, structure and boundaries and consequences can help an alcoholic who wants to stay sober get through the "curious mental blank spots" which are what fogs our heads and robs us of the ability to resist the first drink . I would not presume to tell you that I know what will or will not work for your situation. I can tell you that in my own case, and in the case of virtually every alcoholic I know, be they drunk or sober, shielding an alcoholic from the consequences of their drinking in no way helps them to get or stay sober -- and in fact, painful as the truth we're closing in on here may be -- "protecting" an alcoholic that way can actually work against their recovery.
It sounds like your child is homeless and broke as a result of drinking -- sure, there are maybe some other factors (there often are) but at the heart of it, we are usually without money or someplace to live because we lie, cheat, steal, fail to show up for commitments (like work), and are in general drunk more than not, and especially drunk when we should very much not be ("a positive genius for getting 'tight' at exactly the wrong time" is roughly how the Big Book puts it).
It is a very hard thing to put a family member out on the street. For most parents that decision is at the end of a long, terrible, frightening and horrifically painful road. Many, many times these stories end in tragedy -- and I am not being dramatic when I say that. Again, to quote the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" for many alcoholics the story ends in jails, institutions or death. Sometimes the painful hindsight of loved ones and family members at that juncture leads them to cry, "Maybe if we'd been tougher sooner..." Maybe that time for you is now. Maybe -- and again, I do not know what is right for you -- but maybe, in helping your child find a way to address their disease, the future you is desperately trying to reach back and tell you to be tough now.
The word, by the way, for what people do when they're not tough is called 'enable' -- and I'm sure you've encountered that word if you've been dealing with an alcoholic family member. The very things you think might help them get sober actually enable the alcoholic to keep drinking.
But ... what about being a parent? What about helping the right amount? Maybe if they are staying with you they can sort of get their feet under them? Maybe they just need a chance to regroup. And maybe you or your spouse can't even fathom for a minute your child homeless out on the street, without money, without food without shelter. What kind of a family does that to someone?
You know who can help find the right answers for you to these questions? ALANON.
GO TO ALANON. READ ALANON LITERATURE. FIND THE BLOGS OF PARENTS OF OTHER ADDICTS AND READ THEIR STORIES. GO TO ALANON MEETINGS AND ASK FOR HELP.
Forgive the all caps, but I am deadly earnest in telling you this -- consider me a messenger from the future-you, frantically trying to help you find the keys to this terrible puzzle. If you have already done this, I apologize for suggesting something you're already trying -- you make no mention of it in your email and so I wanted to make sure it was offered to you as a solution. A cornerstone of your child's recovery in the 12 Step world will be people who have experience getting and staying sober offering their help to them. And the cornerstone for YOUR recovery is people who have experience dealing with alcoholic family members offering you their support -- because alcoholism really is a family disease, and while you may not have one single issue with addiction yourself you are still "in the disease" with your child, so your recovery is part of the best-case scenario for your child to get and stay sober.
I know when I was drinking -- and well into the beginning of my sobriety -- I could feel the "script" my parents and I had kick in when I was "working them." I wouldn't even plan to -- it was more like fear or ego or whatever would strike a spark to the tinder of our burning dysfunction (poetic or melodramatic? I can't decide). The best parts of our love for each other coupled with their gigantic parental concern and willingness to help me would be warped by the family disease part of addiction into something which moved us all in the opposite direction of where we wanted to go.
But as complex and painful as all this is, I can offer a few concrete suggestions:
Do not make a boundary or state a consequence that both you and your spouse are not 100% committed to keeping if it gets broken. No second chances. No "yes...but" bending of the rules. If you say "you can live with us if you go to an AA Meeting every day" for example, and there is one single missed meeting for ANY reason -- out they go. (And even as I typed that I felt something sour in my belly. Very few alcoholics do well going to meetings via the demand/threat of a family member -- most often parent or spouse. We do marginally better going and listening when it's a court card, but, as my dead sponsor used to say -- he who's wise counsel I miss every single day of my life -- the chief characteristic of an alcoholic is defiance. And he is right. It has to do with our massive sensitivity to fear, our staggering self obsession and our towering ego... but that's getting sidetracked a little.) I don't know what boundaries and consequences might be right for your situation, but again, I urge you, put teeth in them or don't bother. The moment you waver, the second you allow an exception, your child's alcoholism wins. And you all move closer to a court date or a funeral.
Once you draw whatever (few!) rules you have, leave it alone. Not one single alcoholic welcomes being "reminded" about their meetings, their program, calling their sponsor... any of it. I know for a fact that even today should someone other than another alcoholic, or a sponsor, make a suggestion about my program to me the first reaction I have is rage, even if I know the person loves me and means well.
Do not underestimate the power of a support group for yourself and your spouse in dealing with this. The parents of cancer patients draw strength from support groups, right? You are the parents of a child with an equally grave illness, and trying to go it alone, or keep this problem "in the family" is robbing your child of an improved chance of recovery. Just like when the flight safety video on an airplane tells parents traveling with young children to put on their own air mask first before they try to assist their child, so, too, you must attend to yourselves and be as well informed and healthy as possible before trying to help your child deal with their addiction.
I hope some of that is helpful, K.
Please take heart. Millions of people have gotten sober and remain free from drugs and alcohol and the obsession to use by utilizing the help available in the 12 Step world. I was able to get sober long before my parents passed and those were some of the best years we had together. Your child is close to the same age as I was when I got sober -- just a bit younger. You and your family can absolutely have that too.