Addiction to Alcohol/Adult stepdaughter


QUESTION: Hi.  I found this site and am encouraged that you might be able to give some insight.  My stepdaughter is 31 years old and married, and lives out of state.  I married her mother 23 years ago, when she was 9 years old and her brother was 6.  My wife had left her alcoholic husband.  He had been through treatment but was for all practical purposes a dry drunk.  In the years that followed, he had his children for court ordered visitation but otherwise paid no special attention to his daughter, but doted on his son.  I was my stepdaughter's father figure, and we at times had to console her about her father's rejection, such as when he laughed at her in her first prom dress.  We added our own child to the mix, and so are a blended family of 5.

She has been in recovery for 8 years and I don't believe has relapsed during that time.  She also has depression, anxiety and compulsive overeating issues for which she seeks help and gets treatment.  She entered treatment during her first year of law school, after her mother and I confronted her over a several day period and uncovered the truth of her binge drinking, lies, financial disaster, etc.  Our relationships with her up to that point had been growing more difficult, and we finally understood why.  After leaving treatment, she did end up eventually finishing law school.  She is now married and employed in a non-legal field.  She is very smart and talented, and we've had lots of reasons to be proud of her.

Over the last 8 years following her treatment, our relationships with her have been decent, but a bit superficial and often strained.  She bristles at any feeling of criticism or questions that disturb her, and she has succeeded in making us wary of approaching her with anything that might be perceived as negative.   She worked a 12-step program for a long time with meetings, sponsors, etc. and I believe she is now attending an overeaters group,  but she never has sat down with us to make amends for the lies and behavior that caused the family a lot of pain.  Nor has she ever attempted to discuss the financial harm she caused us which amounted to several thousand dollars.  

When she was visiting us alone last Fall, we tried to talk to her about her living arrangements.  She and her husband share an old house as roomates with her cousin and cousin's 5 yr old son.  We asked if she and her husband were thinking of getting a place of their own, since they have been trying to start a family and their current situation has no privacy and no place for family to come stay with them, as well as other problems with the old house.  Money is not an issue, as she and her husband have good paying jobs.  Anyway, the discussion did not go well, and she was insulted and became very upset.  I also asked her that particular weekend why our relationships seemed distant, and she basically said she's always uncomfortable and feels like a bad daughter.  I asked her if she thought that never discussing the past with us, and never trying to make amends, could possibly be partly underlying the discomfort.  We told her we didn't really understand why she had never tried, as we thought we had showed much love, patience and support during her recovery process.  She said she had tried once or twice with other people and they didn't go well, and she didn't know what would happen if it didn't go well with us.  However, she didn't take that opportunity and hasn't since.

What happened next was quite hurtful and concerning.  She was going to be coming home with her husband for Christmas and staying with us as she has always done.  However, she made plans to stay at her brother's house here in the same town.  We found out through somebody else, and when my wife asked her about it, she was told that her brother had invited them to stay and help babysit their new baby.  When he was asked, he was surprised at her version, because she had asked him if they could stay there and he assumed she would have involved her mother in that discussion and decision.  He was upset that he had been manipulated in what was obviously an issue she had with us over being hurt by our conversation the last time she had been home.  My wife was upset she had been lied to, and expressed that.  We both expressed that we are not willing to go back to the days of lies, manipulation and avoidance, and encouraged her to get help.  We ended up telling her she should keep her plans to stay at her brother's house.  We all got together for dinner and gifts at our house, and kept things light and "safe".  In the last 2 months, she told us that she had had a lot of anxiety and depression last fall because her doctor had weaned her off of her meds because she wanted to become pregnant.  She is now back on some meds and is starting to feel better.  She alluded to her mother last Fall when she was told her behavior had been hurtful that she wanted to sit down with her mother and a counselor "sometime" and tell her some things.  We really don't know what that means, but my wife has long wondered if there is any history of sexual molestation, or perhaps date rape, that might be underneath the profound struggles this girl has had.

I apologize for the length of this e-mail, but here is the current quandry.  Given the above recent events, we both realized that we wanted to try to engage a family counselor to help us tell our daughter, again, that we love her but feel the relationships often seem strained or superficial and we don't understand why she has never made amends to us, and that we think all that unfinished business is harmful in many ways to her, as well as to us and our whole family.  To be honest, I have been saying this for many years, but my wife had always thought that with enough love and patience it would happen.  She now questions that, and we even suspect that our daughter has probably forgotten some of the things she did that caused us harm, financial and otherwise.

However, we just learned that our daughter is moving with her husband to California for his new job.  He leaves in 3 weeks and she leaves in 8 weeks, and they are very excited.  They currently live 400 miles away, but will soon be across the country.  So, getting together for counseling will obviously soon be very difficult.  We had hoped to use a counselor in her current city with whom she was comfortable, and we thought it would be important to involve her husband as well, because he seems to have little insight into the complexities and has never himself gone to Al-Anon, and his upbringing involves an alcoholic father who never went to treatment and stopped drinking on his own but now smokes pot.  We have been concerned that, according to our daughter, more than a little of our son-in-law's income has been used to support his parents for expenses, medical bills, etc. and his brother as well.  Consequently, they have no savings and we want her to stand up for herself.

So, we're just wondering what to do next.  Bringing this up in the near future as we had planned would obviously pop her exciting bubble of getting ready to move.  However, not trying to engage on these issues leaves us worried that our relationships may never improve much, and her own well-being likely suffers as well.  Do we just leave it alone and try to forget the past, and try to act as if everything is happy and normal, which is what she seems to want.  Or do we tell her that we want to examine some of these issues together with her, knowing that will likely upset her and make us look as though we couldn't have possibly picked a worse time?  

I have written this with my wife's help, and it reflects both of our worries and concerns.  Any insights and advice you might have will be greatly appreciated.  Thank you so much.

ANSWER: Craig,
    Thank you for the lengthy story for it helps give me a good insight into the underlying questions you have asked.  You can never be to lengthy with information.  So thank you.

    You do not say if you or your wife have had much involvement in Alanon or not (at least I do not get that distinct impression)and so I do not know to what degree you, yourselves, have delved into the 12 steps - what they entail in the recovery of one's life in addiction.  Coming from a place of 20 years in addictive behavior, I can share with you some insights....

    Step 4 is of paramount importance - "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."  The degree to which one embraces this step dictates the success one will have at working through the remaining steps and moving on to freedom from the past.  Of course I can not in such a short time and short treatise know her and her thinking but here is something from my own walk...

    until I was thoroughly broken by all the weight I carried on my shoulders of "my" wrongs (the biggest not my own but my guilt over someone else's wrong done to me), I could not begin to allow my ego to be shattered such that the real "inner soul" could escape the bondage of alcoholism.  When I did reach that point it was one source and one source only that was able to grant me that release - that one was God.  It takes tremendous strength to face this shattering which is required because the ego has such a strong hold in order to protect the inner soul.  I describe it a a "false self" which takes over and rules one's life.

    I say this to perhaps help you see that deep-seated hurts (of which she probably has a deep, deep scar from "father figure") will and can hold one from a deepened sense of self.  You used a word in your e-mail of "superficial" and this probably indicates that she is truly not capable at this time to go there.  And she may never be able to go there, you need to know that.

    Anything that she perceives as attacking the ego will not serve to help her break it on her own.

    You are asking her to complete a step 8 and 9 with you - but that is four steps beyond where I think she may be.  Step 8 says: "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all."  and step 9 says: "Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

    The newly recovering person wants desperately to complete these two steps quickly because they, too, are the "social housecleaning" we need to do.  How many "newbies" have I known who had to be slowed down and told "NOT YET!! You will not like the outcomes."  Your story also indicates that some of her's did not go so well over the course of her 8 years in recovery - the ego got scared and protected and the young inner soul had to retreat to silence and hiding.  There she remains.  Until the ego is sufficiently cracked by her and no one else, it is best to leave her alone.

    Finally, in direct answer to your question - yes, it would be best to set an example and offer her absolute total forgiveness and move on as if nothing had harmed or hurt you in her life or behavior.  That will not be easy but here is a quote from a book by Lewis Smedes entitled "Forgive and Forget" in which he says: "you will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well."

    My hope is that one day she will come to that understanding but it may be a long time coming.  My hope is also that you and your wife might find peace in it as well.

    She is doing something you suggested long ago - she is getting her own place and she is excited. Be excited for her and maybe, just maybe, this is the opportunity God lays at your feet to support her and love her and let her know you have no need of asking of her anything in the way of dwelling on the past.  When she senses that she may venture back out into a step 9 - and this time feel release and freedom.  

    I hope this may have been helpful and write again if I might be of any help.

You are in my prayers,
Grace and peace,


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QUESTION: Clyde -- thank you for your response.  It is particularly insightful, and my wife and I have been giving it much thought.  I am hoping I can follow up with a general question, although I doubt there is a general answer.  I can't help but be concerned for her that by not working through all the steps, including making amends, it seems as though she has hindered her recovery.  From what I can gather through much reading, it seems to be a critical part of the 12 step journey to recovery.  I can certainly see how her failure to do so has affected our relationships, whether due to her buried shame and guilt, my own disappointment at never clearing that deck, etc.  and I have no doubt that close healthy relationships with her family would enrich her life and recovery.  She has so many ongoing problems with depression, anxiety, overeating, etc. getting in the way of this bright and talented young woman.  On the other hand, I understand your message that she can't take this step until she is ready, if ever.  So sometimes we wonder if the right thing to do would be to encourage that process by using a counselor to facilitate better and deeper communication, which if that alone would lead to better and more trusting relationships, might make it easier for her to approach us someday and do the work of Step 9.  My question is what is your opinion as to what is likely to happen if she just doesn't ever get the courage to make amends?  Are we likely to just go forward with the narrow and superficial relationships, and expect that she might continue to struggle generally with her physical and emotional health?  Or is it wrong for me to put so much focus on thinking about how her making amends?  

Thank you again for any insights you can share.

    You are right - there are no really good answers - only general ones.  The subject and the actual experience of addiction/recovery is pretty complex.  Without knowing her, it is going to be difficult to give you a solid answer.

    Here is my experience: Many people will work a program or do counseling until the presenting problem has been relieved enough to make things more bearable - even AAer's are guilty of this.  When the pain becomes great enough it seems that people will do more.  I know AAer's who have gone decades without ever working through the steps but they reached a place where they could hold back the urge to drink.  Many an AAer will slip after 15 - 25 years because of this tendency.  It is a daily attention to our recovery that will prevent a relapse.  We say we only have a daily reprieve.

    People slip back into bad habits when those habits provide some sort of comfort and then they fall into the lie that it is a good thing - it relieves a pain they are not willing to deal with.

   So, that being said, if she is experiencing these sorts of issues then she will likely do just as you say - live a less than fulfilled life of good trusted relationships.  I can't help but think that those bad experiences with amends years ago forced her into a place of fear at ever attempting another one.  It is not the result of the amend we look for,it is the idea that we cleared the air for ourselves for the right reason.  Step 9 makes it clear that we only makes amends if it will not injure another person.  This last part was added to the step by Dr. Bob and Mr. Bill when an early AA'er shared his/her sexual misconduct with the spouse and the spouse beat them to a pulp (I don't remember if it was a male or female AA'er but you get the point.)

   By simply loving her and not forcing the amends you may see her flourish but only if she feels that there is a safety in deepening her relationship with you both.  What I am more prone to do with folks I help in ministry and recovery is listen very carefully to what they are willing to share and when they open a door that allows me to gently guide or suggest, then that is the time to do so, but not before.  If they have time to non threateningly observe themselves they sometimes will take the lead and make some changes. Unfortunately, they make some pretty bad mistakes but that is sometimes the best lesson people need.

   I hope this may have helped.  Write again if I can answer any further questions.

Grace and peace,

Addiction to Alcohol

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I can answer questions on the recovery from alcohol addiction as I am a recovering alcoholic with 24 years of sobriety. I can also address the spiritual aspects of the 12-Step program as I have a Master of Divinity degree; serve as a pastor in the Quaker church; and, serve as a hospice chaplain. I have also served as a prison chaplain for one year and currently volunteer as a mentor once a week, working with two inmates one-on-one as they work towards reentry into society as free persons.


I am a recovering alcoholic with 24 years of continuous sobriety.

Master of Divinity awarded in 2000 from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

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