Writer and broadcaster

“How can I help my suicidal, alcoholic mother?” The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

My partner and I had planned to move in together after graduation. My mum has always said she wants me to live an independent life away from home. Now, however, I don’t feel right doing it. My mum and her ex-partner got into a lot of debt before I left home. For the last few years she has been fine, living hand-to-mouth and just covering her bills. She has an alcohol problem and admits it, but now, with money tight, she has been forced to give it up.

I received an inheritance from my paternal grandmother but, as it comes from my father’s side, she refuses all help of food or money. She is now saying she wants to try escorting to pay the bills. She has a lot of emotional trauma in her past and is in no way able to do this without reaching an even lower mental point.

She is suicidal and says she has given up on life. Morally, I believe it would be wrong of me to alert a doctor. The revelation has racked me with guilt regarding the money and the life I am hoping to live, but I realise that moving in to keep her company would mean I had little prospect of work or progression, and she would again feel like a burden and tensions would rise.

Realistically, all I can do is carry on finding work and offering help from my wages so she doesn’t see the money as tainted. Still, as she reminds me, this is only a short-term solution; I cannot take over the paying of her bills for the rest of my life in order to prevent her suicide, or buy her gifts to fill a void. I feel powerless and scared of losing my mum. I have no other family ties other than my father, who is emotionally cold and has been particularly cruel to my mum.

G, via email

What a difficult situation for you. Feeling responsible for your mother is emotionally draining and guilt is the enemy of confident decision-making.

There is something headstrong about your mother. She has a way of paying her bills with your help – even if it is a short-term solution – but refuses to accept it. This puts huge pressure on both of you. While I admire her principles, she is being quite selfish (sorry, I know she’s your mum).

Patti Wallace, BACP lead adviser, university and college counselling, says it is important for both of you to recognise the good job your mother did of raising you and what a good job you’ve made of your life so far: you seem settled, responsible, you have graduated and that really is worth remembering. Wallace also wonders if your mother has stopped drinking, as we both think it may be a bigger problem than either of you accepts.

I feel – and I realise how protective you are of your mum – that she is over-involving you. Telling you that she is considering escort work, but refusing to take the money you offer is unfair on you. Some parents – however loving, however much they seem to want their children to stand on their own two feet – have difficulty seeing where they end and their children begin.

Wallace feels that it would be fair, in the circumstances, for you to contact your mum’s GP about her talk of suicide. Wallace also thinks it would be best if you could get your mum to a GP – you could offer to make the appointment and go with her.

“It isn’t a solution to move home,” says Wallace. “It won’t help anybody. It’s not possible to take responsibility for another adult’s life. Giving up your life for your mother won’t help her and will only cause resentment in the end. What works best is finding a middle ground in which you live your life, while doing what you can to help your mother get help so she can live hers.”

You mention in your longer letter that your mother tried cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), after a referral by her GP, but didn’t find them useful. CBT is great for some people, but not others. There are other types of counselling available on the NHS. Wallace suggests counselling for depression or interpersonal therapy, as two to consider. Alongside this, Wallace recommends that your mother looks at something to help her – and maybe you too – with her alcohol problem.

“Sometimes when people get depressed,” explains Wallace, “they lack the motivation to get help. You could start the process by finding out about counselling and support available locally and giving your mother the information to follow up if she chooses. Do what you can to help her to help herself, but set boundaries for yourself.”

Even without your mum’s troubles, it’s important to remember that it can be an emotional time for parents and grownup children when they leave home for good.

itsgoodtotalk.org.uk; alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk; al-anonuk.org.uk

First published in The Guardian family section

on 27th September 2013.