What I wish Dad had known: Alcohol and the family

April 13, 2017

Why alcoholics should quit drinking for their families

I miss my father. He should be around to be granddad to my wonderful boys, helping me raise them to be good men. But he's not around, dying far too early from alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. Only in his mid-60's, he was a wonderfully warm-hearted man with a deep belly laugh, very much the average-guy Martin Crane to my Frasier Crane-like stuffiness. He was also an alcoholic who slowly drank himself to death.

I have countless fond memories of us over the years, but I also have nightmare memories of holding his hand as he lay dying in the hospital: in a coma, his skin yellow and his lungs filled with fluid as his kidneys and liver finally gave up from the years of toxic abuse. These are memories that no child should have -- but so many do.

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My Father

Why is alcoholism such a scourge on society? When compared with many other common conditions such as heart disease, alcoholism has a much more devastating social effect -- not just on the person who drinks, but on the whole family, which watches painfully and helplessly for years as the loved one slides into decline. 

Yes, many diseases are terrible and affect families. Smoking can cause secondhand smoke diseases in others. But alcoholism is a sad disease, and it's the bad memories that haunt families like mine, memories of being afraid as we weaved across wintry roads, Dad tipsy and at the wheel; memories of Mom crying as Dad refused to hand over the car keys; memories of watching his belly get bigger and his memory weaken as his liver started to fail.

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My Father

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and I'd like to spread the word about alcoholism, hopefully to help a few people out there. The first step, as anyone in a 12-step program will tell you, is to admit there may be a problem. If you're not sure, answer these four simple questions:

1. Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
2. Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
3. Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
4. Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

If you've answered "yes" to two or more of these questions, you may indeed have a drinking problem, and alcohol may already be damaging your liver. These questions are called the "CAGE questionnaire," and doctors use them as a screening tool for alcoholism.

What if you are an alcoholic?

First of all, congratulations if you're able to admit you may have a drinking problem. Second, you need to know that you are not alone. Many people and organizations can help:
  • Your family doctor can check your liver and kidney health.
  • Some newer medicines, including naltrexone, may actually help you quit drinking; your doctor can discuss these with you.
  • Twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous aren't for everyone, and there's contradictory evidence as to how effective they are. But for many recovering alcoholics all over the world, they've been a source of strength. You can find a list of AA groups in the U.S. here.
  • Psychologists and psychiatrists can help you quit  drinking and ease any underlying stress and depression. They can also help you work to fix family and job problems related to your drinking.
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My dad with us, at 2 years old. That's me on the right (I think).

My dad's legacy

Clearly, living through my dad's illness has had a profound influence on me as a doctor, and I do find myself drawn to patients struggling with alcoholism. I'm sure it's partly an effort to make up for what I couldn't do for my dad.

Despite all the pain of those later years, my strongest memories are the good ones. I will always remember his laugh, and to this day I vividly remember how he could light up a room. 

I'd like to end with a poem from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which we used at his wake:

To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch, or a redeemed
social condition; to know even
one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

For more information about family wellness, you can read my blog, MyFamily Health Guide, or check out my Facebook page

Topics: Men, Wellness, Women