Conventional Wisdom is a different kind of advice column. Your questions will be answered by people from all walks of life rather than by advice experts. Today, a nonfiction writer will offer her common sense advice. You can submit questions here.
Today's Question: My boyfriend and I have been together for over three years. We live together and plan on getting married someday so you better believe I love him.
His parents are alcoholics. I have always said I knew what alcoholics were like, but after meeting them, I realized I had no idea. His mother drinks nothing but alcohol and barely eats. She weighs 90 lbs and refuses to get help. His dad actually encourages her.
Recently his dad got ill and was put on dialysis but continues to drink and eat bad things and always ends up back in the ER. He was on the list to receive a kidney donation but due to his poor behavior, he was taken off the list. He can, however, be given a kidney if someone he knows will donate. So who have they turned to? Their three sons. They are now pressuring my boyfriend and his brothers to go get tested to see if they are the same blood type.
I am furious about this. Besides the fact that they are alcoholics (and yes, I know it's an illness), they are mean. Their sons break their necks to please them and get nothing in return. My boyfriend and his brothers had a horrible childhood and I can only hope the rest of his parents' lives are half as bad as what they put their kids through. I know that if his dad receives a kidney, he will go back to drinking and not take his meds and it will have all been for nothing. How can I intervene? Or should I?
— Worried For My Boyfriend's Kidneys and Sanity
To hear a nonfiction writer's advice,
What a painful situation for both you and your boyfriend to be in. Of course you feel protective of the man you love. Unfortunately, this is a true life or death situation involving his father, who for better or worse is one of your boyfriend’s most significant relationships. You did not mention whether your boyfriend is seriously considering giving his father his kidney, or if he has asked for your advice. I will assume so, since you’ve written this letter.
My first instinct is to tell you to be very careful about putting yourself between your boyfriend and his family. If you encourage him not to do this (or even consider it) and he later comes to regret that choice, it could damage your relationship and your future together.
Your role is to love and support him while he makes this difficult choice, regardless of what he decides to do. Don’t come down too strongly against his parents, even though it sounds clear that they have been abusive to their children. Being raised in an alcoholic family is very psychologically complex, often leaving children with feelings of guilt and responsibility that seem confusing to others. Groups like Al-Anon exist for the people that love alcoholics to help give them perspective and support by talking to one another in a safe place. You could encourage him to find a local chapter and attend a meeting. Perhaps they could help your boyfriend explore why he would be willing to get radical surgery to help a man who is not helping himself.
Rather than building a case against his family, you could help your boyfriend gather and process information about the surgery. He needs to seriously consider the physical and emotional risks he would experience by giving up a kidney. He should meet with his father's doctor to find out what his own health risks would be, what the procedure would be like, and what his father's prognosis would be if he does continue to drink. Maybe you could accompany him to that meeting.
Sometimes the best way we can help the people we love is by helping them help themselves.
Signed, A Nonfiction Writer