Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: My aunt and uncle have just enlisted me to help their 24-year-old daughter, Sarah, who lives in my city, about 2,000 miles from them. Apparently over the holidays, Sarah talked frequently about all her favorite bars, hid alcohol in her room, and came off the plane drunk. Her mom called me hysterically crying.
I reached out to Sarah and we're getting brunch this weekend. I'm torn about how to approach this. I think my aunt is predisposed to viewing alcohol as evil; she is the adult child of an alcoholic. I also drank a lot when I was Sarah's age and it caused me no ill effects. It was just part of my social scene, as I'm sure it's part of hers. (I'm now married in my early 30s.)
But I do think my aunt's description was worrying. She's asking me to get Sarah to "admit she has a problem." How do I navigate this?
Answer: By saying to Auntie that you will make an effort to be in Sarah's life, so that if she is in trouble, with alcohol or anything else, she will have family nearby to lean on.
However, you won't, nor is it your place to, nor will it be effective to, "get" Sarah to admit or do anything. Just by asking this of you, Auntie betrays a need for a visit to/refresher with Al-Anon.
Use this brunch to enjoy Sarah's company and, again, strengthen the tie, if Sarah is game to. That better satisfies your aunt's objectives than would talking about her drinking - unless Sarah herself brings it up.
Please also don't lean too hard on your experience with alcohol when interpreting Sarah's. Two people can have identical behaviors and get dramatically different results. The only experience that explains Sarah is Sarah's.
Reader comment: I'm wondering if you can provide the Cliff's Notes version of the takeaway from Al-Anon. I have a good friend who is trying to drag his 80-year-old mother into therapy with him because she doesn't treat him very well. It's painful to watch him beat his head against that particular wall, but suggesting he find a place of acceptance just prompts him to reel off a list of her transgressions that he "just can't accept." A good friend of mine and longtime AA member suggested that Al-Anon might be good for him, but he kind of brushes off the suggestion, without knowing really anything about what they do.
Answer: The takeaway: You can't change people, you can change only the way you respond to them.
So, the point of going is to learn to let go of the impulse to control people, and let go of the belief that you can fix a problem by changing someone else's behavior.
It applies not just with people like your friend who are trying to get something from someone unwilling or unable to give it; it also helps if you're just worried about someone to the point that it preoccupies you. It's about letting go of the control people have over you.
Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.