Caring for an Abusive Parent Is a Moral Choice Without an Easy Answer

How do you balance obligations when the past still lingers?

Sarah Stankorb
Human Parts
Published in
4 min readOct 20, 2021
Photo by David Hinkle on Unsplash

“If you want people to help you, you cannot scream at them. You have to be kind,” I spoke into the phone to my father. We talk every day now, sometimes half a dozen times (the other half dozen I let go to voicemail so I can work). Most of the time he screams, cursing, demanding whatever new item he’s fixated upon: the cable bill for the house he’s not living in, his jacket (though he can’t leave the nursing facility due to COVID lockdown), getting the lawn mowed.

“I just want the neighbor’s number. I have a pen here — ”

“No, Dad. I won’t give it to you again. He doesn’t want you to call anymore.”

People around the old neighborhood have blocked my father’s phone number anyway, finally getting overwhelmed by his constant calls, the swearing fits, his forgetting he’d called and calling again.

He is baffled over why the neighbor doesn’t want his calls. He denies that he’s ever shouted at him. He can’t remember.

I was seventeen when I moved away to college. Since middle school, I’d set my mind on getting the best grades I could in order to one day earn enough scholarships to get myself out of our small town and my family’s house. My father was an active alcoholic until I was most of the way through college. Active probably isn’t the right word, but his energy was more frenetic, more assuredly terrifying. He got sober the year I turned 21. He nearly died from the whiskey and beer poison he consumed from waking until passing out each day. My mother detoxed him at home.

Once he was sober, for years, he still visited his usual bar every day and had a ginger ale. He even sat on the same barstool as during his drinking days. He defied any advice from AA or the rehabilitation that had previously failed to stick. His temper endured, though he himself was in more fragile form. My world expanded. The place I grew up was no longer where I called home.

I read a few books that advised setting boundaries, not enabling bad behaviors. Moving farther away solved a lot of the problem. The stability of a life…



Sarah Stankorb
Human Parts

Sarah Stankorb has published with The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic (among others). @sarahstankorb