How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] about Anything

When Mamí Has a Drinking Problem

Episode Notes

Carmella believes her mother's drinking is a serious concern, but getting her and her Cuban family to acknowledge it––and the impact on her mom's health––has been a challenge. And, substance-abuse specialist Liliana Calle helps us destigmatize addiction.

Featured Expert: 

Liliana M. Calle, is a mental health counselor who has been working in the field of addictions since 2006. She also works with the Queens County Neuropsychiatric Institute small, community based organization. In addition to providing direct client services, Liliana also delivers trainings in Ethics and Clinical strategies for credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor (CASAC) certification. She is a Clinical Supervision Foundations trainer certified by The Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) in the State of New York. She received a degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Antioquia in Colombia, South America and obtained her Master of Science Degree from the School of Health Professions at Long Island University. She received a Master of Science degree in Education with a Certificate of Advanced Study in Mental Health Counseling (M.S.Ed./C.A.S) from Alfred University.Our expert this week is Liliana Calle, a mental health therapist specializing in substance use disorders affiliated with Montefiore Medical Center.

SAMHSA's National Helpline, 1 (800) 662-HELP (4357), provides 24/7 information and referrals to those suffering from substance use disorder and their loved ones. Here are some helpful resources for understanding alcohol and addiction and where to find local help,   and an organization  that offers friends and family the opportunity to get support of their own.

If you loved this episode, be sure to listen to Telling Mamí She Needs Mental Help and When Papí Gets a Fatal Diagnosis.

We’d love to hear your stories of triumph and frustration so send us a detailed voice memo to You might be on a future episode! Let’s connect on Twitter and Instagram at @TalkToMamiPapi and email us at And follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts.

Episode Transcription

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams:

Hi, everybody. Today, I’m speaking with Carmella. Carmella has been worried about her mom’s drinking for a while, but her Cuban family always said she was just exaggerating until her mom received an unexpected medical diagnosis. Let’s get into it. 

Carmella: My name is Carmella and I’m from Miami, Florida, and in my family, we call our parents mamí and papí. My mom is Cuban and immigrated here when she was nine, and my father is French-Belgian. My mother has had a very detached relationship to her body from my perspective, where I have rarely seen her seek out medical care. She generally doesn’t have healthy habits. You know, not eating vegetables, not drinking water, not exercising. My mom’s a heavy drinker, so for the last 15 years, I’ve been very aware of that and have been like the only person in my family to talk about it, but it’s never something that she wants to talk about and it’s never anything that she thinks is wrong. 

I don’t know when my mom’s drinking started but I can remember being a kid and spending a significant amount of time in the wine aisle at the supermarket. I think when you’re a young kid, you just… You don’t know what’s normal and whatever, but… and my mom is not… She’s a very functional alcoholic. She’s a lawyer. She’s always held a job. That’s what she’ll tell you when you tell her, “Hey, you have a drinking problem.” She said, “I go to work every day. I pay my bills. I have a roof over…” You know, whatever. And I’m like, “Yes, you are functioning because you are a functional alcoholic.” 

When I went away to college and started drinking myself, becoming somebody who drank alcohol, I then came home and realized, “Oh, like this is a lot.” If I match my mom drink for drink, I would be under the table. Because it’s like a bottle a night back then. And 10, 15 years ago, I reached out to the people closest to her, which are her cousins, and I said, “We need to have an intervention. This is really bad.” And both of them told me, “You’re crazy.” One of them said, “If she’s an alcoholic, then I’m an alcoholic.” And that’s when I realized they were drinking buddies. 

In my family, it’s very much about appearances, and just push everything under the rug, and I’m exaggerating, and that’s another thing that my mom will say to me, is like, “People in Europe drink wine every day.” And I’m like, “Yeah, you have a glass of wine with your meal.” They don’t drink to excess. They definitely don’t drink alone. That’s a different thing, you know? Did this affect my mom’s relationships with her family, with her… I think it definitely did with her sisters, but I don’t know, because nobody talks about it. 

In the last year, her health has really degraded. She was losing weight at an alarming rate and any time that we would talk about it in our family, she would say, “Ah, you’re just jealous. You’re just jealous because I’m skinny.” And it was like a joke, but she was just like, “Got off my back.” So, finally when my sister forced her way into a doctor’s visit with my mom, they started doing tests and they find out that she has stage four colon cancer. And so, now that my mom has cancer, my family now is all concerned about her drinking, because the doctors have said, “You cannot be on these therapies and be drinking. It’s counterproductive. If you keep drinking, we’re gonna take you off of the cancer treatments.” 

So, now everybody’s like freaking out about it, which makes me mad because nobody wanted to face this a long time ago. And if you read about colon cancer, alcohol is definitely a big factor. I try to see the silver lining and I started thinking maybe this is the best thing that could happen to her, because maybe this will scare her, and maybe this will be the push that she needs to make a change. That has not been the case. She’s still drinking actively. 

When my mom first got diagnosed with cancer, I was really angry, because this could have been prevented. It could have been caught much sooner. I had spent the past year begging her to go to the doctor. I was pregnant. There’s a baby on the way. Her first grandchild. You would think that these things would inspire her to take care of herself. She’s never approached her health straight on and she’s just been in denial about things. She’s been in denial about her drinking for a long time. So, I was really angry. 

I have worked really hard in the past year through Al-Anon with my sponsor, in therapy, to release that anger and just accept my mom for who she is. Like after the diagnosis and everything, I was just like, “Wow, like I go to the doctor for any little thing, or like…” And she’s like, “You know, Carmella, I didn’t grow up going to the doctor.” She didn’t live in a house where people were like thriving. They were surviving. Her mom moved here, didn’t speak the language, had been a professional in Cuba, and now was a menial laborer. My grandmother was depressed for the rest of her life. My  grandmother wasn’t asking my mom, “Did you do your homework? We gotta go to the doctor.” You know? 

So, I realized, “Oh, my parents have done a great job of taking care of me and my sister. Less of a good job of taking care of themselves.” But I see where that comes from. 


Carmella’s strength and determination to face this issue, even when it made her an outcast in her own family, really, really inspired me. Alcoholism is a disease and addiction is a taboo subject, especially among immigrants and especially among Latinos. So, what do we do when our loved one is in denial? How can we as first gens approach this conversation in a way that supports our family member and keeps them engaged in their recovery? To help us figure it out, I called in an expert. 

Liliana Calle: My name is Liliana Calle and I work as a therapist in the South Bronx. I provide psychotherapy and social services for individuals and families affected by mental health and substance use disorders. I am also a professional trainer and I offer trainings for healthcare workers, social workers, and mental health professionals. 


So, Liliana, you heard Carmella’s story. What did you hear as you listened? 

Calle: So, what I hear from the story is a lot of emotions that are common and emerging from that difficult moment of having someone in the family affected by alcohol. I see a family member that is concerned, that has a lot of love, and hope, and expectation for the loved one who’s having that problem with alcohol. So, it’s important to recognize those feelings, both the positive and the negative, because the way we react, the way we express our concern, that will impact the individual in a way that helps that person either move towards the process of change or to kind of build the resistance towards change. 


Let’s dig a little bit deeper about that, about the awareness of how we should talk about this. 

Calle: The most important aspect of helping individuals is to use the proper language that is we have to be really careful about using the language that carries stigma. So, we really don’t want to use the word, “You’re an alcoholic.” Rather, we may say, “Let’s explore how alcohol, it’s maybe getting in your way to stay healthy, or how alcohol is causing problems.” Because when… Every time we use a word that creates that stigma, the defenses are gonna be up and the willingness to change, and the willingness to be open for other opportunities in terms of recovery, in terms of wellness, are not gonna be there. 

So, the most important part for a person to consider when they are helping a family member is to really pay attention to their emotions, their language. The most powerful aspect of any interaction when a family member is using either drugs or alcohol is to frame that interaction in love, concern, and kindness. We want to make sure that we’re building the trust first. We want to create that trust, that relationship of love and concern, because in that moment when the person trusts the other individual, then the person who’s having problems with alcohol will be more open to see what the options are. 


Let me ask you about two things that Carmella says. One is she says that she has said to her mother that you are a functioning alcoholic, because her mom has said, “I go to work every day. I pay my bills. I am managing my life perfectly fine, so of course I’m not an alcoholic.” The other term that Carmella also used is drinking buddy, which is a term that she used to refer to an older family member who she discovered was drinking socially and heavily to her belief with her mom. 

So, how does someone like Carmella, whose intent is to help, undo the potential damage that having used those terms might have caused? And how does she do the repair to continue on advocating for the type of support she believes her mom should have?

Calle: In the case of Carmella, she’s doing an awesome job trying to seek out help for her mother. That is very powerful. And she… Obviously, we were not born with a manual to resolve problems and to address alcoholism in a certain way, and there are let’s say better ways to address the situation or address the problem, because we want to make sure that the interactions that we’re having with a family member are productive and create behavioral changes that we need to see. 

So, instead of saying, “You are maybe an alcoholic who can control to a certain extent,” we can say, “I am concerned that alcohol may be affecting your health in ways that you didn’t realize before.” When a person hears the word, “You’re an alcoholic,” the first reaction for the person is to respond, “No, I am not an alcoholic. I function well.” And they will give you all the reasons for them to believe that they are not alcoholics. But when we open up the door to ask and create that conversation, that will help the person realize maybe something that they didn’t thought of before. Maybe new perspectives about how alcohol may impact health or how alcohol may impair the ability for a person to function at full capacity. 


I have to say, though, that a strong Latina mother hearing her daughter say maybe alcohol is causing problems in your life is really not gonna receive that message well. So, what are some of the cultural contexts that we have to apply to an already very sensitive situation when one suspects that there’s alcoholism at play so that we can actually get through? 

Calle: Alcohol in the Latino community, it’s perceived in a very interesting way. We don’t see alcohol as problematic at all. In our community, it’s widely accepted. We celebrate special events with alcohol. So, for a mother to listen that alcohol may be causing problems, maybe they don’t take it well. They don’t accept the fact that alcohol is causing the problems. But really, what is important to understand is that we need to open up the opportunity for the dialogue to happen. Maybe the response will be that at that moment, the mother is not necessarily ready for the change, but those kind words may have an impact later on. 

It’s powerful enough to frame the love and concern to help the individual think about the possibility of change. That itself, it’s a huge step in the changing process. 


So, let’s talk about the broader family circle, because Carmella spoke about trying to get other folks involved in trying to convince her mom to seek help, seek support, especially around her cancer diagnosis. So, what are some strategies that first gens can use to try and recruit other family members to bring support to this person to help them to make better decisions about their care? 

Calle: We want to make sure that we are aiming for collaboration. Are we all on the same page in terms of how are we gonna address the problem behavior that this individual is exhibiting? In this particular case, it’s alcohol use. Alcohol is a very complex disorder to treat, and we want to make sure that we are gradually introducing some tools that will be helpful for the individual to start the process of change. That takes time, effort, and a lot of support. Not only from family members, but maybe from doctors, and from specialists. Maybe medication-assisted treatment. Maybe having other people who are in recovery involved in the process, as well. 

We want to also understand that change is a process that does not occur in one day. And sometimes the intervention stuff we do with an individual may impact them later on. 


All right, final question. How can loving, concerned relatives like Carmella make sure that they take care of themselves also in this process of advocating for their relative and for their decisions about their health? 

Calle: Self-care is extremely important, because if someone is not taking care of themselves, definitely it’s more difficult for them to help others. So, self-care comes in so many different ways, but also have to do with having a good understanding of what are the limits that we need to put in this process. Working with families and individuals, it’s also very important to kind of realize that family members were not the ones who caused the alcohol problem. And that itself is a very therapeutic approach. We talk in therapy about the three Cs, which are you didn’t cause the alcoholism, you cannot cure the alcoholism, and you cannot control. 

So, that, it’s important for a family member to understand, and to kind of situate themselves in a position of helping rather than in a position of being in control of someone else’s drinking or being in the position of controlling and feeling that they have to do something to prevent the person from drinking or to prevent the person from escalating that drinking. 


Thank you so much, Liliana. This was wonderful. 

All right, let’s recap what we learned from Liliana. Pay attention to language and emotions. Frame your interactions in the context of love, concern, and kindness. Avoid language that can stigmatize and create resistance. Your main goal is to keep the dialogue going. Keep the person talking to you. Remember the three Cs. You didn’t cause the drinking, you cannot cure the drinking, and you cannot control the drinking, so set boundaries and take care of yourself if you really want to be helpful to your loved one. And remember, focus on the long game. The impact of any intervention, whether a conversation, treatment, therapy, support groups, may not be felt immediately, but it doesn’t mean it’s not helping. This process takes time. 

The show notes for this episode include a list of resources on alcoholism and substance abuse. Please share them if they can be 

Thank you for listening and thank you for sharing us. How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Virginia Lora is the show’s producer. Kojin Tashiro is our mixer. Manuela Bedoya is our social media editor. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. Jen Chien is our executive editor. I’m the creator and host, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. On Twitter and Instagram, we’re @TalktoMamiPapi. Please follow us and rate us on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye, everybody. Same place next week. 


Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “When Mamí Has a Drinking Problem.” 

How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything, 

Lantigua Williams & Co., July 11, 2021.