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Dr. Phil on living with alcoholic father

After a tough childhood, Phil McGraw figured out how to fix himself -- and the rest of us too.

By Laura Yorke, From Reader's Digest April 2005

By today's standards, Phillip C. McGraw -- better known as Dr. Phil -- has every right to be a mess. As the son of a binge-drinking alcoholic, he lived through cycles of dysfunction and near-poverty.

He went to work early, not to earn spending money, but to help put food on the table. Not always the best kid, at times, Phil says now, he basically raised himself.

So why didn't he derail, like so many people would, and spend his life victimized and immobilized by his past? "That was not an option," McGraw says. Each afternoon, nearly seven million Americans tune in to "Dr. Phil" to watch him give his guests a dose of the no-whining advice he once gave himself. McGraw's motto -- "Get real" -- comes from having lived through his own ugly times, and having made himself better for it.

McGraw earned his doctorate in clinical psychology in 1979 and went into private practice in Wichita Falls, Texas. He eventually became a litigation consultant, and in 1996 was called in by Oprah Winfrey's attorneys for help in a lawsuit filed by a group of Texas cattlemen over comments she'd made about mad cow disease. After she won the case, Winfrey invited McGraw to share his problem-solving tips with her viewers, and soon he had his very own audience -- and show.

He refers to himself unconvincingly as a "reformed workaholic." Author of 10 bestselling books, McGraw and Robin, his wife of 28 years, live in Los Angeles with their sons, Jay, 25, also a talk-show host and author, and Jordan, 18, who will start Southern Methodist University in the fall.

RD: You had a traumatic childhood. How did it shape who you've become?

McGraw: My mother was and is so loving, but she had to work all the time. I had an alcoholic father -- basically a binge drinker. I had sisters who married in high school to escape, and I just had absolutely no leadership whatsoever. A lot of what I ultimately defined myself to be was a reaction against that. My dad was beaten and abused by his mother all through his childhood. She was a mean, vicious woman. I knew what he grew up with and why he was so embittered, but it doesn't make it any easier to live with.

RD: Especially when you're a child.

McGraw: He was never abusive with me or my sisters. He drank to escape. We were living in Denver when I was in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades. He was a tool pusher essentially, sold drill bits to oil-drilling companies. He entertained the drillers, the buyers, constantly.

So he was out every night, drinking. It got so bad that he either quit or got fired -- as a kid you never know. All of a sudden, we were out of a job. He said, "I'm going to go back to get my PhD in psychology." He was admitted to the University of Oklahoma, so we moved to Oklahoma City. For that period of time, he didn't drink at all. He just quit.

RD: You must have respected that.

McGraw: I did, but it came with a price because when he was drinking, we had jobs and money. When he quit, we traded alcoholism for being dirt-poor. We lived with my older sister, who was married and had an 1,100-square-foot house.

We threw paper routes for a living. We had one 52 miles long. I did that one in a car with my dad every morning at 4:30 or 5, and every afternoon I had a paper route that I threw off my bike. It wasn't my allowance. That was our food money.

When it came time to collect for the paper, you'd go get $1.15 for that month. If you didn't come home with the money, you didn't eat. Even at 12 I understood the reality of "you don't work, you don't eat." It was that simple. That's why now I'm so accountable and so results-oriented.

RD: What happened when your dad finished the PhD program?

McGraw: He had to go to Kansas City for his internship. We couldn't afford to take the family, but he said, "My son needs to be with his dad." So off we went. We lived in an apartment with no utilities, right near the high school.

RD: Was he drinking then?

McGraw: As soon as he got a real job, he started again. He had every Wednesday afternoon off, and every Thursday morning I would have to go find the car. He'd go off and get drunk and leave the car and come home in a cab. I'd have to get receipts out of his pocket and go downtown and find the car. I'm only 15. I don't even have a driver's license, but I'm down there, finding the car and driving through rush hour to get home.

RD: One of the ways you built up your self-esteem was through sports.

McGraw: That gave me a place to distinguish myself. I was very team-oriented, and I took pride in doing well. I was also an angry kid, and it was an outlet for the anger. It was entertainment for the family too. They really looked forward to those games.

RD: So you began to realize that if you take action, things happen.

McGraw: I saw my sisters making certain decisions, and I said, "I'm not going to do that." I'd see my dad drink, and I'd say, "I don't want to see myself in that condition." I said, "I'm going to choose different things." They weren't all good choices.

RD: What was a bad choice for you?

McGraw: My friends were not the best citizens. At 13, 14 years old, we were racing cars, prowling around all night. They'd steal the family car and off we'd go joyriding at 120 mph.

RD: Did you reconcile with your dad before he died?

McGraw: Absolutely. My dad is an enigma, to be sure. In his later life he quit drinking again. In his late 60s, he went back to school to study theology so he could preach and teach. We were there at his graduation. He died at 69. If he was drinking, I just couldn't be around him, and if he wasn't, we got along just fine.

Continued on blog: Just For Today - My Al-Anon Diary - Living With An Alcoholic