Friday, July 4, 2014

Mommy, will I be an alcoholic when I grow up?

I was driving the kids home from school one day when my 7-year-old daughter posed that question from the back seat. "I'm just like you, so does that mean I'll be an alcoholic when I grow up?" I was a little caught off guard (because that is SO not what we were talking about), but my unfiltered response in the moment was, "Maybe." It's certainly not the first time I've thought about it. Ever since my children were born, I've wondered what the future holds for them. Maybe more than others who haven't struggled with addiction, I've wondered what their relationship with drugs and alcohol will be. I can't predict whether they will struggle with addiction in their lifetimes any more than I can predict any other difficulties they may face. Still the answer fell with a thud in the car, and my stomach flip-flopped a little. Nowhere is powerlessness more overwhelming than in parenting because we so desperately want only good things to happen to our children. Once again, I had to accept the unknown.

When I first got into recovery, my kids were 4 and 6 years old. They didn't really know or understand what alcohol was, much less alcoholism. I don't think we had any idea how to talk to them about it, so we told them only what they needed to know about where Mommy was. Mommy wasn't well, so she went away to see some doctors and get better. Later, Mommy had to go out to meetings every day to stay healthy. They accepted that. They wanted me to be well, and as long as they knew generally what was going on, they didn't ask for additional information. I knew the day would come when they would want more, and I knew that I wanted to be completely open about it with them. But what do I tell them? How do I explain what alcoholism is when I'm not sure I understand it fully myself? What do I tell them about my own experience? How much do I tell them and how soon?

I heard the best story at a meeting recently. A man who had been in treatment had been away from his young daughter for several months. When he returned home, he went to the school where she attended kindergarten because he was anxious to see her. The kids were at recess, so he went out to find her on the playground. The teachers were all lined up on the edge of the playground watching when his daughter spotted him and ran over to greet him. She hugged him and told him how happy she was to see him and then turned to the teachers and said with a smile, "My daddy is an alcoholic!" Is there anything better than the innocence of a child? She attached no judgment to the word, no shame. It was just another thing that was part of her world. And that's how I try to operate with my children. Recovery is part of our lives. It's a way to maintain wellness, and there's no shame in that. I exercise almost every day and eat right to maintain my wellness as well, and I've never felt compelled to shroud that in secrecy. 

So we talk about addiction and recovery, and we talk about the fact that Mommy is an alcoholic, and we talk about what all of that means to our family. Still, the question – Am I going to be an alcoholic? – seemed to be the first time one of the kids thought about what would happen if they drink, not what would happen if I do. The frightening truth of it is that I don't know. There's no test I can give them to find out if they are or will be alcoholics. I don't even know what I think about my own alcoholism. Was I born that way? Did I become one over time? Was there a point of no return, and what was it? When did I really know? I don't know. Our lives are full of unknowns. I've almost learned to deal with my own. I try very hard to stay in the present, not to fret over the future or obsess over the past. But of course I want to make all of my kids' unknowns less threatening and scary. I can't. I can't stop them from experiencing life, and they will be faced with things I probably never imagined when I was growing up. Their decisions will be harder. The world is a much scarier place. There is just more of everything. All I can do is be honest and arm them with information, be open to what they have to say and what they want to share, and let them know they have a safe place to land where they are loved. The rest is out of my hands.

I look at my daughter and see myself in her. I watch her on the playground, spinning until she makes herself dizzy, running and flailing wildly, and I think she has the same desire I always had to be out of control and lose touch with reality – to be fuzzy and dizzy and numb. I see her throw raging tantrums when she feels she's been wronged, and I think she has the same heightened sense of outrage I always had at injustice along with a warped sense of how that applies to her privileged life. I see her dedication and determination in school aside a wild, rebellious streak evidenced by her funky sense of style, and I think she has the same desire I had to people please and be praised but a slightly darker side that wants to get away with things and doesn't give a shit. But ultimately I have to remember that she is not me. She's her own person, and she is not destined to follow in any of my footsteps. Just as I can't not worry about my son simply because he is so much like his opposite-of-an-alcoholic father in his approach to life.

At the beginning of my recovery, I hadn't gotten a grip on my obsessive desire to know and control outcomes – that terrible impatience at waiting for things I wanted resolved right now. I wanted recovery immediately, whatever that was, I wanted my family to be better and happy, I wanted to know for certain that I would be the guy picking up a 20-year chip in 20 years. It took a while to learn that part of my recovery is accepting that none of that is guaranteed and none of it happens right now. Everything is a process, and outcomes are unknowable. So too, with my children, I have to accept that I don't know where life will take them.

I know as they get older, the discussion will get more complicated. Knowing what I know now about addiction, I would choose for them never to drink. But it's not my choice. I wish telling them what I know would be enough to make them make that choice for themselves, but I know that's not necessarily the case. I don't know if there's anything anyone could have told me when I started drinking as a teenager, or even as my drinking progressed in my 20s, that would have altered my choices. I know at some point along the way, I lost the ability to choose. I know it's a possibility that my children will someday find themselves in the same devastating, debilitating position. If that happens, I'll be there to share what has worked and not worked for me and help them find their way, just as I will be for any other situation they're faced with in this life.

I have a deep appreciation for the honesty and openness with which my children discuss my recovery. Like the little girl in the story, they attach no judgment or shame to it. One day, I was giving Ashby a hard time about his candy habit, and he made a comment (jokingly, because that's how we roll) about how it was like me with alcohol – if you put candy in front of him, he's going to eat it. My son was quick to interject, "That's not true.  If you put alcohol in front of Mommy, she wouldn't drink it now because she's better, and she knows it's not healthy for her." His understanding almost brought tears to my eyes. Another day, we were in a restaurant and ran into friends. We were discussing going to Pickles. When someone asked what that was, my son said (loudly and matter of factly), "Pickles in the Park – it's an AA meeting." Because that's what it is, and that's how I live, and that's cool with him.

So . . . maybe. "Maybe you will be an alcoholic like me when you grow up. With our family history, you should be aware of what that means so you can make informed decisions about whether you want to drink alcohol at all. You may want to because your friends do it, and it looks fun, or you may genuinely like the taste. There's nothing wrong with drinking alcohol when you reach an appropriate age. It's just bad for some people, like Mommy. It makes me very sick, so I can't drink it anymore, and I have to do things, like go to meetings, to make sure I stay healthy and don't drink anymore." Their sweet responses from the back seat – "I don't ever want to drink alcohol anyway!" If only . . .