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
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 . . .