You know, it occurs to me as I sit down to type this, I really don’t have any sense of what I’m about to write. A strange feeling, because usually I have the skeleton created in my mind before I even sit down. So I guess, look out, because here comes a lot of rambling…
I should probably also add, in case you are new to this blog, I’m about to talk about the results of sitting down with my kids and talking about my recovery from addiction.
I would love to sum up the conversations with a nice neat label, but, like most things in life, there are shades of gray, and loads of second guessing, so I’m unable yet to give myself a grade on this particular test. Let me give you some back drop on my goals beforehand. First, I was determined to speak with each child individually, in a neutral location, so that they are able to give me their honest feedback without undue influence of other people, or even familiar surroundings. Plus, if it did not go well, I didn’t want them to forever think of, let’s say the kitchen table, as the place where the family fell apart (no, I do not think melodramatically at all). Second, it was important for me to impart to them a more realistic view of the “illness” from which I suffer. Up to this point they have only been given a broad, almost pg-rated definition of why I go to meetings regularly, and I have never used the “a” word to describe myself. Next, I wanted to gauge what, if anything, either child knew or figured out on his or her own, and here I was specifically thinking of my extremely perceptive son. I would have bet a lot of money that he knew pretty much everything by this point. Finally, and most importantly (truly the whole reason I’m doing this at all), I wanted them to know and understand that I know and understand a lot with regard to drugs and alcohol. With both of them making big transitions in terms of schooling, I wanted them to know they have a resource very, very close to them, should they need information, guidance, or advice. And, also, sideline goal: not to have my children disgusted with me, or filled with shame that I am their mother.
It might be easier to break it down conversation by conversation:
Conversation #1 (my 11-year-old son):
I made this decision much more spontaneously than I ever typically do with these types of things, so I was flying blind as I introduced the subject. A possible mistake, although who’s to say for sure? A second, and in my mind, more concrete mistake: I assumed he knew more than he did. My son is extremely nosy, one of those kids that has his ear to the door of every adult conversation, phone call, etc. So I figured in 2 1/2 years, he has definitely figured some things out, if not everything out. Not the case, and so the beginning of the conversation was stilted and full of dead-end questions and answers while I tried to get my conversational footing. Finally, we got to a jumping off point: he said he assumed I went to meetings because I used to smoke, and that since cigarettes are drugs they are hard to stop, so I went to meetings with other people who are also trying to stop smoking.
Alright, we’ve got something to work with. So I explained that some of that is true: cigarettes are addictive, and while they have the drug of nicotine in them, they are different in that they are not mind-altering. I then took some time to explain what I meant by mind-altering, and together we listed out all the different types of mind-altering drugs. And from there I explained that while yes, I used to smoke and now I don’t, the reason I go to meetings, and sometimes meet with other women, is because I need to stay away from all mind-altering drugs and alcohol.
His reaction was surprise, then his perception kicked in and he had all sorts of detail-oriented questions (“wait… is that why we don’t have alcohol in the house?”). I answered every one honestly, and it was clear from his questions and his reaction that he truly did not know anything at all regarding my recovery. He told me he remembered when I used to drink, but only in the context of larger family functions when every person at the party was very, very drunk.
I will admit to feeling deep relief at this point, because I was terrified of what I would hear out of the kids’ mouths when I asked them if they remember when I drank.
We were winding down, and there was a pause in the conversation; when I looked at him again, he had tears in his eyes. That is probably the moment I have relived the most through the whole experience, and the reason I will forever wonder if I did the right thing. He never fully cried, and it took some time for me to get the answer of why he had tears in his eyes out of him. Finally, he admitted that “it’s a lot to take in, finding out that my Mom is an alcoholic.”
Another low point of the conversation. I considered that for a moment, told him I understood, and that he is not alone in feeling overwhelmed by that label. We talked about why that word is so scary, what he thought it meant versus all of this new information. I explained that lots and lots of people in the world misunderstood what it means to be an alcoholic. Finally, he has a couple of friends who are diabetic, so I asked him: would you gasp and point your finger at your friend and say, “Oh no, YOU are a DIABETIC?!?” Of course he laughed, but then I compared the two diseases: both are not the fault of the person who has them, both are lifelong conditions, but are easily managed by doing a few simple things, and you can live a long and happy life despite having either of them. He seemed to feel better after this, and asked a few more questions, but the conversation mostly wound down after, and he genuinely seemed fine afterwards.
Conversation #2 (my 14-year-old daughter):
I’ll make this recap a lot shorter, because it went a lot easier. I was more prepared, and had no thoughts that she knew anything beforehand, so I used my conversation with my son as the starting point, about his assumption about cigarettes, and went right on from there. She reacted a lot less surprised, although she insisted she had no idea. She just said, “I had no idea, but it’s not like you’re telling me something that’s crazy,” which of course prompted me to list all sorts of new revelations, but we quickly got back to it. She asked questions that were more intuitive than I would have thought possible of her: When exactly did it become a problem? Is it hard to watch different family members drink, and does it make you want to drink? Will you ever be cured? All her questions were springboards for great further conversation, and at no point was she agitated or distressed.
In the interest of balancing the low point, right as we were wrapping up, my daughter touched my arm, and as sincerely as you can imagine, said, “Mommy, I’m so glad you’re better now.”
So there’s the deets, folks. I did attempt to have a “family follow up” three days later. We were out to dinner, and I said, “Since we are all here I wanted to give anyone and everyone an opportunity to talk more about this. Have you thought about it and do you have more questions?” My daughter did not, my son only said, “I did think about it more, and I thought more about the diabetic thing and that made me feel a lot better.” They both continued to eat, laugh and bicker for the rest of the meal, so I will take all of that as a good sign.
The reason I feel like I can’t call this a failure or success is this: the whole point is to give them information so that they can make good decisions down the road, and to let them know they have a ready and willing resource. Time will tell, I guess, but so far, a week later, there has been no fallout, and everyone seems to be living their lives as they did before.
I started this post saying that I have no idea what’s about to come out of my head. I think the reason is I’m writing from two distinct points of view: getting this out of my own head, and also sharing this experience in the hopes of helping someone else in my shoes. For the former, as I mentioned, only time will tell if this was a good thing or a bad thing.
In terms of the latter, here’s my advice concerning talking to your kids:
- Really assess if they are emotionally ready for this kind of information
- Have a starting point for the conversation so that you are not fumbling for words straightaway. You can’t prepare for every direction the conversation might take, but you can control the opening
- Have a good purpose for the talk, so you can remind yourself why you are doing it if the going gets rough
- Prepare mentally for curveball questions, and resolve to be as honest as possible
Hope this helps someone if they are looking to sit down with their kids!
It’s only now, as I hit publish, that I am feeling a sense of accomplishment in getting this task completed (and, might I add, completed with days left before the end of summer, it’s like two miracles!)