Almost everyone I know has at least one alcoholic in their family. Ours is no exception. A realistic depiction of our family tree would have some wine, beer and whiskey bottles hanging from it. Mostly my children are shielded from the reality of our alcoholic bloodline. Perhaps my older two have commented that Cousin James is obnoxious or Uncle Burt is odd, but they seem no different from the other family members that congregate on major holidays. Everyone is weird when you’re a teenager.
But recently Aunt Jessie drove while under the influence and that, as Robert Frost wrote, “has made all the difference.” My husband and I realized that we need to arm our eight and thirteen-year-old daughters and fifteen-year-old son with information so they can make safe decisions about riding and interacting with Aunt Jessie and understand more about why she says some of the things she does. And we know that while the immediate concern is Aunt Jessie, tomorrow’s concern will be someone else — related or not. Approaching this with children at different developmental stages requires us to take two unique approaches.
With the older two, we’ve had plenty of conversations about drinking. In fact recently we’d watched our favorite movie Say Anything where Lloyd Dobler (played by John Cusack) is named the key master at a party and he stays sober to assess who can drive home and who cannot. But this conversation was different because it wasn’t about designated drivers or blood alcohol levels, it was personal. It was about people we loved.
To prepare for the conversation, I folded laundry. Household chores bring order to my world when I feel confused about what to do. Next to growing pile of towels, I popped open my laptop and explored the internet for resources. Typing “talking to kids about alcoholism” took me to many sites about underage drinking, but after scrolling through those I found information for teens about alcoholic family members. I watched audio power points and short videos until I found something short that put drinking in an appropriate context. Not too heavy, not too light.
What began as a need to be sure our teens knew how to assess a situation and avoid getting in the car with someone who was drinking, transitioned quickly to exploring more about the addictive personality component of alcoholics. Jamin and Maya wanted to know why someone wouldn’t just stop if they could see alcohol was ruining their lives. They wanted to know about enabling and why husbands and mothers and children pretend like it isn’t a problem. We talked through these statements:
Alcoholics can be very critical or judgmental of others.
They can say irrational things in a very logical and convincing manner.
Respecting another person’s feelings or needs is not a regular way of life for them.
No one can make an alcoholic stop drinking if they don’t want to.
They brought up Aunt Jessie, Cousin James, and Uncle Burt. They recognized the behaviors and finally had a name for it.
While our conversation with our teens went well, we were left with what to say to our eight-year-old. She wasn’t ready for such a blunt and complex conversation. As she enters third grade, it feels like she’s just beginning to trust the world and I want to keep it that way. Of course she has some schema, she knows what alcohol is. She sees us drink it, wonders about its taste. We’ve explained to her how the body processes alcohol in the liver and how the toxins aren’t OK for small bodies which is why no, she can’t have that strawberry daiquiri from the blender too.
She’s also just learning the art of appropriate conversation. Last year when I answered her questions about my parents’ divorce she said to my mom the next day, “So I hear you are divorced and can’t stand grandpa anymore.” Apparently I’d forgotten to tell her that not everything spoken in her family of origin needed to be shared with my family of origin. It’s not that I want her to perceive it as a big family secret, but I certainly wouldn’t want her to go right up to Aunt Jessie and say, “So my mom says you are an alcoholic and I should be careful not to accept rides from you if you’ve too much to drink.”
It feels right to try to have the alcoholic family member conversation within the context of a book with her and give it some time to unfold. I read to her nightly and it always provides us a comfortable place to discuss issues. In fact, Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie had two different lovable characters who struggled with alcohol and helped her form her questions. Going further, Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is on our “to read” stack. There is an alcoholic mother in the story who has young Joey fix her an Amaretto with Mountain Dew as her “medicine” most nights. Maybe it will provide the “in” I’m looking for to talk about alcoholism with an appropriate amount of awareness, compassion and dignity for people who struggle with addictions.
Knowing I have flasks in my genes kept me from drinking anything as a young adult. I was terrified of alcohol. Always the designated driver and never the drinker, it really wasn’t until my early thirties that I accepted I could relax and have a glass of wine with dinner without becoming a raging alcoholic. I’d read a formula for moderate drinking that allowed healthy adult women up to three drinks in a single day and no more than seven drinks a week. Those numbers became a safety net for me. Within that formula I knew I wouldn’t follow the paths of people I had loved who had destroyed relationships, lost jobs, and suffered physically. Not to mention puked on their own shoes.
Over the years I’ve had times when I’ve been anticipating a glass of red wine too much or hear myself saying, “I can deal with this better after a margarita.” When that happens I choose to take a break from drinking for a while. I can see how easy and inviting it would be to go there to that numb place and medicate daily frustrations and stress.
I want my three children to grow up and have a peaceful relationship with alcohol, knowing the reality is that they are probably going to have to figure out their path with it just as I have. One may abstain while another overconsumes. One may count ounces and drinks like I do while another doesn’t give it a thought. Perhaps by being straightforward with the facts and giving them a hefty dose of genetic awareness they’ll grow the healthy budding branches of our family tree.