I keep my cleaning supplies locked in a cabinet under the kitchen sink. I thought that keeping them hidden would protect my kids; that if I showed them where and what they were, they'd be more inclined to want to experiment with them and get hurt. If they didn't know the stuff was there, then there wouldn't be any danger.
Of all people, I should know that pretending something doesn't exist doesn't make it so.
My son and I were reading a book together, The Missing Manatee by Cynthia DeFelice. It was one that might have been a little mature for some 7-year-olds, but we've been reading novels for so long already that I didn't give it a second thought. As we got further into the book, I realized one of the main characters had a drinking problem, although it was never addressed directly.
It wasn't, at least, until the last chapter, when it was addressed directly. It became clear then that the character's alcoholism was the central issue behind his actions, and his actions were the central issue of the story.
My son asked me what it meant, and I explained it the best I could on short notice. I told him that some people have a physical problem with alcohol, while others don't; that people with this problem have a very hard time not drinking, but that not drinking is the only way to be okay. Unfortunately some people aren't able to quit, and it can affect their lives -- and the lives of people they love -- in a bad way.
He responded, "Alcoholics must be bad people then."
And there it was. I was blindsided. I always knew we would have this conversation one day, because from the generations of alcoholics before me, I am keenly aware of the damage that comes from not talking about it. But I thought he'd be a little older -- and that I'd be a little more prepared.
"Oh, no, honey," I said, "Alcoholics aren't bad people. It's a disease, and people with this disease just have to make sure they don't drink."
"But the guy in the book did bad things," he persisted.
"Maybe," I said, "but he was not a bad person." I was stalling, trying to put off the inevitable as long as I could. But I simply could not let him walk away from this conversation with the very belief system I wanted to dispel. I could not perpetuate the cycle of guilt and shame of which I'd been a victim all of my life.
"You know," I then said, "Mommy's an alcoholic."
His face took on a look of confusion and fright. "But . . . are you sick?" he asked.
"No, sweetie, I'm not sick. I've been sober for 15 years. I'm what they call a 'recovering alcoholic.' I was able to get help a long time ago, before you were born, before I even met Daddy. I knew I had to get better if I ever wanted to have you all in my life someday." I realized that I don't talk about it much, and so he's probably never heard the word. I don't avoid it; it just doesn't come up. It doesn't define me. To me, it's like being a redhead. It's just a thing.
He mulled this over for a few moments and matter-of-factly asked, "Will I be an alcoholic?"
Once again I was not prepared for the question. The truth is that, based on my family history, there's a chance he may have a problem with drinking -- but he's certainly too young to adopt that worry. Still I chose not to lie . . . a choice that was more difficult than I care to admit.
"I don't know," I finally said, "but I do know that whatever challenges you face when you get older, Daddy and I will help you through them. That's why we talk about things, so that you'll always be able to come to us." That satisfied him, and I thought it was the end of it.
It wasn't. He came home from school a few days later, put down his backpack, and said, "Hi, Mom! Um . . . you were drunk, weren't you?"
Wiping the initial shock off my face, I replied, "Well, yes, I guess I was . . . I mean, well -- why do you ask, honey?"
He pulled out a paper from school that explained the workings of the lungs, with a section on the ill effects of smoking.
"The teacher said that we shouldn't smoke, because it's addictive and once you start sometimes you can't stop. And I raised my hand and said, 'That's like my mom with drinking!'" He was so proud of himself for making that connection, and yet in need of some reassurance that it was okay to do so.
I stood there silently, trying to picture his classmates' dinner conversations that night. I was imagining his party invitations drying up and play dates dwindling away when suddenly I caught myself. I was doing exactly what I did when I was a kid, exactly what I didn't want my kids to do. I was letting myself be ashamed.
And in that moment, with my son waiting expectantly for some clue that he hadn't done anything wrong, I knew what I had to say and I knew I had to be ready to live it. I kissed his head and said, "Yes, honey. That's right. They're very similar." He smiled and walked away, presumably filing the information away in his head under "Things to Know Later." And he taught me something in the process.
The mere existence of something does not make it dangerous. What makes it dangerous is not understanding what it is and what it can do, which leads to judgment and fear and prejudice. Knowledge, I'm learning, truly is power, and so I'm going to get my children and head for the kitchen.
We've got some cabinets to unlock.
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