By Johanna Bailey
“Let’s leave the kids at home and meet up for a drink sometime!”
Every time I join a new playgroup, there’s always at least one person who suggests a girls’ night out. I’m never sure exactly how to respond. Do I say that alcohol gives me a headache? That I’m on medication and can’t drink? That I’m allergic? Or do I say nothing at all and just hope that they won’t notice when I order orange juice at the bar?
The truth is, I’m an alcoholic and heroin addict in recovery. Eight years into my sobriety, it doesn’t get any easier to say that out loud.
Even more troubling is what—if anything—I say to my son, Nico, and when. He’s only three. When he asks why I don’t drink wine like daddy, I explain to him I don’t like the taste, just like he doesn’t like the taste of corn. And that’s all the explanation he needs. Right now, Nico’s idea of partying involves lots of balloons and short people running in circles screeching. It’s going to be a while before he’s ready to hear about my history of substance abuse. But I know that time is coming.
For better or worse, the days are gone when people would simply sweep the dicey parts of their personal pasts under the nearest rug as soon as they became parents. No longer can we just leave a few pamphlets on the kids’ beds and assume that we’ve done our job in talking about drugs and alcohol. No, today we’re supposed to talk to our kids, the experts tell us. We should be open and honest about everything from drugs to sex to the death of a family pet. And this makes sense to me. Certainly I would never want to travel back fifty years in time to try and morph myself into some sort of a June Cleaver of a mother.
Nevertheless, I still can’t help but wonder if, in my case, being completely honest with my son is really the wisest option. On the contrary, I’m terrified that by telling him about my past, particularly regarding my heroin use, I’ll only be increasing the chances that he’ll end up experiencing the same problems that I did.
One morning sometime during my junior high years, my stepfather sat with me at the kitchen table and talked about some of his more harrowing experiences with drugs. I sat there transfixed as he told me about the night when he found himself lying facedown in a forest in the rain after binging on whiskey and cocaine.
Given the fact that he was talking about it over waffles, it didn’t seem to me that whatever he’d experienced had done him any lasting harm. He had a family and a nice house, and soon he’d hop into his Saab and head off to a good job. Rather than serve as a warning to stay away from drugs, as he had intended, the story merely tickled my curiosity. I, too, wanted to spend a cocaine-fueled bacchanalian night in a forest, albeit in dryer weather.
By that age, I’d already noticed that alcohol played an important role in our house, both for relaxation and celebration. My parents were not alcoholics, but they did drink. They were the only ones on the block who did. That’s because I was raised in Salt Lake City, a land dominated by Mormons, a group of people who don’t even possess coffee machines, let alone corkscrews or shot glasses. It didn’t take long for me to connect some dots. People who drank were free-thinking liberals who stayed away from oversized hair bows and minivans (aka “Mormon movers”). People who did not drink were conservative goody-goodies. The men in the latter group all had Ken doll haircuts, and the women had a penchant for wearing floral headbands. Most importantly, their children did not invite me to their birthday parties.
My parents were honest about their own youthful transgressions, which ranged from my stepdad’s coked-up nights of excess and regret, to my mother’s single puff off a joint in 1969. In my adolescent mind, that made my step-dad credible and my mother clueless.
What any of it had to do with me, however, was beyond the scope of my imagination. The teenaged “It won’t happen to me” mentality was deeply etched into my mind. So I ignored my parents when they warned me that the high incidence of alcoholism in our extended family meant it was very likely I’d develop substance abuse problems myself if I weren’t careful. After all, it was one thing to know that I may have a predisposition for addiction, but another thing entirely to see that Suzy at school had been smoking joints for months with no apparent ill effects other than having eyes that resembled a couple of glazed donuts.
And then there were the mixed messages. My parents told me that I wasn’t allowed to use drugs or drink, but, like many of my friends’ parents, they tacked on an addendum: If I did “somehow happen to find myself” in a situation where I couldn’t safely drive home, I should definitely not be afraid to call them for a ride. The way I interpreted this was, “We don’t want you to do it, but we expect that you might anyway. If you do, we’ll be disappointed, but we won’t permanently chain you to your canopy bed.”
So I went to parties, drank, and started experimenting with drugs. Did I worry about getting in trouble? Sure. But I worried more about winding up as a twenty-one-year-old Girl Scout who was still selling cookies in a pair of perfectly creased polyester pants, which was my mental image of anyone who didn’t drink or do drugs. We sinners had to band together, and if that meant pounding ten cans of the three-percent-alcohol beer sold in Utah supermarkets to get a buzz, I was all for it. For me there was no middle ground. If you didn’t party, you might as well head down to the Mormon temple and prostrate yourself on its well-manicured front lawn.
My stepfather never became either an addict or an alcoholic, but I sure did. In that light, his story hit far wide of the mark in terms of its intended effect. Do I want to open up to Nico some day and risk the same thing happening to him?
My hesitations about sharing my past were reinforced even more when I read David Sheff’s book, Beautiful Boy, about his son’s crystal meth addiction. In the book, Sheff agonizes over whether or not he made a mistake in telling his son that he himself had used drugs, including crystal meth. He proposes that in some instances, it can actually do more harm than good when adults tell kids about their past substance abuse: “It’s the same reason that it may backfire when famous athletes show up at school assemblies … and tell kids, ‘Man, don’t do this shit, I almost died,’ and yet there they stand, diamonds, gold, multimillion-dollar salaries and cereal box fame.”
Even Barack Obama admitted in his 1995 memoir that in his youth he drank and used drugs. Obama has stated since then that his purpose in revealing his past was to show young people who have problems that it is possible to make mistakes and still recover. An admirable sentiment, but what about those kids who haven’t tried drugs? Is the knowledge that their new president used to get drunk, smoke pot and snort cocaine really helpful? Or might it just make them think that they, too, can mess around with drugs and alcohol for a few years before going on to become successful and famous?
I’m not running for president, and it’s not likely that my face will ever grace a box of Wheaties, but my life is pretty good considering the foolish decisions I made in the past. The negative consequences—the devastation of those that loved me, the loss of self-respect, the years of depression, and the humiliating memories—all of those are almost impossible to verbalize in any way that would be enough to convince Nico not to follow in my footsteps. The fact is that I was supremely lucky—lucky that, unlike so many others, I was able to put down the drinks and the drugs and move on with my life without any long-term serious consequences.
Still, I wouldn’t wish my experiences on my worst enemy, let alone my beloved child. Is there any way to say this to Nico without it sounding like just another cliché?
I decided to do a bit of investigating and to talk to some experts in the field of adolescent substance abuse. My first stop was Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. “Of course you have to tell him about your history!” he exclaimed. He went on to tell me that as an alcoholic and addict in recovery, I have “a very powerful voice and a credible message.” Pasierb also said that although I don’t owe my son a “blow-by-blow summary” of everything I’ve done, I still need to be honest with him about my drug use. “Teenagers have a big bullshit filter, so if you lie to them, they’re going to know it. Basically, honesty is the best policy.”
After speaking with Pasierb, I headed to my local library, where I plowed through as many books on the subject of adolescents and substance abuse as I could find. In the end, it appeared that most experts agree that parents should be truthful about past drug use but that they don’t need to go into every last detail. Exactly how many details one should reveal, however, is up to the individual.
In the 2002 book Just Say Know by Cynthia Kuhn, Scott Swartzwelder, and Wilkie Wilson, the authors warn that the decision of how much to divulge must be taken very seriously. They urge you to use caution when discussing your past drug use with your kids.
Okay, but what does that mean?
Should you tell a teen about your own drug experiences? No single answer will work for everyone. … The most compelling reason to avoid sharing your own drug history is that it conveys a kind of permission: “You did it, so what’s the big deal?”
But they follow that advice up with this observation:
On the other hand, some would argue that coming clean about your own causal drug use can promote a sense of honest communication between you and a teen. Maybe so. But remember that kids and adults don’t always interpret things in the same way.
Ambiguous advice such as this is typical throughout the literature on talking to kids about drugs. Tell them, but don’t tell them everything. Tell them, but be very very careful how you tell them. Tell them but only when they’re ready to hear it.
Obviously, I’m not going to tell my son when he’s in elementary school about the summer I literally burned through my aunt’s entire spoon collection cooking up heroin. But when will he be ready to hear that? Does any kid ever need to hear that about one of their parents?
There are at least a couple of experts out there who share my fears about revealing past drug use. In a July 2008 article in Ebony, psychologist Dr. Michelle R. Callahan recommended that parents not volunteer their drug history to their children, at least until they become adults (or very close to it).
“Chances are that your children will hear your confession of your drug use, take one look at your success, and determine that doing drugs didn’t slow you down one bit,” she writes. “You look good and you live well, so in their minds how did drugs hurt you?” Even John Walters, then director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, had suggested that parents keep the truth about past marijuana use from their children, saying to a group of Louisiana parents in 2002, “They’re your kids, not your confessors.”
I’m aware that, as an addict in recovery, my situation is unique. I know that I can’t necessarily follow the same rules as everyone else when it comes to talking to my son about my drug history. But what rules should I follow? Most of the advice out there is aimed at either people who fooled around with drugs in their youth but never developed a problem, or at people whose addictions directly affected the lives of their children. I was an alcoholic with a serious drug problem, but I’d been clean and sober for five years by the time my son was born, so I don’t fit into either category. This means I have an entire life to reveal—or to hide.
Steve Pasierb told me that I have a “powerful message” for my son—but will its power help him or hurt him? Addicts come from all different kinds of backgrounds and families, and although studies have shown that parents are the most important influence on whether or not kids abuse drugs and alcohol, in many cases being a good parent just isn’t enough.
The more I’ve toyed with the idea of not telling Nico about my heroin addiction, the more I realize that I don’t really have a choice. I want to be able to talk with him freely and openly about drugs, something I know I wouldn’t be comfortable doing if I had to lie or omit the truth about my own history. But more than that, perhaps the most important reason I have to be honest isn’t so much for his benefit as for mine. One of the reasons I got sober in the first place was so that I could stop lying. The idea of having to lie for many more years to the person I love most in the world is inconceivable.
My own parents weren’t able to keep me from becoming an addict, but they were able to help me to get sober. If we hadn’t had an open and honest relationship to begin with, I don’t think that would have been possible. I pray that it won’t ever get to that point with Nico, but if it does, at least he’ll know exactly where he stands, and that I’ll be standing right there with him.
Author’s Note: It wasn’t until my son was born that I started to comprehend the heartache that my addictions caused my parents. My mother had always told me that I would never realize how much she loved me until I had my own child. Now I understand what she meant. This is the most personal thing I have every written, yet at times it felt as though I were writing about a fictional character. When I remember how my mother cried when I told her about my heroin use, however, I know that this was me. I hope it will never be my son.
Brain, Child (Spring 2009)
About the Author: Johanna Bailey lives with her husband and two sons in Barcelona, Spain. Her website is www.johannabailey.com.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.