Why I'm Honest With My 9-Year-Old Son About Being an Addict

It's time to call an end to the secrets and shame.

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My son was 6 when I first took him to a 12-step meeting. I hadn't intended to bring him, but one winter night early in my recovery, I wanted — needed — a drink. The only thing standing between me and the bottle of vodka I desperately wanted (and just as desperately wanted not to want) was a meeting. There was no one to babysit, so I brought my son along, stuck earbuds in his ears and turned on my laptop. While he watched Finding Nemo, the people at that meeting saved my life.

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When it comes to anxiety-provoking conversations that parents dread having with their children, sitting down for a tete-a-tete about drug use and addiction is undoubtedly second only to the make-everyone-cringe discussions about baby-making mechanics and prevention. I suppose I could consider myself fortunate — I had to talk to my child about drugs earlier and more openly than I wanted to because I am an addict. Yes, me: an upstanding mom with a business and a family.

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It's been four years since I've had a drink; three since I gave up cocaine. I'm one of the success stories; the poster girl for Suburban Mom Recovery. Meanwhile, my son is growing up within my home group, an adjunct member of sorts. He knows the steps and the readings as well as I do. He's heard a lot of addicts — some in recovery, some still wrestling with addiction — tell their stories about how drugs were fun… until they weren't.

It's a rare perspective, to hear people talk about addiction's endgame — when using ceases to add a bit of excitement to life and becomes the reason to live at all. I hope he internalizes these stories because they're coming from people he's gotten to know and love — the biker who lets him sit on his motorcycle; the cyber-security expert he plays video games with; the stylist who cuts my hair; my sponsor who lets him play with her dogs. And, of course, me, his mother. I talk often and openly with my son about addiction because I don't know how not to.

Addiction cuts across every strata of society, so we all know someone who's dealt with substance abuse — the mom sitting next to you at PTO, the guy remodeling your kitchen, the flight attendant passing out snacks. But it's just as likely that we won't realize it because the shame and stigma associated with addiction keeps those of us who struggle hidden, isolated, and silent.

In 12-step recovery we say "It's our secrets that keep us sick."That's why I'm so glad for the #NightofConversation, a national movement to encourage open, honest conversations. Drag addiction out of the shadows and into the daylight and you kill the shame. And then, as a parent, you will have something else to say besides "Just say no."(Nice idea, but "no" is often the surefire way to ensure a kid will do exactly the thing you don't want him to. And besides, the only things I've found my 9-year-old willing to say "no" to are bedtime, teeth brushing, and mashed potatoes.)

I talk often and openly with my son about addiction because I don't know how not to.

Having any conversation about drugs with your kids isn't easy, even if you're a savvy, open-minded parent. But we need to do it, or we leave them vulnerable to the kinds of flat-out wrong information they're sure to pick up on the playground. You can tell your kids that many people have battled addiction (and may still battle addiction) and that you hope that they, nor anyone they know, ever have to go through that. It's one way to start the conversation. But ultimately, it's not so important how the conversation happens, only that it does.

I am reasonably certain that my son will try drugs… someday. I hope it's not in middle school (which seems to be when many hardcore addicts start). But by the time my boy reaches high school or college, I expect he'll have done some experimenting. Why? Because there will be drugs around. (And don't kid yourself about private school; the better the school, the better the drugs). Because he will be curious. And because I said "No" for most of my own life and still developed a drug and alcohol problem as an adult.

In fact, it was my son who asked me recently if I still did drugs.

"Not anymore. Not for a long time," I reassured him.

"Then why do you still go to meetings?" he wanted to know.

I thought about telling him that, like any chronic disease, addiction never really goes away; that it may be managed, but never cured. That if I let my guard down for an instant, I could slide right back into the bottle.

But instead I said simply, "Using drugs made Mommy sick. Going to meetings keeps me healthy so I don't get sick again."

"Oh," he said. "Okay. I get it."

And I'm reasonably certain that he did. 

In partnership with SAMHSA, NIDA, and the National Council on Behavioral Health, Dr. Oz is asking families across America to hold a #NightofConversation on Thursday, November 19, 2015. At that evening's dinner, he is asking parents to speak with their children about addiction. A discussion guide is available here. Dr. Oz is also asking everyone to post a picture of an empty dinner plate on social media on the 19th as a symbol that this special meal is not about the food, but instead about the conversation.

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