I was the same age my daughter Sadie is now — 13 — the first time I got drunk. It was at a sleepover with my friends, Anne and Susan. While Anne's parents were out, we raided their fancy Chinese liquor cabinet and started swigging brandy and sickly-sweet liqueurs straight from the bottles. We stumbled around the neighborhood, laughing and shrieking at everything and nothing. Me, always shy and riddled with anxiety, the loudest of all. I'd escaped the prison of being me. And it felt wonderful. I was bold. Witty. Reckless. All the things I'd yearned to be but wasn't — until that night.
Back at Anne's house, I headed straight for the liquor cabinet, ignoring my friends' warnings that I'd had enough. There would never be enough. And there would always be a price to pay. That night it was waking up covered in vomit and with a skull-crushing headache, which would turn out to be a trip to Disneyland compared to the scary and humiliating places alcohol would later take me as an adult.
If it's true — and evidence indicates it is — that many alcoholics are hardwired to drink excessively, then Sadie hit the genetic jackpot. My husband Todd* and I are both recovering alcoholics. We've both been sober for more than 20 years, but alcoholism and addiction run rampant on both sides of our family tree.
There are times when this realization kicks my natural tendency to fret and obsess into overdrive. Everything I've learned in recovery about letting go of people and situations I can't control goes out the window when I envision a future for my daughter that mirrors my past. I picture her regaining consciousness in a strange place after a night of drinking, not knowing how she got there or who she was with. I see her curled up on a grungy cot in a jail cell. I imagine being jarred awake late at night by a call from the ER with the worst possible news any parent could receive.
How Do You Tell Your Child That You're a Recovering Alcoholic?
I've talked about alcoholism with Sadie since she was little. At first, I just told her Mama and Dada were allergic to alcohol, kind of like the kids at school who couldn't eat peanuts.
"Did it make you barf?" she asked, scrunching her brow.
"Sometimes," I answered, fighting a smile. "It definitely made us do some really stupid, dangerous things."
I remind myself that despite our shared traits and genes, my daughter isn't me.
As she got older, I got more candid about my drinking. Like me, Sadie has struggled with anxiety for much of her life. I worried — and still do – that it was only a matter of time before she, like me, would turn to alcohol to numb her pain. I used to think the best way to help her avoid following in my footsteps was to terrify her into not drinking. Shockingly, my scared-straight tactics only increased her anxiety. Her therapist gently pointed out that making Sadie believe she was doomed if she so much as took a sip of beer at a keg party might not be helpful.
"Give her room to make a mistake," she said. "Don't paint her into a corner."
I realized she was right. I know people for whom the odds of becoming an alcoholic were stacked against them because of their genes. Yet somehow they cheated fate. They don't drink at all or can have a glass or two of Merlot without going off the deep end.
I also remind myself that despite our shared traits and genes, my daughter isn't me. Sadie doesn't bottle up her fears and avoid facing them the way I did at her age. She tries to work through them by talking to me, her therapist, her friends. She has tools, like guided meditation, yoga and running to help her cope.
I still talk to Sadie about the need for her to be extra vigilant when it comes to drinking. But I no longer tell her she can never, ever touch alcohol — even though I can't help hoping she won't. Like any parent, there's only so much my love and guidance can do to shape my child's destiny. But I try to have faith that our example of sobriety paired with her inner strength and self-awareness will help her make better choices than I did as a teen.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
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.