“Mommy was in jail,” Etta casually announced, as she swung her feet on the exam table in the doctor’s office during her annual checkup. At eight years old, Etta is a tall girl, in the 95th percentile for height. And, apparently, somewhere in the bottom 5% for tact.
The doctor’s eyes widened in surprise and a startled “oh!”escaped her lips. She’s been seeing both our kids since they were babies and has heard many of our family stories. But clearly this was a new one.
“Yep, she drank too much alcohol, drove drunk, and had to go to jail!” Etta exclaimed enthusiastically, encouraged by the doctor’s gratifying reaction.
“I see,” our poor family physician murmured, as she struggled valiantly to maintain her professional demeanor.
Alcoholism is an open topic of conversation around our house. The disease has wreaked havoc in both Kate’s and my family of origin. And–it was never talked about. So Kate is adamant about making sure the kids know they can ask questions about alcohol, or any other topic for that matter. She talks candidly about her drinking days, how life was a struggle back then, and how grateful she is to have found sobriety.
Her willingness to talk openly is a welcome antidote to my secretive, keep-it-all-in, we-don’t-talk-about-THAT tendencies.
The trick, Kate reminds me, is to have “a thousand little conversations.” It’s not about having “the talk”– and then never mentioning it again. Alcoholism is part of our histories, and when it comes up, Kate doesn’t shy away from it.
Like the time we were talking about birthdays. Kate said that number twenty-five was the hardest for her. When Otto asked why, she answered simply, “Because I was drunk. I felt like I should have achieved more in life by then, but I was drunk, and broke, and really lonely. It was a hard time. Drinking too much can do that to you.”
A thousand little conversations.
Hearing these stories throughout his young life, Otto has declared: “I’m NEVER going to drink!” To which we reply, “That’s great. And, you might change your mind someday. It’s okay if you do. But hold off till you’re at least 21 if you’re going to drink. Your chances of becoming an alcoholic will be much lower.”*
Back in the doctor’s office, Etta declared: “I NEVER want to be a drunk driver because I don’t want to go to jail and have to pee in front of people like mommy did.”
The doctor was looking positively alarmed at this point.
“Etta,” we broke in, “you might want to mention that this all happened a long time ago. And that Mommy has been sober for more than twenty years.”
“I KNOW” Etta said, annoyed that we had stolen her thunder, just as she was warming up.
The doctor recovered enough to complete the examination. “You know,” she said thoughtfully, “it’s good that you talk to your kids about this kind of stuff. I wish more parents did.”
Back home, I told Kate for the umpteenth time how much I admired her.
“It’s one of the things that made me fall in love with you,” I told her.
“What, that I was a drunk?!” she exclaimed.
“No!” I laughed. “That you’re so open and honest. You and your thousand little conversations and the way you make it easier to talk about hard things. I love that about you.”
We sat in companionable silence for a few moments, enjoying the peace and quiet.
“Can I write about this?”
*From an NIH study on alcohol abuse: “In results that echo earlier studies, of those individuals who began drinking before age 14, 47 percent experienced dependence at some point, vs. 9 percent of those who began drinking at age 21 or older.”