I dropped my 12-year-old son at his first day of secondary school (the equivalent of junior high in America) the other day. I don’t know who was more nervous—me or him. We pulled up outside the school where there were parents standing, waving their sons goodbye and wishing them luck. “Do not attempt to get out of this car and embarrass me like that, okay?” my son asked, giving me a sideways glance. I got a pain in my heart because I knew my little boy was now a young independent man. The mop of curls and chocolate brown eyes he’s always had were still evident but his need for my affection and mothering was fading fast.
Behind the doors of secondary school is not only an immense opportunity to learn and grow but also an introduction to all that is potentially harmful. Navigating through the social aspect of adolescence is something I found pretty tough. I still remember my enthusiasm at his age about going into a new big school. I couldn’t wait to get started on all the new and interesting subjects and I believed that once I got in there, I would at last be happy. I hated grade school and this was my chance to find independence and forge a bright future. I was bright and intelligent and wanted more than anything to become a journalist.
But my experience turned out to be very different from the dreams I had in my head. Once I took my first drink that summer, there was no going back. Though I tried to be one of the good kids and focus on school, the lure of the party lifestyle was too strong. My mental health began to deteriorate as my love of mind-altering substances flourished. I was in turmoil with my family as well as in my head and heart. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. All I knew was that I hated myself and my life, and drinking and using made that feeling go away. Since I wasn’t the good girl anymore, I felt like I’d lost my identity and the battle that raged inside me to find out who I was sometimes felt like too much to bear. I never even made it to college, which is still one of my greatest regrets.
Of course, I’m thinking of all the worst-case scenarios for my son because the only experience I have is my own. I do not want what I had for my own children. I want his love of life to continue and for him to value and respect himself enough to do what is right for him. But I can’t control any of it.
Curiosity and being seen as someone who fits in is so important in an adolescent’s life and it seems like it’s thus only natural for kids to want to know what all the hype is about getting drunk and high. I pray that my children are those kids that just say no and find the idea of underage drinking stupid. There were kids around like that when I was a teenager and to me they were complete freaks because I didn’t understand why the hell you would not want to get off your head any chance you got. Yet deep down, I wanted what they had. I felt like such a failure because I knew I had the potential to do great things but I was truly powerless, even back in those early days.
I recently saw a picture of myself at the age of 15 with some school friends. I look at that girl now and wonder how she survived. Even though she smiled in the picture as she was messing around with her friends, I know that inside there was an emptiness and fear that was consuming her.
Ultimately I cannot control the decisions my children make in their lives. All I can do is be there and try be a healthy role model for them. They are growing up around recovery and are reaping the benefits. The good thing for me—and the bad thing for them—is that they will never get away without a stern conversation if they come home drunk or high because I will be able to spot it a mile off. But I don’t preach to them and I try to not make them fear ever having a drink or smoking a joint. They understand that their mother is an addict and alcoholic and that she just cannot ingest any of those substances. I tell them all the time to listen to their gut instinct when making a decision. I remind them that they are perfect just the way they are and that ultimately being true to themselves is the way to success.
They are also free to come and talk to me about anything; my son and I have already had lengthy conversations about drugs, alcohol and sex—all the things parents supposedly hate discussing with their kids. But you know what, it wasn’t bad at all. I have created a very open, honest environment in my home where nothing needs to be hidden. Secrets create shame and shame was one of the most detrimental contributors to my failing mental health and addiction.
Recently my son asked me what it felt like to smoke pot. Those questions are difficult to answer because I fear making it sound too good yet I don’t want to be the portrayer of doom, either—especially since we all know that anything our parents say is bad we want to try.
I believe my past has allowed me to become very open-minded and honest and I can only hope that this has led to good parenting. I’m still on a path to find my place in this world. In many ways I feel like I’m playing catch up for all the lost years I spent in addiction. But I’m doing what I love most—writing—and while college would surely have gotten me on my career path much earlier, it’s my experience that gives me the material I draw from here.
And yet I can’t help but want better for my children.