This post was originally published on January 27, 2016.
Recently, my children and I entered what I call Stage Two of our relationship with alcohol. There was not a lot of fanfare when this occurred. I got sober over four years ago, and during Stage One, I was a hot mess. The first stage was identified mainly by its fervor, from a mom who tended to freak out a lot. During those tough times, my boys had a rather sketchy understanding of what was going on. They knew mom had to leave at night to attend meetings, and that these get-togethers did not involve me bringing home yummy snacks—but we soldiered through. I didn’t give them details. I mean, how are you supposed to sit down and talk with a three year old about addiction? I told my boys that the meetings I attended helped me to be a better mom. Of course, they thoroughly encouraged me to keep going to them, often. And try to bring home snacks.
Stage One had a sort of covert “Don’t ask, don’t tell” feeling to it. I found myself muttering the Serenity Prayer while my boys bulldozed over my sanity with their toddler nuttiness on a daily basis. But I knew offering them any information about what I was dealing with wouldn’t be effective. I had just enough sense to know that yelling at them, “Would you cut it out? Mommy is trying to figure out the next 20 minutes without vodka” was not going to help.
When it came to talking to my kids about recovery, I admit, answering their questions concisely was tough for me. I really wanted to elaborate on how hard it was—this staying sober thing. But leaning on my two small boys for emotional validation and counsel isn’t effective parenting. And since Stage One pretty much had me on fumes with my parenting as it was, I avoided the whining.
Now we have graduated on to Stage Two. I like to call this stage, “This is Getting Really Interesting.” I am still working on my recovery. I will always be working on my recovery. Some days it’s a dynamic activity with lots of growth and learning and revelation. I’ll journal about it and marvel at the ever-changing landscape that is sobriety. Other days recovery is rote and patterned, as comfortable as my worn out slippers that I pull on each morning. Once those slippers are on and some coffee is in me, I get started on my daily recovery check-in. I do some reading and have a quick talk with my Higher Power. It is all very cozy and predictable.
Except, lately, my children are totally messing with my cozy.
When I first got sober, I took up knitting. It helped, the soothing clack of the needles. I knitted scarf after scarf, all striped, all very ugly. When I finished, triumphantly, my first sobriety scarf, I wrapped my oldest boy in it. He looked like that kid from A Christmas Story, with just his eyes peeking out, and he uttered a muffled, “Thank you, momma,” and wore it without incident. He wore the scarf for an entire winter and he looked cute. He could work a scarf.
My latest scarf project started with a nice grey skein of yarn, for my youngest. He promptly rejected it. “I want this,” he said, thrusting a garish purple and silver ball of yarn at me. “And maybe some red!” I blinked. This scarf would not have a tasteful, Pinterested feel. While my earlier versions were lacking in talent, they were at least tasteful. My kid was messing with the sobriety scarf formula.
My kids are messing with my sobriety. No, they aren’t threatening it, they just want to get involved. They ask questions. They have opinions. They are poking about in my business. The other night, I was grabbing my keys to leave for yet another meeting and one of them asked, “Can I come?” I froze in my tracks. This is a good question and it would actually be really wonderful for them to attend. But I need warning. It feels like my two boys are suddenly redesigning my plans for recovery and I don’t like it.
When I started going to meetings I promised I would answer all their questions. I promised myself we would have open, honest talks about my addiction, and that the word “recovery” would be a common, healthy part conversation in our house. I promised myself this would all be very simple. Stick to their questions, answer them, keep it real. But, “keeping it real” is getting tough. Last week, when we were driving to basketball practice a song came on the radio that was played at my brother’s funeral. I got quiet and a little wet around the eyes. And then, from the back seat, I hear:
“This is about your brother. He died, right? And tell me, exactly how did he die again?”
When you have given birth to a scary-smart asker of questions, the term “liver failure” is not enough. He keeps at me. “Why did his liver stop? What do you mean it failed? Why did he drink that stuff?” Then, he finishes me off with this very hard, very real, question. “Well, if it was killing him, why didn’t he just stop?”
My kid never asked all these questions before. Most of his Stage One inquiries were answered in short form to his satisfaction and then he was off to play with something much more interesting. But now he is a seven year old and interested, despite himself, in death and chaos. He is finding out that this world is not always safe and something very unsafe happened in our own family. It terrifies and entrances him at the same time, like catching a commercial for that Krampus movie before I can switch the channel.
I cannot switch the channel on my brother’s death. I owe it to both my sons and my brother to answer all the questions. The hardest part is they are finally making the leap from uncle—to mother. I see it in their eyes. “Why do you go to those meetings? Is it about the alcohol?” the five-year-old asks again. He has asked this same question countless times, always the same wording, paired with the same slightly worried look behind his eyes. He says the word ‘alcohol’ like it has a bitter taste.
“Yes, honey,” I answer. Always the same, short answer, but then always paired with something to sweeten the bitter. “It helps me be a better mom.” Both nod absently when I add this, but I see it. It’s almost an eye roll, as if they have caught on to me. After all the meetings I have attended, they must think I should be the Mother Teresa of moms, but I’m still same old me. This is about something else.
They are starting to figure out that this thing killed my brother—and it could kill me. I suppose this knowledge a good thing. In my household, having a laissez-faire attitude about booze could have tragic results.
One evening, I caught my five-year-old mesmerized by the television, on which a semi-famous couple was jitterbugging to “In Da Club” by 50 Cent. It is possible the woman’s very shiny and tiny outfit could be what hypnotized him. He stood and watched and I did too, entranced, as the couple sprang together and then dipped and seemed to drop apart. The poor girl’s head was an inch from the floor, yet her very shiny partner caught her, just in time. They embraced, all spangles and sweat, and swayed away. My son was impressed. I asked him, “Do you want to dance with me?” and he eyed me with distrust. My son loves to leap into my arms. He does it daily, often with no warning, so far I have been able to catch him. But, that “letting go” part? Where your partner just trusts and lets go for the dip? He couldn’t see it ending well in our living room and neither did I.
This is how I try talk to them about my recovery now. At times, when the music is right, and my strength is up, I pull them in with a flourish and intimacy, and I tell them more than they might want to know. I grasp them tight. I give them details. I tell them hard stuff that merits tears and hugs. Then I have to let them go, to dance away and let them process it on their own.
The key is that I am always there to catch them. As they grow older, catching them just before they fall will become harder. I will do it as long as I can. It’s a silly metaphor and it will never be accompanied by sequins, but it’s the only way. I have to read the music. If I don’t, I will suffocate them with fear-mongering stories about the terrors of drinking and they’ll tune it out. So I hold their hands, go with the pull and sway—the balancing act and pray.