Skeletons in the Family Closet
A Mother Wonders How Much to Tell Her Son About Her Troubled Past

By Johanna Bailey
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Daddy drinks wine. Why don't you?" asked my son Nico at dinner not long ago. Taken aback, I considered my response: "Because I'd just guzzle down the whole bottle plus the two more in the fridge before passing out in the mashed potatoes" would have been true but probably not the appropriate response for a 3-year-old.

Instead, I lied. "I just don't like the taste, sweetie. You know how you don't like, um, corn?"

Nico wrinkled his nose with distaste, and we moved on to other subjects, such as why cats have mouths but still can't talk and whether Hugo from school is in fact mean or whether he was just having a bad day.

Comparing wine to corn seemed to work in the short run, but I knew it was only a temporary solution. What do you tell your kid when you're an alcoholic and a heroin addict in recovery? Or if you have other skeletons in your closet?

I had been sober for five years when my son was born, so he never knew me in the days when I used to walk around with smeared lipstick and a tendency to vomit.

I now have a life story to hide or reveal.

My husband's genes are squeaky clean, but my family has a predisposition toward addiction. And one of these days I'll probably have to explain to Nico that corn has nothing to do with why I don't drink wine at dinner.

I told my parents about my drug use by handing my mother a sandwich baggie filled with used syringes. "Don't worry, though," I reassured her. "I've decided to quit." I didn't know that it would take me five years to do so. Now that I have a child, I can't fathom how heartbreaking it must have been for her.

When I look back, I'm hard-pressed to say what could have prevented me from making the choices I made. Does that mean there's nothing I can do or say to prevent the same future for my son?

I asked Cynthia Kuhn, a professor of pharmacology at Duke University and author of "Just Say Know: Talking With Kids About Drugs and Alcohol." According to Kuhn, "You can't immunize anybody against drug or alcohol addiction," but there are steps you can take to minimize the risks. When kids are still very young, we can start by introducing the idea that when they put something into their bodies, whether it be salt or caffeine, it can influence the way the body works. As kids get older, keeping their trust depends on our giving them accurate, nuanced information.

What I take from Kuhn's message is that we shouldn't go telling our kids that if they smoke a joint, they might as well get on the waiting list at the local needle exchange.

How much parents share of their personal experiences with drugs and alcohol, Kuhn says, depends on what they feel comfortable with. "You don't have to share absolutely every detail, just as you wouldn't share every detail about your sexual history." However, it's irresponsible to hide a family history of serious substance addiction, Kuhn says.

Everything that Kuhn told me made sense. But I couldn't really pinpoint any part of her advice that my own parents hadn't followed with me. So what went wrong in my case?

As a kid, I heard a lot about the perils of drugs and alcohol through various well-meaning substance abuse prevention programs. I was horrified, just as I was meant to be, but in the end, the message didn't stick. Maybe because DARE, the leading school-based substance abuse prevention program throughout the '80s and '90s, targeted mainly fifth- and sixth-graders. What 16-year-old is going to turn down a joint because she remembers that back in fifth grade she learned that "Drugs are bad"?

When I was a teenager, my parents told me that I wasn't allowed to use drugs or drink, but they also tacked on the addendum that if I did happen to "somehow find myself" in a situation where I couldn't safely drive home because of drinking, I should not be afraid to call them for a ride. The way I interpreted this was "We don't want you to do it, but we expect that you might anyway, and if you do we'll be disappointed but we won't permanently chain you to your canopy bed."

So I went to parties and I drank too much and I smoked a lot of pot.

One thing that probably contributed to my own decision-making is that I grew up as a non-Mormon in Salt Lake City, a land dominated by people who do not drink, smoke or partake in "stimulants" of any kind (including coffee). It didn't take me long to decide that if I wasn't headed for the celestial kingdom, I might as well head in the opposite direction.

If I'd grown up in a more permissive culture but in a less permissive family, would the outcome have been different? Even the experts can't agree. Stanton Peele, author of "Addiction-Proof Your Child," writes that forbidding alcohol to minors only increases the likelihood that they'll drink irresponsibly and that "drinking with children in a family setting substantially reduces excessive drinking by children, even when they go out on their own." Kuhn disagrees.

One of my biggest concerns is that if I tell my son about my own experiences, he'll react much the way I did when I heard my stepfather talk about his experiences with cocaine. That is, if I tell Nico that I once drank so much vodka while babysitting that I tripped over a tricycle and knocked myself out, I worry that his primary response will be something akin to "Gee, that sounds really horrible, but here she is still eating pork chops and watching 'Masterpiece Theater' and whatnot. Maybe it's not as dangerous as they say."

Will I be able to prevent him from making the same mistakes that I did? I don't know. My childhood wasn't perfect. There was divorce and insecurity. I had a shaky relationship with my biological father and a mother who suffered from bouts of depression.

What can I take from this, though? That if I can give my son the perfect childhood, he'll turn out all right? My parents made mistakes, because it's impossible not to. Will I be able to prevent him from making the same bad choices that I did?

I hate to think that it's all up to chance, but there are days when I feel that there's not much more I can do other than explain the risks, cross my fingers and hope for the best.

Johanna Bailey is a freelance writer living in Spain.

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