My mother died when I was 7 years old. At the time, she was living on the other side of the country with her boyfriend while my brother and I were left in the care of my grandparents. When the phone call notifying us of her death came, my grandmother, one of the strongest women I knew, unraveled in the kitchen. My grandfather stepped in and finished the call. The first thing my grandmother wanted was to bring my 30-year-old mother, her only daughter who had died more than 1,000 miles away, home. It was important that her child be buried with family.
At the time, my brother and I were told my mom had died in the shower after suffering from an epileptic seizure which caused her to slip and drown. There was no mention of the fact that my mother was a drug addict or that while there had been a seizure, it had occurred because of severe and constant drug use. My grandparents told us about the addiction and the role it played in my mother’s death years later, in an effort to make us aware that drugs killed. They didn’t need a parent handbook on talking to your kids about drug use, they had firsthand knowledge. I ended up with a persistent and unwavering fear of drugs. This fear was, to me, the normal kid equivalent of the monster under the bed or creepy crawlers. It served me well because it kept me alive and for the most part, drug free.
Now I have four children myself, including a son who is in fifth grade and is taking a D.A.R.E class at school to learn about the dangers of drug and alcohol use. I am always open with my kids, and drugs and alcohol will be no different. In fact, I have already started the discussion with my son. He knows that his grandmother died of a drug overdose and that his grandfather, a man I have no relationship with, is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who, unlike my mother, was spared. My father went through rehab and when I was 12 years old, sent me a letter to apologize for missing out on so much of my life. That letter was part of making amends, a necessary step in his 12-step recovery program.
I will be sure to continue to tell my son the history of his family, the traceable path of his lineage. The disease runs deep in his blood and is set in his bones, as it was in mine. And my addictive personality catered to it. I had a 10-plus year history with smoking. Nicotine would kill me slowly, so it didn’t seem as bad as heroin or cocaine. But one bout of pneumonia followed by another led to damaged lungs and asthma that will now stay with me forever and will continue to worsen. Smoking, of course, wasn’t the only thing I felt an affinity for. Anything I did was done with full commitment and in excess. In college I dared myself to drink more, eat more, smoke more and screw more. My friends, the parents of my children’s friends have no idea the myriad ways my parents have affected me. Today, they see the mother of four children. I’ve hidden everything else.
And yet for me, drugs remained off limits. I was afraid that I would turn into my parents: the deadbeat, absentee, recovering dad or the runaway, drug overdosing dead mother. Drugs would deprive me of the one thing I strove for as I looked toward my adult life, and the one thing the children of addicts are rarely afforded: normalcy.
I eventually found normal in spite of my family history. But without the warnings and fear, I may have traveled the same road as my parents. I didn’t, and with my help and guidance, I hope my son won’t either. My parents’ addiction did not just affect them; it altered the course of my childhood, I will explain to him. I held so tightly to people because I feared that I would lose them or chase them away. This fear of abandonment made relationships, especially friendships, difficult because I didn’t want to let people get too close initially, and once I did, I smothered them.
My parents’ addictions continue to interfere with the normal I’ve worked so hard to create. After recently meeting with my father following a 33-year hiatus, I found him to be selfish and, although no longer an addict, he is still a person mired in the negativity of addiction. He doesn’t know how to be my father any more now than he did when I was 7 and had just lost my mother.
At first, things appeared to be going well in our long overdue reunion. But after a month of promises to never again leave my life, things took a bad turn. I vowed that while he had hurt me, I would not let him disappoint my children. He would not teach them about pain and disappointment. I know, and my children will as well, that the world he spent the better part of life wrapped up in broke him irrevocably. It stole his family and killed his onetime love, my mother.
As tragic as all that is, it will not be wasted. I will use my relationship with my father and its recent end as a warning for my children: Don’t use drugs because they break people and they break those who love them.
My son will soon learn more of my childhood, and the role addiction played, because it will offer him guidance in a way that words written in his textbook never will. I will share the worst so he has a chance at being his best.
Since my messy and life-altering reunion with my father, I’ve shared more about my mother with my son. I have discussed how her death alienated me and made me different from my friends. I was made fun of because my parents weren’t around. Other kids wondered what I had done to drive my mother and father away. I grew up feeling alone and isolated; these feelings remain with me and always will. I am working hard to create a safe childhood for my children and this is part of the way that I will help protect them from the family addiction they do not yet fully understand.
As my son grows older and the dangers of addiction and abuse get closer, as he heads to high school and college, I will remind him. The graphic stories my own father shared with me, the fact that my mother was about to head off to rehab before her death, the ugliness, both physical and emotional that he is still too young for, will come. I will dole lessons out in stages, hoping they are age-appropriate. If they are not, if they scare him, that may not be the worst thing. After all, it was my own fear that protected me from repeating my parents’ mistakes.
These facts will be in the lesson I teach my son. This lesson will be the one gift my parents will pass along to their grandson. I wish there had been more.
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