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How Do You Explain Your Addiction to Your Kids? 5 Tips From a Mom In Recovery

I learned to accept that my family was in recovery right along with me.

The author with her sons.
Photo Credit: Substance.com


The following article first appeared on Substance.com:

I’m sitting at my brother’s funeral this past winter, and my four-year-old son keeps passing me his scribbles of rockets and trains. He tugs on my sleeve and whispers commentary about his drawings, and I smile tiredly as the funeral trudges on. It is a wretched experience, to bury a brother. He died at 52 from liver disease. Even more wretched is what the disease is code for: My brother was an alcoholic.

We stand to sing, and through a blur of tears my son’s pictures are gorgeous swashes of reds and violets.

I’m an alcoholic, too—now three years in recovery. I savor these days as they add up on my recovery app, and I announce them proudly at meetings. I track time and celebrate the milestones with chips. Sometimes the process is agonizing. Throughout it all, I am surrounded by a loud audience of children, whose only real goal in the day is to have fun with their Legos and make as much of a mess as possible.

Early on, my dual roles as parent and recovering alcoholic were hard to reconcile. My newly sober world was full of too much noise and bright light; I wanted only to be very still, while inhaling copious amounts of Ben & Jerry’s. But my toddlers decried my desire for solitude, and my greedy hoarding of the Chunky Monkey. This led to some tension.

Much like motherhood, recovery is a lesson in acceptance. I had to accept the discomfort of unrequited cravings. I had to relearn many habits and patterns in place since my teens. I accepted, to the best of my ability, the terms of my new booze-free life.

This included needing to accept that my family was in recovery right along with me. They weren’t just watching from the upper deck, waving their banners and eating popcorn. They couldn’t check out when things got hard—we were in this together. One night, after I had gritted my teeth through a mediocre meal and was counting down the minutes until I could leave for my meeting, my four-year-old asked, “Why you gonna leave tonight, Mama? Where you goin’?” I froze, mid-bite. Answering this question was more difficult than I had anticipated.

“I’m going to a meeting, honey.”

“What’s a meeting? Canna I go?”

“It helps me. It helps me be a better mommy. And it helps me just… be.”

He tilted his head to the side and surveyed me, then went back to shoveling pasta into his mouth. I wondered if this gesture was his silent acknowledgment that I did need to be a better mommy.

I knew the conversation was not over. My husband gave me a sympathetic glance as I took a deep breath, and poured myself a huge seltzer with about 20 limes. All this not drinking sometimes made me want to drink. The realization that my sons would need to understand my recovery made me want to drink even more.

There is an argument that young children don’t need to know about addiction or recovery in the family. Maybe those questions should be shelved until they are older; maybe early memories of a parent in recovery could just fade into black, like their first fall off a bike. But I think just because a topic is unpleasant doesn’t mean it should be avoided—in fact, all the more reason to address it.

Tonya Meeks, a licensed therapist who focuses on addiction and recovery within families, agrees. It can be overwhelming to the newly sober parent who is dealing with guilt and cravings and general feelings of nuttiness, but it’s important not to exclude the kids from the process. “If a kid doesn’t have the correct information about why mom or dad is dealing with this problem of addiction, they will make up their own reasons,” she tells me, “and often those ideas or stories will get played out in adulthood.”