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.”
Meeks says that one family member’s recovery impacts the whole family “system” and requires a “whole system change.” Just like my role as a mom, my recovery will not fade away. It must now become a part of our family dynamic.
We have on our wall at home a “Family Mission”—a group plan for life at our household. “Be kind to yourself and others. Pray often. Ask how you can help,” it reminds us. I often wonder if I should add, “DON’T DRINK TODAY” in bold black letters. My daily decision not to drink affects everything in our small family—from scheduling, to how much sleep we all get, to what we eat. Because I often go to meetings in the evening, frozen pizza is a staple on the menu (the boys don’t seem to mind much).
When I first got sober, I was grateful that my husband and my clamoring children were around—my husband kept an eye on me, and my children reminded me why I’d chosen this new way of life. But I also found their constant presence terrifying, and I struggled to balance the immense needs of my children with my own needs. All the while, they waited and waited for me to explain. And I didn’t know how.
So, how do we explain recovery to our children? Do we check out a book from the library? Goodnight, Mom doesn’t exist; perhaps it should. Do we fully explain—perhaps using interpretive dance—every sordid detail that led to our decision to quit drinking? Do we just move on and act like nothing happened?
Here are a few suggestions that have been helpful to me, and might just help you and your kids:
1) Listen to your kids and answer their questions
Christina Getz of Caron Pennsylvania, a treatment center that offers many family resources, advocates for tackling the issue rather than trying to cover it up. “The children can tell something is going on,” she tells me. “It is a difficult conversation, yes, but we just have to listen to them.”
Instead of trying to overload them with additional details, she suggests sticking to the questions they ask and then: “Just really listen.” This is in keeping with the 12-step motto, “Keep it simple.” Getz compares this conversation to dealing with the dreaded question about where babies come from: Stick with the questions asked and leave the rest.
2) Build a support system for your kids
Recovery is a paradox in that it is both complicated and extremely simple. As a recovering alcoholic, I learn basic “tools” in recovery, like “Easy does it” and “Go to meetings and don’t drink in between.” But my children need to be equipped with tools, too.
One suggestion is to make sure kids have a “safe person” to talk to about mom or dad. Just as a recovering person needs space from family while attending therapy or meetings, kids of any age may need to ask questions and discuss feelings with an objective outsider. If possible, they should be given an environment where everyone—including family members and friends, neighbors, etc.—is fluent in the language of recovery, provides encouragement, and actively listens. Groups like Al-Anon and Alateen are a good place to start; and in my case, finding a family therapist who understands recovery has been enormously helpful.
3) Compare addiction to an illness kids understand
To help kids understand the recovery process, you can compare your experience to someone coping with a lifelong illness like diabetes. Kids are more likely to understand why a sick parent might experience fatigue or irritability, need extra sleep, or even visit the doctor. Though recovery from addiction is not exactly the same, this comparison can provide a basic foundation for a kid to begin to comprehend what’s going on with mom or dad.
4) Let go of guilt
Many parents in recovery struggle with guilt about letting their kids or family down. Learning to let go of this is crucial, in order to move on and become the parent you want to be. “Have some empathy for yourself for why you did what you did,” Meeks says. “It’s a process. Know that every day you take care of yourself, you are a healthier model for your kids.”
5) Keep the conversation open
Keep recovery as an active part of the conversation and open practice in the home, so it becomes a natural component of the family structure, like Friday movie night, or Monday T-ball.
Recently I was updating our family calendar when Charlie, my five-year-old, sidled up. I was using my beloved 24-piece Sharpie marker set (my latest addiction) to zealously color-code our summer activities. Charlie, eyeing the coveted Sharpies, asked if he could help.
I now have a purple starship decorating “Mom’s Meeting Night.” I had never considered that my recovery merited its own illustrations, but never has a slightly lopsided, and very courageous, purple rocket seemed more appropriate.