Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 9, 2005
When our two boys were small children, my husband was a very high-achieving alcoholic. He never lost his job, he never verbally or physically abused either the kids or me, he remained a good father, and he never alienated his friends or family. Indeed, to this day, no one other than me (and his treatment group participants and counselors) know about his alcohol abuse. He did, however, almost die from alcohol. He attempted to stop drinking without medical intervention and suffered seizures and other life-threatening complications. As a result of this event, he got into a treatment program that worked for him (at least to date). After several years of drinking at least a fifth every day, he has not had a drink in about seven years. At his insistence, we have never told our kids or families about his alcoholism.
The problem is that our boys are no longer young kids — one is in high school and one in middle school. From our counseling and my experiences with him, I am completely convinced that the brains of some people are hard-wired to abuse alcohol and/or drugs and some are not. I know that I can drink one glass of wine at dinner (I haven’t in seven years) and have no desire for a second, while he simply cannot start drinking without continuing to drink. Consequently, I believe that it is very important for our teenage boys to understand that given their genetic makeup, they need to be particularly sensitive to the impact of alcohol on them. I also want them to understand that we, as parents, do have experience with alcoholism, and that if they ever find themselves with an alcohol issue, we will be able to understand and help them. Since we, as parents, now never drink and seldom put ourselves in social situations where alcohol is present, I worry that our children will perceive that we would never be able to understand or help them with alcohol issues (even though I talk to them about such issues regularly).
In short, I want my husband to talk with them about his alcoholism in an age-appropriate way. He, however, is too ashamed to engage in such a discussion and does not want me to tell them (which I completely understand). I’m wondering if I should push the issue (our older boy just turned 16), or just let it drop as I have in the past.
Dear Just Curious,
You ask a difficult question. I personally have pretty clear feelings about what to do.
I would tell the older boy. Then I would tell the younger boy as well, so that the older boy is not burdened with knowledge that he must either tell, imperfectly, or keep secret.
But I’m just one person — a person, moreover, with my own history of alcoholism that I’m quite candid about. I respect your husband’s desire to keep this matter private. That’s his choice.
I don’t believe there is a direct link between what you choose to tell your children and whether they develop alcoholism. You may tell them or not tell them. They may or may not develop problems with alcohol. The two are not causally related. As I understand the current science, there are indicators and apparent predispositions toward alcoholism, and there are traits associated with it, but there is no one certain cause or one certain measure of prevention.
If you tell them, they will probably experiment anyway. They might react abnormally to the first drink, or they might not. Knowing the history might act as a deterrent. Or it might not. Knowing that their dad beat it might embolden them. You can’t tell with kids.
It’s natural to want to talk about it. And it’s true that you have valuable, firsthand experience to impart. But as a former young person with an alcohol problem I can testify that young people with alcohol problems tend to be unreceptive to parental advice. That’s part of the syndrome.
All this leads us into contradiction and uncertainty. So for me, the question of what to tell the children is more a question about truth telling and the keeping of secrets in a family than it is about alcoholism prevention. It’s about what you believe you can control, about what is sacred, what is shameful, what is safe and what is toxic.
If my math is correct, the children were around the ages of 9 and 6 when your husband stopped drinking, meaning they undoubtedly witnessed him drunk, with that glassy stare, the slurred speech, the smell. So, apart from whether it’s going to prevent them from becoming little alcoholics or not, the information might have the effect of bringing a little sense to their world: Aha, now I understand this memory of my father falling asleep at the table, or being too “tired” to go upstairs.
If you love the truth and you believe that the truth can be life’s most powerful ally against insanity, depression, self-hatred and the like, then you may feel a strong urge to air the truth. On the other hand, perhaps you also know the powerful effect of a shameful fact revealed. Perhaps you know that sometimes children need to believe their parents are infallible, and you marvel at how certain truths, once revealed, never go back in the bottle: How could he have been a drunk? What if he should slip? What else don’t we know? Was he unfaithful to Mom? Are we sure we’re his kids?
I wonder how your husband’s attitude toward his alcoholism plays into this. Does he feel that his alcoholism is his fault? If so, perhaps he is still tormented by it in a way that he needn’t be. In fact, you might consider the possibility that it is necessary to be free from it psychologically and morally in order to be free from it medically. That is, shame, guilt and the keeping of secrets are part of the syndrome of addiction. You can easily see how this works: One stops the substance but retains the habits of mind. The habits of mind lead eventually back to the substance. So you have to change the habits of mind. One way to do that is to tell the truth.
But perhaps your husband is not burdened with shame at all. Perhaps he is simply making a very grown-up attempt at harm reduction. As I said, it’s a tough call. I know what I would do. But it’s a decision you and he must make.
Just to be clear: Inasmuch as it involves the well-being of the children, I think it’s a decision you as parents need to make together. But inasmuch as it involves your husband’s personal struggle with alcoholism, I think it is his decision alone how much to reveal. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two domains. But that is marriage.