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Parents in Recovery: Talking With Your Kids About Your Past Usage

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Uncomfortable? Maybe a little. Necessary? Depends.

If you’re like most addicts and alcoholics, you’ve gathered a collection of embarrassing, wild, funny, sad, and/or other jaw-dropping, crazy things you did while under the influence. Lots of us wear those experiences like big, fat, red badges of pride. And although sharing these experiences is generally frowned-upon in a therapy or group sessions as being “drunkalogues,” no one in my experience can help but smile a little bit from the debauchery we tussled with in the past.

Like, once I drove an ambulance drunk. Yeah, really.

Of course, when you seriously reflect on your past life, you begin to realize both the gravity and danger you put yourself and others in. It’s important not to forget the dumb things you did, because I assume you don’t want to repeat them. At the same time, it’s also vital you don’t dwell too long in the past either—both from the perspective of holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-I-did-that and of wallowing in pitiful sorrow for the past mistakes you made.

The past is the past. You aren’t that person anymore now that you’re in recovery.

As a parent in recovery, I believe there are added levels of consideration when you’re reflecting on how to relate and explain your past behavior to your kids.

It’s kind of like the similar experience of imagining your parents having sex.

You know they did it, because, well … you’re here. But you still hold out on the hope that you actually were adopted, because that would mean that maybe your parents were just really good friends and didn’t have to do the nasty.

“It’s important not to forget the dumb things you did, because I assume you don’t want to repeat them. At the same time, it’s also vital you don’t dwell too long in the past either—both from the perspective of holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-I-did-that and of wallowing in pitiful sorrow for the past mistakes you made.”

What do you tell your kids about your past? What’s appropriate and inappropriate? What level of disclosure warrants recollection and to what extent?

Any parent wants the best for their kids. Besides, we definitely don’t want them making the same mistakes we did. But it’s hard to admit that we’re human too. I don’t know about you, but until I was in my mid-thirties, I pretty much assumed that my dad could do very little wrong, much less do something stupid.

Since then, I’ve discovered he is, in fact, human and fallible. We all are.

How do you talk with your kids? Here’s some starting points to begin at.

Realize they don’t need to know everything. (And probably don’t want to!)

That time when your prophylactic device broke after you got drunk and stumbled into bed with you-know-who? And then how you had to get the pregnancy results after you had puked on the floor? Yeah. You’ve got to set your own boundaries. And your kids don’t need to know details, because they’re smarter than you think and probably can read between the lines, anyway.

“When I first got sober, our oldest son was 11 and our youngest was 6. Both of them pretty much only knew that I was gone from their lives for a while.”

What you can recount to them is that drugs and alcohol make you do stupid things.

To this, they’ll probably say, “I know, dad!” with an equal look of embarrassment and resentment for bringing it up.

But then, you should say, “Yeah, you probably do know that. But what you don’t know is that, while you’re drunk or high you won’t know how stupid you are.”

The point is communicating to them that the choice to use addictive chemicals is ultimately theirs. You can share the stories that strike home this point most effectively. What’s more, you can relate how the choice you made messed things up so much for you.

Determine appropriateness, context, and take age and comprehension into consideration.

When I first got sober, our oldest son was 11 and our youngest was 6. Both of them pretty much only knew that I was gone from their lives for a while. Since I kept my addiction hidden, I’m not sure how much they knew about what I went through and how much I regret missing those years in their lives.

Later, in their teen years, I became more open. Acknowledging how to speak with younger children about addiction and how to talk to teens is the first step any parent should take.

Assess the context, too. Be honest with what they need to know, and know when it’s inappropriate to tell them. Candidly share how destructive chemicals can be, especially to young developing brains. Above all, educate them on the medical reality of the dangers of abusing alcohol or drugs, and also share the reasons behind your own use of these substances and how it wasn’t a long-term solution.

They matter. Put the rubber to the road and make a difference!

This last concession shouldn’t need to be stated, it’s so obvious. It’s shocking though how many of us simply fail to make the effort that is needed. It starts with the recognition of this one, simple fact:

They matter.

Your kids matter not because they are moderately similar facsimiles or simulacra of you personally. Your kids matter because they have their own lives, dreams, wishes, fears, hopes, and desires. They’re human beings, and you have the daunting task of raising them.

“Educate them on the medical reality of the dangers of abusing alcohol or drugs, and also share the reasons behind your own use of these substances and how it wasn’t a long-term solution.”

Many parents fail to see the most simple, straightforward actions we can do to (allegorically) put our money where our mouths are.

Spend time with them. Watch what they’re doing. Talk with them.

These actions don’t even necessarily have to do with your past or drugs and/or alcohol in particular. Then why mention them?

I bring this up because for you to understand your kids, you need to take the time to begin to comprehend what their lives mean to them.

In so doing, you’ll be setting a firm foundation to have other conversations to positively influence their own decisions they make about drinking or drug use. What’s more, they can decide with whom to share their own experiences.

And maybe you can tell about that time you wore a Micky Mouse hat while you were naked and blacked-out on the couch.

Well, maybe.

 

Daniel D. Maurer is a freelance writer, an award-winning Hazelden author, and a public speaker on recovery from addiction. He lives with his family in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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