On a particularly sticky, Florida summer day, I watched as my son, then 8 years old, glided on his scooter up and down the ramps of the skate park. Occasionally he’d stop and observe the other kids sail across the pavement, flipping the base of their scooters around as they ascended higher than the confines of the park’s ramps.
My son, watching one boy in particular, asked me to find out how he was able to kick off the steepest ramps with such ease. My son wanted to do the same, but he was scared.
“I think you should ask him,” I said. My son, whose fear of asking and being rejected was stronger than his yearning to scale the tallest ramp at the skatepark, scoffed, folded his arms and stomped away. He circled the other child on his scooter, watching and calculating. Then he came back and pleaded with me to ask the other boy to help him. I said no and maintained that he should be asking if he was the one who wanted the help. He stayed angry with me, scowling in my direction from time to time.
This took me back to a similar experience I’d had with my mother at a fast-food restaurant when I was about the same age. I wanted an extra packet of ketchup. My mom told me to go to the counter and ask for it, but I couldn’t. My anxiety was so intense as a child that it crippled my ability to make friends, ask for help, or simply interact with people. My son sometimes reminds me of myself, and it scares me.
I — despite my mother’s best efforts — am an alcoholic. It’s pretty easy to trace the disease through several generations on both sides of my family. My son, who is so much like me, could very well be the next in line. That’s what I fear most.
On an otherwise uneventful weekday in June 1992, my mother, grandmother, one of my uncles and a great aunt packed up our home. The furniture, dishes, my Barbies and My Little Ponies, my little sister’s clothing and stuffed animals, my mother’s jewelry — all were placed in labeled boxes and piled into a moving truck and our Chevy Impala.
That afternoon, my mother secured my sister and me into the back seat of the Impala and we drove to our new home. That night, my father, unaware of the day’s events, came home to an empty house. At the time, my father was an active drug addict. He was verbally and physically abusive when he was home. Mostly though, he was absent, away for several days or even weeks at a time on benders.
My mother decided to leave to save her sanity and protect my sister and me from the effects of addiction. Our new life began 95 miles to the northeast of where I spent my first six years. Our new home was devoid of alcohol and drugs. My friends (and their parents) were screened before I could play with them, and for the majority of the rest of my childhood, I grew up in a safe cocoon of family, school and friends.
Not long after we moved, my father disappeared from our lives. I had a never-ending stream of questions about him, why we left him and why he didn’t come around, and my mother always answered them. She was honest but never degrading or angry when she spoke of him. She’d say that he loved my sister and me but that he wasn’t capable of taking care of us. When I was a teenager, she took me to a weekly group for children of alcoholics and drug addicts.
I had so much knowledge about alcoholism and addiction, yet I found my way to the bottle. Fear of becoming my father kept me from alcohol for a long time. I didn’t drink much in high school, though the majority of my classmates made it a point to party nearly every weekend.
My alcoholism didn’t really take hold until after my first child was born. My anxiety was one of the top reasons I drank myself into oblivion. Though I had suffered from anxiety most of my life, motherhood added an additional layer, and I couldn’t cope. I just wanted a small reprieve from my mind and the feelings of impending doom that followed me daily.
Luckily, I got sober when my son was 2 years old, but I still see so much of me in him. Like, say, at the skatepark.
Every now and then, I can’t help but feel like, despite my best efforts to shield him from alcoholism, he’ll find his way there anyway, just as I did. He’s nearly a teenager now. He’s outgoing, funny, athletic, artistic, curious — and full of anxiety.
Recently, I was talking to a friend about something else my son had done that had me sure he’d end up under a bridge one day, with a bottle in hand. My anxiety, which is something I still deal with daily, means sometimes I fear the worst. My friend laughed a little before realizing I was serious.
She looked at me squarely and said, “Maybe he’ll be an alcoholic. Maybe not. There’s no way to know that. But what you can do is fill the tool shed with tools he can use to find his way back, just like you did.”
My sobriety is the tool shed, and each year I stay sober, I can add another tool so that my son knows where to find help if he needs it. The shed is filled with things my mother provided for me: The screening of friends and their parents. Reasonable limitations on where I could go and how long I could hang out. The expectation that I live up to my intellectual potential and act with integrity.
The tool shed will also contain some of the knowledge I’ve learned as I’ve lived my life: healthy ways to deal with anxiety, such as yoga, therapy and deep breathing. The space to fail, and recover from my failures. Open communication about alcoholism, what it looks like, how it manifests in people’s lives and where to find help. The most important tool, though, is providing an open line of communication by letting him know that no matter what the subject, he can talk to me.
I have learned that the strongest of families — those that give abounding love and create safe havens for their children — aren’t necessarily immune to the devastating effects of alcoholism or drug addiction. Through my experience, I know that alcoholism isn’t a choice, but a disease that overtakes people without warning. I’m not naive to the fact that my son might follow in my footsteps, but that’s not something I have to worry about today.
Today, my son is only a child. Today, I can bask in his quirks, his love of music and his nurturing nature toward his baby brother. Today, I don’t have to worry about whether he might one day feel the need to quell his racing mind with a substance. Today, my son’s tool shed is stocked, ready and available.
Today, my son is okay, and I am okay, too.
Nicole Slaughter Graham is a freelance writer based in Florida. Find her online at nicoleslaughtergraham.com.