“What do you remember of my drinking?” I asked my children, who are in their late teens, as we sat down for dinner on our recent family trip.
They answered “nothing” in unison, shocking me a bit until I quickly remember how easy it was to disguise.
One, they lived in a different house fifty percent of the time due to divorce.
Two, they were (and still are) regularly around adults who heavily drink, normalizing the excess and the resulting behaviors.
They notice things now more in contrast to my sober home; they can see the decline in the adults they know who drink in their proximity; unpredictability and octaves increase with every beer, cocktail, or wine consumed.
When I was their age, I noticed those things too. And as annoying as the adults who drank around me were, it didn’t prevent my exploration or cause me to abandon the fairytale I was so desperate to live. Drinking is a romanticized behavior, something we connect with glamour and intrigue—surely, my children were no different.
So when I followed up on the question about my drinking with one about theirs, the answers and honesty surprised me.
“Not interested; it makes you look dumb,” said my daughter, who will be eighteen in January.
“Of course, I’ve had drinks, mom, but I hate the way it makes me feel,” said my nineteen-year-old son. “I flat out don’t do it anymore.”
They shared that, unlike the sneaky drinking I did in my teens where my friends and I would steal bottles and sips from our parents’ liquor cabinets, they both regularly reject the gifts of sophisticated fake IDs from acquaintances. As technology advances, so do these kids—they have access on a different level. According to the CDC, a 2019 Youth Risk Survey found that among high school students, over thirty days:
29% drank alcohol
14% binge drank
5% of drivers drove after drinking alcohol and
17% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol
Those are staggering statistics, and yet, this is a decline from previous years. Teens are drinking less than they did before, meaning that it’s in moderation if they do. In 2020, a group of researchers at the National Institute of Public Health (NIPH) in Norway conducted a study to determine why. Alongside an increased focus on family and academics, NIPH researcher Leila Torgersen explains that teens today feel “It’s not cool to lose control“. They’re also more connected, online, and in spaces that don’t bend to the pressures of drinking culture. Lastly, some are trading in the buzz of alcohol for the high of marijuana—legalization, and relaxations in the stigmas surrounding the use contribute. This difference doesn’t mean abuse doesn’t occur; it just means that one tool is being set down for another, even when concurrently used by adults in the home.
So what had the kids learned by watching me—during my addiction, sobriety, and recovery? That was my (promised) last question of the night—as much as my inquisitions are good-natured, they are “annoying”.
First, they learned that it was okay not to be okay.
My kids are used to me being open about my struggles. I write about them, talk about them, and demonstrate the effort involved in committing to my growth. I grew up thinking I was the only one capable of making mistakes, that my parents were completely immune. That did A LOT of damage to my self-esteem and prevented me from forgiving myself when I did mess up. As a parent myself, when I make a mistake, I point it out, own it, and vocalize how I will do things differently next time. I do this especially concerning them, acknowledging when I overreact, lose my patience, or intrude. Although I do remind them that I’m in their corner more often than I’m in their business, I still forget the boundaries—then I apologize.
Second, they observe that having fun exists outside and in direct opposition to drinking culture.
The kids pointed out that they notice I laugh a lot more, that I am happier than they’ve ever known me. They see that my circle of friends has reflected quality over quantity. “You’re always doing something…” they said, which sometimes means “nothing”. That’s right—I enjoy doing absolutely nothing, and they see that too, which in our culture of productivity might impact their ability to slow down later in life and still feel accomplished.
Finally, they learned transformation.
If there were anything I had hoped my children would learn from me in my recovery, this would be it—transformation as a superpower. During my darkest hours, I worried that the instabilities that came from the discomfort of my journey would negatively impact them. Little did I know that they would see the struggles I encountered as stepping stones and not roadblocks. They know that mistakes are not defining moments; the best way to handle them is to learn and move on.
Heading back to the hotel that night, both kids playfully demonstrated how I walk through a crowd, calling it “turtle-mode”: backpack on, head down, far ahead of them both, ready for anything.
They had me laughing, at myself, at the realness, and with them. I was showing more than I had realized by taking the lead.