By Dee Kaye
Web Exclusive - May 6, 2008
My husband, Tim, thinks our four-year-old daughter is an alcoholic. Sarah has never showed up tipsy to preschool. She's never sipped anything stronger than a juice box. And though she's occasionally been guilty of reckless tricycle riding, she's never been under the influence while pedaling—unless you count being high on sugar, that is.
Still, Tim is convinced her craving for alcohol will one day be as insatiable as her appetite for breastmilk was as an infant.
You don't know that," I snapped, the last time he made his prediction.
"It's in her genes," he fired back smugly.
As annoying and depressing as I find his logic, I can't deny that he also has a point.
Tim and I are both recovering alcoholics. In fact, we met in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) nearly 20 years ago. Thanks to our ongoing participation in AA, alcohol is no longer a destructive force in our lives. Between us we've racked up more than 40 years of sobriety.
But if it's true— and increasing evidence indicates that it is— that many alcoholics are hardwired to drink excessively, then Sarah hit the genetic jackpot. Alcoholism runs rampant on both sides of her family tree.
This realization can send into overdrive my natural tendency to worry and obsess. Everything I've learned in AA about letting go of people and situations I can't control goes out the window. Fear creeps into my heart as I envision a future for my little girl that mirrors my own past.
I picture her coming to in a strange place after a night of drinking, not knowing how she got there or who she was with. I see her curled up in the fetal position on a grungy cot in a jail cell. I imagine being jolted from sleep late at night by the phone or doorbell ringing, and the dreaded news it portends.
When such self-inflicted torture isn't painful enough, I'll take on guilt in a mental sparring match. WHAM! What kind of a selfish moron are you? POW! How could you become a parent when you knew your child would probably be an alcoholic? I never end up in the winner's corner after one of these battles.
I also catch myself scrutinizing Sarah's behavior for hints of a budding alcoholic personality. A spirited and strong-willed child, she isn't always a model preschool student. I've received notes from her teachers and had discussions with them about her sometimes disruptive antics at circle time or on the playground.
Just the other day I was reading an article about research on addiction that claims alcoholics and other addicts can't control their impulses like other people. I froze, coffee cup suspended in midair.
Oh crap. That's EXACTLY how one of Sarah's teachers described her behavior. She really DOES have an alcoholic personality.
In saner moments I remind myself that, so far, Sarah's episodes of inappropriate conduct seem to be developmental phases that pass quickly. I comfort myself by saying that it's too soon to tell if she really has a problem with impulse control.
I also think about people I know for whom the odds of becoming an alcoholic were stacked against them because of their biological heritage. Yet somehow they cheated fate. They don't drink at all or can have a glass of merlot with dinner without pulling a Robert Downey Jr.
I have a friend in AA, for example, who is a single mother of a vivacious 18-year-old daughter. It's hard to believe this popular homecoming queen and honor student is the product of two alcoholic parents.
And then there are the people I've met in AA with no genetic predisposition for the disease. Some come from teetotal Norman Rockwell homes; they are the only alcoholics to tarnish their family names.
Observing kids of recovering alcoholics who have grown up in and around the rooms of AA gives me hope for Sarah. For some, like my friend's daughter, drinking isn't an issue. Others figure out quickly that it doesn't work for them and quit before they're old enough for their first legal beer. Maybe it's because hanging around AA destroys the possibility of drinking ever being fun for them. Or maybe they recognize they're like an out of control car careening toward the edge of a cliff. Whatever the reason, I'm amazed and inspired by these young people who put the brakes on their drinking so early. Will Sarah follow in their footsteps? I don't know.
I get some comfort from knowing that she's been a regular at AA meetings since she was in diapers. At six-weeks-old she slept at my feet in her car seat, oblivious to the sounds of laughter and clapping that filled the room when someone shared or celebrated a sobriety milestone. Eventually, she graduated to bouncing on my lap in her jammies. She chortled and joined in the clapping with a goofy grin on her face. Now she looks forward to going to meetings with childcare providers because they're like super-sized play dates.
Sarah still doesn't understand exactly why we go to AA or what an alcoholic is. So far, we've simply told her that drinking alcohol is fine for many grownups. But there are some, like Mama and Dada, who are allergic to it. "Would it make you barf?" she asked earnestly, when I tried to explain how alcohol affects us.
"Yes, honey, it might make us barf," I answered, fighting back a smile. "And it would definitely make us do some really stupid, dangerous things."
I know that resorting to scare tactics or locking Sarah in her room until she's 35 won't necessarily protect her from alcoholism. I hope she won't ever need AA, but I'm glad it's there for her if she does.
I spent years anesthetizing myself with alcohol because I was terrified to live. I'm hardly fearless today. I can barely board a plane and the prospect of public speaking makes me break out in a cold sweat. The list could go on. Since getting sober, though, I've taken risks that weren't even on my reality radar when I was drinking. None compare to the risk and unimaginable rewards of having Sarah.
The bottom line is this: Having a child is always a gamble. No matter how perfect her upbringing or how genetically blessed she may be, there's no guarantee her future will be rosy. Like every mother, I have to accept that there are limits to what my love, support, and guidance can do to shape my daughter's destiny. I will try to have faith that our years of sobriety will give her a healthy start, and know that our love for her will remain steadfast no matter what the future may bring.
Dee Kaye is a stay-at-home mom, freelance writer, and triathlete who lives in Mill Valley, California..