William C. Moyers
Beyond Addiction by William C. Moyers
Improving our understanding of alcohol and drug addiction
Is Daddy Sick?
The manager of the restaurant had good news for me.
"My husband finally admitted his problem. He's gone to treatment. He's getting help."
She was visibly relieved, almost giddy, sharing this sudden turn in her family's fortunes. It had been five years since she first told me about her husband's drinking, the toll it was taking on her and their children. She had been desperate to get him to stop, especially because she herself had put down the bottle and found sobriety in hopes that he would follow her lead. Every time I'd visit the restaurant, she'd give me a quick update out of earshot of her co-workers and customers. But nothing was ever different until now.
Now she had a new dilemma.
"Our kids don't know. I told them, 'Daddy had to go away to get some help.' Obviously, they know he's not around. They seem OK with that because when he was at home, it was terribly difficult for them and me. We are all relieved. Still, they're confused. My oldest asked the other day, 'Why can't I see him? I miss Daddy.' All I could say was, 'He's getting better.' My daughter asked, 'Better? Is Daddy sick?'"
The mother wondered, "Should I tell my kids what's wrong? Should I tell them he's sick and sick with what?"
The couple's children are 8 and 6, old enough to note their father's absence -- just as they knew he wasn't OK when he was around -- but not yet the age to understand the intricacies of the illness of alcoholism and how it has sickened the father they love.
Child psychologists and other experts may disagree with my advice to her. "Of course you should tell them he's sick because he drinks alcohol too much. Say the word 'alcoholism' -- the same way you'd say 'cancer' or 'heart problems.'" I told her she shouldn't feel compelled to delve into the details of his alcoholism any more than she would tell an 8- or 6-year-old about cancer's tenacious grip on cells or the implications of a failing heart. But not explaining what ails their father further obscures a truth that is too often cloaked in personal shame and the misunderstanding of stigma.
This is especially true because of the genetic risks faced by the children of parents who have battled substance use disorders. It is always best, I think, to arm our own children with the facts about our addiction to alcohol or other drugs -- not to scare them or try to ward off the risk but to help them understand what could happen if they choose to use these substances and to make it easier to ask for their parents' assistance should they become addicted.
"I hadn't thought about it that way before," the mother replied.
Her kids were too young to recognize her problem and have only known her clean and sober. "Yeah, what's the difference between addiction and cancer when it comes to a bad illness that you can get help for?"
In my neighborhood, there is a family that has confronted the truth about a parent's addiction. Sixteen months ago, chronic alcoholism nearly killed the father of three young girls. But he got another chance, and because the family had resources, he was able to seek treatment far away from home. He's just come home after a year, part of which was spent in the community learning to live clean and sober.
While he was away, his wife was a single parent who not only took care of their daughters but also made sure to do the same for herself -- with individual therapy and a group of other people who had been ravaged by a loved one's addiction.
The family also visited the sick man at the treatment center. Never did the family shy away from telling the truth. "Daddy is sick. He needs to get well."
The other day, I came home to a plate of warm brownies in a bag on my front porch. Attached were brightly illustrated notes from each of the three girls to me, with smiley face suns, an arching rainbow in the clear blue sky and five stick figures surrounded by flowers in green grass.
"Thank you for helping our dad."
"My dad is better. Thanks."
"Thank you for making our family happy again."
I got tears in my eyes -- and not because I ate too many brownies.
It is easy to appreciate life's unadulterated moments. A birthday present or a pile of cottony cumulus clouds over the lake on a perfect summer evening. A baby's first steps. A son's big play in a football game. Reading a best-selling book or, even better, writing one. A sunrise or a sunset or a full harvest moon.
There's a richer, more meaningful and unforgettable appreciation that emerges from life's darker times, when the outcome is in doubt or it is impossible to see beyond the infinite bleakness of the most despairing moment of experience. To overcome illness, any illness, is one of them. Made possible only when the truth is not just what ails us but what it takes to get well.
July 26, 2014