She was asking me questions about drinking “a glass of just alcohol” on the way home from gymnastics practice. It took me a while to tease out where these questions were coming from. I explained a bit about alcohol by volume and the differences between beer and wine and straight liquor. I still couldn’t figure out what she was trying to find out. She asked if that was what her Uncle Butch did, was drink glasses of just alcohol.
I finally just asked her. She looked at me with tears in her eyes, her four little braces sticking out on her top teeth, and with the lisp her orthodontic appliance gives her said, “Molly’s uncle died from drinking. I think he was an alcoholic. Molly was really sad about it, and he was young.”
This led to more questions and more explanations. How do you explain a disease to a little girl without ruining her innocence?
We are no strangers to alcoholism and addiction in this family.
These words have been part of her vocabulary all her life. It has not been something I have hidden from her, yet it is not something I wanted her to worry about. At least, not yet. However, I also know that through the pain of loss and through knowing all those in our family she has lost prematurely to these diseases, she can also see those who have overcome their addiction and alcoholism, those with whom she does get to have a real relationship.
She has lived through the early deaths of both my maternal and paternal uncles, both of whom were alcoholics. She has witnessed the pain of her grandmother severing ties with my maternal aunt, again because of alcoholism. She has also heard me talk of how strong her aunt, my sister, and her uncle are since they are recovered addicts as well as the strength of my brother who is new to sobriety in his alcoholism.
Yet in some ways, these words, the ideas behind them, are still so vague to her that an explanation is still sought. How do you explain it to a 9-year-old?
I have tried not to sugarcoat the explanation. I have tried to ground it in reality, without stripping her of innocence and making her fearful that all who drink or use are lost to her. I don’t want her to worry that she may lose her aunt or uncle to relapse—a real fear I live with daily. I also don’t want her worrying that her younger siblings might succumb to this deadly disease, and yet she tearfully looked at me and expressed that worry.
How do you tell her that this very real fear is an unknown? How do you reassure her it won’t happen when you live with that fear as well?
So, I told her what I tell myself when I lie awake at night worrying . . .
Darling, it is not whether they become addicts or alcoholics, but instead, whether they choose to seek help.
It will always be my goal to teach each of you that help is always there, and sobriety is possible.
I don’t know if it was enough to keep her from worrying, I don’t know if I saved her innocence, but how do explain this to a 9-year-old?
I live in the hope that by not demonizing our family members who have died of this disease and raising up those family members who live in recovery and active sobriety, my children will understand the value of sobriety and the true strength of those who live it daily. That they will understand that even if they fall victim to this disease, mom will help them seek recovery and support them in their sobriety and love them always.