The Unusual Defiance Of Refusing To Drink With My Parents

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parents in shadow drinking

I couldn’t have been older than twelve or so. I was sitting on the living room floor, eating canned ravioli over the coffee table and watching Fresh Prince on the TV.

“Nikki,” Mom said, waving her cigarette in the air with one hand, bringing her beer down from her lips with the other. “If you ever want to try drinking,” she said, “come to one of us, okay?”

Dad was nodding from the other side of the sofa. “Yeah,” he said. “That way, at least we can be there with you.”

“Uhh. Okay,” I said. No way, I thought.

This wasn’t the first time they’d said something like this, apropos of nothing, but I never ceased to be baffled they thought this was a legitimate possibility.

What did they think would happen? I’d be sitting in my room one day, doing a math problem or some other nerdy thing, and have a sudden hankering for a drink? And then I’d bring that desire to them and they would just give me some booze? And then what? I’d drink it in front of them and they’d watch me? Or, worse yet, they’d drink with me?

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Ugh. It all sounded so naïve, even to me, even then. If I ever wanted to drink, it would be because I was out with friends who were drinking. I certainly wouldn’t be consulting with my parents about it.

Functional alcoholism paints a normal picture

My parents have been drinking every day for as long as I can remember. My mother used to bring me with her to the liquor store on the way home from school to pick up a case of beer.

(“Why do they call this a licorice store if they don’t have any licorice?” I said once when I was five or six, which the cashier and my mother both found quite amusing.) Beer was on the grocery list, the list of “needs” rather than “wants.”

These days, their refrigerator is stocked with a 30-pack all the time. In their trash, they have more beer cans than all their other waste combined. They get home from work and open a beer, and keep cracking open beer after beer until bedtime. This is their routine. It’s been this way for decades, and it doesn’t appear to have affected their lives at all.

I went to school every day when I was a kid. I got good grades, stayed out of trouble, and tested into gifted and accelerated programs. My parents both went to work every day. They paid their bills on time. They drove decent cars. They had friends.

From the outside, everything looked so damn normal.

Dysfunction lay just below the surface

You could say any damage caused by my parents’ drinking was to themselves. Many people over the years, including me, have said that as long as their responsibilities were taken care of, their choices were no one else’s to judge.

And their responsibilities were taken care of, right?

Parents are supposed to ease their kids’ worries. Consider, then, the sickening splatter of my mother’s puke on her bedroom carpet as she’s come up short of the bathroom again. My inability to sleep until I know she’s in bed and hasn’t cracked her head open on the toilet or bathroom counter. My stomach, turning at the thought of how her room will surely smell in the morning.

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It’s parents’ job to support their children. So, was my mother fulfilling her responsibilities to me when she turned on me in the middle of what I thought was a heartfelt conversation and started calling me a slut, enumerating my (many) shortcomings?

Parents are responsible for keeping their kids safe. So what about the numerous times I hunched down in a ball in the back seat on the drive home from a party, hoping they didn’t crash or get pulled over because both of them were stumbling drunk?

Parents should be present for their kids. For someone who grew up before cell phones and computers, my parents were shockingly absent from my life — even when we were all in the house together at the same time. When I was little I played board games alone. When I was older I stayed up all night smoking cigarettes and playing computer games alone. At various points in my life, I made up not one but two entire families because, in real life, I didn’t feel like I even had one.

So, yeah. My parents’ drinking was hurting them.

But there was a lot of collateral damage.

I resolved never to be like my parents

I know all this in retrospect, of course. I didn’t connect my parents’ drinking to my issues until I was much older. I couldn’t articulate all the ways their drinking had hurt me, and even if I could have, my urge to protect them has always been so strong, I might not have said it even if I’d known how.

There must have been something, though, back in the corner of my mind, tugging at my awareness. Why else would I have begged my parents to stop drinking? And those times when they offered to facilitate my experience in the area of mind-altering substances, rather than think my parents were cool (like my friends did), the only thing I could think was, No way. I don’t ever want to be like you.

Now, I won’t pretend I’ve never dabbled. I used various substances as a teen, sometimes for long periods. But my compass was strong and only led in one direction: away from daily use and functional addiction. Away from my family. Away from home. And I never let drugs or alcohol stand in that path.

I had my first drink when I was a freshman in college, far away from home. I would get drunk with my friends from time to time. Occasionally I’d have too many and spend most of the night in the bathroom. But I was adamant from the very beginning that I would never drink every day

. I wouldn’t stock alcohol in my house just because. In no world would I be seen coming home from work and cracking beer after beer every night until I staggered into the bedroom and maybe did or maybe didn’t make it to the toilet.

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And I sure as shit wouldn’t do any of that as my children watched.

I have boundaries around alcohol, and around my parents

It’s been more than twenty years since I had my first drink, and while some of my thinking has evolved, the foundation is very much the same.

My experience with drinking in and after college showed me it was possible to have a healthy relationship with alcohol. While I know I don’t ever need to drink, I can enjoy a drink socially and not have the urge to drink every night. I do, however, usually have some beer or wine in my fridge.

I enjoy a beer with my parents from time to time. We did a beer subscription together for a few months, comparing beers as we drank them. When my dad gets a variety pack, he saves for me the ones he thinks I’ll like.

They open up more, and listen more, as the night goes on. It reminds me of when I used to sit up and talk with my mom into the wee hours. Only now, she doesn’t turn on me. Is it because I’m an adult and she’s got no power over me any more? Or have I learned to back out of rough roads before I get too far down them? Or maybe she’s changed  —  grown-up, mellowed out.

Probably, though, it’s because I have now what I didn’t have then. I have healthy boundaries that I enforce to protect me from repeating old patterns. I have a place to go if I don’t feel safe, a partner who supports me and will stand in my corner no matter what. I have children, who my parents adore and want to see.

I will not put my children through what I went through

My children have seen me and other adults have an occasional drink. They know there are people who drink too much and it affects their lives. They know family members who are in recovery. But they’ve never seen me or anyone else drunk.

They’ve never once had to check to be sure I was on my side when I was passed out so I didn’t choke to death if I threw up, or had to worry about my sobriety as I drove home from a party.

I will certainly screw my children up in a hundred different ways. But this worry, this parentification, this emotional apathy, that I had to learn to navigate from the youngest age, will not be one of them.

I spent decades of my life holding together my parents’ image of normalcy with bubble gum and duct tape because I’d convinced myself they were only harming themselves. By defying them, by refusing to follow in their footsteps, I allow my children the childhood I never got to have.

Nikki Kay writes fiction, poetry, personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column at Invisible Illness.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.