The Most Precious Cargo

Like reading their blogs weren’t enough to get this hyperactive brain of mine perilously close to over heating, now my tribe are throwing thought grenades into the comments too! I don’t even know where to start and I won’t get very far as I’m right now sat at the Costa Coffee in Heathrow’s terminal 5. I’m waiting for hubby and can see from the screen that flight BA323 has just safely touched down and brought its most precious cargo back from Paris.

I mentioned the book ‘Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction‘ by David Sheff in my last post. The son in question, Nic Sheff, published an accompanying book – ‘Tweak‘ – which tells the same story I suppose, but from the addict’s perspective. I finished the first and have started the latter. To say I’m gripped is an understatement. You’d think this fascinates me so much partly due to my own experience with alcoholism and that’s absolutely true, but addiction and what it does to people has always interested me hugely. My favourite book ever, which I must have read from cover to cover 50 times since I first picked it up at the age of 12 or so, is ‘And I Don’t Want to Live This Life‘ by Deborah Spungen. I could never quite put my finger on what gripped me so tightly, but perhaps it’s the addiction aspect – it is the account of Nancy Spungen’s life written by her mother. Nancy went down in the history books I suppose for being the junkie girlfriend of Sid Vicious (of the Sex Pistols). Vicious himself died from a heroin overdose before standing trial for murdering Nancy at the Chelsea Hotel in New York where she was found dead underneath a bathroom sink. Perhaps to the world she’ll be remembered for those things only (if at all), but the book is the story of a deeply disturbed girl and woman (barely – she died at the age of 20) who suffered intolerably from mental disorders that were never properly diagnosed but was in all likelihood schizophrenic. The book is her mother’s harrowing account of the family’s battle to get her help from when she was a newborn that didn’t stop crying to a young woman lost to hard drugs and chaos. Well. Set aside for a moment that I myself developed alcoholism, perhaps this was where my calling was all along? It sure does grab hold of me, always has.

So what got me thinking was how you have the alcohol and drugs conversation with your children and how of course David Sheff’s book’s has the overarching theme of a parent’s desperate guilt: what could I have done? What SHOULD I have done? What didn’t I do? Where did I go wrong?

…..and this is when hubby walked through and now it’s Friday morning….

One thing that comes up in Sheff’s book was how he always felt it was better to be honest with his son when they first had conversations about drinking and taking drugs. And Sheff himself dabbled in his youth and he shares the truth with his son. At one point they even smoke a joint together. This might strike some as really foolish, but I can absolutely see his thinking about the honesty. I wouldn’t have a drink with my son when he is underage and certainly not do drugs (that isn’t and never was my thing anyway), but I’ve always thought being honest with him will be much better than present him with some angelic (and desperately untrue) image of me as a teenager. But this is problematic and Sheff shows why with both his own approach and another: an example of when a school that gets this speaker in, some sports personality I believe. This person got in trouble with drugs but then got out of it and he’s there to illustrate to the students that even someone like HIM and all that. Of course he got out and made a success of himself. The problem with this is however that the message we unintentionally – both when we are honest and confess our own transgressions and with the even-HIM school speaker – send to the kids isn’t how awful booze and drugs are. What they see is that it turned out OK anyway.

Mulling this over actually scares me. My son has seen me drunk. And he knows – because I have been open about it – that I have banished alcohol from my life because it only causes me grief and I can’t control it. It’s a really hard balance – he is about to turn 14, by the way – because I don’t want to gloss it over and make him think I’ve just quit because I “over indulged”, nor do I want him to have to carry the enormous burden and pain of getting to grips with alcoholism. So I have as best I can outlined what my issue with alcohol is and why I now stay away from it. Of course Bambino is now at an age where he will more than likely encounter booze (and much worse) if he hasn’t already. Has he? Has he tried alcohol? Has he tried worse? Sheff’s son gets drunk for the first time at 11 and regularly smokes pot at 12. This is a smart and talented kid from a good family and the world at his feet and not a child neglected by their parents or growing up in a crack den. They are just an ordinary family. Sheff is clearly an involved and loving father and yet this happens right under his nose. This is, I suppose, the one message all of us have to really understand: we are the Sheffs. And the Spungens.

So Bambino. Is there anything in particular that puts him into what might be considered a risk group for falling into addiction? Yes, people, there is. He is a human being. That’s the number one risk factor. Besides this, he has divorced parents, like many other kids. He’s smart and kind and very, very funny. He does well at school without trying particularly hard (hmm… familiar – I nag him to do homework, yet I never studied at home in my entire life even at university) and gets in trouble for being a clown. Like his mother, he seems to feel strongly. In a way, I can sort of see a pretty ominous combination of traits – sensitivity and high intelligence is a pretty explosive mix, for example. But is it true to suggest that addicts are always emotional? Are they people in pain? I’m emotional but I’ve never been in pain beyond those times when there’s been a reason for it, like going through a divorce. I have never felt pain or “a hole” as Nic Sheff describes it that I needed to heal or fill. And I can’t say I ever drank to slow my over active mind or numb my feelings. Nor do I suffer like Nancy Spungen did. Help! Help me make sense of it.

What scares me the most about Bambino is that he is absolutely fearless. Reckless, even. I can 100% see him taking risks that would make most of us balk. In New Zealand, my sister-in-law’s husband commented on how his own two kids knew and respected something terrifying called “rip” and paid attention whereas Bambino just threw himself around. “Crazy, he has no fear whatsoever,” M commented as another huge wave engulfed skinny little Bambino and he emerged a few seconds later. Rip is where the water is pulled back out to sea and quite dangerous to get caught up in. It was explained to Bambino and he just nodded happily (and impatiently) and without a care in the world because the Pacific and its enormous waves and power just doesn’t bother him in the slightest. Go with it and wave to signal if he’s in trouble? OK, no problem. Now let me dive in. When 8ft long copper sharks swam only a couple of metres away from him, hubby and my bonus sons and the whole beach screamed and waved at them to get out of the water, Bambino shrieked with excitement and wanted to immediately get back out. OK, copper shark attacks are rare and apparently they always cruise along there, but Bambino didn’t know that. He wanted to touch them. That attitude scares me senseless.

For all intents and purposes, Bambino appears to be a completely normal teenager. A little on the reckless and impulsive side, but fairly normal, no?

Will MY drinking mean he will develop a problem too? Will it mean problem drinking has been normalised for Bambino? Monkey see, monkey do? And what will I do if he starts getting into trouble with it? Say if I begin to sense echos of my own drinking when he comes of age? What would the conversation I’d have with him be then? At the moment, we do talk pretty openly about it. I’ve even dropped the A-word by saying one definition of ‘alcoholic’ is an inability to stop when you start, whilst explaining this is basically my issue. We’ve talked about how alcohol, like other drugs, alters how you feel and slows and numbs both your mind and body. How it’s addictive too.

But how can I work out how I best get through to Bambino and best prepare him so that he can – better than I did – navigate his way through life and not slide down the slippery slope of addiction? Is there such a way? Let’s go back to the Spungens and the Sheffs. With Nancy, there were obviously other issues at play and perhaps the solution that may (or may not) have saved her from becoming a drug addict had been a correct diagnosis and treatment. Who knows. With Nic Sheff, though? Was there something his father could have done differently that would have put him on a different course? It doesn’t appear so.

Al-Anon, AA’s support network for friends and relatives of alcoholics and addicts, state the three Cs as a reminder to those who have a loved one who is an addict:

  1. You didn’t CREATE it.
  2. You can’t CONTROL it.
  3. You can’t CURE it.

This would imply that the problem comes entirely from the addict, right? And it would also go some way to explain why people who appear to have the most blessed lives still get dragged under with the same frequency as those with problematic backgrounds and/or upbringings. I guess the rich and privileged can afford better rehabs though. These points don’t tell us how we can prevent it, however. Is there such a formula? Teaching our kids about the dangers of alcohol and drugs doesn’t make any difference. That makes sense in a way, because I always drank despite knowing it was bad for me. For me it came down to crushing the reasons I thought I had to drink and removing those – if we don’t want to drink and have no reason to, we don’t. Do you agree? So I guess this is the bit I’m trying to focus on with Bambino. Talk to him about what we believe alcohol and drugs are and do and how it’s all bullshit. I don’t know if that’s the right way. And when I ponder the conversation Sober Me and Drunk Me might have if we take Drunk Me back to her teens and first had alcohol…. What would Sober Me say? But most importantly, what would it take to get it through to Drunk Me?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Today I’m not going to drink.