All of the hoopla over Charlie Sheen and his struggle with addiction has had me reliving my own family experiences. As a parent, I empathize with his father — his family. Charlie is in denial. He’s not in a place where he can make healthy decisions. It’s hard to watch, but short of his father taking him to court and proving he’s incompetent, there is nothing to do but hope.
In the summer of 1990 I placed my then sixteen-year-old daughter in a rehabilitation center on the recommendation of her clinical social worker. My daughter had been acting out and hanging out with a rough group of teenagers. Even after placing her in counseling, her behavior became more erratic, and the social worker called me for a consultation. She revealed that she had been suspicious of my daughter’s behavior for some time, and that she had made the determination that she was an alcoholic. I was stunned, not because of what she was saying, but because my sister was an alcoholic.
Since my daughter was a minor the family had to participate in the program. Through literature, film, counseling, AA, Al-Anon and play, we received an education. Unfortunately, the rate for teens retaining sobriety after release from rehab is low. Peer pressure and old “using” friends appear like cockroaches when the lights go out. My daughter is now an adult, but is still not truly sober. I am giving her the benefit of the doubt by calling her a dry drunk. I say she is cunning, because she understands the process and uses it to her benefit. One of my nephews and I had a conversation about addicts recently. He described interaction with a few of his siblings like “playing a chess game.” I described interacting with my daughter more like being on a merry-go-round.
I learned that addiction is inherited and that people with addictions have a drug of choice — my maternal grandfather, my mother, and sister loved their alcohol. So did my stepfather. For a couple of months last year, I was dealing with my sister’s oldest child. You don’t enjoy an active alcoholic or drug addict, you deal with them. My sister had five children in her abusive marriage. Four out of the five appear to have inherited addiction. I sit here amazed and grateful that I did not inherit that disease. I can’t stand the smell of liquor; and I don’t do drugs or smoke. I never found that way of life enticing. Witnessing so much as a child, helped me to develope a healthy fear of that lifestyle.
I don’t remember my daughter ever saying “when I grow up, I want to be an alcoholic.” I remember her dancing all the time, and saying, “When I grow up I want to be a dancer.” We placed her in dance classes when she was only eight-years-old. I remember my then mother-in-law saying, “If you don’t put this child in dance class already, I’m going to do it myself.” After just two years in early ballet class, she caught the eye of a former ballerina who had studied with Balanchine. I received the phone call at home, “Maria’s been watching your daughter in class, she says she shows great promise. Maria would like to work with her.” And that’s when the classes with Maria began. She kept moving up and soon was taking jazz along with ballet.
A clinical social worker told me that when people drink or drug, they are medicating themselves. My daughter agreed, she said that “people drink to forget.” She also said that kids with addictions don’t necessarily need money, because it was the “rich kids dealing in the neighborhood” that shared with other kids and “no one wants to get high or drunk alone.” So there was always a way for the addict or alcoholic to get something.
My sister died in her early forties. She died an alcoholic and a battered woman; she was both anorexic and bulimic, and had injuries from a car accident. Last year, I was trying to help her eldest boy, rather her second oldest and I were trying to help him. Michael compared his older brother to his father, but with some intelligence. “My father is stupid,” he said. “But Manny is bright — that makes him more dangerous — more diabolical.” But if there is one thing I learned by placing my daughter in rehab, it is that you cannot force someone into sobriety. I had to step away at the last minute, because he was exhibiting the same abusive nature as his father. And he was lying — a lot. I remembered what I learned in Al-Anon. He has demons that he needs to deal with in order to heal. And they are his alone. He needs to do the work.
Amazingly, my nephew Michael, the second oldest not only put himself through college, he went for counseling while attending. He now has three degrees and teaches mathematics and science. Still haunted by demons from his childhood, he goes to counseling. He is the one that has created a healthier, prosperous life. He is the one that has proved that through hard work, anything is possible.