Recently I learned to my surprise that one of my friends has never told her daughter, who is twelve, that she, my friend, was once a drug addict.
“I mean, she knows I drank; she knows I smoked pot. But I can’t tell her, ‘Yeah, Mom used to smoke crack.’ What if she looks at me now and thinks, ‘You came out fine! Why don’t I try it?'”
My friend also fears that word might get back to people who could somehow use her past against her.
I’m not objecting to my friend’s stance. She’s certainly not alone as a parent hoping to model wise choices and a professional preferring a consistently successful image. But our conversation got me thinking about how I raised my son in the opposite way and the gradual transformation that has led to my publishing all my formerly shameful experiences in my addiction memoir and this blog.
In early sobriety, I, too, was highly secretive.
When I first called the AA hotline, I asked for a meeting “far from town” where no one would recognize me. Alcoholics are like that: I was pretty okay with suicide, but certainly not with social awkwardness! Then, when I first returned to teaching literature at a local college, among my students was a barista coworker who’d seen me shitfaced and flinging myself at him on multiple occasions because I’d been obsessed with him for over a year. More than anything I feared he’d tell the other students and destroy my reputation, but he soon dropped the class.
Six years later when my son was born, I still kept my recovery confidential. Though I was gay at the time (sorry – can’t explain) and quite out about that, I feared other moms at toddler co-op and what not might double-label me as that weird lesbian AA mom, so I never let any of them know me. Besides, feeling constantly exhausted by new parenthood, I’d all but stopped going to meetings.
Then everything changed. My partner, after months of infidelity, left me for an older (richer) woman in AA. My world collapsed. With my program all but gone, I hit a new extreme of pain. What hurt most was losing my dream of our happy little family, a loss that seemed to make a cruel joke of all my love, faith, and sacrifices. I just couldn’t drag myself back to the rooms to share that. Fortunately, one key friend persisted in calling and offering to take me to a meeting “with lots of hot lesbians.” As I’ve told him since, he saved my life.
That’s how my little 4-year-old son learned all about my past addictions. With my emotions such a tangled roadkill, I needed an AA meeting every day — and while a few offered childcare, most did not. At those meetings, he would sit on the floor by my chair, a sweet-tempered boy, and play a little with the toys I brought, though his favorite was the AA literature pamphlets. If I needed to share particularly strong emotions, I’d ask a friend to hang out with him in the church kitchen. But he still heard a lot as the years passed.
My son is now 20. He’s tried alcohol and pot, but he dismisses as idiotic any effort to seek relief or oblivion through them. Why? Well, they’re what Mom and all her friends did trying to feel cool! He’s known since he was about 12 how I once accidentally killed myself snorting what I thought was cocaine. He understands, as some of our friends have died from relapse, that addiction is beyond conscious control.
With my son knowing all, I soon found I could be more useful to my college students if they knew not only that I used to be gay but that I was in addiction recovery. Many came to office hours with problems they tearfully unfolded, trusting me to understand. I also served, I’ve learned decades later, as a role model for authenticity – sharing who I was with a powerful, open-hearted vulnerability that inspired many of them to do likewise.
So why not go one step further? If I could help my students by being out, why not help other alcoholic addicts I’d never meet by writing my whole story, even the parts hardest to admit? What would happen if I simply embraced beyond all personal embarrassment the fact that I am human, and therefore whatever weird, warped stuff I once did was simply what a HUMAN afflicted with my emotional problems and addiction would do?
So I went ahead with it. I wrote everything.
Some might consider full disclosure a form of exhibitionism: I often think of the One Republic Song “Secrets,” which deals, I believe, with the quandary of songwriters divulging through lyrics their personal struggles.
I need another story
Something to get off my chest
My life gets kinda boring
Need something that I can confess
‘Til all my sleeves are stained red
From all the truth that I’ve said
Come by it honestly I swear…
Tell me what you want to hear
Something that will light those ears
I’m sick of all the insincere…
Don’t need another perfect lie
Don’t care if critics ever jump in line
I’m gonna give all my secrets away…
I love these lyrics because they so perfectly frame the two sides of publicly sharing one’s intimate past. On the one hand, there’s the attention-seeking caricature: Did I “confess” my story just to show off how wild and crazy I once was? That’s the narcissistic motivation my family assumed and tried to punish. On the other hand, there’s the freedom of simply telling my truth: Can I reject the “insincere… perfect lie” we’re supposed to maintain and share my mistakes as honestly as possible, regardless of whether “critics” like my family understand?
AA itself is built on this oxymoron of confiding anonymously, of being open in a closeted setting. The program needs anonymity not only because every newcomer feels at first the way I did but also to preclude the rise of AA demagogues. Nevertheless, sharing our messiness openly and unsparingly is our lifeblood. The Big Book tells us “that it is only by fully disclosing ourselves and our problems” that we can connect with fellow alcoholics. The 9th step promises that “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it” as “we will see how our experience can benefit others.” And The Family Afterward reminds us, “in God’s hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have — the key to life and happiness for others.”
Each of us should make their own choices about how “out” to be with our recovery, but it can’t hurt to examine our motivation. In my case, it was primarily my ego that wanted to keep the incomprehensible demoralization of my past private, and now my god-centered self that recognizes it as my greatest gift to share with those who still suffer. The longer I’m sober, the more natural it seems to simply say, “Here’s who I was, and here’s who I am. God and AA made all the difference.”