My mom puts the car in park and yanks out the key. It’s June in New York; I’m nine years old. My butt is sticking to the seat and I’m dreaming of being somewhere else, preferably a pool, or under a sprinkler. Mom gets the bundle of flowers from the backseat. The peonies, big and puffy, are my favorite because they remind me of pink clouds or marshmallow pillows. I grab them and follow her on the trip she makes once a month.
We place the flowers at the foot of each gravestone, and she tells me a little about each person we visit: her grandmother; friends of her mom and dad; childhood friends. I can’t remember how many family deaths she attributes to cirrhosis, or liver failure—at least 10. We stop by the graves of a cousin of hers, or two, or three, and a boy who lived next door to her when she was young. They died of overdoses. I don’t show it, but I am shaken.
I’m 11 years old. We visit my mom’s family often, but I’ve only met my dad’s mom, my Grammy, and her wife, Grammy Donna. I know that Grammy left my dad’s dad many years ago, but I’ve never met my grandpa, or my dad’s brother, who isn’t in contact with my dad. I never thought why this is until today, so I ask my mom about it in the car as we drive home in the dark. “He doesn’t really talk to his dad or his brother anymore,” she says. “It’s called being estranged. His brother likes alcohol a lot—more than he likes his family. Sometimes people try it, and they like it so much, they don’t care about anything else.” I fall silent, tense, and listen to the air conditioner as I watch the glowing yellow lines on the road.
I am 14, and my mom tells me she used to be an alcoholic herself. It’s a shock, but it also makes sense: My mom never touches alcohol, and when she gets it as a gift, she immediately puts it in the back of the pantry. She describes the euphoria she felt when she first tried it and recites the values she learned at Alcoholics Anonymous, the organization she joined to recover. She tells me how she used it as self-medication, how she can’t remember so much of what she did when she was young, and how sad that makes her. I learn that we have what she colloquially calls “the gene,” by which she means the tendency for alcoholism, the craving for alcohol. She finally tells me that, because I am her daughter and share her DNA, I probably have it too. I am petrified! I instantly remember a time when she was drinking non-alcoholic beer, and I tasted a little. She was angry and scared for me, thinking that even a taste of the fake stuff would trigger the desire in me for more. She told me it was horrible, that it almost completely destroyed her. That, when I do taste it, I might love it, and that might lead to the destruction of all my dreams in the future.
I stay scared of alcohol for most of my life. I am resentful and hateful of drinks in movies because of how much they’ve hurt the people I love. By the time I even think try a drink, I’m terrified, but because I want to just see a glimpse of what it does to my body, so I take a sip at a party where some friends are drinking. I am surprised to find out that I don’t even like it that much. It’s actually kind of gross. It’s really confusing to 16-year-old me: I laugh along with people’s jokes more and am generally more social than usual. Overall: It was an OK feeling—nothing too out of the ordinary. At the same time, all I can think is, BUT DON’T I HAVE THE GENE?????Alcohol doesn’t appeal to me, and I know how much fun I can have, and how much love I can feel, without it. I get that giggly and lighthearted with my friends minus booze, so I feel like it didn’t add any special ingredient to those interactions. That means I can’t possibly be a someday-alcoholic. Right?
I still don’t have an answer. My mom told me the first time she tried alcohol with a friend, she didn’t like the taste at all. It was bitter! Instead, she enjoyed the feeling of it: the relaxation and eventual loss of control. She was less anxious about interacting socially, less awkward and insecure. She said she thought that, if it could do that, it didn’t matter what it tasted like. Like medicine, she took it to feel better, not because it tasted good.
My mom had depression throughout her whole life, the same as me, but when she was growing up, nobody talked about that kind of stuff. Relief for her was sold in a bottle. She stopped drinking around the same time she started treating her depression. We are now both on the same depression medication, but I started two months ago; she didn’t start till she was 38. She had my sister a few years prior to that, which she said made her finally realize that getting better wasn’t a personal choice, it was a necessity to keep her loved ones safe. She started going to AA meetings regularly, and gradually stopped drinking altogether.
Whenever I try even a tiny bit of alcohol, I am on edge, making sure I don’t enjoy myself too much, afraid that if I even enjoy it a little bit it will become a landslide I can’t control. But it’s been a long time since I last tried it, and I don’t feel anything is missing from my life. Am I safe from the gene? I do believe in the gene, but I also don’t. Alcoholism can be a family trait, but anyone can contend with addiction: You aren’t safe and sound just because your whole family can stand a few drinks.
One thing should be made clear: Alcohol will not ruin you, but alcoholism can complicate your life and cause you (and others) harm. Some people can drink alcohol to have fun and de-stress and will never feel indebted to it in any way. The evil of the situation is the way a person can be so taken advantage of by its effects and trade everything they care about and are passionate about in favor of it. I’m cautious because I don’t really know how it affects me yet, but that’s just me. If you have alcoholism in your family but still feel casual and comfortable with alcohol, that’s fine. If you feel safer completely swearing off the stuff, do what works for you. I used to always think the only option was the latter, but I now know many people who balance the two strategies, and that’s a very personal choice.
I have a certain amount of trust in myself and my maturity regarding substance abuse because of the trauma I’ve seen it wreak, but I am also aware that I could still potentially abuse that responsibility, and that I am safer to do more of a test drive than to floor it right away. That is, I feel safer in having smaller amounts and figure out where I stand than to drink as much as I can tolerate and then decide my limits. Whatever your approach to drinking, it’s something you should consider for a long time before you pour a drink. (And when you do that, it should be at the legal drinking age in your country, regardless of how at risk you feel when it comes to alcoholism. I know this sounds rich, coming from somebody who just told you she had her first drink at 16—I just want you to be safe and on the RIGHT SIDE OF THE LAW. You’ve probably heard it a gazillion times, but if you are caught drinking and you are underage, the adults you are under the care of will be the ones getting into trouble. Your choice will be affecting other people negatively, as well as yourself, because underage drinking actually can inhibit brain development in people who haven’t reached their 20s. The drinking age in America is 21 for a reason!)
Now, I am 17, and I am writing this: I genuinely have no idea what is the secret trigger, the thing that causes someone to give up their whole lives over wanting to be inebriated. It’s heartbreaking to know the destruction that can come of it: how lives can be altered or lost. I think of my mom’s cousins and aunts in the cemetery, and I wonder what makes us so different or so similar, and wonder how a complex, strong and thoughtful person like my mom could be completely overtaken and controlled by a fucking liquid. But she’s also overcome it, through immense personal strength and discipline. In hearing the stories of how alcoholism affected her and her loved ones, I see not only its heartbreaking outcomes, but how some have figured the keys to controlling and managing it, and that gives me hope that, regardless of whether I have the gene, I don’t have to let it control me. ♦