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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Addiction in families: the story we don't tell

Recently I contributed a guest blog post to Shatterproof, an impressive online campaign whose "mission is to protect our children from addiction to alcohol or other drugs and end the stigma and suffering of those affected by this disease." Here's what I had to say:

As an adult child of two alcoholics, I know how addiction can be the “elephant in the living room,” the thing it’s never okay to talk about. But if we’re to make a real impact on this nationwide trauma — and since, as this website reports so strikingly, addiction “nearly always originates in adolescence” — then I think we need to confront the elephant that it’s still so hard for many of us to face or discuss. Teenagers tend to learn addictive behavior from their parents.

I’m yet another imperfect parent, and it’s so much easier, when our kids get in trouble, to blame it on their friends — but we’re the primary role models, and always will be. The reliable estimates are that between 20 and 25 percent of American young people live with one or more adults who are actively addicted; yet this connection is so often what we don’t want to discuss. When we see the problem we turn the spotlight on society, on the culture, on the media, on peer pressure. Everywhere but back on ourselves. 

When my siblings and I grew up, the lesson we absorbed, unspoken but continually demonstrated, was that an adult was someone who knew how to party, who was fun at parties. This was never actually talked about, so we never questioned or examined it. By the time I was a teenager, my dad would start drinking most lunchtimes, and he’d continue with hard liquor through the evening; yet I was nearly 30, when he finally went into rehab, before I finally put the words “parent” and “alcoholic” together in the same sentence in my mind. I was a working journalist, by then. But still.

Eventually I began writing realistic novels for young adults, and here too I’ve had an experience that suggests how hard it is for us to talk about the impacts of parental addiction. In 2003 I published a novel about bullying, The Revealers, right when that different issue was becoming a front-burner concern in schools and society. My book was grabbed up by middle schools, all across the country: so far, well over 1,000 have made The Revealers the focus of reading-and-discussion projects. It has been a huge privilege to visit many of those schools, and to talk with the kids. Some even tell me that opening up the issue of bullying with my fictional story has made their real lives easier to live. Imagine hearing that. 

Then in late 2013 I published a YA novel called The Prince of Denial. This one centers on a seventh-grade boy who, at first, loyally refuses to admit how bad his dad’s drinking and weed smoking has become — then it tells what happens when he finally begins to face the truth. This story turns on a planned intervention, and the idea for it hatched as my siblings and I carried out an intervention to get our mother, who by then was drinking rye whiskey 24 hours a day, into treatment.

Researching my idea, I began talking with people who work with adolescents. One told me she wished there were a book she could put into a troubled kid’s hands and say, “This is a good story. Read it, and let’s talk about it.” That was the story I tried to produce — the one I wished I’d had access to when I was that age, in all that confusion.  

Maybe you can predict how this came out. We’re well into the second school year since The Prince of Denial came on the market — and, compared with the hundreds of schools that have worked with the bullying book, one classroom, at a single high school, has read and discussed my story on parental addiction. 

I’m not saying that anything I write deserves to succeed! Most of my books haven’t — and I knew The Prince of Denial was raising a touchy subject. I've often seen wariness in educators when I've mentioned it. They know this is a topic that at least some parents would insist should be raised within families — and I’m not saying that’s wrong. The trouble is, we don’t raise it.

My generation, the children of the 60s, still considers itself to be cooler than our parents — but we don’t talk about this any more freely and openly than our parents did. We’re just as likely to abuse substances as they were, if not more so; and we tend to push the same confusion onto our kids that our parents passed to us. 

I still give a lot of talks at middle schools, I’m very lucky that way. And almost every time I mention The Prince of Denial in front of a group, a young person will come up to me afterward. Very quietly, so no one else will hear, he or she will say something like: “I need that book.” And I’ll do my best to see that they get it.

Maybe this post, and this website, can help to open up this touchiest aspect of addiction in some larger way.

I hope so. I think our kids deserve that much.

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