My kids are wrecks

I brought them up well, but I couldn't erase my family's legacy of alcoholism, depression and bipolar disorder.

Cary Tennis
May 15, 2006 2:56PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

My father was bipolar and alcoholic. My brother is depressed and alcoholic. Although I didn't know it when we had children, alcoholism is in my husband's family as well.

During the early '80s, when I had my kids, conventional wisdom was that parents molded their children from birth. I thought I could give my son and daughter the wonderful upbringing my father and brother didn't have, and their lives would be healthy and blessed.


My son began using drugs at 13. Nothing his father or I did made any difference. He had rehab, counseling, love, discipline. He never finished college, wrecked his car, has lost his driver's license and lives in a sober living house. We're lucky he's alive. My daughter became alcoholic in her senior year at an Ivy League college after a stellar high school career. She is highly emotional and may be bipolar as well. She is in counseling and, at the moment, in AA. Her father and I pay her rent and have sent her through rehab and now to psychologists and medicating psychiatrists. Both children have been given all the help, love and treatment in the world.

Their health problems aren't the problem, however. It's the reaction of every other parent I know. Everyone knows the sad collapse of the promise my darling children showed as kids. And everyone implies that somehow my husband and I failed. They all seem certain that the success or simple normalcy of their own children is a testimony to their great skills. I believe we were good and devoted parents and our children were dealt a terrible genetic hand. How am I to respond each time another parent makes me feel more guilty and alone than I already feel?

Guilty and Alone


Dear Guilty and Alone,

You can't very well take a parent by the throat, slam them up against the wall and say, "Listen, motherfucker, if you knew anything at all about parenting you would know that no matter how great a parent you are you bring into the world an already formed being, fully susceptible as any adult to fate and disease and already committed to a singular trajectory of brilliance or tragedy unalterable in its essential nature by any intervention however compassionate and heroic by parents, teachers, guidance counselors, psychologists, Scientologists, gossip columnists, doctors or even Donald Trump himself, a trajectory whose X and Y axes are perhaps known only to God himself and maybe not even that, God not being all that good at geometry and telemetry witness the random orbits of comets and the stupid careening of ignorant asteroids, nevermind whether you even believe that such a God exists, and furthermore that not even Doctor Spock, Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers combined working side by side with Dr. House can change the fact that many well-known insanities, vast and multiple and greatly feared, travel down genetic corridors unpoliced by parents or teachers or anyone save the grim molecular determinants of fate and chance, and if you sneer one more time or seem to whimper in fake sympathy or look down your nose or get that supercilious know-it-all expression I have grown to so detest as I mention the tragically adverse but still not fatal circumstances my children courageously face every day, I will squeeze the life out of you with my bare hands and leave your body lying on the interlocking pavers of your gracefully curved driveway for your beautiful children to discover in the morning as they walk out in their fluffy slippers looking for the Wall Street Journal to which you have faithfully subscribed to these many years and to which you no doubt ascribe some percentage of your success."

You can't really do that. It might make a good scene in "Desperate Housewives." But you can't go around doing things like that.


You can think about it, though.

And when fantasizing such vile carnage has put a new spring in your step you can meditate on the fact that this is not by any means the end of the story. Your children are having a difficult time. They have been handed their share of difficulties. You and your husband have also had difficult times. Many of us have had difficult times. We do improve and get stronger and eventually learn to have meaningful, productive and reasonably orderly lives. People look at us and they have no idea. We appear to sail through life just like the charmed and happily mediocre kids of the other parents on the block.


Also think of this: You did give your son and daughter the wonderful upbringing your father and brother didn't have. For giving them what you gave them you may be justly proud. You could not control what they did with it. You could not forestall the inevitable ravages of fate and destiny and genetics and brain chemistry.

The depth or shallowness of other people's understanding is also beyond your control.

You gave your children a great gift. And while you may feel you have failed, think about this: How much worse off might they be if you had not done what you did? You might have given them just enough of a leg up to get over this legacy of bipolar disorder and alcoholism, to finally break the code.


It's not over yet.

That is what I say to you, the mother of these children.

And to those of you standing by watching these children career out of control through no fault of their parents and who have been wondering what ignorant and selfish mistakes they must have made in their blundering, half-assed parenting, I say this: Please remember that mental illness comes in many forms and from many sources. Please remember that parenting is not a livestock contest. Please remember that alcoholism and drug addiction and mental illness can strike anyone, no matter how well brought up, no matter how handsome and fortunate and well-behaved. And please remember that parents who are coping with these difficulties in their children sometimes just need some kindness. They don't need lectures or condemnation or punishment or shunning or thinly veiled pity. They need your honest support, kindness and encouragement.


So if you know someone who has a kid who is having trouble, and you know that parent has done his or her best to raise that kid or kids and you suspect that he or she might be feeling just a bit at sea, or just a bit envious of you and your kids who seem to be sailing through life splendidly, remember: You have a phone. You can call people. You can say a few kind, encouraging words. You can. You can just be there for people. And since you can, why don't you? Why not do a little good for somebody who needs it. Why not pick up the phone and call that person you are thinking of right now and just say I was thinking of you and I know you are having a tough time and I just wanted to say I appreciate what you are doing and I know it can't be easy and have you eaten yet?

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