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I’m a Recovering Alcoholic, and My Teen Just Had Her First Drink

It was a three-hour drive from home when I got the text from my 16-year-old. “So, I think I’m going to that party tonight,” she wrote. “And if I do, I think I’m going to drink. ”

I  tried not to panic. I was with a group of women friends at a rustic retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains. We were just finishing dinner and about to head back to our cabins for the night. At home, my husband was out for the evening, so asking him to barricade Sadie in her room wasn’t an option. Sadie and I had talked about the party, and the fact that there would be alcohol involved, a week or so before my trip. But I’d conveniently forgotten about it until I got her text.

Wanting to experiment with drugs and drinking comes with the territory when you’re a teenager. Most survive their adventures unscathed. But from the moment I learned I was pregnant with Sadie, my only child, I vowed to do everything in my power to keep her away from booze. Ideally, forever. If that wasn’t possible, I figured 21 was a reasonable goal (ha!). At least her brain would be more fully developed by then and—fingers crossed—she’d have better impulse control.

By now, you’ve probably pegged me for an over-protective helicopter mom. Guilty as charged.

But there’s a reason I obsess over my teen’s drinking: My husband and I are recovering alcoholics.

Though we’ve been sober for decades, alcoholism runs rampant on both sides of our family tree. Fear that any child of mine was destined to be a drunk drove me to postpone motherhood until it was almost too late. While I was elated when I gave birth to Sadie, I couldn’t help worrying that along with our genes for brown eyes, she’d likely inherited our pre-disposition for abusing liquor, too.

I took my first drink at 13. More like, got obliterated for the first time. From the get-go, I was hooked on alcohol’s magical power to wash away my paralyzing anxiety. By the time I was Sadie’s age, drinking until I passed out had become a weekend ritual. I came to on golf courses, in cars and in strangers’ backyards with boys I didn’t know, baffled and humiliated. After high school, my friends ventured off to college, then embarked on careers, marriages, and starting families. I accumulated DUIs, botched relationships and a series of dead-end waitressing jobs.

For a long time, I believed the best way to help Sadie avoid following in my footsteps was to terrify her into not drinking. My scared-straight tactics seemed to work when she was younger. Or at least that’s what I told myself. Sadie nodded, glassy-eyed, at my anti-alcohol rants and swore she’d never touch a drop.

Then came high school.

When curiosity about drinking tempted her two best friends in their sophomore year, Sadie regurgitated my “alcohol is pure evil” message. It did not go over well. They dumped her. Eventually, she made new friends through her school’s drama program. I praised her for turning down alcohol at occasional get-togethers where she was the only kid without a drink in her hand.

She glared at me and said she was tired of feeling like a freak. She asked me if sometimes, just maybe, she might be able to handle alcohol even if her father and I couldn’t. One evening, as she was getting ready to hang out with friends, I launched into my usual you-are-doomed-if-you-so-much-as-take-a-swig-of-beer spiel. Sadie lost it.

“I’ve only been saying I never want to drink because I’ve been brainwashed by you! I don’t want to get drunk, or even have a drink every time I go out,” she said.

“But I’m not you. I might want to drink once in a while when everyone else is, just to be social.”

She reminded me that she’s always been a trustworthy kid. That she could have been drinking behind my back, and lying about it, like some of her peers had been doing since middle school. And I knew she was right. Sadie has her flaws. But they don’t include lying or being sneaky. We may not agree on everything, but we’ve always had a close relationship. We talk. A lot. About everything—drinking, smoking, boys, sex, annoying teachers, her hopes and fears. I knew how lucky I was to have that kind of connection with her. Especially at an age when it’s natural for kids to start shutting out their parents.

As much as I wish teenage drinking wasn’t a thing, it is.

I didn’t want to risk pushing my daughter away by painting her into a corner with my rigid views. I needed to let go of trying to stop her from turning into me. I needed to just let her be Sadie. Maybe giving her room to make her own mistakes with alcohol, as frightening as that felt, would be healthier for both of us.

Back on the mountain, I typed a response to her text. “You know I’d prefer that you not drink at all. But I’m glad you told me. Call me.”

In spite of spotty reception, we mapped out a plan for the evening. I told her she had to be home at 11:30 on the dot and could only get a ride with her friend’s dad, not any of the party-goers. I warned her to pace herself, to try and nurse just one drink the whole night. And to skip the shots and sips from random bottles being passed around. Before hanging up, I told her I’d check in with her by text throughout the night. And when I did, I expected a response. Right away.

As it turned out, she contacted me first.

“I think I’m tipsy,” she wrote.

I took a big gulp of cool, pine-scented air and tried not to read too much into this news. Sadie’s not you, I reminded myself.

“How’s it feel?” I typed back.

“Kind of good, I guess. Not that exciting, really.”

The tension in my neck softened.

A year has passed since that night.

Sadie doesn’t go to a ton of parties, but when she does, she decides beforehand if she’s going to drink.

I know this because we talk about it. She’s discovered that she’s sensitive to alcohol—a few sips and she’s lightheaded. Unlike me at her age, that’s more than enough for her. She opts to skip the booze almost as often as she partakes. She’s never been drunk, failed to come home by her curfew, or gotten in a car with a driver who’s been drinking.

We both know that could change in the future. College, young adulthood and endless opportunities for binge drinking are right around the corner. This scares the crap out of me. But if alcohol does start to derail my daughter’s life, she knows who to turn to for help.

Dorothy O’Donnell

Dorothy O’Donnell is a writer based in San Francisco. When she’s not writing, she enjoys quad-shot lattes, hanging out with her daughter and roaming the streets of her city while snapping photos.

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