Greta was almost five when I got sober. I came home from rehab 14 days before her 5th birthday.
I spent a good deal of time in rehab wondering how I was going to talk to her about why I was gone for thirty days, searching for words to explain a complicated disease like addiction.
It turns out that I didn't have to explain much, not at first. As is the way with young kids, she took it in stride that I had been in the "hopspital" because I was sick, but that I was better now and wouldn't be going back.
Her undiluted faith in me was a big part of what kept me strong those first weeks and months. Every now and then, as I was re-learning how to be a parent, a wife, a daughter, a friend, she would look up at me with her huge brown eyes and say, "I'm glad you're better now, Momma."
"Alcohol," I replied. "I am allergic to alcohol, and if I have even a little bit I will get really sick."
"Like the kids at the peanut table at school? If they have even one peanut they have to go to the hopspital. They could die."
"Exactly like that," I said.
Last year she started asking me what happened to me when I drank alcohol. It turns out she had seen a commercial for the television show Intervention, where an intoxicated mother had stumbled around in her front yard, mumbling, before lying down on the grass.
"Did you do that, too?" she asked.
"I didn't lie down on the lawn," I said, "but when I drink alcohol it makes my mind go funny, I can't think straight, I can't talk straight, and I make really bad choices."
She was quiet a moment, and then she said, "I'm glad you stopped."
Last night we were having an early family dinner, because I had to leave for a recovery meeting. Greta was overtired from a busy weekend, and didn't want me to go. We have talked about meetings before. I explained that I go to meetings to talk to other people who are alcoholics (she knows that word now), because even though something is bad for you it can be hard to stay away, and talking to people who understand helps.
She stared at her plate. "I wish you hadn't drunk all the alcohol, Momma," she said. "Then you wouldn't have to go to so many meetings."
Two years ago this statement would have hit me like a punch in the gut. The guilt over being an alcoholic mother was overwhelming. The first year of sobriety, for me, was all about trying to come to terms with the past, and learning not to let guilt crush me. As I was struggling to get sober, guilt was the number one reason I would fail. It was so hard, sober, to face guilt that I would drink to hide from it and the cycle would begin all over again.
I smiled. "That's a good plan," I said. "As you get older we're going to have to keep talking about it. Especially when you're a teenager."
"Okay," she said. "But I'm not going to drink, I can tell you that right now. Not even one sip."
If only it were that simple, I thought. I guess the best we can do is keep an open dialogue going, hope that both Greta and Finn have enough information to have a healthy fear of alcohol. I'm hoping that my experience will give me a little street cred with them in the future, because they have seen me fall. And get back up.
Three years ago, if someone had shown me this simple scene, together as a family at dinner talking about my alcoholism, I never would have believed it.
I'm so very grateful.