Daddy, what is 'drunk'?
Nick Johnstone is a recovering alcoholic with a history of depression. Now his seven-year-old daughter has begun to ask the questions he's always dreaded
Published 30/11/2011 | 06:00
As your children grow older, their questions grow bigger. My daughter is seven and seems to be in a permanently inquisitive state. Papa, who is Anne Frank? Mama, has President Obama ever had long hair?
As a parent, you become well versed in the art of bluffing your way through each barrage of questions, at honing a sort of creaky-truthed wiki-all-rounder-ness. Lately, though, the questions have turned not only bigger but more complicated.
"Papa," she asked one dinnertime this summer, "what is getting drunk?"
I knew it would happen. Just not this early.
I've been sober for 17 years and like any recovering alcoholic/addict who becomes a parent, the whole idea of one's child, children, growing up and going through the same ordeal, is a recurring nightmare that starts in your head the day they are born.
Now here we are.
I shoot my wife, Anna, the "You take this" look -- part of a couple code we have built to perform like gleaming state-of-the-art software -- and stare at my food. I feel ashamed.
"Well," Anna says, "it's when people drink too much alcohol -- for example, too much wine -- and they become a bit silly."
"How do they become silly," she asks.
"They giggle," Anna says, treading water. "And they might lose balance and get jelly legs."
"Jelly legs," my daughter repeats, laughing. "That sounds very, very funny. I want to get jelly legs."
Inside, I am burning up, remembering in an ER-style giddy camera montage the blood I was always vomiting into toilets, the lies I told GPs, the DTs, which had me rocking on the lip of my bed, Arctic shivery, the dull, thorny throb of the intravenous drip in hospital as I lay in a sandpapery gown, finally convinced that it must stop. The drinking.
Nothing of that was very, very funny. And neither is sitting at a family dinner wondering how I will ever tell my daughter that I am a recovering alcoholic, why I became an alcoholic (the depression, the panic attacks, the anxiety); that my greatest fear is that any, or all, of these same things might be in her veins, poisonous genetic hand-me-downs. It's not a prayer because I am not religious, but it feels like one: Please let her take after her mother.
'It can also be bad," I say, realising that I am fetishising drinking, making it shimmer with rebellious diamonds, laying a possible first paving stone to history repeating itself. "I mean, if you drink too much, it can make you throw up and give you a very bad headache next day."
My daughter, like many children, is hypersensitive, hyper-moralistic. For instance, she cries hysterically if she sees someone swat a fly.
"I won't ever get drunk then," she announces. "I don't like throwing up. Remember when I used to throw up all the time when I was ill?"
We remember. The throwing up and the emergency admission to hospital when she was nine months old for dehydration -- the first illness of many to come. And we remember the year's worth of tests at Great Ormond Street children's hospital when she was six.
"You'll get drunk when you're older," Anna adds. "Papa's right, but it can also be a lot of fun."
Anna drinks occasionally. Maybe once a year, she gets drunk.
"Have you and Papa ever got drunk?" my daughter asks next.
That's it for me, I can't do this any more. I go to the kitchen, pretending I need to refill my glass with water. And when my daughter has gone to bed, I'm still so rattled that I cart off the couple of copies of my memoir about depression, anxiety, self-harm and alcoholism, A Head Full of Blue, from a low-slung, out-of-sight bookshelf in the living room and put them on a high shelf behind a door in our bedroom.
I suddenly feel that she cannot, simply must not, stumble upon this, especially as she has been asking us all the time about our work lately: what we do, what it is, how do we do it.
The last thing I want is a repeat of an afternoon several months earlier, when she came home with a new book from the school library and started reading it quietly on the sofa.
When I asked what the book was, as she was so engrossed and tearing through it, she showed me and it was Judith Kerr's When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, a Holocaust memoir, with a recommended reading age of nine to 12.
"How are you finding it?," I asked, having read the blurb and broken into a cold sweat.
"A bit scary," she said. "Why is everybody angry with the Jews?" Just like that, we were knee deep in the Holocaust. There was a very long silence during which I thought of the 168 members of her mother's parents' Polish Jewish families, who died in the Nazi camps.
"So why don't you stop reading it and take it back to school tomorrow? And I'll talk to your teacher."
"That's a good idea," she said, handing me the book.
That evening, Anna and I couldn't stop talking about how thrown we were that the school had prematurely brought this moment on. We had talked about it a lot but never arrived at a plan, only the same question: When is the right time to tell her about the Holocaust and what many members of her family had gone through?
It seems that there are no guides to these aspects of parenting. Just instinct. That old-fashioned lurch and crunch in the pit of the stomach that tells you: this feels right. Or not.
"Was it a war?" my daughter asked and kept wanting to know for days after she had returned When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit to the school library.
"I didn't want to tell you any of this until you were older," Anna finally said, breaking down as if she had been interrogated.
"Wanda, my grandmother -- remember how I told you she was very brave during a war called the Second World War? And Kazia, Wanda's cousin, remember how I told you she had been even braver?
"And what happened to your grandfather when he was a little boy? How he and his parents had to run away from their home in Poland? Well, that book is about that. About what happened in the Second World War, when the Germans, the Nazis terrorised countless countries, people."
She reached up and pulled down The Diary of Anne Frank.
"This girl's diary," she said, her voice getting breathy, which it does when she's overwhelmed.
"You can read this when you're older. It'll be where you can start understanding what happened in that war."
"Why can't I read it now?" my daughter asked, staring at the cover of the book, the black and white photograph of Anne Frank sitting at a table writing, turning to face the camera.
"Because you need to be older."
Then several months later, there we were having dinner and up popped the other impossibly complex topic: all my issues.
I think this is how I will later introduce them -- as issues. One at a time; like how we taught her two comes after one and three after two. I'll build up.
Maybe start with the depression. And then move on to the anxiety. And then from there build up to the things I did to try to cope with and medicate those issues: self-harm (the cutting) and drinking.
And then climb all the way up to talk about addiction; my alcoholism. My alcoholism.
A few days before school started again after the summer, my daughter and I were at the library, a dad and daughter ritual, and she came over to me from the children's section clutching The Diary of Anne Frank.
"I just wanted to tell you that soon I'm going to be ready to read The Diary of Anne Frank."
"OK, angel. It's up to you."
She skipped off. How did she get so big, so quickly?
I get the parent lump in my throat, the one that feels uncontrollable, the one that makes your legs shake. Jelly legs. These are the only jelly legs I get these days.
Soon, I tell her in my head, as she goes, leaving me jelly-legged and silent in the cookery section, clutching a book by Tessa Kiros. Soon I'm going to be ready too.
And there we were, back to the instinct thing again, that lurch and crunch in the stomach. I need to listen to that. It's the compass. The only compass.