How I Fooled Myself about My Daughter’s Drinking Problem in College

My daughter developed a serious drinking problem in college which escalated to full-blown chronic alcoholism within a few years after graduation. After a hospitalization where she was taken by ambulance after experiencing violent withdrawal symptoms – trying to stop drinking on her own (which became a life threatening situation) she was finally willing to get professional inpatient help.

Over the past 12 months, my beautiful and bright 24 year-old daughter has been on a journey of healing and recovery. She entered treatment 18 months ago, had one relapse and has been healthy and sober for the last year.

My teen developed a drinking problem in college

I am very, very proud of her. I understand that alcoholism is a chronic disease and her path will be a marathon, not a sprint, requiring her to decide not to drink on a daily basis.

Please let me share what I have learned during this very painful and difficult time for my family.

 My Teen Developed a Drinking Problem in College

  1. Addiction can happen in any family.
  2. Just because a young person has no interest in drinking in high school, that doesn’t mean they will not have a problem down the road. My daughter was a non-drinker in high school and on an Alcohol Education Task Force. Addiction can happen at any age or stage of life.
  3. If your son or daughter is drinking alone, that is a serious red flag.
  4. If you have family history of alcoholism, talk to your kids about it. There is a genetic component.
  5. Hiding empty liquor bottles/containers isn’t normal behavior.
  6. If your once or twice a month drinker becomes a big weekend drinker who then becomes a daily drinker – that could be problematic.
  7. Just because there was very little, or no alcohol in the home growing up doesn’t mean a child is immune to issues down the road. My husband wasn’t a drinker because his father was an alcoholic and I had 1 to 2 glasses of wine a month (normally when out to dinner). We did however have beer and wine available at family holidays.
  8. Going to a party school can muddy the waters. What I mean is that determining what normal (possibly heavy) social drinking looks like as opposed to the beginning stages of alcoholism can get tricky. College can be a time when people drink a fair amount, sometimes much more than they will later on. Drinking behavior is normalized in college. Both my kids went to the same Big Ten school – one developed a problem with alcohol, the other didn’t. My daughter was at a big party school and in a sorority but I believe that had she been at a small parochial college where drinking was not allowed, the issue would have reared its head at some point. I am 100% sure of that. She just can’t drink, ever, period.
  9. A child can get excellent grades, complete internships, can graduate on time on the dean’s list and still have an addiction. My daughter found solid internships, worked summers, graduated from college on schedule, was on the dean’s list, found a high paying professional position 6 months after graduation and was seemingly jumping through all the traditional hoops. This lulled me into thinking that everything was “fine.” Her drinking problem got out of control about half way through college. I fooled myself into thinking, “it can’t be that bad” if she keeps hitting the milestones/achievements/markers on time. I was very naïve. This is called “high functioning alcoholism.”
  10. Remember that your child’s emotional, spiritual and mental health is more important than anything else – ACT scores, where they are accepted to college, grades, their major, how much money they will make or what they will do for a living. Be still with your kids and fully see them, at every stage.

Alcoholism is a gradual, cunning and horrific disease. It kills every day. Because so many of us drink we tend not to want to look closely at the carnage it can cause in our society as a whole. I tend not to view the wine glasses with, “Mommy’s sippy cup” as funny anymore.

But, there is help, hope and healing for families. I never expected this to happen to my family. Today, I am so proud of my bright, beautiful and amazing daughter for having the strength and tenacity to heal and move forward. Since she has been sober, it’s like a light has been turned on inside her soul and she is fully herself again with all the promises of a great life and all of her dreams coming true.

This was the hardest, most  heartbreaking and painful thing I have been through as a parent. I now relate more to the many struggles that others face and I am grateful for that.

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.


Filling in the Blanks: Confronting Alcoholism

Drug Addiction: What Parents Need to Know

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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