My Daughter Became an Alcoholic in High School, I Was the Last to Know

It started as an ordinary day, till I pushed my way through my morning stupor and realized just what day it was. My mind was suddenly chattering frantically. I walked down the hall to check on my daughter, knowing she would be asleep but bothered by a familiar feeling of fear. Maybe she’d run off? Had a last all-nighter? Was passed out or dead in a ditch somewhere?

I opened her door slowly and quietly. She was in her bed, curled up like an infant, with her mouth open. Slow, steady breaths filled the room. I stood for a moment, like I had when she was a baby, and the hundred-mile-an-hour beating of my heart slowed. Her suitcase was open on the ground, and I could see the letters from friends and family packed neatly inside. I returned to my room.

The anxiety I had about the day ahead was as heavy as a wet blanket. Today we would travel to the inpatient alcohol treatment program we had selected which was near the calming vibes of the ocean. Full of teen girls working out their sobriety.

My daughter was terrified, so was I. (Flicker via _Tony_B)

Our fear was palpable

She was terrified, and so was I. She had accepted the plans several weeks ago, but since then, she’d had time to resist the idea. She was not yet 18, and this was our last chance to place — or essentially force — her into a treatment program.

Once she turned 18, it was totally up to her to decide to check herself in — and to stay. We had thought long and hard about this decision. Was she ready? Did she want to recover — to reclaim the life she had planned before alcohol pushed out any dreams besides drinking? Would the wisdom she found in treatment fall on deaf ears?

I continued to pack, haphazardly grabbing things and stuffing them in my suitcase. But my mind wandered, and later when I got to the hotel, I found myself without a toothbrush or pajamas but with a dress and heels. I was time traveling all over the place, remembering every milestone that brought us here.

She had all the traits of a responsible firstborn child

She was our firstborn, the first flesh and blood expression of our lifelong love affair (we started dating in high school). A blue-eyed cherub with blonde ringlets and a mischievous sideways glance.

As a new mom, I felt like my heart had grown two sizes and was walking around completely unprotected. I thought of nothing but her. Her firsts were our firsts — talking, walking, first to school, first to drive, to date…

She had many of the traits of firstborn children — a people pleaser, a follower of rules, a person who always did the next right thing and strived to be her best. I worry now that she thought she needed to be perfect. No trouble. On track. When what we really wanted desperately was just for her to be happy. And at peace.

But the darkness came for her

Evidence of trouble came early in her adolescence — anxiety attacks and mood swings, withdrawing and becoming more secretive and separate. But that was normal for a teenager, right? That’s what I told myself.

We took her to see counselors and guided her to find skills and meds that helped her. I stayed close and listened. In my mind, we did all we could, but I’ve spent countless hours wondering if something would have protected her from what followed.

Her friends became as close to her as family (again, normal teen behavior), leading to socializing and exploratory partying in her junior year of high school. We weren’t particularly worried about it — she was a good kid, getting good grades, with a good head on her shoulders. Our practice was that on nights she was out, I waited up for her. We had a chat that sometimes revealed she was tipsy but not drunk.

We had chosen to be tolerant of her experimentation with alcohol

My husband and I had tolerated her experimentation with alcohol, as we had (sometimes together) started drinking at the end of high school. Neither of us wanted her to head off to college for her first drink. We wanted her to learn the risks, and her limits, where we could keep watch and keep her safe. (No driving, of course.) I can’t know, but I believe that being intolerant would have driven her drinking further underground.

Her moods continued to get darker, and other behaviors appeared. Once a morning person, she was now an absolute wreck when she woke, foul-tempered and late. I convinced myself that was somewhat normal, too. Honestly, I had been a teen who operated on a late-to-bed, late-to-rise rhythm and had trouble getting anywhere on time. I had been both foul-tempered and moody. I figured that, as they say, “payback is a bitch.”

She had absolutely no interest in her future, and I didn’t know why

It was when we talked about the future that I worried most. She was our kid who was born for academics and had always thrived in school. Her grades and prospects for college were good. But she suddenly had zero interest in her future and immediately became angry when I brought it up. Her eyes would grow distant, her mouth would go slack, and she would mentally exit the conversation.

At her age, I was so excited about college I hardly knew what to do with myself. I expected she’d be the same. But she couldn’t care less about touring schools or programs of study or even alternative plans like a gap year. She later told me of her plan to take her own life the summer after graduation.

So, plans for fall seemed futile to her. I forced her into some visits, and she eventually submitted applications and got into great schools. But her heart wasn’t in it, and I knew it. I turned things over and over in the middle of the night, trying to make sense of my feelings of impending doom. What was going on?

Things slowly began to reveal themselves

Finally, there were reports of excessive drinking and the discovery of a treasure trove of empty and full fifths of vodka hidden cleverly in her room, in clothing, and in the backs of closets. I could almost feel her manipulative intentions when she looked me in the eye, denying and making excuses. They manifested as a tightness in my throat and a throbbing pain in my head as I tried to believe her.

But eventually, I became convinced of what I didn’t want to know — this was not high school partying run wild. I found out much later that after she came home from parties, she went to her room and waited till she was sure I was asleep. Then she opened a hidden fifth of vodka, drank it to the bottom, and passed out.

When she woke in a still drunken stupor, she dragged herself out the door to school carrying a water bottle full of vodka to drink throughout the day. She was almost constantly under the influence of alcohol, and we had absolutely no idea. How could this be?

For a long time, the fact that I was oblivious to her addiction evoked feelings of inadequacy and uselessness in me. Were we willfully ignorant? Asleep at the wheel? But then I think — what parent checks to see if their daughter drinks vodka alone in her room at 3 a.m.? What parent smells their high schooler’s water bottle for booze as they leave for school?

My daughter’s response now is that she was just really, really good at hiding her drinking. And she was until she wasn’t.

One evening, things became clear

I vividly remember the day my innocence was lost and her pain was fully revealed. She had been particularly angry that morning, leaving with a stinging retort and a slammed door. She went straight to her nannying job after school. It was a pretty easy gig — a grade schooler and a middle schooler she supervised as they worked on their homework. She said they were good kids and that she liked the work. I would later find out that she found the job isolating and that it was one of the places she spent, literally, drowning her sorrows in alcohol. She came in the door stumbling and slurring, her eyes wandering, angry, and oblivious.

She flung herself up the stairs, swearing and telling me to leave her alone as I pieced together just what I was seeing. I followed her up the stairs as terror filled my brain.

Who was this kid? Certainly not my responsible daughter, who wanted to follow the rules and do the right thing. As she lay on her bed, fury reared its head and she told me to get out NOW! She was taking care of children — drunk? Putting them at risk? She had been drinking on the job. Our daughter?

And then it got worse

She was becoming even more drunk, if that was possible. She started to go limp and no longer had the energy to fend me off. I can look back and see myself half drag, half carry her down the stairs and to my car. She is lying, unconscious, in my back seat.

I start to cry as I pull out of the driveway. I pray in my head to the emergency room and stop out front, getting out to scream for someone to get her.

Something in my primitive mommy reptilian brain knows she is in grave danger. They bring her to a bed and start taking her vitals. She is swearing and telling them to fuck off and leave her alone. I have never seen her like this before, and my heart breaks for the pain she must be in to do this to herself.

They tell me that her blood alcohol level is .42. They explain that this is a coma-level drunk. They advise me of what they will do if she stops breathing or her heart stops. And that’s where I see myself, as if from above.

The me before the me I am now. The me who is wondering how the last 48 years have led her to this moment. And how she’ll go on from here. But she does.

I make the calls and arrangements with the school and the treatment center to admit my daughter in the late winter of her senior year. And the odyssey toward her sobriety begins.

She would eventually get there, but it would be a very long road. 

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

More Great Reading:

I’m Honest With My Son About My Past With Drugs and Alcohol

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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