Category: AMNESTY DAY

Contact Us Today for a
Free Consultation

Drinking was my friend: How I talked to my daughter about my alcoholism

This article was originally posted on the Today Show website

 

When my older daughter, Fifer, entered high school, I introduced the concept of Amnesty Day. On the last day of every month, she got to tell me anything she’d done that wasn’t what she was supposed to do—and not get in any trouble for it. We talked through what choices she could have made differently, but on that day only, she didn’t get guilted, or yelled at, or grounded for not following the rules.

When Fifer’s confessions were about her own behavior and choices, that worked out well in terms of opening the lines of communication. As she approached legal drinking age, however, I needed to be able to discuss alcohol with her in a way that would prevent her from getting sucked into the void of her newfound freedom. How could I do that without relating my own battles, which eventually led to my becoming sober?

That was not something I could hide, like we couldn’t hide the fact that our younger daughter is adopted. Bodhi is from Taiwan; my wife and I are white. We never tried to figure out when would be the right time to tell her. She’s just always known, just as Fifer has always known I am a recovering alcoholic. Dad doesn’t drink. There must be a story there.

There were a lot of stories there. There were nights that didn’t end without my getting cut off at a restaurant, alienating everyone I was out to dinner with, and lying down to hiccup in the gutter for an hour. In those days, I wrote as many poems as I finished off bottles of scotch; I had to have the former to justify the latter. I got the shakes; I had hallucinations; I was not headed for a long life.

In recovery, you’re not supposed to tell these stories in a way that makes them sound romantic. With Fifer, it was doubly important not to make my escapades sound appealing. If I told her what I did when I was her age, would that give her permission to do the same? There was a lot riding on our not misunderstanding this fine line.

As I searched for a way to communicate my history, I came upon the journal I kept during the early days of my sobriety.

 

1d7d3f8312595b8c16bf128c050b57dfc49f8d8b.jpg

 

I didn’t write a lot in it (and I can write a lot when I want to!). It was actually just a series of 41 different answers to the same question, one that my therapist, Gretchen, had posed to me:

“Why can’t you stop drinking?”

The first time she asked me that, my response was “Because drinking is my friend.”

Gretchen didn’t like that answer. She challenged me to abstain from alcohol for a month, and to use that time to record all the reasons I wanted to take a drink, even as I knew drinking was not working in my favor.

 

I started with some pretty mundane motivations. I want to drink . . .

. . . because I’m in a bar.

. . . because the best man from my wedding is coming to visit.

. . . because I need a day off.

These soon graduated to more serious appraisals, however, about what wasn’t working in my life:

. . . because work isn’t going well and I may have to leave eventually.

. . . because I’m so frustrated.

. . . because I’ve been hurt.

 

390e55f26a70ce04ed7c48edaff9d4488896ade5.jpg

 

I wrote one reason per day, and as I dug deeper, I uncovered what had been driving me all along.

 

. . . because no one has any space for me.

. . . because I don’t have any space for me.

. . . because I don’t know who I’ll be if I stop.

 

Forty-one days later, I closed the journal, and I have been sober ever since. I’m not saying that my lack of self-love blossomed into a reliable self-esteem overnight. But my life did start trending up. The things I learned yesterday were still there today. I was building on something, instead of waking up to find it all wiped away while I stood in a hole of my own making.

When I showed this journal to Fifer, it was in the context of Amnesty Day. In doing so, I realized I was seeking amnesty from her. Not healing in the sense that my past never happened, but healing in the sense that it did happen. It could be released from the dark corners of my mind.

In an unexpected turn of events, her witnessing me allowed me to witness her. Rather than feeling as if she had license to misbehave, she seemed to trust me more. Now when I counseled her on how not to get taken advantage of at a house party or be part of some horrific accident in college, I didn’t seem as much a hypocrite as a mentor.

I know I can’t save her from making the mistakes that are hers to make. Everyone has their own road. But she believed me when I told her that I wanted her to write the next chapters of her life with more light, more self-possession, and more inner peace than I ever had. She heard me say a prayer that she keep herself safe by loving herself. And that is a prayer that I have come to have faith in.

Q&A with TODAY.com

This article was originally posted on the Today Show website, following their publishing an excerpt from my currently-in-progress memoir Amnesty Day. 

 

By: Laura T. Coffey

 

A Rhode Island dad made what he described as a “calculated gamble” and won the prize of all parents’ dreams: an open, honest line of communication with his daughter throughout her teenage years.

The gamble centered around a concept Stuart Horwitz dubbed “Amnesty Day” — a monthly opportunity for his daughter to come clean about absolutely anything without getting grounded, guilted or otherwise punished.

Horwitz said he felt the need to try something when he sensed that his daughter, Fifer, was starting to withdraw and withhold information in her 10th grade year.

“I could tell that she was holding some things back that she needed to let out,” Horwitz, 51, a writing coach and editor, told TODAY Parents. “This is an iffy time period for teenagers. They have to talk to somebody and most of the time they’re going to tell their friends, but teenagers don’t have enough experience to figure things out together.”

So, during one of their 40-minute commutes to Fifer’s high school, Horwitz suggested a “tell me anything” Amnesty Day on the last day of every month. He recalled feeling both relieved and terrified when Fifer said yes.

Fifer felt the exact same way.

“My dad was my buddy for my whole life and I always told him everything,” she told TODAY Parents. “But then I felt like there were things I couldn’t tell him anymore — and he could tell. I remember him saying, ‘Just tell me. It’ll be OK. You can just say it.’”

Stuart Horwitz and his young daughter, Fifer

Horwitz chronicled the parental roller coaster ride — and the ultimate successes — of his daughter’s monthly confessionals in a personal essay that he shared with the TODAY Parenting Team community.

“On Amnesty Day, I heard about the night she wandered around Providence on the drug ecstasy wearing only her socks for footwear,” Horwitz wrote. “I learned who bought her fake I.D.”

Horwitz acknowledged that such revelations made his “blood run cold as a parent” — but they also gave him a home-court advantage for having honest, meaningful conversations with his daughter.

“I couldn’t ask her, ‘What were you thinking?!?’ At least, not in the tone in which that is usually said,” Horwitz wrote. “I had to ask her, What were you thinking? In the sense of, What motivated you?”

Horwitz told TODAY Parents that he and his wife Bonnie wanted, above all else, to help their daughter cultivate good decision-making skills before she went off to college — skills Horwitz said he lacked during his own college years.

“We were basically using those last two years of high school as training wheels for college,” Horwitz said. “Our thinking was that when a person is away at college, fear is not going to be an effective motivator.”

Now a 21-year-old senior at Boston University, Fifer said the lifeline of communication with her parents has made her teens and early 20s so much easier.

“It somehow made me feel like I didn’t need to rebel so hard,” she explained. “I didn’t really need to go crazy. … It was like reverse psychology.”

Child development and parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa said that while Amnesty Day may have worked for the Horwitz family, it might not be the best approach for every family.

“Teens — and their developing brains — need structure,” Gilboa told TODAY Parents. “That includes knowing that there are consequences for their actions, consequences they can’t talk their way out of or be offered a free pass once a month. … There are rarely Amnesty Days in adulthood.”

In Horwitz’s case, the “no punishment” policy was not a “no consequences” policy. Fifer’s confessions didn’t go into a vault, never to be spoken of again. Instead, Horwitz viewed Amensty Day as a personal challenge to discuss what happened with his daughter in a calm, rational way. The goal was to be reasonable and forgiving without shielding Fifer from the consequences of her decisions.

“I’m not abdicating my responsibility to be a parent just because I also want to be a coach at this pivotal moment,” Horwitz said.

For instance, one night Fifer called her dad from a high school party and asked for a ride because she and her girlfriend had been drinking. Horwitz remained stoic when he picked them up — and when one of them threw up in his car.

“I did make her clean out my car the next morning, though,” Horwitz said.

“He did!” Fifer chimed in. “And that night I had been drinking orange juice and vodka, so the next morning they made me drink orange juice. He was still messing with me.”

 

 

Fifer said she developed such gratitude for her heart-to-heart talks with her dad in high school that she asked him to write his stories and reflections down so she could have them with her when she went away to college.

“I didn’t know if he was going to do it or if he forgot about it or what,” Fifer said. “But when my parents dropped me off at college, he left it on my pillow. He didn’t say anything about it — I just found it there waiting for me after they left.”

Horwitz is now in the process of revising his love letter to Fifer into a book he plans to call “Amnesty Day: A Father’s Memoir to His Daughter.” The book is due out next year.

Fifer said reading her father’s words helped her stay grounded during her college years.

“I learned in my reading that my parents aren’t perfect, either — they made a lot of mistakes too — so it’s OK if I make some mistakes,” Fifer said. “It’s just a question of how can I improve on them? How can I prevent them in the future? How can I grow?”

Amnesty Day: How I got my teenager to tell me the truth

This excerpt from my currently-in-progress memoir was originally posted on the TODAY Show website

 

When my daughter, Fifer, was young, we were very close. I was among the first wave of fathers to do at least 50 percent of the childcare as my wife was pursuing her graduate degree in psychology … and those doctorates take time! When Fifer was little, we collected bouncing balls and Spongebob-themed stickers. When she got a little older, we invented our own card game (based loosely on Gin Rummy) and kept adding new rules that only we understood.

 

b1c19e52c6fb64c07a327a05a3f9c5a3a2fae2bf.png

 

When Fifer became a sophomore in high school, however, I began to feel her pulling away. It wasn’t just about boys—I got that. It was about the things she thought she shouldn’t tell me. The things she thought she couldn’t tell me.

And so I introduced a calculated gamble. On the last day of every month, which we called Amnesty Day, she got to tell me anything she’d done that wasn’t what she was supposed to do—and not get in any trouble for it.

We talked through what happened and what choices she could have made differently, and that was it. On that day only, she didn’t get guilted, or yelled at, or grounded for not following the rules.

On Amnesty Day, I heard about the night she wandered around Providence on the drug ecstasy wearing only her socks for footwear. I learned who bought her fake I.D. I also got to go through the whole moral anxiety attack with her when she took something that didn’t belong to her.

Her school held well-meaning sessions on how to get your kids to open up to you, but the strategies seemed better suited to an earlier age. Another parent who had heard about my approach asked me, “Does Amnesty Day actually work?”

I told her the story of walking up to my daughter on the beach at a family reunion.

I asked Fifer, “Have you been partaking in any drugs or alcohol today?”

She was sitting with her friend on the lifeguard chair.

“I don’t care what the answer is,” I continued. “I just need the truth.”

She said, “I had one drink that was 4.5 percent alcohol two hours ago.”

I said, “Great. Don’t have anything more, because you’re driving your mom home. She’s had a long day.”

I gave Fifer advice, of course. Like not to let anyone give her a drink that she didn’t see being poured and never to leave her drink unattended. And how to not get separated from the group she went out with and to always keep a buddy by her side. What else are you going to do with a kid who will be leaving home shortly?

I could see college coming out of the corner of my eye. They say that a teenager’s brain hasn’t yet closed. Teens haven’t evolved all of their prefrontal cortex, which controls decision making and influences foresight. Yet we send them off to school to live only with other kids their own age. It is an experiment that sometimes backfires.

I didn’t want my input to be cut off. I wanted my kid to be the one who kept her head on her shoulders. College was a time of freedom for me which I did not use particularly wisely. I got in trouble with the law. I had a drug overdose. My confidantes weren’t much better adjusted than me. Some of us didn’t make it out of our twenties. There had to be a better way.

When the last week in the month rolled around, Fifer would sometimes tease a forthcoming revelation: “I got a good Amnesty Day for you this month.” That made my blood run cold as a parent. Of course, there was no such thing. All Amnesty Days were bad, after a sorts. But I had to be true to my word: no repercussions.

I couldn’t ask her, “What were you thinking?!?” At least, not in the tone in which that is usually said. I had to ask her, What were you thinking? In the sense of, What motivated you? And then, a funny thing happened. I started to ask myself the same question.

Why did I do the things I did? Why did I engage in dangerous stunts or make life unnecessarily hard on myself?

The result was transformational for me. I started writing my memoir. Between the thinking and feeling that invited and the old friends I reached out to after so many years to say hello and/or check details, the story of how I came to be me started shaping up. My relationship with my daughter was the amnesty I had been searching for, a chance to start over again, to let the light back into my life.

Amnesty Day is about second chances, about holding expectations for people lightly until they have them of themselves. I am happy to report that I like who Fifer has become. I like her boyfriend, her college roommates, her work ethic, the warmth she exudes (but she can still stand up for herself).

I have full faith in the choices that she makes. And she and I are as close as ever. I recently guest hosted on her college radio program and she surprised me with a pop quiz about the music we had loved when she was growing up, driving around on our bonding adventures. (I got a solid B.) I credit Amnesty Day with bringing that magic back into our lives and ensuring we could keep it.

 

2cea9c515e2648f203af6bda87d027c23090ebc1.jpg