As we drove to high school soccer training on Thursday evening, Nick took thirsty gulps from his water bottle. My son had spent the day with a friend at Elitch’s (Denver slang for Elitch Gardens amusement park). Nick’s friend, Sammy, has significantly more risk tolerance than Nick, so I was eager to hear if the boys had ventured onto some of the rides that Nick usually avoids. Nick told me about Mind Eraser, Half Pipe and Brain Drain, all between gulpy slugs from his water bottle. His speech was slightly slurred and his descriptions of his adventures a little disconnected. I struggled to understand him between chugs of water.
My interest turned to panic as it occurred to me that Nick was trying to dilute something. My wife, Sheri, was with the boys at the park all day, along with our younger boys and their friends, but she had let the two freshman roam on their own. Had their adventure included more than just rides? Had they experimented with…I don’t know…something? High school is when my best friend, Brad, and I started finding sneaky ways to drink. Nick and Sammy are both smart and resourceful. Weed is legal in Colorado and edibles are pretty easy to conceal. My mind raced with the possibilities.
As I started questioning Nick’s seemingly desperate water consumption, he told me he was dehydrated. But he couldn’t annunciate it correctly and mashed the third and fourth syllables into an inaudible slur. We were approaching the school, and I needed to figure out what was going on. I wasn’t just dropping Nick at the field. I am a coach at the school. I couldn’t be late. I had a training session to manage. I also couldn’t let my son play if he was under the influence of…something. I was in a full-blown panic. I had to know what was going on, and I was out of time for polite inquiry. I blurted out, “Did you and Sammy do something you shouldn’t have at Elitch’s?” “We didn’t smoke weed or anything, Dad!” Nick blurted back.
Was he defiant and offended at my line of questioning, or was he defensive and doubling-down on the cover-up? This was my greatest parenting dread coming to life. I loved nurturing our four children from birth through the pre-teen years. While my wife methodically and responsibly read parenting books, I followed my instincts and parented fearlessly. But I am terrified of parenting high schoolers. I hate the thought of my kids pulling away during their teen years. I want our open and honest relationships to continue. I want to be knee deep in their adolescent struggles with temptations from drugs, alcohol and sex. I don’t want to tell them, “Drugs will kill you, you are too young for alcohol and sex is for married people who love each other,” then pat myself on the back and return my attention to my problems. I know lecturing to teenagers while they try to spread their wings is the best way to turn them against me. I want to stay in their lives. I want to get my hands dirty and help them navigate with understanding, not preach with definitive arrogance as though high school life is black and white. I want to immerse myself in the gray area – their gray area – even though nothing scares me more.
I had never caught Nick in a lie before, and he had never appeared to be under the influence in the past. I had to believe him. I had to coach. He had to play. Time was up. My fumbled interrogation was as hurtful as it was inconclusive. We would have to figure it out on the way home in a couple of hours.
My primary responsibility on the soccer team is for the younger kids, so it was easy for me to keep my attention on Nick and Sammy as the boys did some conditioning, got some touches and eventually played small sided games. They both sucked. Nick is a goal keeper, and he missed easy save after easy save. Sammy is a talented player with particularly good ball control. He lost possession and made poor passes repeatedly through the session.
Could they both be dehydrated? Could they just be tired from an exhilarating day? Those rides are named Mind Eraser and Brain Drain, after all. Neither of them appeared nauseous, and they weren’t drawing attention to themselves with loud obnoxiousness. If anything, they both looked like they would have prefered to take a nap under the bleachers if I had offered that as an option.
As we walked across campus toward the parking lot, I asked Nick what he thought. He was mad at himself about his play. Tryouts were just a few days away, and he picked a bad time at the end of the preseason to lay an egg. He explained that one missed save built on the previous one as he beat himself up. We have talked a lot about the need for a goal keeper to have a short memory, but nothing he tried worked on this day. He felt bad, and his play made him feel worse.
Since Nick’s reaction to his own poor play was neither defensive nor shame-filled, I was becoming more inclined to believe dehydration and exhaustion was the cause. We pulled out of the parking lot and I brought up our conversation – my accusation – from a couple of hours before. Nick told me he was hurt and angry as an initial response to my lack of trust and my accusal. But he knows much of the detail related to my own battle with alcohol addiction, and before he had his cleats laced-up, he realized my concern came from love. He understood my line of questioning.
I reinforced that my courtship with alcohol started in high school, and I am afraid for him – for his health – for his safety. I told him I hope he makes good decisions, and I want to be part of those decisions. I told him I don’t expect him to never drink alcohol, but I hope he understands how dangerous booze is in any quantity. I told him I smoked weed a couple of times in high school, but that it did not do anything for me – not like alcohol. I told him I hope he is smarter than me.
I asked him what role drugs and alcohol play in his life as he enters high school. I asked him what he has seen – what he has been offered – what temptations exist in his environment. He told me about kids vaping juul pods (I had to Google that), and he knew kids who experimented with pot and drinking. I asked him about peer pressure, and he explained that his friends just were not going down that path. Not yet. He expressed fear, but not for himself. Not for Sammy. Not for his buddies. His fear was that half of his class would, “end up dead in a gutter.” I can get a little dramatic and descriptive, and Nick is, after all, my son. But there was an anger to his fear for his peers. His decision, and that of his circle of friends, to avoid the pitfalls to which I succumbed in high school seemed an easy and logical decision to Nick. Experimentation – one of the cornerstones of teen-hood – seemed illogical and dangerous in my son’s mind. At least that’s what he told me. And he told me so convincingly.
I fumbled this conversation badly. I stuttered as I tried to calm the chaos in my own mind and share my experience while gaining his trust. I probably said too much at times, and I definitely left out important points that popped into my mind as I reconstructed the conversation later.
I sprawled out my mistakes in front of Nick as though preparing for a yard-sale of regrets.
I thought about a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a good friend who has decades of recovery under his belt. We were talking about the inconsistency of happiness, and my friend lamented that it was something with which he struggles. I thought during the conversation with my friend, and again during this conversation with Nick, about the permanence of some of the damage my drinking has done to my brain. I explained to Nick that even as much of the function of the neurotransmitters in my brain is returning to normal, I am confident that some of my alcoholic destruction will never improve. There is a reason our brains are encased in bones and surrounded by our sense receptors (our eyes, ears, noses and tongues). God’s trying to help us protect our brains from damage. Just like the effects of too many concussions is irreversible and deadly, so too is some of the damage from chronic poison ingestion. I have read about it. I have watched documentaries about it. More importantly – I can feel the damage in my own thoughts and moods. I stammered and sputtered and tried to explain this to Nick, too.
I told Nick I love him. I looked him in the eyes as I said it. I watched as his eyes welled-up with tears, and he told me he loves me, too. I told him that I hope he makes good decisions and I hope he includes me in the process. I told him I hope he doesn’t have to repair his relationship with his dad when he is 45 years-old, because that sucks. He nodded and looked down.
We never really know what someone else is thinking, but I think the trust between us grew on Thursday night. I don’t think Nick and Sammy did anything but ride adventure rides and wear themselves out. And I think the connection with my oldest son grew a little stronger as we stumbled through a tough conversation. Our talk was far from perfect, but I think Nick and I did OK.
As Nick went in the house, I sat in my Jeep and leaned my head back against the seat. At least, I thought, there’s a chance he’ll be sober when he gets some high school girl pregnant. Parenting sure was easier when they were in diapers.