This is How Much Life Can Change in a Year

floral wedding centerpiece with roses

An awful lot can change in a year.

For example: At this time last year, I was regularly meeting with a licensed mental health counselor to cope with an unwelcome feeling of never wanting to have children due to my family’s history of substance abuse. Now, I’m thirty-three weeks into a planned pregnancy.

Convention (and a healthy dose of wishful thinking) would ask us to believe that this is a story with a (difficult) beginning and an (happy!!!) ending. But convention needs to wise up, because our stories are never that simple or straightforward.

At a young, impressionable age, we’re introduced to the fairy tale: Once Upon a Time, Happily Ever After. In elementary school, we learn about the stages of a good story: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Messy beginnings leading into neat endings. But that’s a falsehood by way of exemption: books, films, poems, plays are only ever showing us a section of a story. Full stories, and our lives, are comprised of beginnings and middles and endings and beginnings and middles and endings and beginnings and middles and endings.

The trimesters of pregnancy mimic this format perfectly: a beginning, a middle, and an ending (and then, of course, a beginning). It is a period in a woman’s life of heightened, rapid changes—a microcosm of a life and a full story in and of itself.

My family’s substance abuse has been a presence in my life since I can remember. It took many, many years for me to seek help in facing it. It took more than it affecting my relationship with my husband, although seeing it begin to hurt him, and us, did help in pushing me toward therapy. Ultimately, it was when I learned that my sister was using—meaning that every relative on my maternal side, beginning with my mother and her siblings, has struggled with substance abuse—that I, for lack of a more polite phrase, totally lost my shit. I felt like I could not possibly bear a child, because that child would be genetically doomed to be an addict—and I, perhaps selfishly, did not feel like I could survive that. At the same time, I recognized that this was a disordered line of thinking, and I was brokenhearted at the thought of not building a family with my husband.

So, I spent some time in therapy. And therapy helped me. It did not, however, help my family. Turns out you really can’t affect others’ actions and choices—imagine that!

My lifelong story of my family’s substance abuse is one that has had many beginnings and middles and endings. For me, for the past several months, it’s been at a middle. At a point of (mostly) stasis. I know that it won’t last, and I also know that at some point in the (too near) future, my husband and I will need to talk to our daughter or son about my family’s history. As we prepare to welcome this child into our family, so much of our focus has been on joyful planning—imagining who this little person will be and conversing about how he or she will fit into our lives. But on occasion, my inner voice will ask me: But how will you approach the topic of substance abuse? How will you allow your child to love and be loved and experience all of the good that comes with being a part of your extended family, while at the same time limiting her or his exposure to disordered behaviors? How will you teach your child to make conscientious choices when it comes to her or his own alcohol and/or drug use?

Frankly, I don’t have answers to any of these questions. I’m ready for conversations to be difficult, and I know that I can’t protect my child from pain or personal challenges. When I think about these future conversations, I keep in mind an apt line from our wedding vows: I promise above all else to live in truth with you, and to communicate fully and fearlessly. In the end, I know that truth and open communication are the very best that I’ll be able to offer my child. I have faith that our child will grow to be a person who is brave and intelligent and capable of facing these issues, perhaps even with more grace and forgiveness than I’ve ever been able to muster.

What else I know: I’m ready for this next beginning.

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  • PAW

    Your post gives a lot of perspective on the experience of looking ahead to difficult discussions with children, and to the hope of breaking destructive patterns. It will provide a lot of food for thought as my spouse and I begin the process. I can only imagine the courage it took to confront your fears head on, and I am so grateful that you were able to do so, and willing to talk about it! (In my opinion, the world needs people to be open about the process of seeking help from counselors and other mental health professionals.)

  • Kelsey

    Beautifully written, Jess. Thank you also for the snippet from your vows!

  • Mackenzie

    This rings very true for me. In the last weeks of planning my wedding, the ugly spectres of mental health disorders that haunt many of my family members have been emerging. I look forward to my wedding day, but also have reframed a “good day” to not include my relatives “behaving themselves” — whether they can show up and be happy, or their own demons will get in the way, I can still have a good day. So I’m working on that part, and hopefully will find “zen” about it all.

    But then I look ahead to the rest of our lives together, and it’s not just about getting through one day. My bipolar, anxious, depressed, alcohol/substance abusing family is the family that my fiance is marrying into forever, the family that my future children will call their aunts and grandparents. I think I’ve gotten so focussed on being ok with whatever comments or behaviour might emerge at the wedding, because to think about the long-term implications for the man I love and our future children….it’s harder to be ok with. Not to mention the genetics of it all – what if I have a daughter like my sister, or my aunt? A son like my grandfather or great uncle? Heavier questions that need emotional time and work.

    So thank you for sharing your story Jess. I am glad to know that there are those who are further down their life path and have found a way to work on such things.

    • Jess


      It is really effing hard to see the forest for the trees.

      What has helped me step past the genetic risk factors, at least, is to recognize that a person with a family history of cancer or another disease wouldn’t base her/his decision to have children on that one genetic risk (duh…right?). It helps to unpack how we feel about an issue by substituting whatever the actual issue that prompts a knee-jerk emotional response in us is with one that has way less baggage attached to it, I think.

      I also had to accept the fact that yes, perhaps my child will be an addict. But my child will also be this amazing thing & that wonderful thing & oh, gosh, that remarkable thing. It’s scary & difficult to see beyond the what-ifs of addiction, but it’s equally scary that we could disregard & dismiss an entire potential person based on one possible future that we’ve constructed based on the worst of what we’ve experienced. It’s dangerous to reduce a person to her or his worst quality…& it’s damaging to make choices based on unrealized fears.

      I hope you are able to find peace. It took me longer than I wish it had, & I’m still working on it, every day.

      • Amy March

        Off topic a bit, but actually yes, people can and do consider genetic risks for cancer and other “physical” diseases (dislike the terminology since I’m pretty sure the brain is physical).

        • Jess

          Amy: Totally, & I did not mean to sound insensitive or reductive in my example. Absolutely people consider genetic risk factors in their decision to have children or not–my point was that most people probably don’t make this the *only* factor of their decision, which is what I was doing with my family’s history of substance abuse. The conclusion that I’ve reached for myself is that basing any decision on that one factor is not productive or healthy…that certainly may not be universally true.

          • anonymous

            As someone diagnosed with cancer at a young age with a strong family history of the same cancer, I have major major major concerns about reproducing and passing along this disease. I’m not sure I could live with the guilt of feeling like I inflicted this disease on my child. I also have a fear of not living long enough to see that child into adulthood.

            I guess it isn’t the only factor in deciding whether or not to have kids, but it’s definitely a BIG part of the thought process.

          • Amy March

            That makes a lot of sense. I agree.

    • One More Sara

      I’m kind of the child that you guys are wondering about.. Both of my grandfathers were alcoholics, and I also have a lot of smokers in the family. My mom told me from a very early age how easy it was to get addicted to these substances, and that I was probably more likely than my friends/peers to get addicted to something. That always stuck with me and made me think hard about how often I smoked cigarettes at parties, how much alcohol I drank at one time, and how often. I think as long as you raise your child to be aware of the risks (and a healthy fear) of addiction, they’ll probably be fine. If perhaps your child does get addicted to something, you probably can recognize the symptomatic behaviors more quickly than a family with no history of addiction (and also how to deal with it).

      (*and for the record I’ve smoked cigarettes less than 10 times, marijuana less than 5 times, and only drink socially)

  • Kristen

    Thank you for sharing such a brave story. It was during wedding planning that I disowned my parents because the idea of having them in my future, especially my future children’s lives was unacceptable. If there was one wonderful part of wedding planning, it was the intense focus I had on my marriage and the kind of life I wanted for the family I was building. It made it suddenly easy to let go of my grasp on the dream that one day I would have a different family of origin. Having that relief and distance for a few months has allowed me to decide to try to get pregnant, even though I carry with me so many fears of what I could mess up in raising a child as flawed as I am. Now I focus on getting even healthier and happier so I can be the best mom I can be. I worry that I will take after my parents and be unable to love my child -or love it enough, because these are the burdens one carries with them when our past is dark. I take comfort in the fact that I am stronger than the place I come from and I would do anything in my power to pass that strength on to my children. Looking forward with hope and acceptance that life isn’t perfect is a good place to be, I say. I am in awe and heartened by your strength and wisdom. Seems pretty clear any child of yours will be a lucky one to have such a mom.

  • wow, thanks for sharing this. I have alcoholism in my family, and I struggle with explaining this to my stepsons – especially when the area we live in seems tailor-made to glamorize and foster unhealthy binge drinking in high-schoolers and young adults (and frankly, older adults too). My older stepson has told me stories of the young adults he knows binge drinking and making terrible decisions. When these are the friends and family he has known all his life, how can I nonjudgmentally explain about addiction and substance abuse and, in the case of my family, the mental illnesses that so often go hand in hand? Or maybe I need to be judgmental? Thirteen-year-olds are so black and white, maybe that’s the best way. Anyway, I struggle with this, as you describe for your nearly-hear baby.

  • EAO

    This was a beautifully written piece. Thank you.

    I always think of the Serenity passage, when I’m considering this topic:

    God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference.

    And I think this piece proves — you’re one wise woman.

  • Adi

    I’m glad you’re already talking about being honest and open with your child. Too often this is swept under the rug and a child is clueless as to his or her genetic propensity to addiction and becomes blindsided by the draw.. You should be proud you’re dedicated to having the difficult talks so your child can have the awareness needed to stay healthy.

  • Eliza

    Lovely piece and I love, love how it tied it back to your wedding vows. I wish you and your family all the best and I’d love to hear more from you on APW. You have such a great voice and philosophy on relationships.

  • Kelsey2

    Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to a lot of your feelings- this line particularly struck me: “My lifelong story of my family’s substance abuse is one that has had many beginnings and middles and endings.” When I think about it though, I think trauma has a way of rippling through all families, resurfacing when you think it’s passed, coming to a neat-feeling closure sometimes too. Substance abuse is a manifestation of trauma, but I think a little bit is in every family.

    I’m a librarian, and my brother’s a recovering addict- and for awhile I spent every free evening doing research on addiction (I don’t recommend it- feels a little masochistic after awhile). The only shared features I could really nail down on a literature review of recovered addicts were a) they develop healthy coping skills and b) they are surrounded by a solid community of like-minded people. Other than that, it seems kind of like luck of the draw. Genetically, addiction is incredibly common- I think the factors which determine how to live a healthy life have more to do with outlook, stress coping skills and community. As a parent, I know you can have a positive impact on this. I’m glad you got help in therapy. I know AlAnon has helped for me.

  • I can’t say anything that the others above me have said so well. Your baby is so clearly & strongly loved already. I wish you & your family the very best!

  • Katie

    I’m only 2 paragraphs in and already want to tell you that you are a beautiful writer and I thank you for this post. I will likely be back with another comment after I have read the post to its completion. We do not have substance abuse in our family but a long history of mental illness on both sides of both of our families and I struggle with the same question you did. How happy I am to see this post and so I’m going to get back to it pronto!

  • sandyliz

    Thank you for sharing your story and struggle! Until I met my fiance I was adamantly against having children. I gave a litany of reasons, but the truth is I could not fathom a healthy family, or how to raise children to be healthy adults. With a litany of substance abuse and emotionally damaging relationships defining my childhood I assumed I would be a terrible parent. It took the right discussion with the right partner and exposure to a healthy family (which had 2 alcoholic parents just one generation ago) to understand that you can change your circumstances. And that you can be a good parent with healthy kids even if you didn’t have a model for that. And if we decided to have kids I would definitely be seeking therapy to help me deal with my negative assumptions.

    In other news, I’m definitely adding your vow to our list of vow-spiration :)