This Is Us

Admitting We Were Powerless Over Tylenol

I’m a recovering alcoholic. I don’t want my son to become one, too.

Photo: Aitor Diago/Getty Images

Earlier this month, I sat on the living room carpet, criss-cross applesauce, singing along with my two-year-old son Avishai to Music Together when I spiraled into panic. My son was dancing around his wooden climbing triangle, clutching an empty Tylenol syringe in his right hand, another in his left, and waving them up and down to the beat.

When my son started teething at four months old, I was nervous about giving him the medication his pediatrician recommended. “Will liquid Tylenol stop working if we give it too often?” I asked my mom. I asked my sister. I asked friends in playgroups. They all gave an emphatic “no.” “Just make sure to give it as directed.”

But when I saw him clutching those empty syringes, I couldn’t breathe. My body throbbed with heat. I was terrified I was grooming him to be an addict. Alcoholism is hereditary.

Now 40, I gave up booze at 24, but many alcoholics are not that lucky. Some sample rehabs until they are 60. Others die.

I had decided to provide Tylenol to my son only sparingly, so he would toughen up and learn to cope.

But a few days later, he was bawling through the night, and my wife and I began dosing him up the moment he said, “wah.” His hand was constantly in his mouth, drool dripping down the side. His pediatrician told us we could rotate medications every two hours, first Tylenol, then Motrin. As an overwhelmed stay-at-home dad, I wasn’t sure how much the meds helped, but I was desperate. If his gums hurt, I administered Motrin. If he kvetched over a toy, Tylenol. Dog pissed him off, Motrin.

After Avishai was born, I started making only one or two self-help meetings a week, a stark contrast to my pre-baby life when I went to many more. For me, accepting I could never drink again safely was easy. I remembered the detox beds, peers going absent in rehab, reading their obituaries soon after. My last relapse was supposed to last a day, but I “I’ll-get-sober-tomorrow”-ed myself for a year and a half. Each night was going to be “my last” so I went all out. I drove on two-lane roads, but saw six. I sucked spilled booze out of the carpet and accidentally chugged bodily fluids. By the time I crawled into the rooms of recovery in 2006, I’d accepted defeat — but I refused to accept that my biology might curse future generations.

I’ve always judged parents who brought their kids to meetings. The adults would beam with pride while their kids were assaulted with war stories. I understand many parents don’t have partners or sitters to watch the kids, but to me, it felt abusive to have children listening. Often, I heard parents laugh and say that their kids were little versions of themselves, making the same mistakes, already showing addict behavior. I’d seethe at their selfishness, feeling they were paving their children’s paths into darkness.

Nature or nurture doesn’t mean much once you cross the line into addiction.

Many experts advocate for parents’ talking to their children about their family’s predisposition to addiction so kids can avoid spiraling into it. I have friends who say they never picked up because they attended meetings as kids, but I also have friends who grew up in the rooms and then fell on their faces. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Human Communication Research shows that children who knew about their parents’ past drug use were “more likely to have weak anti-drug attitudes” than children whose parents took a strong anti-drug stance without sharing stories.

Either way, my hostility toward peers in meetings wasn’t based on research. It was about control. As long as I wasn’t “those people,” my son would be fine.

According to the National Library of Medicine, “Children of people with alcohol use disorder are two to six times more likely … to develop alcohol problems.” I grew up watching a family member drink nightly. I remember the crying, the screaming, dinner ending with my sister wrestling for their car keys. I remember waiting, anxiously, for their car to pull back into the garage. The next day, I’d watch again as they tilted the box wine and their words turned to slush.

My three siblings witnessed the same behavior — none drank like I did. When I say in meetings, “I became a drunk. It doesn’t matter why,” I mean it. Nature or nurture doesn’t mean much once you cross the line into addiction.

The same day Avishai did his medicine dance, he was chewing on the baby gate to soothe his teeth, so I gave him a dose of Tylenol before bed. He calls medicine “ice-ey,” the “ice” taken from the middle of the word med-ice-ine. After I gave it to him, I prepared a second dose to grab in the middle of the night if he needed it. I turned my back, and he slurped that one down, too.

“It’s not dangerous,” the Poison Control operator assured me. But they recommended not giving more for six or so hours. Still frantic over my mistake, I consulted Doctor Google. Using 2002–2012 data from the National Poison Database System, a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicated that an average of 63,000 children under the age of six were reported to have experienced medication errors each year. Sometimes parents measure wrong, sometimes a child gets their hands on medicine, sometimes a parent accidentally gives two meds containing acetaminophen. Most mistakes involve parents calling Poison Control and finding out these accidents are mostly harmless — just don’t do it again. I was relieved, but decided Avishai would be going med-free for a couple days. I turned on the sound machine and cradled him to sleep.

When I was 24, all statistics were against me getting sober. I refused to allow them to define me. My wife and I have read all the parenting books: by Janet Lansbury, by Joanna Faber and Julie King. We know the importance of not putting labels on children. We want Avishai to self-identify based on his own interests. We don’t push him to be an artist. A writer. A soccer player. We will accept him, even if he plays football. Even if, even if. Even if. But, today, I obsess over studies showing my son may be predisposed to addiction. The studies are real, but many also show protective factors against alcoholism. I can be actively involved in his school. I can use positive reinforcement. Teach him problem-solving skills. Set clear expectations and rules.

I can take care of myself mentally. I can attend more meetings. I can be easier on other parents. Easier on myself. Avishai doesn’t ever have to wrestle my car keys from me. I can be a model. I can be there.

The rest of the week, I didn’t give Avishai any medicine because he didn’t need it. That Friday, he looked in pain, so I tossed him a teething toy, and he was good. That’s how it goes, one day the pain is incredible, the next, there is respite.

Yesterday, Avishai was holding his lips crooked, crying to be held. He was suffering, so I pulled out the ice-ey. I put the bottle on the kitchen counter, capless, for one second. The sneaky guy dragged his toddler chair over, climbed up, and snatched it, popping the neck in his mouth and sucking into the hole on the top. I grabbed it from him, inserted it between my lips, and sucked to find out what all the rage was about. I knew the grape flavor was sweet, but I’d never sampled so much in one blast. It tasted like straight sugar. He wasn’t addicted to medicine, he just wanted candy-juice like a typical kid. My fears had me so twisted I was projecting my addiction onto him.

I worry that someday he will ask about my “allergy” to alcohol. I don’t want to lie — but I never want him to envision me passed out, naked, in the front hall. I want to protect him from making his own mistakes — I’m beginning to realize I can’t. I worry that no matter what I do, he too will find himself trapped in locked hospital corridors. I worry he will lose his smile and never find it. But I can’t foretell or control the future. All I can do is be there for him now. Today, we sing together, dancing around climbers. I watch him scale the rungs, and if he takes a spill, I soothe him, and beam when he tries again.

Writer, former social worker, current stay-at-home dad. Words in The Washington Post, The Cut, The Lily, Tablet, & Longreads. Read his work @ jaydeitcher.com.

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