The hardest words are often most important

Posted: Friday, March 14, 2008

"Mrs. Donaldson, I think your daughter has a drinking problem."

Those were hard words to say.

I went to a small Christian college that had some strict rules: Keep your door ajar if you have a visitor of the opposite sex. No alcohol on campus. Now, as it happens, my husband attended the same college and he contends that not everyone interpreted the rules quite like I did. What I know is that the only time I ever broke the rules and my friend Lynnie and I dared to drink one can of Coors Light in our dorm room, we were busted by our resident adviser, who was "very disappointed" in us.

My junior year I transferred to a different college in a bigger city with a more sophisticated and worldly student body. The contrast was significant. It seemed there was always a party happening somewhere and that they all involved drinking. There were dorm parties, frat parties, and off-campus parties.

Though I transferred schools seeking anonymity, one of my childhood friends, Ellie, attended the college and we quickly rekindled our friendship. She and her friends were the off-campus, intellectual rebels of the school and I was pretty thrilled to be included.

They studied hard and drank hard liquor in equal measure. I wondered how people who got so little sleep and drank so much could perform so well in difficult classes. When you're 20, you can get away with a lot. Or so it seemed.

Ellie and I both returned "home" to work summer jobs before our senior year. We hung out some, went to movies and played tennis. Then one day she called and asked me to meet her at a coffee shop.

I was completely unprepared for what she told me. She suspected she was an alcoholic and she wanted help. She painted a picture of our childhoods that were parallel but also worlds apart. When we volunteered to clean up after our parents' respective cocktail parties, in our junior high years, I did it to for the leftover mixed nuts but she was downing the cocktail dregs. At sleepovers, she snuck alcohol from her parent's liquor cabinet. She drank in the bathroom when we went to movies.

She asked me to attend an AA meeting with her under the pretense of doing research for a college course and I agreed. But every time we were to attend, she had an excuse. She said she wasn't drinking anymore then called the next week to confess that she had been lying and still wanted help.

It was a warm summer night and I was to pick Ellie up for one more attempt at an AA meeting. She called to cancel as I was leaving my house, sounding confused and distant. Concerned, I drove to her parents house where I was told, pleasantly enough, that she had just left, in the car, with her younger sister to get ice cream.

I drove around trying to decide what to do. I felt very alone, burdened by this information and the potential consequences. I decided I needed help figuring this out so I drove home and confided in my mom, telling her that I was pretty sure I should talk to Ellie's parents.

My mom told me that if one of her children was in trouble, she would want someone to tell her. She told me that if something happened to Ellie or her younger sister that I would live with that for my entire life. And she praised me for being courageous and mature.

Fortified, I returned to Ellie's house. Finding that she and her sister were still not home, I blurted out what I had to say.

"I don't know how to say this," I started. "I think Ellie, I mean, I know because she told me, that she has a drinking problem. And she wants help. And I'm scared because she's out driving with her sister and she might be drinking."

I'll never forget the looks on their faces as they said, "We can take care of our family," and closed the sliding glass door in my face.

A number of years ago, my daughter came to me in tears concerned about an out-of-state friend she had stayed in contact with over the years. Her friend was depressed and alone and my daughter was afraid for her.

"Should I call her mom?" she asked me.

My heart ached for her. This seemed such a big burden for someone so young. I shared with her my experience with Ellie and her family and the advice my mom gave me.

"What happened to Ellie?" she wanted to know.

"She kept drinking until she hit rock bottom and then she got help. She's OK now."

"So, do you think telling her parents helped her? Do you think you did the right thing?"

Talking this through with my daughter, I realized that those were two very different questions. I'm not sure that my telling Ellie's parents helped her. In fact, I'm pretty sure it didn't. But, the tricky part is, we don't often get to know the outcome of our actions until we take them.

I added a bit of my own advice to my mom's that day. It only seemed fair. "Sometimes by being a good friend, you lose one, at least for a while. And, I think it is worth the risk."

• Carol Prentice is caught in the middle of family, work and life in Juneau.

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