Author Jessica Lahey Turned Her Alcoholism Into Mission to Protect Kids From Substance Abuse
The former teacher’s new book, The Addiction Inoculation, offers parents evidence-based advice for keeping children away from addiction
Bestselling author Jessica Lahey grew up surrounded by alcoholism. In her extended family, the stash of peppermint gum at her grandparents' house was for hiding the smell of booze on the grownups' breath. "Nap" was code for sleeping it off. And children were not to question any of it.
"We weren't supposed to talk about what I saw right in front of me — the slurring, the forgetting, the 'I'm just going to lay down for a nap,' " says Lahey, 50. "There was a lot of napping."
Now, all Lahey does is talk about it — her own experience with alcohol, the role of genetics and other risk factors, and how parents can "inoculate" their children from a life of substance abuse. The former teacher and author of the 2015 bestselling parenting guide The Gift of Failure is out now with her second book, The Addiction Inoculation. The product of years of research and expert interviews, it comes as Lahey marks this summer her eighth year of sobriety.
"This is the book I feel I was born to write," she tells PEOPLE in an interview for the latest issue of the magazine.
Lahey never expected to be an authority on drinking.
The self-described "goody two-shoes" of her family was so disgusted by the lies and gas-lighting surrounding alcoholism in her family that, as a teen, she resolved: "I would never grow up to be like them."
She kept that vow all through college, staring down her family history by becoming a peer drug-and-alcohol counselor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst — "that annoying holier-than-thou twerp my college's health services sent in to reeducate busted frat boys," as she puts it.
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But by the time Lahey was married at age 26, she had begun to fall for what she calls "the romance of drinking." Making a home with her physician husband, Tim, she would pour a glass of wine while cooking dinner and buy books on fine wine. "It was proper … and I got into the whole wine-appreciation thing," she says. "But it became a habit I couldn't break."
Abstaining through her two pregnancies, Lahey recalls that she "barely drank" while nursing her younger son. "It wasn't even that I was drinking so much. It was that I was thinking about drinking all the time. That's when things started to slip out of control," she says.
By the time the younger of her two sons was in elementary school, she was drinking at least a bottle a day. Then, less than three weeks after she turned 43 in 2013, Lahey got blackout drunk at her mother's birthday party. Her father confronted her the next morning.
"He looked me in the eye and said, 'I know what an alcoholic looks like, and you are an alcoholic,' " she recalls. "I was able to say, 'You're absolutely right.' "
That night, she went to her first 12-step meeting. "That's when I started talking about it. And I haven't stopped talking about it since."
5 Things Parents Can Do
From her research for The Addiction Inoculation and her own personal experience, Lahey offers these tips for protecting kids from substance abuse:
1. Start with Yourself
What habits and attitudes about alcohol and drugs do you communicate, both verbally and in practice, to your kids? Our children tend to do as we do, not as we say, so make sure you model healthy behaviors for your kids.
2. Talk Early, Talk Often
Conversations about drugs and alcohol need to start with talk about health and safety when kids are very young. Create a family environment where kids are encouraged to ask questions and raise concerns.
3. Don't Lecture
Children are more apt to engage in two-way discussions. Use your kid's interests to find the side door into the conversation. When you listen to the topics that mean something to him, that shows he's worth listening to.
4. Increase Kids' Sense of Self-Efficacy
This belief in their own ability to cope with challenges — and ultimately succeed — comes from trying, doing, failing and trying again. Teach an older kid to make dinner from scratch and see what they create.
5. Use Inoculation Messaging
One of the best ways to prepare kids to say, "No, thanks, I'm good," is to practice saying, "No, thanks, I'm good." Arming kids with counterarguments for substance use will shore up their defenses against peer pressure.
For more of Lahey's personal story pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.