Talking to Your Kids about Your Past

Talking to Your Kids about Your Past

There are times when you want parenting advice from the greatest child psychologist in the world. And then there are times when you just want to hear about how other people parent, not because you’re seeking a model of perfection, but because sharing our infallibility—and really listening—lends a kind of insight and connection we can’t find anywhere else.

This is how we felt in conversation with Perry Rubenstein, a father who, in recent years, has opened up to his two teenagers about his struggle with addiction and path to recovery. We asked him to tell us what it was like to talk to them about it—how he felt afterward, how it has shaped their relationship, and how it informs his ongoing recovery.

A Q&A with Perry Rubenstein

Are there things from your past that you always knew you would want to talk to your children about?

Yes. I have daughters, a thirteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old. And they are exploring who they are as individuals. They’re curious about everything.

There isn’t much that I consider to be inappropriate conversation, as long as it’s within certain boundaries. One of those boundaries, where I tread lightly, is talking to them about experimenting with drugs and alcohol. When I was their age, I had a self-destructive streak. I experimented. I got too close to the fire. I went through every gateway drug in the late ’70s: The first time I saw lines of heroin was when I was a model in Paris, and I thought they were lines of cocaine, and I innocently did one. I mean, innocently is kind of a funny way to describe it, but it was so common to do cocaine in that world that a few lines of something else seemed innocent…only to discover that it was the ultimate poison. I had smoked pot at thirteen, and I was shooting heroin at thirty years old on the Lower East Side. I was one injection away from potentially dying or getting a disease. And that’s not the kind of thing you share with a young kid.

I went into a recovery program at thirty, and I had therapy there for the first time in my life. What I discovered in my recovery was that I had a pattern of self-destruction that manifested in use and abuse. My severe abuse was a form of suicide—slow, not intentional, but always the potential of death.

I knew from day one with my kids that I would have to keep a close eye on them. Not to see whether they were going to go smoke a joint or be one of the kids that like to get drunk; I was going to look even closer to see if there were any patterns of self-destruction or self-defeating behavior. I needed to be vigilant and watch carefully to see if they started to develop a bad self-image. I was going to intervene, conservatively but proactively. I was keeping a keen eye out for any kind of thinking or behavior that I would consider self-destructive or that could lead to a pattern of addictive and then highly destructive behavior. That, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean alcohol and drugs. There are so many other things. It could be a food issue, could be body image. It could be social anxiety.

How did you have the actual conversation with them?

It wasn’t fear that was keeping me from having this conversation. It was years of inertia and a lack of opportunity. But because I was writing about it, I knew that I had to tell them before it was public.

I picked my younger daughter up, and I got her in the car, and of course she’s staring at her phone and can have a conversation at the same time. I said, “Can we talk?” She said, “We’re talking.” I said, “Can we talk without the phone?” And she said, “Yeah.” I said, “Sweetheart, there are a few things that…you know that I’ve been writing.” She knew that I was writing. I said, “There are a few things that I’ve never told you about my past that are going to be published, that you’re going to be able to read or your friends are going to read, and that I want you to know, darling.”

She said, “Were you married before mom?” I think she’s thinking maybe there’s an extra child out there in the world. I said no. In the span of five minutes, I told her about my addiction, about my recovery, and specifically that I had injected heroin.

She kind of took it in. She’s still looking at her phone, by the way. She said, “Where are the marks on your arms, Dad?” That was as I dropped her off. I said, “You know, sweetheart, the physical marks go away pretty fast. The body recovers pretty fast. But it takes maybe a lifetime for the emotional and the spiritual to heal and develop.” She understood. Then she made a kind of cute remark, and it was like, “Look, I know you, Dad. I love you, and I didn’t think you were innocent, but that’s a little more than I want to know.”

The next day I was with my older daughter. She and I had spent months together as she was learning how to drive. We were spending three hours a night together, pretty much. There was almost nothing she wouldn’t talk to me about. Not everything, but pretty damn close. She knew that I was writing about my life, because she used to read what I was writing over my shoulder. We were driving to the top of Topanga, and I said something very similar to what I’d said to her sister. I told her about the heroin and the heroin addiction. We got to the top of the hill, and she looked at me, and she said, “You know, I kind of knew it, Papa.” She said, “I love you, Papa.”

It was one of the most liberating moments of my entire life. The ability to be that open and that vulnerable with my children has taken my relationship with them to a completely different level—both in terms of a next step in my own journey and my own recovery and because I felt that sharing it was going to be very valuable to them.

Has the topic of your sobriety come up since that initial conversation with them?

All the time. I had a short relapse two years ago, after thirty years of sobriety. I was in an accident—I broke my hip, shattered ribs, shattered my wrist. I scared the hell out of the girls. They had never seen me drink. They had never seen me use. Suddenly, because I’d been struggling with issues, despair overcame resistance and the work that I’d been doing.

This time, without hesitation and with the encouragement of my ex, I immediately went into treatment. That really did shock them. And it’s a shocking place to find yourself after thirty years. If you had asked me, with my decades of success at the highest levels in the art world, what my greatest achievement was, I would’ve said having overcome heroin addiction. So to find myself back there again was beyond humiliating and shameful. It was traumatizing, and it was traumatizing to the children.

How do you talk to your kids about recovery?

I had to let time heal. They want evidence. They want to see that you’ve made the right decision, that you’ve chosen treatment, that the treatment is working—they want to see you getting better. They may not know precisely what it takes to do the work, but they want to see a commitment to it. Then they simply want to see the behavior. You just have to live a better life. You just have to show them that abusing drugs is not part of your life right now. That you have moved on in life, but that you’re extremely cognizant of it, that you’ve been reminded of your own fragility and your own mortality and your own predisposition to addiction.

You can’t just come out and say, “I’m better.” They’re going to wait for the other shoe to drop. It’s going to take each kid a different amount of time. Everyone’s different. Mine, I think, see that I’m doing better every single day that I’m with them.

They also see change. They see an emphasis on helping others, that I take phone calls from people who are in trouble, members of the program. They see service. They see that there’s community and connection and that there’s family and that we care about one another. I like going to men’s groups and listening to people who are trying to live a more virtuous life, a better life. Very imperfectly. You hear these stories of people with four children who are going through the vagaries of life, but they’re trying to make good choices in consultation and connection with other people.

I’m a pretty attentive student at those meetings. I love my kids dearly. I’d like to think there’s another thirty years ahead. I’d like it to be a good life and a healthy life. I feel blessed. I feel privileged. I feel committed to seeing to it that people begin to understand addiction is pervasive, and it’s not something we should just turn a cold shoulder to. There are a lot of life lessons that I’m learning in AA that I’m able to share with and impart to the girls: I do it very honestly—I tell them that I learned it there. I don’t know what they’ll think in two years or five about the program itself, but I think they’ll see that I have learned a lot, that I share a lot, that I care a lot about other people, and that I’m passing it on. Hopefully that will be of value to them.

Perry Rubenstein is an art dealer and former fashion model who consults for collectors and artists. Rubenstein writes about art, fashion, recovery, and fatherhood.