I moved to Alaska in 2008 and almost immediately began working for an Alaska Native Corporation. Years later, as a result of connections made through my job, I was blessed with the opportunity to adopt my little girl – an Alaskan Native herself.
Before calling this region my home, I knew next to nothing about the plight of Alaska Natives. But I quickly found myself plunged into a culture unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The love of family and cohesiveness within these communities was incredible. The art, the music and the strength of a culture built on subsistence; all of it was impressive to me.
But even more than that, was the warmth that was always extended to me when I traveled out to these small native villages for work. We’re talking about places off the road system, with populations sometimes less than 100 people per village, rarely boasting any kind of in-town medical care or assistance. This is a culture that still very much lives off the land today, relying on themselves and their neighbors to survive.
It truly is a special thing to witness.
Unfortunately, there is also a darker side of the Alaska Native culture that sometimes overrides all of that good, from the perspective of outsiders looking in. Addiction issues run rampant, with alcoholism reaching almost epidemic levels in certain areas. Alcohol-related deaths are almost nine times higher among Alaska Natives than the national average, and seven percent of all Alaska Native deaths are alcohol-related. As a result of these issues, they face a decent amount of prejudice, making it even harder to find jobs with employers who are sometimes guilty of painting all Alaska Natives with the same brush.
It is an incredibly sad situation to witness, and one that seems to have few solutions. Efforts have been made to curb these issues, and some villages have even long been considered dry, but to date the problem remains prevalent. Some studies have suggested a difference in metabolizing alcohol among Alaska Natives, which could potentially explain a genetic predisposition, but whatever the reason for these increased dependency issues, the result is a culture whose beauty is sometimes unfairly marred by the struggles they continue to compete against.
As I mentioned earlier, my daughter is Alaska Native. She is also bright and happy and beautiful in every single way. But when she was born, one of my biggest fears was (and still is) that she might some day struggle with the addiction issues that plague her bloodline.
I don’t know how much of this risk is genetic; how much is nature vs. nurture. In all the reading I’ve done on the subject, there doesn’t seem to be many clear answers. But there are plenty of studies that seem to confirm a genetic predisposition. All I know for sure is that raising my little girl, and worrying about how alcohol may one day affect her future, has completely changed the way I look at alcohol myself.
I am the first to admit that I haven’t always had the healthiest relationship with booze. When I was young, I worked at a bar and spent a lot of my nights partying alongside the college crowd that never seemed to have much better to do. I’ve done my share of drinking too much and making poor decisions as a result. But there was never a point when I worried I had a problem – I always knew that drinking was something I did because everyone around me was doing it, and that eventually, that phase in my life would pass.
As it did.
But now, with my little girl always watching me, I find myself uncomfortable with even more than just an occasional glass or two of wine. Suddenly, the stakes are so high and I feel as though it is my responsibility to model a healthy relationship with alcohol; as though I am the only one who can show her such a healthy relationship can exist. Which means I don’t ever want her to see me even just a little bit tipsy, a line that admittedly gets harder to draw in the sand as I drink less and my tolerance goes down.
I don’t want to ban alcohol from my life completely though, because I’m not sure that’s the best way to handle this either. And because it isn’t realistic – because even if I never drink again, it doesn’t mean I can shield her from alcohol completely.
I just know that I am now forever cognizant of the eyes that are always on me.
I wonder if that will be enough to help her break the cycle, or if there is more I could be doing to help my daughter combat the issues she may already be predisposed to. Then again, I also wonder if my hyper-awareness of all things alcohol-related could actually be setting her up for failure from the start.
I don’t want to give the impression that my worries stem solely from the fact that she is Alaska Native. If my daughter were biologically mine, I would probably spend the next 20 years worrying about her being diagnosed with endometriosis and succumbing to the pain and infertility of that, as I did myself. Or of her being at risk for skin cancer and Alzheimer’s, both of which are prevalent in my family tree. This little girl is perfection in my eyes, more beautiful and special than any child I think I could have made. But I do worry. Maybe more than I should, maybe more than is healthy.
I love this child with all my heart, and so – I worry.
I worry in the way where you are always wondering how to best guide this little person you love so deeply. So far, the only answer I have come up with is to shield my daughter from witnessing alcohol in excess, which for the most part, isn’t a difficult deviation from our day to day life. My circle of friends consists mostly of families with children my daughter’s age. The drinking that occurs around us is usually no more than a beer or glass of wine with dinner. There haven’t been any instances in her short life where I have consider removing us from a situation, and for that I am thankful, although I wouldn’t hesitate to do so if necessary.
As she grows older, I’m hopeful that her biological family, with whom we remain close, may one day actually be the best allies I could ask for in helping our little girl to navigate these issues. It’s possible they could give her a perspective that I never could, as someone who has only seen the problems from the outside looking in. For that reason, and so many more, I remain thankful that ours is an open adoption, and the links to where she comes from are always available her. My daughter has two families, and we all love her very much.
I don’t know how we’ll manage high school, college, and beyond. I know I hope to keep the lines of communication wide open, to be honest about the struggles she may be predisposed to and to encourage her to always be safe and aware of her limits. I hope to be the kind of mother she feels she can come to with her own questions and concerns. But I can’t claim any absolutes as of now, nor can I claim an expectation that she will abstain from alcohol completely, because I don’t know what the future holds.
And maybe that is exactly why I will probably continue to worry – because of all the unknowns. Because I love my daughter, and like any loving mother, I want her to have a future that is healthy and happy and productive.
I want her to reach her full potential and to always be good to herself. I want her to never struggle with anything, which I know is completely unrealistic, but don’t all mothers share a similar hope? Don’t we all just want the best?More On