Facing Voldemort.

Regrettably, it has been a few weeks since my last blog post, but on the positive side: much growth has occurred.

“He knew one thing only, and it was beyond fear or reason: He was not going to die crouching here like a child playing hide-and-seek; he was not going to die kneeling at Voldemort’s feet . . . he was going to die upright like his father, and he was going to die trying to defend himself, even if no defense was possible. . . .”  – J.K. Rowling ‘Harry Potter’ series

In a previous post, I spoke about the choices I have recently been confronted with in my relationship with my mother. I made the decision to agree to speak with her over the phone, with my objectives being to clarify the boundaries I’ve set to protect myself as well as to make clear the contingencies that need to be respected if she desires to have a physical presence in my life. Our conversation was successful on this behalf, but not very much so beyond that…

From the beginning of our conversation, my mother insisted upon the fact that she has been doing SO MUCH WORK on herself. She spoke about the past 6 months as if she had resolved all of her childhood issues, adulthood issues and urged me to “forgive and forget” any of her maternal “inconsistencies.” She noted that she has been going regularly to church, to include a Wednesday night Bible Study as well as working one-on-one with a “spiritual adviser.” She expressed that she is now able to understand the Bible and that she uses her understanding to guide her in her everyday life. 

Okay, so…when does the alcoholism and mistreatment get directly addressed?

It didn’t. Because…it doesn’t. Meaning, it won’t. In a 45 minute conversation, my mother spoke about her relationship with her church and spiritual adviser as if she just naturally arrived at this interest. Like she just woke up one day and felt inspired to establish a connection with (Christian) God. As if she just signed up for this Bible Retreat because it seemed promising and *boop* everything damaged within her has become shiny and brand new. This is problematic for two reasons…

For one, her story is not true. She did not embark upon this religious journey because it felt right and she felt intrinsically motivated to do so. She has sought out this religious journey because 1) Ever the narcissist, it looks good to other people. It maintains the desired image she wishes to wield and hopefully makes me appear unreasonable for distancing myself from her, 2) She thinks I will be impressed by it or at least my ‘rebellion (i.e. the decision I’ve made to be direct with her about my childhood pain, her alcoholism and my newly established boundaries for emotional protection)’ will be pacified, and 3) because the man she is currently co-dependently-ever-after with is a religious figure. And since she has successfully meshed both of their identities into one (meaning, his..) she is no longer using her own words or ideas to navigate herself through life. I need a whole nother day to blog about her co-dependent relationship pattern with abusive men and its presence in my childhood…

Secondly, this is problematic because it slaps anyone who has ever genuinely walked the rocky path of recovery hard across the face. Myself included. I might not be recovering from direct alcoholism, though alcoholism played a prominent role in my childhood environment, but I know that 40+ years of alcohol abuse doesn’t just miraculously become resolved in 6 months. Sometimes I think she must still see me as the naive 8 year old that used to clean up her vomit in the middle of the night and change her pajamas for her whenever she got black-out drunk. The same 8 year old who made a game out of playing doctor in the morning and kept a journal of her symptoms when she’d tell me she was suddenly ill (though, as an adult I realize that she was just hungover–I still have that “doctor” journal to this day. It chills me to see how blatant it was then.). But that’s unfortunately what she does…manipulate the other party’s lack of access to knowledge about something by strongly claiming that things are the extreme opposite of what they seem.

Anyone who has genuinely walked the path of recovery knows that it is a lifelong process. You don’t feel the effects of your recovery so immediately. In fact, you spend the first year or so feeling so uncomfortable about all that you are challenging yourself to do differently that you can’t even tell if it’s really working. That’s how I felt in the first year of my own journey in recovery from my childhood. I still continue to grapple with how much I’ve really progressed. Less-so as I get stronger and stronger, but I’ve accepted that the grappling is just something that will constantly play a role in my journey.

So for my mother to get on the phone and claim that everything is perfect and fixed and if I could just get over myself and forget what happened and stop bringing it up into everything and be her best friend, is absurd. I told her that if she is really doing the work that she says she is, that it will naturally manifest in her behavior towards me and furthermore that that would be the “evidence” I’ll require in order to begin building trust. I told her that in the meantime, there is going to continue to be a distance between us, because while I can and have forgiven her, it is impossible to forget what has all happened between us because it has had a major role in making me who I am today. The bad goes right along hand-in-hand with the good. There is no magical delete button that I can press and then all of my deepest fears and anxieties just disappear. Trust me, if it existed I’d have pressed that shit 9 years ago when I left Boston to escape that household. I wouldn’t press it now, though. I have grown an appreciation for all that I’ve been through. It has provided me with a unique lens through which to see the world; interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. 

I made the point to mention to my mother that while it sounds like she is feeling supported through church and her spiritual adviser, it would be valuable to share her alcoholism with them OR to at least seek a form of therapy via Alcohol Anonymous, Al-Anon, or–especially–private professional therapy. I acknowledged the  fact that since alcohol has played such a huge role in her life and her coping mechanisms have been built around it, she would be remiss to leave that out of any dialogue. Her response was that she has too much going on in her life and doesn’t have any time to do anything like that.

What that says to me is that acknowledging her alcoholism and seeking help is not a priority to her. In one sentence she made it very clear to me that while she is doing some things to give the outward impression of progress and growth, she is still protecting her disease. And while she’s certainly got a lot going on, alcoholism stands boldly at the core of her arbitrary issues. Thankfully, I went into our interaction not having any expectations for her to acknowledge or work on her alcohol abuse. I stuck to my guns and to my goals. By the end of our phone conversation, I made it very clear to her that while I can’t control whether she continues to drink or not, that she will not drink around me. If she were to make the choice to drink in my presence (while in the company of other family or otherwise), I would promptly remove myself from the situation and leave from wherever we may be. I also reinforced to her that my wife & I will no longer be staying in a house with her, to maintain a healthy emotional boundary.

It felt really good to assert myself and stand up to the biggest bully of my life. It felt great to protect my emotional and psychological stability and articulate an contingency. Because I can’t tell her how to live her life. I can’t be the person that holds all her shit together for her while she continues to be reckless. I can’t be her emotional punching bag when she’s upset or attack dog when she feels threatened. All I can do is create a safe space for myself and make the best choices I can to maintain that sense of stability and security I yearned for as a child. It’s okay that she could never provide this environment for me, because for once in my life, I realize that I have the power to provide it for myself.

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A Step Towards Healing: Part II

In my first Step Towards Healing, I highlighted a book that sparked an awakening and awareness in me about what I had experienced through childhood and how it had affected me in becoming an anxious and mal-adapted young adult. From that first step, I’ve continued to pick up books and seek out resources to help deepen my understanding and develop a safe & healthy game plan for my recovery as an adult child of an alcoholic family.

The next book I picked up is titled “Perfect Daughters: Adult Daughters of Alcoholics” by Robert J. Ackerman, Ph.D. Dr. Ackerman has decades of clinical experience in helping women who have been affected by alcoholism, particularly those who have an alcoholic mother, father–or both. I liked this book because it really digs deep into the psychology of the adult daughter in all of these scenarios. While adult children of alcoholics share have many traits in common (as discussed in Part I), defense mechanisms & coping skills vary depending on who in the child’s life was the alcoholic (mother-only; father-only; both parents) and furthermore how the other parent (if present) behaves in response to their spouse’s addiction.

This book hit me two-fold. First, it gave me some very interesting insight about my mother. I am fully aware of alcoholism’s strong presence in my family history as a whole. My parents have been divorced since before my first memories. I’m sure I will talk about the abusive relationship between my mother and my father in blog posts to come, but the relevant information to share right now is that after my mother left my father, she moved back in with her parents–my grandparents. I was raised in a house with my mother, my grandmother and my grandfather (until he passed). My grandparents are alcoholics.

My grandfather’s alcohol abuse eventually killed him (kidney & liver failure). He was on dialysis and still sneaking drinks until the day he died. In their day, he and my grandmother were perpetual party people and heavy drinkers, often leaving my mother (& aunt) unattended. Thankfully, as I mentioned in an earlier post, my grandfather’s death was a wake-up call for my grandmother. He passed when I was 5 years old, in Kindergarten. In the wake of his death, something clicked for my grandmother and she (successfully) went on her own journey to recover from her many years of alcohol abuse. This of course was too late to “raise” and “rescue” my mother who was already 36 years-old and alcohol-dependent, so my grandmother invested her parental redemption in me. If it weren’t for this, I don’t know where I would be..but I digress.

Perfect Daughters granted me tons of insight in coming to realize that not only is my mother an alcoholic, she is also an adult daughter of alcoholics. The book talks about the coping skills adult daughters develop in response to having two alcoholic parents, as well as discussing their high likelihood of becoming self-harmers and substance abusers. I saw so much of my mother in this book, more than I saw myself, and gained a sense of empathy for her. I was able to release some of the anger I had been walking around with since my teenage years when I realized how much she much be hurting on the inside, too. This did not by any means excuse her behavior, because I realize that our lives are largely a product of the choices we make (after we acknowledge the access to resources & privileges some of us have over others [men v. women; Caucasian v. persons of color; wealth v. poverty; able-bodied v. those living w/handicap, etc]). But Perfect Daughters did help to humanize my mother, in my mind. I remember thinking, I wonder if she would seek help and therapy if she were to read this book. But then also realizing that she would never accept it from me because she would manage to see it as an insult or a pass of judgement.

The other way that Perfect Daughters impacted me was in understanding myself. I found my own mentality reflected within its pages. There is a section in the book called “Childhood Lessons.” This section urges the reader to look back on their life and identify whether or not they learned these unintended lessons within the process of adjusting to an alcoholic family and coming-of-age. Below are the selections from the larger list of lessons that I highlighted because I realized that I had been living these lessons my whole life:

  • If I can control everything, I can keep my family from becoming upset.
  • Whatever happens is my fault, and I am to blame when trouble occurs.
  • People who love you the most are those who cause you the most pain.
  • If I don’t get too close emotionally, you cannot hurt me.
  • Nothing is wrong, but I don’t feel right.
  • Expressing anger is not appropriate
  • I’m unique, and my family is different from all other families.
  • I can deny anything.
  • I am not a good person.
  • I am responsible for the success of a relationship.
  • To be acceptable, everything must be perfect

Dr. Ackerman goes on to write, “These childhood lessons become imprints or beliefs that you have about yourself, and they begin to dictate your expectations of yourself and your behaviors…However, you have survived and somehow you have maintained some balance in your life. Therefore, you must have learned other lessons that have served you well or have allowed you to survive.” The latter section of that quote, I immediately think about my relationship with my grandmother as she played the role of emotionally-available parent in my life.

The book provides profiles for the 8 different patterns of behaviors that develop in adult daughters. I was able to identify my mother within these profiles, as well as discovering myself as  an “Achiever” and “Detacher”. The most valuable part of this book for me was that Dr. Ackerman acknowledges that each type has both positive and negative traits.

In the last part of Perfect Daughters Dr. Ackerman provides tons of information about how an adult daughter (or child) can help their own recovery. I found this to be really valuable because I hadn’t known where to begin in acquiring and building healthy skills for myself before reading this book. When I started reading Perfect Daughters I was still in a place where I was trying to understand if alcoholism really had affected me or was I just hypersensitive & paranoid. Within the first 100 pages, I came to the realization that what I had felt in Part I was very real and that there were most certainly somethings amiss. 

Perfect Daughters helped me to build up the confidence to continue to  go forth in my healing & recovery. It helped me to understand my mother’s behavior on a higher-level and therefore I started to develop more realistic expectations for our relationship (what I deserve v. what she is capable of). Whether you are a daughter or son of alcoholics, I encourage you to see out this book if maternal alcoholism has been present in your life in one way or another. I look forward to sharing my next steps towards healing and the resources that have helped get me here, in the future.