I’m in church and my friend is on stage singing. I love her voice. Her brother is dying of cancer. Her dad already died of cancer and her mother is in remission. I know she is hurting. I wonder how she is able to sing with all the pain in her life. The words she is singing blow me away. “I’ll praise you for you are holy, Lord, and I’ll lift my hands, but you are worthy of so much more.” I am stunned. A sea of emotion is rising in my chest. She is sitting on a stool staring up at the ceiling, and singing as if no one else is here. I can’t take my eyes off her. Her voice draws my emotions to the surface. Part of me wants to cry. Another part of me is wrestling my emotions back into their place, locked tightly inside my heart. It makes me want to get up and run out of church, but I can’t walk out while my friend is singing. I clench my teeth and fists. I don’t want to feel anything but anger.
I close my eyes and wonder. I wonder about trust, and God, and people, and sorrow. I’m tired of vacillating between anger and sorrow. I wonder if I’ll ever be happy again. I don’t know what to think about God. I want to walk away and pretend I never believed in him. But I’ve seen him do things! I’ve seen things I can’t explain. So, does he love to torture us? I feel like an ant under the magnifying glass of a little mischievous boy. Go ahead and burn me! It can’t hurt any worse than I already feel.
I walk across the parking lot to Jen’s office. I’m thinking about my friend, Amy. I asked her how she sang that song at church when so many things are happening in her life. She said she gets angry at God, but she still trusts him. I don’t get it. She must know something I don’t.
I walk into the office. I don’t know what we’re going to talk about today. I don’t remember if I was supposed to work on something or not. I feel like a zombie. I’m really trying to be less stubborn and do what Jen or Nancy or Ann suggests, but it still feels very awkward. It feels like putting my shoes on the wrong feet. It’s hard to go against my gut feeling and trust someone else, but I’ve already proven I can’t trust myself. I sit on Jen’s couch and stare at the wall. Jen sits in her chair. I wonder how she listens to crazy stories and frustrating people all day long and still smiles. I take a deep breath.
“How are you today?”
“Are you getting enough sleep?”
“Are you running?”
“Are you eating well?”
“Are you eating well?”
I really never eat well. I don’t eat horribly, but I don’t go out of my way to eat healthy. I don’t like to spend that much time thinking about food. I get hungry. I go to the kitchen. I make the quickest thing I can find. It’s usually a peanut butter sandwich. I have my stash of Hershey bars in a file drawer so my family doesn’t eat them all, and there is always plenty of sugar cereal in the cupboard.
“What did you do this week?”
I hate trying to remember my whole week. I have a hard time remembering yesterday. JB thinks I learned how to forget things as a child, so I didn’t have to think about my life. It makes sense to me. I suppose that’s why people with really traumatizing experiences often don’t remember much of their childhood.
“How are you doing with your kids?”
I think about my visit to their elementary school.
I’ve parked in the school parking lot. I have to drop off Jenna’s lunch. She forgot it on the kitchen table when she ran out to catch the bus this morning. Every time I go to the school it reminds me that I failed my kids. I check in at the office and head to the third grade hallway and look for the lockers marked with American flags. Each class has their own picture so the kids can find their lockers easier. I’m thankful, because it helps me a lot. I find her locker, open it up and place her lunch on the top shelf. I wonder if she’ll see it. I don’t want her to go without lunch today, and I don’t want her to worry in class about her lunch. Maybe I could sneak down to her class to let her teacher know. I walk to the third grade classrooms. There are some kids in the reading area outside of the class. Jenna is sitting on the floor next to a volunteer mom. Jenna is reading a book as the mom listens. Jenna is stuck on a word. The mom starts sounding out the word with her. Jenna follows along, “Wednnnnesday, Wednesday!” The mom smiles big and nods her head acknowledging her progress. Jenna smiles. She looks proud of herself.
I stand still for a moment as the weight of my failure holds me captive to this spot. I think back to my homeschooling methods. Jenna has a hard time sitting still, so when we’re done going over the lessons, she has to keep working until she’s done with her homework. One day that took hours. She was particularly fidgety. Andy had long since finished all his work so I let him go play. I sat next to Jenna and told her I would work next to her so she could focus better. Thirty seconds later I got up to do some things. I realized while doing the dishes that I needed to go back and sit with Jenna. She was off track again. I sat by her and tried to get some work done. I couldn’t focus, so I got up and put some of the science supplies away. Jenna became distracted again, so I sat down next to her. I decided to help her so she could be done and I wouldn’t have to sit here all day going crazy. I could not get her to think about the homework, so I finally got up, grabbed a winter scarf and tied her to the chair. I kept her there until I realized as I was pacing around the house, that I couldn’t sit there any longer than she could! Who ties their kid to a chair?! Not those homeschool moms I see at the conventions with their home-made denim jumpers and ponytails cascading down their back. I’m sure they had all twelve of their kids sitting around the table quietly doing their lessons and finishing homework two grades ahead of their age. Who did I think I was that I could homeschool my kids?!
I can’t believe I’ve put Jenna in this situation where she’s behind the other kids in her class. I’m jealous that this mom is connecting with my daughter like it’s the easiest thing in the world to sit there and sound out the words together. I need to leave before Jenna sees me. I will myself to turn and walk away. I stare at the pavement as I walk to my car. I want to escape, but there’s nowhere to go. I want to do something, but I realize I am doing all I can. I need to accept that I’m doing all I can.
“I still feel bad about what I’ve done to my kids.”
I look at the floor. I hate admitting my terrible parenting. It’s embarrassing. I deserve it though. Jen is quiet.
“I know I can’t do anything about the past. I know I have to keep looking ahead and working on myself. It’s just hard to watch them have to go through hard things because of me. They didn’t do anything to deserve what I’ve done to them.”
Jen is quiet for a moment before she responds.
“Neither did you.”
I sit still as her words penetrate my mind. They are sinking in slowly like rainwater draining into the soil. I replay them; I didn’t do anything to deserve what I got. Didn’t I? Why have I never thought of that? I don’t feel undeserving. I feel guilty, like I have deserved every bad thing that has ever happened to me.
“You are so hard on yourself. You expect yourself to be the perfect parent without having anyone to model it for you. Everyone else in the world follows human nature and repeats the patterns they grew up with, but you think you’re different; that you should magically be able to overcome your childhood and be the perfect parent. Like we talked about, adult children of alcoholics believe that everyone is doing life the right way, and they are doing it wrong. They also believe they should be doing everything different because they learned how terrible it is to parent poorly. That’s just not how human behavior works. We repeat the patterns of our parents, because that’s what we know.”
I begin to think of the similarities between myself and my parents. I’ve seen the similarities, but I’ve dismissed them from my mind as quickly as they came, because I can’t stand the thought of resembling my parents. I have a bad temper like my dad. I spent a lot of my time at church looking for affirmation like my mom. I’m a perfectionist like my dad. I’m really stubborn like both of my parents. I hear myself saying the same things to my kids that they said to me. I’ve tried so hard to not be like them, and I see them in myself all the time.
“You need to stop dwelling on what you’ve done wrong, and start looking at what you’re doing right. Use some of the skills you’ve learned to focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t do.”
“Are you doing everything you can to make life better for you and your kids?”
I think about all my recovery stuff; inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, twelve step meetings, therapy, DBT group, practicing my skills to have better behavior. I still want to be better than I am, but I can’t think of anything more that I could do to make things better.
“I guess so.”
“So you are doing everything possible to make your life and your family’s lives better?”
“I guess so.”
“You should be proud of yourself for working this hard to make all these changes. Not many people are willing to change. Can you say that you are doing a good job?”
I look at the ceiling. I hate this.
“I’m doing a good job.”
Saying it out loud actually makes me feel like I really am doing a good job. I think I would have quit awhile back without the constant encouragement I get from my friends. They celebrate my smallest little achievements even though I think they’re not big enough to really celebrate. It feels good to hear them tell me how I’m doing and remind me how far I’ve come. I’m always looking at what I haven’t accomplished yet. I’m beginning to feel the importance of being proud of the work I have done already no matter how small it might seem. It’s another habit I need to learn that feels uncomfortable and awkward right now.
Everything feels awkward now, especially talking to JB. I think I’m beginning to earn his trust back a little bit. In the first few weeks after I got out of treatment no one let me drive at all. My friends gave me rides to my meetings and JB did all the driving after he got home from work. When I finally started driving he would ask where I was going and how long I would be gone and if I was going with anyone. It drove me crazy, but I understood why he was paranoid. I’d been drinking for three years, and he didn’t know it. We talked about it a little one night. I thought he didn’t know anything, but he did know something was up. He knew I was distant and preoccupied, and I avoided him a lot. He broke down when he said he thought I was having an affair. I was a little stunned at first, but the more I thought about what my alcoholism must have looked like from his perspective, the more sense it made. In some ways, I was having an affair with alcohol. I’ve heard a lot of alcoholics and addicts explain their relationship to a drug as an affair. It starts out innocently, but soon you’re hooked and you wonder how you got there, and then the drug is all you want and all you need. Now I have to repair the damage I’ve caused and it won’t happen overnight. There is no one big thing I can do to resolve my problems. I just have to be patient as I work through my program, but I have no patience. I want to fix everything right now. I can say I’m sorry all I want, but I know he won’t trust me just because I said, I’m sorry. I need to keep making good decisions every day. It’s one of the reasons I don’t want to drink and mess things up again. I don’t know how many times I can mess up and still earn his trust back.
"Have you been communicating with JB?”
“More than I used to.”
“I think it’s really important that you keep sharing with him how you feel everyday.”
“Are you sharing something with him once a day?”
“Not every day.”
“Is it starting to feel natural at all?”
JB and I are sitting on the couch watching TV. I realize I haven’t told him how I feel today. I don’t want to do it tonight. But I want to do this therapy stuff. I need to say something. It’s not like we never talk to each other. We have three kids. We have to talk. But we don’t talk about feelings. I bet most guys would be happy to never talk about feelings. I need to do this. What do I feel? I feel tired. That’s not really a feeling word. I feel vulnerable. I don’t want to tell him that. Way too scary. Maybe I can say I’m grouchy. That’s a little less emotional. I look at him watching TV. I start talking. “You know how I’m supposed to tell you how I feel?” “Yes,” he responds. “I feel grouchy.” He wrinkles his eyebrows and begins to open his mouth. I cut him off. “You don’t have to say anything. I just need to tell you.” He responds, “Ok.” We both go back to watching TV.
“Keep practicing with him.”
I can’t imagine it ever feeling natural to share my feelings with anyone.
“Are you doing anything fun just for yourself?”
"Like the list you made of fun things to do.”
I think about my list. Most of the stuff on there was bogus. I just wanted to get ten things on the page so I could be done with it.
“I mowed the grass this week.”
“Does that count as a fun thing?”
“I really like mowing the lawn. It’s very meditative.”
“Are you doing anything besides chores?”
I think about the photo albums I laid out on my table to take to my friend’s cabin.
“Some of my friends and I are going to a cabin for the weekend to scrapbook.”
“That’s sounds like fun!”
I think of the last time I worked on my scrapbook. It took me an hour to do one page. At this rate it would take me 240 years to scrap them all.
“I’m trying to be less of a perfectionist. It makes it difficult to have fun. I get frustrated.”
“I’m glad you’re noticing your perfectionism as a problem. Besides being a perfectionist, your OCD is probably causing you some trouble too.”
Sometimes it’s not that Jen says something brilliant, it’s that we’ve laid out so many different pieces to the puzzle that I’m starting to be able to find the corner pieces and then the edge pieces and when pieces fit together I can see a little bit more of the big picture. My OCD or perfectionism or whatever is going on is shedding some light on things I do that cause problems, like my writing.
I’m in my office at home in front of the computer. I’m writing a skit for the church Christmas program. I’m near the end and I haven’t quite figured out how to resolve the problem I created between the characters. I start rereading from the beginning. I think I know where this is going. I need to go back and rewrite one of my character’s lines. I need her to realize something earlier in the story so when I end the story, she will have come full circle. That’s it! I scramble to find her lines. I’m deleting and rewriting. My thoughts are racing through my fingers onto the computer keyboard. “MOM! I’m ready!” Andy is calling to me from upstairs. He is ready to get tucked in. “I’ll be up in a minute!” I stare at the screen. I reread what I just wrote. I’m writing again. I finish the scene and move to the next. I read through her lines. I make a couple of changes so it’s now congruent with the first scene changes. I’m reading through the last scene. Ideas are coming. They are in my head, beginning to surface. I know the resolution is close. I continue to read and type and read and type. I’m almost there. Two or three more lines to go. “MOM!” Andy is yelling at me again. I’m so irritated I want to throw my computer across the room. Instead I yell, “JUST A MINUTE!!!”
I lost my thoughts. I only have a few more lines. All the thoughts were right at the tip of my tongue and now I can’t remember what they were. AHHHH! I breathe in deep. I go back to the beginning of the scene. I start reading. As I read, the frustration starts to fade. The thoughts are coming again. I continue reading and I know what has to happen now. I begin to type. I delete. Not the right wording. I type again. Closer, but not perfect. I’m thinking. I’m tapping my foot and my mind is going 100 miles an hour. It’s so close. I start typing again and it’s coming together. Three more words. Done! It’s done. I need to read it through to make sure it all works together. I look at the clock. Crap. It’s been an hour since I told Andy I would be up. I walk upstairs and peak into his room. He’s sound asleep. All the satisfaction I feel about my skit crumbles into a heap on the floor. I kneel beside Andy’s bed and pull the covers up to his chin. I lean over and kiss his cheek. I wonder what he thought about while he was waiting for me. I wonder how many times I’ve done this and if his heart still breaks when I don’t come up or if he’s gotten to the point like I did as a kid where I just didn’t have any more expectations.
My head feels like a lead weight as I add another check mark to my list of bad parenting skills. There are so many bad habits I need to change, and it’s a constant struggle to remember the new skills I’m learning and be aware of when I need to use them. It’s exhausting. I thought being an athlete was hard work. In basketball our coach made us run sprints after we lost one game in particular. We ran until someone threw up.
The physical challenges I’ve been through in high school and college sports are nothing compared to the mental exhaustion I’ve been through in recovery and therapy. Some days I can’t stay awake, and I take a nap before the kids get home from school. I know I couldn’t do this for any other reason than my kids.
“It seems like I don’t have much time for fun. I’ve been trying to do fewer things to keep my schedule more open.”
“Good. Everyone needs some margin. But you also need to make room for self-care. There will always be dozens of things vying for your attention. You need to schedule the things that are important first and then if there’s room at the end of the day, you can deal with some things that are not as important. But you need to prioritize you time.”
That’s a good reminder. I’ve seen different prioritizing strategies for planners and calendars. I keep trying different organizing ideas, but they never work, because I usually don’t remember by the next day that I was working on something. It gets very frustrating when I find remnants around the house of things I’ve started and forgotten about.
“So, let’s make a priority list.”
I get out some paper and my pen and write, “Priority List” at the top.
“What are the priorities in your life?”
“Good. What else?”
“My recovery meetings.”
“Good. What else?”
“I think that’s about it.”
“How many of these priorities are on your calendar?”
“Then they really aren’t a priority to you. You might think and say they are your priority, but the things you spend time on are the things you give value to. They are your priorities.”
I ponder this thought as I stare at my calendar. There is a lot written down, but not much about my family. I have Bible study, twelve step meetings, coffee with a friend, and a dental appointment. Before I went to treatment, my kids always came last on my calendar. I spent time with them while I homeschooled them, but that was a different kind of time. They had to sit and listen to me. I wonder if I should actually make a date and time to sit and listen to my kids. It reminds me of something that happened this week.
I’m folding laundry. Andy and Jenna are at the table doing homework. I’m thinking about something Ann said today on the phone. It was just a trivial thing to her, but it stuck with me. She told me she’s going to buy Star Wars plates and napkins for her son’s birthday along with some green balloons because that’s her son’s favorite color. I wonder what Jenna’s favorite color is. Why don’t I know that? I wonder if all good parents know their kid’s favorite color. I ask Jenna what her favorite color is. She tells me it’s sometimes blue and sometimes purple. I ask Andy. He tells me silver. Wow, weird. I ask him why. He says because no one else likes silver. What an interesting answer. I realize this is a window into his personality. He’s always been drawn to the kids that no one else likes, and he doesn’t mind being different. He’s got a lot of leadership qualities. I hope he will be able to see those qualities someday. I’m worried I’ve damaged his self-confidence.
I stop folding laundry and sit at the table with them. I look at Andy’s homework. I ask him what he’s doing. He says math. I look at his math book. There are a lot of fractions all over the page. I ask him if he knows how to do these. He says yes. I guess he doesn’t need my help. I look at Jenna’s homework. She’s working on a list of spelling words. She has to come up with a sentence for every word. I ask her if she wants help. She says yes. She is excited. So am I. The first word is book. She looks at the word. Then she says, “Mrs. Sheraton helped me read the book.” She smiles wide. I force myself to smile back as I imagine Mrs. Sheraton sitting with Jenna at school helping her learn to read. I feel like someone punched me in the stomach. She moves onto the next word. I help, but I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m still wishing I had been Mrs. Sheraton today.
“I sat down with my kids this week and asked them questions.”
“That’s great. How did it go?”
“I’m usually trying to multi-task, so I’m always doing something else when they are talking to me, but I sat down with them at the table while they were doing homework and tried to focus just on what they were doing. It took some conscious thought to stay in my chair and ask questions and listen to their responses. But I felt we broke down some of the barriers between us.”
“That is great. That’s exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about priorities. Putting your chores or other projects aside and giving someone your whole attention. It makes people feel important. If you never got that when you were a child, it is probably a foreign concept to you, so you’ll have to keep consciously practicing it.”
I think about being a kid, and I try to remember having someone’s undivided attention. I got it from my dad sometimes when he was drunk. It seemed like undivided attention when he lectured us on space aliens or survival skills, but it also seemed like it didn’t matter who he was talking to. We probably could have put our stuffed animals at the kitchen table with him, and they would have received the same undivided attention. It wasn’t a question and answer session, just a lecture. I don’t remember my mom ever sitting down and talking to me. I don’t remember her ever sitting down. And if she was talking, there were no questions, just her own monologue.
My successful conversation with my kids and the lack of conversation I had with my parents is helping me understand how to get past some of the hurdles in my relationships. It’s also beginning to explain why I’m having trouble figuring out intimacy in relationships. Intimacy must be more than a physical feeling. It must be the connection made by listening and understanding another person. And not just understanding, but somehow giving value to the way the other person thinks and feels and experiences life. If I can practice this with my kids, maybe I can start practicing this with other people in my life, and I won’t feel like I live on an island.
I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of Jen’s office. It’s been two weeks. I don’t like waiting that long. I know I have to start finding answers for myself. I have to stop depending on her so much even though I feel like I just started. I’m supposed to be using the skills I’m learning in DBT. Things like, meditating. I still hate meditating, but it is getting easier. I hate to admit it, but I think it actually helps. When I meditate in my DBT group my mind doesn’t seem to race as fast anymore.
I look at the time. I need to go into my session. I grab my bag and walk to Jen’s office. There is new carpeting and tile in the hallway. It looks like a whole new building. I go inside her office and everything is the same. I guess it could be updated in here too, but I don’t really want it to change. I like it the way it is. I walk in and sit on the couch. The room is not very big. The small couch and end table almost cover the width of the office. There’s just enough room for her desk, office chair, arm chair and book shelf. I guess the surroundings don’t matter when everything else is right.
“How are you today?”
“What did you work on the last couple of weeks?”
I quickly think of something non-emotional.
“I kept my running to 35 minutes. It’s getting easier.”
“Good. Why do you think it’s getting easier?”
“I think it’s easier because I’m not as worried about how fast I’m going. I started using our observation skills from DBT group.”
“How are you doing that?”
“I look at the things I’m running by, like the barn and the houses and the corn fields. I’m trying to pay attention to them like I’m trying to pay attention to my kids.”
“So you’re being mindful by observing.”
“How do you think that makes a difference while you’re running?”
“At first it was hard to think about anything but running and my time and distance. Then I tried running without my watch on so I couldn’t time myself. That was really hard, but it forced me to look at the things around me. I didn’t go again without my watch because my anxiety gets too high, but I knew I was supposed to focus on observing and looking around so I did, and the more I looked at things, the more relaxed I felt.”
I smile as I think about my last run.
I’m running down the asphalt path alongside the tar road. The first half-mile is always the hardest, but I’m not timing myself today. I’m just going to enjoy the scenery. There are ball fields on the other side of the road. On one field a game has started. On another field a father and son are practicing batting. I’m running downhill past a mail box. The mail box is almost exactly a half-mile from my house. It’s one of the spots I usually check my watch to see if I’m running at a good pace. I resist the urge to look at my watch.
I look back to the fields to get my mind off the watch. Beyond the baseball fields is a big sand pit. At the corner I turn onto the dirt road. This is my one mile marker. I start to look down at my watch, but quickly remember not to look. I look instead down the long stretch of road in front of me. It’s my favorite part of my run because it’s a dirt road and there’s not much traffic. Corn is growing on either side of me, and it’s getting too high to see over. Halfway up the road are two huge oak trees standing together in the corn field. The tips of their branches form a perfect circle in the sky. I pass them on my way up a hill. On my old five-mile run, I would go all the way down this road and around the corner, but since I’m only running 35 minutes I turn around at the top of the hill. If I’m running at a good pace, this is where I would hit 17 ½ minutes, which is half of my 35 minute run. I’m dying to know if I’m really at the halfway mark or if I’m a half a minute slower or faster. I resist the urge to look.
I turn around and begin running downhill. The running shoes I wear make distinct footprints. I see some other footprints and look at their stride to see if it’s longer or shorter than mine. I think they are actually my own footprints from yesterday. I look up to see if there are any cars coming. I should be all the way over to the side of the road so I don’t get hit, but I like running on the packed down area where the tires of the cars have worn a nice smooth path. I’m getting closer to the oak trees. I see a couple of large birds sitting on the branches. I don’t think anything of it until I’m about 20 yards away. That’s when I see the white head. They’re eagles! The first one jumps off his perch and spreads his wings. It takes my breath away. The wingspan reaches almost all the way across the road. The other eagle follows, and I can’t take my eyes off them. I watch them until they are small dots on the horizon, and then they disappear.
It’s then that I realize I’ve stopped running. I’m standing still, completely unaware of my breathing or the distance I’m losing by this interruption or the fact that I’ve ruined my chance to feel my runner’s high. Amazingly, I don’t feel angry or frustrated, just peaceful as I continue to stare at the horizon.
“I think this is a great step for you. Learning how to observe and not judge yourself will greatly reduce your anxiety, and I think it will help you start connecting better in your relationships.”
I think about how observing relates to my relationships. Andy comes to mind. In his play therapy sessions his therapist is basically asking me to observe what and how he plays. The whole hour I’m supposed to be watching him and reacting to him the way I think he wants me to react. He leads and I follow. It’s all about him and what he wants to do with our play time. It’s hard to focus my attention on him the whole hour, but I can see how his trust in me is directly related to how well I’m listening and empathizing.
“I’ve been observing Andy in his play therapy sessions.”
“That’s great practice.”
“But he had his last session this week.”
“So, he’s all done with therapy?”
“His twitching has stopped completely, and it seemed like our sword fight was the last session that really brought out his subconscious emotions. Since then we have just been playing, and Samantha doesn’t seem to think his playing is about anything in particular. It’s like he doesn’t know what else to do. Samantha agreed and said we could stop coming regularly and just check in if we felt we needed to come back.”
“His twitching has stopped completely, and it seemed like our sword fight was the last session that really brought out his subconscious emotions. Since then we have just been playing, and Samantha doesn’t seem to think his playing is about anything in particular. It’s like he doesn’t know what else to do. Samantha agreed and said we could stop coming regularly and just check in if we felt we needed to come back.”
“Does it feel good to get to this point with Andy? Does he still seem depressed?”
“He doesn’t seem depressed anymore. He’s not always happy, but it seems like he isn’t carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
“Yeah, it is.”
My voice trails off and I slouch a little. My tone of voice is not matching my uplifting news. I know she recognizes it the moment it comes out.
“So, what’s wrong?”
I think back to my twelve step meeting. I hadn’t wanted to go this week, and I was trying to get out of it, but I forced myself there.
“I went to my twelve step meeting this week.”
She looks at me and waits.
“I thought I was going to go through these twelve steps in couple of months and be done.”
A small smile curls up on one side of her mouth, but she represses it.
“I didn’t want to go to my meeting, but I went anyway. There was a new person there. She talked about having eight years of sobriety when she stopped going to meetings because she thought she was cured. But as soon as she stopped going to meetings she started drinking again, and rather than starting up where she left off, she said she started drinking at a point way further than where she had left off. She said her drinking had progressed as if she had never quit.”
Jen sits still. She turns her head slightly to the side and looks at me.
I take a deep breath.
“It scared me.”
“You are a very goal-oriented person, so it will probably be hard for you to accept that this is a lifelong disease. Going to meetings will help you stop drinking, and doing your therapy will help you cope with life without drinking, but none of this will cure alcoholism.”
“We heard that in one of our videos, but there was so much information that it didn’t sink in.”
I think about all the videos and sessions we sat through for inpatient and outpatient treatment. They were all very fascinating and helped me understand what was going on in my head, but I must have decided not to hear the part that said my struggle with this would never end. My heart is sinking. I can’t do this for the rest of my life. I hear a verse go through my head. “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) I hate that verse. I feel like the only thing I ever hear from God now is to be still! I hate being still!
“Like every disease, there is some grief in accepting it. Your alcoholism is a little like cancer. You can’t just do a few things and be cured. You can only do what is in your power and then leave the rest to God.”
I’m quiet. Acceptance again. It’s always about accepting things as they are. It’s so depressing. I think about my conversation with Nancy after Bible study. She is no longer the director of our Women’s Ministry at church. She’d been in that position since I first joined that church, and in my mind she is synonymous with Women’s Ministry. It’s weird to think she won’t be leading it anymore. It’s more than weird. It causes me a lot of anxiety, because it’s a big change for me. I thought I liked change, but the only change I seem to like is when I’m making the changes. I think about the skills I’m learning and instead of letting my anxiety control my thoughts and actions, I’m forcing myself to think effective thoughts; something that will help me understand the change and accept it.
“You might see things negatively because you’re uncomfortable with change, but you are creating a brand new life; a better one for you and your kids. Things won’t be the same as they were, but that is a good thing.”
“I know logically it’s a good thing, but there are parts of my old life I want back, and I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
“How are things with JB?”
I think about our last communication success in the kitchen.
“It is going better. He is really trying to help me understand what he is saying. Like yesterday he opened the mail and said we don’t have any money. He immediately looked at me and said he was not saying that I had spent it all. He was just making a comment. I appreciated him clarifying because what I heard him say was, ‘You spent all our money.’ I realized that was my own interpretation, not the truth. So, I had to tell myself that he was just making a comment. It was kind of cool, because I could actually feel resentment leaving my body as I listened to him and told myself that was the truth.”
“That is an incredible start to good communication! If you guys can keep doing that, you are on your way to really understanding each other, and you won’t have to ever let that resentment build again now that you know where it comes from.”
“Yeah, it was really good. I could tell we both felt like we got somewhere with it.”
I think about the rest of my week because it seemed there were a couple of milestones.
“I also made dinner this week and was able to do it without beating myself up.”
“Awesome! How did you do that?”
“We were in a hurry and I was making a frozen pizza. At first I thought about what a terrible mom I am for making pizza again! But I caught myself and told myself to be more positive. I told myself that it’s okay to make frozen pizza. We were in a hurry and didn’t have time to make anything else and it was no big deal.”
“That is tremendous progress, Jenny!”
I smile. It is huge progress. I can’t believe I said something positive about myself. It’s a weird feeling. I thought being nice to myself would make me a worse person because I was letting myself get away with something, but it actually makes me feel better because I accepted myself for who I am right now. This feeling of satisfaction is foreign. It makes me restless, like there’s nowhere to go because I’m already there. I wonder if this is what peace feels like.
I’m in the bathroom of Jen’s office building. I’m staring at myself in the mirror. I’ve never been able to look at myself for long. I force myself to keep looking at the face staring back at me. It’s like having a staring contest with a stranger. I tell myself that I need to get to know this person because I’m stuck with her. I don’t really want to get to know her, but I think I’m willing to try.
I check my watch and head down the hallway. I’m holding a bag with my calendar, my notes, and a pen. It’s been three weeks since I’ve seen Jen. With the holidays and then Jen going out of town, she thought it was a good idea to let me go a little longer. I was scared, but I had her e-mail and phone number, so I decided I could make it. I don’t want to be the creepy client who calls her at home, but my fear of being abandoned is stronger than my desire to not be creepy. I go in the door and the bell rings.
“Come in, Jenny!”
I think it’s cool we have the same name. It’s such a common name that I don’t even notice a lot of the time, but with Jen, I’m happy to have something in common. I go in and sit on the couch. She puts some paperwork away in her drawer and sits in her little brown arm chair. She smiles at me with her usual expectancy. The energy she has today is emanating from her body and I can’t help but feel it. She scoots around in her chair as if getting ready to hear a really great adventure story. I guess in a way, that’s what I’m giving her.
“So, how was your Christmas?”
“The holidays are always a little crazy. The kids had school off, of course, which was nice, but it made it hard to find any quiet time. So, it was a little stressful.”
“Did you use some of your DBT skills to deal with the stress?”
“Yes, I did. I decided to keep things simple. Like I put up fewer decorations and tried to spend more time playing with my kids. I went to my twelve step group which always makes me feel better.”
“And how did you do with your extended families?”
“We always spend Christmas Eve with my in-laws. I don’t worry about alcohol with them because they are very supportive, and they don’t drink unless they are entertaining, so I didn’t have to worry about that side. On Christmas day my family came over. I’ve been providing wine with dinner in years past, so I told them this year we weren’t going to have any alcohol in the house.”
“How did they do with that?”
“It’s hard to tell, because no one in my family likes confrontation, so no one actually argues, except for my dad. He likes to start arguments; usually about religion, but I handled him better this year than usual.”
Jen sits up in her chair as she listens.
I’m sitting on the couch watching TV while everyone is playing games and talking and eating. My dad is on a chair across from me. I try not to look at him, but he is staring at me. It feels a little like he has spotted his prey from his deer stand. He begins his hunt.
He says it loudly over the TV and all the other conversations going on. I look at him because I know if I ignore him he will just say it louder next time.
“What are your kids learning at church about Christmas?”
I look at him out of the corner of my eye, like a deer in the forest that is alert to some unknown danger.
“What do you mean?”
My dad’s gun is loaded, and he’s stalking me in order to aim his gun before I run.
“Like what are you teaching your kids?”
I fall for the bait and reply. I try to keep it simple so I don’t leave too much of myself exposed.
“We’re teaching them about Jesus.”
He holds the gun steady as he looks through the site.
“Well, how do you know that’s true what you’re teaching them? Ain’t it different than what your mom and brother believe? How do you know what’s right?”
The tone of his voice is mocking. He has my heart between the cross hairs on his site. I sit still for a moment listening and thinking. Normally I try to come up with the best logical answer I can give him, but I realize that he doesn’t want an answer from me. He only wants to get my attention long enough that I will sit still for him so he can get his shot off. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out, but now that I have, I decide I’m not going to sit still so he can frustrate and hurt me. I begin an elusive maneuver.
"I’m teaching my kids about having a relationship with God.”
He begins laying out some bait; a little pile of corn to entice me toward him.
“What do you mean a relationship? Like he’s their friend! How can someone be a friend if you can’t see them?”
I avoid the bait and stay under the cover of the forest trees.
“I don’t know all the answers, and I can’t remember all the facts that I’ve read, but I know God is real because he talks to me.”
I think back to my last year and all the times I knew God was talking to me directly, leaving no doubt in my mind.
My Dad’s arm slips a little and he tries to get the cross hairs lined up again. I think he was expecting a different answer, some statement of factual nature that he could logically blow out of the sky. He re-aims and cocks the gun.
“Well, God ain’t never talked to me!”
I can tell he thinks his shot was aimed well. Even though he had to realign, he is expecting to hit his target, because he’s never missed in the past. He’s probably even feeling a big adrenaline rush knowing he has caught up to me, that I wasn’t able to move away from his line of sight. What he doesn’t know is that I don’t have to play his games anymore. I don’t feel the need to solve all of his problems or anyone’s for that matter. God is big enough to deal with my dad. So, I answer him with as much pity as I can muster.
“Wow Dad, that’s too bad.”
I turn to watch the television again. I’m not really watching the program. I’m just ignoring him. He’s silent. He can’t believe his perfect aim didn’t strike the target. I can tell he doesn’t know what to do now that I’m not willing to play into his game. I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time.
I relay this story to Jen.
“Wow! Have you ever done that before with your dad?”
“No. I always fall into his trap and then get mad and frustrated as I watch him get more and more excited. This time I just let it all go. I thought about me and what I need to do for me, and it worked!”
“Do you see how what you did was draw a boundary line for yourself?”
Actually I didn’t know what I did. I just knew it felt good. I look at Jen to explain more.
“Refusing to play his game was drawing a boundary line for yourself, and as long as you don’t let him drag you over that boundary line, you can protect yourself.”
I wrinkle my eyebrows and stare at her chair processing her words.
“You can’t control what your dad says or does, but you can control how you feel by controlling what you say and do. You can do this with anyone about anything.”
I feel exhilarated. I still feel the excitement of eluding my dad’s shot and the freedom of knowing I can draw a boundary line with anyone. I understand that I don’t have to be drawn into something if I don’t want to. I don’t have to be controlled by other people’s actions and feelings and words. I can control my part in something and I don’t have to get involved at all if I don’t want to. It seems so backwards. Letting go of control has actually given me more control. I look at Jen with a big smile on my face. She smiles back as we share another winning moment on the battle field of my mind.
It’s been four weeks. Jen wants me to start stretching myself and going longer between sessions. I know it’s good for me, but I don’t like it. I walk down the hall and into her office. I sit on the couch and smile. It feels good to sink into the familiar brown cushions.
“How are you?”
“I’m doing ok.”
“Great. How did your last few weeks go?”
My mind is blank. Four weeks is so long.
“It feels like I haven’t been here in a long time.”
“I bet it does.”
Jen is quiet. It’s the sign that she wants to know more. I breathe.
“I know I can’t be here forever, but when I’m at home and things seem overwhelming, I feel better knowing I only have so many more days before my appointment. I’m kind of afraid of how I will do when I don’t have an appointment to look forward to anymore.”
“You know you can come in anytime. It’s good to check in once in a while.”
My hands and arms drop to my side and my stomach stops turning. I let out a deep breath.
“So, what have you been up to?”
My mind is clearer as I attempt to remember my last four weeks.
“You know I’ve been going to a Bible study.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Some things came together for me last week.”
“What was that?”
“My mom raised us in the Mormon Church where there were a lot of rules to follow and a lot of pressure to follow them. If you didn’t live up to the church’s expectations you were looked down upon because you weren’t going to make it to the highest level of heaven. In my Bible study we drew out a timeline and wrote down all the religious-oriented events that have happened in our lives. Then we wrote down any memorable life events, good or bad that happened to us along the same timeline. That was when I realized that my rape happened about the same age that my expectations in my church were raised. I was introduced to the goals of a teenager in the Mormon Church, and I knew my future depended on my ability to follow all the rules. Being raped made me feel like I blew any chance of ever accomplishing those goals. With my competitive spirit and need for recognition, I don’t think anything could have stopped me from becoming the best, most committed Mormon I could possibly be. If I had continued to grow up as a totally committed Mormon I can’t see how I would have ever understood the meaning of grace. And without grace, I wouldn’t have been able to build the relationship I have with Jesus. Even though I’ve been mad at God, the relationship I have with him is worth more to me than being raped.”
I take a deep breath.
“I don’t know for sure that this is why God let it happen, but the idea that maybe there are reasons too big for me to understand makes me feel better about it.”
My struggle with God over being raped reminds me of Andy’s struggle with me during his therapy. I feel like I had my own sword fight with God. I imagine that God, being the creator of the universe, doesn’t owe me an explanation of why things happen, yet he handed me a sword like I handed Andy a sword. And just like I let Andy stab me over and over so he knew I understood his pain, God let me stab him over and over until I knew that he understood my pain. But where I pretended to feel the pain from Andy’s sword, God let me hurt him for real when he let his son die on a cross. I’ve always wondered why God would make a plan of salvation by letting his son be tortured and killed. Maybe it was so we know that God cares enough to understand our pain in the most real way we can imagine. What could be worse than watching your child be tortured and killed? I feel like another cloak has been lifted off my shoulders only this one was made of chainmail.
“So, how do you feel?”
“Less angry, more peaceful.”
“That’s really great insight.”
We both smile enjoying another positive step forward in my progress.
“And how are things going with JB?”
“It’s not perfect, but our communication is miles from where it started. He is more aware of how I interpret what he says, so he’s been careful about explaining what he means when he makes a random comment. And I have learned to stop and think logically about what he says before I jump to conclusions. It’s still not easy to do, but when something he says triggers me emotionally, I repeat his words to myself and logically walk through them.”
I walk into the kitchen. JB is sitting at the table reading the paper. He asks where I was. I grit my jaw and crease my eyebrows as I begin to think of a hundred ways to tell him to mind his own business because I can go anywhere I want without having to tell him every single detail. I’m suddenly aware of my anger. It’s a red flag, so I stop myself to think about why I’m angry. I’m beginning to recognize that my anger is not always what it appears to be. I read too much into what JB is saying. I let this roll around in my mind for a moment and wonder if he’s just simply asking me where I was rather than demanding to know where I was and why I thought I could do something without his permission.
I decide to push my anger aside for a minute and pretend that he isn’t reprimanding me. He is just curious. I tell him I was at the bookstore. He doesn’t look up from the paper. He starts talking about one of the articles he’s reading. I’m not really hearing anything he is saying because I’m thinking about how chaotic I almost made a simple conversation. I can’t believe I’ve been doing that for so many years! I’m relieved we’re not arguing, and the tension in my shoulders evaporates as I listen to an ordinary conversation. I wonder if normal couples have chats like this every day about the news and work and kids and family. It’s so nice.
“That is amazing. It might be hard, but I think the longer you practice that exercise, the easier it will become.”
It’s hard to think about communication becoming easier. I know everything gets easier with practice, but calling communication easy is a big stretch for me.
“How are your kids doing?”
My mind drifts to last night.
I’m walking into the house with my arms full of groceries. Johnny meets me at the door with his usual high energy.
“Mom! Will you play football with me?”
I look at the groceries and think about dinner and the laundry. Everything in me wants to clean and organize and catch up with my never ending “to do” list. I remember my promise to myself to put everything down when my kids ask me to do something, and I tell myself everything else can wait.
“Yes, we can. I just have to put away the cold things.”
I follow Johnny outside and we line up in the back yard. I’m the quarterback. Johnny is the wide receiver. He has already taught me what to say and how to hike the ball. We’ve been working on plays this week. My job is to throw the ball just out of his reach so he can make some diving catches. This is not an easy job, but I’m getting better and he hasn’t fired me yet. We run play after play until it gets dark. He wants one more good one. I drop back and throw it just as he turns to cut across the field. He leaps and catches it in his fingertips falling into the end zone. He does one of his touchdown dances, and we high five on our way in.
We walk into the house to find Andy at the kitchen table writing something. He is working on a poem for English. He likes to write, so he’s always working on English homework. He sees me and tells me to wait because he’s almost finished, and he wants me to read it. I’m anxious to get to my chores, but I know a writer’s heart is fragile, so I sit at the table next to him. I look at his expression. His eyebrows wrinkle together. He nods his head as he searches for the right word. He finishes it and smiles as he slides it toward me. I read the poem.
Sometimes you’re happy.
Sometimes you’re sad.
Sometimes you’re just really mad.
Sometimes it’s just a thought.
That is very hardly fought.
Sometimes it takes determination.
Sometimes it’s just in your imagination.
He writes about life like he’s been through a lot already. Compared to other kids his age, I guess he has. I feel a twinge of guilt. I always do when I see an emotional scar left from my drinking. He wants to write movies. I want him to get better grades in math in case his writing career doesn’t take off, but I don’t want to deflate his dream. He’ll have plenty of critics. He needs me to encourage him. I’m determined to be his biggest fan.
It’s getting late, so I tell everyone to get ready for bed. After tucking in Andy and Johnny, I go to Jenna’s room. I kneel by her bed and we say our prayers. She scooches over to make room and pats the bed next to her. That’s my sign. I crawl in. I ask her about school and friends. She tells me what she did at school as I put my arm underneath her head. She is talking and I’m not only listening, but I notice that I’m listening. I notice that after years of self-absorbed parenting and months of therapy, I am lying down by my daughter and she is telling me about her day, and I am listening. I’m not thinking about tomorrow or yesterday or all the things on my “to do” list. I’m thinking about the classes she is talking about, and I’m picturing which of her friends she mentions. Being aware that I am making a conscious choice to be an active participant in her life makes me think of myself at her age. It’s a bittersweet thought. On one hand my heart aches wishing I had someone that would listen to me and know everything about me. On the other hand I am overwhelmingly grateful to have a chance to really know my daughter.
My eyes are so heavy all I want to do is crawl into my own bed and fall asleep, but I relish every word she says, because I know how many I’ve missed in the past, and I can’t imagine how many words I might have missed in the future if I hadn’t learned how to pay attention. Thinking about how much I wish I had been held at her age, I wrap her up tight in my arms and smile as we drift off to sleep.
Time I spend with my kids now is like little treasures. Every time I give them my complete attention I build a little bridge over the brick wall that had kept us so far apart. I didn’t realize they had been trying to build that bridge all along. I feel incredibly blessed that they never stopped trying.
“I’ve been making it a habit to sit down and listen to my kids, and it’s been really cool. I don’t feel like they’re so far away anymore.”
“They are very lucky to have you as their mom.”
I’m not sure lucky is the word I would have used.
“I think you’ve come a long way from where you started. And you have the tools you need to deal with life situations. What do you think about spreading out your sessions to every other month? It doesn’t mean you are done or that you can’t come back sooner. It just means I think you’re ready to try out your skills on your own. How do you feel about that?”
I didn’t want her to say that, but I knew it was coming. It feels like learning to ride my bike. We’ve taken off the training wheels, and she’s been running alongside me while I wobble down the road. I’m getting the hang of it though and wobbling less, and now it’s time for her to stop running alongside me.
“I’m willing to try it.”
“Great, but remember you can call me if you want to come in sooner, or you feel your medication isn’t working or anything that you’re concerned about.”
I grab my purse and notebook. Knowing I can come back makes me feel safe and a little braver. I walk down the long hallway and rather than heading to the parking lot I push open the door to the women’s bathroom. I set my things on the counter and look into the mirror. I notice bits of grey hair trying to blend in with the sandy blond ones, and the smile lines around my mouth, and wrinkles forming around my eyes. I have heard that eyes are the windows to our soul. As I look into my eyes I see the frightened mom who walked into a treatment center, and the teenager who wondered if anyone really cared, and the young girl who sharpened her knife blade and carved a wooden heart to replace the soft one she lost. I’m used to seeing these images of myself, but in between the grey hair and wrinkles, there’s a new person looking back at me. She tells me that I’m going to have to begin to see the positive in myself instead of just the negative, because my kids are following in my footsteps, especially my daughter, Jenna.
If there’s anything I’ve learned over the last year it’s that we copy what we see and hear from our parents. Jenna will become her own person, but there is no way around her picking up many aspects of who I am. So, I know that I need to learn to love myself in order for her to learn how to love herself. And I need to stand up for myself if I want her to learn to stand up for herself. And I need to be a happy, successful woman with a purpose in my life if I ever hope for her to be a happy, successful woman with a purpose. I know her future isn’t entirely up to me, but I also know my choices will influence her, and I can definitely leave fewer hurdles for her to jump than my mom left for me.
As I look at this new image of myself in the mirror, I’m not sure if I can love her immediately, but I can start by being nice to her. And as I let go of my judgments about her, her years of struggle look less like baggage and more like wisdom. And the recovering alcoholic label she carries looks less like shame and more like strength. And the disorganized mess of a housewife looks less like failure and more like the unique, artistic woman that her family is lucky to have.
I smile at the thought of my family being lucky to have me. For some reason I’m embarrassed by that kind of self-assurance. At the same time I know that in many ways it’s true. I imagine my kids with all their gifts and talents, starting out their lives in a much different place than I did. I imagine that instead of a long, lonely road full of trap doors and quick sand, they’ll have a paved highway with road signs and rest stops. Instead of walking with a limp, they’ll be driving a fast car or maybe riding a horse or flying a plane. I’m not naïve enough to think they won’t have problems, because no one gets through life without them. But I’m proud of the work I’ve done to give them a better starting point than they might have had otherwise, and if I have to learn to love myself in the process, that’s not such a bad thing.
It reminds me of a Bible verse that Nancy has drilled into my head over the last year. “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
When I hear that verse I wonder if I’ve been called to something because I don’t feel like I have a purpose, but when Jen and Nancy and Ann and JB all point out how far I’ve come and how much work I’ve done in the past year, I realize I don’t have to be in some high position in the business world or my church to have a calling and a purpose. If my only purpose is to stop the patterns of addiction in my family so my kids don’t have to carry that burden into their adult lives, then I am probably making just as much a contribution to our world as any big business or church leader, and that’s enough. But I think there’s more.
What if I could share my story with people and they realized they had a choice about whether or not they are going to pass on the bad habits of their parents or begin a new family tradition? And what if hundreds or even thousands of kids’ lives were better because their parents were courageous enough to change? It’s almost too much to hope for, but just like one rock can make ripples that spread out across the water, I’d like to believe that maybe one decision could change the world.