February 14, 2010
As the deer longs for the waterbrooks, so longs my soul for you O God.
About two years ago, I suggested to John Kitagawa that it might be appropriate at a future Recovery Sunday to hear from an adult child of an alcoholic. John remembered my comment and invited me to speak this morning from the prospective of one who grew up in a family whose dysfunction included addiction to alcohol. I do not mean to indicate that my family’s experience with alcoholism is unique, or that my story is in any way different from many others, because I have been amazed to discover that many of us have survived similar situations—we are legion!
My first recollection that something was wrong in my family was in the 1940’s when I was about 6 or 7. It was evening and my brother and I were already in bed. We heard voices downstairs and sneaked down the stairs to look out on the living room. There were people who we did not recognize sitting with my father who was very obviously drunk. They were performing an intervention at the request of my mother. These devoted members of Alcoholics Anonymous knew exactly what to do and were attempting to sober my father up with coffee and sincere attention to his problem. From that time on, he regularly attended AA meetings in Red Wing and later in Stillwater, MN.
It was also about that time, prior to the intervention, that my mother filed for a divorce from my father—something that my brother and I discovered one summer while going through my mother’s papers while she was at work. Apparently, she was talked out of proceeding with the divorce by her mother who worried about how she and her grandchildren would fare.
Most of my young life my father was sober, but behaved like a “dry drunk”. He was difficult to be around and it was awkward to invite friends—especially girlfriends—home with me because of his unpredictable behavioral issues that included inflammatory language and in-your-face comments—many of which were aimed at my mother. Things changed after his retirement from the Andersen Window Corporation and it was just he and my mother at home. He had always been an avid collector of everything from stamps, to coins, to clocks, to antique guns to Civil War paraphernalia. He now had time to spend cataloging all of his collections, which he did for a few years. And then, he unexpectedly “fell off the wagon”, apparently having too much time on his hands. My mother had to commit him to rehab several times as she could not handle him all by herself, as my brother and I were away from the home by then.
We saw my father for the last time on the day before he died at a rehab facility near our home. On a warm summer morning, we sat at a picnic table under a large tree in the yard of this place, and in the course of our conversation, he pleaded with me to convince my mother and brother to let him come home to die. Little did we know that he would die of a massive heart attack the next morning.
Fast forward to Father’s Day nineteen years later, 1993, when I found myself all alone at home. I sat down at the computer and wrote my father a letter. I was inspired to do this after I had heard that comedian Louie Anderson had written a similar letter to his then-dead alcoholic father. (Louie was also from Minnesota…) Enough time had elapsed for me to begin to be objective about my father and soften my rather hardened attitude toward him. It was cathartic to write that letter, and I only shared it with my mother and brother and only later with my psychiatrist… An interesting observation was that when looking at photos of family gatherings, my father would always be positioned in the back and on the end of the group—as if he really did not belong alongside his siblings—his own family of origin. His sisters, our aunts, were always apologizing to Peter and me for Dad’s behavior at these gatherings.
About two years later, I began experiencing what I could only describe as “numbness”, a feeling that I did not understand. A psychologist friend recommended a psychiatrist in Phoenix, who I saw about six times. My psychiatrist immediately recognized the symptoms of depression. It was only upon seeking professional help in my late 50’s that I finally came to realize what it was to be the child of an alcoholic. What I discovered enlightened me considerably and has changed my life since.
I learned that as a child growing up in a family where alcohol-related pathology is present, you want very badly to help out and make everything better. However, you realize with some significant frustration that it is impossible to intervene to make a difference. Later in life, when you enter into your own relationships, you want to insure that they will succeed and there is a tendency to bend over backwards to make them succeed, and this is where the downward spiral begins. With the assistance of a professional, who dealt in human behavior, the minor depression that I did not understand started to become clear. I began to realize that in two long-term relationships, I felt it was my job to “pick up the pieces” at all costs, and I did this to avoid any possible conflict such as what I had observed in my own family. I had chosen to “walk on eggshells” to avoid any confrontation—placing the other person’s needs ahead of my own. Unfortunately, once this pattern of behavior is established in a relationship, it is virtually impossible to change or take back.
In reviewing my past, this enlightenment was simple but monumental in my life. I learned to discern the difference between what is my job in a relationship and, more importantly, what is not my job. My job is not to continually enable another person at the expense of my own mental health. While it is necessary to lean on or be leaned upon on occasion, it should not become a permanent “job” in any relationship to be that strong person with broad shoulders who assumes it is necessary to hold everything up and keep everything intact. The other side of this is that children of alcoholics tend to seek out relationships in which they are needed, and expected, to assume the duty of being that strong person for their spouse or partner.
I have subsequently come to realize that a healthy relationship is one that is characterized by trust, mutual respect and open, honest communication. In addition, ideally each partner should have had a career or situation satisfactory to fulfilling that person’s needs as an individual, such that continued growth is a parallel experience—knowing that there is a desire to co-exist with someone that you love and respect. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a while to reach that realization.
Life is always clearer in retrospect. When I was young and innocent, I wanted to become an Episcopal priest. I had had some good role models and had a positive experience attending church as a child with my family—something we did achieve as a family. However, circumstances changed early in my college career, and I headed for the sciences and did not look back for a number of years—until that fateful time that a second long-term relationship ended. What I have since realized is that, had I chosen to pursue the priesthood, I would have assumed a career in which I would have felt it my responsibility to look after everything and everyone in the same manner I had in my personal relationships. That would potentially have led me to “burnout”, which is the bane of clergy.
I have learned that role models are of exceptional value to young people, and despite my father’s lack of exemplary behavior, I was fortunate to have a number of very influential and respected individuals available to me growing up in small town Minnesota—many were those on my paper route. I would also be remiss if I did not recollect some of the good things that I observed in my father, for despite his lack of open affection, I do believe that he was proud of my brother and me—he simply was unable to express it openly. I recall a number of years ago giving a homily on picking dandelions. Every summer day when my farther would return from work, he would take out a pocketknife and cut dandelions from the lawn. It was one of those never-ending jobs, but he remained undaunted in his persistent quest to keep ahead of the weeds. He was also a perfectionist who never did anything in a slip-shod way. This taught me an ethic of diligent work habits and a desire to do things well. That said, my psychiatrist told me that he felt that I was still trying to please my father who, at that time, had been dead for over twenty years.
A resourceful child learns from all situations and especially personal failures. It is easy to blame others for our fate—and many do by dwelling on negative experiences. At the end of the day, it is about personal responsibility and taking charge of our own lives. I hope that I have done this and at the same time been a suitable role model to my own children and the students I have taught over the years—and now to those to whom I have ministered at this stage of my life. I have also come to realize that no matter what untoward experiences I have had in my life, I have never felt a sense of separation from the love of God. And I believe this is also true for all of us—no matter what our addictions or perceived failures to live up to our gifts and talents. We can easily get into trouble when we are plagued by guilt and shame with regard to our past behaviors. However, there is a stabilizing rudder in our lives knowing that we are unquestioningly loved, and not judged by the God of love.
Thomas J. Lindell