The Day After

Ornament

Well, I made it through Christmas.  It has been a crazy month, with lots of ups and downs.  I haven’t written for a while, partly because it’s been a busy month, partly because I haven’t felt like it.  In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I suffered through some days of depression and self-pity.  As you know, I am estranged from my family and typically the holidays are tough times for me.  This one was no different when it comes to that.  But in other ways it was different, better even, than the last few years.

Going into the season I expected to have some sad, reflective days and I thought that there would be times in which I was hard on myself, remembering and reliving the ugly moments when I was drunk and self-absorbed, wishing that I could go back and change them.  Or, at the other end of the spectrum, remembering the happy holidays that I spent with my family.  I was pleasantly surprised, though, that there weren’t as many of those thoughts popping up as I expected.  While I found it hard to get into the Christmas spirit until a few days before, I didn’t spend nearly as much time and energy on negative thoughts as I suspected I would.  And when the thoughts did come up, I was mostly able to just sit with them.  I’m not saying that it was a completely pleasant experience, it wasn’t, believe me.  But as they came up, it was more like watching a movie than being the actor in one.  As the good memories of holidays past came up, I was able to smile and just remember without romanticizing and longing.  I felt a sense of gratitude that I was able to experience good times with my family.  Nothing can take those memories away from me.  When the bad thoughts came up it wasn’t as easy to remain a member of the movie-watching audience, my nature is to jump in as the star of the show.  But I was able to remind myself that those days have already happened and I can’t change their outcome, no matter how much I want to.  That made it easier to handle.  One thing I didn’t do is push the thoughts away.  I know that when I try to do that, it works for a little while, but then it doesn’t.  And when it stops working, the thoughts come back with such an overwhelming vengeance that I don’t have the capacity to handle them.  It’s an ugly mess and I know that’s not good for me.

All of that said, we had a beautiful Christmas.  It started very early – my stepson was up at 4:01 a.m. (I told him that anything before 4:00 a.m. was too early) to open presents and he was so excited.  It was really nice to see Christmas through a child’s eyes again.  Last year I got out of rehab a few days before Christmas, so we didn’t celebrate at all and I didn’t get to see him open any presents.  We had a nice, lazy, lego-filled morning, eating the homemade cinnamon rolls I made, and then headed off for a nap.  It was a relaxing day, I spent all of it in my pajamas, and I was happy.

Until the evening.  That’s when sadness crept in.  I miss my daughter.  A lot.  Even though I miss her every day, special days are harder to handle than the rest.  I spent some time in bed crying and feeling down, remembering holidays in the past and wondering what her Christmas was like this year.  I let the thoughts bounce around and I prayed, with fervor.  My prayers are usually either quiet and thoughtful, or they are more like conversations that I have with God.  The prayers I prayed on Christmas were passionate, emotional, demanding, almost aggressive (it’s ok though, God can handle my aggression).  I don’t know what will happen, but I know that after I prayed that way, I felt better.

So here we are the day after.  It was a nice holiday, but I’m glad that Christmas is over and I am looking forward to seeing what the new year brings.  I hope that all who read this had a wonderful holiday, full of peace and love.

Merry Christmas!

Dance, anyone?

Dancing

Recently, I have had to deal with a family member that has always brought out the worst in me, pushed all my buttons, and has been able to make me feel completely inadequate and unloved since my teenage years. This family member contacted me about a week and a half ago via text, and because of the situation, I was obligated to respond.  That led me to over a week of non-face to face interaction that I didn’t want or need.  Last night the interaction came to a head, and she baited and baited me, trying to get me to engage in an argument.  It all felt so familiar, it was a dance that we have done a million times before – she baits, I react, she gets defensive, I attack, she uses passive aggression to put me in my place, I feel guilty and cry and wallow in self-pity and self-loathing.  It would’ve been so easy for me to jump right in and start dancing the way we used to.  This time, though, I refused to get on the dance floor.

But it wasn’t easy.  In fact, it was pretty damn hard.  Changing the way that I think about and react to things like this has been a slow process.  I have always been quick to anger and hurt, with guilt and shame following closely behind.  Those first, almost instinctual, feelings come up now, but I am quicker to realize what’s happening and I can sometimes work through things before the guilt and shame set in.

As I sat and read the hostile, accusatory and just plain mean texts, I felt angry.  Very angry.  It took every ounce of restraint that I had to not react the way I always have – by reciprocating with sarcastic insults and laying guilt trips of my own.  Sentences that I could text and that would cause the most amount of harm went through my head.  I even said some of them out loud to my husband.  I went so far as to type one into my phone, but in the end, I deleted it without hitting send.

Along with all of the possible confrontational scenarios that were going through my mind, one rational thought kept stopping me in my tracks – “what is the right thing to do?”  That was new.  Where did that come from?  As I sat there thinking, I realized that was doing something that I hear about all the time in meetings, I was pausing when agitated.  Not only that, but I was trying to figure out what the right thing to do was.  I was trying to figure out how to handle the situation without setting myself up to have to make a new amends.  How should I respond?  I didn’t want to end up volleying mean comments back and forth, but I didn’t want to just roll over either.  Holy cow!  That sounds like I might have actually been thinking about setting some boundaries.  Another new thing!

I was still in fear though.  Not engaging was uncomfortable.  After all, I knew those dance steps.  I didn’t know how to do these new ones.  Have you ever seen someone learning a new dance?  When they’re a couple of steps behind the instructor, confusion and concentration easily visible on their face?  That’s how I felt.  Out of my element.  Fumbling and clumsy.

The tools that the program has taught me were clearly helping me to think and not just react.  But where was I to find the courage to behave a different way than what was comfortable?  I know the outcome of my old way of doing things, and that seemed easier even though I also knew how it would turn out, and that wasn’t a pretty picture.  And then it hit me.  I don’t have to be in charge of this.  I don’t run the show, because when I do, I screw things up.  God runs the show for me now.  I know it, I believe it, I have faith in it.  So, if I have faith in God’s will for me – and that keeps me sober, gives me hope and feeds my soul – couldn’t it also give me the courage to step outside my comfort zone and behave differently?

Yes!  It could.  And it did.

It was my faith in God and the gospel that allowed me to answer questions and express myself without malice, and without feeling guilt or shame.  It gave me the strength to set a boundary and cut off the conversation when it was no longer accomplishing anything, even though I was still being baited.  I reacted with grace, and because of that, I don’t owe anyone an amends.  If you ask me, this bad situation couldn’t have ended better.  There was no resolution really, but I have no reason to feel badly about it, and that is a step in the right direction.  For that, I thank God.

I know that I will hear from my family member again, there is more to be done.  But I know that when she steps out on the floor, she better watch out….I’ve got some new moves.

Please don’t tell…

secrets

I had planned to blog about humility tonight, and how it seems to escape me so much of the time.  But then this afternoon at work I got into a conversation with a friend about family secrets.  The conversation only lasted a few minutes, because work is unbelievably overwhelming right now, but it really left me thinking about my own family.  So, humility will have to wait (how many times have I thought that??) for another post.

I grew up in an intact family, my parents didn’t divorce until we kids were all over 30.  I’m sure that from the outside we looked normal enough.  My dad was always a very hard worker and a good provider for the family, so my mom was able to stay at home with us.  I have a  brother – half-brother, really – that is 12 years older than me and a sister that is 2 years younger.  We were mostly middle-class, but there were times that I remember financial difficulties.  My dad was a mechanic and always worked at copper mines, and at least a few times when the union he belonged to went on strike, the family’s financial belt definitely had to be tightened.  But, that said, we never went without the things we needed.  To outsiders we looked like a normal, loving family.  We did things together, my parents were active at our schools where my sister and I excelled, my mom was my Girl Scout leader, we had a lot of friends, there was never any alcohol in our home, and my parents didn’t believe in corporal punishment. But as I grew up, I learned that even though it looked good on the outside, we were a family with a lot of skeletons in the closet.

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, an older cousin cornered me when we were visiting my grandparents and told me that she and my brother had the same dad.  I was so confused…how could that be possible, our moms are sisters?  And her father, my uncle, had been married to my aunt for something like 15 years at that time.  My childish mind tried to figure out this equation, but it just didn’t add up.  So I did what any kid would do, I asked my mom.  Surprisingly, she told me the truth.  She had been married to my uncle, had my brother, divorced, and then her ex-husband married her sister.  Even at my young age, that didn’t seem like something that happened in normal families.  After she explained what had happened, she followed it up by telling me that it wasn’t something that we should ever talk about again or tell anyone outside of the family.  That was the first time that I felt ashamed.  It wasn’t something that I was directly involved in, I wasn’t even alive when it happened, but I still felt the shame and embarrassment.

That’s just one example of the kind of secrets that were kept in my family.  There are many more that are far worse.  My grandmother, my mother’s mom, was perhaps the biggest secret keeper in the family.  When I was a teenager, my mother found out that she had an older brother that she never knew about.  When my mom found him living in another state and he came to visit us, my grandmother still wouldn’t divulge any details about why she abandoned him.  She took it to her grave.  But that whole thing is a story for another post.  As I got older, and became privy to more of the secrets of family members, I learned that it was important to keep anything that was wrong, unpleasant, sad, or embarrassing, to myself.  “We don’t talk about that,” or “that’s not something anyone needs to know about,” or “please don’t tell,” were very common statements in our household.

What I didn’t know then, that I do now, is that hearing those words over and over set me up for a lifetime of shame.  There were so many things that were off-limits.  Sometimes just to people outside of the family, but often times we kept secrets from one another.   There were so many conversations that started out with “don’t tell your mom,” or “don’t tell your dad.”  But I also kept secrets without being told too, I was conditioned to keep my mouth shut.  I learned how to stuff my emotions regarding negative things, so that no one would find out what my secrets were.

When, at fifteen, I was raped by a family member, it took me a while to tell anyone.  I did finally tell my parents, and their response was to do nothing, tell no one.  The whole thing was swept under the rug and I was expected to act like nothing had happened at family functions.  My ex-husband was physically abusive for ten out of the twelve years we were married.  No one knew, I kept it hidden and painted a pretty picture of our marriage to everyone that knew us.  When I finally couldn’t take it anymore, friends and family were shocked when they found out why I was divorcing.  My family’s  secret keeping legacy was alive in me, for sure.

Of course, one of the biggest secrets I kept (until I couldn’t) was my drinking.  I drank far more, for more often, than anyone knew.  I lived a double life.  I kept my normie friends and all of my family completely separate from my drinking life.  I kept the horrible things that I did while drunk from everyone.  I kept my feelings of depression and shame from everyone.  I put on a game face and white-knuckled it through my days, weeks, months.   That is until it all caught up with me.  I had so many secrets, so much guilt and shame, that I there came a time that I just couldn’t keep them all contained any longer.  So I started going to therapy…where I still kept secrets, this time from my therapist.  I’m not sure why I thought I would get better doing that.

When I hit bottom and ended up in treatment, I shocked a lot of friends and family.  They didn’t know that I was such a mess.  While in treatment, I shared some, but not nearly all, of my shameful secrets.  I shared just enough that I thought I might get some help, but certainly not enough that I would thoroughly embarrass myself.  Any of you that have been reading my blog know that it took another trip to rehab for me to finally spill my guts, tell the truth – all of it, and begin healing.

I still struggle sometimes with not putting on that game face and just acting right, when I’m not feeling alright at all.  But I do know that I am making progress.  I keep far fewer things to myself these days.  I don’t have nearly as many secrets anymore, and guess what?  I have more friends and supporters than I ever did when I was secretive and dishonest.  The AA saying that we are as sick as our secrets is so true for me.  I know that when I begin keeping things from those that are close to me, I need to do something about it.  It just isn’t safe for me to be secretive.  When I fess up, tell the truth and am transparent, I feel more serene.  Life is less chaotic, and I am able to enjoy myself.  Sharing my secrets sets me free.  Funny how that works.