Out with the old attitudes, in with the new
On New Year’s Eve, an e-mail arrived from my older sister, addressed to the whole family, announcing that she would no longer communicate with me about our mother’s recent diagnosis of cancer. My sister wrote that she was “incensed by the tone of cynicism and insinuation in your last e-mail,” and would be speaking to me only when necessary from now on.
Our family has been long and deeply affected by alcoholism: my father’s, mine, my brother’s. So taking sides, drawing lines in the sand, raising the battle flag, and conflating difference of opinion to denunciation are part of our standard repertoire.
I’ve been sober in AA long enough to have learned about my part in this, to have made amends for it, and, occasionally, to make amends again for slipping back into the fray, mouth first. We’re all college-educated, trained communicators, which only makes the mess worse. Add my childishness, grandiosity, and over-sensitivity, and you have the formula for strong undercurrents of hurt, anger, envy, and vengeance.
I was what counselors call “the lost child” (better known as the family jerk) since I was twelve and began to gleefully start nipping at Dad’s stash of high-test. Further back than that, I don’t remember much, a symptom common to adult children of alcoholics. Dreamy, easily hurt, afraid to fight back, I got the lowest grades in school, and proved average in every way except in not living up to the “potential” my parents assured me I was forever falling short of. At that, I excelled.
Funny how these family patterns stick around. My father is twenty-five years dead from a drunken car accident. My brother is drinking himself to sleep, nightly, to ease the recent loss of his marriage. A younger sister had the good sense to move out of range of the family feud, but suffers a single life from an eating disorder she’s tried, unsuccessfully, to address for decades. The older sister who pronounced my excommunication still struggles heroically, after two marriages to alcoholics, to rescue two grown daughters, tend to all our mother’s needs, and carry on a demanding career. A once brilliant and beautiful cousin is six months dead after being carried from her last homeless shelter, and her brother and sister have yet to announce her passing away.
Could be everybody’s too busy to notice I’ve changed a little over twenty-plus years of sobriety. But AA doesn’t guarantee things will get better. Only that I will. So when family tensions rise, I’m still sometimes perceived as the family jerk, off in his own little lost, irresponsible, dreamy world. To tell the truth, conviction, decisiveness, and action have never been my strengths. And insinuation, sarcasm, and cynicism have made every Fourth Step list I’ve ever done. So my sister’s allegation stung with both its unfairness and with the old feelings of guilt and shame. Much as I didn’t deserve it, I felt again like the bad, immature little boy I thought I was when I first started getting sober.
This time was different, however, if only in my not reacting to the sad drama around me with the hurt and anger I saw others suffering from. I felt it, too, but sober friends, a sober spouse, meetings, principles, and practicing the Steps provide some frame of reference other than my churning gut and the noisy committee in my head. I believe these old feelings and thoughts stick around to remind me that I live with alcohol-ism, not alcohol-wasm. And my next first drink would likely follow thoroughly justified hurt, anger, and self-pity.
With some sober guidance and attentive listening, I took stock of my family. My older sister gets little satisfaction from her enormous accomplishments and independence, and she loves others to the point of compromising her own health and well-being. My brother has two grown sons living adventurously, thanks to his support and guidance, both of whom love him very much. My younger sister is the warmest and funniest of the tribe. If still unable to share a stable relationship, she’s quicker to make Mother laugh than any of us.
And Mom? When I was ten years sober and Dad was fifteen years dead, she brought me a magazine article explaining the family dynamics of alcoholism. Pointing to a page, she said, “I think your father could have used that. . . that thing you’re into, too,” meaning Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s the closest she’s ever come to saying “alcoholic,” or admitting there may be a problem in our family. But she did it.
So, first I asked myself what someone smarter and more spiritually grounded than I would do. Then I ran off a brief return e-mail to my sister and left a voice-mail asking to visit. She phoned, New Year’s morning, with an apology for misreading my intent, and an explanation of the growing stress in her life. I listened, empathized, and withheld advice about Al-Anon that I’ve offered a dozen times before. If her degrees and job are any measure, her memory and aptitude are much higher than mine. Besides, I got over being Mr. Recovery years ago.
When I hung up the phone, a wave of relief and gratitude swept away the whole emotional brush-fire. The rest of the weekend, I welcomed the possibilities that the new year might bring. Mother is still seriously ill and my family still seriously disturbed. But if I continue to remain honest, open, willing, and teachable, then I can resolve to live another year–one day at a time, of course–happy, joyous, and free.