My mom’s alcoholism instilled in me a core belief that I was different, inadequate, and deeply flawed. I developed a belief that there was something wrong with my family, and there was something wrong with me. My parents were divorced. We didn’t have a lot of money. My mom was an alcoholic, and no one explained to me what that meant, or how she struggled with an illness.
Instead, it was normalized to smell whisky and see an adult passed out or wobbling around or urinating on the carpet in a half-asleep, half-drunk stumble. I didn’t understand, but I knew that this was my life. I didn’t know that my fight or flight system was in high gear, probably most nights. I developed a subconscious defense mechanism crafted from perfectionism and high achievement.
I was skilled at reading and writing, and did well in school, so I pursued the pinnacle of education in my chosen field. On some level, perhaps, I thought this would prove that I was good enough. I entered into a healthcare profession, as another defense against shame is to focus on others and gain self-worth by being needed or valued. I achieved straight As. I was an athlete. I was attracted to other high achievers and perfectionists, and I didn’t see why this might reflect something in them – inside – that might combust one day.
My childhood experiences developed into anxiety, a need for control, trust issues and rigidity. These defenses create additional suffering that gets layered on top of the core shame.
I am becoming more aware, now, of how readily I respond to stress with intense fear and shame.
I’m developing mindful awareness of this – at times I notice myself clinging to the remnants of my control, perfectionism and rigidity. I am also more self-accepting now, can feel self compassion and believe that I am not damaged or flawed or inadequate.
Instead, I am human.
Which entails being on a lifelong path of enlightenment. It necessitates making mistakes, because we are blind before we can see.
Who am I without fear, anxiety, shame, perfectionism and need for control? I am creative. I am kind. I am usually thoughtful. I love big ideas, and I also love spreadsheets and detail and visual organization. I like my dogs. I like to make small positive impacts on the world, not because this protects me from shame, but because I am part of the community of our world, and impact leads to a feeling of connection to a larger whole.
I am not alone in my complication and imperfection. The same person can hurt and protect. The same person can love and mistreat. The same person can be damaged and whole. People or not good or bad. We are damaged, and on a path to enlightenment, and we will make mistakes.
We are well-intentioned, and susceptible to being blind to our own issues. Normal people have the capacity for good and evil. We live in a complicated world where it is easy to be influenced by harmful factors if we are not intentional and mindful and careful. Just because a person is susceptible to the pitfalls of the human condition does not mean we have to live with them or put up with harmful treatment. I accept that this also means people might choose not to live with me or put up with my own harmful treatment.
That is not a fear, but rather, it is the foundation of healthy boundary setting.
When we are dating, and we don’t fully know ourselves, we are bound to be limited in how we can select for and set boundaries with partners. Without intending to, I sought people who were unavailable, physically or emotionally, unconsciously recreating the most painful dynamics of my childhood. I lived with a mother who was intermittently emotionally unavailable. I lived with a father who was intermittently physically unavailable. I could see this pattern relatively early on in adulthood, but I couldn’t break it and was susceptible to it.
Most of the people I was attracted to were long distance partners, or men who wouldn’t commit. I mistook chemistry for love, and I ignored stable, predictable or available dating partners. I was overly optimistic (denial being a readily available tool) about my vulnerability to making questionable choices. I listened to a podcast recently where a psychologist spoke about relationships being a mechanism for enlightenment – that we cannot learn about ourselves unless we are in close relationship with another person – that it takes another person to elicit the depths of our traumas, and only then do we have a chance to work through them and achieve spiritual growth and maturation.
This made me wonder if I can view my marriage as part trial, part blessing. I am working on this.
Our world has a sense of inertia. Things start, and it is hard to stop them. Plastics were developed to manufacture helpful products, and they litter our oceans. Chemicals are manufactured for helpful reasons, and now they disrupt our endocrine systems. Alcohol is effective at killing cells, which makes it effective as an antiseptic, but also as a neurotoxin.
Oh, the irony that it feels so good to destroy our own brain cells.
If our brain is our path to higher consciousness, what does it say that we worship a substance that disrupts our capacity for enlightened presence in the world? Our world is a wondrous place. There are a lot of mysteries here, and there is a lot of beauty – from the Good Samaritan who paid for my coffee in line ahead of me, to the altruistic help of a person in pain, to the loving support of a parent, to the friendly smile of a stranger at the airport.
Sometimes, I wonder now, what am I still blind to? What am I denying without awareness? What am I missing? What am I scared of? What am I defending against? What seems to serve me, but doesn’t? Who am I living for? What motivates my decisions and choices?
I can achieve a sense of peace when those around me are sober. My peace ship gets rocked, and sometimes capsizes fully, when I am around people using alcohol.
I am still struggling to set boundaries in my marriage. Sometimes I want to be in the same bed as my husband, and sometimes I’d like to live down the street, and still other times I’d like to be in a different state. Living with this ambivalence is really, really difficult some days. And some days it’s easy. A friend sent me a popular quote about marriage that reminds me, “Marriage is hard. Divorce is hard. Choose your hard.” There is no truly easy path. But there is an enlightened path, which I think is a path we can be on, no matter what decisions we make.
If you love or have loved an alcoholic, and you are on or are seeking an enlightened path to healing, please consider joining us in Echoes of Recovery.