I am continuing my monthly series on the 12 Steps, addiction, and recovery. I hope you will read, comment, and share! Let’s continue walking this journey together!
Now and then the family will be plagued by spectres from the past, for the drinking career of almost every alcoholic has been marked by escapades, funny, humiliating, shameful or tragic. The first impulse will be to bury these skeletons in a dark closet and padlock the door. The family may be possessed by the idea that future happiness can be based only upon forgetfulness of the past. We think that such a view is self-centered and in direct conflict with the new way of living….This painful past may be of infinite value to other families still struggling with their problem. We think each family who has been relieved owes something to those who have not, and when the occasion requires, each member of it should be only too willing to bring former mistakes, no matter how grievous, out of their hiding places. Showing others who suffer how we were given help is the very thing which makes life seem so worth while to us now (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 123-124).
For the past year, my 12 Step posts have focused on the individual recovering from addiction. As I wrote last month, there are more people who suffer than just the addict: life is never the same for the family, either. Spouses or partners have been hurt. Children have been humiliated. Parents and siblings often feel betrayed.
And now the addict is getting better. Now things are the way families had wished they had always been. So the best thing to do is ignore the past, right?
Well, probably not. For a few reasons:
Forgetting the past robs us of our successes. “Rock bottom” is a phrase used a lot in 12 step recovery. If I try to forget or ignore my rock bottom, I run the risk of forgetting how hard I had to work to get to where I am. As a family, we need to remember that we walked through some dark times together and came out of it. This looks different for each family: some stay together, some break apart but find reconciliation, others break apart and all that can be found is peace and acceptance of the new reality. But whatever our family looks like afterward, it is different. In most cases, it is better. We should remember, and in some ways even celebrate, the journey we have walked—through all the muck and mire.
Ignoring our past robs us of the opportunity to help others. For most people, addiction is a condition that leads to suffering in silence. The drunkenness is often public, the suffering is usually private. The same is true for the family. If the addict’s behavior can be hidden, then the family can put on a collective smiley-face for the world to see.
This is especially, and unfortunately, true in churches. We hide our crap as best we can. So if a family that has overcome the issues caused by addiction will be open and freely share their struggles, trials, and triumphs, other families may gain the confidence needed to reach out for help.
Ignoring our past robs the individual family members of the opportunity to completely heal. It took a long time for my children to be able to hear my wife and I joke about my alcoholism and recovery. For my wife and me, humor is a salve. For my children, humor seemed to make light of a serious problem. As they grow older, that is changing. Their healing process is not the same as mine.
If we ignored as a family the fact that I am in recovery, they may not feel comfortable talking about the healing they still need to go through. Ignorance of the reality of my alcoholism covertly teaches my children they cannot talk about it anymore; they need to get over it. There are some days when I remember what it was like to drink and wonder if I could do it again and be safe. When that happens, I talk to somebody. Because I do not ignore that I had a problem. Some days, my children may remember friends they do not see anymore because we moved a couple of times after I was fired due to my alcoholism. They need to be able to talk to somebody. When we remember and discuss freely, it is easier for them to do so.
Finally, it is okay for you to ask families in recovery about their journey. For some reason, we often feel the need to tiptoe around these difficult memories. When a family has reached a place of healing and recovery, we are afraid to ever bring up the past again. But let me say this: I want families or individuals who have questions to come to me and ask them. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were asked to share our story as a communion thought. We agreed because, as my wife said, “If our journey can’t help other people, what was the use?” I caused a lot of pain. I did a lot of really stupid things. But my family has overcome all of that. And if we can play a small part in healing (or even preventing!), then we want to do that!
Many of us have experienced hurt and heartache. Many of us are still in the midst of those painful times and many of us have reached a place of healing, comfort, and rest. The best way to make it through this life is by doing it together.
Reach out and talk.
Ask questions and share stories.
Recognize hurt exists and healing is still taking place.
Just don’t ignore the past. Learn from it. Celebrate the victories over it. And let’s do it all together.