Secrets Revealed

I never wanted to reveal the secret shame. But I had to let it out because it was so entwined with the story I was compelled to tell. The story of how my helpless, defenseless father was abused and neglected in nursing facilities. So I told the secret in Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father.

Next I wrote Secrets Revisited, a collection of thirty-six personal vignettes showing the dynamics in the alcoholic family. Reliving each experience as I wrote it, I came to realize that through and in it all was God—seeing, knowing, and understanding.

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Sticky Friend

She opened the drawer, and I fell drooling into the pit of covetousness.

My father had driven us somewhere–maybe to Washington, D.C. The woman was, I think, a distant aunt. Her only child was about my age, who, like me, was trapped in the boredom of adult talk.

“Do you want to read a book?” his mother asked him, pulling open the chest’s bottom drawer. Sitting obediently quiet by my mother, I had been thinking about that chest of drawers. It seemed out of place in a living room. Didn’t a bureau belong in the bedroom? But when I saw that open drawer chock-full of children’s books–beautiful, wonderful companions waiting to be met and enjoyed–I threw conflict out the window and replaced it for a double amazement. So many books and he told his mother no! Without another word she closed the drawer.

But I can read too! I even have my own library card. I’ve had it since I was six.

I couldn’t read then, but I was old enough to join the library. As soon as my July 3 birthday came, Mama gave me permission to walk to the library for my card. The librarian, though, handed me another kind of card, saying my mother had to first fill it out and sign it. I walked back home, then back to the library.

As she handed me my card, the librarian tainted my pride of ownership with her admonition. “You can only check out one book at a time. You must prove you can take good care of a book and will return it on time.”

I ran home hugging my first book all the way. Mama immediately sat down with my brothers and me and read the story to us. Then back I went to the library for my second book. When I returned home, Mama said she wouldn’t have time to read that one until tomorrow.

My fourth-grade teacher took my appreciation of books to a new level. The school did not have a library as such, but each classroom sectioned off  a small semblance of one. Every week we could select a new book to take home. One morning Miss Snap showed us a dog-eared page in a book. As she smoothed the corner back up, I noticed there was a permanent crease. Then she made the statement that claimed my heart. “Books are our friends. We would never do this to a friend.”

Only once had I seen my father read a book. Someone in AA loaned him Alcoholics Anonymous. I was probably in the fifth grade when I saw him reading the big blue book.

By then I was cherishing books as forever friends. I felt they would never leave me even though I had to return them to the library, for we had shared special moments together. I wanted Daddy to have these lifelong friends too.

When my father finished the last page of Alcoholics Anonymous, my hope soared that he was hooked into reading another book. I watched to see if he would. He never did, and I never thought of what would motivate him. (Before the Door Closes, p. 41)

But I didn’t have to motivate my husband,who is as great a lover of books as I am. We were married for less than six months when we bought our first bookcase, which I still use today in my home office along with one that my father made from a wooden playpen while drunk one night and a barrister bookcase I snatched up at a resale shop because I could stack books two deep on its shelves. We made sure our children had bookcases in their bedrooms. The last time we moved we had a bookcase built on the entire length of one wall. Sometimes my husband looks at me and says, “We have to get rid of some books.” Inevitably I reply, “You first.” Of course, that ends the discussion. Anyway, it’s much easier to buy another bookcase.

The Bible says in Proverbs 18:24, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” I know who, what, and where my sticky friend is.

Father Manifestation

“What’s for supper?” my husband asked, peering into the kitchen. That was never a simple, face-value question. To me it meant I was not meeting his expectations. I wasn’t going fast enough for him. In the escalating self-inflicted irritation, I picked up my pace from sink to refrigerator to stove to counter to the cookbook and back to the stove.

That day my husband must have lingered a little too long at the kitchen bar, because he followed up with another question. “What did you think I was saying when I asked you that?”

With my eyes fixated on stirring the pot, I answered truthfully. “You were saying, ‘I’m hungry. Hurry up.'”

Immediately, I felt my husband’s body beside mine at the stove. “Judy, in our forty-eight years of marriage, I never thought that. Not once.”

How had I been so wrong for so long? Instinctively I traced the problem back to my father. In psychological terms I had been acting in the Parent part of me. According to psychiatrist Eric Berne, each of us is always acting in one of three ego states: Parent, Adult, Child. My husband’s simple “What’s for supper?” had stimulated a conditioning embedded in me by my father. Everything had to be done in a hurry. He could not be kept waiting. Even when he had driven me to a store on the morning of my wedding, my father told me to “hurry up” as I dashed from his car. (I revealed it and other father-influenced “hurry” incidents in Before the Door Closes.)

Whenever I think about having misunderstood my husband’s innocent question for almost half a century, I remember Jesus’ emotional reply after one of the apostles asked Him to show them the Father:  “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9 ESV).

What kind of Father did Jesus manifest? Stuart Townend shared his enlightenment when he composed “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”

The Son of God displayed to the world the Father’s sacrifice of love in His quest for a personal relationship with you and me. We cannot choose our earthly fathers, but we can choose God the Father.

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PBPGIFWMY

As a freshman member of Alcoholics Anonymous, my father memorized its renowned twelve steps. My memory of his success is  recounted on page 62 of Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father:

“More than fifty years earlier, Daddy had memorized its twelve-step program. ‘Listen to this, Judy,’ he said, taking a card from his wallet. Striding around the room, he repeatedly read aloud the dozen principles. Day after day he thundered them until they were rooted in his mind. That accomplished, there were times, it seemed, when he needed a reminder. Roping the family in it, he would unexpectedly walk to the middle of the living room, square his shoulders, and deliver each step perfectly.

“He sounded every bit like a fervent evangelist when his assured voice thundered, ‘Step Two. Come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.'”

Thinking back on that now, I believe those were times when Daddy was asking his family for patience.  At his core he desperately wanted to quit drinking–never succumb to another slip. Making us listen to his recitation was his way of reminding himself and us.

The plea of Daddy’s heart was epitomized in a maxim in the late seventies/early eighties, abbreviated PBPGIFWMY:  Please be patient; God isn’t finished with me yet. Also during that time Joel Hemphill wrote the gospel song “He’s Still Working on Me.”

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The Opt-Out

“The patience of Job” is a misnomer, for patience implies exercising calmness while under hardship. That wasn’t Job! He was a complainer who endured. When he decided he had finally “had it,” Job demanded his day in court with  God. Once the Almighty heard his arguments, he would  undoubtedly be vindicated (Job 23:1-5)!

When the Judge comes, he opens the case by essentially telling Job he doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Job 38:2). Again and again God makes Job face the evidence of His sovereignty and grandeur. When the examination ends, Job, left speechless (Job 40:1-5), becomes God’s all-weather friend.

That’s how I described the friend  in my post of March 10. She had assured me that no matter what she would learn about me in my book Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father, she would love me. Nothing I had done or been in the past would change that. Job reached that point in his relationship with God when, like her, he opted out of being a fair-weather friend.

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Out of Order

In commenting on my previous post, “The All-Weather Friend,” Carolyn revealed that she learned from classmates after she was grown they had similar stories to mine. She regrets not knowing their secret earlier so that she could have been of support at the time.

Her regret reminded me of André Auw’s poem “Out of Order,”  which tells of a little boy wanting to cry because he couldn’t get the popcorn machine to release the popcorn it held. He didn’t understand that his desire and his money were not enough to make the broken machine work. The poem then concludes:

And Lord, I too felt like weeping, weeping for
people who have become locked in,
jammed, broken machines filled with
goodness that other people need and
want and yet will never come to enjoy,
because somehow, somewhere,
something has gone wrong inside.

Many lives cloister wounded feelings, bruising as easily as magnolia petals. We do not always recognize these mangled souls. We may meet them only briefly. In a crowded store. At the gas pump. During a “move on” business call.

A patient word, a thumbs-up gesture, a simple thank you to these nameless victims may be enough salve for them to make it through another day. And what’s the price? A passing moment of stepping outside ourselves.

But what about the life who is harboring undeserved hurts? You do not have to pass them on. You have the power to break the cycle. You can help others not to be out of order too!

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The All-Weather Friend

“I was ‘startled,’ Judy, to receive your book,” my friend emailed me. “You know, we just don’t know people, do we?”

She was one of three out-of-state friends I surprised with a copy of Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father. They had had no inkling of my father’s alcoholism. The friendships were formed and maintained for decades without the trust of my shameful secret. I wouldn’t chance losing a friend who knew the whole truth about me.

Growing up, I wanted to have a best friend. But how could I start? I couldn’t invite anyone to my house. Daddy might be drunk.

The closest I got to having my desire for a bosom buddy was with my college roommate. Whenever we listed our preference for the next semester, I was afraid she would choose someone else. She liked me well enough, though, to stick with me for four years. But if she had known I was the daughter of an alcoholic, would that have changed her mind?

Her relationship with her father was totally different. He drove her back to college after the summer breaks. On one of those trips, she told me, he held her hand all the way from Florida to Tennessee. Strange! My father had never as much as put his arm around my shoulder.

In my forties I developed another close friendship. Her family had ties to my teenage neighborhood. Maybe she knew about my father’s history of alcoholism. I don’t know. We never talked of it, but we had a good time sharing stories about our children over lunch every few months. Then one day her name came up in a conversation with two other people. One of them said, “She is Judy’s friend that I took.” I wasn’t shocked. I had noticed the change in her and was glad I did not need to excuse it anymore.

But the friend who was emailing me about my book gift refused to read it until she laid down her ground rule: “Before I begin I want to say I love you as a sister in Christ and as a person.”

“A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17).

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Me Before You

I was fourteen and had my first regular job. My neighbor, expecting twins, paid me that summer to give her a hand with her three toddlers and help with the housework. As soon as I ran home clutching my first week’s cash, my mother reached for the Sears catalog. “See how pretty this is,” she said, opening to an earmarked page. “It would be nice for Gail in the winter.”

My stomach felt sick as I looked at the pretty black-and-white wool coat with matching leggings and hat, realizing what my mother was really saying. She expected me to buy the outfit for my three-year-old sister. Again I had to prove I was not selfish. That time, however, I put up a timid objection.

“You’re supposed to help the family,” my mother replied. Knowing that because of my father’s alcohol abuse, she could not depend on him, I handed her the money she needed and bought my first can of hair spray with the remainder.

As surely as night turns to day, I had been taught over and over I should put everyone before myself. It was drilled in me at church too: God first, others second, yourself last. They were all wrong! God first, yes. But the adults in my childhood had reversed the other two tenets.

When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself ” (Matthew 22:39 NIV), He repeated verbatim words from Leviticus 19:18. A few years ago I finally understood what both the Old and New Testaments were saying. I could not love the one next to me until I loved myself. I could not know how to love someone else until I knew how to love me. To become unselfish I must first be kind to myself and give to me.

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Unexplainable Conviction

As explained in the previous post, my mother was the pillar of stability in our alcoholic family. She fulfilled Dr. Alice Miller’s definition of “helping witness.” If not for her, our family would have completely collapsed. Although she did not use the word “love,” her acts of service showed it. I saw her literally take food out of her mouth and give it to her hungry teenage son.

We could never count on my father being sober. That was as unpredictable as the box of hand-me-downs the rich girl’s mother in Virginia sent me.

My father also did not say the word “love.” In fact, as I recount on page 53 of my book,  I was forty-four years old when I first heard him tell me, “I love you.” Was he too late?

No. I always held an unshakeable conviction he loved me. I cannot explain it. Can you?

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My Helping Witness

“Did you ever ask anyone for help?” the former school counselor asked when our discussion led to my father’s alcohol abuse. She meant someone such as a counselor like herself or a social worker, someone who  psychologist Dr. Alice Miller calls an enlightened witness (http://alice-miller.com/index_en.php?page=2). I was unaware of such people when I was a child. Not that I would have opened up to any of them anyway, for I carefully guarded the secret shame.

Moreover,  I didn’t need such a person. Someone else stood in the gap for me. Quoting Dr. Miller: “When I asked for details about their childhood, I was always told of a person who loved them, but was unable to protect them. Yet through his or her presence, this person gave them a notion of trust, and of love.” That was my mother, who never drank, who made sure her children got off to school every morning, who was home when they returned, who kept their clothes and house clean. She was the one who taught us to pray “Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Also–I can’t speak for my siblings–she was my confidante.

No, I didn’t need a professional, because my mother was my helping witness. As Dr. Miller writes, “The adult who has grown up without helping witnesses in his childhood needs the support of enlightened witnesses.”

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