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.”
“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.
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!
“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).
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.
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?
“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.”
Dr. Robert J. Ackerman (http://www.counselormagazine.com/editor-Counselor-Magazine.aspx) told me so in his book Perfect Daughters. He cited oodles of corroborators; and for the first time in my life, I did not have to defend myself to myself for being a perfectionist. I did not feel abnormal anymore for striving to make everyone’s world perfect, for I realized that is what many a daughter of an alcoholic father normally does.
Then I reached deep inside myself and took out the little girl who tried to please everyone, who blamed herself if something went wrong, who always took care of others first, who suppressed her needs. And I cried for her and over her when I was seventy years old. Yes, it is never too late for healing.
I was writing my own book, Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father, when I first read Perfect Daughters and had my catharsis. I had read other books on codependency throughout the years, but none had touched me like Dr. Ackerman’s. Maybe because, as he reveals, he, too, is the child of an alcoholic. Regardless, his heart had reached mine; and I wrote to Dr. Ackerman, asking him to read my manuscript. His subsequent endorsement appears on the back cover of my book.
“Were you angry at your father?” the woman asked during the book discussion of Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father.
“No,” I unreservedly replied.
“But he beat your mother,” she whispered as if it were still a secret.
“I hated it and I felt sorry for her. But that wasn’t my father,” I explained. “My real father didn’t do that.”
Later I realized all my life I used a defense mechanism for my father’s alcoholic behavior that my mother had expertly polished: compartmentalization. A scene from my book reveals her dichotomy.
“Our arms entwined, I reflected that for most of my life I had wondered if Daddy ever told Mama he loved her. There were so many years he had abused her physically, mentally, and emotionally. Through it all my mother persevered. She had found her way to cope.
“Mama once told me as she looked through the window at my father staggering to the front door, ‘He is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’
“That’s how she mentally sectioned her life. If Daddy was drunk, he was Mr. Hyde, embodying all that was wrong, evil, sinful. If Daddy was sober, he was Dr. Jekyll, goodness and peace and healing. While hating Mr. Hyde, Mama knew at the end of her endurance, he would metamorphose again into Dr. Jekyll.”
The time had come to expose the family’s secret shame. Daddy is an alcoholic. Although he is now dead, I never stop thinking, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” Probably because I am so much like my father (minus the alcoholism), I never do anything halfway. So I proclaimed the truth to the entire world in my book, Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father.