By Lisa Sue Woititz, Author of Unwelcome Inheritance: Break Your Family’s Cycle of Addictive Behaviors, Hazelden, 2015
“Letting go of our story” sounds like such a simple thing to do, doesn’t it?
For many of us who were raised by addicted parents, it’s been impossible. Despite the years gone by, we have so many vivid memories that call up old hurts as if it all happened yesterday. Is it possible to empty our memory banks of all that we have been through? Can we delete every difficult emotion or reaction that has lived inside of us for as long as we can remember? Even with all of the sincere efforts we have made in order to find inner peace, it’s difficult to move forward and stay in that new place. Many of us have tried to physically or emotionally sever ties with our parents, and have gotten no relief. Holding onto our story is like breathing. Our history gives us a place to belong in this world. Don’t we all have a need to feel connected to others, for better or worse?
Perhaps you too can recall times in your life when you felt betrayed by somebody that you loved very much. Their crime was so obvious that it seemed the only thing to do was to cut that person off and never speak to them again. Because we could see no way to fix the situation, forgiveness was not possible. Feeling justified in our anger distracted us from the hurt and helped us to detach from the relationship. It gave us the closure that we needed to move forward. So many years later, we have found that in many situations that involve active addiction, we cannot find closure. This is the nature of the insanity of growing up in an environment with active substance abuse. It is very hard to close one chapter and begin a new one. We drag one story into the next, like a big bag of rocks that we drag along from place to place.
Finding closure by cutting people off was a pattern of behavior that I established early in my life. In younger years it served me well as a way of disconnecting from toxic people and painful situations that I did not know how to handle. Little did I know that I had chosen most of these people to be in my life and I had a big part in creating many of these situations. Today I see that this behavior stood in the way of working through problems and accepting other people and their point of view. Not every problem can be solved, but we can still move forward if we want to. Perhaps in time we will have clarity about what went wrong and our willingness to express and sit with feelings will grow. We can live and learn. I hear you saying, “Easier said than done!” I agree. But this is where the growth is and it is worth a try when you are up to it.
Many years ago my best friend hurt me deeply. I blocked her from all means of communicating with me. I missed her deeply but I was very angry. Despite the passage of time, the incident that caused the hurt remained just as painful as ever. I was obsessed. I went over the story time and time again, memorizing the unforgiveable harsh words and actions. Every time I had a weak moment and I wanted to forget the whole thing and pick up the phone, every time that little voice inside of me said, “Let it go, let it go,” I forced myself to go back into the story and re-activate my anger. It did not occur to me that this person may have acted out of their own hurt and never intended to harm me. It didn’t occur to me to look at the problem or my solution in any other way.
A few months later, I went on a retreat and attended a meditation class. I felt compelled to approach the teacher afterwards and tell her of this painful experience that I could not move past and ask her how meditation might help me. Her suggestion was simple and profound and the relief was almost immediate. This is what she said:
“When you go back into the story to remind yourself of how this person hurt you, you are not helping yourself to detach. You are reinforcing the hurt and the anger. This is toxic. Instead of focusing in on the painful details of the story, try to focus in on your feelings and identify what they are. Then consider what you can do to improve the way that you feel.” I left her and found a quiet place to think. I felt so sad about what had happened and I missed my friend. I felt angry, hurt, betrayed. Fearful. Grief-stricken over the loss. I thought about what would make me feel better.
As I thought about my feelings instead of the story, I realized that if I stopped thinking about the hurtful story, then it became difficult to tap into the anger and all of those terrible feelings. And if I didn’t have all of those terrible feelings, then it didn’t make sense to sever the relationship. I realized that I no longer had to grieve on top of reliving a painful experience. I felt free and relieved trying on this new perspective. The next time my friend called, I answered.
Once we uncover the feelings that we are struggling with, an important question to ask ourselves is, “How long have I felt this way?” Or, “What is my earliest memory of feeling this way?” If you are the child of addicted parents, it is very likely that these feelings go all the way back to your childhood –feelings that are reactivated by one story after another as we go through life. (Picture yourself dragging that big bag of rocks from place to place.)
This is when my healing began. Eventually, the story about how my best friend betrayed me became a story about devoted best friends. I can’t say that I have forgiven her because I still struggle with some amount of hurt and anger. But this experience deepened my understanding of acceptance. Instead of going over the story again and again I think about my feelings and then I consider hers. I can accept the fact that she had a point of view and feelings and did not intend harm. This feels so much better inside my heart than holding tight to bitterness and hurt.
I find that children of alcoholics and so many people who identify with this journey continue to feel the pain of their childhood despite years of therapy and self-help. We are angry at our parents for hurting us or neglecting us or for depriving us of the childhood we feel we should have had. Perhaps our anger helps us to feel the emotional connection to them that we still crave. We can’t wrap our minds around the idea that we can let go of our hurt and still honor our experience and feel a connection to our loved ones. It doesn’t occur to us that our parents may have acted out of their own hurt that came from their own story. (Hurt people hurt people!)
Why else do hold onto our story? So that we do not become vulnerable and fall apart. We are protecting ourselves from feeling so much anger that we may want to kill somebody. Or feeling so much sadness that we may want to die. Or because we are afraid that if we start crying we will never be able to stop. We are guarding our hearts and protecting ourselves from our fear of loss of control. Like my meditation teacher suggested, we can think about our feelings instead of the story. And then we can consider the feelings of the other people in our story. And hopefully, in time, the story about the painful past will transform into a story of moving past hurt feelings and seeing our history from a new point of view. We can look at our story in with compassion and understanding for all.
For much of my life, I was attached to the traumatic version of my story and the painful past. Today, I don’t think about my life that way. Now I can share my experience in hopes that it may help someone. I have compassion for my mother who suffered as I did instead of feeling angry at her for not protecting me. I have compassion for my father’s painful experience that set the stage for him to become an alcoholic and hurt those he loved the most. I recognize that my parents have a story that they have carried with them, affecting them throughout their lives. They too, dragged a bag of rocks from place to place.
Acknowledging and sitting with our feelings is much like opening a wound to drain the poison away. We don’t have to be afraid of growing pains and we don’t have to go through them alone. We don’t have to “Let go of our story” in order to heal. We can look at our story in a new light that honors our experience and acknowledges how far we have come.
ABOUT LISA SUE WOITITZ
Lisa Sue Woititz, author of UNWELCOME IHERITANCE: BREAK YOUR FAMILY’S CYCLE OF ADDICTIVE BEHAVIOR, has been a counselor and educator in the field of substance abuse treatment for the past thirty years. Her passion for this work comes out of her personal experience and the fact that both of her parents were involved in the recovery movement from the time of her early youth. Lisa Sue has been called “The First ACoA” because her late mother, Dr. Janet Woititz, is known as the “Mother of the ACoA Recovery Movement” due to her seminal book ADULT CHILDREN OF ALCOHOLICS which gained international recognition in the 1980s. Lisa Sue is currently in private practice coaching ACoAs, many whom have been in therapy for many years without lasting results. She is an active public speaker and writer, and the mother of three amazingly special children.
Twitter: ACOA Recovery @lisasuewoititz