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THE CONNECTION BETWEEN YOUR STORY AND THE PAIN THAT WON’T GO AWAY

By Lisa Sue Woititz, Author of Unwelcome Inheritance: Break Your Family’s Cycle of Addictive Behaviors, Hazelden, 2015

UNWELCOME INHERITANCE COVER


“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.

Website:      lisasuewoititz.com

Facebook:   https://www.facebook.com/ACoARecoveryLisaSueandDr.Jan/

Twitter: ACOA Recovery @lisasuewoititz

 

 

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Dear Friends,

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5 Things ACoAs Can Do to Boost Their Recovery

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By Lisa Woititz, author of Unwelcome Inheritance: Break Your Family’s Cycle of Addictive Behaviors

With the right support, looking back at our difficult past experiences can help us to understand where our ongoing pain and struggles come from. And sharing the feelings we’ve pushed down for a long time can be a relief. But making those connections and releasing our emotions doesn’t always heal those hurts.  In fact, sometimes too much focus on the past can prevent us from moving forward, which is exactly what we need to do to feel whole and create positive change.  It’s good to know that our future can be happy and bright even if we cannot change what happened in the past. Here are some things that we can all do to move forward in our recovery:

LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE

Have you ever looked at your family tree? It holds the key to understanding who and what has shaped our lives.  Was it just your mother or father who had a drinking problem? What were your grandparents like? What sort of home environment were your parents raised in?  Understanding what behaviors and physical predispositions have been passed down to us can give us a whole new and expanded perspective on our lives.  It can also give us insight as to what traits we have passed along to our children and what we may want to do differently than our parents and grandparents.

RECOGNIZE YOUR OWN IMPORTANCE

Our personal recovery doesn’t just help us. It can help those that we love in their healing process as well. Many people minimize the impact they have on the lives of others. Everyone is someone’s child, spouse, parent, friend, loved one – we are all important to someone!  When we take better care of ourselves, we relieve our loved ones of worry and fear about our well-being.  When we smile, those around us can’t help but smile too. Happiness is contagious!  If you don’t feel that you are worth taking good care of yourself, do it for those you love. Your happiness matters!

CHANGE THE THINGS WE CAN

We may not be able to change the past, but we do have control over what happens next. If you miss someone with whom you have a broken relationship, consider reaching out to that person if only to say “hello.” If you have a dream, take a small step toward it. If you don’t like something the way it is, change it! And if you don’t know how to change it, ask for help. If you feel afraid to make a change, ask yourself, “Can this action harm me or someone else?” If the answer is “no” and it is just a case of the jitters that is in your way, remember that the opposite of fear is faith – have faith in yourself because you can do it!

SERVICE TO OTHERS

There’s no better way to forget our troubles than to help others who are less fortunate. Opportunities to serve others present themselves all day long, in small ways and tall.  Call someone that you know is going through a hard time and let them know you are thinking of them. Volunteer your time to a cause that is important to you.  Do something nice for your neighbor.  If you have a talent, share it. Service is a state of mind that reminds us that despite our troubles,  we have something valuable to offer others.

REMEMBER TO BE GRATEFUL

Those of us who were raised in a stressful and depressing environment may see the glass as empty instead of half full.  Even when we don’t have a reason to feel unhappy, we may find ourselves in a negative state of mind.  This might be a habit that you have the power to change. Attitude is everything!  When you wake up in the morning, write down five things that you are grateful for. This daily practice will put you in a positive state of mind that can carry you through the day.  You will see that it is virtually impossible to be in a negative mood when you are focused on all you have to be grateful for.

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3 Three Things Your Recovering Parent Wants You to Know

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By Lisa Sue Woititz, author of Unwelcome Inheritance: Break Your Family’s Cycle of Addictive Behaviors

Consider the possibility that your estranged parent is in recovery and that just like you, they are on a journey of self-reflection and personal growth.  In this case continued resentment over the painful past serves no useful purpose, keeping apart a family that really longs to be together. This brokenness sets the stage for more of the same in future generations. With this in mind, please consider opening your heart to the possibility of reconciliation.  It’s never too late to allow our relationships to heal and to create the family life we want. I hope it will help you to learn of these things that so many recovering parents want their children to know:

  1. I accept responsibility for much of your struggle in life.  You try to let go of your rage toward me, but it will not loosen its grip on you. I robbed you of the normal childhood memories that you long for, a past that would make you feel like a whole person.  Over the years, that sadness has deepened into sorrow and the anger has hardened into resentment. Sometimes without warning, the anguish is triggered, and you have to find your way back to yourself. It can take minutes, days, weeks or more. Although you know that this emotional relapse affects those around you, it is beyond your ability to control and sometimes alienates the ones you love. There are no words to express how sorry I am to have caused you this pain.
  2. I understand your determination to be the opposite of me – to never become an addict or alcoholic and let your children and loved ones down the way I have. Despite your convictions you are short tempered, impulsive, and stubborn. My gut feeling is that you do drink or drug like I did, or you will one day. You refuse to accept a warning from me about the physical disposition toward addiction that runs through our family. You insist that I don’t know what I’m talking about and that it’s none of my business because I have lost the right to an opinion. You have every reason to feel this way because you are right. The failure in me wants to disappear, but the healthier parent that I am becoming wants to tell you that being right can stand in the way of getting the help that we need. I fear you will continue to shut me out even if you need me to save your life. Please let me be there for you.
  3. I understand your broken heart because what happened to you also happened to me. What was taken from you was also taken from me. I inherited the blueprint for a childhood that nobody would want and unintentionally passed it along to you. For me to bring you into this world and then not protect you is deplorable. I want you to know that despite my mistakes I did the very best I could with what I was taught, and I love you with all of my heart. I will do whatever it takes to help you heal and for us to begin again. Knowing this helps you a little but it doesn’t fix anything. I ask you to join me in healing the past by coming together and creating new memories that will help to heal our family today and into the future.

“Ironically enough, the terrible disease that has hit your family can be used against itself.  You suffered as a family divided by alcoholism, and you can recover as a family united because of alcoholism. Because of alcoholism, you became aware of yourself and your need to be a fully functioning family. Take advantage of that. We grow from the challenges in our lives. We grow more from the hard times, not the easy ones. As a family, you can become more fulfilled than if you were never forced to face yourselves. With recovery, the spiral can go upward through our families and into every area of our lives. Slowly but surely, the pattern can reverse itself with you in the driver’s seat.”  Dr. Janet Geringer Woititz, author of Adult Children of Alcoholics.

8 Things That ACOAs Can Do To Outwit Depression

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By Lisa Sue Woititz, author of Unwelcome Inheritance: Break Your Family’s Cycle of Addictive Behavior

Many of us who have alcoholism or other addictions in our families suffer from depression to some degree. We’ve gone to self-help groups and therapists for a number of years, hoping that if we can uncover hidden emotional issues that the feeling of hopelessness will disappear. Some of us judge ourselves for our inability to “get over it” and “pull ourselves together” but as much as we try, we just can’t shake the blues. Well, maybe it’s not all in our mind! Sometimes approaching an old problem from a new angle energizes us with a renewed feeling of hope. So let’s consider this common problem from a different perspective and ask ourselves: Are we taking good care of our bodies? In combination with reaching out to our support system, here are eight things that ACOAs can do to outwit depression:

  1. Learn about your family history of addiction and mental health issues. Is it possible that you have inherited body chemistry that lends itself to depression? Our genetic makeup may contribute to the way we are feeling even if we do not have a substance abuse problem.  If you do have addictions, consider addressing them so that you are not agitating your sensitive system with chemicals that leave you feeling worse than you did before you took them.
  2. Get tested for food allergies and discover what your body reacts to. Or, experiment on your own by eating one food by itself on an empty stomach and waiting an hour to see how you feel. Many ACOAs have dramatic allergic reactions to foods and chemicals. You may be shocked at how much better your mood is when you eliminate these culprits from your daily fare and replace them with healthy foods that your body needs.
  3. Eliminate sugar in all of its forms from your diet. That momentary lift may not be worth the way you feel when your glucose levels crash, especially if sugar is your drug of choice.  Learn about all of the different aliases used to disguise sugar so that when you read food labels, you can identify it.
  4. Have your vitamin D level checked next time you have a physical. Studies show a direct link between depression and low vitamin D levels. If you need a vitamin D boost, your physician can help you decide how to achieve that through diet, vitamins in pill or liquid form and/or spending a modest amount of time in the sun.
  5. Hydrate! Many experts believe that there is a relationship between chronic dehydration and fatigue, which feels like depression. While this might not be the sole cause of the problem, it may be a contributing factor. As a test, drink several glasses of water a day for several days and see if you feel better.
  6. Move your body and release that anger. Do you agree that depression is partly anger turned inward?  Release that angry energy with exercise and experience a lift in your mood as those endorphins start flowing.
  7. Consider taking medication if it is recommended by a professional that you trust.
  8. Give meditation a try. It quiets the mind and can give you a feeling of peace and well being.
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Codependency and Addictive Thinking

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By Lisa Sue Woititz
Author of Unwelcome Inheritance: Break Your Family’s Cycle of Addictive Behavior
 

I don’t remember hearing the word codependency back in the seventies, but the recovery group for children of alcoholics that I attended taught me what it was. For me, it meant that Mom needed a Twelve Step support group because she was so preoccupied with Dad’s drinking that she didn’t think about anything else. Or, as Melody Beattieexplains it in her book Codependent No More, “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”

One example of codependency that made a lot of sense to me was given to me during my substance abuse counselor training. The instructor first drew two circles next to one another on the blackboard to represent two people who were not dependent on one another. The second set of circles that he drew partially overlapped one another, representing two people who were interdependent, or dependent on one another in a mutual and healthy way. The third set of circles showed one inside the other, denoting how one person’s life can be consumed by the other. This is the nature of codependency, where a person is so preoccupied with the other that they are distracted from their own life. As the joke in recovery circles explains it: You know you’re codependent if, when you’re dying, someone else’s life flashes before your eyes!

In my friend Dr. Twerski’s groundbreaking book Addictive Thinking, he tells a story about a codependent husband who came to him for help. This man’s wife was an alcoholic who had relapsed. Prior to this relapse, she had gone through detox at a hospital and attended several AA meetings when she was released. But then she quit going, saying those meetings were not for her. She told her husband she was different from the other people and believed she had nothing in common with them.

Dr. Twerski told the husband that his wife’s resistance to AA was not unusual. After all, in AA, he said, she would learn that she could not drink again. Obviously, as her relapse showed, this was something that she did not want to hear.

Then Dr. Twerski asked the man how his Al-Anon program was going, and the man said, “I went to two meetings, but that program is not for me. I have nothing in common with the people there.”

The good doctor pointed out to the man how he was parroting his wife’s exact words, offering the same excuses for avoiding a recovery program that she had used.

As Dr. Twerski concluded, the anxiety about change can be so intense that people like those in this example contradict themselves without even realizing it.

This story points out how sometimes codependent people align themselves with their alcoholic in denying the need for help. But Dr. Twerski also tells this story because it is an example of something that alcoholics, ACoAs, and codependents have in common: the self-deception that is characteristic of addictive thinking. He says that in the same way that the alcoholic is obsessed with drinking and cannot resist the compulsion to do so, the codependent person is obsessed with how to control the alcoholic and cannot resist the compulsion to try everything possible to gain that control. He also says that the three most common elements in addictive thinking are denial, rationalization, and projection.

Notice how the husband in the previous story has a distorted sense of reality. He knows his wife is an alcoholic but rationalizes that Al-Anon cannot help him. He denies that he has something in common with the others in the group, which is obviously not true, but it is what he would like to believe. So he bends reality to meet his needs.

Bending reality is a skill many codependents have mastered. One of my relatives unknowingly married a man who was an alcoholic. They were both from a community where most of the marriages are arranged, and very little contact is allowed between the couple before the wedding. From their first day of married life, her husband sat on the kitchen floor and cried all day. She assumed it was because she was a terrible cook; it never occurred to her that his drinking might be the cause of his bizarre behavior. Rather than face the reality that her husband had a drinking problem, she just worked harder to become a better cook.

Learning from Our Family History

When we ACoAs look at the tapestry that is our family history, we discover that there’s so much more than meets the eye. While we cannot change that history, the good news is that we can obtain skills and learn new ways of behaving and thinking that can change things for the better when it comes to ourselves and our children and their children. And the tools we gain for healthy living can be used in many areas. Dr. Jan explained it this way:

As a matter of fact, what we are learning is that many of the things that work for Adult Children are really a model for many other kinds of dysfunctional families: people who live with other compulsions, people who live with certain kinds of mental illness, chronic illness, army brats, kids who’ve been in foster care or adopted, many who live in profoundly religious families, and children of Holocaust survivors, who have very much the same profile as the adult children of alcoholics. —Dr.Jan

Many of her clients also shared with her that their children tended toward hyperactivity, needed larger amounts of medication, had dramatic allergic reactions to foods and environmental triggers, and often were addicted to sugar. Understanding all the elements that are woven into the tapestry of my family helps when I fall back to wondering why I sometimes feel like such a basket case. I am the adult child of an alcoholic with my own addiction issues and life-threatening food allergies.

My father’s family perished in the Holocaust. (We don’t know if alcoholism ran in his family or not.) My mother was codependent. On her side of the family, there are sugar and alcohol addictions and depression. Her father grew up in an orphanage, and several family members were Holocaust survivors. My first husband was from a profoundly religious family, and the impact of that on our children and me could be a whole other book. And, of course, there are all the issues surrounding my own parenting and the impact all of this has had on my children, plus the body chemistry they have inherited from both sides of their family. I hope that when you look at all that is woven into your own family history, you will gain new insight and hope for the future.

Mom talked about how ACoAs have no database for how to solve everyday problems or relate to others because of the way we grew up. It’s not that our parents didn’t love us, it’s that they couldn’t teach us what they didn’t know. That’s why it’s so important to interrupt this cycle of codependency and addictive thinking and pass on the healthy things we’ve learned to our own children.

When one parent in a family is an alcoholic and the other is codependent on that alcoholic, the primary focus is not where it should be—on the health and well-being of the children. Children should get to be children and adults should get to be adults. The job of the parents is to take care of the children so the children do not have to take care of the parents. —Dr.Janet Geringer Woititz, Ed.D., author of Adult Children of Alcoholics

3 Biggest Myths About ACoAs

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By Lisa Sue Woititz, author of Unwelcome Inheritance

During my mother’s (Dr. Janet G. Woititz, author ofAdult Children of Alcoholics) long illness, we had many bedside conversations about her growing concerns for  ACOAs in recovery. She believed they were getting stuck in a pivotal phase of their healing process and that the support groups that were popping up around the country were spreading misinformation about what it meant to be the Adult Child of an Alcoholic. Mom was frustrated at her physical inability to get back to work – to be part of the solution to what she saw as a growing problem with potentially disastrous results. Since that time, over twenty five years ago, the problem of addiction has continued to grow and its impact on our families has too. With all that in mind, let’s clear up a few of the most common misunderstandings about ACOAs:

MYTH #1 —  BEING AN ACOA IS A DISEASE

Alcoholism is characterized as a disease because it is progressive and while it can be arrested it cannot be cured. Like diabetes, cancer, and other diseases, it is a condition that requires ongoing treatment in order to achieve and maintain remission. This is why many recovering alcoholics make a lifelong commitment to their twelve step program – along with abstinence from alcohol, it is part of their treatment plan which helps keep this deadly disease at bay. (Many of us who have alcoholism in our families have may inherited this disease so it’s good to be mindful about our physical predisposition toward alcoholism and addictions in general.)

Living in a home colored by alcoholism can be toxic and we can become mentally, emotionally, spiritually and even physically ill as a result. Treatment and support are often necessary to recover from this prolonged experience so that we can go on to live happy and productive lives. Growing up with an alcoholic parent was traumatic for many of us, and more-so for some than others, so treatment needs may not be the same for everyone. But that is not the same thing as having a disease. Rather, it is a fact of our family history that explains how we became the exquisite individuals that we are. Our past experience puts us in a unique position of deep understanding and ability to help others that have lived through our shared experience.

MYTH #2 –  TREATMENT FOR ACOAS IS THE SAME AS IT IS FOR ALCOHOLICS

Since being an ACOA is not a disease or a medical condition, most of us don’t need the lifelong treatment that an alcoholic needs. For Adult Children of Alcoholics, recovery has everything to do with education –about what alcoholism is and what happened to us as a result of living with it. We need to learn the life skills that our preoccupied parents were not able to teach us and how to move forward through the healing process and onward. With support, we share those difficult experiences and the feelings that go along with them and every once in a while when old hurts resurface we may have to address them again. This is a common human experience that we all share, whether we grew up in an alcoholic home or not.

A continued focus on the past and things that we cannot change can reinforce our feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. We may continue to blame others for our lot in life instead of using what we have learned to create the life that we want. The best thing that an ACOA therapist or support group can do is to work themselves out of a job — by educating others about the effects of alcoholism and empowering them to fly on their own.

MYTH #3 – OUR SUPPORT GROUPS SHOULD REPLACE OUR UNHEALTHY FAMILIES

If you belong to an ACOA support group you may have made lifelong friends that you dearly love. However, the purpose of the group is to provide a safe place for us to learn about ourselves — not to replace the family of origin. The goal is to come to a place of acceptance, peace and understanding and become open to the possibilities of renewed relationships with our family of origin. We may even be the catalyst for that change. I remember Mom saying that, “We need to find ways to connect with others, other than by identifying with their level of pain.” When our ACOA groups came to an end, the members continued to get together socially and the focus shifted to friendship and fun. When your group experience has run its course, I hope you will add your wonderful new friends to your circle of loved ones.

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