Several weeks ago, upon returning from Rwanda, I arranged to have a chat with a close family relative. I had interviewed her for a book project I started earlier in the year and so we needed a follow-up conversation. The book is a narrative-based work, weaving together the many stories and experiences of women who shaped my life into my own personal narrative.
I’m going to be real: writing a book is a hellishly-slow experience.
I try to write something every few days but when the creative juices aren’t flowing, I feel stuck. When my schedule is full it can be challenging to find time to settle and just write.
Still, I stick with it because what I know to be true about writing is that it is a labor of love and often, you must sit and exist through the progression, knowing that even in the grueling creative process, you are still moving forward.
We sipped our black Starbuck coffees leisurely and chuckled nervously about the state of the world. Apparently, in just a couple of months, a lot can happen. I filled her in with some of my Rwandan anecdotes (namely, climbing mountains and learning about the processes for TWB bakeries throughout the country) while she informed me on grassroots work she had started and various family updates.
When we shifted towards the content of her interviews and contributions to my writing, I confided that some of what she shared had genuinely surprised me.
“Well, what surprised you the most?”
I paused thoughtfully and replied,
“I mean, for one, I just didn’t know all that my grandmother had been through. Previously, I hadn’t fully connected that her parents were also divorced…it’s unbelievable that I really do come from a family of divorce.”
She shifted her head ever so slightly and firmly, but gently spoke,
“Alcoholism. You have alcoholism in your family. You must consider why so many of these divorces have happened, you must consider the root cause. You can’t simply blame divorce as a stand-alone entity.”
The divorces (and there have been many) are symptomatic of something much larger. Her point shifted my mind (and attitude) entirely – which, is actually crazy, because I’ve been thinking about divorce and alcoholism for most of my life. However, her perspective was new and fresh. When you have people in your life that can offer that gift to you, the gift of perspective, take it. Always, take it.
I have forgotten that a legacy of divorce doesn’t just happen. The word “legacy” is, in fact, appropriate; my parents divorced, both of my grand-parents divorced, my grandmother’s parents also divorced. Generations upon generations upon generations.
Too often, I have blamed the rampancy of divorce in my family without digging deeper. Divorce is fueled by something, though. In this case, alcohol.
Weeks since that sobering conversation over coffee, I have intentionally sat with the reality of how alcoholism has affected me; just because I don’t have the disease does not mean that I have been left unscathed.
I have lied to myself for much of my life: you are fine. It’s not your problem. Ignore it. Just be happy.
Yet, the truth persists and it will always find a way to break through.
Alcoholism has driven me to the darkest places of myself, where anger flows likes blood through my veins, and I can hardly see anything but seething, writhing pain. The crack of beer cans continues to frustrate me and can swiftly bring me to moments of confusion and avoidance from my childhood. Addiction is carried as a burden for the one addicted, but the wounds never remain internal. They spread like a sprinkler across a yard, and often, I feel like the nature of this disease has hit me, again, again, and still again. Alcohol and addiction dance like shadowy silhouettes on the walls of my life and it is time for it to be revealed and removed.
In a search for healing, Al-Anon, a support group for family members and friends of alcoholics, has been something recommended to me as frequently as I am told about a new ice cream shop around town (a lot). Typically, when someone would mention the organization, I would nod and smile, but know immediately: hell no. I don’t need help. I’m fine.
Interestingly, since coming out fully, proudly, and openly, it has been easier to understand and see myself, as if the blind spots were beginning to fade away. Identity is strangely funny like that: the more open you can be with yourself – resisting the temptation for shame – the more you can learn about yourself, too.
So, with a more transparent lens, I began to see that it was time to address this issue in my life and take responsibility for my own health – both physical and mental. I might not be able to control alcoholism, but I could take responsibility for my reaction to it. Last month, I went to my first Al-Anon meeting.
I was simultaneously nervous and completely at peace at the same time. I have never figured out how you can feel so many things all at once. The human brain and heart are incredible that way.
When I entered the room, I saw Chelsea and was grateful that she had come with me for the first week. Everyone was gathered in a circle, discreet, but kind in their welcoming expressions and invitations. I received literature about Al-Anon, mostly to review the “steps” and the purpose of the meetings and group. It was overwhelming at first – I wanted to run. But, vigilant, I sat in my own uncomfortability for the hour it required and slowly, but surely, softened to the realization that I belonged, and that I could be understood.
This circle of strangers knew what it felt like to be present to a disease that manifested in beer cans and hard liquor bottles. These everyday people likely knew what it felt like to transform into a monster when reacting to bouts of drunkenness. These humans, none of whom I even know, could relate to the heartbreak of wanting someone to be fully, completely, healthy and yet having no control over that kind of healing.
I was heartbroken, I fathomed for the first time, and I had found a place that might be able to give some stitches, of sorts.
There are hundreds of these kinds of groups everywhere, each week. The sheer size of the group amazed me. The circle had at least 20 people, and in doing some reading before-hand, learned that 7% of Americans suffer from alcohol addiction. That is a lot of people, and that is a lot of lives touched.
Part of the meeting involves a theme or message, and the other half invites people to share and reflect on their stories of alcoholism. While individuals bravely spoke, I witnessed a faint but still consistent narrative. Instead of victimizing themselves in their own story, they acknowledged the impact of the disease, and focused more on the role they have in the situation. The focus was not the alcoholic themselves – it was understanding where freedom exists for us (the witnesses to alcoholism) within the arduous situations we all face, releasing any perceived control of the situation.
I don’t typically speak about alcoholism like this; for me, it’s often been framing the conversation about the pain I have experienced and the ridiculousness of words, situations, or traumas that have occurred. This is not inherently toxic, but when we fail to see the alcoholic as a person with a disease, we rob them of their humanity.
I am guilty of doing this.
Like I said, this disease has forced me to look in the darker places inside me and try to find what I hope to be possible: liberation.
Initially, this confused me. So many sentences of these stories began with, “my recovery…” and I mused defensively, wondering, “what, exactly, are we recovering from?”
It only took me a week to find out.
Recovery, in this context, means living in freedom, even while alcoholism persists. Recovery means reclaiming myself and releasing the blame I have previously claimed. Recovery means recognizing and overcoming the damage it has done in my life. Recovery means letting go.
Recovery removes my expectations of what should happen.
Most importantly, recovery acknowledges that I cannot save the people I love. Yet, I can still love them – regardless of the choices they make.
This does not insinuate a resignation of hope, or of love, or of the past.
After just a couple of Al-Anon meetings, I grasped that this chapter of healing has been (and will be) demanding and gritty and grueling.
Alcoholism is a terrible, unfair, and horrendous disease.
However, we persist. We must always persist.
Recovery is always an option – for everyone.