Thirteen family members were sitting in the front row of the 12-step meeting as Cheryl* told her story on the first anniversary of her sobriety. Husband, children, good friends, siblings, aunt and uncles … every one of them shed tears that night.
A year of sobriety is a time for great celebration. We were told only one in thirty addicts make it 365 days, because it takes a whole lot more than showing up to meetings; it takes working the program. If you’ve ever been to a Weight Watchers meeting you know how it goes. We have great motivation at the beginning, but after awhile we start to take short cuts. And we begin to think that we can do it OUR OWN way. Humility is the most crucial characteristic we need to develop in order to help us overcome the addictions in our lives. Humility is, after all, the first step … I am powerless … Cheryl was able to do that … not without acknowledging the higher power she calls God … a God that has been physically present in the love of her family, friends, and the many people God placed in her life.
Addiction is a family disease … That’s what I learned when studying and working in a chemical dependency unit of a leading hospital for a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education during the mid 1980’s … I have been aware of this for nearly three decades, and I was keenly aware of it that Sunday night I sat with the family. My family is integrally affected by addiction. On one level we were all affected by Cheryl and her behavior while under the influence, but on a much broader level we all live in the addicted family system, and we had for generations. Those of us who aren’t addicted to chemical use, might be addicted to food, or behaviors such as shopping, gambling, sex, or hoarding. Those who do not identify an addiction are probably still impacted by the “stinking thinkin” … the all or or nothing, right and wrong, black and white thinking. We are all pretty adept at avoiding conflict and seeing the crazy as normal. To be fair to my family … we’re not unusual. We live in a culture which suffers from the same stinkin thinkin. (think Congress)
In my family, we value love and relationships, but we have a difficult time accepting love. We are highly committed to each other, but we rarely talk about our emotional pain, spiritual doubts, or authentic self. Our telephone conversations and family dinners focus outside of ourselves … We share “news” or talk politics (with some trepidation), we poke fun at each other and make jokes … When it comes to sharing what we’re really grateful for, or how we feel about mom’s death, or how difficult it is to work in highly dysfunctional organizations (yeah, that’s a dimly veiled reference to the denominational Church), we fall short. Not only because we don’t know what to say, but because we don’t know how to respond when someone else shares. We try to fix it … we hate seeing each other hurt.
Ok, please realize that I’m projecting my own perspective here. And I’m writing this today because I believe we’re changing. I’m changing. Maybe, in part, as a result of being there for each other during Mom’s illness and death. Also, in part, because of Cheryl’s addiction. In fact, I noticed a huge change in my own heart that night at the twelve-step meeting.
That night I didn’t answer I was “fine” when I was asked if I was ok … I said, “I will be.” This was not just a hope for the future, but an acknowledgement that the evening was difficult for me and all of us. As I sat with the thirteen, surrounded by more than 100 others of various ages, genders, and walks of life who were attending the meeting that night, I had an acute awareness of our common brokenness. Our oneness in our struggles. It was a humbleness, a transforming humility, that rose up in me … that broke me … that is healing me.
The whole group was genuinely grateful for the family’s presence that evening. After the meeting we all stood in a receiving line; each person came forward to congratulate us … including me … for Cheryl’s progress. It took me a long time to make sense out of this. I wasn’t the one working the program, I wasn’t the one coming to meetings, I wasn’t the one calling my sponsor or facing highly difficult emotional barriers. That was Cheryl. When one man mentioned how much he appreciated our presence, “It was nothing,” I thought, “we’d all be there if it had been any one of us.” And I cried. We’d all BE THERE if it had been ANY ONE of us. That’s what families do …
It was not a big deal … No, It WAS a big deal. That is the foundation of unconditional love. As a family, we don’t do a great job being emotionally demonstrative, but we will always be physically and/or spiritually present. We will not see things from the same perspective or worldview; we will not be aligned politically; we will not agree with each other’s choices; we will be Christian and non-Christian and Atheist; we will be traditional and non-traditional families; we will like some of us more or less … But, WE WILL BE THERE. We will sit as family in the front row and support you each other no matter what. That’s what our family does. That’s what I love about my family.
*Most twelve–step groups are “anonymous,” therefore I have changed the name of my family member. This is not meant to be anyone’s story and reflection but mine … However I recognize that we are all intertwined. So, to my family … I love you. You are a big deal in my life.