FOR PEOPLE CONSIDERING AL-ANON
The great burden of guilt I carry, and which stops me in life, is older than my experience in the 12 Step movement but was greatly exacerbated by this.
The sorts of things I remember being told by my parents, both in their cups and not, are these:
“We had you, but it was with doubts and then, misgivings.”
“We cannot easily afford you, and we also know you are scheming to get our money.”
“You are perfect.”
“We do not believe you can be competent.”
“You are the most intelligent person in the world.”
“We love you because we have to, but we do not like you at all.”
“Play the piano and try to look pretty; then, with luck, some man will step up to take care of you. Otherwise, the way you are, you will be out on the street.”
“I love you so much. All I ever wanted was you.”
“If you think this is cruel, just wait to see what I could do to really make you cry. In the Congo they chop children right to pieces.”
“We know you very well.”
My mother was ill and it was because she was so unhappy being a mother; my father drank and it was due to the stress of caring for my mother. He would play for me the Bob Dylan song “Like A Rolling Stone,” in which the addressee is out on the streets and trying to get used to it. I understood this as one of the many threats that were made: walk carefully, or you will be out; walk carefully, or I will commit suicide; walk carefully, or I will self-injure and everyone will know it is your fault.
The situation was exacerbated when my childless aunt died leaving money earmarked for us children to go to college. My mother hated my aunt and also felt entitled to her savings. When it was discovered that a part of these were earmarked for us, and that the meaning of this was that we could not only go to college, but choose our own colleges, my parents’ anger at us increased. Again and again the point was made to us that we were causing them great financial harm. We did not know whether we had the option of rejecting my aunt’s will, and we were not old enough to know how to find out. I decided that going to a college I had chosen myself, and hurting my parents in that way, was my fate. I decided not to take it too seriously since, as it had already been made clear to me, my existence itself had already hurt my parents more deeply, both in their pocketbooks and in their being.
I knew I had issues with confidence, self-criticism and self-doubt, and I wanted help. I had also been told many times by my parents, when I objected to some of the more irrational propositions, that I was very neurotic and needed therapy. I promised myself I would seek it when I could afford it, and I did.
When this happened I was in my thirties. I had a good PhD and a good position at a good university, and I had fallen in love with the nearby city where I was living. School had been good – I had left home for it early, and stayed late – and I was vibrant and happy and full of life. Still I had vulnerabilities: visits with my parents engulfed me in depression, and women like my mother pulled at my heartstrings with need and guilt. Now seemed to be an excellent time to finally seek help with these issues, since I was otherwise strong and happy and free.
The error I made when I sought therapy was in saying that my parents drank. Had I not said this, I might have been funneled to a different type of therapy, but I was labeled as and Adult Child of an Alcoholic. This meant that I, necessarily, would have a specific list of problems including, although not limited to: work in a field not of actual interest to me; interest in outward success only; a strong desire to control other people; obsessiveness; compulsive activity; inability to feel; and incapacity to speak truthfully.
This news was devastating because it meant that to attain health I would have to work in a field other than my chosen one. I must become less successful in order to show that my interest in success was not an interest in mere outward success and power. I must give up control over my own life in order to show I could give up control of something. I must become distracted; I must develop difficulty with follow-through on tasks; I must take setbacks all too seriously; I must doubt my perceptions and otherwise accuse myself of dishonesty.
This program was destructive in itself, but it was particularly shocking to me because it was the program my mother had always advocated. Because the abuse from my ACOA/Alanon based therapy so mirrored the things I had been told by my drunken parents, I fell apart. I have stabilized, but I never really recovered. I do not think this is coincidental, nor do I think it is because I “transferred” anything onto the therapist. I think it is because the 12 step programs advocate and foster the kind of confusion our society actually wants to foist upon its members. I think my parents were trying to teach me to be functional, as they saw functionality; I think the 12 step programs do the same; I believe life is larger than this.
Part of the reason I never really recovered is that falling apart had a set of material results which surround me daily, and which I have not been able to overcome. I have a situation I am not happy with and that I know exactly how I got into. How could I have been so foolish to fall for that Alanon / ACOA line is the question which now tortures me.
Of course, I know how I fell for it and why – there is a term, “overdetermination,” which anyone can look up; it means there were so many factors contributing to an event that it took place almost inevitably. I can see this and yet I am still devastated to see that I allowed these things to happen.
Years have passed and I am alive and lively. I am someone you are glad to see, I am invited because my presence brings light; I help people in need, and I pass my bright ideas on. Yet I maintain a journal in which I am a character speaking from the grave and trying to get out, trying to reach again the bright world in which I lived as I did before, before acquiring the burden of guilt and self doubt I did from that therapy. Some days I think I am almost out; other days I am cast back; materially I live on an edge and this is a result of the invisibly impaired state in which I still find myself. In the days when my father played “Like A Rolling Stone” for me I was not actually close to being out on the streets, but I am closer to that now or feel myself to be.
When I started that therapy I was excited: I will be free at last! And the therapist said, “You have been the victim of abuse and neglect,” and I was delighted to have names now for what I had undergone in the past. He continued, “What you have achieved in life, given your past, is nothing short of remarkable; it must be the result of a high degree of denial.” “You are part of a special population; you have genetically based defects; you should not aspire to the things you do; people with your kind of background must live smaller lives.”
And then I died. Everything was false; everything my parents had said when I was a child was true; I had deep defects and all the things I had done, in particular the intellectually oriented things I had done and with which I was now making a living, were wrong. Wrong. As long as I was who I was, people would suffer; I must accept my true nature and rein myself in.
I say to anyone who contemplates seeking help for anything through AA or any of its spinoffs, please think twice. Do not let people tell you your accomplishments are not legitimate, or that your sense of reality is off. Do not let people tell you that if you can think, you cannot feel. Seek a second opinion. Do not allow it.
I would also suggest that no matter what anyone may have gone through as a result of alcoholism or alcoholics, it is not the only kind of bad thing people can go through. People go through things which are often worse. I do not know of any “program” other than the 12 steps which suggests that people who have had a certain kind of experience can never recover from it. I do not mean to suggest everyone should be able to recover from everything – I mean nobody should be told that getting over something is denial.
I find it disingenuous that the 12 step programs emphasize forgiveness and “letting go” while also taking a militant stance against the very possibility of these selfsame gestures.
I think we should all allow ourselves the freedom people who have had other kinds of misfortunes are regularly allowed – the possibility of getting over bad experiences. This is so much more realistic than the sentence one is given in the 12 step “movement,” to perpetually manage a difficult situation represented as inescapable.