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A Recovery Story: Alcoholism is a Family Disease

I am a Double-Winner.   For the uninitiated, that means that I am a member of both Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.  Al-Anon is for the friends and family of Alcoholics.   The focus of my story will be a little different than the kind of story you typically read.  These articles usually focus on how the disease of alcoholism, and subsequent recovery from it, impacted the author’s legal practice.  Because I got sober at the age of 18, my drinking was an inconsequential side note.  As an adult child from an alcoholic home, however, my life (and my legal practice) have been deeply affected by growing up with the disease of alcoholism.

Both of my parents are alcoholic.  My mother was able to get sober in AA.  My father was not.  Seven years ago I fed my father scotch and water out of a Styrofoam cup in the hospice unit so that he would not go into DTs.  I grew up in a time before we had coined the words “domestic violence.”  My parents just drank and fought.  My mom admits that she initiated the physical fights.  But my dad always won them.  In those days she just donned oversized sunglasses to hide the black eyes.  I have too many memories of fleeing our home in the middle of the night – me in my cotton flower-print nightgown, my younger brother in his Scooby-Doo footie pajamas – my mother dragging us from our beds, escaping to the safety of my aunt’s house.  Once I grabbed my cat in the mad dash to the car.  To my six-year old mind the cat, too, must have been in danger.  Looking out the back windshield of the car, I watched my father watch us drive away.  He was yelling.  Or crying.  You see, everyone is a victim of the disease of alcoholism, including the drinker.

When I was four years old, my parents began a dance to the tune of separate-then-try-to-make-it-work-again.  Once, my mother picked me and my brother up from school, then took us “home” to a different place than the one we left that morning.  It was all very dramatic. She had called in sick that day, secretly left my father and moved our belongings to an undisclosed location.  No matter.  Dad was living with us again a few months later.  They finally divorced when I was eight, but that did not stop the insanity.  As my mom’s alcoholism progressed, various men from the bars made their way through our house.  Stepping over a huge slob of a man passed out face down across the living room floor one night, I looked over at my mother and said, “What are you doing?” (not in the colloquial sense). I was nine.

Given the chaos of my home life, school provided stability and safe haven.  Teachers suspected something was amiss.  I doubt they could have guessed anything near the truth.  My mother was a well known and respected professional in the community.  And she was really good at her job.  She was a “highly functional alcoholic.”  Many teachers gave me special attention, for which I am eternally grateful.  It worked; I thrived in school.  I knew exactly what was expected and I could deliver.  In return I received the praise, acknowledgement and recognition I so desperately craved.  Achievement became a major coping mechanism.  It served as a substitute for what I was not getting at home and what I never learned to give to myself.

My parents both suffered from blackouts.  A blackout is different from passing out.  A person in a blackout walks and talks and goes about doing whatever s/he is doing, but has no memory of it the next day.  For those of us that do remember, it is literally crazy making trying to live with this on a day to day basis:  missed appointments, being left somewhere – forgotten about, being told something did not happen that I watched happen with my own eyes.  But I learned (as early as three years old) not to say anything about what went on lest I suffer a beating.  When people suffer from blackouts and you are dependent upon them for things like food, shelter and safety, you learn quickly how to survive – and how to stop depending on them as soon as you imagine you are able (even if you are not).

By the age of ten I was as self sufficient as a ten year old raising herself could be:  cooking, cleaning, raising my brother and counseling my mother.  When my mother moved in with and eventually married my step father, my defensive and survival patterns became deeply ingrained.  My step father did not drink, nor did he work.  He was an unrecovered adult child of an alcoholic and was prone to binges of rage – tantrums complete with property destruction thrown in as a bonus.  Thankfully he eventually found Al-Anon (after I had left for college) and was able to heal from the abuse he suffered as a child.  I will not detail my life with my stepfather here other than to say it was drilled into our heads daily that we, the kids, had caused and were responsible for his anger and outbursts.  My mother looked to me, her eleven year old daughter, for every type of emotional support and rescue in the chaos of that abusive relationship.

I was the parent, she the child.  As the first born, I was thrust into the role of hero/rescuer.  My mother heaped every unmet expectation or disappointment of her life on to me.  She put me on a pedestal and lived vicariously through my every achievement.  My achievements masked the shame I felt about my family – I put forth quite an image to the world and lost connection to myself and my heart in the process.  It does not take a PhD in psychology to discern how growing up in this environment might impact the formation of a child’s personality, perceptions, coping mechanisms and reactions to life.  I began drinking at thirteen to anesthetize the pain.  By eighteen I found no reason to live.  But, as these things go, God had other plans for me and I found AA and got sober.  Not a blip on my résumé would ever show what was happening behind the scenes.

I went to college, then eventually on to law school.  I excelled but was driven in a way that was self destructive.  I was a true perfectionist and workaholic.  My personal relationships were a disaster.  I always picked totally irresponsible, emotionally abusive alcoholic men who needed rescue, and I scrambled to do everything I could for them so I could earn their love.  Work relationships weren’t much better.  I always wound up with exploitative bosses who publically degraded me while I worked tirelessly running myself ragged to prove I could do a good job and earn their approval.  Alcoholism affects people differently.  This description, taken from an Al-Anon book entitled, From Survival to Recovery, aptly sums up how it impacted me:

Growing up with the chaos and unpredictability created by alcoholism caused many of us to mask our confusion, anger and shame by trying to be perfect.  To prove to ourselves and the world that there was nothing wrong with us or our families, we scrambled hard in school to get straight A’s, or worked feverishly at home to keep everything neat and tidy.  We became star athletes, artists, corporate leaders, humanitarians and outstanding citizens.  Inside, however, we feel driven, terrified of failure, unable to relax or play, and lonely.  Toward less responsible people who seem to make our efforts at perfection harder, we often feel self-righteous and angry. Convinced that something terrible will happen if we lose control, we run ourselves ragged trying to take charge of everything and never know how much is enough.  Until we begin to recover, many of us are trapped in a compulsive need to give more, love more, and do more.

For me, being sober and working a committed program in AA did not address or fix these problems or tendencies I had.  AA could not lay a glove on them.  But my AA program was what lead me to the doors of Al-Anon right before I entered law school.

In law school I struggled with picking the right legal career path.  Desperately needing others’ approval, validation and recognition, it was unclear which path to take.  With constant outspoken pressure from my mother to save the world (and the need to gain her approval), a public interest job seemed best; yet a job at a big firm would look good and show the world (really, convince me) that I was good enough after all.  By the time I graduated law school I had 15 years of sobriety and enough self awareness to know that, given my penchant for rescuing, a job at legal aid (my natural inclination) would probably kill me.  I did not know I was still trying to mask my own shame, and the pull of the big firm image of success was too much to resist, so that was my choice. If only it had worked to heal me!  It didn’t.  I did not realize that the nature of the job is actually unimportant when a person has no internal boundaries.

Some key concepts in Al-Anon are boundaries and detachment.  Before coming to Al-Anon, I could not separate me from you.  Your problems were, by definition, my problems.  It was my responsibility to fix, rescue, and save you – even from yourself and your bad choices.  I was a Solution Provider.  (It took a little while in Al-Anon to realize other people experienced that as control.)  So it might not surprise you to learn that no matter what job I landed, I was going to be in trouble.  How alcoholism works in my life (even when no one is drinking), is that I need to make you OK so I can be OK.

I began in a litigation practice and found I could not detach from the difficulties of my clients.  Whether they made a bad business decision that had cost them financially or were having health problems and trying to get disability, I was up at night, losing sleep, obsessively thinking about how to win their cases so they would be OK.  A partner at the firm stepped into my office one day and expressed concern that I might be “going too far” in a case and that I needed to “learn to step back a little” from the situation.  I began using the Al-Anon principles at work and began getting a better night’s sleep.  I began detaching from client’s bad choices.  I learned that it was not my chaos, my drama, my life.  Some of this comes naturally to those who were not raised with alcoholism, but for those of us who were, it is a monumental shift in consciousness and a big step towards freedom.

Though my spiritual development and seeking in Al-Anon, I realized I had been grasping for external approval and recognition though achievement.  The problem was, because I was unhealed inside, it was never enough.  Another passage from the Al-Anon literature states, “[Growing up in an alcoholic home means] needing to hear over and over again, ‘You’re wonderful!’ yet never believing it.  So I always need to hear it again, and it’s still not enough.  It’s feeling that I am not enough.  It’s having to do [more] so that I can earn love [respect, happiness], yet feeling that what I give is never enough.”

How did that manifest for me as it relates to my legal career (and life)?  Awards, accolades, plaques of recognition and achievement, winning law school competitions, young lawyer committees and bar leadership roles, billing billing billing to gain the praise of partners, working so many hours to the very real detriment of my marriage, and being so lost in perfectionism, people pleasing and approval seeking that I had no true idea of who I was, what I valued or even what I wanted.  My entire worth and identity were wrapped up in what you (the legal community in this case) thought of me.  And you actually thought very highly of me.  But one day I woke up and realized I was just miserable.  (One of the gifts of working a program in AA/Al-Anon is that I cannot stay miserable for too long without waking up to it and then having to do something about it.)  I saw that for me it was all an illusory pay off, like being invited to a black tie gourmet dinner made entirely of …air.  I leave hungry.  If my worth and value is not coming from a wellspring within me, from an intrinsic place inside, and is instead dependent upon external praise, rewards, and accolades, then I am doomed, for I must always have the next, better notch in my belt to continue to affirm my worth.  Coming from that place, it is too risky to ask what it might mean about me and my value or worth if I did not win or you did not approve.

The workaholism and associated recognition, while temporarily making me feel a bit superior to those around me, sucked the very joy out of my life.  Neither is it a good way to attract genuine or meaningful friends.  My driven perfectionism left me with no emotional energy for my marriage or myself.  No creativity.  No spontaneity.  I was constantly driven by the next task, the next item on the to-do list. And I did this in multiple areas of my life, not just work.  It is an exhausting way to live.  I discovered that striving to be and appear perfect, winning awards, and gaining the praise of colleagues does not fulfill my soul, connect me to others, or bring me the peace I crave.  It never will.

There is something to be said for actually achieving and getting everything you ever thought you needed in order to make you feel happy and fulfilled and finding it falls flat.  I knew it wasn’t working, which propelled me to search further, deeper, in a completely different direction.  So I left the big firm and ventured out into new territory, seeking to find a legal career (and life) that was more satisfying and authentic.  I detail for you here my career path, but as much or more was happening in my personal relationships and my spiritual development as I progressed with working my Al-Anon program.

I eventually landed in a small firm with a niche practice, working from home.  No office on the 30th floor overlooking the city.  No suit.  No big-firm name backing me up.  No business card.  Nobody knew where I worked or even what I was really doing.  Nobody “out there” was providing any recognition or approval.  And I stopped striving for it.   And the funniest thing happened.  I was set free.  I was happier in my work and my life and with myself than I had ever been.  After years of chasing after it out there, I found what I had always been looking for deep within myself, in my own heart.  I stopped the human DO-ing to learn to become a human BE-ing.

Through some serendipity I ended up at the right time getting help from the Lawyer Assistance Program.  What I had not gotten in 12-Step programs I got with the LAP.  A new page turned.

Today I am working on living authentically, from a place grounded in feeling and knowing my intrinsic worth regardless of what others may or may not think of me.  This is a relatively new chapter in my life.  For the first time in my life I have the feeling that life is a great adventure rather than something to be endured or something to just “get through.”  I am feeling free in my spirit in ways I never have before.  I have the sense that life is a canvas where I am invited to paint my own picture from deep within my being.  The joy and peace are indescribable.  This does not mean I do not have other feelings that come up like anger or grief, but today I seem to be centered more in a place of acceptance and joy rather than a place of snappy, irritable impatience, as was typical not too long ago.  I am finding that qualities like compassion, love, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude and humility that I used to strive to obtain are just springing up in me without conscious effort.  They are a by-product of my deepening spiritual work, which has always been rooted in the 12 steps.  The need to rescue, fix, manage or control others has, for the most part, slipped away.  It still pops up from time to time, but I am acutely aware of it and stop it as soon as I recognize it.  I no longer need to jump into the tornado or aftermath of other people’s problems or unhealthy decisions or behaviors.  I don’t need to be right all the time or always demand I get my way.  I can let go of things much more easily, because I have seen that most of what I spend a lot of emotional energy proving I am right about does not even matter.  I am opening up my heart and finding a host of friends who welcome and embrace my newly developing authenticity and vulnerability.

There is no way in these few words to describe the depth at which alcoholism shaped who I am as a person or to detail the countless ways in which AA and Al-Anon have saved me, and the Lawyer Assistance Program has added a special touch to my recovery.  Most of all, I am beginning to appreciate how precious this life is and that I am lucky enough to have been given a chance to live it fully, as I believe God intended.

– by Anonymous

*This article is written by a LAP Participant and is presented anonymously in the spirit of 12 step programs.  If you would like to communicate with the author please email Don Carroll at nclap@bellsouth.net and he will forward your email.

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