Posts Tagged ‘ACOA’

Over the last ten years, I have picked up a few traditions from my fabulous spouse and our kids, who happen to be Jewish. A couple of years ago, I was so proud of myself that I could remember the words for lighting the Hanukkah candles in Hebrew, which I do not speak, that it took a moment to realize that my fabulous spouse was laughing at me. I paused and asked (in English) what the problem was. She informed me that I had my Hebrew words mixed up and I had just blessed the wine…that we were not having. Twice. But it’s not all that bad. Some of these, I do get right.

One of my other favorite borrowed traditions is lighting a yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of someone’s death as a way of celebrating their life and symbolizing lighting their way to peaceful afterlife. October often feels like one long yahrzeit candle lighting, the single flame flickering on the kitchen counter or the dining room table for those people I loved who are gone. Candle lighting to memorialize most of them has been easy, even a natural part of my grieving for them, but a few years ago, I added a new candle to this time of reflection—one that, as a child, I would never have imagined lighting. On Tuesday, I will light a memorial candle for the brother with whom I grew up.

Michael was dead for ten years before I touched a match to a memorial candle for him. I don’t know if anyone else in our family marks this day. If they do, no one has mentioned it. Grief can be a complicated thing, and it doesn’t always encompass what others might think. I don’t know that I can say honestly that I grieve Michael’s death. I am certain now, though, that I grieve what his life must have been, what I know his life was during the time when I knew him.

In writing Urban Tidepool, I try very hard not to try to tell anyone else’s story. The reader sees Michael (I hope) as I saw him when we were kids—4 years older, bigger, stronger, and progressively unstable. He was a tormented soul who seemed to enjoy hurting other people and hurting animals and on very special occasions, hurting animals in front of other people so he got a two-fer out of the situation. I couldn’t stop then to think about what drove him. All I knew to do then was to protect the dog, ice the bruises and hope that the patches didn’t show where my hair had been ripped out. The ability to see him as something other than that, as something more, as a spiritual being in need didn’t come until decades later, when Michael and Philadelphia were far behind me.

Every year, approaching this date, I have to wonder. Are we capable of grieving the loss of people who have hurt us deeply? What do I grieve? What can I grieve? The answers have been hard won so far. What drove him to do those things, to be those things, is exactly what needs to be grieved.

I’m not actively writing Urban Tidepool right now and I have come to understand what is probably just a fraction of his story. So on Tuesday, I will light a candle for an eleven year old boy whose mom just died; whose father’s best sober idea of nurturing a future man was to insist on resolute stoicism and best drunk idea on nurturing a future man was to beat him with bare-knuckled fists until blood appeared under the pretense of teaching him to defend himself; whose significant mental health needs went unacknowledged; whose probable learning disability was never diagnosed because we didn’t look for those things in Catholic schools in the 1970s; whose drug use was ignored until what went down his throat, up his nose and into his arm consumed his entire life and ultimately ended it.

My story aside, I can grieve for that little boy. For him, I will light a candle and hold out the thought for a peaceful afterlife.


Remnants of Shamings Past

Posted: October 27, 2013 in Blog
Tags: , , , ,

I drove around the block three times, each time getting a little more nervous. I wasn’t nervous that I’d be late. I was nervous that I was there at all. “Out of my element” didn’t begin to describe it. Put me in front of a couple hundred people for a presentation. That was more comfortable. I found a parking place about a block from my destination and sat in the car for a few extra minutes, breathing deep and wrestling with an urge just to put the car back in drive and get out of there. Before it was too late.

Too late for what?

Before I embarrassed myself. Before I was visible.

I locked the car and walked the block back toward the storefront, now on speaking terms with the butterflies in my stomach. They had big feet, those butterflies.

Not too late to turn around and get back in the car!

But it was. I had reached the store and someone else was meeting me here. I couldn’t leave now. She was probably parking her own car somewhere nearby and would expect to see me when she arrived. I opened the door and stepped inside, ears burning, eyes roving, waiting for the initial blow. Not sure how it would fall. The first employee who approached me smiled and asked if I needed any help.

“Uuuuuhhhh…no, thanks, not yet. Waiting for someone else.”

A few moments later, a second employee approached. This was going to be it. This guy was going to be the one who asked why I was here. I braced for the laugh. What I got was a friendly smile and a nod, accompanied by, “Is there anything I can help you with?”

I repeated that I was just waiting for a friend…a friend who belonged here. I was the invader. Maybe if I put it out there right away, I would just be forgiven for the invasion in the tone of the old commercial, “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.” I pulled out my phone and texted her. I’m here. So far, so good. No one has asked yet why the fat boi is here.

I glanced around the store again, noting the thin, athletic people trying on their new running sneakers. A combination of culinary school and normal aging piled on top of my inherent lack of interest in most sports and I had never felt more out of place. What was I doing? I couldn’t pull this off!

Before I could decide to leave, the door opened and the friend I’d been waiting for—the one who loved running and belonged in this store–came in. I was instantly relieved to see M. and overwhelmed with that sense that I would be shortly be identified as a hopeless case.

(“You fat, stupid fuck!”)

And there it was, unbidden. And unforgettable. It cut to the core. I wanted to hide behind M. and I fought that off.

The young sales guy circled back around and smiled at me again. “Ready now? What can I help you with?”

When we got seated and he measured my feet, he asked what I was training for.

I was tempted to tell him, “For the roundest executive director in the world competition.”

M. offered, “She’s training for her first 5K.”

My head snapped around. “I am?”

She laughed. “You are.”

The sales guy grinned again. “You’re gonna love this.”

(“You dumb, useless fuck!”)


I sized him up again. He clearly was not making fun of me. There was no hint of judgment in his voice or his expression. On the contrary, he looked…what was that??? Enthusiasm?

(“You fat, stupid bitch!”)

I cringed and looked down at the new sneakers he had tied to my feet, getting up to walk around and test them out on his suggestion. When I paid for them, I made it a point to thank him for being so patient with me and told him I’d been a little nervous. I think he understood, even if he didn’t know why.

Those verbal attacks (and the physical assaults that accompanied them) are more than 30 years behind me. The source of them has been gone since 1997, dying, I was told, alone and probably terrified in puddle of his own blood.  And still those words touch my life, even today, in the oddest places and at the most unexpected times. Still, they interfere. I point out in Urban Tidepool in one dark scene where this same brother who did his level best to dismantle my sense of self turned his attention on our father that my athleticism was at best questionable. In my effort to help the father that day, I threw a small figurine at this brother—the first thing I could get my hand on. I was not the world’s most athletic child. I missed my target and then I grew up to be not the world’s most athletic adult.

My lack of athletic ability is less the issue here, though. I wasn’t nervous going into that running store because I’m not a jock. It took me a minute or so to place it, but I was nervous because, as I pointed out in an earlier post, sometimes the words take a long time to heal.

For many years, I knew those things that were said to me were right. I knew I was the fattest, dumbest, and probably the ugliest person on the planet. We believe what our families tell us, and when they tell it to us over and over again, over the course of years, those words etch themselves into our view our own bodies. It’s kind of the opposite of the Harry Potter effect. (“It lives in your very skin, Harry….Love.”) How many times can you call a little kid a fat, stupid fuck before he or she begins to believe that he or she really just is a fat, stupid fuck? And when it’s over, when those words are done or that person is gone, how long does it take to reverse that impression and rub away those etched words from our view in the mirror?

Apparently now, 30 years after the last beating, after the last humiliating verbal attack, those words can reappear in a heartbeat and I wait for total strangers to join in, all while I am attempting to do something good for myself by starting to exercise more. Because we believe what our families tell us. And words take a long time to heal.

Thank you, M. I couldn’t have—I wouldn’t have—done it without you.



In grad school, I took a course on working with clients with substance abuse diagnoses and did some side research on the impact of the addiction on the family members. My dabbling led me eventually to what was considered THE handbook on ACOA issues, Janet Woititz’s Adult Children of Alcoholics. Intrigued, fascinated even, I went on to Robert Ackerman’s work, then Claudia Black’s, all the buzz names of the 80s and 90s for working with families dealing with addictions.

I feared for a short time, as is the nature of all MSW students, that I might end up the poster child for ACOAs but it didn’t take long to realize that I was breaking one of the cardinal traits in Woititz’s book:  characteristic number six, ACOAs take themselves very seriously. Ummmm, perhaps not.  If you’ve read any part of Urban Tidepool  or watch my Facebook posts you already know this is not a characteristic that I can be accused of with any sincerity.

It wasn’t conscious when I was a kid. It was just there. Now I look back and think, “Thankfully!”, although I’m not sure that my family members would be so grateful.  On the first night of my visit to my brother and sister-in-law’s house the summer I turned sixteen, he fell asleep in his chair, watching TV. It was June, in Florida. It was hot. The Major was wearing shorts and nothing on his feet. I took it as the perfect opportunity to create a little brother-sister bonding. I painted his toenails pink.I don’t think he felt particularly bonded and I guarantee you, “Thankfully!” was not the first thing he said when he woke up.

When I tell about failing a class in high school in Urban Tidepool, I observed: In the comment section, the teacher had indicated that I had been careless with my assignments.  Above that, a nun had commented that I handled her class, in which I had an A, with great care and responsibility. I almost laughed.  Well, I guess if you have to be careless and not do your assignments, the least you can do is to do it responsibly.  In fact, I had gone from an A to an F in that class. Can’t be more responsible at failing something than that!  I dropped like a responsible rock. I just couldn’t decide if I was carelessly responsible or responsibly careless.

But it’s hard to hang onto humor, no matter how strong the innate tendency, when a parent dies or a sibling grows increasingly violent. So to rediscover that streak of humor is a life altering moment, because it arrives with its ability to heal, to move you forward, to make space for forgiveness even if you aren’t totally aware of it at the time.

I remember the precise moment of the rediscovery. In Niagara Falls for the weekend with my college roommate and her family, I had to hike back to the car to retrieve something. To catch up to everyone, I took a short cut across the grass on an incline above the traffic circle. I slid on the wet grass and fell, with probably no less than twelve lanes of traffic circling just below me. I might have gotten angry. I might have been embarrassed. I don’t remember any of that. What I remember is a split second realization that I was soaked to the skin, and that hundreds of cars were driving by just feet away, with passengers pointing at me and laughing. And I lay back in the wet grass and I started to laugh. The harder I laughed, the more the passengers in the cars below laughed, and the more they laughed at me, the harder I laughed, wearing wet pants and rolling around on some strange Canadian hillside.

It’s not that those people in the cars were suddenly my friends. But every one of them shared a moment with me that redefined who I was becoming, that gave me back something I lost. They have no idea. They all drove on their ways, had their holiday weekends, went back to their lives without ever realizing that they shared an intimate, healing moment with a scarred warrior who had never chosen to go into battle, but for whom battle had never been a choice.

Urban Tidepool has moments of very dark humor, and those of you aware of your own scars (whether around family addiction or another issue) might appreciate that. I suspect you’ll understand it. More than that, I hope you might find moments of cars winding around your own traffic circles as you’re trying very hard to take yourself seriously, and maybe you’ll get a glimpse of the passengers in them, sharing a profound moment with you without ever meaning to, and being a witness to that space being born out of humor where forgiveness comes to live.