I cried my way through parts of today's Oprah as I listened to:
Phrases like "The kids think they have to keep things stable"
An 11-year-old boy saying, "when I found out they were getting divorced, it was like a dream died."
A mother saying about her (at the time) 9-year-old daughter, "We treated her like an adult. We didn't even think it affected her."
Yesterday, a post started writing itself in my mind and watching this show today has pushed me to write it here. Previously, I wrote about my feelings leading up to my trip back to the Midwest in April. I wrote about how "stuff" from my childhood, thoughts about my parents' divorce, feelings of anger and deep sadness were what came up for me when my dad told me he was going to get help for his drinking problem. The level of these emotions surprised me as I thought I would feel only relief if I were to ever receive that phone call. (I won't go into the details of my reaction again here; you can read it more in context in that past post.)
When I went to what is called "family week" back in April, I had very low expectations about the experience. I did not want to be there, not even a little bit. The counselors gave the family members homework for that first night. Mine was to write a letter to my dad that would explain my feelings about his alcoholism and how it affected me, along with a whole long list of other things. When I called my friend Heather to tell her about the homework and all the items on the list, she said, "So, this is due in a month right?" It felt like I was supposed to write the thesis of my life or at least of my childhood.
That night, I sat in my hotel room and let the emotion pour out of me as I sobbed through each sentence. Today, as I write this, I realize that I had actually never put on paper the feelings I wrote about that night, let alone said them aloud to someone who needed to hear them. Though, I have to credit all the writing I have done on this blog with giving me the courage and "clearness through emotion" to write what I wanted to say. When I finished writing, I felt I had accomplished sharing the truth of my experiences without placing blame but instead by just saying what it felt like and what my experience was.
As I wrote in the post here last May, being a child of divorced parents fractures you. This does not mean that as an adult I have a need to place blame (because I know I do not have this need) or that I am not thankful my parents are not together (and I am thankful for this) or that I wish my life had gone differently (because I am happy to be in this place and know I would not be here without my experiences…all of them). What is does mean though is that I will not apologize for the feelings I had then or the ones I have now. Those feelings belong to me. They are all about me. And, the experience of writing that letter helped me to realize that my need to play a certain role or protect the feelings that I perceive others have needs to stop being more important than the truth of my experience. Meaning: It is time I start being honest with myself.
Part of the letter I wrote my dad included the assignment of setting specific boundaries. Goodness me. If I had a dollar for every time I have encouraged other people to set boundaries or said I needed to set them…but to be forced to write, "When you do this, I feel this, so I am going to have to do this to feel safe" was quite an experience. To read it aloud was one of the most powerful moments of my life.
I read the letter to my dad on the last day I was there (family week is only three days long). I shared my experience of being a child in my family. I shared what it was like for me when he left. I shared pieces of who I am now. I set boundaries I needed to set. And, I asked for what I needed knowing I may not receive what I need.
It was possibly one of the hardest things I have ever done.
But, it is one of the things that makes me the most proud of me. Because I knew that it actually didn't matter how my father reacted. I had finally shared some of the heavy stuff I carry around in the backpack that is the baggage of my life.
And, something incredible happened that day. My father heard me. He heard me and listened to me. And, part of what I said resonated deeply enough that what he said in response gave me a true gift. Someone in my family, the last person I expected to, understood what it was like to be me when my family broke apart. Someone who most needed to understand, understood, even if just for that moment.
God lifted something off my heart that day.
Watching Oprah today, hearing M. Gary Neuman say how important it is for parents to simply listen to their children when the family is breaking apart, invited me to think about part of what I said in my letter to my dad. I said something about how even though my feelings leading up to this moment were filled with anger and resentment because I had to talk about all of this now because he had decided to get help (so things were once again on a parent's terms and not mine), I knew that I had been given the gift of this moment to share how I was feeling. Because the truth is, I have been wanting to share what I said that day for over a decade. And, today, after watching Oprah, I realize how that was the first time I had been able to really share the truth with someone in my family.
We must be able to tell our stories. We must be willing to listen when someone needs to share her story, even when it is about us, even when it might hurt us. We cannot forget that we have our own truth of the experience regardless of what the other person says her experience was.
Even though I have my father's blessing to share what I want and need to here or with others, I haven't talked much about my experience in April for many reasons. One reason being because it feels like it sits in a sacred bubble back in April, and I, probably like any child of a recovering alcoholic who experiences family week, worry that to talk about it with my family, my dad, others, might make it not real or might take away from the experience or might make my dad's recovery not real somehow. I worry as I write this that if I honor the experience publicly here, I might affect my life in ways I cannot anticipate.
But I want to say this: No matter who you are—a parent, a child, a partner, a friend, a sibling—you never know what might happen if you tell your story to someone in a way that is from a place of love and truth.
Because in many ways, I think this might be what it is all about: love and truth.
Thank you for reading…