One of my clients, Caroline, is a brilliant woman who has hit bottom, very, very hard. She is an Ivy League-educated woman, mother of three, and the wife of a wealthy professional in the suburbs of Chicago. But unfortunately, she drinks. After two years in and out of five rehabs, of countless detox stays, restraining orders and divorce proceedings, she is now 8-weeks sober and living in a homeless shelter in the city center of Chicago. She is working with a family reunification therapist to slowly piece together the relationship she lost with her teen-aged children. Caroline expressed to me that she is afraid her past actions have permanently affected her children, so much so that they will reject her and hate her, forever:
“I am having an especially hard time with my “past mistakes.” The Daily Reflections yesterday spoke to me about leaving the past baggage behind, which of course I would love to do, but it’s hard. I feel terrible and ashamed of the things I did. I try to stay in the present but right now, in the family therapy sessions, my past mistakes are coming up in such big ways and will continue to do so when I see my children in supervised therapy. I can’t imagine what they think of me, a homeless drunk. I don’t know how to help them put the past behind, but I guess that’s what the therapist is for.”
I shared with Caroline some thoughts about having an especially hard time with mistakes from the past. Sometimes, I told her, how we deal with our personal mistakes is by beating ourselves up, by not letting go of a mistake we have made and/or worrying about what other people think about that mistake. Yet, in our recovery, we have an opportunity to let go of those old tapes. However, the tapes that are playing, over and over, in our heads, are actually old tapes from our childhood, remembering how our parents treated us when we made a mistake. Perhaps they “beat us up” either emotionally or physically, or both. Well, it is time to let those old tapes go, because they were never about you and the mistake you made. They were really about your parents who were triggered by your actions into reliving the mistakes they made, and then reacting to them.
Not letting go is part of our addiction. Let’s say this: we are hardwired for compulsive thought. It is part of us, and in our sobriety our compulsive thought is switched from one focusing on drugs and alcohol (or work, sex, gambling or purchasing things) to something more productive and positive. Just as you are successfully turning off the compulsive thought about using or acting out, it’s time to switch off the compulsive thought about not being good enough and beating up yourself over your past mistakes. You can use these slogans: “Let go, let God,” “lesson learned,” “what is in the past is in the past.” They should be the new words, the new mantra you use to combat these destructive and negative tapes.
What do other people think about your mistakes? Research proves they think very little about your mistakes. Yes, I know it is your kids, your husband and/or your parents and you worry about what they think of you or how they judge you. But honestly, that same research shows people really don’t spend that much time thinking about you. As much as you think they do, they don’t. Your kids are thinking about what to wear to school, what the new girl in history class thought about what them, or your husband is concerned about the bills or the next Harvard Alumni meeting. The fact is your neighbors don’t think about you at all! Yes, maybe a little gossip in the parking lot of the school, but truly, that two-minute exchange is dwarfed by them worrying about what people think of them. So let that go. People care about themselves. They think about themselves. (Just like you are thinking about yourself, right now?)
Now here is the most important part of my conversation with Caroline. “I don’t know how to help them put the past behind them.” Caroline is a co-dependent. She is always doing, doing for others. She has placed herself behind her husband, his business, and her children for more than twenty years. It got her a little angry sometimes, and so she drank. Well, things got a little out of hand when she began drinking alcoholically. Caroline thinks she can help her kids put the past behind them. But, she can’t. That is her kids’ job. Yes, she recognizes that a therapist can help her children. But still she wants to do their job for them. No she can’t rob her children of this opportunity. The life lesson her kids will learn about putting things in the past and forgiving, will be one of the biggest “Ah-ha” moments they will have.
I explained to Caroline the only way that she will be in her kids lives going forward is if she is sober. She said she knew that. The only way she can help her children put the past behind them, is by emulating that for them, by doing a 9th step, by making her amends. She seemed to digest that comment. Today, she had a lengthy session with the reunification therapist, so I am hoping Caroline will call me tonight.