In June 2008, I had lunch with my good friend, Rabbi Mark Staitman - actually a graduate of our MS in Counseling Psychology program, and currently (and then) employed by Gateway Rehabilitation Center. I am certain that I looked exhausted, sad, and distracted. Mark listened, for the five millionth time, to my descriptions of waking up in the middle of the night in a terror-filled panic, heart beating unmercifully fast with fearful thoughts of losing Julie playing over and over in my mind. And Mark said to me (probably for the five millionth time, but this is the only time I really "heard" it).... "Get thee to a 12 Step program" or something like that. Really? How could that help me?
I had tried to turn Julie on to 12 Step ideas many times - to help her get better - they made sense to me... for her. Her eating disorder felt like an addiction to me. I had never considered how the principles and values might help me - I wasn't the one with the problem.
But this time I listened to Mark. I didn't go right away (it sometimes takes me awhile to "get it"), but finally did, on August 4, 2008. And, thankfully, in AL-ANON I learned how to get out of Julie's way to let her figure things out for herself, and how to figure out my own role in the whole scene.
I won't bore you with the details of my role, except to tell you that I had often repeated to my friends and family (and believed that this was a virtuous statement!) that I could only be as happy as my least happy child. Think about that for a minute. I can imagine that most moms out there believe this at least part of the time. When any one of our kids is in pain, we feel it. We carry a heaviness in our heart and nagging and piercing worries in our minds throughout the long days and nights when things aren't right. At least, lots of my mom friends have admitted to this.
But surprise! Julie finally found the courage to tell me that this kind of thinking really really hurt her - it made her feel responsible for my happiness and guilty that she was contributing to my pain - heavy feelings that she should not have to add to her already weighty burden. And, thankfully, AL-ANON principles also put me in my place. I really needed to back off and let Julie find her own way. Yes, I could continue to step in when serious physical consequences were looming. But day to day, I needed to step back and to do some much-needed work on myself.
Man, was this hard. It went against every grain of what constituted, for me, being a good mom. At the very least, a mother should be able to nourish her child, feed her, so that she could grow and become strong. It went against my commitment, from the first moment of my first pregnancy, to be there for my children and to give them whatever they needed. But I did it.
Coincidentally (maybe, maybe not), once I got out of Julie's way, she could begin to think for herself. She did hit bottom in late summer - early fall, but then began the slow climb upward until she reached a beautiful plateau of health and happiness.
I am not necessarily a "good" AL-ANON member - I haven't formally worked all of the 12 Steps - I rarely attend meetings! And that Fourth Step - "made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves" - keeps beckoning with its scary bright neon light ahead of me. But I have had the privilege of hearing wisdom from many many lovely people who have indeed walked the talk. And I have gathered the wherewithal to shut up and listen.
AL-ANON is an amazing group of people. The program is a deeply spiritual one, and creates one of the few spaces in the world (at least in my experience) where education, religious affiliation (or non-affiliation), social class, financial status, race, gender, ethnicity, and so on don't matter one whit. The meetings that I attend with my home group are not characterized by comparisons or judgments, evaluations or criticisms. There is acceptance. There is much to be learned from life itself. For someone used to holding forth in the classroom, like "a sage on the stage" with all of my book-learning, this is both humbling and liberating.
So I found a place where I could think about and even, if brave, share the pain of feeling helpless and terrified, shamed because I, with my training and background, was in reality ill-equipped to help my own daughter in the ways that she needed to be helped. I could drink in and, if brave, serve a little out, of hard lessons learned and courage to get back up for the day even when our loved one is sick and struggling.
In December, during the end-of-year holiday season, my home group celebrates with a pot-luck dinner and a sharing of "gifts of the season." Each person is randomly given some gift from the program that she can hang on to and think about during the coming year. I used the word "randomly" because what we do is just go up front and select something from a pile of notes or ornaments, without looking first. Somehow, it doesn't always feel so random. Last year, I got a tiny angel ornament that had the words "taking risks" tied to it.
Whoa. Risks? Not for me. But my angel sits on my desk next to the computer and daily reminds me of what I can do to live more deeply and authentically, to learn to use what gifts I have been given for the good of others. So during the last year, I found the courage to build my web-site and start this blog, to participate in the March for Blair Mountain and the Occupy Pittsburgh movement, to actively go out and meet new people and learn what I could from them - then to share that learning with others. All of these activities were, and still sometimes are, just a tad out of my comfort zone.
Last week, I got my new "gift of the season" - the word "compassion." Hummph. I pride myself on my compassion (yes, I see the irony in that statement). I guess during this next year (and beyond), I am to learn how to take my heart from its regular size to a larger one, just a little more roomy and forgiving and welcoming and loving. Or in Dr. Seuss' inimitable words.... I will become like the Grinch.
...the Grinch's small heart Grew three sizes that day!
The minute his heart didn't feel quite so tight,
he whizzed through his load through the bright morning light.
What does this all have to do with my blog theme - sustainable health and well-being? It is about being our best selves with one another and, in so doing, helping to make the world a little better place for all.
I look forward to a whizzy and light and heart-ful year this year! And I wish one for you!
PS Thank you, dear Mark.