Acrimony, Acceptance, and Amends

By Arthur Becks 03/30/17

There’s a balance to be found between being spiritually fit and engaging with my family in a non-destructive way, and it is not one I have found yet.

A not welcome mat.
Sometimes, family just isn't ready.

My family did not come to family week at rehab. They were done with me by then, but strangely it turned out that they were more done with my constant demands to talk recovery with them than they were with my bad behavior. They wrote to wish me well, and let the family counselor know that they had polar-opposite views on my upbringing and would not be coming to talk about how hard done I had been by them, again. They were through with this, they said.

We didn’t talk much for another seven years after this time while I griped about them in therapy, and at meetings, and in group therapy. I was a member of the hard-done-by club, and perhaps with good reason. Looking back I don’t know what to make of that time of my life. Was I stuck scratching the old wounds? Or was I healing and getting ready for a new chapter? Most likely it was some combination of both, but eventually the day came when I was ready for a change. It was around the time of my 12th sober anniversary when I began to ask myself how I had stacked up as a son, brother, uncle, cousin, and nephew. When I flipped the paradigm and began to look at how I had behaved, my score-card read pretty poor. Sure there had been the odd card sent here and there, but never had I really freely given of myself to them without expecting anything in return. I had always seethed a bit in our interactions and looked at them like villains. I discussed this with my shrink of ten years, and we came up with a plan to actively accept them fully for the flawed people that they are and to see if there was some way I could be of service to them. This was a familiar way of thinking to me from AA, and from my sponsor's encouragement to pray for their well-being when I was most disturbed. But I had never thought it would apply to me. I thought my family too terrible for that.

We decided I would go to my hometown and spend a few months there, not disturb them too much with demands for attention but see if I could slot in with their calendar of family dinners, birthdays, and holiday celebrations. I made amends to my parents when I arrived. The amends, my damage, was pretty simple. I apologized for slandering them and asked them if there was anything further I could do. I had talked poorly of them to anyone who would listen, and had caused them a fair amount of distress. Because I had stopped this behavior my sponsor was confident with my intentions going forward. They said there was nothing further they needed from me, but that they would like to take things slowly. They were cautious they told me. My brother, when I apologized for slandering my parents, said I had hurt him more than anyone else in his life. That landed hard, and I began to see that I had been not only hard done by my family but had caused harm too. My therapist helped me to see what I was responsible for, and what I wasn’t responsible for—and to own the harm I had done.

My chief amends, and the one that had the biggest effect on the equilibrium of the family was to stop talking of what they had done and to instead focus on what I had done and not done. This turned out to be incredibly healing in a strange way that still doesn't quite make sense to me. But I found I was able to focus on their well being. I came to see that they were for the most part the exact same people they had always been. They had not changed. It was I who had changed. And in accepting them as they were, I changed further.

The few months I spent in my home town were difficult and exhausting. I attended local meetings there and availed myself of the the support of a home-group. I also spoke with my therapist and sponsor regularly. My sponsor made a habit of deferring to my therapist in navigating my family amends.

“It’s a complex situation,” he said, “and your shrink has a better understanding of it all.”

When I was triggered or in pain over a perceived or real slight my shrink would remind me that, “there was more good than harm to be had.”

That helped to understand that although I sometimes felt emotionally spent, there was something to be gained in being a part of the family as it stands. My local AA group helped me focus on showing up and being of service. My sponsor reminded me that my job was simply not to make matters worse.

I came home a couple of months later emotionally exhausted but somehow free in a way that I had never quite imagined. In accepting them exactly as they are I let go of a bunch of stuff. I’m the one in recovery. I’m not trying to get milk from a stone anymore.

I also had to accept that because I was in recovery didn't mean everything was going to be great with them. I wanted that to be the case. But it’s not. I still find them tiring and have to take them in small doses. My sponsor encourages me to gauge how full my “family-tank” is. If it is full, he encourages me to take a break. If there is something pressing, I run it by him and my shrink before I respond. There’s a balance in all of this that I’m still trying to find.

And them? I think they’re relieved their son is okay and not giving them a hard time. That may even be the only way I can be of service to them. I’m not quite ready to say, “they’re doing the best they can.” But I am ready to acknowledge that engaging with them with loving acceptance is healing for me, and what I need to do is to take care of my side of the street. In the words of my sponsor, I haven't managed to fix the situation but I have found a way to not make it worse while staying sober and in fit spiritual condition.

There’s a balance to be found between being spiritually fit and engaging with them in a non-destructive way, and it is not one I have found yet. But that, I imagine, is what this next chapter will be about. I’m no longer stuck in the corner I had painted myself into, where I was always right and always by myself.

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