I found this picture on Facebook several years ago and, for me; it is one of those profound statements with an impact. And, it’s been true several times in my life – when I finally found the courage to let go of something I may not have found immediate happiness, but I found a sense of peace. And, with peace, happiness will follow.
Let me back up a little bit.
It’s been five years since my dad died. He was an alcoholic, and this piece is about our relationship.
From time to time, I have the opportunity to share my life story with groups of women. Each time I’m asked to do it I pull up the written version to re-read it and make any updates that may be needed. This, inevitably, always leads to a bit of reflection on my part as I go over the events that have brought me to where I am today. And, today, I am in a good place. Healthy in both mind and body having long since left the wounded child behind.
One of the last times I shared my story I was asked a bunch of questions. Questions about forgiveness and overcoming difficult situations. The next day, while taking a walk, I continued to reflect on the conversations my story had sparked and, on life with dad. When I returned home, I went to my mom and asked her if she thought it would be okay if I shared my story in a blog. After all, I do want to share this, but I didn’t want to cause her any undue pain or make her uncomfortable so we chatted about it for a bit and she gave me her blessing. Thanks, Mom.
Okay here goes – my dad was a Secret Service agent. The reality of his job wasn’t as glamorous as portrayed by the media. He worked long hours, traveled a lot and some months we hardly saw him at all. Protecting President’s and Dignitaries and working serious counterfeiting cases was stressful and took a toll. In 1979, a particularly difficult Trans-Atlantic move combined with a demanding work schedule became too much for my father, and he was at a breaking point. Let me note here that in 1979 programs had not been implemented to deal with the effects of job burnout and high levels of stress. You were expected to man up and deal with it. When my dad went to his boss and said he needed some time away from the job he was told exactly that – suck it up and get over it. My father’s response? Well, feeling trapped, needing a break and finding no support he abruptly resigned his position.
And with that, the career he loved so much was finished and a hellish life began. I was 16 years old, and up until then, I had had a pretty good childhood.
My dad always enjoyed his beer and wine and did his fair share of partying but after he left the Secret Service his drinking took on a whole new intensity. I’m going to skip a lot of the details of living with an alcoholic. Let’s just say life was not fun or happy at my house. He was drunk most of the time, and in that drunkenness, he began to abuse my mom and us kids emotionally and verbally.
Each of us in my family handled it differently, and I cannot speak for anyone else but, for me, I turned to Ronald – my then boyfriend and eventually my husband. I spent as much time as possible with him and away from my house. As my home life deteriorated and my dad wasn’t able to find or hold onto a job the financial picture became grim. My parents ultimately had their house foreclosed and ended up returning to the town where they both grew up. This occurred just after Ronald and I married – at the tender age of 19. After they had moved, I believed that, with my father in another city, and me married, that all my troubles were over and I would indeed live happily ever after from that point on.
I can almost laugh at how naïve I was. I had no idea how much I had been affected and the work it would ultimately take to overcome. I thought all the problems were with my dad and did not realize that living with him and his addiction had created a whole set of problems for me too. It wasn’t long after they moved that my issues began to surface. Again, I could give you all the sordid details about what I mess I was and all the mistakes I made, but I would rather get to the better bits. Let’s just put it this way: I had anger issues and felt like I could never get a grip on life. I was happy one moment and despairing the next. I wondered if I was crazy because I couldn’t control my emotions. Eventually, I learned that much of what I went through was typical for a kid with an alcoholic parent. But at the time I had no clue. Overall I could have been the poster child for a troubled young adult.
I don’t want you to think that I was a complete raving lunatic all that time. There were wonderful aspects to my life… two beautiful children, a beautiful house we built, good friends and a church I adored. I don’t think outwardly I displayed too much of the confusion that I was experiencing. I think most of my craziness happened behind closed doors and out of earshot of anyone but Ronald and maybe a few confidants.
Over the years I did a lot of counseling while trying to deal with this. I would go for a while, hear blah blah blah and surprisingly (not) I continued to deteriorate. I would stop my sessions but then would decide I needed to continue so I would find someone new and start again. Eventually, I found a therapist that was awesome and amazing and helped me to turn my life around. It also happened around that same time that I began working with this great company. They were pretty forward thinking and were constantly making us read positive books like Stephen Covey’s Seven Habit’s of Highly Effective People, do affirmation exercises and encouraged us to live our lives in gratitude and appreciation. The timing of this was incredible and instrumental in helping me begin to turn my life around.
Don’t ever try to tell me that God’s timing isn’t perfect.
With these elements in place, and taking root in my life, I headed off one day to see my counselor. During this appointment I began, yet again, whining about how my dad wasn’t who I wanted him to be and how he was wreaking havoc in my life when my counselor stopped me, looked at me and said….
“You have to let go of this fight. Your dad is who he is. You will NOT change him. He is an alcoholic. You can either accept this and love him where he is at or you can leave this relationship and have nothing to do with him.”
Wow. Was that ever a breakthrough moment. The light bulb lit up, the proverbial slap on the forehead occurred, the big Aha…..well you get it. Right then and there my life changed. I guess maybe I was in a place that I was finally able to absorb those words – whatever the reason I finally got it into my head that I was who I was and he was who he was. I wasn’t going to change him, and I wasn’t going to be able to make him stop drinking. I could only change myself. I made the decision to stop fighting the fight of trying to make my dad be who I wanted – and thought – he should be. I took a huge breath and at that moment began healing myself.
Was it easy? No. Did I find success overnight? No. Did I do it perfectly? I wish! It was a process where you take two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes it was one step forward and two steps back! And as much as I would like to say that things were rosy and happy between my dad and me from that moment on anybody who has experienced ‘real’ life knows that isn’t realistic. But on the other hand, it wasn’t all bad either. I have some very sweet memories of my father mixed in with the tough ones. As I healed and found more success in letting his words and actions bounce off me, I was able to find more objectivity in my dealings with him.
How did I do it? First and foremost through my faith. God is so amazing and when I stopped trying to mold my dad into what I wanted I also turned my attention more fully back to Him. The grace He will flood you with is astounding when you finally say – and mean – I cannot do this on my own – I need You. In letting go of my need to control I was able to open my heart more fully to Christ and by doing that I was able to take a step back and see the bigger picture more clearly and deal with our relationship more effectively. I’m not kidding.
Most days this is my mantra – Philippians 4:13 – I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me. And on those days I forget to repeat my mantra – I tend to struggle more.
I also made the effort to start turning my negative thoughts into positives one. Living a life that is thankful and appreciative does make a difference. It is remarkable the change that occurs when you stop focusing on the pessimistic and celebrate the good things happening in your life.
The last thing I did was continue in therapy. I buckled down and dealt with the issues that had plagued me for years. I learned how my dad’s alcoholism had adversely affected me and I wanted to overcome that and put it behind me. It would have been very easy to stay in that negative world and blame him for all that was wrong in my life. But that is dangerous. Once I learned the impact that alcoholism had on me, then it became my responsibility to overcome those negatives and find my happiness. Yes, it is true that I had a rough start, but ultimately my peace of mind and joy is up to me.
What else contributes to peace of mind? Forgiveness. Which is not forgetting. Forgiving my dad for his shortcomings never, for even one moment, meant that I was okay with his drinking and the way he treated us. I think Matthew West said it beautifully in his song appropriately titled “Forgiveness”:
There is no end to what it’s power can do
So, let it go and be amazed
By what you see through eyes of grace
The prisoner that it really frees is you
Yep – it’s true. In giving up the need to control and finding a way to forgive my dad the one who was set free was me.
Am I a happier person overall since I began the healing journey? Without a doubt. Do I, at times, still struggle with a short fuse and say or do things that I wish I could take back? Oh for sure. Do I have moments where I slide back into the needy, whiny 20-year-old and wish the world would just do what I want it to do? Probably more often than I realize. But here’s the thing….. I have the skills now to overcome the negatives and the desire to live a happy life with Christ at the very center of it. With God, the most amazing thing is that I can start every day new and fresh. A lot of times I have forgotten that – sometimes for days or weeks at a time – but once I manage to get myself re-focused I find that starting point and begin again.
My dad did stop drinking eventually, but our relationship remained tricky. We butted heads until the end. The years of drinking took a toll on my dad’s health, and he suffered from many different ailments. Before he died, he needed to be on dialysis three times per week. This is hard on a body, and he was tired of the toll it took and decided that he wanted to discontinue his treatments. He sent my mom and us kids an email one morning outlining his decision. I was at home at the time and took a few moments to sit and reflect on this. I knew without the dialysis he could not live long and felt the Holy Spirit prompting me to walk over and see him. (I know I said earlier that they moved back to their hometown but they ended up moving back this way to be closer to their grandchildren.) I asked if he was sure this is what he wanted to do. He told me it was. So I told him that I would support his decision and support whatever he needed to make his remaining time as comfortable as possible. I also took the opportunity to tell him that although he and I had a very difficult relationship, I considered my young childhood to be one of the best. I told him I loved him, he told me he loved me, and we hugged. I was glad for the opportunity to share that moment with just the two of us as the coming weeks were constantly filled with people. He died 16 days later, peacefully at home. I am very aware of the gift I received – knowing my father was dying, God, in all of his graciousness helped me to put aside my hard feelings to make sure his last days were tranquil and not filled with discourse. I am so humbled by God’s love and the grace that He gave me not only to be able to give this gift to my dad but also to be on the receiving end of it. In the end, I have no regrets about how things were between us when he passed from this world. That in itself brings me a great measure of peace.
I don’t think I would be where I am today if those words about letting go hadn’t been spoken to me so many years ago. It IS a happy moment when you can find the courage to stop trying to change what you cannot control. And like I said earlier – the peace to be found in forgiveness is unparalleled. And never would I forget to give credit to God for working on my heart all these many years and, in the end, giving me the courage to put aside my feelings.
1 Peter 4:8 Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.