This is a blog post I’ve wanted to write for a little while now but it has been a struggle to put the words on to paper, mostly because the topic is complicated and very personal. But since we have now come to the Easter season, the season where we celebrate redemption and Jesus’ resurrection, it seems fitting to share about the inner transformation I am experiencing.
During Lent, the 40-day period prior to Easter, Christians are called to a special time of prayer and reflection, to keenly seek out God’s presence. For me, the time of Lent was focused on a very specific purpose: healing. Particularly seeking the healing of old wounds caused by my mother’s alcoholism.
This process actually began before Lent, when I was reading a memoir by Gerard W. Hughes, SJ (author of God of Surprises, which I wrote about it an earlier post). One of the exercises in the memoir asks the reader to sit with God and to recall childhood memories and to simply note those that come to mind. Unexpectedly, I was flooded with memories of my mother and her struggle with alcoholism – some really terrible memories of being a child alone, struggling with trying to take care of her and take care of myself. The intensity of the emotions that accompanied those memories freaked me out. Why now? After all this time, why I am thinking of this? She has been dead for nearly 12 years. Isn’t it over and done with? I don’t want to deal with this.
But as I sat there, I realized that this was more than just a deluge of memories. It was an invitation to go beyond the initial pain and shock and to truly seek healing. Even though I hadn’t been expecting the invitation to come as it did, I felt in my heart that I couldn’t refuse it. After all, a large part of this candidacy year, the discernment that I am doing, involves looking at my life as a whole and seeing how God is present. I decided that even if I didn’t really want to delve into the abyss of the past, it was important to do so in order to be free to move forward with this next phase of my life.
As much as I had wanted to, I didn’t escape my mother’s alcoholism when I moved from Calgary to Ottawa after her death, and I didn’t escape it moving from Ottawa to Toronto. I realized that if I didn’t want it to keep following me around, I needed to address it. And I could trust that God would be with me no matter what.
But as I sat there in the chapel, I realized that I didn’t even know where to start. Although I have been to see counselors/therapists at different times in my life (for example, when I struggled with panic attacks a couple of years after I moved to Ottawa), the focus of those encounters had been on the immediate problems and we didn’t talk much about what happened during my childhood. So 12 years of living with an alcoholic mother basically flew under the radar. My first step then was to seek out more information about alcoholism and the effect it has on the family.
I went to the library and borrowed a whole stack of books and immersed myself in the world of Adult Children of Alcoholics, or ACOAs, for short. This newfound knowledge was a real revelation for me. It was stunning. And brutally painful. I could see myself – my behaviours, beliefs, and coping mechanisms – so clearly in the ACOA response to trauma.
Need for control? Check.
Tendency towards hypervigilance? Check.
Fear of intimacy? Check.
Self doubt? Insecurity? Check. Check.
Need to please people? Check.
It was like having all kinds of scabs ripped open long after I had convinced myself that they were healed and no longer there. The more I read and identified with ACOAs, the more I began to wonder why God wanted me to do this. It was depressing, and I began to feel hopeless about it, wondering how I could possibly change anything that seemed to be so ingrained in me.
And so I prayed to God to let me know what I was supposed to do next. What am I supposed to do with this knowledge? It seems to be making things worse. I don’t feel like I have control over what I do. I keep reacting in the same ways over and over again. I don’t know how to stop it. I don’t know how to change.
In answer to my prayers, God showed me my strengths. God showed me how resilient I had been in times in crisis and confusion, when I had no control over my environment. And, best of all, God showed me that I hadn’t been alone during those dark and difficult moments. Jesus, the one I had prayed to when I was so scared and worried, had been there with me, all the time, at my side, and he knew exactly what had happened. Things that I had kept secret from others weren’t a secret from Jesus because he was there with me and with Mom.
Around this time, I went to see my spiritual director and talked to her about what I had been experiencing in prayer. As usual, she was incredible and told me exactly what I needed to hear. She encouraged me to continue to look at these painful memories and to seek healing in an active way. She gave me several prayer exercises to help with healing – beautiful imaginative prayer and even prayer through art. She gave me advice on forgiveness. She also talked about finding my voice. Often when people experience trauma, there is a great deal of shame attached to it and they are unable to express themselves. Alcoholism, in particular, seems to breed a lot of shame and secrecy, which is so detrimental to healing. Consequently, part of my prayer for healing has been to expose everything – beliefs, behaviours, memories, fears, and anxiety – everything – to God’s light.
Through prayer (and the ACOA books), I have come to understand that the behaviours and attitudes I adopted may have been necessary when I was a kid – they worked to keep me going in hard times – but they don’t work for me now. They are responses that I don’t need anymore to live my life fully and happily. I’ve also come to know that the negative beliefs about myself that I’ve been carrying around for a long time are simply not true. God has shown me how loved I am, and how loveable I am, no matter what may have been said or done to me during my life. God’s love is more powerful than any pain or worry or fear.
For Easter then, I would like to offer this message of hope: healing and transformation are possible. No matter how much time has passed or how deeply pain is buried, it can be transformed and made beautiful – redeemed by God’s love. Each day is an opportunity to give our wounds to God, to surrender them and let them go, and to be set free. Free to be healed and made whole and to be fully loved.