“You deserve to be happy” said Rose, smiling at me. “You don’t need to put up with this type of behaviour” she said reaching out to touch my arm. We were standing at the front door to a grand old house where weekly tough love meetings were held in my area. This was my first session and I wasn’t sure what to think about the whole thing. The rest of the group were milling around. I had bumped into a work colleague and suddenly felt very ashamed to find myself in this place. I reminded myself that we’re both here for the same reason, and that he is probably just as shocked to see me. We both had someone in our lives that was an addict and we needed help with how to cope.
I nodded my head, as if in agreement with Rose, perhaps she doesn’t understand, I thought to myself. I can’t be happy, I have tried to be happy before, it doesn’t work. My life is not meant to be happy, or carefree, or not sad… “I’ve just told them my story, don’t they understand?” I asked myself. I had come here to learn how to help my father, who was an alcoholic, deal with his problem. It wasn’t me who had the problem, it was my dad. I couldn’t understand how me getting happy was going to help him? No I didn’t need to get happy, my dad needed to stop drinking, that’s what needed to happen here. Perhaps I could think of being happy then. The only time I was ever “happy”, was when he was not drinking, therefore, it makes sense that if he stopped drinking, I would be happy. I studied Rose, at least 30 years older than I was. She had a son my age who was an addict. I thought the difference between us was that perhaps I was the only “child” of an alcoholic at the tough love group, and the rest were all parents of an addict. I thought perhaps they just saw things differently.
It was January 2006. I had my own flat, my own car, was travelling a lot for work, I had my own life, or so I thought. I had dropped my dad off at Phoenix House, a rehabilitation centre in Jo’burg, just the week before. I had checked him in, together with a couple of belongings and his pipe. For 12 weeks I knew he wasn’t going to be drinking and I could relax. He was living with me, temporarily. He had myasthenia gravis (a complicated autoimmune disease where your own immune system mistakenly attacks itself and causes grave muscle weakness) and the alcohol was aggravating it. I had asked him to move in with me as I thought perhaps he just needed some support. I thought that if he saw how much we loved him, he would change. I had failed, miserably. And it wasn’t the first time either. I had offered that he come stay with me as he was desperately unhappy and lonely, I thought perhaps he just needed some family, and some good natural medication and healing to help him on the path. He moved in, and brought his orange persian cat – Garfield with him.
What was I thinking. The old chaos was back.
I don’t know what I had expected, I knew he was an alcoholic. I remembered the unpleasant days and nights while we were all still in the family home. I knew he had been in to various rehab centres, many times before. I knew he was drinking heavily. Perhaps I was acting out of guilt for cutting him out of my life completely for 6 years, because it just hurt so much to acknowledge that my father was an alcoholic. Perhaps I was trying to make up for lost time. I was hopeful that things would change.
The hope was in vain. For nothing. The precarious bottom just fell out, again and again, like it always had. I should have known.
It was that very orange cat that went missing one day, that caused me to look in places that I never really looked in. Just as I was afraid to look at the darkest parts of my mind, I physically avoided looking too hard for and at things. Tucked away at the very back of my bedroom cupboard I found an open bottle of vodka… my cupboard… not my vodka…. so I did what I’d always done. I went on the rampage, shouting, screaming, threatening, crying – my world was falling apart again. I didn’t give a dam who heard. Couldn’t he see how much he was hurting me? Does he not care? Can he not see how I’m suffering? The ugly truth was staring at me once again. I had suspected that he had been drinking, but I didn’t want to look too hard for fear of what I’d find. The truth hurts too much you see – ignorance is bliss. But, this, I couldn’t ignore. I knew the truth now and I was devastated.
I knew this feeling though. I knew how to pull myself together, I had been doing this from my early days at high school. I knew how to push those feelings down to the deepest recesses of my mind. I pulled up my socks, and life carried on, as it does and always had. I had lived with this feeling of unease and fear for what will happen for so long I had no idea there was another way to live. A few weeks later I rushed my dad to the emergency room at the hospital (not the first time). We thought he was having a heart attack. After examination the doctor came to me and said my dad is fine – but he has been drinking. Duh… I knew that. In that moment I wanted to defend him and defiantly wanted to ask what that had to do with the suspected heart attack. But I didn’t, the feelings of shame and, dare I say it, hate, were so enormous I nearly wanted to die.
Sometimes in life time seems to stand still. It’s as if for a moment everything revolves around you and the universe stops and waits with baited breath to see what you are going to do with the latest development. I had a moment of truth, it had smacked me in the face and it was smarting. I heard the humming of the bright overhead lights of the hospital, when did the lights become so bright?, the waiting room, doctors, nurses and people swirled around me. I felt removed from everything and from somewhere within me I absolutely knew something had to change or the next trip to the emergency room might be me.
Shortly after that hospital trip Dad was booked into Phoenix and I went to my first Tough Love.
There is a reason why they call it tough love, because that is exactly what it is. What was I expecting to learn when I heard about tough love? I thought I’d toughen up, learn how to deal with the alcoholic and the problem, with the intention of changing his behaviour. I was convinced that by me giving tough love, it would make it so uncomfortable for my dad that he would stop drinking. Once his behaviour changed, then I would be happy.
And then, here was Rose and a group of people all with someone in their lives who was causing them overwhelming hurt and heartache. They spoke about acceptance of what is, and I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Why should we accept it when someone in the family is dead set on ruining their life? What if they drink themselves to death? What if they commit suicide? What if there was something I could do to help and I didn’t, and then he dies? What if… Then they told me to stop making “what-if” movies in my head…
I was confused. It began to dawn on me that tough love was perhaps less about becoming tough on the other person and more about becoming tough with yourself and what you accept or don’t accept into your life. I could feel that I needed bit of a mind shift, I was not on the same page, hell, not even in the same book, as these people. The intention was not to get the other person to change their behaviour, which was what I was hoping to learn there. No, the intention was to change our own behaviour and thoughts and feelings towards the addict, to separate the person and the addiction, to set and communicate healthy boundaries, to stick to boundaries and ultimately know when to preserve yourself and walk away. This wasn’t very comforting to me. I wanted him to change, not me. I didn’t want to walk away and if he would just change then I wouldn’t have to.
That is what is tough. We can never ever, ever change another person, ever. It’s about learning that we have a choice every moment in life and in how we respond to events that happen. Sometimes the only thing left to do, for your health and sanity, is to let go (gasp). Even though the world can come crashing down around you, you can still be at peace.
It is possible.
Tough, but not impossible.
And then we read the serenity prayer by St Francis. I had heard it before but never really paid too much attention to it. That night it took on a new meaning to me.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
The meaning of the words hit home sometime that night. Tough love was going to be tougher than I ever imagined.
This happened at the beginning of 2006. Sadly, after battling alcoholism for over 20 years, Dad passed away in April 2011, his mind and body unable to handle the disease of alcohol combined with MG a moment longer.