Archive for April, 2013

posted by Amy on Apr 27

I found out a little over a week ago that my brother Ross McElheny had died. I knew he was gravely ill, so that in itself was not a shock. But Eve, his wife of almost 30 years, who has all my contact information and who knows I had been in communication with him about his illness, didn’t tell me. She didn’t tell his son and daughter (her stepchildren). She didn’t tell any McElhenys.

Ross and I had a complicated relationship. But I love him and I miss him.

I have created a webpage for him, courtesy of the folks who do the online guest books for funeral notices. You can contribute content for it. All you have to do is register for the site. I will have approval authority, but I will exercise it loosely. Click here to be taken to the web page.



posted by Amy on Apr 23

This year I will observe the tenth anniversary of a divorce I did not want. By then I knew better than to marry a drinker, but I didn’t know to look for evidence that someone who abstained from drinking was actively in recovery. He had done some AA in the past. He seemed to be pretty healthy. He described himself as “recovering.” But as the marriage began to unravel, his behavior become more and more problematic, as did mine. I took refuge in Al-Anon. As an adult child of an alcoholic and a rageaholic, I attract, and am attracted to, people from families affected by alcoholism or other addictions, and I can be easily triggered to engage in irrational and overly dramatic reactions to their behaviors.

I now think that anyone, myself included, who has been in recovery in the past and is not currently working actively to attain and maintain emotional sobriety (through the 12 Steps, therapy, yoga, meditation, or other means) is probably a dry drunk. As I use the term, a dry drunk is an addict, alcoholic or codependent who is not actively maintaining conscious contact with God as he or she understands God and who has not achieved, or has relapsed from, the “spiritual awakening” described in the 12th Step. For that matter, I have several friends who have never been diagnosed as addicts or codependents but who, based on how I react to them, may well be dry drunks. It’s not up to me to take their inventories, but I can and must take responsibility for anything I do to harm them or myself in our relationships.

My dry drunk friends are all smart, kind, and loving, and they are important to me. I love them with all my heart. Some of the relationships go back many decades. But I say and do things with them that I do not do in the few relationships I consider both intimate and relatively healthy. I hereby acknowledge and own the fact that no matter what someone else says or does, I always have a choice about how to respond, and I always have an ethical obligation not to either enable their behavior or use their actions as an excuse to behave badly. They don’t control me; I do. They are not responsible for my bad behavior; I am.

The precipitating events for this realization are not the story. The story is that I have seen my own character defects more clearly. I am fully qualified for several 12 Step groups.  (Again, the details of that are not important.) My core addiction is my compulsion to try to have healthy, intimate relationships with addicts. They show up because I’m a magnet for them. I used to seek them out and try to charm and bedazzle them. I no longer do that, but they appear anyway. I let them into my life. I befriend them and spend lots of time talking to them and being with them. I love them. And they drive me crazy.

It doesn’t even matter that I’m not sleeping with any of these people. While attempting to have a sexual relationship with a non-recovering addict/alcoholic is clearly inadvisable, I have finally figured out that I can’t avoid the mire by not having sex with them. The problem is emotional, spiritual, and intellectual intimacy. I think everyone needs that, but it’s not possible to have it without mutual honesty, trust, and emotional sobriety. Dry drunks, by definition, lack emotional sobriety.

The only responsible way to be in an intimate relationship is to ask for what you want and need and always be impeccable with your word. Intimacy involves each person creating a safe space for the other to be totally honest and authentic. Healthy intimacy requires that both parties set and maintain boundaries and not allow the boundaries to be transgressed. Part of setting healthy boundaries is assessing how much to reveal about one’s inner life, and to whom. I keep trusting the wrong people.

One way I handle crazy-making behavior is to give in and let the other person get away with playing control games. Another way, equally ineffective, is to react to the behavior by becoming angry or by distancing. The only responsible way to deal with it is to ask respectfully for what I want and need, to be appropriately honest about how I feel, and to do both of those things in a loving, compassionate way that maintains the connection. If I hold up my end, and the relationship still isn’t loving and lifegiving, then I also have a responsibility to both myself and the other person to drop out quietly, with no rancor or bitterness, but with steady resolve.

It’s not possible for a nonrecovering addict or alcoholic to have an authentic intimate relationship with anyone.  The dry drunk is stuck in the “stinking thinking” of believing the addiction can be controlled solely with willpower and personal effort. But that’s simply not possible. Nevertheless, both alcoholics and the people who enable them slip into the belief that everything would be fine if only other people would act right. It is incredibly easy to fall into the rut of early childhood programming and years of addictive/codependent behavior. Again, I’m including myself among the “dry drunks” I’m describing. I know, in my head, that the only person I can control is myself. But the early programming is insidious.

It’s time I went back to Al-Anon. It’s time to find a sponsor and work the steps again. The last time I did that, ten years ago, changed my life. Recovery is a spiral staircase. I’ve arrived at the next landing, and it’s time for me to do some more work. One of the greatest things about Al-Anon is it shows you that you don’t have to quit loving anyone, though you might have to love some of them from a distance, for your own sanity. I had some insane moments last weekend. I want my emotional sobriety back.



posted by Amy on Apr 15

As Erich Fromm has pointed out in The Sane Society, what is considered normal might be pathological if society itself is sick. Just because a majority of people have a certain characteristic does not mean, in and of itself, that the characteristic is healthy. Given that, an argument can be made that what most people consider normal is actually unhealthy and maladaptive. A good example of that is the “good mother” as our society pictures her. She sacrifices everything for her family. She doesn’t take care of herself or meet her own needs. And everyone around her just feels guilty and ashamed most of the time, including her.

But let’s assume that there is such a thing as a healthy, happy person who is what Abraham Maslow described as “self-actualizing.” After years of working on it, I would say that I’m one of those people. But, even so, I know that I am not and never will be like people who were raised humanely in stable, loving families by caring, sane adults. I am able to love, to forgive, to feel, to express myself, and to be with other people in healthy ways, but I have to work around some patterns that were laid down in the past and that will never go away. I have to remind myself to make eye contact. I have to remind myself to reciprocate when people ask me questions about myself. I have to consciously practice paying attention to how conversation partners are feeling, and to heed what they’re signaling about what they want. Maybe everybody does this. I don’t know.

Labels never capture the complexity and richness of any human being. No one is 100% knowable or explicable. Someone who is character disordered, or an addict, or mentally ill, may still be brilliant, witty, creative, sensitive, and fascinating. He or she probably tries very hard to be good. Describing such a person in terms of evident pathologies is never sufficient. But it does provide useful information. It’s very interesting, for example, to apply such a label to someone who clearly fits the criteria for it, but who has, in 12th Step terms, never taken the first step of acknowledging his or her powerlessness over it. If the shoe did not fit, I suspect the wearer would simply take it off and move on.

Alcoholic families have strict prohibitions against feeling and talking. Suppressing bad feelings results in a generalized suppression of all feelings. You don’t feel the anger that you felt (and should feel) towards the adults who betrayed you, but you also go through life wrapped in a kind of muffling that keeps out almost everything else. About the only feelings strong enough to break through are rage and self-righteous indignation. Everything else–everything–is shunted aside. There’s no joy, wonder, curiosity, satisfaction, pain (other than what breaks through as anger), or normal fear. (In a previous post I reviewed Denial by Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert whose childhood trauma made her unnaturally fearless–a helpful trait for a terrorism expert.) There is surely no empathy for others. If you don’t have any idea how you feel, you’re totally at a loss to understand someone else’s feelings. I’m also pretty sure “my” alcoholics/addicts didn’t really care how anyone else felt, except for how that made them feel. If they wanted to feel like good, normal people and I did anything to make them think they might not be, then they’d blame me.

The “no talk” rule protects the family from prying outside eyes, but it also keeps family members isolated and disempowered. Not feeling, not talking, and especially not talking about feelings, make it impossible for a child raised in such an atmosphere to know how normal people act, relate to each other, solve problems, or think. If the only thing I know how to do is stay out of my parents’ way, I don’t really have many useful interpersonal skills. However, I’m an expert at attempting to control alcoholics and at trying to get them to love me. All my self-worth is tied up in how well I manage to do that. That takes a huge amount of energy, and leaves very little time for emotional development and maturation.

The “no talk” rule makes dishonesty the highest virtue in an alcoholic family. Looking good and garnering the esteem of others are more important than actually being good, being OK, being estimable. The children in such families imprint on/bond with people who are fundamentally untrustworthy. And from then on, they have a tendency to trust untrustworthy people and to reject the friendship and love of “normal” people. They mistake the drama, the clenched guts, the emotional vertigo, that come with loving an alcoholic for real, lasting, life-giving friendship and commitment. They are not to be blamed for this. They don’t know any better.

You can’t give with empty hands. You can’t teach what you don’t know. But you can, with just the tiniest morsel of faith or hope or true love, open yourself up to the possibility that there is a better way to live than you currently know.

An alcoholic friend of mine described himself as “a victim of the recovery movement” when his wife began to wake up from the long trance that her family of origin and marriage to him had put her into, and began to want their marriage to be about more than just keeping him on an even keel and convincing him he was normal. She told him she realized that he cared more about alcohol than he did about her. Although he tried very hard to keep her from leaving, he was blind to the truth about himself, and was therefore unable to give her what she wanted, which was recovery for both of them and for their marriage.

As far as I know, he’s never broken his own family’s no talk rule. He thinks the secret is safe with him. In fact, there are no secrets.


posted by Amy on Apr 7

One day in a marriage counseling session years ago, the therapist said, “You don’t have any boundaries” as she was lunging toward me and waving her hand near my face. I didn’t flinch, or put up a hand to block her. I didn’t even feel anything. She was right.

She worked with us for a year, individually and as a couple. At one point she told me my husband thought his treatment of me was appropriate. She gave him exercises to do to get in touch with his own buried feelings and past conflicts. One, called “Active Imagination,” yielded some fascinating results. (I have used it too, and it can be quite revealing.) But he wasn’t ready to face his own traumas and pathologies. He was really only doing the counseling to keep me from divorcing him. He quit going to therapy as soon as I pulled the plug, insisting he didn’t have any problems that weren’t caused by me, and that he had no issues with the relationship. I don’t blame him for that. Peeling back the cover on a traumatic and violent childhood is extremely frightening. It causes a terrifying sense of impending doom, a very real fear of annihilation. Identity, memory, meaning are all shaken and reconstructed. It’s really not possible to do that alone, and it doesn’t happen quickly. If he had gone to AA he might have found a way through. But instead he quickly found a new partner who is a better codependent than I had become.

The therapist told me that if I didn’t learn to stand up to my husband I would get into another abusive relationship. So she worked with me to establish boundaries and to learn to ask for what I want and need. Until then I really had no idea that I had a right to feel safe, to be respected and cherished, and to have my own needs met in a relationship. How would I have learned that? I was raised by attachment disordered, narcissistic, emotionally immature parents, one of whom was violent. I had no identity of my own. I was merely a source of narcissistic supply for my parents, or I served as a screen for their projections.

Here is a chart I made based on one my counselor gave me, which was, itself, based in part on the excellent book by Harriet Lerner called The Dance of Intimacy.


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