Legacies Left Behind

As a child growing up, fear was a way of life. Then came the sadness and pain; the loneliness was pervasive. Living in a small logging community of fewer than five hundred people in the Pacific Northwest, drinking, and even more so alcoholism - was a way of life. My parents' tavern was the hub of the community for most. Certainly drinking was central to my family because my father was alcoholic.

My parents taught me to be grateful for what I had - a house, food and parents who cared. And I was, and am, grateful. But what I remember most was the confusion as to why my father behaved as he did and the chronic fear he would die in a car wreck. He was forever taking off in the car with a half case of beer and me next to him. I thought if I went with him, he might come home earlier.

Why did I want him home? It was all such a fantasy - so maybe he would relieve my mom from work so she could fix dinner for us, or even be home at night before we went to bed. Maybe because I thought my brother and sister would be less upset.

My brother was terminally ill. By age nine, he could not walk; he crawled and then soon he went into a wheelchair. At seventeen, he died. By then my father was becoming quite scary. He was losing any of the control he had been trying to maintain. Today I believe he was having psychotic episodes caused by his alcoholism. At this time in his alcoholism he became quite violent. The fear of him killing my mother, or some combination of my mother, my sister or me became paramount. Who was this man who I have loved, I knew once loved all of us - why and how could he do this to us?

My father, having grown up in Appalachian poverty, wanted so much for me to go to college - a big feat at this time for a little girl from this town. I wanted to live out his dream; it gave me value to him, so I focused hard in school and told myself what he told me, "You have got to go to college." The only way I knew that could happen was to beat the odds of another social dynamic and that meant not getting pregnant. With those two goals, school and not getting pregnant, I ventured forth underneath a cloud of fear, trying not to rock the boat any more than it was already rolling.

Having learned so much about how to survive by taking charge, initiating and being goal oriented, I became a successful student and leader while screaming on the inside as my family was being torn apart by addiction. With my brother's death and my family's inability to cope, the alcoholism weighed heavily on our grief. Funny how those who learn not to speak the truth of their lives, can ultimately find voices in other arenas.

As I went on to college, my parents divorced. By then I was numb. I became invisible on a large college campus. The nightmares began and persisted for many years. I had visions of watching my father kill himself or us; visions of not being able to save my brother from tidal waves. I was unable to wear turtlenecks because of the sensation of being choked. I would spend my waking hours driven and goal-focused - anything to keep busy and distract myself from feeling incredible pain.

God's gift to me was sending me on a journey that led me to my first job as a social worker in an alcoholism treatment program. I knew nothing about treatment but what I did know is that most addicts were people like my dad - good people overcome by something outside of their control. I had spent my life surrounded by good people whose lives had gone very awry due to their addictions.

I was asked to develop a family program but I neglected to ask what they meant by "family." I invited the children of the alcoholics to the treatment program, yet at this time, the mid-to-late 1970s, there was no concept of adult children and the word codependency did not yet exist. I wasn't sure what to do with all of these kids, young or adult, but common sense told me that if they lived with addiction they had the right to understand it. And intuitively, I knew group would help them lessen their profound sense of being unique in their pain, that they were not alone in their experiences.

I began to see that the pain of human experiences is universal and that with a safe setting and a language through which to talk about one's experiences, people could begin to speak their truth, to own their reality. They could ultimately come to put the past behind, to let go of painful familial scripts and be accountable for their own choices. To this day, I maintain a belief I internalized at a young age, "No one deserved to live as we had." Not me, my brother, sister, mother or my father. No one deserves to live a life of fear, pain and shame. Of that, I was and am passionate.

Through this process, I found my way to a self-help group. It was not long before both my personal recovery and my professional direction began to unfold.

Today I am honored to carry this message of healing and recovery throughout the world. I have taken the experiences of growing up in an isolated, tough little community - where alcoholism was a way of life - and become a part of a worldwide community of healing and recovery.

I no longer live in fear, confusion or pain. Secrets and shame are a part of my past. I allow myself to experience what I am feeling when I feel it and I trust my own perceptions. I have tapped into a fun-loving person within me. I can ask for help; I don't need to be rigidly self-sufficient. I find joy in the present and I surround myself with people who respect and treat me well.

In some ways, my recovery is summarized with two beautiful pieces of art in my home with messages that say, "You deserve to no longer live your life in fear," and "Does the pain ever go away? . . . Yes."

© Claudia Black

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