Recent events have reminded me how, for so many years, I lived trapped in relentless self-criticism, how I suffered in hating and pitying myself, and how blindly I sought escape from that tangle of feelings. The emotional health I’ve gradually been graced with is paradise by contrast, but living here causes me to forget how lost I used to be — an amnesia that dulls my compassion.
My son came to me last night and shared that he’s in tremendous emotional pain. I’d had no idea. The news came as a shock. I remember when he was 6, he told me one night in his sweet, piping voice, “I feel sorry for anyone who has to be around me — because I’m such a horrible person.” I did what I wished my parents had done for me: took him seriously. I explained that he mustn’t listen to what the “mean voice” said to him, that it would always find fault with him just for existing. I explained all the ways I cope: identify it, label it, question it. Whenever I checked in with him in the weeks and years that followed, he told me the mean voice had gone away. Last night I learned that’s not the case. As he’s grown to a 6′ young man, so, too, has his self-loathing swelled to a powerful announcer of worthlessness.
And here I hit up against my own powerlessness to lead him out of his pain, as much as I wish I could. Because the resounding, unavoidable fact of life is that we each must find our own way. I know I could never have healed without the loving community of recovering alcoholics to which my higher power guided me. But my son, like every person ever born, must find his own path. Will I send him to counseling? Of course! But even an excellent therapist can only clear the ground and help us give names to the various forms of suffering and trauma we carry. To step out of those to a higher plane — that’s something each must do for themself, collaborating, whether consciously or unconsciously, with god.
No one can hand you freedom. The whole problem with drugs, alcohol, or any addiction is that they seem to — so we chase them, no matter what anyone tells us.
In fact, my powerlessness to help my son brings me up against my powerlessness to help anyone; it makes me question the whole premise of this blog. So often I write about the view from this safe, cozy ledge of sanity I’ve settled on, forgetting what it was like to dangle above that dark chasm, clinging to whatever false fix of the day. I wish so much I could hand over to the world all I’ve been given — but life doesn’t work that way.
I come back to my core belief: that we are all incomplete without god, that we’re each set down on this Earth with a mission to reforge that connection, and that to the extent we succeed, we expand the power of love/god. “We all live inside of god” — that’s how a Near Death Experiencer I recently interviewed put it. And yet we bubble ourselves off inside fear, anger, and ego, languishing in isolation. Each time we pierce the bubble by reaching through with love, we express the energy of god. We are god’s tendrils, its nerve endings, the leaves of its vast tree. But if a leaf seals itself off from sustenance because for some reason it’s denying the tree’s existence, it withers. And withering hurts.
My father, I, and now, I learn, my son were all given minds wired for self-condemnation. Until last night I believed that, because my son doesn’t use drugs or alcohol, we’d somehow broken the chain. Yet today I consider that, although I was 6 years sober when he was born, I remained a confused woman clinging to a dysfunctional, codependent relationship. When that relationship fell apart, my son, who was then only two and a half, lay face down on the carpet and spoke the words, “My family is dead.” I tried so hard to love him so much that the pain wouldn’t sear his little heart — but for whatever reason, I couldn’t spare him. I don’t know that I could have done anything differently. All I could do was be honest and love him — and that’s more true than ever today.
Last night I tried to speak to him of god, of the crucial importance of seeking out whatever font of goodness lies within our cores and appealing to it for help. Doing that, I said, saved my life. How lame my words sounded! How lame they sound here! Because finding god is an inside job, while words are just outside symbols, and never the twain shall meet. That’s why religion rings so hollow for most of us.
Yet the same is true here. Words, words, words!
My own truth is that god has led me every step of the way through my own messy, twisted, often sick-sick-sick story, though I never knew it in the moment. That fucking cliché poem about only one set of footprints in the sand? That has been my experience. For instance, without that dysfunctional, codependent relationship, I might not be here today, because that partner was sober in AA when we met, whereas I was a dying drunk.
Every pain I’ve walked through has been my teacher, a way for god to suggest a deeper truth if I was willing to see it. Pain — listening to it, not fleeing it — has shown me what works and what doesn’t. In essence, it’s been like an electric fence bordering my own unique path toward happiness. I’ve had zap myself repeatedly by straying after various dumb shiny things before I’d become willing to abandon them and proceed along a wiser tack. Slowly, gradually, I’ve learned how to live.
The same, I pray, will be true for my son — and for you.