Looking back, I couldn’t have imagined better circumstances in which to be raised. My parents were happily married, loving, and responsible, and my sisters and I wanted for nothing because we were so well-provided for, if not spoiled. We had access to the best education and opportunities money could buy, and we lived in an idyllic town where we could walk to church and where “divorce” was a word rarely uttered.
So how did my sisters and I turn out to be addicts? In spite of providing a life filled with privilege and morals, where did my parents go wrong? And what would it take to finally get us all on the right track so that we weren’t continually causing my parents pain and grief and they could live out the rest of their lives in peace?
The answers to these questions aren’t easy to find for any family that is afflicted with addiction, especially when they have worked so hard to provide so abundantly for their children. Perhaps an explanation of the journey my family has taken will shed some light on a typically dark and devastating situation. In this article, I’d like to share with you how, underneath the pain that addiction caused our family, the love and devotion we had for each other and the self-care we finally gave ourselves ultimately enabled our individual and collective healing.
I was the youngest of three girls, which was a good thing for me because I don’t think my father was used to the idea of being a parent (especially to young girls) until I came along and he finally adjusted. As he used to tell it, we hit it off from the very moment we had eye contact in the hospital. Throughout my childhood that special bond brought comfort to me and a sense of levity to him, as he always tended to be a bit too serious and I was a bit of a clown.
You see, my father’s dad died of a heart attack at age 48, forcing my dad at the young age of 13 to assume an enormous burden of responsibility for his older sister and immigrant mother (my grandparents came to the states from England in the early 1920’s.) After that, my father buckled down, determined to make his mother proud and to never waste the opportunities she worked so hard to provide for him by running a small stationary store she and my grandfather had established in the Long Island town of Sayville.
My father attended Amherst College, and after attending Amherst and working for a year, he pursued his MBA at Harvard Business School. During his time at Harvard, my father dated and then married my mother, a debutante and Wheaton College graduate. After business school my father and mother moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma where my father began working for Skelly and Getty Oil. Their life was typical of any ambitious conservative couple of those times: my mother joined the Junior League and Garden Club, they belonged to the Southern Hills Country Club, and they began to raise a family.
When I was just 2 years old, my parents moved us back to Massachusetts, where they settled into a large Victorian house on Elm Street in the historical town of Concord. My father was not a corporate man at heart, as he preferred to cut his teeth in more entrepreneurial pursuits. So, in the 1970s he contributed his business and financial acumen to emerging computer companies, in the 1980s he did the same for software start-ups, and in the 1990s he was on the cutting edge of the recycling movement. Throughout his successes and failures he was always able to provide a very abundant lifestyle for our family, for which I’m so grateful.
In the early 1970s my parents purchased beautiful land and a cottage at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine where we would summer each year. My folks purchased several boats, always progressing to something nicer and eventually owning my father’s dream boat, a beautiful Bristol sloop. We played tennis and golf at the Concord Country Club, skied in Maine at Sunday River and Mt. Abrams, and traveled throughout Europe. We sailed in the Bahamas and British Virgin Islands, played on the beaches and eventually built a home in Vieques, Puerto Rico. We girls attended the best prep schools, private colleges, and summer camps, and at Christmas our presents “under the tree” took up half the living room.
My sisters and I were appropriately groomed for proper etiquette; at dinnertime our grammar and speech were corrected, we were taught impeccable manners, and we were darlings when our parents entertained (which was often) and we always wrote our “thank you” notes (with the help of some parental prodding.)
Yet, in spite of all that was right, there were fissures in the foundation my parents had built. My dad, being entrepreneurial and a “self-made man,” was a workaholic who, even when he was home, was hardly present emotionally for any of us. Daddy, being easily stressed on account of all that was on his mind at any given time, preferred classical music to family chatter, so talking in the car or at home was kept to a minimum. Our family vacation time usually consisted of sitting in the living room in Maine or Vieques, each reading a book. The only movement in the room was when Daddy would get up to fill his and my mother’s drinks. (On Saturdays I was the “beer-fetcher” for my father, thrilled to retrieve another beer from the fridge and take a few sips off the frothy head.)
Emotional control and intellectual acumen were premium assets in our family, and anyone who strayed from either was considered “screwy” or “stupid,” respectively. Sarcasm, that stinging front for aggression and disdain, was a common weapon that never lost its ability to inflict pain. Typical of the era, my mother’s opinions were timidly expressed and her words usually self-deprecating, and in any argument, my father was always right.
My oldest sister was the first to show signs that everything wasn’t perfect in our family. Jennifer had a weight problem from early on in her life, and for my parents, who had each been heavy during their childhood, this was a sore spot. My mother attempted to fix the problem by trying to control my sister’s erratic eating with stern, controlling looks and bribes to lose weight, and when that didn’t work, by enrolling her in Weight Watchers and gyms. But to no avail; my sister’s weight was not controllable. There was a time in high school that Jennifer was able to slim down, but that only opened the door for her promiscuity and chronic pot smoking. My parents, being as straight and narrow as a pencil, would have none of that. My father’s heavy-handed letter to my sister condemning sex before marriage, and my mother’s incessant worrying and nagging about the effects of marijuana on the brain only gave my sister greater cause for her rebellion.
This rebellion took on a life of its own, and in college my sister pronounced herself a lesbian, and proved her commitment to this new way of life by stopping shaving or caring about her weight. It seemed she was dead-set on embarrassing my parents in every possible way, including wearing army pants and Birkenstocks to our high-brow church on Easter Sunday. My parents were beside themselves! All their efforts to raise attractive, well-groomed, intelligent, and pleasant children (my sister, in her pain and inner turmoil, was a real monster) were backfiring, and instead they had a “situation” on their hands they could do nothing to change.
Meanwhile, as they were wringing their hands wondering what to do with their oldest daughter, my sister and I were doing our best to negotiate our own roles in a family that didn’t feel as good as our Christmas pictures looked. My middle sister, Carolyn, buried her head in books, academics, and her social life. On the outside, she pulled off “normal” the best of the three of us, as she was thin, beautiful and extremely smart. Yet mid-way through her time at Harvard she began to break down. She wasn’t as together as she had fooled everyone to believe.
I had my own way of compensating for the pain my oldest sister was causing my folks, and that was by being as “good” as I could imagine being. I was president of my prep school, played varsity sports, was active in the theater, attended my father’s alma mater, and most importantly, was the shoulder my mother could cry on. (Not until years later did I learn how unhealthy that role was.) The burden of my own pain, however, got the best of me, and manifested in food addiction, promiscuity and alcoholism (I was a “black out” drinker by age 14.) By the age of 20 I was 50 pounds overweight and stripped completely of any shred of self-esteem I might have once had.
My sisters and I all suffered from various stages of alcoholism and eating disorders. We had also all experienced childhood sexual abuse—for my sisters it was from a family friend, and for myself it was from a distant relative. Our pain was palpable, and a great interruption to the image of perfection we, as a family, had worked so hard to maintain.
My oldest sister was the first to crack under the pressure of her addictions. In 1986 she checked into a treatment center. Fortunately, my family was asked to participate in “family week.” Up until this point, Jennifer had been the scapegoat of the family. My father considered her to be the “screwy” one and we all joined him in blaming her for upsetting the apple cart by being typically “dramatic” by seeking treatment. In truth, we were really just angry and afraid that she was blowing our family’s cover.
During this week at the treatment center my father made a discovery. There had been a man attending that treatment center at the same time as my sister, and he was there to recover from alcoholism. Every day he would go for a walk through the hallways of the center since the weather was too hot and humid outside the Florida facility. The thing that struck my father about seeing this man was that he was almost a spitting image of my father. It wasn’t just the way he looked in his khaki shorts and leather belt, and his polo shirt and penny loafers. No, it was also his quiet demeanor coupled with his intense determination to overcome his problems. For the first time my father understood that alcoholism doesn’t just afflict homeless men who drink out of brown paper bags. A well-dressed, wealthy, conservative man could succumb to the bottle as well.
Miraculously, my father accepted that if he didn’t stop his drinking, which had escalated over the years and had caused my mother to become worried and nag him about it, he could wind up replacing that man at the treatment center. He never had another drink as long as he lived.
I embarked on my own journey to heal my addictions after that week in Florida. And a year later, my middle sister followed suit and checked into the same center to address her problems. At that time our family reconvened for another family week and by then we all had begun communicating with a new, nascent understanding of each other and ourselves.
Families are like a well-oiled machine. Every person has a necessary function, even if one individual’s function is to break down and interrupt the functioning of the machine (every family has one of those, right?)! All the parts of the machine are interdependent and when one of the mechanisms stops or changes its function, it thwarts the rhythm of the entire machine. Eventually, the parts of the machine must adjust to accommodate the new and improved part, or else the machine risks breaking down altogether. This is why, when one family member finally gets help for an addiction, the other family members, while supportive, may feel at a loss for how they are to now function once the focus is no longer on the addict’s behavior. They may even sabotage the recovery of the addict until they adjust to the addict’s new role in the family, as well as their own.
Ultimately, my family was willing for all the roles in the family to be adjusted. But that willingness didn’t come without a fight! My parents had no idea they would need to be part of the recovery equation. They had anticipated getting their “sick” daughter some help, so that the family could finally “get back to normal.” But my sister stopped taking the fall for the family’s buried pain, and when she did, the pain inside each of us needed a new, healthier outlet.
Over the course of the next 25 years, we each sought our own methods of healing and through trial and error, learned how to love and accept each other, as we were, not as we wished the others would be. And in so doing, we each had the space to grow and become so much more than we once had been.
By the time my father died of cancer in 2001 at age 64, he had evolved into a warm, caring man, sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of his wife and daughters, whom he strived daily to understand, accept and respect. And I believe that by coming to suspend judgment of his family, he learned how to be kinder and more compassionate toward himself and his own imperfections.
The financial, intellectual, emotional and spiritual legacy my father left us all has enabled each of us to create lives of purpose and service to others; my oldest sister has been a social worker for 20 years, my middle sister is a psychologist, and I have been working, together with my husband, to help people overcome addictions, food and emotional issues for the past 23 years.
As for my mother, through this healing process she learned that she couldn’t control any of her daughters, because the more she tried (and the more surreptitious her efforts), the more we pushed back. She finally got the message and stopped focusing on us and instead started living her own life. This gave us breathing space and allowed us to finally grow up. Thankfully, we three girls, as well as my mother, have found our true voices and have blossomed into healthy, happy, and effective women.
I believe that the cornerstone for our family’s transformation was love and faith. My sisters and I didn’t just inherit our family genetics of alcoholism, but we also inherited the deep practice of faith that our parents relied on when the going got rough through the years. This isn’t to say that we personally accepted the faith of our parents (addicts typically have issues with God and religion that need healing, as well), but it was our parents’ faith that enabled them to change their own ways and to allow us to change as we were personally guided.
My parents could have fought much harder against making these changes, and in so doing, they could have missed the lesson in all of what we went through as a family. But by letting go of the illusion of perfection that we all clung to and hid behind, and instead by acknowledging and embracing the troubled areas that needed attention, we all grew stronger, healthier, and closer as a family.
We were lucky, I know. Not all families, in spite of their mutual love and affection, can change the tide of addiction and its widespread devastation. In future issues I am going to address the intricacies of wealth and addiction, and I will do my best to shed light on how any individual or family can turn the tragedy of addiction into triumph.