Unexpected things often bring home points that are important to me today. An old gold pocket watch has made me see the incredible need for healing that exists both in us who make it to Twelve Step Programs, and in our children, who often don't. I mention the healing of both because I don't believe one can happen without the other. I know today that I've qualified for needing that healing most of my life, though there was a time when I'd have told you I was fine. All that I needed was for the drunk who was messing everyone's life upmy husbandto stop drinking.
The watch is a Christmas gift to my son. It has belonged to three generations of the males in our family before him. I've gotten it cleaned and repaired. It has a dazzling new gold chain. More than that, it has history and continuity. A Swedish immigrant, my son's great=grandfather, bought it from the Illinois Watch Co., a subsidiary of Sears Roebuck, shortly after his arrival in America in 1906. He passed it along to his son, and his son to his son, just as I now pass it along to mine.
I love history. My late husband had a wonderful coin collection. I never touched a Trade Dollar
of his that I didn't imagine the Yankee ship's captain who carried it in his pocket on a trip to Africa slaving, or the Large Cent
that one of George Washington's grizzled veterans slapped down on the bar in some tavern to pay for his mug of Flip
It's the same with this watch. I know some of its history very well because I knew most of its owners. Alcoholism was a big part of that history.
Its original owner brought the disease from Sweden with him. It profoundly affected him and all his descendents. This history of alcoholism is not very different from the stories of other families I've met since I've been in recovery, only most don't have something as tangible as a gold watch to verify the experience. Verify
is, I think, the key word.
The hurt, the loss, the abandonment that the children of alcoholics feel cannot heal unless it is first acknowledged and verified
. It's sort of like trying to heal a gaping cut on your arm while you deny that there is a cut, and it continues bleeding.
Denial, that wretched process of keeping family secrets, not allowing feelings, pretending it never happened, is what has kept a lot of us sick. "We are only as sick as the secrets we keep," is no joke. For years after that lucky day I came into AlAnon, I always said there was no alcoholism in my home growing up. This wasn't a lieI honestly believed it. Yet anyone with expertise in the field of substance abuse could talk to me for five minutes and say, "You're an adult child, aren't you?" I had to look at this more. Doing my Fourth and Fifth Steps helped me to see it more clearly. The grandmother who lived with us and made my family's lives a living Hell was indeed a drug addictdry, without any programthroughout all of my childhood and adolescence. I've had to come to terms with what I remember before I could move on.
It's much the same for so many of the people in my life today. The acknowledgement of what has happened has to occur before the healing can take place. Sometimes it's sad, to see kids struggling to get that truth out into the light, and to see parents, sometimes even in recovery, unwilling, or afraid, to let it come out. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob made no mistake when they included the Eighth and Ninth Steps in the Twelve. It simply has to happen if people are going to get better. What would I say when I give my son the gold watch? I guess it would go something like this:
"This watch is something to be proud of, to cherish and hopefully pass along to your children. Its first owner, your great-grandfather, was a man of courage, who picked up and left Sweden to come to a strange new land, America. He was a clever and remarkable mana talented acrobat and also a skillful tailor. He was generous. After he got to the United States, he sent back to Sweden for the rest of his family. He married his childhood sweetheart, a woman of courage, who followed him to this country.
They had six children. He probably didn't know that in his genes he carried something that could cause so much heartbreak. If he thought about it at all, he probably saw his drinking as moral weakness
, something he should have been able to control. You must remember
this was long before a man named Bill Wilson made popular the knowledge that alcoholism was a disease in 1934-35. But your great-grandfather's drinking did cause plenty of problems, It caused rifts and isolation between family members which is why, to this day, you have relatives we've never met.
Alcoholism killed one of his sons, and ruined the lives of at least three more. In the next generation, it brought on your father's early death. I don't have to tell you about the chaos and pain it caused in our livesthe abuse, the constant tension, the feeling of abandonment. It would be easy to see only the negative side of this watch and your legacy. But that would be more denial. Your legacy also includes all the courage and love it took to start anew in a new land, to raise families, to work hard and to be honest, to have dreams and imagination, to love beauty. All these things are your heritage too, as is the hope and strength I've found in recovery to recognize, accept and heal the wounds of our family disease. Let the watch symbolize the passage of all thisof knowing and understanding. Then it can be an amulet of healing."
Joan S, Marlboro, MA. Joan is approaching a decade of recovery in AlAnon. Joan's two loves are nursing and writing. She has been a free lance writer since 1974, and has a short story published in the recovery collection "Having Been There." 1992.
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