For most of my life, I have thought of myself as a terrible person.
When I say “most of my life” I mean from around the time I was about seventeen, which is actually less than half my life since I am now thirty-three. What happened at seventeen was a choice I made that caused my trust in myself to break: I kissed a boy who was not my boyfriend.
Immediately after it happened, I stopped it. I told him I was sorry but I couldn’t do any more and had to leave his house immediately. I got in my Mazda 626 and cried the whole way home. She whom I thought I was…well I wasn’t her anymore. I thought I was someone who would NEVER cheat. I thought I was loyal and honest. I thought I was a good person. Clearly, I was not.
This happened sixteen years ago, but I can still feel, see, and smell the scene. I can smell the boy’s cologne, I can feel the texture of the seats in my car, and I can see the road in front of me through tear-filled eyes.
After this experience, I repeated this pattern in nearly every relationship I was in. Each time I was presented with the opportunity to stray from the one I was with, I thought to myself, “I’m already a terrible person, I might as well do it again.” And I did.
A dam had broken and there was no patching it, as far as I could see. This was who I was now, a cheater—a terrible, dirty, lying cheater.
It wasn’t until the day that I stepped foot into my first 12-step meeting that I realized I might not be doomed for life. Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) is a program that had been recommended to me by many of my colleagues for years before I finally chose to go. It’s for people who grew up in a dysfunctional environment and as a result react to adult situations with fear and self-doubt learned in childhood.
At first I sat silently in the meetings listening to other people share about their messed up childhoods feeling that I could relate, and also realizing that some people had it way worse than me. Ultimately, however, I discovered that it didn’t matter how good or bad I had it, I belonged with this group of adults. Even though I wanted to crawl out of my skin or run screaming from the room during every meeting, I belonged there.
The message I got was that the traits and behaviors I saw myself exhibiting over and over again were not actually my fault, that I had been brought up in an environment that didn’t foster certain needs that weren’t met, and therefore I had taken on a number of ways to go and get them met, but which didn’t truly serve me, that I was powerless over the effects of alcoholism and other family dysfunction.
At first, I hated this idea of admitting I was powerless. (It’s step 1, by the way.)
I’ve now come to find that this is actually a relief. I can no longer manage and control my behaviors. That does NOT mean I let them run amok, (that’s what I was already doing) rather, that I surrender to the fact that they will always be an option, and that I have a choice. With community and support, I can re-build trust in myself and have my life go very differently.
I started ACoA three and a half years ago and even without fully moving through the steps yet I have already gained a completely different relationship to myself. I still have A LOT of work to do but I have a new sense of faith that I previously had no access to.
I sometimes wish I could go back in time to that seventeen-year-old crying in her Mazda and just let her know that she isn’t terrible, and that there’s respite to be found in the world. At the same time, I’m learning that I don’t need to go back in time in order to give her a hug, tell her I love her, and that everything is going to work out eventually, because she simply isn’t going to let herself stay in this darkness.
If you can relate and think it might be for you, you can find more info about ACoA here.