A woman who grew up in an alcoholic family set out on a journey of healing, starting an ongoing process of getting to know herself and understanding what she liked, wanted and rejected. She experimented with many different modalities of healing, from the extremes of alternative “woo woo” to more practical psychiatry, even pharmaceuticals. Over the years she arrived at a simple truth: communicate, ask for what you need and take care of yourself.
Through many life and relationship experiences she discovered elements of this truth. One in particular occurred through the process of addressing her father’s drinking problem. She had reached a point where she could no longer be present when her father drank. She told her father that when he drank in front of her she would leave.
He was a longtime alcoholic, and one day prior to a family gathering she had a conversation with him, probably one of the first real conversations of their relationship. She didn’t ask him to stop drinking; she just told him that she wouldn’t remain to witness it. The key is that she took the first steps to really taking care of herself.Instead of putting up with the uncomfortable conduct of her drunken father at gatherings and family outings, she left. As soon as he took his first drink, she left—not with a big huffy farewell, just a simple good-bye. She didn’t lie and say she had another engagement; she just left.
When people would ask her why she was leaving, she would say, “It is time for me to go.”
An interesting thing happens when you modify your behavior: others’ actions escalate. They turn up the volume and increase the pressure on you to continue to “play”—to play the role that everyone had agreed upon and had been participating in for years. That role for her had been one of being the “mouth”—the one who got openly upset when her father drank and made snide comments to others about it. She always stayed to witness just how awful it was going to be so she could discuss it afterward. This new code of conduct—leaving—was a significant turn of events. She said she was going to leave; she even told her father it was to “take care of herself,” because when he drank it brought up bad memories she no longer wished to experience. Bottom line: when he drank she left.
The final event that challenged her and in turn changed this particular pattern for good occurred a couple of years later. Her mother and father were in a hotel near where she lived. She was visiting them in their room when her father had his first drink—once again testing her resolve, seeing if she would play her old role again. This was the first time in a long time that the daughter didn’t just leave immediately. They went to dinner and the father kept leaving to go up to the room and sneak a drink, each time coming back drunker.
At one point the mother turned to her and asked her what she wanted (from the menu). She turned to her mother and said quietly, “What do I want? I want to go home.” She got up from the table and left. Her father was just coming back from the room after having another “nip”; he caught her at the door and asked where she was going. She told him she was going home. He was very upset that she was leaving—not angry but hurt. He asked why, and she told him the truth: “I can’t be with you when you drink. It is upsetting, and I must leave.” He never drank in front of her again. So what happened for him to change his behavior? She didn’t ask him to stop. She simply took care of herself. It was his choice to not drink in her presence. To further qualify this: it was never her goal for him to stop drinking.
By taking care of herself and having only that as her intention, and without trying to control anyone else, she ultimately accomplished much more –she started healing her relationship with her father. Taking care of herself started the path to forgiveness. This was not an intentional act but something that simply happened and surprised her more than anything she could have imagined. After she stumbled onto this approach with this experience, she started seeing the pattern in it and applied it with more intention in her daily life. But what she didn’t realize at the time was that this pattern had a name—it was forgiveness.
She accepted her father and his drinking, assuming that it would not change. She took care of herself, and in the process, she realized in hindsight, she forgave him. This sneaked up on her. It was not something she was looking for or even asked for. It just happened. But why? Because she was herself, comfortable in the knowledge that she was consistently making choices that would allow her to feel safe with her father. Now she saw him as a quirky, flawed person, like those found in all corners of the world—someone just trying to get by.
She accepted him for who he was and appreciated herself in that process. She suddenly, in a moment, realized the miracle of what forgiveness meant—feeling safe and good about herself, feeling affection and love, seeing those who had hurt her in a new light. In this moment she did in fact experience the dictionary definition—“pardon,” “clemency” and “absolution”—but she was the one who was pardoned. She was absolved of her own pain and found clemency for herself in her life. And she never once needed to utter the words, “You’re forgiven.”