Tag Archives: alcoholism

Growing Up in a Warzone: Childhood Trauma and Adult PTSD

It’s no wonder I don’t know how to express anger. The anger in my family of origin was shown to me as a dangerous weapon. My father raged and the entire family cowered. I was four when it started. In these times, the war times, as a four-year old kid, what you need is a comforting adult to pick you up and soothe you. “Everything is going to be all right.” Except, in our family everyone was triggered and afraid. There were no adults in the room. And when my father drank in addition to raging, all hell would break loose inside our house. It was during these times that I escaped to my stick and stone fort up in the hills behind our house.

I was building forts and stocking them with stick guns and rocks. And I would take refuge in the hills whenever things got to hot in the house. And this happened often. And again, what a little kid needs at this point is a parent to come and find him, hold him, reassure him. What I got was relief from the roaring house and isolation. I was a lonely little boy. None of my friends could understand what was happening at my house. Sometimes I was afraid to have them over to play, because I didn’t want them to experience the war zone.

As an adult this coping mechanism is still triggered. And honestly, most adults suffer from isolating behaviors, even if they weren’t born into the anger zone. I think those of us with depression just find deeper and darker silences than most. So as an adult under major stress I head for my fort in the hills. I keep my mouth shut. And I huddle alone waiting for someone to rescue me. The rescue that never comes. The rescue that can’t really come, because I have to rescue myself. No mom or sister is going to come and find me. And even if they did the relief would be temporary.

The fear and isolation are inside me. And in my childhood I learned to be a wonderful performer. I made straight A’s, played all the sports, and even became a profession magician at 12. I was doing magic tricks all the time to keep the family happy. Of course, it didn’t work. I was sad. My family was sad. My dad was rageful.

It is such a familiar feeling when I retreat back into my isolation. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels familiar. My broken and alone self is one I identify with. I have been broken for a large part of my life. I was broken at the age of four and the trauma is still deeply hidden. Of course, the body does not lie, and that trauma comes out at shame and lack of self-love. I’m really horrible to myself. My internal voice often says things so mean I wouldn’t say them to an enemy. I’m working on that one, big time.

Still, growing up in an unsafe and hostile family home trained me to be hyper-vigilant. I guard against anger and disappointment, by trying to be a better person. I’ve learned some of my weaknesses and I’ve learned to compensate for some of them. It’s a long process of growth and recovery. Today, however, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Even ending a 2.5 yo relationship, I find myself in a “sky’s wide open” future mindset. Today I could go anywhere, do anything.

The path for me now is to be still. I often rush into things before I am certain of the answer. Today my higher power is in charge of the next steps. I’m going to live my life with joy and grace and see what opportunities step up to meet me.

image: anger, creative commons usage

Drinking Lessons

I have a love hate relationship with alcohol that has been with me since I was five years old. My dad was a mean drunk. And I could’ve easily gone that direction in my life as well. I was a very angry young man in high school. And when I discovered drinking (underage, yes) I went after it with a passion. I liked how confident it made me feel. invincible. I was in love.

The summer after my high school graduation I was at a party that had kegs of beer. I remember it being a euphoric night. I was popular and well-liked in high school and the beer just made our joyous celebration that much more joyous. That was probably the last time I really enjoyed going beyond a light buzz. That night as I was drunk driving home I crashed my car trying to miss a deer stalled in the road. I’m very amazed that I’m sitting here, after the wreck that should’ve killed me. I suffered a minor concussion and a lost car and that was about it. But I woke up. I no longer thought alcohol was a great friend.

And it’s not that I didn’t drink after then, I drank a little bit and still enjoyed the feeling of being slightly buzzed. And I’m sure in college I also drank to excess and had a few wicked hangovers. But it was never the same after my wreck. I saw the physical danger of being drunk. It was about that time, during my second year in college that my dad got sick.

Now, the really amazing part of this new development was that my dad could no longer drink because of the meds he was put on. And as he sobered up from 20-30 years of constant drinking, he sort of became my dad for the first time. At 19 I was able to relate to him in a new way. And when he wasn’t drinking his old happy self came back. Sure, there was a ton of sadness, because he was dying of brain cancer, but we had time. I got my dad back, for about a year and a half before he died. And while it wasn’t the drinking that directly killed him, it was the drinking that had kept him hidden and distant from me for most of my formative childhood.

If I had some doubts about the coolness of alcohol up until that point, I got the message loud and clear. Drinking sort of fucked up your thinking. And continuous drinking changed the physical/chemical structure of the brain. It was a heavy price for ending the estrangement between my father and his kids, but it was the best (and worst) time I’d ever had with him. While he was dying. We reached for each other and sought time that we could be together for the first time in my life.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been drunk since my dad died. What’s the point? It’s an escape and I was too focused on capturing and recording my life (through writing and other creative projects) that I didn’t want to miss a minute of it being fogged up by drinking. That’s not to say I didn’t want to from time to time. But something held me back. Some internal governor was set and after two beers I was done. I still like the taste of some beers. But I usually have something I’m working on in my creative brain that I don’t want to lose to the buzz, so I just don’t drink that much. And as a preference I’d rather have sparkling water.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t continually been touched by alcohol. I just choose to stay conscious. I hope that I am facing my issues head on rather than trying to escape from them or block them out. I have issues. But I’d rather face them sober.

What’s your relationship to alcohol?

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

image: beers, creative commons usage allowed

Here’s more about my journey with alcohol.

Losing Dads in Divorce

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My dad died when I was 21 years old. I was a freshman in college. And the loss nearly took me out too. While our relationship had been tumultuous, losing the opportunity to connect with him, forever, was devastating. The real story is, however, that I lost my dad when I was about six years old. My mom tells the story that she told him he could choose to continue drinking and lose his family, or he could stop drinking. I’m not 100% sure it went down that clearly, but I am sure of the fact that my father was an alcoholic.

He exited my life in a big way when he moved out of the house. Even before his divorce was final he was remarrying another alcoholic and the slide down into darkness was as swift as it was complete. I have no idea what his new wife felt about his kids, but it was clear that neither of them cared about their kids as much as they cared about partying together. I recall this period as one of estrangement. I could no longer get close to my dad. He was either drunk lamenting his divorce, or drunk celebrating his newfound love. But there was not a lot of love to go around. The love was for the bottle. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s more truth than myth.

What my dad missed from my 6’s on was everything. I was a star tennis player (as my dad was a tennis player) but he never hit with me. I was a successful football player but my dad made one game that I can remember, and he brought “her.” I was an awful baseball and basketball player, and today I can see how other kids dads were instrumental in helping them get over the fear and challenge of competitive sports. But my dad was nowhere to be found.

Sure, he was a hard worker. He was a successful doctor. And somehow he kept his schedule and his medical practice even as his vitality was going down the tubes. You’d think after his first heart attack he would start making changes in his life. You’d think. And maybe the second heart attack would really be a wake up call. But, in fact, my dad had three heart attacks before he was forced to quit drinking and smoking due to the chemotherapy that was required for his cancer treatments.

For the first time in my young life, from age 6 on, my dad got sober. It was a glorious and amazingly sad time. As his brain unpickled, he began to speak about “missing so much of your life.” He was dying, and yet he began to understand what he had lost in the 15+ years since the divorce.

I took all the time with him that I could. I spend weekends out at his condo, at the golf course, with him. I even tried to play golf with him, but he was still a tyrant and jerk about losing balls. Well, me losing balls. Him losing balls, no problem. I was satisfied riding in the cart with him and enjoying spending time with him. Even though his body was emaciated, he did his best to enjoy the last year of his life. But the poignancy of the loss was almost too much to bear.

On Sunday as I was about to drive back into town, he said, “I really want to do more of this with you.” We had spent the weekend playing cards, me watching him play golf, and essentially catching up on our lives. The next weekend he was admitted to the hospital for the last time. What glimpse I had of my real dad was short and sweet. He died about three months later, after a protracted withdrawal phase where he couldn’t speak or communicate by more than a squeeze of the hand.

I miss my father. I wish he had been around to see my kids, to know my kids, to enjoy my kids. But not if he had still been drinking. So maybe he did us all a favor, by allowing the alcoholism to cure and then kill him rather than prolong his agony and drunken stupor. I’m pretty pragmatic about drinking these days, I do it some, but more than two beers simply does nothing for me. Why blunt my experience of living.

My father was blunting his experience of loss. In his marriage he made the wrong decision. He chose to leave and lose the best family he could ever have imagined. And even as he tried to grandiosely celebrate his new wife and new adopted daughter, the real love of his original family escaped him. Until he was dying. Then we all came rallying to his bedside. All four kids spent the last few months in town, trying our best to be cheerful and supportive, but quietly crying with each other at what we had already lost and what we were losing.

Today I saw a dad and his kid on the baseball field. I wonder if I would’ve been a better baseball player if my dad had not been an alcoholic. I wonder if I could have played first string basketball if I’d had someone to shoot hoops with. As it was, I was left to playing horse in the driveway by myself. My mom tried, but she wasn’t all that sporty.

Dad’s fulfill a vital role in our lives. When that role is limited or eliminated the children suffer the consequences. Let’s put the balance back in parenting. And when divorce happens, let’s fight to make 50/50 the norm and not the exception. I don’t think it would’ve made any difference in my father’s case, he didn’t want 50/50, he wanted out, in some respect. But the out he was granted was final and absolute. And until he was dying he drank to keep himself from feeling the loss.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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Back to School Time as a Divorced Dad

Let’s catchup a bit. I’ve been depressed. Yep, sorry to admit it. And more sorry that I couldn’t keep my promise of blogging through it. Wow, what a summer. And what lessons I learned.

The kids went back to school last week and I’m happier than I’ve been in months. All good. And last night’s “back to school” night for my 8th grader got me thinking about my divorce, my kids, my limited custody arrangement and where I am in my life at this moment.

  1. Divorce – I didn’t want it, and still sometimes find myself angry that my ex decided for all of us to end the marriage. Things might have been different if she knew she was giving up 50% of their time, but she knew she’d get 70/30 as is typical for uncontested divorces in the year 2010.
  2. My kids – how can I complain? They are doing great. While I can see the things that would’ve been different in their lives had we stayed married and had I been able to continue to infuse their life with joy and optimism that is a bit lacking on the other side… but again, water under the bridge.
  3. Custody – Again back in 2010, even if I had gone to court, it would’ve taken unusual circumstances to get 50/50 custody if my ex wanted something else. It just didn’t happen in Texas without extreme justifications. I couldn’t to that to my kids or my ex.
  4. My life now – Happier that ever. I’m engaged to a very different woman. I’m learning so much about being in a committed “no matter what” relationship. I thought that’s where I was in my relationship to my kid’s mother up until the moment she let me know she’d been to see an attorney.

So you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.

I’m sad sometimes about the amount of time I have lost of my kids childhoods. I long some days for them to be 5 and 7 again and be loving, cuddling, little beings. But they are teenagers. They need other things from me: cash, a ride somewhere, cash, a shopping spree. Ho hum. That’s the way it is, sure, but it could have gone gone differently.

What if we’d gotten 50/50? What if my kids had retained my influence in equal measure to their mom’s? It was my intention and my dream but it’s not what happened.

One thing that would be different if I had my kids 50% of the time, or 70% of the time like my ex-wife has… I would not have been able to move as deeply and solidly into this new relationship as I have. (2 years and counting.) I have M-W nights off every week. And every other Th-Sun weekend. So I’ve got a lot of time without my kids.

In the early days of my recovery I was depressed. In the next phase of my divorce I was healing and positive but still alone. In the current moment phase of my life I have been focused more on myself than my kids. (70% of the time) And thus I have lost weight, spent time putting a band back together and playing tennis, biking, and cycling with my new fiance. I would say, I’m okay with those percentages today.

I would gladly take my kids back 50/50 but it’s not something that has been offered without some heavy conditions and ultimately she has backed out of every offer. Okay. So this is my life.

  • Happy
  • Sharing my happiness and self-confidence with my kids
  • Missing them all the time – but going on with my life (perhaps a lesson they have learned, that even though they’ve had most advantages of an upper-middle-class life, things were not always going to go as planned) they lost me too.

In my parent’s divorce it was the single most devastating event in my life. When my dad left the family I was 8 and he began a rapid descent into full-blown alcoholism that ended his life when I was 20. I didn’t get much of my dad’s attention until he was dying of cancer and the meds made him unable to drink. So guess what happened. He sobered up.

He sobered up and realized he had missed his relationship with his 4 cool kids for most of their lives. My two sisters moved back to town to spend time with him, but we only got 9 months of remission and when he went he was gone in weeks. He was lost to us completely.

So I lost a good portion of my kid’s childhood. Okay. There’s nothing I can do to get that back. And there’s nothing I can do to make them not teenagers and not rebelling and acting out in some “normal” way at this time in their lives. And I can’t help but miss them every time I see their picture, or get a text or Snapchat. It’s okay. We all get along. Even the ex and I are talking about getting my son a car in the next 6 months.

And so it goes. Another year begins. My daughter is on to Volleyball, Basketball and Track/Tennis. And we’re all back to our 70/30 routine. And I’ve got nothing to complain about and plenty to be grateful for. So that’s where I am. Happy to be out of the depressing summer and happy to have my kids this long weekend.

And I’m happy and in love.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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The New Dance of Anger: Men and Our Legacy (part 2)

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This is PART TWO. The first part is here:  Men and Our Anger Issues: The New Dance of Anger

  • ONE: We all learn about anger at a very young age.
  • TWO: Relationships with Dad 
  • THREE: Anger In Unhealthy Families 
  • FOUR: Old Defense Mechanisms
  • FIVE: We’ve all got anger issues.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 10.54.52 AMToday as I was entering this post into the Huffington Post publishing platform I was surprised to see this result in my keyword/tag research:

What was surprising is there were no topics/tags that started with “men.” None. Zero. Wow. I mean I know HuffPo was started by Arianna, and she’s not at all anti-men… but still I do notice if you look at the “divorce” section, where most of my content gets posts, there is exactly ONE male featured blogger. All the rest are women. Okay, moving right along…

We left off yesterday, partially due to exhaustion and partially due to my own overwhelm at writing about anger. And some other stuff… So today we are going to pick it back up when we start discussing how a man (or woman) today can begin to understand their anger, and transform it into energy and change for the better.

SIX: Uncovering our own anger.

First, you have to acknowledge that you have anger, that there are things in this world that make you angry. Second, you have to let yourself feel angry. You actually have to get angry and let that frustrating energy begin to bubble up inside you. Then, at this very moment, you need to examine what you are actually angry about? It turns out that we often have “anger triggers,” things that make us start feeling angry. And if the upset is minor, that might be all we get, just a blip that says, “that sucked” and we move on. BUT… Often the trigger will connect with something else, something from our past, some unresolved issue perhaps, that is re-energized by the trigger. When we get angry at someone, for forgetting to pick up the laundry, perhaps, and we find that an hour later we are still angry at them, there might be more to the issue than the laundry. Chances are you have connected with something else in your past that needs to be examined and, if possible, released. But anger work is difficult. And if you find yourself with anger issues,  it is recommended that you do this type of discharging with a trained therapist.

SEVEN: Accepting the anger of others, and learning to respond without heating up.

The truth of the matter is that people get angry with us as well. And in the healthy display of anger, this is a good thing. By voicing their anger we get new inputs about what is pleasing or unpleasing to them. This is how we learn. However, if we are anger-adverse, someone else’s anger is very frightening. The second someone close to us bursts into anger, it can cause some of us to head for the hills, both emotionally and physically. More common, however, is the mental exit. When someone shows you their raw anger, the typical response is to shut down. To clamp down on your own internal reactions so you don’t give away your feelings. If the anger was coming from a parent, the repercussions and withdrawal responses could be ten-times more powerful. When your dad yelled at you as a child, your entire world could be consumed by fear and regret. When your boss yells at you, you might be ashamed and afraid, but hopefully you can recover enough to carry on. If the person behind you at a stop light honks and flashes the finger at you, you can take evasive action to get out of their way, and not be the target of their frustrations. Finally, if your significant other is angry at you, there are additional levels of “will I be loved” and “will I be abandoned” that come into play.

For the most part, if you are comfortable accepting the anger of others as theirs, you can weather most storms. When the anger is repetitive and relentless, over the course of several days or weeks, for example, there is probably a lot more going on that the surface triggers that keep popping up.

EIGHT: Anger in relationships.

So your relationship is a very deep connection. Any disruptions in this closeness can result in fear, anger, jealousy, rage, depression. When the anger comes out in your primary relationship, you want to pay attention and see if you can hear what the core issue is. If you are too triggered yourself by the anger of your partner, you need to ask for a timeout and get help. The worst thing you can do in a relationship is try to deal with someone’s anger by shutting down or mentally exiting the relationship. This is how affairs and ultimately divorce happen. Anger is hard. But it is essential for healing the trust between to people. If your partner gets angry about the dry cleaning, but stays angry all day, even after you’ve gone back out and retrieved the dry cleaning, there’s something else up. Go get some assistance to help you both uncover the core issues that keep causing minor triggers to become huge “relationship issues.”

NINE: Anger and our children.

We are always teaching our children, even when we think they are not watching or listening. Like little telepaths, our children are acutely aware of the signals in our relationships. They are still much closer to that empathic system that allows them to read a person’s attitude merely from tone and facial expressions. That’s how they go along as infants, before they even understood our language. So when you are your partner are having a spat, believe that your kids are absorbing all of the information they can to help in their own survival. If you or your spouse has anger issues and begins to yell and threaten, you can imagine that the impact on a young child, would be even more dramatic. They don’t have any other options, in their mind. This is their entire world, and somehow something is very wrong.

So as parents we are doubly responsible for managing our anger. And even if we think our kids are sheltered from the storms, they are tuning in much more than you can imagine. So, as you experience triggers it is important that you and your partner have healthy ways to resolve the “issue” quickly and without drama or yelling. Triggers, and even anger issues, happen. The more you can channel those away from your family and into a therapy session the better. Once you both have a handle on the major upsets the triggers are easy. But know that how you deal with the anger, is the appropriate anger response you are teaching to your children.

TEN: Healthy and Honest Anger can heal us all.

So we get angry. And our entire family is involved in the dance of anger, when someone let’s a fireball rip. What we do next is of critical importance. If everyone runs for shelter and the raging person simply gets what they want, we may be setting an example for acceptable behavior that will haunt us and our children for years to come. If, rather, we learn to share healthy anger (often expressed as a disappointment, rather than a “you did this wrong”) and we talk through the resolution, even with our children present, you can see how this healthy interaction can lead to more confidence and comfort around angry people.

It it important to learn about the dance of anger, for men and women. And it is even more critical to understand the enormous impact your dance of anger has on your children. Give them healthy examples of dealing and discharging anger, and you will give them tools to deal with their own anger and anger of others. Show them how anger can be contained, and how the loving family can remain even when anger is occasionally expressed.

In my marriage, perhaps we hid too much of the anger. My kids don’t have many healthy examples of anger negotiation. And thus, even as young middle-schoolers, their response to anger is often to shut down completely, and even cry, depending on the severity of the anger. And this is anger not directed at them at all. We’ve got some work to do, showing them what healthy anger looks and feels like. And I’m sure as they enter their teens we will have plenty of opportunities.

Please take an opportunity to leave your feedback and experiences in the comments.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

reference: The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships

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image: rage and love, lisa widerberg, creative commons usage

Men and Our Anger Issues: The New Dance of Anger (part 1)

WHOLE-rage-love

I remember reading The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships during my first marriage to a rage-enabled Basque woman. She was less than 100 lbs soaking wet, but she had the fury of only one other person I’d ever known. Cliché coming: My dad was a rageful alcoholic. When he was not drinking he could get mad. But when he was lit his rage knew no bounds. My first wife, was like that, even without drugs or alcohol.

The part I didn’t remember about the book, was the “Woman’s Guide” part. I get it. And I understand how I might have suppressed this subtitle.  But I think today, we need volume two of this great book. Let this post serve as my outline.

ONE: We all learn about anger at a very young age. Before we can understand language we are being given verbal and physical clues about what is a right thing to do and what is a wrong thing to do. For most of us lucky ones, this guidance is done without the injection of anger or physical abuse. For those less fortunate the anger in their lives, both physical and verbal, had no boundaries. There was no safety zone around the young and developing mind, no parent or guiding influence to protect our early learning systems. Physical and emotional abuse are things I know a little about. When the rage and damage enters the personal zone of sexual health and safety, I bow out. Except to know that my first wife had experienced sexual abuse as well. But that anger, came from a place of darkness I could never personally understand.

TWO: Relationships with Dad Children crave a relationship with their fathers throughout their lives. Even after the dad has died, we often seek his approval through the relationships with other “father figures.” That’s nothing new. We know this. We can even recognise when this is happening, and welcome the mentor of confidant. But the primary relationship with our actual fathers has an impact on our identity as men. Masculinity is defined by our understanding of our fathers. How they treat women (Moms, sisters, girlfriends, waitresses, etc) all form parts of our library of male-knowledge that we refer to for the rest of our lives. And this relationship to our fathers is not just about relationships with women. Our dads drive most of our understanding of how to relate to other men as well. Basically, the idea goes, a father shows his children how to make their way in the world. The mom shows the children how to love in the world.

THREE: Anger In Unhealthy Families When your father shows unhealthy boundaries and exhibits unhealthy amounts of rage, even when they are not directed at you, you begin to form coping mechanisms for how to deal with the incoming emotional assault. In the case of the pre-verbal child these coping mechanisms are deep and primal. The child within a verbally abusive home resembles the feral animal. Wounded, the animal, will cower in the corner either hoping for recovery or death. While the small child doesn’t have this exact same frame of reference, the feelings are of fear of death or some subverted understanding of how reality is supposed to be. As a child, our parents are all we know. If that universe is colored, repeatedly, by anger and verbal outbursts, we begin to believe this is how the world works.

FOUR: Old Defense Mechanisms As we grow older, we begin to uncover parts of our defense mechanisms against anger that are no longer serving us. I consider myself “conflict adverse” and this is often seen as a weakness in terms of executive leadership. I always score low on my “sense of urgency” personality scores. I keep saying, “I work hard so we don’t have to go into emergency or urgent mode,” but the test doesn’t hear reason, and I am given a lower rating as a project manager or leader. So, I know this about myself, I avoid confrontations. I avoid angering someone. In my second marriage this resulted in my letting the physical connection and closeness slip out of my relationship without a big ass fight. I should’ve fought. I should’ve been verbal. I was physical and accommodating. And in the end I allowed her lack of sexual desire to overrule my need for physical touch, sexual and, more critically for me, non-sexual. So as emerging men, we have to dig into our anger issues and find some inner resolve. We have to understand our own dance of anger, and begin to make peace with it and make adjustments so we can have healthier relationships, and healthier relationships to our own anger.

FIVE: We’ve all got anger issues. The difference is at what point our issues kick in and render us less effective at staying present (in an argument, for example) or at staying in a marriage (in the case of the angry devorcee). Staying present in the dance of anger, yours or someone else’s is critical to becoming a healthy adult. The layers and layers of armoring have to be unwelded from our hearts, and we have to be willing to feel the fear of being raged at. It is important that we learn to be angry. And it might be even more critical that we learn how to cope with someone else’s anger when it is directed straight at us.

end of part one – here is part 2: The New Dance of Anger: Men and Our Legacy (part 2)

I hope you take an opportunity to leave your feedback and experiences in the comments.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

reference: The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships

related posts:

image: rage and love, lisa widerberg, creative commons usage