Author, Stephanie B. McAuliffe journey home
Author of The Message in the Bottle, Finding Hope and Peace Amidst the Chaos of Living with an Alcoholic, Stephanie B. McAuliffe, shares her life journey of surviving a life around alcoholism.
The Journey Home to Me
Growing up and living around alcoholics, I became a fixer. Doing everything within my power to make sure things worked. It was my way of creating some peace when so much felt uncertain. If everyone was happy, then I was happy. But inside, I wasn’t.
As the 4th generation of women in my family to grow up around alcoholics, I learned to keep the peace and not speak up. We were a family with the unspoken rule of “we don’t talk about these things.”
My formative years included 4 years of sexual abuse by 2 different men. Not feeling safe and often looking over my shoulder, it became easier to isolate myself because I didn’t know who I could talk to. Nothing felt safe.
Not able to express what was really going on, I internalized my emotions. Until my insides couldn’t take any more and my insides became numb.
In junior high school when I realized what had happened to me, I too turned to physically numbing myself because it was the only way I knew how to cope. Watching the adults drink on a nightly basis showed me that was the way. It seemed normal.
Somehow, someway, I had a guardian angel guiding me. I knew education was my key to take care of myself. I focused on grades. Once out of college, I focused on work. I proved my worth by what I did because I didn’t know who I really was.
I bent over backwards in personal relationships. If my partner was happy, then all was well with the world. I fell in love with and married two men, both alcoholics. Because I had been taught to ignore my own feelings, I built bubbles around them to try to get them to not want to drink. I now see that all I was doing was enabling them, putting up with way too much unacceptable behavior, and ultimately delaying the end of both relationships.
Work proved to be a never-ending opportunity to jump in and be the hero to save a failing project. I was known as the go-to person to fix projects, to get them back on track, no matter the effort. Once complete, there was the momentary sense of accomplishment and then the empty feeling, of needing something bigger. Another challenge.
I filed down the rough edges. I worked extra hard to make sure mistakes weren’t made in order to not be associated with failure. I held onto friendships and relationships long after their shelf date.
So much around me felt out of control. I grabbed onto anything I could in order to feel like I could rein something in. I took on responsibility that wasn’t mine. All to feel like things would be OK.
I put what I really wanted on the back burner. I spent so much mental and physical effort on trying to make things work that I lost even more of myself in the process.
I rationalized my situations. Looking at things short-term. It’s not that bad. I can deal with it – today. I found ways to cope.
We put up with the hell that we know rather than contemplate change. Tolerating situations that we would have told a friend to get the hell out of a long time ago.
We hope a person will change, or, if I ignore something long enough, it will just go away. I pushed aside looking at how toxic both my home and work situations were. Terrified of stepping into something new and feeling paralyzed by both.
Until I had no choice but to look at the life I’d created.
In the course of one year, my second marriage and my 27-year career on Wall Street ended. Everything I knew didn’t exist anymore.
In the middle of this turmoil, I was asked the question – how do you want to feel? I was stunned when I realized I wasn’t able to answer this question.
The universe brought me to my knees and I had no other option than to trust and ask for guidance. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew that I couldn’t and didn’t want to continue to live the way I was. I started to realize just how shut down I had been.
Coming back started with feeling my feelings. When something uncomfortable came up, instead of putting up a hand to deflect, or holding on to justify how I felt, I looked at why I felt uncomfortable.
My journal became my best friend. I began to write down all of my thoughts and feelings on a situation, and how it tied to another situation, free writing until there were no more words flowing through the pen. Things come up that surprised me. I found similarities in how I acted or reacted that give me clues as I tied the pieces of the puzzle back to find the source of my discomfort. I took ownership for my part as I was the common denominator.
The gifts of taking this journey have been immeasurable. What came out of being willing to be honest with myself are trust, forgiveness, and grace.
Trust in allowing myself to feel the old feelings. Honoring them as they came up, knowing that I am and would be OK.
It was my opportunity to do some personal excavating. My personal purge to release, to see how I’d held myself back.
At first feeling my feelings was scary. Unfamiliar. Incredible sorrow in the tears I never allowed myself to cry. Old anger and resentment. Because these old feelings continue to follow us until we finally turn around to look at what’s really there.
I started to find who I was underneath. Realizing that I wasn’t crazy and that the old thoughts and feelings that I’d pushed aside were real. Our feelings are unique to each of us and no one ever has the right to invalidate them.
As I explored each new layer, the walls around me melted as I found a deeper trust within my heart.
Forgiveness. There are many things that happen in life that we don’t like. Holding on only served to keep me stuck in the past.
Forgiveness isn’t about letting a person off the hook or agreeing with what happened. It’s about accepting the situation for what it was.
It was finding the lesson or gift that was there for me. Understanding the deeper “why” allowed me to see how the pieces fit together. To look at the situation objectively and ultimately to release the triggers and old feelings.
Forgiveness gave me back my voice and allowed me to break down the walls around my heart. To let go of the fear. It gave me a level of compassion I didn’t know was possible.
This is where I also forgave myself, for the decisions I made and the things I did, or didn’t do.
One of the hardest things for me was to forgive abandoning myself for so many years. I forgave myself for the years of thrashing and pushing.
Make amends with another. Most importantly, make amends to yourself. Forgiveness is for no one other than us.
Grace was giving myself the time and space to explore.
I put high expectations on myself. It was letting myself off the hook for not having everything solved yesterday. I didn’t get here overnight. Unraveling and unwinding the legacy I’d created for myself wasn’t going to happen overnight either.
As one piece of the puzzle was revealed and I processed it, the next appeared when it was ready. The evolution has been like the spiral on a shell, ever continuing to unwind.
Grace was allowing myself to walk through the walls of resistance when they come up. Then taking the time to integrate what I’d learned about myself.
For years, I wouldn’t allow my old feelings to come up, because with them was an incredible amount of shame for how I acted and treated people when I was trying to get them to see how hurt I was.
I now know that when something triggers me, it’s an opportunity for healing. To clear something so I may then be free of it.
Day over day I didn’t notice changes. But when I reflect on how I was 3 months, 6 months, a year ago, I can’t imagine ever going back.
Some of my most valuable lessons have been from the challenges. I now have a deep level of trust in myself and my intuition. Listening to my heart serves me well. I’m now living this journey facing forward, loving the life I’m living. I am finally home.
Stephanie B. McAuliffe