For a time, I was a full-time fundraiser, thirty years ago. Then, for a time, I was a full-time priest and monk and priest again – twenty years ago. Two years ago I began to experience The Church as an alcoholic family system. Not everyone experiences the Church that way but I did, meaning that to begin recovery as an Adult Child of Alcoholics / Dysfunctional Family (ACOA or ACA) I needed to leave the Church institution because my recovery was teaching me that I simply chose my Church Families because they were like my family of origin. In other words, I kept choosing families like the one which raised me, simply because they seemed familiar. It felt better to be part of a dysfunctional family than to ask being “alone.” And we humans are programmed by nature not to risk being alone because being alone in the words can be dangerous. And yet I often found myself choosing friends and clergy-bosses and bishops who were alcoholics or “dry drunks” or who were dysfunctional (bullies, abandoners, etc.) because they felt “normal” and “familiar” to me. And the choice was unconscious, which is the kicker.
The two constants in my life have been pottery and dogs. They never fail me and I am grateful to them for their goodness – their kindness to me. The pottery is simple, familiar, clean and useful. The dog is a source of constant unconditional love.
The thing I am learning about an alcoholic or dysfunctional family is that it is based firmly in secret-keeping. “Don’t air our dirty laundry – keep secrets within this family or we will discipline and/or reject you.”
And it’s tempting. Tempting not to be rejected. Tempting to be kept within a family – any family – as long as its a group that accepts one. Being shunned, edited or disciplined for speaking out, is painful. Nobody likes rejection. And “family” is a word that forms the etymological base for “familiar.” In other words, we will stay in what is “familiar” no matter how dysfunctional because being rejected for speaking the truth to power will have consequences. Being in a dysfunctional family may feel better than the prospects of being “alone” in the world. So women and men stay in broken marriages rather than risking “being alone.” And people stay embedded in family-like institutions rather than having to build a new identity.
However what I notice at my potter’s wheel throwing ramen bowl after ramen bowl after ramen bowl is that starting over, being “alone,” and re-building a life in recovery from childhood and adult abuse or neglect, though frightening, is somehow liberating.
The words carved over the library of my seminary said: “Speak the truth; lead where it may, cost what it will.”
This is a hard reality and requires tremendous courage.