Atwater: The family disease

“Monica” knew her family was a little different. Even as a young girl, she was well aware she needed to take care of her mom rather than the other way around.

She never knew her dad, but she knew her mom had lots of friends who came over and she and her sister would be best to stay in their room. Nights were difficult because most of the time her mom’s friends left very late and sometimes stayed all night. “Monica” knew because she and her sister saw them sleeping on the floor when they left for school. They moved quite often, sometimes because her mom was in trouble again or didn’t have any money.

“Monica” was in more schools than she cared to count. Each move required her to adjust to new routines, new schedules and new friends. It was a little harder each time.

Her mom’s alcoholism also worsened, so “Monica” was taking care of her mom and her sister. At age 13, she was essentially managing the family, cooking, cleaning and trying to balance the little money they had. She was losing sleep from worry about money, living arrangements, police and neighbor problems, homework, her mother’s health, breaking up parties, scouting for burning cigarette butts, making her sister’s lunch and many other issues.

At one point, her Mom decided Arizona would be a better place to live, so she packed all their belongings and the kids in the car and, with no job and no place to live, left for the city of the sun on a rainy Monday night. Upon arrival, they ended up living in the car and begging for money and food. This lasted about three months until they were busted one too many times for vagrancy.

“Monica” and her sister lived briefly with a foster family while her mom was in rehab. After that, “Monica” and her sister were sent to live with their aunt. They only heard from their mom one time after that, and then several years later they heard she died in a fire. “Monica” didn’t feel much of anything when she heard about her mom’s passing. If she was honest, she might have told you she felt relief mixed with resentment.

Many years later, “Monica” had been through a series of unsuccessful relationships, usually with alcoholic men, not only because of their alcoholism but because of her unbearable need to control everything. As much as “Monica” had hated taking care of her mom and felt like her childhood had been stolen, she couldn’t find another way to behave.

She was full of fears of being abandoned, of not having enough money or enough of anything, for that matter. She was painfully insecure and angry all the time. Although “Monica” didn’t drink alcohol or use drugs, she had “the family disease.”

She finally found an Al Anon group and slowly began working through her issues.

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.

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