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family dysfunction


Teresa – Part Four - Authorship & Giving Back

I hear that strong person inside telling me what to do, and most of the time I listen. Sometimes I don’t and I suffer the consequences, but at least I consciously know what choice I’ve made.

Authorship means the capability of making choices, and the recognition that the ability to choose one’s destiny lies within oneself.


One of the most significant shifts that occurs during the road back is the birth of authorship – the ability to act, which is engendered by the will to live. Central to the rediscovery of one’s aliveness is the growing belief that it is possible to make choices that affect one’s destiny. Like dawn in a forest, the light may enter slowly and quietly, but it raises one’s spirit and is rarely forgotten. Authorship means the capability of making choices, and the recognition that the ability to choose one’s destiny lies within oneself. For those who recover, it is this connection with their inner oracle that becomes paramount. As Teresa describes it:

I’m finally letting myself realize that [my mother] doesn’t have the capability to relate because she’s never left that zone where she feels comfortable.

Teresa has now permitted herself limited contact with her mother. She feels it’s important for her and her children, but it is rarely satisfying. Teresa finds her mother unable to focus long enough or deeply enough to sustain meaningful conversation, and although Teresa sometimes feels the desire to spill her heart and describe in detail the journey she has made, she knows her story would fall on unreceptive ears.

She doesn’t talk about what’s real and she hides a lot, but I’ve wanted to attempt to have a functional relationship with her.

It’s disappointing, and occasionally it reminds her of the isolation that was so painful to her as an adolescent, but over time, Teresa has made a fundamental change. Through years of therapy and study, trial and error, Teresa has created a rich network of support and understanding. Her mother is no longer the center of her world or the source of her redemption. Teresa has internalized the respect and the positive regard others have shown toward her, and her mother’s failings are rendered more or less harmless.

The hate—the hate I felt for her—began to consume me. [But] it can eat at you more than at the other person. I don’t hate her anymore. I mostly feel sorrow and compassion. It was a big thing when I discovered that I really don’t have to like my mother as a person. I love her, but I don’t care to be around her all that much. I get understanding and recognition elsewhere.

Teresa had now been a practicing nurse for the past ten years. She has become certified in a number of medical specialties and has enjoyed a wealth of work experience. Happy and self-assured, her present life seems the polar opposite of her early years.

The final part of Teresa’s return to life is reflected in a private and unassuming act of giving back.  During rounds in the hospital, Teresa quietly performs a little ritual expressing appreciation and gratitude.

When I look at the [medical] charts, I read about these ladies— what [their lives are like], what’s happened to them, the difficulty they’re in — and I think, “God, you know, I could be there today if I hadn’t been so lucky.” I go down to the unit and talk to them. I want them to know that there’s strength in them: you can hear it in their voices. I want them to know that we all have that drive in us to make it.


Waking Up, Alive is now Available on Kindle!








Teresa, Part Three – The Critical Leap: Recognizing the Need for Support

I realized two important things: that I keep picking people who aren’t the least bit interested in anyone else, just themselves; and that I always thought I had to do something drastic to be noticed. I started thinking, “Maybe around different people I wouldn’t have to do that!”

The ability to recognize potential sources of support constitutes a major breakthrough. When suicidal trances last many years, they virtually prohibit interpersonal exchange. When one views life as a long, desperate, and solitary struggle, confidence withers that anyone else cares, or that anyone would even want to. Recognizing and utilizing support becomes not only a skill to be developed, but also a critical act of faith.

During the next ten years Teresa proceeded to work full-time, have two children, and consecutively marry two abusive and addicted husbands. There were many fights and she continued to consider suicide. Teresa was now an intelligent, highly capable woman who was still driven by the unrequited need to have someone notice her pain. She was locked in a desperate loop of violent marriages, and she reasoned that her only recourse for herself and her children was to leave.

One night, I drank an entire gallon of wine and I was having seizures on the floor. I didn’t really want to die; I just wanted my husband to know the pain I was in. I wanted him to know I was alive. I thought, well, if I did die, then maybe it would be significant and then my kids would never go through what I had. Well, when I woke up, I decided, “That’s enough.” I took the kids and left.

In deciding where to go, Teresa took the first step toward recognizing the need for support. Just as when she boarded the bus for Prescott many years before, Teresa had little idea of what lay ahead of her.

It was very scary. One evening, I went to the Women’s Shelter. Nobody would know where I was, and I needed rest from the abuse and the fighting. It was just as scary as leaving my mom. I was calm outwardly, but underneath I was petrified. That’s when the biggest portion of my recovery came.

Teresa was genuinely starting over. Her decisions would be short-term ones for a while. She would take one step, assess the results, and then take another.

The people there were very supportive and caring. It took about three weeks, and then one morning, I found myself thinking, “My God, I really like myself.” I realized that it was okay with just me noticing me. That was enough.

I realized two important things: that I keep picking people who aren’t the least bit interested in anyone else, just themselves; and that I always thought I had to do something drastic to be noticed. I started thinking, “Maybe around different people I wouldn’t have to do that!”

At the women’s shelter, Teresa enjoyed both formal and informal contact with the staff. She was assigned a therapist, but there were many others who would stop and talk during the day just to see how she was faring. With time, Teresa began to feel the effects of the respect and positive regard she was receiving.

My first initial feeling was, ‘I’m not weird. If I was weird, they wouldn’t be talking to me and acting like they cared. I must be okay!’ I began to feel important. I don’t think I had had that feeling since kindergarten.

I remember feeling affirmed.  I remember talking to the social worker there, Lois. I said some horrible things to her about my abuse, and I expected her to do what everybody did—close down, get a chalk-white face, and just get me out of there as soon as possible. But she cried!  As time went on, I’d hear them say to me, over and over, until it began to sink in, “ You’re perfectly fine, and a wonderful person, and your thinking is clear about such and such. We have a lot of confidence in you.” It felt real, and over time, I would call on it whenever I was feeling hopeless or like giving up.


Look for:  Teresa, Last Part - Giving Back, Loving Wisely

Waking Up, Alive is now Available on Kindle





Teresa, Part Two - A Fresh Start

Teresa was still a young teenager when she bought a one-way ticket to Prescott.  Somewhere beneath the abuse and neglect, there was a kernel of recognition, even at her young age. She knew she had to leave. Despite the absence of a plan, she knew a change was essential to her survival.

It was a thirteen-hour bus ride. We had a layover from Idaho at Reno and I stayed in the station, waiting. I was still very calm and strong, and so far everything was okay. I had my money and my clothes—everything I needed. I was proud of myself.

Breaking free from the suicidal context reflects a desire to disconnect from the oppressiveness of the past and hope for a fresh beginning. It is a leap of faith motivated by the necessity for change. Although a person’s plan may not be clear at the beginning, many describe having an inner certainty—a “knowing”—that they are on the right course. Often, they pare down their possessions, simplify their lives, and try to discover just what happened to them and why. In making a fresh start, people report having a glimpse of a new world and a new possibility…where people are able to care, and have the courage to show it

At some point, this big and sleazy guy came over. He was trying to get me to go somewhere with him. I didn’t know what was going on then. I do now. There was this elderly couple. The man must’ve been in his seventies. He and his wife just came over next to me. He pulled out a knife and began cleaning his nails with it, kinda nonchalantly, suggesting to this guy that he might want to leave!

Then they took me to dinner. It was very comforting and nice. I felt even happy for a little bit there. We played cards and ate. I was happy ‘cause they noticed me, and I wasn’t being polite or “good.’’ I started thinking, “Maybe I should go with them!” I think that was the first time since kindergarten that I felt that about someone.

Teresa created a new life. Just off the bus, she saw a Help Wanted sign in a restaurant window, applied, and was offered the job that afternoon. The next day, she enrolled in school.  Teresa wanted a new start, and within a week, she was back in school, had joined the track team, and was taking courses at the local community college.


Dissolving the Suicidal Context

It is essential to dissolve the suicidal context in order to rebuild one’s life. This may take a variety of forms, but essentially, one must radically alter one’s relationship to the environment of despair in which the suicide attempt occurred. On the road back to life, people learn to choose alternatives to old routines and to the people associated with them.

Teresa’s trials weren’t over.  The long shadow of neglect and abuse in her family of origin would hover over her primary relationships, but these challenges would set the scene for her final victory over suicidal pain and despair.  (To be continued).

Look For - Teresa, Part Three – Claiming Her Life


Waking Up, Alive is now Available on Kindle



Teresa - It Was My Fault, Wasn't it? (Part One)


"Ninety-nine loaves of bread and a hundred and six pies. I’ll always remember that figure! I’d come home and there would be a note [from my mother] saying she needed some time for herself. She’d be gone for weeks, to some resort or someplace to recover. I’d skip school to take care of the restaurant and bake past midnight for the next morning’s customers.  I was twelve."


Teresa was still a young teen when she bought a one-way ticket to Prescott and fled home.  She had to leave. Her father was killed when she was three, and for many years, she was molested by her step-dad. Her mother divorced him, but everyone blamed Teresa for breaking up the family.

My older brother ran away. My younger brother got into drugs and was sent back to our stepfather. My mom became addicted to Valium and tranquilizers. I felt responsible and guilty for everything.

The losses a child endures are rendered more ruinous when compounded with parental neglect and exploitation. In the absence of someone to provide understanding and comfort, Teresa alone attempted to make some sense of what was happening to her. Yet she was still very much a child, and a child’s world is bound by limited insight. So she crafted a set of explanations for her troubles in which she was the central protagonist and the one to blame.

It was my fault. I shouldn’t have told my mother I was being molested. I’m responsible for the family falling apart. That’s what I told myself.

Our desire for a sense of order—for explanation amidst patently irrational and cruel circumstances is so powerful that children, as well as adults, will create reasonable explanations for unreasonable events.  Teresa found that there was only one adult who would understand her despair.  Unfortunately, he was no longer alive.

I used to fantasize constantly about him. We didn’t have pictures of my dad around after my mother remarried. One day I stole this picture of him from my grandmother’s house.  I used to talk out loud when no one was around. I remember telling him, “I don’t understand why you’re not here.” It was really painful. I also couldn’t understand why he didn’t come and save me.  I thought that for sure I’d see my dad if I died.

Just as children create magical friends in which to confide, Teresa imagined her dead father's ever-available ear. It provided comfort and at least a marginal experience of belonging to a family. But these fantasies provided only an illusory sense of connection, and the more she entertained the conversations with her father, the further they pulled her from the living. At fourteen, her losses were sizable, her disappointment great, and she was quickly losing faith that this world held any promise at all. Slowly but progressively, Teresa withdrew from life by entertaining the possibility of her death. She had constructed and nourished a lethal equation: that in death there is solace and connection; in life, there is only despair.

One day, when babysitting a neighbor’s infant, Teresa looked away, just as the baby fell from low counter top. Although the baby was fine, Teresa was badly shaken.  To compound matters, she glanced out the kitchen window to spy her mother having sex in their car, with the deliveryman. The surreality of having a private view of her mother’s sexual activities served to shatter all remaining hope. Immediately thereafter, Teresa attempted suicide.


Tomorrow - Teresa – Part Two:  Leaving home, and dissolving the family trance.


Waking Up, Alive is now Available on Kindle





“I’ll be the heavyset one waiting for you in the hall,” she said over the phone. Ruth doesn’t mince words. She speaks the truth, unadorned, and looks slightly askance at me, dubious, as if she doesn’t expect a connection. Ruth practices medicine in Boston. A physician who, in addition, is completing her psychiatric residency, she is dressed informally today, wearing a kufi—an African skull cap—and jeans. We talk in the steeply raked lecture room at the university and sit alone amidst hundreds of empty seats, our voices echoing softly in the amphitheater. Ruth is a curious combination of guarded and forthright, thoughtful, yet ready to laugh and enjoy my company for a moment or two. Her's is a powerful story about loss, the inability to grieve and ultimately,  enormous resilience.

Ruth was raised in Harlem by a stern and sometimes abusive grandmother. Her mother, a prostitute and drug addict, lived nearby. Her father, also an addict, had long since left the family. Ruth grew up smart and streetwise. She survived by hiding significant aspects of her life from others. Against her grandmother’s wishes, she discovered who her mother was (Ruth had been told she was a distant aunt), and would sneak off for forbidden visits after school.

My mother was in the drug world, so I would see her at times when she was bloodied and beaten up by her pimp. She’d fawn all over me—tell me I was her princess. It was the only time in my life I felt special. I didn’t realize until much later how irresponsible that was. I just thought my grandmother was keeping me away from her.

Ruth also hid the fact that she was being molested. From the age of six to thirteen, she surrendered to sexual contact with her mother’s boyfriend’s son, a teenager who had also been taken in by the grandmother. Her grandmother was unpredictable in her affection, and this left Ruth feeling that, aside from stolen moments with her mother, the only person who really cared for her was her “stepbrother.”

He would take me out to play and stuff like that, so when it came around to him wanting sex, I felt, “Sure, whatever...”

Lonely and confused, Ruth became a tough and intimidating teenager. Exceptionally bright,  she maintained good grades with little effort. Yet her school days were often spent in detention after having fought with classmates. No one seemed to understand her pain, and she decided that there was not likely to be anyone in the future who would either. So, Ruth covered the tender and vulnerable places within her with a sharp tongue and quick fists.

I had a big mouth. I didn’t take anything from anybody. If they yelled at me, I would punch them in the eye! They used to call me “Blackie,” you know, ’cause that was the early sixties and being black wasn’t cool. I ended up feeling I didn’t want to be black either, so I would start a fight when someone called me that.