When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes
Not everyone who washes up on the shores of A.A. had a miserable childhood. In fact some addicts had lovely childhoods. My father was an adored only child growing up during the depression in Brooklyn. A life full of friends and stickball on the streets of Bushwick in the 1930s and 40s. Then in his early twenties he was drafted into the navy which, fortunately for him, he loved. Not a lot of early trauma there but for whatever reason he became a profound alcoholic later on in life. By age forty he was drinking in the morning, most mornings, to stop the shakes from the previous day and night's debauchery. I think for some turning to alcohol is used as medicine and for others, they just drink too much over too long a period and they become physically addicted. I think that was probably the case with my father. But not so for me. I used alcohol to medicate anxiety and to feel a part of. Also the first few times I drank alcohol in middle school that intensely painful knot I had been carrying around in my stomach for 13 long years started to dissolve. For the first time ever I felt relief. I felt relaxed. An experience that was a new and very welcome phenomenon for me.
My friend Kathy and I spent a lot of time bitching about our miserable childhoods. Raised in America's northeast we bonded over having similar somewhat-mad, farming, fleeing-the-potato-famine, Irish-Catholic ancestors. We fancied ourselves poor waifs - raised like feral cats by extremely alcoholic parents. Left alone at birth to make our own way in this cruel unfeeling world while trying desperately not to get assassinated in the crossfires of home. It's no fun being raised by active alcoholics. No fun at all. And many children who are raised by alcoholics suffer a form of PTSD which is very confusing. I never went to war. I don't have visible battle scars received in combat. I grew up in Westchester, New York for God's sake. I went to lovely public schools and a good college. But that doesn’t matter. Where you live, what car sits in the driveway, what objects you are able to afford: if you are raised by active alcoholics you will most likely emerge with some damage. I certainly did. And almost every addict I have ever met who was raised by actively alcoholic parents has been left somewhat shell-shocked later on in life.
So there I go, about to really dive into the whole "woe is me" routine about my poor miserable Irish Catholic childhood. But before I do, I’ll tell you about a trick that Kathy and I came up with to help each other stop moaning on and on about our childhood travails. Because really, after the age of 25 or 30 shouldn't we stop blaming our shitty adult behaviors on Mommy and Daddy and how mean they were?
Kathy and I came up with this idea one day around Christmas time and we called it "snow globe-ing". We would use “snow globe” as a verb and an adverb and a noun: “Don't you start snow globe-ing" or "Don't get all snow globe-y on me" and "Put down your damn snow globe already" etc. So what was this trick we liked to use on ourselves? This "snow globe-ing" as it were? Here's the gist. We all have a snow globe. Everyone, everywhere. Inside our own personal snow globe is our past. Everything that has ever happened to us up until this moment is in there. All the joy and all the sorrow. All the remarkable and all the ordinary. Those innumerable floating twirling specs of plastic snow are every experience we have ever had. And I want to get in there. I want to get in there and change things. Those unfair things. Those shame laden memories. Those "why me" experiences. I want to get in there and rearrange that wildly spiraling falling snow. I want to change the snow's patterns, how it falls, where it lands. I want to excise the more painful experiences in my past and cling desperately to the gorgeous memories in there as well. I want to hold on to those and never let them go, take them right out of the snow globe and hide them in my pocket. Sneak them out to obsess over in private when no one else is around. A thrilling little secret. Just for me. So, as an alcoholic, I shake the snow globe and hope for a different outcome. Praying that the snow will land in a different pattern this time, that my past will miraculously be transformed for me. No more pain of being raised by drunks. No more pain of life on life's terms. Closing my eyes, shaking the snow globe, and willing it to all have been something else. "I could have been a contender" I tell myself - if only everything had been different. And here's the real rub. Those snow globes of our pasts are indestructible. The glass cannot be broken and the snow rearranged to my liking no matter what. A nuclear bomb could not destroy it. All the prayer or money in the world won't change what happened. It’s the past and will always be what it was. I can’t change it. I can only look at it and learn from it. And that's the hard part. Letting go and accepting.
While an active alcoholic I carried that damn snow globe everywhere. Bringing it out at dinner parties and at work. Shoving it in innocent people's faces. "Look!!!" I would slur through my hot red-wine-with-vodka-undertones breath. "Look! Look how fucked up my snow globe is” I would demand of my hostage. "Look at all those abusive snowflakes! It's not my fault. I was an innocent child! Look at it!!! Don't you feel sorry for me?" And my favorite, "You wouldn’t understand anyway. Your snow globe is perfect. PERFECT!!! I can tell by your goddamn teeth!!" Cringe-inducing. Even now.
So Kathy and I helped each other with three simple steps. First, we realized what we were doing. Resentfully beseeching the universe for a different childhood. Second, we prayed for the willingness to let go of our resentments about our pasts and the harms done to us. And third, we stopped carrying our ridiculous snow globes around with us everywhere we went. Shaking them and staring at them endlessly. Watching the snow fall over and over again and wishing that for once it would fall our way. There’s a line in the A.A. Big Book that says "we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it." But that’s what I wanted to do while active in addiction. Change my past.
I still have my cursed snow globe tucked away somewhere. I can whip it out at a moment’s notice to attract some attention. But why? There is no changing it. Also, I no longer really crave that kind of pity-laced sympathy anyway. Without the booze in my system the "poor me, poor me, pour me a drink!" cycle has ended. I can still get on my pity pot and so can Kathy. But we try not to. And when we catch each other bemoaning our sad and scary childhoods and using that as an excuse for bad behavior TODAY, we can gently remind the other to let go. We are never getting inside that snow globe to rearrange the falling snow. We will never change even one second of our pasts. Through working the steps of A.A. we have found a way to take what we can from the past and learn from it. Grow from it. We’ve discovered how to have compassion for ourselves and our alcoholic parents...and their alcoholic parents too. We are learning how to stop playing the victim. Most importantly when we start shaking that snow globe, trying to will the chaotic spiraling flakes into what we think they "should have been”, we recite the acceptance prayer and we always feel better. That prayer helps us to see that whether we know it or not there is a divine reason for our pasts being the way they were. We can relax and remember the wise words of Frank McCourt, “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while."
The Acceptance Prayer
“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober, unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.”