As I begin to write this article, my heart and thoughts are with every person who has reason to read it. I know all too well how growing up in the shadow of people who suffer from addictions of any kind can have devastating results that affect a child into adulthood.
I learned that when a substance or action becomes an addiction, it robs the addicted person of who they truly are and alters their personalities and judgments. It distorts and twists their actions and thought patterns so they say and do hurtful things they would never do if the addiction didn’t control them.
But the good news is that the grace and love of God are more powerful than these wounds and by the power of the Holy Spirit, there can be healing and restoration.
The addiction that shadowed my world was alcohol, but every addiction is difficult. The biggest lesson I had to learn as I dealt with and began healing from the damage done to my inner self, was to learn to forgive. For so long I carried around a huge burden of anger, worthlessness, undeserved guilt and shame, and a very unforgiving spirit. But after I came to know Christ as my Savior who forgave me and God as my Father who loved me unconditionally, I was uncomfortable carrying that burden. I began to explore what it would take to let go of the lies and negative emotions and embrace the forgiving grace of God so I could forgive my parents. Two books by Lewis Smedes were key in my journey of forgiveness: “Forgive and Forget” and “The Art of Forgiving.” Permit me to share some of the lessons I have learned that have set me free from the shadow of addiction into the light of God’s glorious grace.
First, I had to learn what forgiveness was and was not. It isn’t tolerating wrong, forgetting, excusing, stifling conflict, or surrendering the right for justice. These actions only push the damage deeper and prevent healing. It is, however, a personal response to an unfair, deep hurt that leads to a cognitive choice to heal the pain, get rid of the anger, and be vulnerable enough to heal. Some would say forgiveness is unfair, but as Smedes says forgiveness is the only way, “fairness can rise from ashes of unfairness.” It actually expresses the true best nature of humanity. Forgiveness is honest about what happened, about what the other person did, their responsibility and accountability while at the same time, acknowledging their humanity. It is honest about and has the courage to face the pain inflicted on them, and it embraces the need to be set free and deal with future possibilities.
The next step is to stop burying or ignoring the pain, but recognize, acknowledge, and name it. Addicted parents can cause a child to feel afraid, alone, rejected, worthless, unwanted, shameful, or guilt ridden. Too often lies are spoken into a child’s heart that can take root and become a deep wound that colors how that child looks at themselves and the world. It takes great courage to go back to those painful places, but remember we are not doing this alone, Christ is with us.
So how does one go about the process of shedding the shadow from our childhood and embrace the gift of forgiveness? It begins with accepting Christ’s extravagant gift of forgiveness of us and all that means. Only then in his presence and by the power of the Holy Spirit, can we have the grace we need to extend the gift of forgiveness to others.
Another step is to ask the Spirit to help us see the humanity and brokenness of the people whose addiction cast a shadow over childhood. That step was what helped me the most and set me on the path of healing. When I discovered the fragile humanity of my parents and realized that they weren’t bad people, just very broken people who were without Christ and had no idea how to handle their own pain, shame, or guilt, it was much easier to let go, surrender the need for vengeance, and forgive. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I was able to actually wish them well, and learned to honor the position they held in my life as my parents.
This journey to healing has also taught me other lessons. While the goal of forgiving is to reconcile, fully reconnecting doesn’t always happen. I was blessed that it did happen to some degree for me. However, we must be sure to realize that the relationship will not be what it was or what we dream it could be. We still need the spiritual help to let go of expectations of what could be and ask for the grace to be content with and accept what is.
One last point I have learned from walking with others who have dealt with this is that sometimes the person who harmed us does not want to be forgiven and does not repent. Sometimes they are dead and gone and we can contend with only our memories and the space they occupy in our hearts. It is then that we need to be assured that while reconciliation does depend on repentance, forgiveness does not. We are still free to forgive even if the person doesn’t want it.
I wish I could tell you that healing from living with addicted individuals occurs spontaneously, I cannot. Healing is still a life-long process and often (if not always) needs the help of a professional to help one get to a place of relative wholeness again. I have been very blessed with the counseling I have received and praise God for the measure of healing I have. However, I must admit that way down deep inside there is a little girl who is still afraid she should not have been born, that she is a mistake no one could ever love. When that little girl tries to speak up, I immediately go into the presence of my heavenly Father and listen to His truths.
One thing that has helped me immensely is that I have favorite Bible verses that assure me of my worth and value that I have typed up and framed and keep on my desk to remind me daily that the shadow that made my childhood so dark no long has any place in my life. I am a child of the King, beloved, cherished, and set free by the grace of God! And so are you!
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra