“How many broken bones did your dad give you?” Not a question Dave expected from his 89 year-old mother on her death bed. Over the years, Dave’s mom and four siblings were masters at sweeping dad’s abuse under a thick sound and memory absorbent rug of silence. The momentary peek under that rug revealed an accumulation of a mother’s regret and pain born of a decades-long pattern of powerlessness. Sensing the futility of a thorough psychological housecleaning under these circumstances, Dave briefly provided a kind of palliative care for his mom’s conscience.
Dave was a colleague, then a friend. Here and there, over the years, the glimmer of a story would emerge over coffee, or a work conversation that perked up my resilience researcher’s ears. Last week, he agreed to sit for an interview, and spool out some of those stories to assist me in my ongoing Sunday Morning Café project of hunting down the correlates of resilience in people who have made it through some of life’s most challenging difficulties.
Interesting research has indicated suggestive evidence forgenetic markers correlated with resilience. In short, some of us seem to be born with a greater ability to survive and even thrive in the midst of challenging circumstances. When I ran into these findings, I remember thinking, “Where does that leave the rest of us?” Good news! Research also indicates that resilience, like a muscle, can be grown and strengthened. And that’s what has animated me to sit down with people, like Dave, who’ve made it through some of the more profound challenges that life can deliver (EG. Frontline COVID employees, and healthcare providers; long-haul COVID survivors; survivors of serious illness, and successful adults with a cruel past). My premise for this research is that the tools and resources that assisted these survivors could benefit the rest of us in our own challenges great or small
And so, grab a cup of coffee. Pull up a chair. Together, let’s sift through Dave’s story to see if we can’t locate some tips and tools to grow our own resilience muscles for whatever life is going to be throwing our way in the near or distant future.
Dave was born the second of five siblings in a working class neighborhood in Cleveland. His dad was a short-haul truck driver. Mom was a secretary for their local Catholic parish where her kids attended parochial school cost-free thanks to her job. Money was tight. Like moths dining on a wool sweater, his dad’s modest paychecks were frequently eaten up by his alcoholism, and his need to ingratiate himself to his fellow barflies on payday. Unfortunately, the well-worn phrase, “raging-alcoholic” fit Dave’s dad just like…well…an old moth-eaten sweater…he couldn’t, or didn’t want to throw away. Davewas frequently the target of that rage.
Trigger Warning: The Story You Are About to Read Contains Graphic Violence
Some years ago, Dave had revealed the beginnings of a story. A few minutes into our interview, I coaxed it out of him.
He explained that, as a boy, he loved baseball, and showed some talent for it. Saint Joseph High School served as a farm team for boys interested in solid union jobs, not for baseball. It was too small to field a quality team. At fifteen years of age, Daveannounced his intention to attend a larger high school to play ball. His dad did not approve.
He bellowed, “We’re going to take care of this baseball thing right now!”
Next, he immediately marched his son to the basement workbench. There he placed his son’s throwing hand into a vice, and proceeded to tighten it. Unlike Father Abraham’s boy, no angel came to the rescue. The blind obedience in play had nothing to do with God’s will. The cruel logic of his alcoholic rage, and the need to control demanded that the wing nut on the vice turn and turn until two bones popped and fractured. Daveexplained that he didn’t run away for fear of something far worse happening to him. Listening to that story, I could only hope that this little boy was able to exercise the abused child’s superpower of beaming his consciousness elsewhere while his body was maliciously breaking.
The next day, the usual protocols for the aftermath of physical abuse were followed like clock-work. Inside the house, no one discussed the violence from the night before. Parents went to work. Children went to school. As usual, face-saving stories about an accident provided public-facing cover. The physical and emotional consequences were Dave’s burden to bear…alone. Eventually his swollen hand would require a cast, and would heal well-enough. The emotional consequences were more elusive.
“I felt defeated and unheard.”
The intended message was absorbed.
“It was clear, he was going to run the show.”
While Dave was the primary target of his father’s alcoholic rage, the need to “run the show” resulted in a mother’s swollen lip orblackened eye. His brothers would be invited to “boxing lessons” in the basement, which amounted to dominance and control rituals. As Dave grew older, he would protect siblings by wrestling his drunk dad to the ground until he relented. Police cars would show up when he and his father squared off in the front yard.
“DCFS hotline calls weren’t a thing back then. Plus we lived in a working class neighborhood where stuff like that happened beyond just our family.”
Like Larry, another subject I interviewed for three SMC articles (Feb. 13, 20, 27), I found myself wondering how Dave put together the life he has led since those chaotic days. Forty years of promotions in a prestigious Cleveland health care system resulted in a “C Suite” office as an Executive Vice President in that system. His thirty-eight year marriage, marked with intimacy and fidelity, would be seen as exemplary by any marriage and family professional. With this partner, he has forged relationships with his thirty-something married sons and their spouses that can only be characterized as life-long friendships. How to account for someone with this kind of background achieving what Freud would say are the two benchmarks for a successful life: (1) long-term success in love; (2) long-term satisfaction in work?
Last week, I put that question to Dave. His answer, “From a young age, I just knew that life didn’t have to be this way.” What follows is an examination of how little Dave came to know that the life he was living was not his destiny.
“I Just Knew Life Didn’t Have To Be This Way:” Signposts on the Way to a Distant Shore
Dave’s dad could break his hand, but he couldn’t break Dave’sspirit. Not long after the hand healed, he found a league to pursue his baseball avocation. As Providence would have it (He doesn’t call it “luck.”), Dave found his way to a team with an observant coach.
“Why is it that whenever your old man comes to one of your games, you forget how to play baseball?” Coach Woods wondered out loud.
Dave didn’t have an answer. He didn’t need one. His coach had seen his dad drunk at games humiliating his son with instance after instance of belligerent behavior, including the orders he issued to Coach Woods to, “Put [his] boy in!”
Coach Woods revealed to his young player his own alcohol recovery for “nine years, three months, and four days.” He then invited Dave to attend a self-help group for teenaged children of alcoholics (i.e. Alateen). He steered him toward a neighborhood after-school meeting that he could attend on his way home. Nobody, especially his dad, would be the wiser. Coach taught him so much more than the proper way to field a grounder. He provided accountability, making sure that Dave attended those meetings. More fundamentally, he simply took the time to see Dave, and to act on what he saw. In his coach, and in the those meetings, the adolescent version of him would have secured the inklings of an imagination capable of picturing a different way…a different life.
This wasn’t Dave’s first experience of an adult noticing him, and providing him with the spiritual and psychological oxygen and calcium for the formation of his resilient little soul. As a youngster, Dave’s family lived next door to a childless widow who became a kind of surrogate aunt and safe haven. When his father’s temper escalated, it was not unusual for his mother to send the children over to her house until the storm passed. Davedescribed doing homework in this place removed from the chaos of alcoholic rage. Here is another, earlier example of someone who took the time to see Andy for who he was. He remembers rhetorical questions like, “How’d you learn to spell so well?” Later in her life, his kindly adoptive aunt said, “Your dad never appreciated what he had in you kids.” Listening to Dave’s story of her, it occurred to me. Way more valuable than any of their many outings to places like the circus, or go-carts, or Dairy Queen, was her appreciative gaze, mirroring the possibility of a different life.
“I Was Given Moms and Dads” Mentors as Keys to Andy’s Resilience
It wasn’t as if things got better when Dave left home to attend Cleveland’s Borromeo College. His dad still burned through the family savings. This prompted Dave to rearrange his college classes for a job that could support his siblings. Aggression can take many subtle forms in alcoholic families. Frequently, a dance of anger can play out with the less physically powerful wife expressing her sublimated rage in a way that won’t get her body beaten. Dave’s mom would casually place her college son’s pay stubs on the kitchen table with the not so subtle message intended for her husband: “At least one man is responsible in this family.”
That dance of anger followed College Dave to school. One night, his chastised/resentful dad hid in a darkened college dorm corridor until he spied the opportunity to ambush his oh-so-responsible-son. A sudden shove, and a head-over-heals trip down the stairs resulted in a painful broken collar bone. This time the message was explicitly spelled out, “I’m in charge of this family, not you!”
Once again, the thing that would end up making the difference in this young adult’s life, was a kind of surrogate father who showed up in the form of a spiritual mentor required of all students at Cleveland’s Borromeo College. Dave found a hidden gem in this school’s curriculum in the person of Father Ed. Once again, he discovered another mentor who saw him, really listened to him, and believed him. Like his coach, years earlier, Father Ed, recommended that Dave attend Al-anon meetings. In addition, Father Ed, a trained counselor, assembled a support group of six young men. The monthly format required just two things from its members: authentic sharing received with authentic care. Over the course of forty years those college boys would continue to meet once-a-month. Together they transformed into husbands, then fathers, then grandfathers, professionals, and retirees. They have continued to meet once-a-month for all of those years.
At one point, Dave reflected back on the impact of so many mentors in his life, “I was given many moms and dads.” It would appear he was also given some pretty substantial brothers as well! Armed with the knowledge of the name of his persecutor, “alcoholism,” and a support group to see him through it, progressively, Dave found a voice, and an outsized amount of courage to confront his dad’s insanity, and the insanity he had internalized. Rather than waiting for an angel to wrestle the knife out of Abraham’s hand, Dave showed up at his family home and escorted his dad down to the basement near the infamous workbench. He informed him, “You will never abuse anyone else in this house! If you do, you’re going to jail! I’ll see to it that you are prosecuted.” From this moment forward, at least the physical violence came to a stop.
A Resilience Reflection for the Rest of Us
According to the Father of Self Psychology, Heinz Kohut, parents provide a mirroring function for their children. In how needs get empathetically met, or fail to get met…in how feelings are accepted, or forbidden,…in how love is exchanged, or withheld, the child comes to receive a reflected sense of who they are vis-à-vis their care-givers. In healthy families, a child comes to an accurate and empowered sense of self. In family’s like Dave’s, it is as if the child stands before a fun house mirror that makes one’s self-perception appear distorted. Even now, at 65+ years of age, and two stout rounds of psychotherapy, Dave’s continuing goal is to catch the internalized negative self-talk “more early,” and “end it more quickly.”
What is the core feature of Dave’s resilience? In a word, “mentors.” To put that in Kohutian terms, Dave’s journey has been marked with a series of sound and accurate mirrors at key turning points. In relationship to these “mom’s and dad’s” along the way, Dave was able to capture a more sound and accurate glimpse of himself. This allowed him to set his own course toward a distant shore of his own choosing. Consequently, an inter-generational pattern stretching back at least as far as his paternal great-grandfather of abused boys becoming abusive dads has been broken. Dave has no doubt that his sons will parent his grandchildren the way he parented them: with warmth and empathetic fidelity.
Sunday Morning Questions:
• What stood out for you in this story, and how did it speak to your own journey?
• Have you ever suffered physical or psychological insults to your personhood? If so, how did you get back to a more empowered sense of self?
• Who has provided you with an accurate mirror that changed your life for the better?
• In other words, who has mentored you well?
• Is there any area in your life that might cause you to consciously seek out a mentor right now (EG. counselor, coach, trainer, seasoned colleague)? Is anything holding you back from pursuing this life-giving course of action?
• Do you know someone who could benefit from reading this SMC article? Would you consider sharing it with them?