Goodbye Toxicity – Hello Grace

Sometimes the universe just puts all of this stuff in front of you as its way of getting you to pay attention. Often it’s a warning, or a reminder, an inspiration, and sometimes it’s just a big, reassuring pat on the back.
Over the past few days the universe has been laying it at my feet like a cat presents mice on the doorstep. The good news is, the message is positive and validating, though the journey getting there was not, and there was a lot of unsureness and societal mixed messages about whether I had done the right thing. When you listen to your head rather than your heart and body there’s a lot of unnecessary confusion.

This story may seem petty to some who can’t understand or haven’t experienced this kind of toxicity in their lives, but for me it was perplexing, then heartbreaking, then exasperating, and then liberating, and now wonderful proof that I made the correct choice and took the right action, no matter how uncomfortable it might be for some people.

When we decide to stop poisoning ourselves, we often need to say goodbye to other toxins in our lives, too. In my case, it was a toxic relationship that I had to get free of years before I’d be ready to stop drinking, and that’s why I’m telling you this story. Because even without me – without my participation – the story continued to have a life of its own.

I have a sister who has been viciously jealous of me most of my adult life. I was very naive to it, and just let all of her meanness and attempts to humiliate me roll off my back over the years. In fact, I had aways been helpful and supportive of her in all of her life challenges. But she grew to be the definition of schadenfreude, always doing and saying things that gave her some kind of mean satisfaction; delighting in others’ misfortunes, gossiping, and finding fault so that she might raise her poor self-esteem up a little from its miserable depths. Paradoxically, I only started taking it personally after I’d grown enough spiritually to understand the danger of taking things personally! 

It’s a long story that I’ll try to keep brief. But hang in there. If you’re short on time, skip to the finale.*****

It all started more than eight years ago with a misunderstanding about a lunch date I’d made with her daughter whom she named Heidi. My sister had inserted herself into our plans and I was unaware that she had, which she took as me being too drunk to remember making the lunch date. I was fully aware of the plan I had with her daughter, but unaware of my sister’s inclusion since I hadn’t been a part of that conversation. So, she created a huge drama around this; called my daughter, whispered to relatives about my “problem”, acted like I needed intervention, shit like that. Meanwhile I was enjoying a happy, healthy, creative, albeit functionally addicted, life now burdened with this pall my sister had thrown onto me.

At that time she was freshly single after being cheated on by her boyfriend of several years (having been devastated and divorced after being cheated on by her husband of 25 years). I hooked her up with an old school chum I’d run into on Facebook, which was a mistake, as she seemed to have a great need to elevate herself in his eyes at my expense.

Eight years ago, she called me on her birthday. She had decided I needed to stop drinking “for her” because she wanted me available to her “twenty-four-seven,” and she “liked me better when I didn’t drink.” It was pretty obvious to me that she was doing this to impress the guy, to stand a little higher on my “problem” but it was a shock nonetheless. By her own behaviors of smoking, drinking and copious pot smoking, one would think she’d start with herself if her concern were for health and wellbeing. But her radar was fixed on me. It was very hurtful. And as I’ve said before in at least one other post: Whether she realized it or not, her demand only made this independent rebel dig my heels in deeper. Nobody tells me what to do. 

Later, as I was getting ultra conscious with the non drinking, I could easily see that her asking me to change for her was a codependent’s surefire way to keep me drinking – to keep me in the dynamic. I didn’t have a problem. She had a problem with my problem.

Yes, I drank habitually and wish I had been more present to my kids. But I had never done any of the things typically related to this kind of complaint. I hadn’t called my sister drunk; I was never mean to her; I didn’t drive drunk; I never puked on her; I never put her in harm’s way. I was simply unavailable to her when my husband and I were enjoying each other at the end of the day. And because I wouldn’t answer her constant phone calls (some days she’d call up to 4 times) when I was paying attention to my family and having dinner, she attributed this to my “drinking problem.” 

So, there she is trying to impress this guy. She actually attended my 40th high school reunion (which was a Big Chill love fest) with the guy and told people who love and respect me that she had been “putting up with my alcoholism for years.” A number of old friends reported this to me.

There are no words to describe how deeply this hurt. It’s as if all of the horrid things she had done in the past, and all of her hatred and jealousy towards me had come together in a perfect storm. My heart was wide open, and she just stuck her foot into it and stomped on it. I was devastated, violated, heartbroken, obsessed for months. I just couldn’t get over it. I did a lot of facilitated inquiries on it, meditated a lot, and it helped, but the damage was so complete.

When her next birthday rolled around, seven years ago now, I sent her a card: 
“It’s come to my attention that you told a number of my classmates that you have ‘been putting up with my alcoholism for years.’ I am very sorry to be the cause of your pain and misery. You know I would never hurt you, and since my very existence is such a burden to you, I release you from your terrible pain and suffering. No relationship, no problem. You are free!”

I meant this – forever. What a relief to not have to deal with that anymore.

Then of course with the holidays approaching several months later, she wants back in, calls up and leaves a message on my machine. “I know we’ve both hurt each other badly. I want us to be loving sisters again like before.” Then she said something to the effect, I forgive you (read I’m spiritually better than you) and now it’s up to you whenever you’re ready.

The fact is, her hatred of me was palpable. What she was really asking for was that I allow her to continue her codependent relationship with me. No way.

*****Fast forward to the present.*****

It has been seven full years since I released my sister from the pain and suffering she proclaimed I was causing her. 

Since then, she has had little or no (2 weddings, 1 funeral) direct experience of me. I do get reports from people every now and then, that she appears to be obsessed, to be in some kind of a competition with me that I am not a party to, such as making sure she gets people to go to her house instead of mine on holidays. I never ask for this information; it just keeps turning up like the cat on the porch with the dead mouse.

Just the other day I had lunch with a friend who happened to run into my sister in Town Hall recently. Waiting for an appointment, she sat down near her, along with a few other people. She identified herself and said, “You know me, I’m Heidi’s friend.” 

The sound of my name sent my sister off on a rant where she went on and on about a story about her birthday and my drinking, and on and on, high pitched enough to raise eyebrows in this public place.  And as she went on loudly about my “alcoholism,” my friend mentioned to her that I don’t drink. 

My sister replied that she’d heard that, and bellowed, “Well, she sure didn’t do the right program because she never apologized to me!”

I laughed when I heard that, and suddenly felt lighter. I laugh as I write it. It’s hysterical. I had indeed stopped drinking in my own good time well over two years ago, but I hadn’t done it to her specifications. I hadn’t proclaimed myself powerless and suffered, and done a 12-step program like those sick people with the alcoholism disease she depends upon to feel better about herself. I hadn’t done it right. Because, you see, she depends on “my problem” in order for her to appear okay.  And it’s absolute proof that there’s no love or actual concern there, only the need for sickness, the dependence on it. How sad is that?

My friend assured me that my sister had not harmed me, but had made a fool of herself. I have compassion for her, as I don’t think she can see that she hurts only herself. But no matter how sad, I will never participate. This is something that is hers alone. I think her best bet is to apologize to herself. 

So there, my friends, is the moral to this story. I no longer have that toxic relationship; I put it behind me the same way I put smoking and drinking and ex-husbands behind me. I have moved on. Over the years I’ve worked hard at attaining the grace to replace resentment with humor, love, and forgiveness. I am grateful for this gift of grace.

She owes me nothing. 

And through this experience, this little offering from the universe, I finally came to realize the forgiveness that had been so elusive, because really, what is forgiveness but the understanding that there is no debt.

As drinkers who are stopping or have stopped, we all have shared the fact of codependents in our lives. The so-called friends who try to weaken your resolve when you’ve decided to get free. The “frenenemy” who secretly wants you to fail so you will remain down in their camp of dependence. People who want to keep you down in order to elevate themselves. Those who depend on your “sickness” for their appearance of wellness. For what are they if they don’t have you to stand on?

Society says one thing, your heart and spirit says another. Society shows us these warm and fuzzy messages about how ethanol is the elixir of life when in fact it’s highly addictive poison. Same goes for the common Dear Abby-style myth that you must forgive and forget; that you need to experience this romanticized reunion in order to be whole. Nonsense! Forgiveness is one thing; forgetting is a bad teacher. And forgiveness isn’t about continuing a toxic relationship; it’s about understanding that nobody owes you anything.

 “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that crushed it.” (Mark Twain)

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