Authors: Ashley Judd
Eventually, I began to sleep again. It wasn’t nearly enough, but I did sleep for six and seven hours at a time. Once, oh, blessedly once, I was actually fully rested! I was moved into a smaller room, and I began to feel less like a misfit lost child. I remember taking one day off from my work the entire time I was there. When I was going to bed, I felt really good about myself and the choice I had made to give myself a break for one day. I didn’t need anyone’s approval, permission, or forgiveness. I felt zero need to explain, justify, or convince anyone. I was starting to develop some healthy, autonomous boundaries and self-esteem. Dario says that around this time, he, too, could tell I was improving; something about my letters told him so. It always makes me cry, I feel that beautiful joy-filled pain when he describes that moment. Thank you, God!
We had been writing lots of letters, and I phoned him twice a week once I was off that “no talk” assignment. Once, I noticed I was unobserved and told him I could talk longer, but he would not break the rules with me. He’s a good man, my husband, and he assumed the rules were there for a reason and would contribute to our welfare somehow. He was right.
I began to look forward to seeing him and the others who would be attending my very own family week. I had completed the bulk of my written work, which was now bulging in two large three-ring binders. I was saying affirmations after meals with confidence and ease. I came forward to do my work in group, sometimes fearfully, but trusting there were gifts for me on the other side. When challenged about things I hadn’t looked at or worked on yet, I remained open-minded, even though that shame would crop back up. Most important, I trusted the staff and knew that in their expert hands, guided by a Higher Power that loves me, interesting and great things could happen.
The Monday of my family week, on my way to six thirty a.m. yoga, I approached the same crossroads I had studied during that lonely lunch on my first Saturday at Shades of Hope. That day, I had contemplated walking out of treatment, seeing how far my two feet could carry me from this bewildering place and these crushing emotions. This day, as I stood in the intersection, I found myself turning in a circle, arms flung open, head thrown back in joy, then dropping to my knees in wonder, awe, in gratitude. It was April 13, 2006, and the full moon, known as the pink moon (and it was!), was on the horizon directly to my right, at one end of the country road, and the sun was rising directly to my left, at the other end. I was held between them, my grandmother the moon, my grandfather the sun, an awesome moment of balance, majesty, and power. Each crawled imperceptibly in its path, and time stood still. I knew I was loved, and I knew I was going to be okay. I knew all was well. I ran into yoga, but no one else had seen this remarkable sight. It seemed to be a gift just for me. When I would later research the April full moon, I was unsurprised to read it would be the brightest moon of the entire year.
After breakfast, I sat in a rocking chair on the front porch and watched my husband’s rental car pull into the group room parking lot across the street—something I would do every single time he drove onto the campus during my family week. It was so strange and exhilarating to see him in this setting! When he crossed the threshold of Shades of Hope, we grabbed each other in what is still the best, most memorable hug of my entire life. We wrapped our arms around each other, buried our faces in each other’s necks, and did not let go for a very long time. I could feel the fullness of his emotion quivering in his chest. Eventually, I kissed his beautiful face, held his precious hands, and after introducing him to my friends who had been such faithful companions to me on this incredible journey, we ran to the swing under an especially fine oak tree, where I had often read his letters after lunch, and wrapped ourselves around each other. Apparently, such intense physical warmth was outside the rules, but members of the treatment team, able to see us from the windows of their staff room, were deeply moved and let us be. They still talk about it, in fact, and tears still come to my eyes when I remember it.
At nine thirty sharp, we disentangled and looked at each other (we’d be on “no talk” the rest of the week, until my outing on Friday), and then Dario walked to the group room. I returned to the center, picked up my now well-worn tote bag, took a deep breath, gathered up my courage, and crossed the street to face my family with truth and hope.
The morning was identical to every Monday in a family week. I enjoyed the welcomes, outlay of facts, ground rules, and explanation of the program being done on
behalf. I felt important in my family for perhaps the first time in my life. This week, these lessons, this work, was about
. Oh, I had been the center of attention before, but not like this, not when it was about my reality growing up, how I had been affected and impacted, without someone either hijacking the story, because they’d had it worse, or trying to minimize or deny it or tell me I really needed to just get over it. I knew I could neither predict nor control how it would go, how folks would react, but I would give myself the dignity of my process, and I knew there were miracles waiting for me, in spite of and no matter what others would do with these five days.
Ironically, my dad—the one who had bravely crowed, “Anything for my girls,” when he attended Sister’s family week—and I had a near miss on that Monday. Because he had attended before, he had felt he did not need to be there for the Monday morning group. The treatment team had been firm and clear: You come for the entire thing. This is Ashley’s. It is similar … and different. He walked in rather late, and a scandal erupted. The treatment team was not amused. They read him the riot act and told me their suggestion was that he leave and not be permitted to participate given his apparent unwillingness to respect the center’s policies. I plummeted into my helpless Lost Child place, registering how quickly I could still free-fall through that trapdoor. I thought about my choices, and while I knew and was scared of that part of my dad that was “terminally unique” and did not follow rules (the “hip, slick, and cool” syndrome), I also knew this week could be phenomenally powerful in helping us turn around our relationship. I spoke up and said I wanted him to stay. I was proud of myself for taking charge of what my week would look like, and we settled down to business.
Reading my written work was a pivotal component of my family week. To be given the space, with advocates present who would help protect me and others, to share my childhood truth was simultaneously terrifying and liberating. Giving voice to my reality, such a powerful theme in feminism, was the empowering part. The scary part was that I had to accept, and yet take the risk anyway, that some people who were listening might never be safe or healthy and therefore might never be able to regard my story for what it was: my story, something to which we each inherently had a God given right. I knew that particular parts of the pain I was in growing up, and the thoughts and behavior born of that pain, would be ridiculed, rejected, pathologized, and held against me, maybe until the day I died. Unfortunately, I was right: Certain things I said were isolated and thrown back at me in the years since that day. But I do not regret standing up and saying,
“This is what it was like for me.”
I owed that to the small child I had been, for whom I am now responsible, whose advocate I am and must continue to be. A lot of people weren’t there for me while I was growing up, but by God, I am here for myself now. Not at the expense of others, mind you: Reading such work is but one stage of family of origin work. It’s not about staying stuck in it. It’s about having my story straight, so I can genuinely, finally arrive at the place where I can say, “That was then, this is now. So what? Now what?” But believe me, there are no shortcuts to arriving at this place. I had tried them all. They do not work. They can seem an easier, softer way, but in fact they are not.
My sculpt was another intense and revealing experience. The family was re-created, with obvious similarities to how it appeared to my sister, but it was actually also very different. Siblings often have vastly incongruent experiences growing up, as if they are being raised in different families. I asked my family members to place themselves in positions that reflected aspects of their relationships as I perceived them. I asked people to say the words, express the attitudes, beliefs, and emotions with which I was raised—including those horrible incessant streams of verbal abuse. When the picture that I experienced growing up was arranged, I was asked to place my small self in the scene. Where would I be? What would I be doing? What would I be feeling?
I did something I had never seen anyone else do in the now numerous family weeks I had witnessed, and I did it instinctively and quickly. It required not one iota of thought. I turned away, walked very fast, and I exited the circle of the sculpt, the staff, and all my peers and almost went out the door. There were about forty of us altogether, and I went as far away from everyone as I could while remaining in the room. I lay down on the floor, curled in a ball, put my left thumb in my mouth, and began to sob.
Yes. That is
what it felt like for me, growing up in my family.
Tennie, with her fierce and gentle brilliance, with her gifted expertise born of decades of this kind of therapy, began to work with me while in this state of regression. I couldn’t believe it when someone put a black cape over me to represent the depression that had both smothered and strangely kept me safe growing up. I had seen this done with other clients, but I was paralyzed when the cape was placed over me to represent my very own disease. Tennie continued to work with me, and together we told the story of my childhood visually, viscerally. Soon, we reached the crucial turning point, the “That was then, this is now. So what. Now what?” I began to use my empowered adult voice and claim my recovery, my future, free from depression and codependepency. I robustly detailed what my solution is today, itemizing the kit of spiritual tools that Shades of Hope had placed at my feet and how I was going to use them. But one oddity remained: I was still on the floor. Tennie was pushing me very hard, challenging me. I was racking my brain, going through every single thing I had learned in my six weeks in treatment: my relationship with my Higher Power, taking the steps, writing with my nondominant hand—I cycled through all my hard word. But I was still missing something, and that woman would not let up.
Finally, Tennie said, “People, Ashley! People! We need other people to recover! God lives in and speaks to us through our healthy interdependence with others. We experience God through
Oh. People. I whimpered and could feel the lonely Lost Child place open up in me again. “I’d really prefer to recover without people, if you don’t mind,” I said.
“We cannot recover alone, Ashley.”
Okay, I get it, you old bat!
I thought, and I picked myself up off the floor, shucked off that wretched black cape, and smiled at this great woman who pushed me so hard and gave me so much.
My eyes now wide open, I saw the looks on my family’s faces. They were absolutely devastated. Some had physically cowered, covering their heads, they were so disturbed to see the distress I had been in for the whole of my growing up. Perhaps the main new thing that emerged that day is that it was exceedingly, sadly clear that to a very large extent, they had had absolutely
idea what family life had been like for me growing up, so absorbed had they been in their own pain, dramas, addictions, and obsessions.
Tennie instructed me to pick out some people with whom I felt safe and to ask them to join me. First I asked my peers, but soon I was saying family names while firmly instructing them to treat one another with kindness, respect, and dignity in my presence and letting them know I would no longer tolerate unacceptable or abusive behavior. Best, I knew now that I meant it, how to detach with love, take care of myself, and maintain this healthy boundary! I placed those next to me with whom I felt most comfortable and cautiously expanded the circle to include everyone. In this way, we were sitting on the floor when something miraculous indeed happened—something I had thought impossible.