Harriet the Heroine

LAP, as in the Lawyer’s Assistance Program, is not for the faint hearted or the cowardly. There is nothing I know of that is harder than facing one’s own weaknesses or failings and learning to acknowledge our own strengths. It’s akin to examining oneself in the mirror while naked; often we see only the flaws when we need to be able to see the positive attributes as well. Frankly, there is far too much soul searching to make this an entirely enjoyable or comfortable experience, but it is a necessary one for many of us. At least it has been for me.

I know there are many counsel out there who think that the Lawyer’s Assistance Program is limited to counsel with problems related to alcohol. I know because I’ve talked to them. Well, while it is true that LAP offers assistance, ongoing support, and appropriate referrals to those in recovery, LAP offers much, much more than that regardless of whether alcohol is a factor. I know this from personal experience. In the years I have dealt with LAP I have learned that being in “recovery” is not limited to alcoholism. This is my story.

Alcohol has only touched my life in that I understand that my father was an alcoholic. I never knew my dad.  I also never thought that his alcoholism touched me in any way because my father passed away in my infancy.

What I have learned over the years is that just, because an alcoholic is gone doesn’t mean that the family that lived with the alcoholic has ever dealt with the effects of entrenched modes of behaviour that continue long after the impetus is gone.

Have you ever heard of “Harriet the Heroine”? Harriet is the youngster in an alcoholic’s family that strives to fix absolutely everything. Harriet is hardworking, often a workaholic, determined to be efficient at everything she touches and refusing to acknowledge any weaknesses. Harriet is a perfectionist who must excel at everything she does. Harriet thrives on helping others. She can be compulsive and even obsessive. Above all, Harriet cannot admit that there is anything she cannot do well, and no one else can do it better.

Harriet is the quintessential, volunteer, the perfectionist, and the hardest on herself. Harriet often does excel but, in spite of all her accomplishments, Harriet has no self esteem. Harriet does not deal well with alcohol, she often does not drink at all. Harriet deliberately if unconsciously seeks out the people who need the most help. Finally Harriet never acknowledges her perfectionism or the fact that she is a workaholic to the detriment of any personal needs. In helping others and working compulsively there is not time to examine one’s own needs. Meet Harriet…

Finding Harriet is what my life journey has been about. How do you identify a problem if you can’t acknowledge there is any problem?

Where does a Harriet come from? Well, this one emerged from a childhood of violence and darkness that most individuals cannot conceive of; a day to day existence of punched in walls, shouting, and vicious assaults on a small child.  Railing against it was foolish and I learned too, early and well, the importance of secrecy and of the threat of outsiders.

Humour became my shield, I learned to placate, to mediate, and most of all to watch body language for the smallest indicators that violence was about to erupt. I learned to present a happy and confident front that no one could dent. I got A’s in school. I learned to be a caretaker of others and to ignore any needs I had personally. In retrospect many of these skills are a blessing and they kept me alive and then, later on, assured me a successful career. In short, Harriet was born.

A few short months after I turned 16 I ran away never to return to live with my family. What I didn’t know, nor could I have known at the time, was that I carried my prison with me when I fled into the streets and across this country. Not surprisingly I entered into a relationship with the first man who appeared to be kind. In this manner I handed over the key to my prison to a new gaoler from which it would take me another 16 years to escape.  Throughout this marriage the only control Harriet had was over her own body and this was exercised religiously in the form of an eating disorder.

At 24 Harriet took pride in weighing 96 lbs. Still my Harriet was unaware that she had any personal problems to address and time passed it was not until the abuse was directed at my children was I able to comprehend that only I could change the situation and I decided I must. This time I would have to escape with children in tow.

Without even having completed my high school year, and while still in the marriage, I decided to dust off an abandoned dream and I sat down and wrote a letter to a university asking what I would need to get into law school. Someone responded and that letter was my crutch and my goal for years as I worked multiple jobs, often two jobs at the same time, raised my kids, continued to volunteer, and graduated my undergrad program with an A average.

The letters confirming my acceptance to law school were a dream come true and the key to the next phase of my life. Once again I left and started anew. However, instead of any pride in my accomplishments, I carried with me the shame of not having been able to fully protect my children, something I had been determined to do since my own childhood. With me I also carried an entrenched sense of being unworthy, of knowing where I had come from and feeling its taint in everything I touched and saw.

However, there was a difference this time. Harriet was still compulsive, still obsessive and still a workaholic but now Harriet was desperate not to repeat the experience and never again to be victimized or permit the children, now teens to be either.

The road became a very lonely one, still convinced with every prospective suitor, or even colleague, that he presented only a mask of sincerity or kindness and that evil reigned beneath. In short – Harriet became a living breathing man-hater, the danger here was that Harriet’s own front had become so perfected over the years that few colleagues male or female were aware of this perspective. It took a very persistent individual to get past formidable barriers and I married for a second time to a wonderful man of the type I had only believed existed in fairy tales. Only then did I begin to develop trust in an adult male and it was this trust and support that enabled me to make contact with the LAP program years later.

It took a hell of a lot for my Harriet to realize that it was only with the help of others that I could begin to heal. With the ongoing support of LAP, I have learned to relax my guard, and to trust in others, but most of all to trust in myself. Workaholism, to the detriment of my own health and that of my relationships with those I loved I did not recognize. I even received acclamation for my efforts and thus reinforced the behaviour and the cycle continued.

My Harriet had to come to the realization that this behaviour was hurtful to me and to others and that it masked the spectres that I had been literally and figuratively running away from for many years. Harriet had to hold up that mirror and examine herself in an unbiased manner and I didn’t like what I saw. The compulsive and obsessive helping and working behaviours were serving to keep me from having to look at what my Harriet was doing to herself. Well at least now I acknowledged there was a problem. I have even been able to seek professional help in addressing some of these issues.

So where am I today? I forgave those who hurt me a long time ago BUT I never forgave myself. That is what I am learning to do now with the help of the LAP program and the caring friends I have made through this program.

I know now that only I can change my own outlook on life but I cannot do it alone. Most of all I have learned that there is no shame is asking for help for yourself. There was a sense of strength and I’ll admit it, superiority, in always helping others that has been hard to learn let go of.

When the dark clouds of depression begin to congregate overhead I can now ask for help in dispersing them. I take the time now every single day to count the blessings in my life, something I would never allow myself to do before as I was so sure on the inside that I was a loser from a family of losers. No matter how many accolades I received I had always felt like an impostor waiting to be discovered and thrown away like yesterday’s garbage. That WAS my world.

Years later and with much patience, support and assistance I carry a different worldview. Instead now, as in the words of the serenity prayer I have learned to accept many of the things I cannot change, and to work hard to change the things I can……but I now know I need a lot of outside help on acquiring the wisdom to tell the difference in some areas. I need only now remember to reach out and ask.

So if you take anything with you from Harriet’s journey, keep in mind that LAP is not only for alcoholics. LAP is for lawyers helping lawyers, regardless of the problem. I am not an alcoholic, but I am in recovery.