I don’t remember the first time or place I heard the line. It might have been in sessions with Keith or maybe one of the zillion books he had me read that year. It might have been on the radio or at AA. All I know is that it was so revolutionary to me that the phrase itself has become a mantra in my life helping me make on-the-spot decisions when I’m in a hard moment and guiding me while I make the much larger, more important life decisions as they arise.
“From now on, everyone in this house stands on their own two feet.”
Ever since my earliest existence, what I have known through and through is a world where cause and effect and consequence and boundaries do not exist.
This person acts up, and that person pays.
This person makes a mess, and that person cleans it up.
This person breaks; that person fixes.
I grew up in the home of an ACOA. That stands for Adult Child of an Alcoholic. I learned that when I was in AA in my early thirties. Up until then, I thought that alcoholism entered my world when Brian started drinking in the late 90’s. But by the time my life had hit absolute rock bottom, and I found myself sitting in the shattered, bloody mess of its ruins, I had the grand realization that alcoholism and all of its patterns and behaviors had been coursing through my veins since the day I was born.
Alcoholism, like most traits, passes through our generations like the color of our hair and eyes, our height and shape, and our demeanor and temperament.
Alcoholism begets alcoholism.
The actual substance itself sometimes skips a generation, but the behaviors and tendencies do not. And for the second generation that grew up “dry”, with those behaviors and tendencies woven into them since their time began, by the time they are able to do so, their hands typically find their way to a bottle. Either that, or they are an alcoholic magnet; attracting a drinker to themselves like bees to honey.
There is a difference between “dry” and “sober”. While both indicate the lack of a substance being abused (or better stated, a “break” in substance abuse), the “dry” alcoholic has put the bottle down (normally temporarily) but still perpetuates the behaviors, while “sober” indicates that bottom has been reached, repentance has occurred, rehabilitation has happened and been successful, and a new life has begun.
I grew up in a “dry” home. There was no alcohol, but alcoholism still reigned.
By the time I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was like a sweet little alcoholic’s-dream-flower filled with just the right sort of honey just waiting to attract my very own substance abuser so I could perpetuate what I’d seen and known my whole life.
I’ve had the opportunity more than once to see this truth face to face: when a person lives in chains long enough, they not only stop desiring freedom, they go a step further and find comfort and safety in their chains. In fact, left alone long enough, they become a total martyr and think themselves “godly” and self-sacrificing for not acting, saying “no”, or leaving when really, they should have.
This was me.
Part of what kept us together was that I really did adore him. The other part was the glory. The vain, selfish sensation that I was what was holding him together. The full knowledge that I was his rescuer, his hero, his savior. If I walked away, I knew there would be a good long while before he could ever stand up again if he ever could at all.
Part of what drove me was the love in me that did not want to see him fall. And another part of me did not see or recognize till all was past that the plain honest truth was that for as much as he was addicted to the substance of alcohol, I was addicted to the process of rescuing him.
This is what a codependent is.
“Co-addict” would be a better word.
We were partners in addiction. Both of us helping and enabling the other to become sicker and sicker, more and more addicted.
This became abundantly clear to me the first time he had a girlfriend. The unfaithfulness didn’t hurt me nearly as much as the idea that she was now filling my shoes and being his rescuer. When he made a mess, he’d found a new little cleaner to make it all better for him. And this touched the inside of my soul and lit me on fire in the same way that taking the bottle away would have done for him.
But really, the problem, at the heart, was not that I wanted to keep him locked in this horrible state of addiction. Anyone who knew me back then knew how desperately I wanted his freedom. It was that I really feared that if I walked away, he would simply die. And because I wanted him to make it to the other side more than I even wanted to be alive, I just kept rescuing, I just kept enabling, I just kept being his savior.
It’s hard for me to tell these stories because they are hard and painful truths. They are difficult wounds to sort. The retelling of them makes me feel like a human washcloth being painfully wrung out. I don’t like remembering them. But more intense than that pain is that thing in me that so wants the bad to be used for good. And I know that the only thing left to do in order to accomplish that is to tell the stories. I already did all the sorting. I already gave my blood and tears. I already went through it. All that is left now to bring it full circle is to tell the stories of what I found while on that dark road.
I found that when you truly love someone, you demand that they stand on their own two feet. I found that allowing another adult to lean on you – not for a season, but as a lifestyle – is selfish and, at best, misguided.
“Standing on your own two feet” means taking responsibility for yourself. It means that no one gets a free pass to misbehave because I will be there to fix it when it’s broken. It means that when “life” (or other four-letter words) happens, we stand up to face it. It means we do not cower behind another person and demand rescue when it is in our power to act. It means: act instead of react. It means that I take full responsibility for where and what my life has come to be. And further, I take full responsibility for moving my life to where it ought to be. It means the refusal to be owned by the thoughts and actions of others toward me. To have an inner solidarity that cannot be shaken by outside attack or arrows flung at me from life, from enemies, and worst of all, from friends or family.
Keith often told me that if you want to find true insanity, you needn’t go to the local psyche ward or halls filled with padded rooms. You just need to visit the home of an alcoholic. All rules of life that normally govern the real world do not apply there. And that is the true definition of insanity. A place where sanity is not to be found.
The conditioning of 30+ years of living in a world where sanity was not to be found and the normal rules of life did not apply left me ripe and ready to repeat the scenario. I’ve often said that I hated my childhood so much that I went out and made my own duplicate copy.
But what is it that I hated so much? Was it that I was completely unloved? No, because I wasn’t. Was it that I was afraid? Yes, but there was more. Was it that we pulled ourselves away from the rest of functioning society and lived in total isolation? That was part of it, but not the most important thing.
What I hated was that no one was standing on their own two feet. When dad abused, no one held him accountable. When mom was abused, she looked for rescue and never ever found her own feet to stand on. When fights broke out, it became the responsibility of the child to protect the parent. It was us – me – who made the calls to 911. It was us – the kids – who got up and fought for survival. It was me who quit school before I graduated to provide for my parent rather than the other way around. We were a bunch of people all precariously and dangerously forced to lean on one another. Not a one of us had solid feet under us and therefore, we were helplessly dependent on one another. And not in a good way.
If just one parent could have found their feet, it would have taught us all to find ours. If just one act of true heroism would have happened, we little ducklings would have all followed. But it didn’t, and therefore we did not. And the cycle still carries on today in the unfinished business of things two to three decades old.
When life throws you lemons, make lemonade. Which of us has not heard that line before? We have all heard it, but most of us don’t really know what it means.
In short, it means, “From now on, everyone in this house stands on their own two feet.” It means, “Life turns out best for those who make the best of how life turns out.” It means, I take full responsibility for me and for where my life has come to be, and I, not someone else, will act in a way that brings me life and freedom and health and peace. It means that the feet beneath me and the inner life I have developed within me is strong enough to withstand the blows from the outside world so that, when I am hurt, betrayed, treated with disloyalty, lied about, taken advantage of, spoken ill of, left, abandoned, or wronged in any way, the feet beneath me provide enough stability for me to stay standing. And not standing the way a dead man stands right before he falls. Standing in the way a soldier, equipped for the battle, stands in the midst of pain and attack.
Standing on your own two feet means the solid understanding of where you start and where you end. What is yours and what is not. What things you are responsible for – your attitude, your health, the roof over your head, your half of any relationship equation, and your response to the hurts and wiles of life. And what things you are not – the attitudes, health, provisions, and responses of others.
When people do not stand on their own two feet, abuse runs rampant.
When people do not stand on their own two feet, a topple is always only one attack away.
When people do not stand on their own two feet, dysfunction reigns.
When people do not stand on their own two feet, they seek to give responsibility for where their life has come to be to someone else.
– It’s my ex-husband’s fault.
– It’s my dad’s fault.
– It’s my mom’s fault.
– It’s my neighbor’s fault.
– It’s my friend’s fault.
– It’s my boss’s fault.
– It’s everyone’s fault but mine.
And since it’s not my fault, I do not need to be the one to fix it. Therefore, I will sit here and wait for a rescue. In fact, I might spend decades praying for and crying out for rescue rather than asserting myself and discovering that the rescue is right here for me, if only I rise up to meet it.
With two feet beneath you, those lines change to this:
When people stand on their own two feet, abusers flee.
When people stand on their own two feet, obstacles are overcome.
When people stand on their own two feet, health returns.
When people stand on their own two feet, difficulty has a way of resolving and the “other side” eventually shows up.
– My ex-husband hurt me, but I had a great role in the perfectly-matched dysfunction we created. And I will be assertive in ridding myself of those things in me that took me to where I was when that relationship was my reality.
– My dad grew up in great difficulty and was not a perfect parent himself, but I choose to forgive and learn great lessons from what was lacking in my childhood.
– My mom grew up without a mother and one could never calculate the difference that has made. I choose to look over her errors and take them on as my own personal homework, acting and living in a way that tendencies and behaviors passed to me stop here and are not handed down again.
– My neighbor has a story of her own to tell. A story I do not know. And while I will take action to hold healthy boundaries with her so that we might live in peace, I will also extend grace for the broken places in her that are unknown to me so that I might be a part of her healing and not another well-aimed hit at her soul.
– My friend hurt me deeply and I see that the sum of my baggage added to her baggage is dysfunction and hurt. I will be friendly to all; friends with few. I can offer peace by taking responsibility for my automatic responses to her wounds and see that we are better off away from one another.
Taking responsibility for yourself and standing on your own two feet is the utter refusal to shift blame. The utter acceptance that, while unfair things happen, I am still at the helm of my ship and no one else occupies that seat unless I get up out of it and allow them, and only a coward asks someone else to navigate their ship through rough waters. It means that, while I might occasionally need to lean on someone for support, the story of my life is that of a person with two solid feet beneath them, not someone who leaned, bent, and laid down their entire life.
It is the acceptance that bad things happen and sometimes they simply need to be left alone and allowed to be. The understanding that sometimes another person might make a mess that we should not clean up for them. The wisdom to see that any time I fix someone else, I should plan to do it again and again and again. And that if I truly loved them, I would act on their behalf only in a way that enables them to stand up on their own two feet rather than allowing them to continue to lean on, bend over, and lay down.
I love you enough to not buy your alcohol.
I love you enough to demand that you get a job and learn to take care of yourself.
I am smart enough to know that my help will only hurt you because I am programming you to not help yourself.
I take responsibility for where my life has come to be, and I will not, no matter how hard someone tries, take responsibility for them, for their responses, for their feelings, for their thoughts, for their attitudes, for their mistakes, for their failures, for their desires, for their misperceptions, for the unpleasant things in their life that they do not want to face and handle on their own two feet.
Standing on your own two feet is your ultimate declaration of independence.
I got me here, and I can get me out.
This might not be fair, as life often isn’t, but I am not a helpless passenger.
This causes me pain, therefore I remove myself.
I do not like mustard potato salad, therefore I do not scoop it onto my plate.
I might be down, but I will not stay here waiting for someone to rescue me.
I will not allow myself into being pressured to take responsibility for another adult who refuses to stand on their own two feet.