A Case Study in Truth
From an early age, Sheryl took care of her alcoholic mother. In a mother-daughter role reversal, every night she would rouse her mother from an intoxicated stupor, get her washed up, and tuck her into bed. The next morning, Sheryl would charm her mom’s boss into forgiving her tardiness and then get herself to school.
It wasn’t an ideal childhood, but the effects on Sheryl weren’t all bad. She learned to take responsibility for herself early in life, launched a successful cosmetics line, and, by age 30, guided a start-up through a successful public offering.
But she also remained overinvolved in her mother’s life, constantly pushing her into therapy, twelve-step groups, and treatment programs. Her mother dutifully attended them all, but there was never any real change—just an endless cycle. Sheryl would cajole her mother to get sober, and her mother would go on the wagon. Then she would relapse, and Sheryl would go on an angry rampage. Her mother would apologize, Sheryl would forgive her, and the whole cycle would start up again.
Why would an intelligent, successful woman put herself through this futile cycle again and again? Deep down, Part X had convinced Sheryl she had the power to turn her mother into a responsible, sober adult, and Sheryl believed the lie.
AN INTERVENTION FOR THE CARETAKER
Fortunately, Sheryl had a group of close friends who put together a makeshift “intervention.” They told her the truth: “Your efforts are being wasted, and in the meantime, you have no life—when’s the last time you went out on a date?”
At first, Sheryl fought them, but eventually, she realized she was doing too much; her mother had to choose sobriety for herself. The intervention helped Sheryl accept the truth: she was powerless to cure her mother’s alcoholism.
You’d think that would be the end of the story. Now that she had admitted she was powerless, she’d stop trying to cure her mother, right?
THE CYCLE CONTINUES
Part X has an amazing ability to get us to keep living a lie even after we’ve admitted the truth. It sits in wait for the right opportunity, which in Sheryl’s case appeared when a work colleague told her about a new rehab in Malibu that had helped her son. Its upbeat, non-shaming philosophy, matched by accommodations rivaling a luxury hotel, was a quantum leap above any recovery program Sheryl’s mother had enrolled in.
Even though Sheryl had admitted that she was powerless to change her mom, Part X found a way around Sheryl’s resolve with a new lie, disguised as a rationalization: “You haven’t bugged your mother about her drinking for months. And this is an exceptional program. How are you going to feel if your mom dies of alcoholism because you refused to let her know about something that could have saved her?”
This thought persuaded Sheryl. She brought it to her friends and persuaded then it was a good idea too, and her mother checked in the very next day.
Sure enough, two weeks later, Sheryl got a call from the rehab. Her mother had disappeared from the facility and gone on a bender. This time, Sheryl didn’t get angry, she got depressed. That’s when a friend referred her to me. She was feeling listless and morose. “I just don’t see the point of anything anymore. I feel dead inside.”
I told her the deadness was something she could recover from and taught her the Mother tool. My immediate aim was for the tool to help her bounce back from her mother’s relapse. But long-term, I hoped it would give her a more profound experience of the Truth. She’d admitted she was powerless, but she hadn’t really experienced it yet.
Sheryl began to feel more alive, and over time, the Mother became increasingly real to her. About a month later, she arrived at my office and handed me her journal. Something so momentous had happened she’d felt compelled to write it down.
“I was climbing into bed and remembered to use the Mother tool. But the moment I closed my eyes it felt different—the Mother was actually in the room with me, not just in my imagination. Gradually, she took charge and guided me through a visualization so vivid it felt real.
I was a child, in the shabby apartment I grew up in, bombarded with old sensations: the rancid smell of booze and puke, the ghostly light of the TV bouncing off the walls, Mom slouching bleary-eyed on the couch, a bottle of gin at her breast. It struck me how tenderly she was holding it—like an infant.
I blurted out, “Why don’t you ever hold me that way?” I tried to pry the bottle away from her but she was too strong. Her face was twisted into a mask of vicious hatred. She’d never looked that way before and it terrified me. She got up abruptly and walked away. I ran after her, begging, “Don’t leave me alone!” But she acted like I didn’t exist. She left, the door banging shut with finality. She was gone. I was alone. And that’s when it hit me: I’ve ALWAYS been alone. I began to cry . . . convulsive sobs coming from a place I never knew existed.
Something told me to use the Mother tool again. She came to me immediately, infinite waves of loving warmth embracing me, lifting me out of the pit. She stayed with me and the grief gradually subsided. When I looked into her eyes, I saw something new: she was proud of me for facing the truth. My mother loves alcohol more than she loves me. She always has. And I have to stop fighting it.
THE 3 PRINCIPLES OF TRUTH & SHERYL’S STORY
Principle 1: The truth is a force, not a thought. Part X will do everything it can to prevent you from experiencing the Truth. Its first tactic is obvious—it gets you to lie to yourself. Sheryl simply refused to accept that it was impossible to change her mother despite decades of trying and failing.
But even after you face the truth, Part X has a more subtle, clever tactic. It creates a false version of the truth—drained of all its power. It gets you to believe that the truth is abstract—just words in your head. So once Sheryl came to the realization “I am powerless,” she thought she was done. She felt virtuous admitting something she’d never admitted before—but it didn’t change anything.
To free herself, Sheryl had to experience the Truth in a new way. She used the Mother tool to accomplish this, but all The Tools will lead you to a new experience of the Truth.
Principle 2: The truth hurts. The Truth is merciless, holding up a mirror that shows you who you are without regard to who you wish you were. The Truth is also painful because it unmasks the lies other people have told you.
Sheryl’s mother had always presented herself as a harmless old woman whose only sin was never getting her life together. The Truth revealed a much darker side. Underneath the hapless alcoholic was an exploitive parent who loved booze more than the young daughter who needed her. She had forced Sheryl to shoulder responsibilities no child should be burdened with, and now she was manipulating the adult Sheryl—making just enough of an effort at sobriety to keep Sheryl’s hopes alive and the gravy train going.
Only the revelatory power of Truth allowed Sheryl to glimpse her mother’s Part X, a parasitic part of her that would have happily sucked the life out of her own daughter. This was painful, but without it, Sheryl would never have been able to set the limits she now needed to set.
Principle 3: Truth requires ongoing action. There’s no getting rid of Part X, and it’s not going to stop convincing you to lie to yourself just because you’ve had a painful revelation. Sheryl, for example, had to continue to fight the urge to rescue her mother. And she had to expand the revelation she had with her mother to all her relationships, where she discovered the same pattern of taking too much responsibility for others. Adherence to the Truth had to become a way of life for her.
For you to do the same, you’ll have to convert your “armchair” truths into action steps in the real world and continue to work on them for the rest of your life.
This is the last in a series of three articles about Truth. It uses Sheryl’s story to illustrate the ideas in the previous articles, The Truth About the Truth and 3 Principles for Living the Truth. Additionally, you can read more about Truth in Chapter 7 of Coming Alive.