The drunks next door

I know someone who lives next door to an alcoholic mom and an alcoholic dad.  The older brother has already dropped out of high school and the younger child is at risk of falling between the cracks.

The person I know, the one who lives next door to the troubled family, has reached out to the mom and offered help, offered to go along to an AA meeting, offered to help out in any way the mom might allow, but the help is consistently refused.  This mom will go some period of time without drinking, but then she falls off the wagon again.

Now some readers might think that reporting these parents to Children’s Protective Services would be the answer, but even if I were hearing about them in my professional role (which I did not) I would have to think not only about my legal responsibility to report abuse and neglect (and whether the full facts call for intervention), but also about what actually happens after you make your report and fulfill your legal obligation?  Does it actually get any better for that family?

While I am not privy to the full facts in this example, these parents sound like they are in that grey zone where potential neglect is the chief abuse, yet they do love their kids, feed them, do not overtly yell or hit—they’re just impaired to be fully present for them.  While this constitutes a serious wound to a developing child, the system that gets involved when you turn to protective services is much more skilled at protecting from further overt harm than it is a giving much need consistent attention—real love fully expressed day in and day out.

While laws protecting kids are important, and often serve a critical role in allowing kids in dire danger to be removed from abusive situations, in a case like this one often the reality of the system is that a child like this would likely be placed in a worse situation than he’s already in, rather than a loving and nurturing safe haven. 

This is one of the great injustices we see chronically around us:  perfectly sweet and deserving kids (which really mean all kids) who suffer because their parents suffer.  Often these kids then grow up to continue the cycle of suffering, but to help break the cycle we must muster compassion for the parents—understanding that they were once the neglected and/or abused kids. 

If we choose to see the world as our child, from that viewpoint our own kids and other people’s kids, as well as their parents, offer some level of opportunity to love—even to refine our understanding about what it means to love.  Rescue and heroic actions are dramatic, but often the dust settles and nothing has changed.  Conversely, awareness and seeing without (or at least with less) judgment just might have a positive impact—on the kids we send love to via small gestures and unseen kind thoughts—and on ourselves as well. 

Giving what we did not get is a golden opportunity for healing and transformation.  By transcending ourselves, and even our old notions about “fixing” problems, we soften into the potential realization that the world is disturbingly perfect—a perfect classroom for us to learn about humbleness, the true nature and power of love, and the realization that every neglected, abused, loved and dazzling other is, ultimately, also our own Self.

Having been around the system as a clinician, I am disenchanted with the way our culture fails children and parents alike.  Court ordered parenting classes or mandatory AA meetings tend to be ineffective if parents really don’t want to step up, or feel that they simply cannot find the motivation or the courage.  Time spent in the trenches of non-profit mental health interfacing with Department of Children’s Services, Department of Mental Health, group home kids and emotionally disturbed kids ejected or plucked from at-risk families has left me sobered about the near impossibility of getting other people to change, especially if they haven’t somehow hit bottom and become ready to do the hard work of recovery.

And yet I see the kids who are hurt by such situations and I feel saddened and concerned.  It is all too easy for any of us to say what ought to be done, but the real problem, in my view, is both a collective lack of will to view all kids as all of our kids, coupled with the entrenched difficulties of parents who themselves where so often abused and/or neglected.  The brass tacks reality of these sorts of situations is that they are extremely humbling when you attempt to intervene.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to help, but it does underscore how relationships are everything.  In the situation of the drunks next door the person I know was brave enough to do the reach-out—and even though nothing has clicked quite yet, we never know when something might shift.

For ourselves, we might start by asking ourselves if we even talk to our neighbors.  Sometimes we do, but often we do not.  Since I’ve been blogging I’ve had more reason to chat with moms and dads on my block, and this helps create a feeling of community rather strangers who happen to live on the same street.  Perhaps the very fact of strengthening relationships with our neighbors might in some unseen way subtly help those at risk to stay more engaged—with their community and with their own kids.  This makes me think of the transformation, in our minds as readers, of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, from scary monster to wounded and misunderstood neighbor; perhaps we go further today and realize that we too are Boo Radley—and that we must understand our own wounded Selves if we are to help our wounded neighbors, kids and grown-ups alike. 

Given that we get wounded in the context of relationships and we need relationships in order to heal, be it AA, neighbors or virtual communities, my hope is that by being more conscious and compassionate of our neighbors, broadly defined as those on our street, those who cross our paths at the market and at work, and those who cross our paths in the virtual world, we might end up benefiting some children who we may never consciously realize were helped by some small bit of human connection that we, as a random human, built with them.

I had a friend in graduate school who was able to be there because the old woman whose grass he mowed died and left him a hundred thousand dollars; another woman I know would, as a young child, chat with a neighbor in her garden—a seemingly fleeting connection that this young girl carried lovingly with her through the rough journey of growing up.  All of us probably remember certain kind grown-ups who took an interest in us, steady or fleeting—those rare people who encountered us as kids and saw a fully legitimate and sacred being rather than a passing object of no significance.  Those people made differences, big and small, in all our lives.  Perhaps we are those grown-up to certain kids we don’t even realize look to us in fleeting moments as someone who cares, someone who might model and stand for things they wish to grow toward; perhaps we can be that person to other kids and parents in our circle.  We don’t really have to possess answers in order to care and to listen—and being accurately understood is the very foundation of feeling loved, which in turn may ripple out to all sorts of people who we may never know we influenced or helped in any way.

So, let’s dedicate today to keeping our non-judging eyes and ears open for those wounded parents as well as kids who may live on our block, in our home or even who we catch a glimpse of in the mirror.  Social Services are all well and good as last resorts, but reconceptualizing our own roles as threads in a social fabric—realizing that just caring and sending good wishes rather than judgment, or making a neighbor kid welcome in our homes (as the person who lives next to the alcoholics mentioned above does) are small things that very well may add up to big differences years down the road.

Namaste, Bruce


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4 Responses to “The drunks next door”

  1. April Says:

    I would add that, as someone married to a drug addict, it was very hard for me to not feel judged for remaining with him as long as I did. There were many loved ones that I just couldn’t talk to about it because they’d made their opinion of him so well known. I didn’t trust them to understand that it’s simply not a black and white issue. I couldn’t leave until I was ready. And I couldn’t leave until I could face where I’d have to go in order to leave. Gentle nudges, assurance that you’ll help without judgment and with compassion are really the only way one can help in situations like this.

  2. Taurus24 Says:

    As someone who was once a child in a difficult home situation, and as someone who had parents of friends take an interest in me, I can say from experience that small gestures DO matter. You don’t have to change the world. You don’t have to solve the problem. You can just be there. Listen. Love. I’ve carried around a way of being, a way of wanting to be, I saw modeled thirty years ago . . . . Doing the right thing matters; compassion and kindness matter, even if you can’t see the results of your actions (immediately). Maybe kindness and compassion ESPECIALLY matter when you can’t see the results of your actions immediately. Perhaps that’s where the magic is. The theme of this post is in line with the one earlier this week about the walking wounded: we can rarely fix a problem, esp someone else’s. What we CAN do is be present.

  3. Antisthenes Says:

    Thank you Bruce and Taurus–it gives me encouragement to continue my interactions with a neigbor child. The situation is so heartbreaking and frustrating. I feel as though I should do more, but realize doing ‘more’ may put me at the risk of coming across as judgemental or elitist. To just be there, provide a loving, safe environment for the child and a sounding board for the parent, for now, may be sufficient.

  4. krk Says:

    Bruce and commenters, Thank you for the heartening blog. I would further like to add that when we act in a “neighborly” fashion it encourages our kids to do the same.

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