My daughter’s alcoholism and recovery changed how I see the parable of the prodigal son

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[Editors’ note: This is part of America’s 2019 family issue. Click here to find our other stories on faith and today’s families.]

“Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found” (Lk 15:23–24).

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Like many of Jesus’ parables, the parable of the prodigal son in the Gospel of Luke features an all-male cast. There is the father, loving and merciful, the older son, judgmental and testy, and the younger son, thoughtless and hedonistic. I have been encouraged by many homilists over the years to cast myself in the role appropriate to my own situation and my own behavior, with the goal of gaining insight into the practice of my faith.

In my family right now, however, the pertinent roles are female. My husband is a loving father to our daughters, but recent family matters concern the women.

Earlier this year, I went to Mass with my sister, and prompted by the presider’s homily to cast ourselves in the Gospel drama, we talked in the car afterward.

“I’m afraid I’m the older son,” my sister said, which is how I have always characterized myself. My lifelong struggle with being overly judgmental has yet to be won. But then my sister said, “I’m the kid who always did the right thing, and I resented it when the kids doing the bad stuff didn’t get in trouble!” When she was younger, she would have enjoyed seeing those misbehaving kids pay.

I understand how relieved and joyful that father was to see his returning son “still a long way off” because I have been there.

My heart lurched as I suddenly realized that, thanks to some parental experience with kids doing the bad stuff, I can completely identify with the prodigal son’s father.

I understand how relieved and joyful that father was to see his returning son “still a long way off” because I have been there. There was a dark time in the life of one of my daughters when I dreaded answering a call from an unknown number on my phone. Dread is too mild a word, actually, because I was deeply afraid that some unwelcome call was going to be the notification that my daughter was dead.

A practicing alcoholic, she was out there, at the world’s mercy, her behavior rash and risky, and there was nothing I could do about it. When the call finally came, it was less-bad news: She was not dead but in jail. Among other charges, she had assaulted a police officer. I suspect she survived that encounter with the law because she was a white girl rather than a person of color, a thought that fills me with both gratitude and shame.

I tell this story with my daughter’s permission because she is now sober. She was lost and now, one day at a time, has been found. Like the father in the story, I have surely celebrated her return from the dead. I have wanted to put a ring on her finger and sandals on her feet. I see with the father’s eyes. He was merciful and compassionate, but mostly he was overcome with the relief of not having to bury a beloved child. I get this in my bones.

Do not ever let anyone say that sobriety is easy on a family: The return of a prodigal can spark consuming fires.

But my joy is tempered by the way this hopeful new chapter in my daughter’s life has given rise to some resentment among her sisters. Their reaction to her recovery has caught me off-guard, although it makes sense: They, like my sister, have been the kids doing the right thing, comparatively speaking. It is as though they were used to her being the one who messed up all the time, who caused their parents all the grief, and now they do not quite know what to make of her.

And as much as she presents this new, improved, self-aware person to them, as much as she wants them to trust her sobriety and integrity and honesty, they do not—not yet, anyway. Which she, in turn, does not understand. Why are they so judgmental? Why do they brush her aside so dismissively? Why are they holding onto their expectation of a return to her past prodigal ways?

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The brothers in the Gospel story do not seem to have been close. My daughters have been. They have different personalities, but they have always supported each other, a steadfast squad of blood sisters. Now there is turmoil among them, as this changing family dynamic rocks everybody’s place in it. Do not ever let anyone say that sobriety is easy on a family: The return of a prodigal can spark consuming fires.

Consider for a moment Steps Eight and Nine of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. The recovering alcoholic is to make a list of the people she has harmed and then make “direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Making these amends may involve offering an apology or paying back money or repairing some damage or somehow restoring a relationship. The one making amends does so in the hope of regaining someone’s trust.

In the Gospel story, the loving father is the one who tries to bridge the empathy gap between the siblings. That is now my role to attempt.

Imagine that you are in recovery and have made the incredibly difficult and humbling list of people you have hurt and have bravely offered an apology to a person who matters to you. But now imagine that the person you care about does not cooperate with your intentions by not hearing you out or by not accepting your offered amends or by not forgiving or by not even agreeing to see you. It is easy to imagine the older brother in the story rejecting the prodigal’s amends as inadequate or insincere or showboating. You can then imagine the younger brother’s surprise or hurt feelings or perhaps resentment at the rejection. In short, you can imagine the pain and turmoil that may accompany the 12 steps. Sobriety is a good thing, but in reality it can be more than a family can handle.

In the Gospel story, the loving father is the one who tries to bridge the empathy gap between the siblings. That is now my role to attempt. The problem is that I do not know if it works. Jesus’ story ends before we learn if the father’s efforts at reconciliation have been successful. I have lingering questions: Does the younger brother seek to make amends? Does the older brother set aside his bitterness and join the feast celebrating his brother’s return? Or does he keep himself apart, stuck in all-consuming judgment and antipathy?

I am not some wise person, adept at mending the rifts among my children. One of my sisters no longer speaks to me, so I am obviously not an expert in sorting out the problems sisters may have with each other. I am myself a broken link in a broken chain. I mourn the loss of a sisterly love that I once considered unbreakable. I know that blood is not always thick enough to prevail. My heart hurts at the divisions among my daughters, and I pray to find the words and the wisdom to be the bridge or at least the water they can each safely fall into as they try to cross.

The next time a homilist suggests that I cast myself in the Gospel reading, I will know that I am no longer the older sibling in the story. God help me, I am the parent.

[Editors’ note: This is part of America’s 2019 family issue. Click here to find our other stories on faith and today’s families.]

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
3 weeks 3 days ago

From the first time I heard it, I understood it. There, but for the grace of God go I. I wasn’t aware of that exact statement but understood a parent’s love for each of us no matter what we did.

Rhett Segall
3 weeks 3 days ago

How poignant and pertinent, Valerie! Thank you for sharing. In my immediate and extended family there are drug addicts and alcoholics. The family ties have been deep. Perhaps because of that the rifts connected with consequences of the addictions have been deep, very deep. One critical point in the Prodigal Son story is freedom, which J alludes to above. The younger son freely returns; the older son freely resents. We do what we can, realizing that ultimately the mystery of the human heart is God's domain.

Michael Bindner
3 weeks 3 days ago

We can identify with the father in receiving an amends, nut we must always move from being the older son to the prodigal. That is the whole point of Al-Anon. Many alcoholics qualify as both, especially as they practice Step 12 while carrying the message and practicing the steps in all of their affairs.

ROBERT FOLEY
3 weeks 3 days ago

Healing and forgiveness do occur but over time. But the proof is found with the recovering alcoholic. You get to step 8 and 9 in the sequence of the steps - never immediately. By grace freely given and received by the recovering alcoholic amends and forgiveness will be realized.
There is a a strong correlation between the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. Father Ed Dowling S.J. was a spiritual adviser to Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous

Susan Wilson
3 weeks 3 days ago

Valerie, do you notice that the centre of attention in your article is your prodigal daughter? She is the one who received the attention for being a drunk and out of control; now she is the one gaining your attention for her recovery. Maybe her sisters are tired of doing what they consider to be right and good and yet not receiving as much of your attention and time as their wayward sister? Do you think you may be acting in a judgmental manner toward your other daughters by expecting them to again be supportive of their recovering sister (as you are) rather than seeing their need for support? Possibly, rather than casting them as the judgemental brother from the story, you could instead see them as you beautiful daughters who have given you joy rather than heartache and appreciate them for who they are? If your daughter remains sober, your 'good' daughters will come around when they see a consistency of behaviour. This will happen more quickly if you stop expecting them to support their sister and instead provide them with your support and unconditional love.

Joan Sheridan
3 weeks 3 days ago

Your daughter assaulted a police officer. She was in jail and there were also other charges. You thought she survived the encounter with the law because she was white. I think she was treated fairly. What makes you think the police officer would have treated her differently if she was not white. After I read what you thought of the police officer I stopped reading. Do you even know a police officer?

Mary Therese LEMANEK
3 weeks 3 days ago

What makes her think that had her daughter been a person of color she would have been treated differently is the reality that we see in the news day in and day out. The reality that research has also shown to be true...people of color receive disproportionately harsh treatment at every stage of the process. People who are the beneficiaries of the systemic inequities often have a more difficult time appreciating what others experience day in and day out.

Zames Zeffery
3 weeks 3 days ago

I am a recovering alcoholic. Your story touched me deeply. I wish you and your family all the best. There is so much hope when one person gets well. The sister fellowship of al anon says "Alcoholism is a family disease". I recommend their program to you. It has been a great help to me in dealing with the sickness in other members of my family.
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mary cannon
3 weeks 3 days ago

I believe that the typical retelling of the story misses the last line. The father says something like “what is yours is yours” but I am happy my son is home. In other words, he doesn’t get half of what us left. He doesn’t get part of what would be his brother’s share. There are consequences to his behavior. Your daughter’s sisters distrust us a consequence of her behavior. It doesn’t go back to the way it use to be. What happens next will be determined in time. I dislike characterizing the good brother as bad. His distrust, his “what about me” is all part of the consequences the prodigal son must face. Forgiveness doesn’t mean it all goes back to the way it was before. Trust must be earned one day at a time.

mary cannon
3 weeks 3 days ago

I believe that the typical retelling of the story misses the last line. The father says something like “what is yours is yours” but I am happy my son is home. In other words, he doesn’t get half of what us left. He doesn’t get part of what would be his brother’s share. There are consequences to his behavior. Your daughter’s sisters distrust us a consequence of her behavior. It doesn’t go back to the way it use to be. What happens next will be determined in time. I dislike characterizing the good brother as bad. His distrust, his “what about me” is all part of the consequences the prodigal son must face. Forgiveness doesn’t mean it all goes back to the way it was before. Trust must be earned one day at a time.

arthur mccaffrey
3 weeks 3 days ago

and as Bishop Desmond Tutu said of the victims of apartheid in S. Africa, forgiveness is not a freebie that victims dispense willy nilly...forgiveness has to be earned by the offender to be truly deserved. I never really got the story of the prodigal son, since it put the "good" son in a bad light, and seemed to give the "prodigal" a free pass. Would like to have read more dialogue with the prodigal son to understand better what he intended to do with his life and what his plans were to ask forgiveness from all the people he had offended--like his older brother. The father always came across as a little bit eccentric in my reaction to the story--so I am not surprised that the faithful elder bro was annoyed. So I get the reaction of the sisters to their alcoholic sibling.

Oz Jewel
3 weeks 3 days ago

forgiveness in the New Testament is not about the offender earning it - it says quite clearly that EVERYBODY is a multiple offender and will not get forgiven by God if forgiveness of others is refused.
,,, forgive us our sins and we forgive those who sin against us ...

Denise Mccarthy
3 weeks 3 days ago

Aren’t we finding that substance abuse and addictions are illnesses not choices. If this daughter had had a physical illness, gone through treatment, and gotten well, would anyone be “judging?” I realize it is hard to see addiction as an illness and not a choice, and there must be some middle ground. Yes, it will take her sisters some time to gain trust, but if your recovered daughter stays the course, it will come.

Denise Mccarthy
3 weeks 3 days ago

Aren’t we finding that substance abuse and addictions are illnesses not choices. If this daughter had had a physical illness, gone through treatment, and gotten well, would anyone be “judging?” I realize it is hard to see addiction as an illness and not a choice, and there must be some middle ground. Yes, it will take her sisters some time to gain trust, but if your recovered daughter stays the course, it will come.

J Jones
3 weeks 3 days ago

Valerie, thank you for sharing your journey. What a blessing for your daughters that you seem aware they too are on their journeys, each story separate AND intertwined, each telling different. I wish you all safe travels.

Oz Jewel
3 weeks 3 days ago

What we can glean from this article is that the writer is not the Prodigal Parent depicted in the bible.

Of note, or discordantly, the issue of sex and race appear utterly unnecessarily and betray moral incoherence.

Mark Kuczewski
3 weeks 2 days ago

I don't know the people in this story so anything I say is meant humbly as constructive speculation. But, I think the older son in the parable also suffers from the problem that his role is being displaced. He was the "good son." There are now two good sons. That's not a possibility or an arrangement with which he has experience. He is now officially out of his comfort zone and there is no going back to it. Nevertheless, he will likely participate in dysfunctional behaviors that are suspicious and undermining of the prodgial son. Whether consciously or not, he craves a return to the old roles that he knows so well. I believe a lot of families go through this when an alcoholic member enters recovery. I think that early recovery is a great time for the rest of the family to consider attending some Al-Anon family groups or talk with a therapist with experience in family dynamics and recovery. It can be very helpful.

Patricia Fox
3 weeks 1 day ago

Beautifully written description of a condition with which I am personally familar. All the pain and suffering, while the child is actively abusing drugs or alcohol does not go away because someone has achieved sobriety. The damage to relationships will take a very long time until trust can be restored. And it may never happen. But, the parent never gets to say, "Enough is enough. I am done with you." Not to the child in recovery or the siblings who are still holding on to their anger. The dance continues and we pray that eventually forgiveness is felt and some form of "normalcy" is restored. And, so we persist!

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