Saturday, November 19, 2016

~ Helen ~ Grateful for My Sister and for the Gift of Healing Together

October 2015

“Hello. You’ve reached the Enchantment Resort and Spa.  How may I direct your call?”

“Yes, could you please connect me with Chi Ah Chi Restaurant?”

“It would be my pleasure. Please hold just a moment.”

As I waited for the transfer, my excitement grew thinking about the day of celebration being planned for my sister. I had carefully selected a perfect place – and as it states on their website, “A place curated exclusively for you.” What could be better? Strategically nestled among giant rock formations patterned with rings of chocolate lightly ensconced into the earth’s rich rust layers is one of Sedona’s most elegant places of indulgence – The Enchantment Resort and Spa. I wanted my sister’s 60th birthday to be special.  I wanted her to feel special. 

A warm inviting voice broke my momentary trance. “Good afternoon, Chi Ah Chi Restaurant. How may we help you?”

 “I would like to make a reservation, please, for brunch on Sunday, October 18th. There will be four people and I’d like to make it for 11:00 am?” Knowing how popular the resort is, I crossed my fingers hoping my two week advance request could be accommodated.

“Yes, we have a few tables available.  Would you prefer to be seated next to a window? And what is the name for the reservation?”

Calming my excitement, I requested a window seat and relayed my name. The hostess was just about to confirm with a reachable contact number when I jumped in with one more request. “This brunch is going to be a 60th birthday celebration for my sister.  I see you have some lovely deserts on your menu, but I was wondering if the chef could make something special…something chocolate and sort of decadent? You see…she loves chocolate.” 

With enthusiasm, the hostess responded, “Of course, Mrs. Kenley.  I will make a note to the chef to create a chocolate surprise for your sister! It will ready for you on the 18th. Just let your server know when you are seated.”

“Thank you so much!  I really appreciate it!” After confirming my contact information, we concluded our call. I was pleased with the beautiful birthday plans.  And although we would be celebrating almost a month after my sister’s actual birthday, I was confident she would feel no less loved or cherished.  

During the ensuing two weeks, I spent a lot of time thinking about my sister Helen.  It was still so strange to pick up the phone and call her, knowing she was just a few miles away.  We had lived apart for the bulk of our adult years – she and her husband Keith remaining in our central valley home town of Stockton, California, while my husband Dan and I lived most of our adult married life in the mountains of Southern California. After Dan and I relocated to Prescott, Arizona in 2011, Helen and Keith visited several times over the years, falling in love with Prescott’s mountainous beauty and her rustic charm.  Retirement for both Helen and Keith in June 2015 gave them the freedom to move away from Stockton.

In October 2015, they began a new chapter in their lives.

In October 2015, a new chapter began to unfold for Helen and me. 

Little did I know how grateful I would be for my sister and for the gift of healing together.


Helen is one of my two younger sisters. She is the third of four sisters and she is four years younger than me.  When I think back to our childhood growing up together, I have only warm loving memories of her and our relationship.  I remember when she was born. She was a good baby and she reminded me of a pretty doll.  Helen had big green eyes and sandy blonde hair.  She didn’t resemble anyone else in our family, and I secretly wished I looked like her!

Two years after Helen’s birth, another younger sister was born into our family.  Although I was only six at the time, I remember taking care of Helen along with help from my older sister. Because our family was quite dysfunctional – an alcoholic system riddled with a constant flow of angry outbursts and unwarranted criticism, combined with an authoritarian parenting style which was rigid and restrictive – my older sister and I quickly fell into the roles of parentified children. Helen was always sweet, kind, even-tempered, and generous. She was easy “to mother”, unlike our youngest sister who suffered from emotional problems and physiological disorders. I remember worrying about Helen, wondering if she received much of our mother’s attention which was largely taken up by the incessant and increasing demands of our youngest sister.  I know I felt the loss of a motherly presence, and I wondered how deeply Helen felt our mother’s emotional absence in our lives.

Although there are hundreds of wonderful memories with Helen, the one significant shift in our sister relationship took place when I was entering high school and she was about to start junior high. With financial help from my grandparents, my parents were able to remodel our home expanding it from three bedrooms to four bedrooms, with an additional bathroom and a large den.  When the remodel was done, there was a natural hierarchy which dictated that the two “older” sisters would each have a bedroom of their own while the two “younger” sisters would share. Two weeks after moving into my bright yellow new bedroom, my sweet sister Helen came to my room. Her big green eyes were filled with sadness and sorrow. She looked desperate.

“Holli, could I possibly move into your bedroom with you?  I can’t stand it any longer sharing with Kelly (the name I will give our youngest sister). She is awful…she is so mean. She is constantly screaming and crying.  And she stays up all night …I can’t go to sleep…”

Without a moment’s hesitation, I replied, “Of course, you can.  There’s plenty of room! You can have the twin bed next to the window and the dresser is plenty big.  Get your things!”

Helen and I shared our bright yellow room for the next four years. We decorated it with our little trinkets and the few possessions we each held so dear. We were both neat and organized.  I loved that!  We never fought or argued. It was just easy…and we both loved the sense of safety and trust in our relationship. And even after I left for college, when I came home during breaks or vacation, Helen and I shared our room and our clothes, told one another about our crushes and romantic escapades, and giggled late into the night with our secrets and stories.

Every time I would leave to go back to college, I again worried about Helen. The angry outbursts and explosive episodes in our home had escalated significantly over the years. Our parents were detached from the needs of their children and absorbed into their own. I could tell Helen was strong and was dealing with it in her own way, but as my giving gentle sister Helen generously organized and packed all my clothes for a study abroad program in France for my junior year, I wondered how well she would survive. I would learn later how incredibly tumultuous it was for her during my time away.

I believe that one of Helen’s saving graces was meeting the love of her life during her high school years. Keith, who eventually became her husband, was a strong support for Helen as well as a devoted husband. Although Helen and Keith moved away for their college educations, they returned to Stockton to grow their careers and start their family.  After a few years of separation due to additional pursuits in education, I too returned to Stockton securing a teaching job there.

For several years, Helen’s family and mine shared loving memories together.  Dinners out.  Our children becoming best of friends – close cousins. Holidays together at each other’s houses.  In fact, for two years Dan and I lived about six houses down the street from Helen and Keith.  Just as it was before, our relationship was easy…comfortable…and safe. During this time, although we didn’t discuss the difficulty and dysfunction within our family, we supported one another in unspoken ways.  At the time, neither of us had the understanding or the words to identify all that was wrong. That would come much later.

In 1987, Dan and I moved five hundred miles away to Southern California. For the next twenty years, Helen and I remained close. However, we were both busy with children, careers, and a constant stream of demands which befalls young couples. I was so proud of Helen when she returned to school after her sons were a little older to finish her Bachelor’s Degree and obtain her teaching credential. Aside from being an amazing teacher and a dedicated wife and mother, Helen took over all holiday and celebration responsibilities for our family in Stockton. For thirty years, she prepared Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners. She always went out of her way to make Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and our parents’ birthdays special, cooking their favorite dishes to their exact specifications. Although I knew of Helen’s desire to be a loving daughter to our parents, I knew these tasks were not easy. Regardless of the time and effort she put into making a “perfect meal”, time after time celebrations were ruined by the same dysfunctional alcoholic family patterns of our past. I often wondered how much of toll it was taking on her.
Over the years, we visited one another and remained close. As I embraced my own recovering along with learning about the dynamics of alcoholic family systems, I began sharing my new-found knowledge a little at a time with both Helen and my older sister.  I remember giving them books on codependency and sharing what I had learned, hoping it would help them with understanding our past as well as our present. After attending AL-ANON for several years, I recall how encouraged I was when Helen began attending as well. After obtaining my Master’s in Psychology and becoming a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, I was mindful about not placing my expectations of wellness on my sisters, understanding and accepting that each of us has our own journey. I know there were times when I failed at remaining silent about about how our past and present unhealthy family dynamic had impacted each of us and about the importance of making healthy choices for ourselves and in our relationships with our parents. I remember feeling badly about it and wondered if my sisters felt judged by me or were made to feel less than – just as our parents had done to us.  Because I deeply cherished my friendship with Helen and the special bond which we had shared for so many years, I re-focused on my journey of recovering and worked hard at respecting hers.

Little did I know how our different paths would intersect and how we would heal in unison, leaning on the strengths and truths of one another.


Glancing up at my wall calendar, I see that there are just a three days before Helen’s birthday brunch. Feeling excited, I do what most sisters do. I call Helen to discuss what we will wear to this place which is “especially curated for us”!

Punching in her number, I think about how I have taken to calling Helen “Honey”.  “Honey” is actually a diminutive which my sisters and I have used with our children and they with us. And even in their adult relationships with one another, they continue using it! “Honey” is also a family name and was used by a relative of ours whose birth name was Helen. It feels so natural to call Helen “Honey”; it suits her perfectly.  And yet, I want to check in with her and make sure she feels respected by my usage of it.

“Hi, Honey.  Are you busy for minute?”

“No.” Her voice raised slightly in intonation.

“I wanted to ask what you were thinking of wearing to The Enchantment Resort.  Do you want to do dressy, or smart casual (a phrase we adopted from “cruise attire protocol”), or other? I think it is going to be a lovely warm day.”

Helen responded excitedly describing her options.  I too shared mine.  We determined that "smart casual" summer dresses were in order with light sweaters in case it turned cool. Of course, we had the shoe conversation and then confirmed our departure time and plans for the day.

Ending the call, I was determined to make Helen’s birthday a day of love, joy, and blessing. Most importantly, I wanted to keep the focus on her and not on our mutual pain. So, over the next couple of days, I worked hard placing the previous six months of family trauma and turmoil into their respective cognitive compartments. However, as it often did, my mind drifted to the horrific events of last spring and replayed them.


In the mid-morning of Wednesday, April 8th, 2015, I spoke with my elderly father by phone, something we did several times a week.  I knew he was failing.  At 86 years old, his health had been fragile for a couple of years and an open wound on his leg which had plagued him on and off for most of his adult life was beyond treatment. Sensing his depressive state, I offered up a few options, none of which he found viable.   We said our goodbyes with a commitment on my part to check into Hospice.

On the morning of Friday, April 10th, 2015, I called my older sister after not being able to reach my parents.  Although she lives two hours away from Stockton, I knew she would try to get a hold of them – either by phone or by driving to their home. Although Helen and Keith were both working, my sister notified them and they quickly intervened.

What felt like an eternity but within a relatively short period of time, first-responders arrived at our parents’ home along with Helen, Keith and their older son. What was discovered at the scene was horrifying. Both our mother and father had methodically planned, carried out, but had not completed a dual suicide. An overdose of medications had not granted them their last wish, but instead had cast the final layers of brokenness onto an already fractured family.  Both parents were still alive; however, our father was in very critical condition. Our mother, serious but stable. Both were taken to the hospital.

Although I remained in Prescott, I stayed in close contact with both of my sisters attempting to keep a pulse on the whirlwind of events and emotions. However, with the entrenched dysfunctional patterns of our family, the terror and trauma of the attempted suicides and their ensuing physiological and psychological impact on our parents’ lives and on ours created an even more chaotic and unstable dynamic than our pasts had previously prepared us. With the parental hierarchy shattered, so was the fragile homeostasis which hung by a thread.  The ensuing days were filled with episodic bouts of reactivity and rage, calamity and confusion. A family lay in ruins.

Within a week, our father was moved back to his home where he wanted to be and where he passed Thursday, April 16th, 2015, under Hospice care. Our mother was moved to a nursing/rehabilitation home where she proceeded to recover. During her time in recovery, I called her frequently. With emotions raw and tender, I worked hard at having honest and open conversations with her, something our family rarely did. However, our mother began accusing Helen and my older sister of unconscionable acts such as stealing money from bank accounts and material items from her home. In checking in with Helen by phone, she too was experiencing first-hand accusations and was trying to make sense out of the craziness.

By mid- May 2015, although our mother was physically stronger she was beyond trying to reason with.  In a desperate attempt to salvage some semblance of our family’s wreckage, I placed a phone call to my mother while she was still in the rehabilitation home. I asked her if we could speak, candidly and honestly. I asked her to listen. She agreed. And I agreed to listen to her as well. For the next two hours, I begged her to acknowledge the truth about aspects of our family history. I defended every accusation levied at my sisters (and at times myself), and I pleaded with her to restore some kind of relationship with us. Our mother denied responsibility for her actions (both past and present), continued to cast blame on my sisters, and chose to disown them and me.

The level of pain I remember feeling at the time was mirrored by one person only –
 my sister Helen. 

After the events of that spring and during the summer, she and Keith traveled to Prescott a couple of times planning and organizing the building of their future home. Although we were talking frequently by phone, it was her in-person presence which brought incredible comfort and solace. She and Keith typically stayed in a motel, but we ate our meals at our home and spent as much time together as possible. We talked for hours and hours, cautiously and carefully processing the events of April and grieving the multitude of betrayals and losses. We cried together. We held one another. We told each other how much we loved one another.  Our husbands, too, grieved with us. Our collective pain was palpable. It was like a heavy blanket wrapped around us holding us together, keeping us from falling apart.

In October 2015, Helen and Keith moved to Prescott settling into a comfortable rental with their house under construction. And just like it was when Helen moved into the bright yellow bedroom, the closeness was there. It was easy and natural. And yet I wondered, were we ready to tackle what was under the blanket of pain? Were we each willing to speak our truths and would we be able to navigate them respectfully? And although we shared many familial pieces and connections, given our different personas and life experiences, would we each be willing to be transparent about our past or present injuries and injustices from within our family and honor them accordingly? Could we find safe common ground to move forward?

I thought about the bright yellow bedroom once more. Being together had served us both well. 
I trusted it would again.


November 2016

While writing away at my desk on an unusually warm November afternoon, I received a text from Helen. I opened it.
“I wanted to check and see if you and Dan would like to come to dinner here Sunday for your birthday?” The words are followed by emojis of a wine glass, a piece of cake, and a celebration noise maker.

I waited for a bit until I reached a stopping point in my writing and then I called Helen.  I left a voice message saying how sweet and kind the invitation is.  And of course, we would love to come! I also asked if they were up to going to a movie later in the week. I then texted Helen that I left a voice message at her home phone.

As I look at our backlog of texts, they are all very similar.  Arranging for dinners out, especially at our favorite Mexican place. Dinners at each other’s houses. Movies together.  Attending one of many events around town or listening to a local group of musicians. Short trips out of town once in a while.  And of course, lots of lots of conversation!
Thinking over the past year, this fall is much different than last year. Although there is still some residual pain and perhaps there always will be, the time that Helen and I and our husbands spend together is much lighter. There is laughter! We are building new memories - individually, as couples, and as a family.  This has come with much hard work. This has come with a commitment on both our parts to do things differently than our family did growing up.  Although there are many facets to our journey, Helen and I have purposely navigated our tender territory embracing several key recovering principles.

First and foremost, Helen and I have committed to speaking the truth – the full truth. 
This means there will be no more secrets, half-truths, covering up or sweeping stuff under the rug.  It means being completely honest and open about issues within our family and/or our perceptions of the past. It means that each of us is transparent about our choices, and we each hold ourselves accountable for them, without deflecting blame elsewhere. This commitment also requires us to be vulnerable about how our family’s dysfunction affected and impacted us and how it continues to do so. This degree of truthfulness has established and continues to establish a solid foundation of trust between us. And although today, our disclosures are not as frequent as they once were, when something comes up we address it in a timely manner. As we often ask of one another, “I'm struggling a bit and I'm wondering if we could talk. Is it ok to check in?” An example from a year ago comes to mind.

I remember last November sitting in my living with Helen and Keith. After having a difficult day regarding a family issue which surfaced unexpectedly, I called and asked them to come over. They did so immediately. For the next five hours, I talked and they listened. They talked and I listened. Dan joined in the conversation later in the day. At times, we cried.  And we grieved more uncovered loss.  More secrets exposed and more betrayals revealed. As difficult as it has been confronting the chronic unhealthiness of our family, both Helen and I, along with our husbands, have found comfort in the joining together of our truths. As our bond of honesty continues to flourish, it serves us well, providing us with a strong healthy bridge from which to navigate the pain from our past and to nurture us on the healing road ahead.

The second extraordinary healing principle to our shared journey - honoring and respecting one another's  process - actually came about very naturally. 
I suppose it is because of our personalities and the relationship which Helen and I have shared all of our lives.  Although I am four years older, I have always felt we are equals. Even as a little girl, Helen was mature and wise. She was grounded in her thoughts. I knew she had to be. However, we never argued or fought. There was never a power or control issue between us. We never told each other what to do or what not to do.  And so, as Helen and I have opened up our hearts and shared our heartache with one another, we have also both been naturally mindful and respectful of what each needed to do in order take care of herself. We both have honored the space and time each has required to do so. The following example is just one of many.

Over the past year as other family dynamics have shifted, I have chosen to shore up boundaries and create spaces from unhealthy relationships. I have never asked Helen to do same, nor has she with me. Neither of us has ever spoken words such as “You need to….” or “You should….”. Neither one of us has positioned ourselves in a place of superior wellness or dictated the terms of it. Helen and I are committed to not placing expectations on one another or judging one another’s place of healing. We respect where each of us is.  We support one another unconditionally.

The third principle that Helen and I have blended into our journey requires an incredible commitment of  selfless hard work and it demands a high level of emotional regard for one another. 
After having worked with couples and families in therapy for many years, I learned that one of the most challenging pieces for two or more individuals healing together, especially within a family, is the integration of each individuals’ life experiences along with his/her interpretations of them into the process. When there are deeply entrenched dysfunctional patterns, it is very common for one or more family members to cast blame on other members and/or for one or more family members to feel his/her position is the “right one”.  Unhooking couples or individuals from unhealthy “scapegoating” or from rigid self-righteous mindsets requires a selfless suspension of one’s beliefs and needs in order to be fully present for another’s. When this is accomplished, healing takes hold.

And thus, every time I reflect upon our different paths and perceptions, I am humbled by the unconditional positive regard that Helen and I have held for one another. This has been and continues to be the integral part of our recovering together which distinguishes and separates it completely from the unhealthy patterns of our family. As we each have revealed the pain-filled pieces of injury and injustice from our past, each of us has served as a safe harbor for one another – a loving accepting sister filled with empathy and compassion. If our perceptions of events, relationships, or issues differ because of diverse life experiences or choices, each of us has deliberately and consciously chosen to suspend those beliefs and assumptions in order to be present and available for the other.  Although a vivid example of this happened many months ago, its healing legacy plays over and over in my mind.

Helen and Keith were over our house for dinner.  We were all standing in the kitchen gabbing away as usual.  Often Helen and I will revisit fun memories of time together sharing our room and of our teen years.  We laughed as Helen described how she always turned down my bed at night when I came home from a date. We chuckled even more as I described how my younger sister Helen “taught me some things about boys” after she started dating Keith.  Our conversation moved into the time where I was studying abroad in France and Helen shared how difficult and tumultuous that year was. With our  mother going through an undiagnosed depressive episode followed by a psychotic break and our father’s anger reaching new peaks, Helen was the recipient of repeated verbal attacks and assaults. As I listened intently to my sister, my heart swelled with empathy. I looked into her big green eyes and felt her hurt. I imagined her feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness over the chaos in our home and of the careless disregard for her being.  Although I had heard pieces of her narrative in earlier years, this time was different. With the magnitude of it all and with our mutual love for one another, I responded, “I am sorry…. I am so sorry you had to endure that….you deserved so much much more than that. I’m sorry…”  Our eyes connected with understanding and with unconditional regard. In that moment in time, Helen’s spirit entered into my port of empathy and docked safely there.  I held her there, just as she had done for me many times over the past eighteen months.

What makes this exchange incredibly meaningful is that although I had healed my relationship with our father many years earlier, it was imperative as we continued healing together that I meet Helen in her pain and join in with understanding. To do otherwise negates her truths and her voice. To do otherwise re-injures her.  For me, and I know for Helen, the mere thought of inviting a morsel of hurt into one another’s life is simply not an option.

What Helen and I have managed to accomplish has been purposeful and intentional. It has been based on truth. It has been hard work. Courageously embracing transparency with one another and trusting in that process is not easy. Being fully present for someone who has experienced tremendous injury is not easy. Being completely still with someone who is in pain, being able to let go of one’s own beliefs and expectations, and being an available and accepting safe harbor for someone else is not easy. 

What Helen and I have learned is that anything worthwhile rarely is. 
What Helen and I have come to know and trust is that we wouldn’t have it any other way.


Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away.  Although Dan and I are especially looking forward to spending a few days with our daughter and her husband in California prior to Thanksgiving, we will return in time to celebrate the actual day with Helen and Keith along with members of their family.  Helen and I have been planning our meals and divvying up the tasks. Although I am great at making the cranberry sauce, the yams, and l love making gravy, I am horrible at deserts! That is Helen’s expertise!  She makes a mean apple and pumpkin pie as well as to-die-for brownies! My mouth starts to water as I imagine biting into one of her chocolate delights. Unexpectedly, my mind flashes back to Helen’s birthday brunch over a year ago – and to her chocolate surprise.

“Excuse me for just a minute.” As Helen, Keith, and Dan finished up their delicious brunch entrees, I slipped away from the table to find our server.  Although they looked a little anxious about my rather quick departure, I was on a mission to see if Helen’s chocolate decadent birthday desert had been prepared by the chef.

Worried that they might see where I was headed, I looked back in the direction of our table before heading towards the kitchen.  Three sets of eyes were gazing out the massive windows taking in the majestic red bounty of beauty surrounding Chi Ah Chi Restaurant.

Within a few moments, I located our server who confirmed that Helen’s desert was prepared and awaiting its arrival.  I returned to our table, fielding questions about my sudden exit.

“Are you feeling ok?” Helen asked. 

I smiled and reassured her all was well. Shortly, our plates were cleared and our server arrived with a large chocolate treasure flowing in wavy shades of filling and smooth rich layers of cake. I think I remember a few small scoops of ice cream floating about the dish before a barrage of forks descended upon the magnificent creation!  We all laughed, devouring it as if no brunch had preceded it.  

I smile as I think about that memory. I remember how surprised Helen was and how something so small made her feel so special.  I think about all that has taken place since then. The talks. The truths. The transparency. The hard work. And…the empathic harbors where we both found a safe place to rest our weary hearts and release the heaviness within.

My eyes well with tears recalling the words Helen spoke to me after many long hours of processing our pain and reaching the other side of it. One evening after dinner as we tenderly said our “good-nights” and hugged each other tightly, she gently whispered,
 “Holli, you saved my life.”

Instantly, the image of the bright yellow bedroom - a cocoon of safety, trust, and love -  flooded my mind and swept through my soul.

To my sweet Helen, I want you to know,
 “I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.  
I am grateful for my sister and for the gift of healing together.”

Thank you, Helen and Keith, for allowing me to share our story publicly.
~ I Love You ~

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