From Insanity to Serenity: Kathy Pooler


Cultural differences, as I love to point out, are all around us.

Depending upon where and how we grew up, the ways in which we view the world — even among Americans — can vary tremendously. What we see as right and wrong, good and bad, strong or weak, fun or not, are moderated by what we call “culture.” Since it is our own culture, by and large, that we take as “normal,” when confronted with a different culture, we can be somewhat thrown, at least at first.

How we maneuver across this my-culture vs. your-culture border (i.e., my normal vs. your normal) is the ongoing focus of my blog. And, fortunately for me, cultural differences can be interpreted quite broadly.

Today’s guest blog post helps do just that.

Memoir author Kathy Pooler tells her story of maneuvering across the “border” that separated her from her alcoholic son. She offers 9 steps that helped bring her from the insanity that living with an alcoholic loved one brings, to the serenity she enjoys today.

As I said, “cultural differences” can be broadly interpreted.

First her bio.   Then her story.

Author Kathy Pooler
Author Kathy Pooler

Kathleen Pooler
is a writer and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner who is working on a memoir and a sequel about how the power of hope through her faith in God has helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments:  domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer, and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

She blogs weekly at her Memoir Writer’s Journey blog and can be found on TwitterLinkedIn, Google+, Goodreads, Facebook , her Facebook Author PagePinterest, Tumbler, and Wattpad.

Kathy is also the inveterate supplier of wisdom, guidance, and support for aspiring social media neophytes — like me —  at her blog, Memoir Writer’s Journey.


One of her stories “The Stone on the Shore” was published in the anthology: “The Woman I’ve Become: 37 Women Share Their Journeys From Toxic Relationships to Self-Empowerment” by Pat LaPointe, 2012.




Another story: “Choices and Chances” was published in the  “My Gutsy Story Anthology” by Sonia Marsh, September, 2013.



Kathy, I give you the floor:


From Insanity to Serenity: A Mother’s Story About Living with and Loving An Alcoholic Son.


I looked at the poster on the wall depicting a tornado. The caption underneath read: Living with an alcoholic loved one is like being in the middle of a tornado. The stark images of furniture and debris swirling around in the darkness matched the feelings that brought me to my first Al-Anon meeting in 1990. It wasn’t just me, I thought, as I sat quietly waiting for others to gather around the table. Brian was fifteen and I was a single parent of him and his seventeen-year-old sister, Leigh Ann


Brian was my kind-hearted, beautiful boy who stole my heart from the moment our eyes locked when he popped into the world, all squirmy and bright-eyed. He was a happy little guy who seemed to take things in stride, content to play with his Matchbox cars or share his Popsicle with a friend.
Somewhere between being a model fourth grader to becoming a teenager, he developed a surly, manipulative and defiant stance that he did not outgrow as he moved into his young adult years. I found out in the family meeting at the end of his first stint in a drug rehabilitation program in 1990 that he had his first drink when he was twelve. How could I have missed that? I needed rehabilitation too.


Where did he come from? What happened to that sensitive little boy who loved to play baseball and climb trees in our backyard? He might just as well have been from a foreign country. We were not speaking the same language or even living on the same planet it seemed.


The first time I saw him drunk is etched in my memory as if it happened yesterday. He was fourteen years old. We had moved from Missouri to New York State three weeks before this devastating moment:


“He stumbled, reeled and fell on the floor at my feet as I looked on in horror and disbelief. His dark eyes, flashing and blazing from some unknown odorless substance, were fixed somewhere beyond me while I was locked in the reality of the moment. A searing pain in its rawest form pierced me, sending my heavy heart crashing down onto my churning stomach. The panic tried to escape as I struggled to find my next breath.

“No, Brian, please no, not this,” I cried, deep wracking sobs that left me weak and shattered.”

My handsome, sensitive young son, developing and growing into manhood, was slipping away.”


The tears, confusion, chaos — insanity– lasted for years to come as he cycled in and out of rehabs, homelessness, jail, and institutions. When your child is suffering, you are suffering. In between times, he experienced significant periods of recovery and productivity. Each relapse was worse but each recovery brought him to a new and better level of function. All he had to do was survive his relapse.


I hung on tightly to the reins of that young stallion on his first run of spring until I finally let go of my need to control his life. Trust me, it didn’t happen quickly or easily and I vacillated back and forth until one snowy night when I let him walk away in a snowstorm because I knew it was my only choice and his only chance. He was twenty-six years old.


I’m not feeling insane anymore. I still hurt when life doesn’t go well for my children but by the grace of God, Al-Anon and my family and friends, I am living a life of serenity. I know I can only be responsible for myself and my own happiness. The love has always and will always be there but my son and I are free to live our own lives. At thirty-eight, Brian is sober, one day at a time, and we are enjoying a loving mother-son relationship.


Today, as I look back, I realize life didn’t turn out the way I had dreamed it would.


So how come I feel so joyful now?

How come I am living life on my own terms and loving it?

How come I am so grateful for the life I have lived?


I’m not an expert on life, but I do have to admit I am an expert on my own life. Here’s how I’ve maintained a positive attitude and brought myself into a state of serenity. Originally posted here.

I don’t profess to have all the answers, but this is what has worked in reconciling the differences between Brian and me:

1. Self-Acceptance 

This means getting in touch with MY uniqueness, needs, desires, flaws, and humanness. If I can view myself this way, I can view others who are different from me, in a nonjudgmental way. I don’t have to LIKE the behavior but I can still love the person. But this is a lifelong process, with many twists and turns, which leads me to the next point:

2. Self-Forgiveness

As I write my memoir, I have come face-to-face with the mistakes, missteps, and foolhardy decisions of my past. Confronting the pain of these decisions has enabled me to move beyond them; to view them as lessons and opportunities to change and grow. The ability to forgive myself and others clears the path for healing.

3. Make Obstacles Work For You

Sometimes our greatest obstacles can lead to our greatest blessings. Somewhere along the line, I learned on a gut level that most of the time people act the way they do for their own reasons, which have nothing to do with me. I don’t have to take their misbehaviors personally. This helped me look beyond my son’s erratic, disrespectful behaviors and see the symptoms of an underlying illness requiring professional intervention.


 4. Attitude is Everything

 I know there are a lot of things in life I don’t have control over, but I do have control over how I respond to whatever life throws at ME. It helped me to think positive thoughts and convey them to Brian.


 5. Gratitude

 When I focus MY thoughts and energies on all I have to be grateful for, there is little room for negative thinking.


6. Develop a Support System

Al-Anon was my lifeline for many years.


 7. Nurture My Soul

For me, it has been my Catholic faith — attending Mass and saying the rosary — Al-Anon, friends, family, exercise, journaling, playing the piano. I had to find what works FOR ME, just as I respect others’ right to do the same.


8. Honor Myself

Know MY needs and MY boundaries. Learn to say NO as a complete sentence (Al-Anon saying).


9. Hope Matters

And perhaps the most important for me: never, ever give up hope.


These are just a few ways that have helped me find serenity while loving an alcoholic son. As they say in Al-Anon, Live and let live.



How about you? How do you find serenity when someone you love is acting in a way you neither understand nor agree with? Please share your thoughts below.



Thanks so much Kathy. I love the question you posed for my readers: “… when someone … is acting in a way you neither understand nor agree with.”  That sentence  highlights for me how the differences we face, even within our own family, have much in common with the differences we would face, immersed in a different culture. The specifics would be different, certainly, but how we negotiate them, remains strikingly familiar.


36 Responses

  1. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    This is a moving story, Kathy, brave and true. This sentence really resonated with me: “Most of the time people act the way they do for their own reasons, which have nothing to do with me. I don’t have to take their misbehaviors personally.”

    That statement is at the heart of the twisted behavior of our host in Ukraine featured in My Gutsy Story (December 2013). How wonderful we can write stories out of victory, not defeat, sharing the wisdom. Having survived by father’s physical abuse, I steadfastly refuse to act like a victim. Thank you, Janet, for publishing this story today with 9 hopeful tips.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Marian, thanks for your comment and support. “How wonderful we can write stories out of victory, not defeat…” Indeed. That says it all.

  2. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    HI Marian, I too love the idea of “writing our stories out of victory, not defeat.” I find when I share my story with others, it nourishes my own hope. Hope begets hope. Thanks so much for stopping buy and commenting.

    And Janet, it is such an honor to be your guest this week. I agree, cultural differences come in many forms and we often don’t have to go very far to experience it.


  3. Kelly Boyer Sagert
    | Reply

    Self forgiveness can be such a stumbling block . . . I think we often expect more out of ourselves (particularly as mothers) than we’d ever expect out of someone else. Thought provoking post! Thanks for sharing.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Kelly,
      “…we often expect more out of ourselves (particularly as mothers) than we’d ever expect out of someone else.” Great comment; thank you. How true. Between Kathy’s post and your comment, my blog for next week is starting to take shape. That’s what conversation does so well, triggers us down avenues we might not otherwise have traveled.

  4. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Thanks, Kelly. I appreciate your comments and agree, forgiving ourselves is often more difficult than forgiving others. But, I have found, once I got past myself, it was a freeing and empowering experience. Thanks for your comment.


  5. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    For me self-forgiveness came when I could separate the “I did something really awful,” from the “I am awful.” The first is simply embarrassing, while the second is shame based.

    I think of all the times I pointed to words on the board in my classrooms in Kazakhstan, only to learn months later that, in Kazakhstan, pointing with one’s index finger is the equivalent of “flipping someone the bird.” At first I was mortified. Those old “I am awful” messages kicked in and for the next few minutes I wanted to run and hide. Then, when I “got past myself” as Kathy says, and stepped back a bit, I was talked about it with my students. I told them how hard it was for me to stop doing something that came so automatically. I asked for their understanding and patience. They were actually quite understanding. “It’s OK. You’re an American,” they told me, a reaction I hadn’t expected.

    Humility comes to mind. I think I needed to find humility first, then I learned self-forgiveness. What would you say, Kathy? Was that your experience?

    • Kelly Boyer Sagert
      | Reply

      Interesting that you bring up humility, Janet! I think that having a sense of humility helps that person forgive other people, knowing that he/she isn’t so perfect, either. And, when other people display the characteristic of humility, they’re easier to forgive.

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        I agree, Kelly. Humility for me was long confused with humiliation. I couldn’t attempt one without fearing the second.

        • Kelly Boyer Sagert
          | Reply

          Humility must be the theme of the week. I’m reading Writing Begins With the Breath and here is a quote: In the Western mind, humility seems connected to punishment, but that could hardly be further from the truth. It doesn’t help that our word “humiliation” is to close to the word “humility,” either.

  6. Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living
    | Reply

    Thank you Janet for hosting Kathleen. This is the first time I’ve read excerpts from your memoir Kathy. I am feeling the pain you went through as I remember my oldest son at sixteen, and his behavior towards his family. I felt like a stranger in my own house and hated not being able to relax and comfortable at home.

    • Kathleen Pooler
      | Reply

      Sonia, I think even under the best of circumstances, dealing with adolescents has the potential to be extremely challenging. My daughter did not have an alcohol problem but she certainly created havoc. She often asks me how I ever tolerated her! She is wonderful as is my son and the only thing I can think of is once we get past those tumultuous years ( and I know not all adolescents are difficult), we can enjoy our children and appreciate them for who they are. It reminds me of the quote: ” Adolescence is like sea-sickness. It’s only funny in retrospect” You did the ultimate to get your son away from all the bad influences and give him a chance to survive/thrive by moving your entire family to Belize. We all have to be “gutsy” to survive bringing up our adolescents!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Sonia, Thanks so much for swinging by. I remember the description of your son in your book Freeways to Flipflops, and how very real you made that time; all too reminiscent of my own “year of living dangerously.” It also reminded me of what an old neighbor of mine once said to me, “When they turn 13, every kid in America should pack up and move one house down.” Thanks again.

  7. Linda Austin
    | Reply

    Wow, Kathy, this is painful to read. Struggling with my own teen and her issues, only recently realizing I have to let go and let her take responsibility. So hard! Some people have to find their own way – the hard way – and come to their own realizations. This post is timely for me, and your tips good for anyone dealing with another’s difficult behavior. I’m sure many of us with teenagers wonder what planet they came from!

    • Kathleen Pooler
      | Reply

      I agree, Linda, letting go is so painful and yet so freeing for both the parents and the adolescent. Yes, everyone finds their own path, some easier than others. “..many of us with teenagers wonder what planet they came from” Love it. So true. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Linda, always nice to have you hear. “What planet they come from,” I love it. There could be a book, “teenagers are from Mars; parents are from Venus” or some variation. You are so right, it is all in letting go. I like to say, “everything I ever let go of has claw marks all over it.” (not original with me; I just stole it so long ago I can’t recall who I stole it from). Glad you’re here.

  8. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, in answer to your question about self-forgiveness, in my experience, the first step was to accept my humanness and embrace my imperfections. It’s OK not to be perfect! It helped me to not take myself so seriously. Of course, I did for many years and that clearly was not working for me. Having a life-threatening illness broke down my defenses and helped me to see my life as a gift. I gained the gift of perspective. In the grand scheme of things, what really matters? For me it’s to appreciate my life everyday. Every one of us has a battle we are fighting. We need to be kind to others, know our own boundaries and treat ourselves as we would treat our best friend. OK, I’m off my soapbox! Does this answer your question?

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Kathy. Indeed it does. “… to accept my humanness…” What a good definition of humility.

  9. Shirley Hershey Showalter
    | Reply

    Kathy, and Janet, I found this story very moving. I am past the time of mothering teenagers, but I look at my sweet grandson and daughter and think about your description of your dear boy and think how painful it would be to see these precious ones go off the rails.

    Letting go is one of the hardest lessons of parenthood, and of life!

    Finally, Kathy, you discovered the same thing I did. When you use the lens of another writer’s story (culture in this case), you see new things in your own.

    Janet, thanks for offering this space for all writers to think with you about culture!

    • Kathleen Pooler
      | Reply

      HI Shirley, I look at my own precious grandsons today and pray they will find their way in the world without too much difficulty. I agree, letting go can be excruciating but necessary in the grand scheme of things.
      Yes, seeing my story through Janet’s cultural lens has been very enlightening. I never really thought of the experience as being culturally-based but I certainly felt a sense of alienation from the culture my son had chosen to participate in.
      Thanks so much for your comments.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hey Shirley. How nice to have you join our tete a tete. I like to think of this space in terms of seeing how we might better maneuver across that gap between “my way of seeing the world” and “your way of seeing the world.”

      As our world becomes smaller and we are confronted with situations and people and cultures that challenge our traditional way of viewing the world, I really do think having the skills to negotiate those difference peacefully and nonjudgmentally is vital. I think the steps Kathy gave us in her story are as applicable for the Danish cartoon controversy (the image that began this journey I’ve been on) as they were for Kathy in confronting her son and his “different way of seeing the world.”

      In a very real sense, it doesn’t matter WHY they see the world differently (cultural mores, disease, or personality). What I’m trying to do here in this “space” (I love that term; thank you for using it) is to have folks see how they deal, react, feel when faced with these differences. It is easier for some than others. I’m glad Kathy’s story has resonated with so many.

      I feel like I’m getting preachy here; don’t mean to. This is such an important mission for me. And I’m so delighted that having Kathy here this week has brought more voices into the mix.

  10. Dody
    | Reply

    A breathe of fresh air, Kathy. Although I did not have children to rescue, my attempts to rescue so many others tied my spirit, my identity and self-worth into knots until I awakened to realize that I was the one in need of rescue. It is powerful, this ability to pause, consider and freely be able to say, “No.” Though our storylines are different, I resonate deeply with your journey and look forward to reading your memoir.
    Thanks so much, Janet, for featuring Kathy!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Dody and Welcome. I’ve buzzed over to your blog, Treasured Encounters, and enjoyed your sister’s story. Took me back an era or two. Thanks for that. And I love how your blog focuses on “the nuances in my encounters with others.” Sounds intriguing.

      I too love the word “No.” Sometimes it helps me to remember I’m not just saying “no” to someone else; I’m saying “Yes” to me, and I’m the one I have to live with. Hope you come back.

  11. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Hi Dody, Nice to see you here! I appreciate your thoughts on this. I think those of us who have caretaking tendencies can get burned out whether we have children or not. I finally learned that the best thing I can do for loved ones was to take care of myself. And I agree, NO as a complete sentence can be very empowering. Thanks for your kind comments.

  12. Carol Bodensteiner
    | Reply

    What a powerful story, Kathy. So many things going on in peoples’ lives that we know nothing about! Your words on self forgiveness resonate with me. Like you, in writing a memoir about my first marriage, I had to “come face-to-face with the mistakes, missteps, and foolhardy decisions of my past.” Forgiving oneself for actions that hurt others is a major mountain. I’ve found that self forgiveness is not a one-time deal because the hurts continue to surface. But it is the path to healing. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Kathleen Pooler
      | Reply

      Thanks Carol. I totally agree, self-forgiveness is not a one-time deal. It took me years to be willing to look at myself honestly, accept my flaws and forgive myself. It reminds me of the Anais Nin quote:” And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” It is so freeing when we accept ourselves as we are and move on. Indeed, it is a path to healing. I appreciate your insights. Thank you for sharing!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Carol. I’m so glad you joined our conversation. This sentence jumped out at me: “Forgiving oneself for actions that hurt others is a major mountain.” I couldn’t agree more. It is a major mountain. In my experience, that first time is the biggest mountain of all. Once I got over that “hump,” all the (many) other “opportunities” for self-forgiveness seemed to be (and continue to be) easier. Thanks for your input. I’m looking forward to your new book out this spring.

      • Carol Bodensteiner
        | Reply

        It may seem a little silly on its face, but acknowledging I was not perfect – that I was human – that I was doing the best I could with what I had at the time – was a step in the right direction.

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          Carol, you’ve summed up beautifully what we mean by “being human and therefore not perfect.” Doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Thanks for that.

  13. Pat
    | Reply

    Thanks, Janet, for bringing us Kathy. I have followed her advice from afar in Switzerland ever since we first met. I am going to print out her 9 steps and post them over my desk. That wisdom can be applied to any conflict, help in enduring any setback and empower in the worst circumstances. Certainly finding serenity when dealing with anyone loved one facing an addiction is difficult, even more so when that loved one is a son or daughter.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Pat, Yes indeed. What I found exciting in Kathy’s list is how many of them figured in how I dealt with the initial frustrations of my cultural immersion when in the Peace Corps. I’m planning to write about it soon. So glad you popped over to join us. Please come back.

  14. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Pat, it’s so nice to see you here. I’m thrilled you and Janet have connected. I very much appreciate your kind feedback. When I wrote those 9 steps, I realized they could be adapted to any life challenge. Dealing with my son’s addiction has, by far, been the most challenging experience in my life. Everything else pales in comparison, including a cancer diagnosis. Hope through my faith has been the answer for me. It has been wonderful staying connected with you across the miles over these past few years. I keep thinking ( hoping) I may end up visiting Wisconsin when you are visiting your family someday. Hope matters.Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  15. […] the months, Kathy and I have had many conversations. I’m pleased to feature her once again (read her earlier And So It Goes guest post here), in a conversation about “Connecting with your Purpose.”  Specifically, Kathy is talking […]

  16. […] Kathy Pooler […]

  17. […] From Insanity to Serenity: Kathy Pooler February’s Survey […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a blog you'd like to share? I use CommentLuv Click here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.