May 7, 2008

When people say you look like your mom or dad, do you dance with joy or grit your teeth and cringe? Your reaction tells a lot about your relationship with your parents, as well as how your children will one day think of you.

Author, speaker, and marketing consultant Jan Coates, also the founder of Set Free Today Ministries, knows only too well about those negative reactions to any reference that would link her to her mother. In Jan’s words, “I never had a real mother. Instead, I lived under the control of a paranoid schizophrenic, alcoholic, drug-addict mother.” However, it wasn’t always that way.

Members of Jan’s family told her that her mother was once a beautiful, feisty, full-of-life young woman. She married Jan’s father during the Great Depression, when she was only sixteen. The following year she gave birth to her first child, and shortly after she began to exhibit signs of mental illness. The illness worsened with the birth of each of her eight children.

Jan remembers more than once watching from the stairway as her father covered his face with his hands and bawled while an ambulance driver dragged Jan’s mother out of their home in a straightjacket. After a two- or three-month stay at the hospital, she would return home, and each time she seemed better—temporarily. But even on her good days, she was distant, and her seeming indifference hurt Jan and her siblings most because they so wanted her love. When they tried to get close, their mother pushed them away or demanded, “Get me something to drink.” For her, something meant booze.

Through it all, Jan’s father felt guilty...and Jan felt responsible, blaming herself when her mother drank too much, lost control, or screamed that she hated them all and had never wanted children. Mental institutions, tranquilizers, and shock treatments, coupled with drug and alcohol abuse, made her life a living hell and hurt the entire family, even though they tried to understand that she was hopelessly trapped by her illness and addictions.

Eventually Jan’s parents divorced, and her mother ended up living on the street, the proverbial “bag lady” who bounced in and out of Jan’s life, using guilt trips to get her daughter to help her when she was at her worst. But each time Jan came to the rescue, her mother found another way to sabotage her life. Eventually, out of desperation and self-preservation, Jan decided to break all ties with her mother. At the same time, she placed a picture of her father on her dresser so she could focus on his good traits—of which there were many—and work at becoming like him.

For the most part, she was successful. Her siblings and other relatives often commented on how much she looked and acted like her father, a man of integrity and character who loved God and his family. But when someone mentioned a resemblance between Jan and her mother, Jan reacted with vehement denial. She did not—she would not—follow in her mother’s footsteps.

And yet, in her darkest days, when Jan’s son was killed by a drunk driver, she clung to God moment by moment to keep from falling into the depression and chemical dependence that had so characterized her mother’s life. It was only because of God’s faithfulness that Jan made it through without resorting to her mother’s negative behaviors.

“It was a long journey,” Jan confesses. “At times I wondered if I would survive. I clung to God with a tenaciousness I hadn’t realized I possessed. Not only did He walk with me, He often carried me. Together, we made it.”

And so did her mother. After living on the streets for years, Jan’s mother finally stumbled into a Salvation Army shelter, where she was loved and accepted—just as she was. When Jan was finally reunited with her mother and saw her interacting with others at the shelter, she was stunned to realize that not only had God loved and accepted her mother unconditionally, but so had these precious brothers and sisters in Christ.