It was during summer vacation, when her daughter was home from college, that a Washington-area mother learned her child was a lesbian.
How does a parent," handle something like that?
"As a parent," says the mother, "first you go through anger, hatred, guilt."
"The second step is to say, 'I'll listen.'
"Third, you say, 'I'll accept what I can do nothing about.'
"And in the fourth stage, you enjoy it." (Someone who has acknowledged their homosexuality, she says, "has suffered -- which has given them a sensitivity that other children don't have. They have more empathy with their parents.")
Her daughter's revelations came "as a shock." But they didn't mean the end of the world, or the end of a mother-daughter friendship. "She's still in our world."
With help from Parents and Friends of Gays, this family was able to make its way through the troubled weeks that followed their personal crisis. t
Not all families are that fortunate, say area mental health workers. Many break up when, for whatever reason, a family member steps outside society's traditional codes of conduct.
A number of congressmen are going through their own personal crises as a result of ABSCAM or alcoholism or alleged homosexuality. You ask yourself, as you read their stories on the front page, how are their families taking it?
How does any family cope with a personal crisis, or a scandal, in its midst?
"We see a lot of that kind of problem here," says Sue Stolcis, coordinator of emergency and admission services at the Mt. Vernon Center for Community Mental Health in Fairfax County:
"Homosexual arrests of a member of the family -- maybe the father. Girls from an upper middle class family find they are pregnant.Incest. Child abuse. Spouse abuse. Sudden breakups when the spouse is having an affair."
The initial reaction of all families, says Stolcis, a clinical social worker, "is how do we hide this so nobody finds out." Afterward, they may go through a "denial" phase and a "rationalization."
In any case, "They hurt."
"It hurts like hell," agrees Pat DeLorme, director of social services at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.
"You think, 'It's all over. We're wiped out.'"
A woman whose husband has betrayed her may fell "the world knows now," says DeLorme. "She can't face the people she has coffee with every morning. She can't go to work."
Not all families, notes DeLorme, perceive the same thing as a threat. To some, a teen-ager's use of marijuana "is a terrible scandal." Others see it just as "what kids do."
For some, a crisis can be a white-collar arrest, or an interracial marriage.
"Some families think divorce is the biggest scandal.
"A family," says DeLorme, a psychiatric social worker who does family therapy, "is a number of individuals who function as one unit. Anything that happens to any one member of the family affects every member as if it happened to them."
In a crisis situation, says DeLorme, families often "pull together. They may be angry and upset, but they pull into a support system to get through it. Other members are able to lend support to the weakest link."
That, she says, "is a healthy family."
She cites the Kennedys as a family that is protective of its members. You sense, she says, "that any member having any difficulty will always have a place in that family, no matter what.
"The role of a famly," says DeLorme, "is to insure the well-being and health of its members."
For a family that's on shaky ground, says DeLorme, a personal scandal can trigger the final break-up."If the spouses are not functioning as husband and wife, if they're thinking about divorce -- then a crisis comes along, and they will do it."
Sometimes family members pull away from the individual in trouble. "They're not there for support," says DeLorme. "They're trying to insulate themselves. They don't share their strength to get the family to survive.
"The more public the crisis, the more difficult it is to work out."
Families who do manage to stick together, agree Stolcis and DeLorme, often emerge from the crisis stronger as a result of what they have experienced. "They come out feeling good about the family and its members," says DeLorme.
And "for kids charged with drug and alcoholic offenses," adds Stolcis, "there's growth potential if they are forced to face the facts."
People do get through their crises, says DeLorme. "They do accept things different from their values."
As therapists, Stolcis and DeLorme recommend professional counseling for families in trouble. "They can learn," says De Lorme, "how to share feelings and thoughts about what's going on -- working together and forgetting about what others are saying outside."
Families also can turn to such counseling groups as Parents and Friends of Gays, or Al-Anon (for those with an alcoholic in the family).
"If there's anger, that anger can be vented in a secure setting," says Stolcis. But "an angry family may kick out" the offending member.
"We try to help people face the music, to keep them from running away -- literally and figuratively.
"All families think they're the only family with a skeleton in the closet. We can tell them their problem is not unusual. No family is perfect.
"Once a family finds out that they have a mission" -- to help each other through the bad times -- "and that it's normal to have problems, then half the battle for treatment is over."
In a scandal, many people have a tendency to want to shut themselves up in the house, avoiding the job, school, neighbors and friends.
DeLorme suggest "going about your business as much as possible. It may be painful at first, but if you don't go out, you'll get afraid to."
Children may face a few bad moments at school. If, as a result, they get mad at a parent ,says DeLorme, "You have to tolerate that level of anger in the house. What kids need is an understanding of how embarrassing and painful" the situation is. They also should be told that a loved parent is no different from what he or she was before the trouble broke.
Friends, she says, "can be tremendous support" in an unpleasant situation. "As a friend, you can validate that person, showing that you still care.
"A good friend can say, 'You're the same person I bowled with last week. I can be a shoulder to cry on. I'm puzzled. I really don't understant. ut But since I know you as a friend, I'm sure you had a reason."
For a family going through the pain of a crisis, DeLorme counsels, "When the doors close at night, be there for each other. Be willing to listen. Be willing to care about the person you loved three days before it all happened."