Life on
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Transforming the Golden Gheto

Out of her own suffering in a world of affluence, she found the creative vision to enlighten us all about the illness of “affluenza,” and to become a spiritual force for its healing.

To the casual observer, Jessie O’Neill grew up in an idyllic setting. Her family lived in a spacious home in Gulf Stream, just north of Delray Beach, Florida; a community centered around the field game of polo and, at the time, the most expensive neighborhood in America. Her father owned the polo grounds next to her home as well as the local Cadillac dealership. Jessie’s grandfather, on her mother side, Charles Erwin Wilson, at that time the president of General Motors, made it possible for all six of his children to own a General Motors dealership before giving up the prestiges position to become the secretary of defense under President Eisenhower.

For Jessie, her father’s success meant boating on the waterway where they lived, weekend trips to their ranch in northern Florida, horses, go-carts, and a lot of family entertaining. On the surface it was “the good life,” a picture postcard of the Great American Dream, and Jessie was a “lucky rich kid.”

The Nightmare Behind The Scenes

Behind the scenes, below the surface, behind the large white door of her home, Jessie’s dream was a real-life nightmare. Both of Jessie’s parents were alcoholics and were seldom available for their only child, but instead, hired surrogate caretakers. Of course, as Jessie is quick to point out, alcoholism knows no socio-economic boundaries. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to become an alcoholic,” admits O’Neill, “but money greases the slide down. So if someone has a propensity towards alcoholism, drug abuse, workaholism, compulsive gambling or buying, or any of those sorts of afflictions which are all fed by money, then having a lot of money makes it easier to go off the deep end. Conversely, it also acts as a giant band-aid. You can cover up the wounds of the addictions as they grow. You can pacify yourself, or buy out of the consequences of your behavior to a great degree.”

Such was the case with Jessie’s family. As her father’s drinking increased, and his nights out with the boys became more frequent, his attention to his family and business decreased. But he had the money and the influence of the family wealth to protect him from public scrutiny.

One of Jessie’s most vivid childhood memories was of her mother taking the dinner out of the warmer. She’d then wait impatiently for Jessie’s father to come home. Eventually, when he didn’t appear, she’d feed Jessie. “I probably ate ninety percent of my meals alone, sitting at the kitchen counter watching my mother get increasingly angry.” When her father finally did arrive home, he was often drunk, and Jessie’s parents would spend the rest of the evening fighting.

But with the arrival of the household staff the next morning, everything would be cleaned up and glossed over. “My mother would stay in bed with a hangover, my father would sneak out of the house, the fresh flowers would be watered, and everything would look like it was ok. It was crazy-making.”

A Spiritual Awakening

Such a crazy-making childhood led to O’Neill’s own alcoholism for many years until she finally found Alcoholics Anonymous. There she began her spiritual awakening. “I literally walked into my first AA meeting and my desire to drink was lifted,” remembers O’Neill, who recently celebrated her sixteenth year of sobriety. “It was a miracle. After that I was more open to the possibility that there was something greater than myself operating in my life, because it certainly wasn’t me that lifted that desire.”

How does such a miracle of change in attitude come about? “Amazingly and through the grace of God,” O’Neill wrote recently, “when we begin to turn and face that fear within us, we are given the strength and hope not only to survive in the face of it, but to flourish and grow in ways that we had never found possible before. For there is no resistance when we begin to walk in synch with the universe, with God, with whatever we choose to call that power that is within us and yet not of us.”

As Jessie continued to work through the 12-step program of AA her next big step in her spiritual development came when she realized that “to those to whom much is given, much is required.” As is often the case, the universe helped her to this realization by providing her with people who requested her as their sponsor in AA. Through this process, Jessie eventually realized she had the capability to help others find healing. So at 40-years of age, she returned to school to get a degree in counseling.

Today as a successful psychotherapist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Jessie O’Neill specializes in helping people cope with many of the same problems she experienced growing up. In her recent book, The Golden Ghetto, (Hazelden – 1997), she calls these collective addictions, character flaws, neuroses, and behavioral disorders caused or greatly exacerbated by the presence or desire for excess money, “affluenza.”

She writes, “Culturally, affluenza manifests as a constipation or backup of the flow of money in our society. In individuals, it takes the form of a dysfunctional or unhealthy relationship with money and may manifest as shame, guilt, anger, rampant materialism, hoarding and/or all manners of addictive/compulsive behaviors.” It is a condition that runs rampant throughout the Golden Ghetto, a term O’Neill uses to describe the sense of isolation many people with affluenza create for themselves and their families.

But, as O’Neill is quick to point out, the Golden Ghetto has no socioeconomic walls. “One need not have a great deal of money to become entrapped by it. The blue-collar worker, the unemployed, and the very poor who struggle to meet basic survival needs spend a great deal of their time and energy thinking about how to make money, and wishing they could make more. Their Golden Ghetto is only a fantasy, but it is no less destructive.”

The “Never Enough” Mentality

One of the most common symptoms of affluenza is a “never enough mentality,” or the “more is better” approach to life. According to O’Neill, many people are never satisfied with the amount of money they have, even when they’ve accumulated millions of dollars. This “never enough mentality” stems from a lack of intention around how we use money, and it even inflicts some of the wealthiest people in our culture. When John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much wealth would be enough, he replied, “Just a little more.” Yet, more money rarely equates to more happiness.

“We are talking about men and women who are trying to fill an inner void with outer resources,” writes O’Neill, “a losing and frustrating battle.” In fact, when the wealthy express their true feelings, it often reveals that winning the game of “more is better” is often a hollow victory. During an interview Barbara Walters once asked Ted Turner, “What do you mean by success? What, to you, is successful?” He replied, “I think it’s kind of an empty bag, to tell the truth. “You have to get there to really know that. “Money doesn’t buy happiness and neither does honors or position and awards or trophies.”

The Road To Recovery

“It’s my purpose and God’s work for me,” says O’Neill, “to, in a loving and spiritual way, put these problems out on the table in the light of God so they can be healed.” According to O’Neill, whenever anyone is in any kind of psychological or physical imbalance, they are in a state of fear. Fear is an emotion that constricts, resulting in people holding on. If money is one of the things in the person’s life that they have a lot of, and have looked to for their security, they will, in their psychic pain, hold on to the money. Conversely, as the person becomes more balanced around their use of wealth, and as they broaden their definition of wealth to include their spirituality, their children and relationships, this healing process results in a letting go. And for the financially wealthy, this can include letting go of their hold on money and allowing it to recirculate, often in the form of philanthropy.

But how does one let go of the fear and pain for which money seems to be the answer? Drawing naturally upon the spiritual principles that brought her through her own addiction, O’Neill writes, “The only road to recovery from addictions is to confront the demons head-on and to transform and overcome them. Ironically, we ‘overcome’ by surrendering our will to God, as we understand Him/Her, and admitting our powerlessness over the addictive substance or behavior.” She explains, “It is a difficult and challenging process in a society where willpower is held in such high esteem. But surrender is the first step toward freedom from our addictions and compulsions. It is also the beginning of the road to recovery from affluenza and all its destructive implications.”

And what are the results of this surrender? “Our growing sense of well-being and self-worth are strong incentives for us to continue once we have begun. It becomes easier and easier to have faith in a higher power, God, the universe, or simply in our inner selves, as we begin to see and feel the astonishing results.”

And how does this spiritual approach work with with her clients who come suffering with affluenza? O’Neill says, “When I am working with my clients I encourage them not only to look within for the right questions(psychotherapy), but to keep looking within for the eventual answers(spiritual listening). … As I support them to look inside spiritually, they begin to understand that their true self is connected to others, to the world around them, and to God, and that the guidance they need for living day to day is available to them just for the asking.”

Our Behavior Changes — We Share Ourselves

For O’Neill, this has meant sharing herself and her abundant life with a young teenage boy who was about to be placed in a shelter by his dad. O’Neill took the boy into her home and has since become his legal guardian. “The other day he asked if he could call me ‘mom,’” she said with a smile. “That’s a real gift for me.”

For one of O’Neill’s clients “giving back” has meant helping the youth of his native country of Canada avoid some of the mistakes he made growing up. Raised in poverty, Wilkerson [pseudonym] dreamed about financial riches and applied himself towards the dream, eventually building an empire of almost 500 retail stores. When he came to O’Neill, he was in the throes of a terrible marriage and a horrible relationship with his children, a product of working 18 hour days building his empire. Whereas in the past he had used his great wealth to buy his way out of his misery, he realized this was only putting a bandaid on a serious wound. Working with O’Neill, he was finally able to face the pain, eventually coming to a place of great joy and healing. Since then he has refocused his life and helped many young people, both by contributing money to youth organizations as well as volunteering his time as a speaker.

O’Neill feels strongly that recovery from affluenza must begin at the individual level. One question all of us can ask ourselves is, “Has the acquisition of financial wealth become my primary life’s goal?” If the answer is yes, we’ve got an advance case of affluenza. Another place parents can make a large impact is by being aware of what they are teaching their children in an effort to break the affluenza cycle. “I think the most important lesson for all of us to learn is that it is truly more blessed to give than to receive,” says O’Neill. “Whatever we can do to allow our children to have this experience at an early age can demystify or disempowers the money.”

As a practitioner of what she teaches, the O’Neills began adopting a family every Christmas through the Sojourner Truth House, a home for battered women in Milwaukee. As a hands-on program, the O’Neills take their gifts to the adopted family’s home. After a couple of years, Jessie’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Rebecca, asked if she could take the money normally spent on her Christmas presents and adopt a second family on her own; a request Jessie gladly accepted. When Jessie asked her oldest daughter what prompted her to do this, Rebecca’s replied, “Mom, when we take those presents into the house and I see the faces on those kids, I just want to do it again.”

That’s a profound difference in just one generation. It’s this caliber of difference that will be necessary to bring the affluenza epidemic under control in this country. It’s one of the few illnesses we can cure, not be spending more, but by spending less and giving more.

by W. Bradford Swift