Breaking Free From Destructive Patterns

with Julie Plagens | December 2, 2019

Julie Plagens, author of the book "Estranged," remembers growing up as the lonely daughter of a highly successful nightclub and restaurant owner. After ten years of running a booming business, Julie's father came to faith in Christ which led him to take a job as a janitor at a local church, and eventually he became a pastor. Julie shares how living under the shadow of her pastor father led her to stuff her anger and bitterness, which adversely affected her health. Realizing her life was on the line due to her resentment towards her parents, Julie tells how she made the decision to cut ties with her family for good.

Julie Plagens, author of the book "Estranged," remembers growing up as the lonely daughter of a highly successful nightclub and restaurant owner. After ten years of running a booming business, Julie's father came to faith in Christ which led him to take a job as a janitor at a local church, and eventually he became a pastor. Julie shares how living under the shadow of her pastor father led her to stuff her anger and bitterness, which adversely affected her health. Realizing her life was on the line due to her resentment towards her parents, Julie tells how she made the decision to cut ties with her family for good.

Breaking Free From Destructive Patterns

With Julie Plagens
|
December 02, 2019
| Download Transcript PDF

Bob: Julie Plagens' dad was a successful business man in Dallas, Texas, who, after he got saved, went in to ministry full-time. Julie remembers, as a teenager, that family transition was a little disorienting for her.

Julie: I grew up as a very high achiever. I was in fish bowl after fish bowl and a lot of pressure to perform. I made honor roll, cheerleader, Who's Who. When you have children growing up, and you're in the ministry, the last thing you want your kids to do is to start embarrassing the family.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, December 2nd. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. What should have brought healing and fresh hope to a family—having mom and dad come to faith in Christ—ultimately, in Julie Plagens' case, led to increased dysfunction and, ultimately, estrangement. We'll hear her story today. Stay with us.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We're going to hear a compelling story today of a family, where there was a spiritual work/a transformation in the family and, yet, that led to some dysfunction. We're going to meet Julie Plagens here in just a minute, but first—we've got David Robbins, President of FamilyLife®

Dave: D Rob in the studio! [Laughter]

Ann: We're all together; this is fun.

David: This is fun—this team, indeed.

Bob: Yes; we have you here because this is a big month for FamilyLife—the beginning of the month of December. Explain to listeners why the month of December is such a big deal for us, here at FamilyLife.

David: It's a big deal because we really believe in the ministry we're doing—wounds and legacy come from the family, and we want to bring timeless truths of Scripture to it. December is huge because around a third of the resources and money that we get to fuel the ministry that we do with FamilyLife Today comes in December. This is a huge month for us in order to fuel the ministry that we do year-round.

Bob: Dave, as a pastor, December's a big month in churches—

Dave: I'm smiling because, yes, when David said that, I'm like, “It's no different in the pastorate.” I don't think people, who sit in the seats, have any idea that what they do at the end of the year—Ann and I do the same thing—we look at our life, we look at ministries that have impacted us/ministries that are making a difference in the world—and we decide what we're going to give. I know that's a big deal for everybody.

I don't think people understand—it really can determine what happens in a ministry for a church and for FamilyLife. What you give is going to impact, not only your family and your legacy—legacies all around the world. It's one of those times—you get all of those requests—and you have to decide: “What is worthy of giving?” I really believe FamilyLife is something that you should give to because it's going to change the world.

Ann: We are so passionate about this—we're so passionate about marriages/family. We want to help you; we want to serve you. Goodness, it is December! We probably feel the stress and the strain, the love, the joy. This is the perfect time to be giving towards FamilyLife Today.

Bob: One of the reasons it's the perfect time is because we've had some friends of the ministry, who have come to us recently, and have agreed, during the month of December, they will match every donation we receive, dollar for dollar, up to a total of $2.5 million.

Ann: This is like the perfect sale. [Laughter] Come on!

Bob: So, you make a donation today—you give $50—there will be $50 released from the matching-gift fund. If you can do more than that—you do $100—there's $100 released. Whatever you're able to do—be as generous as you can be, because we want to take full advantage of this matching-gift opportunity.

You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com to make a donation, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a donation. Please pray for us this month that we'll be able to take full advantage of this matching gift. What happens over the next four weeks here will determine what ministry we're able to do in the year 2020, so pray for us if you will.

I have to wonder how many people we know—people we go to church with, people who we're friends with—and we're not aware of the extended family drama that is a part of their lives, day in and day out. I was having dinner with a friend of mine. We were in another city, and we were having dinner together. He looked up and he looked over, and he said, “You see that guy at that table over there?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “That's my brother.”

I said, “You're brother's here?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “What's he doing here?” He said, “I think he's there with a couple of business guys.” And I'm thinking, “Well, so we're going to get up and go say, ‘Hi,’ to your brother.”

Dave: Yes.

Bob: No; we didn't do that, because he and his brother had not spoken for more than a decade. There had been an estrangement that had taken place. I think those things happen—

Dave: I know they happen; I was talking to a buddy—same thing.

Bob: Yes?

Dave: He was at a movie theater in a city outside of his hometown. He said, “My brother walked out of the theater right next to mine; we never talked. I went back in to my movie, never said, ‘Hi.’” I was like: “Oh my goodness! That's real.”

Ann: It's happening way more—I talk to a lot of people that say: “I haven't talked to my family in five years,” “…seven years. I've had to put boundaries around this relationship.” I don't think there's a lot of hope, and there's not a lot of help out there—I should say—

Bob: Yes.

Ann: —of: “How do we reconcile?”

Bob: —and embarrassment. This is not the kind of thing you want to share: “Yes, I don't have a good relationship with my family of origin.”

We've got somebody joining us this week, who is going to take us into her experience and her story of being estranged for a season from her family. Julie Plagens joins us on FamilyLife Today. Julie, welcome.

Julie: Thank you.

Bob: Julie is from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. She's written her story in a book called Estranged: Finding Hope When Your Family Falls Apart. We should start by saying the story you're telling is a story that, today, has a happy ending. As we go back into the drama, you and your family have reconciled what was a very difficult relationship; right?

Julie: Yes; thank goodness that we did have reconciliation, which is not always the case for some families that are Christians.

Bob: So, tell us about your growing up years and your memories of the kind of family you grew up in.

Julie: That's a loaded question. [Laughter] I grew up in Dallas, Texas. I grew up in a wealthy part of Dallas called Highland Park. My grandparents owned a tiny restaurant called the Italian Village,and they owned it in the ‘40s. In the ‘60s, my dad took it over. My grandfather didn't exactly hand it to him. My grandfather went out of town/went on a honeymoon with his second wife, and my dad decided to remodel the restaurant while he was out of town.

Bob: Ohh!

Ann: Was your dad working there?

Julie: Yes, my dad was working there; he was managing it while my grandfather was gone. He was 23 years old. He took $30 thousand back then. I just looked this morning, and a calculator would be $250 thousand today—took it out of the bank account and remodeled the whole thing and turned it into a nightclub—brought Vegas to Dallas—the very first nightclub in Texas.

Bob: It had been, basically, a family-oriented Italian restaurant, or an upscale Italian restaurant, where you take somebody on a nice date?

Julie: Yes.

Bob: But now, it's floor shows and Vegas; right?

Julie: It's Vegas, baby! [Laughter]

Dave: What did grandpa say when he got home?

Julie: “What have you done?!” [Laughter] But actually, what happened was my dad picked him up from the airport. My grandfather said, “Well, I want to go by the restaurant and check on it.” My dad was kind of like, “Oh, yes; well…” He drove him by, and there were lines out the door. My grandfather was like, “What in the world did you do?” My dad told him; and from then on, my dad took over the restaurant, at 23 years old, because he was making a fortune.

Bob: So, your dad is managing the, now, nightclub—

Julie: —the whole thing.

Bob: —restaurant . And this is the environment you're growing up in, as a wealthy kid in Highland Park—your dad runs the nightclub in town. When I think of the nightclub in town, I'm thinking that maybe the clientele was a little on the shady side?

Julie: I think so.

Bob: Were you aware of that, as a child, growing up?

Julie: No; because by the time of my parent's conversion, I was around six years old; so I got on the tail end of all the money. My sisters, on the other hand, had the—we had three maids at home—so I do remember all that. We lived in a huge house; my parents were never home. I do remember their behavior—I will not forget that.

Bob: What do you mean?

Julie: My dad was very angry, and he was not home much. When he was, it was frightening. He did not do well eating with us at the table; we got sent out a lot. He just did not tolerate children very much.

Ann: But you talk about his conversion experience.

Julie: Yes.

Ann: What happened?

Julie: It was interesting because one night he closed up the restaurant about two in the morning. He just was done; he was kind of empty. He just got down on his knees and prayed, and cried out to God and asked Him: “If there is a God, where are You?” and “Why am I here?” Then he got up and went home.

About two weeks later, he made a commercial down at a TV station in Dallas. My dad was waiting for the commercial to start, and he overheard some of the programming and the speakers when he was in the waiting room. He was like, “Oh, these people are crazy.”

They had just changed over to Christian programming; and so by the time my dad had gotten into the commercial, he was irritated; and he said, “Why don't we just pray?” And everybody was like, “Okay!” They all dropped everything, grabbed hands and started praying. It was a touch of God; and through that, he got saved.

Dave: So, this was initially a mockery of prayer—

Julie: Yes!

Dave: —and yet, God meets him there.

Julie: Yes; met him there.

Dave: Wow! So, did he change? Was he a different man, initially, over time?—what?

Julie: You know, it happened over time. My mom noticed a big difference in the way he treated her after he got saved. She didn't want anything to do with it; she thought he was nuts. He ended up standing up in the bar one night and closing the bar down.

Dave: You don't mean turning off the lights; you mean stopping the bar.

Julie: Yes.

Ann: —closing it down.

Julie: Oh, yes. He got up on a chair, stood in the middle of the bar.

There were three sections in the restaurant: there was a bar, a nightclub, and then the restaurant. He stood up in the bar and just told everybody to go home, because he was shutting the bar down. It made, not only local news, it made national news. My mom was hysterical.

Ann: Hysterical mad?—upset?

Julie: She thought—I mean, everybody thought my dad had gone crazy.

Bob: As a five- or six-year-old, I would imagine you're just kind of watching this, confused—

Julie: Yes.

Bob: —maybe a little scared, not sure how to respond. So, you'll just go play in your room and hopes this blows over kind of thing?

Julie: Yes; but that didn't happen; nothing blew over. My grandparents ended up disowning my parents, and there we have the start—we were estranged from my grandparents.

Dave: So they disowned their kids—for what reason? What were they—

Julie: My dad publicly embarrassed my grandparents. You know, all that money coming in—and my grandfather was taking a cut—they were all in society in Dallas.

Ann: They were embarrassed.

Julie: Oh, yes; so embarrassed. My dad has two sisters, and they were embarrassed. I mean, the whole family was just horrified; it was a lot for them to handle.

Bob: When you saw the change in your dad—from being an angry guy, who couldn't make it through the dinner table without sending the kids away, to now being gentler/being kinder—were you happy that dad had changed?

Julie: Well, I'd love to tell you that he was kinder/gentler altogether, but that didn't quite happen; it was a process. I really love my dad. He came from an incredibly abusive childhood, and he was bringing his own baggage into our family. I'd love to tell you that all the anger went away—it did not.

There was some change—it went from him not being there to him being there. And I actually had some sort of relationship with my father. Before, he was this man that yelled and came and went. At least, at this point, he started coming home and interacting with us. He was really trying.

Ann: What was your relationship with your mom during this whole time?

Julie: She was abusing alcohol. I don't know if you want to call her an alcoholic, but she had not gotten saved. I remember mostly her drinking. My parents were at the end of their rope when I was little. I saw the end of what it looks like after you have everything and not God.

Bob: And again, I just want to say that your mom wrote the afterword in your book, Estranged.

Julie: Yes.

Bob: So, as we're talking about this, your family knows you're here talking about this; they know that this conversation's going on.

I just want to make sure that our listeners understand: “Had you guys started going to church as a family?”

Julie: Yes; they did. That's when I really remember my first real memory of my mother at the altar. She used to wear false eyelashes. She had this big black blob around her eyes at the altar, because she was crying. God had finally gotten ahold of her.

My mom—let me tell you—probably one of the most beautiful women that I have ever seen in my life; she was breath-taking. Some of her friends have said, when she walked into a room, people would just stop and stare. She said she had married my dad for his money; he married her for her looks. That all kind of fizzled. So, now, we've got this big mess, and no money is coming in, and things are changing. They fought a lot; it was hard. They had to figure out how to make this work.

Bob: That just had to be—I'm still putting myself in your shoes, as an elementary school child, trying to process: “What's going on in my family?” and “How does this connect to Jesus?” and “What am I supposed to think about Him?” and “We’re going to church.” Were you drawn to Jesus? Or were you kind of put off by Him?

Julie: Actually, I was drawn to Him; I really was. I got saved when I was six.

Ann: So here you are, this little girl. Your family goes through a lot of tragedy and upheaval; you all give your lives to Christ. What happened in those in between years of—

Dave: —like teenage years.

Ann: Yes; did your faith stick? Did you live out your faith?

Julie: Well, some of the family system—you have to realize both of my parents did not come from believers. They went from one big life—after they closed the restaurant down, my dad ended up as the janitor in our church. Several years later, he became an associate pastor. I went from one very big life to another very big life. I was in fish bowl after fish bowl and had a lot of pressure to perform. When you have children growing up, and you're in the ministry, the last thing you want your kids to do is to start embarrassing the family.

I grew up as a very high achiever: I made honor roll, cheerleader, Who's Who—all the things that you do. My sisters were even more amazing—valedictorian, captain of the cheerleading squad. All three of us were high achievers. We were pretty much—that's the only box we were allowed to check—it was severe; it was hard.

I can understand my parents, though, because it is very difficult. When you have a ministry family, everybody is watching. You don't have margin for error.

Dave: When you say it was hard, there's emotion there. What is that? What are you remembering? What are you feeling?

Julie: There were some threats: “You do this or that,”—you know, it was hard that way—fear. I think my parents would go back and do it differently now.

Ann: You were all very image conscious. Your parents were, which made you very aware of what people felt or thought about you?

Julie: Yes; and any kind of, maybe, disgruntled behavior/you know, any kind of feeling, thinking, opposing was shut down very quickly. That was not really allowed at my house. It was: “This is the way we're doing things,” and “You need to get in line and do it now.”

I had one way to cope and that was stuffing my emotions. To go back and answer your question—you get 40 years of stuffing, and you get sick.

Bob: Take us to the point, where you came and said, “It's not healthy for me to have an ongoing relationship with my family.”

Julie: I started tracing back—it was more around 18-20 years old that I started having health problems; they just kind of progressed. By the time I was 40, I had really been having some major stomach issues.

Ann: You're married at this point.

Julie: I'm married with two children. I was really sick after about three months of losing 30 pounds. I went to the doctor, and they did a colonoscopy. I woke up, and the nurse was in there alone with me. She said: “You have Crohn's disease. You are going to lose your colon. You're going to have a bag the rest of your life, and it is irreversible.” And she walked out.

Dave: That was it.

Julie: That was it. And so here I was alone—I'd just been told—and for those of you that don't understand what Crohn's disease is—it's like stomach flu, food poisoning, and canker sores that you get in your mouth—all over your intestines—from your mouth down through your colon.

Here I was—I was going to have an external bag, so this is my destiny. I'm supposed to live the rest of my life this way. I was sitting there, thinking, “I can't do this.” I started thinking how I got here. I realized how much bitterness and anger I had inside of me and how much I had been stuffing my whole life. It was at that point I realized that, not only did I have bitterness, but I was just filled with hatred; and it was towards my parents.

Ann: You made a decision at that point.

Julie: I did. I decided to leave.

Bob: When you say, “leave,” you weren't living together; were you?

Julie: No; just no relationship. And I mean, none—I'm talking no contact.

Bob: Did you declare that to your parents? Did you say, “We're not going to see each other any more”?

Julie: Yes; there was this last conversation that I had with my mother. I absolutely unloaded on her, and I just told her how I really felt. You can imagine, after 40 years of not telling someone how you feel, what that conversation looks like. Now, I didn't cuss; we still got the high achiever, perfect Christian girl here—[Laughter]

Ann: —the good girl.

Julie: —just unloading. You know, she knows me; she knows I don't act that way, and I was not nice. I let her have it, and I hoped she hurt.

Bob: And I've got to tell you—I have to wonder: “How many people are experiencing chronic health issues, or estrangement, or they just look and say, “You know, unresolved issues in a family—not getting into this, not opening this up, not asking the Lord to step in and deal with this—how many people are in a bad situation because of what's been stuffed and hidden rather than what's been addressed and dealt with?”

I know the addressing and dealing with it can feel hard and awkward, but I've got to tell you—the stuffing and avoiding will explode on you at some point.

Dave: Yes; I'm just sitting here, thinking, “That was me.” I didn't have Crohn's; I didn't end up with a health issue, but I had anger that came out at my wife and my children: I'm 30-some years old; 10 years married, and I had a similar experience.

One day, it hit me—like, “This is all connected to my relationship with my dad.” I did nothing with it but stuff it, completely, all my life. I had to go on a journey—to say: “Okay; you would never think that something from that long ago”—I was seven years old when the divorce happened—“blah, blah, blah is going to affect you, decades later. And yet, every minute of every day is connected to that.” There's an ability to cut that, but I wasn't willing to deal with it; so the people I love in my life were getting hurt by it.

Bob: I have to think it would be good for anyone listening today to just take a minute and pray, and say: “Lord, are there unresolved issues with family members?—things I've stuffed? Is there bitterness, unforgiveness? Is there anything that needs to be addressed?—and I don't even see the toxic implications of it in my life, but they're there. Lord, is there anything that needs to be brought to the surface?” Then just be still and see what God reveals/what He says. And then, don't ignore it.

Ann: I think all of us have extension cords to the past that we don't realize—that things in the past really affect us in the present. I think that's great, Bob, to ask God: “I'm experiencing anger,” or “…some severe health issues,” or “I'm explosive in certain situations,” or “…shut down in other situations. God, what is the reason for that? Is it something in my present?—or is it something in the past?”

I know, for Dave, that he has become a different man since that time; because God has really changed him as he went into the past to forgive his dad. But that's not an easy journey.

Bob: Yes; Julie, you tell your story of your estrangement from your parents in the book you've written called Estranged: Finding Hope When Your Family Falls Apart. It's a book that we've got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. I want to encourage our listeners—go online at FamilyLifeToday.com if this is your story or, if you know someone who this story describes, give this book as a gift to them. Again, the book is called Estranged. You can order it, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order at 1-800-FL-TODAY. The number, again, is 1-800-358-6329—that's 1-800-”F” as in family, “L” as in life and then the word, “TODAY.”

With just weeks to go until the start of a brand-new year, this is a critical, strategic time for this ministry. We're asking FamilyLife Today listeners to help us end this year in a healthy financial position so we are fully prepared to continue the work God has called us to in 2020. In fact, we're hoping to be able to expand this work, going forward.

And the good news is that we have this matching gift that is in place. Every donation we receive during the month of December will be matched, dollar for dollar, up to a total of $2.5 million. If you give a $20 donation, there's a $20 match that goes along with that. You give $100; there's a $100 match. Whatever you're able to do, your donation is going to be matched, dollar for dollar.

If you're able to help with a donation of, at least $50, we'd like to send you, as a thank-you gift, a copy of a new couple's devotional from FamilyLife called The Story of Us. It's one devotion per week—52 different devotions. It's our thank-you gift to you, again, if you're able to help with, at least, a $50 donation here at yearend. Donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate. Thanks for helping us take full advantage of this matching gift during the month of December.

We hope you can join us back tomorrow. We're going to continue to hear about the events that led up to Julie Plagens' decision to set some boundaries around her relationship with her parents, and then what that looked like once those boundaries were in place. I hope you can be back with us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas; a Cru® Ministry. Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.

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