Redemption and Freedom

From Hope For Today, October 29:

“Now when my son tells me he was teased at school, I pass on my recovery lessons to him as we talk about self-love. I teach him what I have learned in Al-Anon. I help him by suggesting simple ways he can detach. I explain how he can let it begin with him by not retaliating. I help him understand that sometimes he also does things that hurt others and that he can feel better about himself by making amends. Not only has Al-Anon helped heal my past, it’s helping me give my son a healthier future.”

In an excerpt from my recovery memoir, I draw a similar conclusion:

“Angie told me once that she hated NA meetings because pimps, dealers, and strung-out junkies just itching for their next high often attended them. But in her case I don’t think that’s true. I think she didn’t go to meetings because she needed to deal with her addiction her way, and not be told by anyone else what to do: CSR—compulsively self-reliant—just like her mother.

Or maybe she just wasn’t ready to embrace recovery at all, a painful possibility I had not yet considered. I was still determined, at that point, to believe that she was going to beat her addiction and that I, of course, would be the glorious savior she would spend the rest of her life thanking, handing me my redemption on a silver platter.

I would finally, thank God, let go of the oppressive burden I was placing on my daughter by demanding she get well so that I could be OK. My mother unconsciously did the same thing with her children: she was a demanding perfectionist, beating back the pain of self-doubt and unworthiness by raising “successful” children. I’m very glad to have found recovery from my dysfunctional upbringing. It has helped to  “relieve me of the bondage of self.” And most importantly, most importantly of all, my recovery has freed my children.”

My Life As Pentimento


For many of us, writing is a journey of self-discovery, full of delights and surprises. I never set out to write a memoir. I had no plan or outline, no clear beginning and an unknown conclusion. It just became one along the way.

Seven years ago, I had just discovered that my daughter was a heroin addict. So in my grief and frustration I found relief by writing about it. And then I stopped.  I moved to New Mexico where I met a writer who would become my teacher and coach. Looking over what I had started writing she encouraged me to turn it into something. So I did: I gave her a 500+ page rant, something Chris Offut would call “the delirium of the first draft!” Well, I thought I was done. I was thinking of section titles and started writing notes to myself in the margins: things like “Oh, by the way, I had a miserable childhood;” and “Hush, hush, don’t tell anyone, but I’m an addict, too.” And I realized in confronting these truths about myself that this was my story. Angie and her drug addiction was the catalyst, certainly, that got me writing. But the story began with me.

So I went back and wrote an introduction, a window into my childhood and young adulthood as Angie’s mother. I wanted you, the reader, to know me. And I felt it was important for you to know my daughter as well. She was a beautiful, gifted, full-of-promise child and young woman—before this cruel disease corrupted her.

The rest of the book started out as the roller coaster ride of drug addiction—thirteen years, from 2001 until now—all the highs and the lows, the rehabs and the relapses, the joys and the sorrows, everything that accompanies unbridled drug addiction. That was the original plotline. But I added another one along the way: that of my evolving recovery from all this heartache. These two plotlines parallel each other, and they intersect a lot in the beginning of Angie’s illness. But at some point in the story they go in separate directions.

And it’s in sharing the change and transformation in me as a result of this most tragic event in any parent’s life that this angry narrative about drug addiction takes the shape of a memoir. I weave the voice of recovery into every chapter, from beginning to end, as I reflect back on events in my life—through a different lens.

At the beginning of Pentimento, Lillian Hellman’s wonderful collection of remembrances that she wrote back in 1973, she points out how artists sometimes paint over what they had painted before. They changed their minds; they “repented.” So too in literature, she adds, “the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing…and then seeing again.”

Enabling Vs. “Helping”

Memoir Excerpt:

“Years later in one of my support groups in New Mexico, a friend shared how she had to lock everything up in her house. She’d lock the jewelry here, the silver there. She had a different key for every place, and one time she was so flummoxed by her son that she lost all the keys! We laughed together at that one, grateful that we still could laugh. This is what it comes to for many of us parents. We erect walls to protect ourselves, keeping the addicts out. And then, of course, we feel guilty about doing that.

Angie was stealing valuables from my home again, just as she had been two years before, in order to sell them for drug money. It was safer, she thought, to steal from me than from a store. She already knew what an enabler I was; but she was still a thief. And even though her addiction pushed her onto the wrong path, she still should have paid the consequences if she was going to learn and mature.

They will work us, manipulate us, and use every tool in their arsenal to get what they want if they’re still using. Parents are so vulnerable, and they’re walking a fine line between helping their child recover, and enabling them to continue using. We learn eventually to sit frozen in inaction, to do nothing.  We learn to let our addicts be accountable for their own actions, and hopefully learn from the consequences (eviction, jail, death). But it’s that last consequence that holds us hostage, keeps us doing for our addict all that he should be doing for himself. We say to ourselves, ‘As long as he’s alive, he can recover.’  True, but when will we ever get rid of our God-like parental power, thinking that his recovery is all up to us?”

Love and Enabling

I just finished reading Libby Cataldi’s book, Stay Close. In my book, I say that I try to stay in communication with Angie, but reading Libby convinced me to “stay closer.” I feel strong enough to keep up communication without feeling drawn into the orbit of her manipulation and insanity. Whatever happens, I want her to know that I’ve always loved my daughter inside the addict—and I always will.
In the Afterword in Libby’s book, Dr. Patrick MacAfee has these words to say: “I believe that ‘stagli vicino’—staying close but out of the way of the insanity—is best. If you are dealing with addiction, offer the addict roads to recovery, not more money or bailouts. Excuses keep people sick…The fear of watching a loved one failing is frightening, but don’t let it cloud your realization that the natural extension of love and caring may only enable the addict’s condition.”

Isolation and Addiction

Memoir Excerpt:

“I felt very isolated much of the time. And one day, I think I was eleven, I sat on the family room step facing the driveway, took a piece of glass I’d found, and cut my wrist. I still have the scar. But either I wasn’t seriously suicidal or I was pretty dumb about anatomy because the cut was on the far side of my wrist, as far away from the vein as you can get.

Mother was alarmed at the sight of my bleeding wrist and asked me how it happened. Well, that’s one way to get you out of your bedroom, I thought to myself. I lied to my mother and told her I fell on a piece of glass in the driveway. She believed me and the incident was forgotten. In fairness to my family members, my parents in particular, I had become very adept at covering up my pain. They were distracted with plenty of their own, so I just went underground with it. Was this a cry for help? Of course! It was one of several in the next few years that would be ignored or loudly sighed about. My cries provoked much anger and frustration. I was definitely “the problem child” in my family, which kept everyone from confronting, a few years later, the alcoholic right under their nose.

Daddy’s alcoholism got worse and became more apparent as he got older. The elephant was in the living room, clear as a strident cowbell. But there was no serious intervention. This was the early Sixties, when alcoholism wasn’t so openly talked about, at least not in our family. So everyone turned their attention to the baby of the family. I had acted out, first as a child against my sister and then in other ways as I got older. I would rebel a lot in subsequent years and give my family plenty to focus on. I felt like the family scapegoat. And the weight of it, through most of my childhood and young adulthood, was very hard to carry.”