Where Is My Focus?

From Hope for Today, November 12:

“Serenity? What is that? For years I was like a weather vane that spun around according to the air currents that other people generated… I attributed these mood swings to nervousness, lack of assurance, and whoever else occupied the room at the time. Serenity always seemed beyond my control… Where does this serenity come from? It comes from trusting that everything in my life is exactly as it should be. It comes when I choose to care for myself rather than to fix someone else…

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: I am powerless over many things, but my serenity is not one of them.”

“Trusting that everything in my life is exactly as it should be…” That’s the hard part, because everything in my life is not great. My daughter Annie is lost to me and has been, on and off for twenty years. How does one learn to live with that?

Everyone is different, but I find serenity by focusing on my blessings. They’re all around me: my other children, my grandchildren, and nature. The lavender just blows me away with its fragrance, and the apples are falling off the trees. My friends and my partner Gene are my daily supports. And God—he pilots my ship. In spite of my loss, I find myself saying all the time, and feeling sincerely in my heart, that life is good. And I’m filled with the elevating power of gratitude.

Like any good habit, I have to practice it every day: my gratitude journal; the therapy of writing down my stories. And ever so gradually over the years—I don’t remember exactly when—my dark world started to get brighter. I began to laugh more. I found joy in my grandchildren—not consolation. And I knew—though I’ve lost a piece of my heart—that I would find a way to get past the heartache.

Reunion

    “I want to feel myself part of things, of the great drift and swirl; not cut off, missing       things…” ~Joanna Field

                                            Reunion 

In 2006 my partner, Gene, and I went to my fortieth high school reunion. This was in a town where appearances mattered above all else, where I’d learned growing up that how I felt was secondary to how I looked. And that year, I was looking good.
I hadn’t been in touch with any of the people I might see there. So they didn’t know any of the details of my life. All they would see was a pretty fifty-eight year old with her handsome boyfriend.
I went to say to a few of them, “See? You didn’t destroy me after all. I’m still here.”
My first boyfriend, John, was there with his friend, another kid from the popular clique that had blackballed me in junior high. He was still a handsome man, and I remembered why I was attracted to him back in eighth grade.
It was odd seeing him there, with all those years between us.
To my surprise, he and his friend sat down at the same table with us—right across from us. I didn’t know anything about him, and right there was an opportunity for him to tell me about his life.
But I was disappointed.
His eyes were carefully averted—drawn to other people like magnets all over the room. No “Hi there, Marilea. Look at you! What have you been up to in all these years?” No curiosity about me at all. Not even a polite greeting or nod. I might as well have been invisible. But then again, Gene was sitting next to me, and they might have found that intimidating. He was my convenient shield.
Another friend of John’s sat down on the other side of him, and John craned his neck in that direction, excitedly asking him all about the Patriots’ upcoming season.
Gene and I left the table unceremoniously, moved around a bit, chatting here and there. We could not get out of that building soon enough. I felt like I didn’t belong there, like an outsider, which I was in a way. I wasn’t a “townie” anymore; I had defected four decades earlier.
When I left that town I rarely looked back, disconnecting myself as I frequently did throughout my life. It represented so much pain and angst for me that I needed to get away. For a while I kept up with the few friends I had, but even that grew difficult with my moving around so much.
Though it was fun to see some familiar faces many years later, going to my high school reunion felt awfully superficial to me. I didn’t really know anything about the people there, and they knew even less about me.
Sometimes going to a reunion is like looking at a display case in a museum: you often know nothing about the work that went into it.

Oh My, How Hard It Is To Change!

Oh My, How Hard It Is To Change!

From Each Day A New Beginning, January 8:

“’When people make changes in their lives in a certain area, they may start by changing the way they talk about that subject, how they act about it, their attitude toward it, or an underlying decision concerning it.’ ~Joan Illsley Clarke

…Each positive change we make builds our self-esteem. Realizing that through our own actions we are becoming the kind of women (and men) we admire, gives us the strength, in fact, encourages the excitement in us that’s needed to keep changing…

I will accept an opportunity today to act as if I can handle a situation I used to run from.”

I was desperately unhappy when I joined Al-Anon. I was sure that my misery was caused by my daughter and her substance use disorder. It didn’t occur to me that it was my reaction to those circumstances that was the culprit. But when, after years of struggle, I finally did accept that I was the author of my own unhappiness, I was ready to do some of the real work of the program. Many people write me: “But what made you WANT to change?” I answer them all the same way: “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired” (of myself).

My daughter has gone in and out of recovery from SUD. My recovery, in recent years, has followed a different trajectory. And the key, of course, is being able to cut the umbilical cord and recognize that we are on separate paths.

That’s very hard for most parents, myself included. But when I see the damage that comes from NOT detaching, from staying mired in old resentments, old guilt, old unresolved stuff, I am reminded to let the past go and stay in the here and now. “Annie,” deep in her disease, has consistently tried to keep my focus on past errors, in order to justify her rage and distract her from what she needs to do now to get well.

But that’s the illness talking. I don’t take the bait anymore. I don’t engage unless it’s on a healthy level. Why not? Because it keeps us rolling around in the mud. And that’s not productive.

For a long time I welcomed rolling around in the mud. But not anymore. That’s one of the changes in myself that I’ve enjoyed. With my history, my self-esteem has always been shaky. But the tools of recovery help me learn how to adopt new attitudes about myself. And as the reading suggests, this is most often accomplished by making positive changes in my behavior.

When I do good things, they return to me tenfold. I may not get everything I want in my life. But for me to get up every day and say to myself: “You know, Marilea? You’re okay. You’re a work in progress. You just keep doing things that reinforce that self-directed goodwill, and you’ll be okay.”

Life is unfolding as my HP intended, and all will be well.

Staying Out Of The Weeds

Before I went into recovery, I was pretty lost. On the outside, my life seemed to be rolling along well. But on the inside, I was insecure and sad. I dealt with these feelings in unhealthy ways, but didn’t feel much pressure to change them. I never missed a day of work, and I appeared to be fine. But appearances can be deceiving. Nothing had yet occurred to call my choices into question. Nothing had happened yet to push me out of my complacency.

But when my middle child fell ill with substance use disorder, after I had tried and failed over and over again to save her, I broke. The carefully manicured life I had been living was a treasured glass from my cupboard, smashed onto the kitchen floor. Many little shards, and some big ones. I cut my fingers cleaning it up.

My recovery fellowship comes with a philosophy that teaches me many different things. And one of those things is to forgive myself and others for transgressions inevitably committed in our lives. Our common humanity dovetails at every meeting I go to, where we encourage ourselves to face our defects, let them go, and move on.

For years, I held on to mine to punish myself for my part in Annie’s disease, and most importantly, for failing to “save” her. I have learned, gratefully, that my daughter suffers from substance use disorder, as do I, and I could no more save her from it than if she’d had diabetes. I simply don’t have that power.

So I try to stay away from martyrdom and self-pity, because neither of those feelings will help Annie get well, and they hurt me a great deal. That’s where the weeds are. They muddy the waters; they keep me angry and sad. When I steer clear of them, it takes some of the sting out of losing my daughter. I can more easily open my heart to what remains in my life.

Staying in the weeds prevents me from changing and growing. My recovery fellowship provides the tools to accomplish those two things—with gentleness and kindness. It’s hard, hard work. But when I see positive results in real time, I’m encouraged to keep at it. There’s no graduation from this school of life.

The miracle of my recovery is that, like a gentle breeze blowing away the clutter of remorse, my eyes can see my life through another lens now, one full of gratitude, humor and love. The fruits of my recovery rest on these three things.

The Eyes To See

Substance use disorder doesn’t discriminate. Before Annie was swallowed up in it, she was a successful gymnast, age ten, competing in England while we were living in Greece. She was a gifted artist. And she graduated from college with a B.A. in Journalism. When she was 21, it all fell apart. Why speculate on “Why Annie?” Rich, poor, educated or not, SUD can strike anywhere. And sometimes there is a gene component—four generations in my family—but not always.

The particular poignancy of this mother’s story is that Annie and I mirror each other: we both suffer from substance use disorder. So my story has a bit of a spin to it. It’s all graphically portrayed in my books. I’m not as detached as many parents without such baggage. My guilt and overinflated sense of responsibility consistently got in the way of any objectivity or of my acting intelligently. I had to let go of my remorse before I could be helpful to her. And I had to learn to value myself enough to do that.

That came from working the steps of my recovery program. Self-forgiveness is critical to my ability to move on. Mine has been a classic redemption story.

I have learned to live well, despite the fact that my daughter is estranged from me. Many fellow parents, myself included, are primarily interested in the magic bullet that will save our kids. But I’m glad I stayed around long enough to learn that even though I’m powerless to save my daughter, I can still save myself. There are other voices in my world who call me: other kids, grandkids and many friends. I want to listen and live well for them. That is the message of my story and many others’: that even though I’m weathering a parent’s worst nightmare, I’ve learned that there’s no glory in martyrdom, and that I’ve earned the right to live happily, whether Annie recovers or not. Life goes on, and we with it. I’ve lived a blessed life, and only through my work in recovery have I found the good sense to recognize and be grateful for that.

As I’ve watched Annie slipping away all these years, I’ve learned to view my life through a different lens. The tools of recovery have taught me how to be grateful for what I have, how to let go of people and situations that I cannot change, and to have faith in something greater, wiser, and more powerful than I am. Losing my child to substance use disorder did break me a few years ago, and in my brokenness I turned toward the light that had always been there. I’m so grateful that I still had the eyes to see it.

Getting Unstuck

From Hope For Today: September 5:

“…In Step Four I realized I was stuck in the past. My daily thoughts were usually about plans for the next day, week, or even month. I always anticipated tomorrow to the point where it became my today. I’d get so caught up in what I was going to do that I often wasn’t aware of what I was doing now.

After realizing this character defect and asking my Higher Power to remove it, each day I have is usually better than the one before. I give thanks for the little joys in each day. I still make plans, but I don’t let my thoughts erase the present. Anticipation is sweet, but not at the cost of today.

When I look back on this in the context of alcoholism, I understand why I behaved as I did. With all the awful happenings at home, there were many today’s I didn’t want to experience. As a child, I had limited options, so the best way to escape was to flee into the possibility of a better tomorrow. I have different choices now. I know enjoying my day and doing the right thing for myself and my Higher Power is the best plan for an even better tomorrow. Thought For The Day: Just for today I choose to enjoy all this day has to offer. If I don’t like the offering, I’ll ask my Higher Power to help me adjust my attitude.”

Attitude IS everything. I grieve the loss of my daughter like everyone else who faces this cruel illness in their child or loved one. But I can try to transform it into something that works for me. Gratitude does that. And it infects those around me. In the most uplifting way!

Sometimes good things are born out of loss. When I see all the recovery in all these rooms, my eyes are bearing that out. God Bless us all at this trying time of the year. May we all find some peace to carry us through to the New Year!

“Look Back Without Staring”

From Hope for Today, September 13:

“Never underestimate the power of self-awareness to put past experience into a new perspective…Until we take the time to look at ourselves honestly. we may never be free of the bondage in which alcoholism holds us captive.”

As the mother of a substance user, I was focused completely on my daughter Annie and her problems. In the beginning of her illness, I failed to see that how I handled the chaos in my home might have more to do with me than with her. I didn’t realize what a powder keg my past was bringing to an already explosive situation.

My own history of substance use played a big role in my reactions. Whoever said “Blame is for God and small children” forgot about me. I thought Annie’s illness was my fault. I burdened myself with guilt and an inflated sense of responsibility, and that burden crippled me when dealing with the consequences of her bad choices. I often lost my own moral compass, the one I raised her to follow. That guilt put at risk all the healthy boundaries I had set in place with all of my children. I became lost.

Much of my behavior was a misguided attempt to protect my daughter. I became overprotective, and shielded her from the logical consequences of many choices that might have taught her some valuable life lessons.

I did step up and put her through four rehabs. I was happy to do that and so hopeful. But after she got out and relapsed every time, I fell back into old patterns. I didn’t see how I might be part of the problem.

My enabling just kept her stuck, and I became stuck too in a vicious cycle that wasn’t helping either one of us. I needed to distance myself just enough to learn how to detach from my daughter. To do it lovingly and without any judgment.

It’s a fine line we mothers walk between protecting our children and letting them go to learn how to live well. Since so many substance users stop growing emotionally when they start using, it’s easy to step in and do too much for them. There’s nothing easy about what we face with our children.

But the more I learn about myself, the more armed I am to avoid the pitfalls along the way. As I find the need to change much of my behavior, so do those around me. My recovery has affected all those I come into contact with. And it has “freed me of the bondage that had held me captive” all of my life, so that I can let go of the past, and more effectively deal with the challenges that face me now.

The Freedom Of Recovery

From Survival to Recovery, p. 25-26:

“Unless recovery is found, blame, guilt, anger, depression, and many other negative attitudes can go on for generations in a family affected by alcoholism…Focusing on ourselves actually allows us to release other people to solve their own problems and frees us to find contentment and even happiness for ourselves.”

We all have different stories of how substance use disorder has touched our lives. In my life, guilt was a constant theme from very early in my childhood, and, as I said in my memoir, “Guilt is a terrible crippler.” It crippled me, especially, when my own child mirrored the user in me and morphed into a worse and more dysfunctional user than I ever was. Guilt and self-blame put me at risk in setting and enforcing boundaries, in becoming an enabler, in shielding Annie from the logical consequences of her behavior. In short, guilt kept me from parenting my daughter intelligently and kept me stuck in a hole. Fortunately I found recovery and release from my own remorse, much of it misplaced, which in turn is freeing Annie to live her own life and solve her own problems.

Whatever happens in the days ahead, I won’t be burdened under a cloud of shame that isn’t  mine to carry.

Self-Love

“Thoughts become things; choose the good ones.”

Unlocking the key to this is the key to 12-Step recovery, because with it I become empowered to intelligently deal with the substance use disorder of a loved one (and/or myself). In a letter to another parent I said, “ I love my daughter with all my heart and soul. And I deeply grieve the loss of her. But it’s been learning how to love and value myself that has elevated me from the reality I live with”—“elevate,” as in rise above, detach from, avoid becoming enmeshed in and manipulated by my child. Oh, it’s a sad, sorry catechism we mothers of substance users must learn in order to survive the illness of our children, which changes some of them into people we don’t even recognize.

How I think about myself is conveyed to others. If I put myself down, or have self-deprecating humor, what will others think of me? I will try to guide my thoughts better and guard my tongue more.

But if I can create even a little bit of distance and objectivity from the problem that is consuming me, I might be given some freedom: to look around me and appreciate other blessings in my life, whether it’s a good job, good health, other healthy children, grandchildren, or a sunny day.  Life goes on, relentlessly, with or without me. I choose to live well in my golden years. And I’ll do what’s necessary to insure that. My recovery has taught me that I deserve to.

The Healing Memoir

The Healing Memoir

A few years ago, I listened with pleasure to John Evans on Friday’s NAMW Teleseminar. My recovery memoir exemplified a number of the kinds of writing he talked about in the interview with Linda Joy Myers: writing for healing and transformation; affirmative writing; legacy writing; and transactional writing.

A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore began as an attempt to heal from the pain of my daughter’s substance use disorder. But as I dug deeper into those dark places he referred to, I uncovered many more truths about myself that I was ready to expose and come to terms with. This isn’t automatic for many memoir writers; indeed, this is often that terrifying place where the writing process stops and they back away, hoping to revisit another time. Readiness comes at a different time and place for all of us, but I’m glad I was prepared to do the work that led to self-discovery and change. The cathartic process of typing ten hours a day for two years until my hands ached with arthritis proved to be a worthwhile effort. The grief around my daughter and my family of origin ceased to be a crippling force in my life, and I’ve truly been able to move on. Anger and depression left me, forgiveness (of self and others) came easily, and most importantly, acceptance of things as they were—without resistance— became my mantra.

Shedding the negativity that had imprisoned me for so many years led me to another kind of writing that John Evans talked about: affirmative writing. In a way, my whole memoir, from beginning to end, stood under the light-filled umbrella of my recovery. I injected the positive change in me into every chapter as I looked back on my life—not with anger, sadness, and guilt—but with a fresh perspective. Gratitude, understanding, love and acceptance of what was were so much easier to carry. And they were the big takeaway from my story. It started out in a very dark place, but as the memoir expanded, thankfully, “the light got in.”

John also talked about legacy writing. How do we want people to think about us, and how do we want to be remembered? This brings me to the last type of writing he discussed: transactional writing. This is “getting down to business,” where we address issues on the page with someone else. But the other people we’re talking to need to be listening!

In my case, my siblings have not read the memoir because they fear the opening of old wounds. This is a reflection of where they are in their own healing process. Also, and John mentioned this in his own experience, siblings often have very different memories growing up in the same home. My brother, sister and I are all five years apart, and this was the case with us. Clearly, we’re not all on the same page, and there’s much more healing to be done in my family. But at the same time, some key people in my life haven’t heard my message. When I asked John about this, he assured me that the business was between my text and me—therein lays the benefit. That may be true. Many strangers have read my story and now they know me intimately and even understand me somewhat. But it’s my family that I wanted to know and understand me differently. Perhaps that’s work destined for another place down the road.

So for me alone writing my memoir was a tremendously healing endeavor, and I have indeed found myself transformed by undertaking such an arduous task. This work, to use John’s words, “has helped me move beyond what I thought I couldn’t get over.” I would wish that same clarity and transcendence for all of us!