A Different Lens

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more I important than the past, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than success. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day…We cannot change the past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way…Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” ~Charles Swindoll

I joined Al-Anon to help my daughter with her substance use issues. But I ended up helping myself so much more. It wasn’t my intention, but I’ve grown a lot in my efforts to heal from a lifetime of living around people with substance use disorder, including myself.

Growing up around alcoholism, and surrounded by a plethora of negative attitudes, I’ve had to unlearn those scripts and rewrite them, as though I were reparenting myself. It is certainly true that our attitude can move mountains…or level them.

I have had a difficult situation with my daughter for years. Early on I was either in denial or hardened in my grief at the loss of Annie. But if I try to keep a healthy perspective on it, if I don’t obsess about it, it won’t control me. I try to keep my heart open to the gifts of this program. Therein lies my happiness. And so, one day at a time, I try to keep a positive attitude, keeping the focus on myself, with gratitude and joy in all I have.

This is a miraculous program that “works if I work it.”

Two Songs

For twenty-five dollars my mother bought a beautiful baby grand piano in the mid- 1950s, and my siblings and I took piano lessons. I forget when my brother and sister stopped their lessons, but I kept at it for quite a few years.

My own children took piano lessons on that same piano, but eventually lost interest, just as I did.

Somehow I kept two songs in my fingers for many decades. Edward McDowell’s “Scotch Poem” and “Improvisation and Melody”. What was I holding onto?

Then, out of sheer neglect, not oiling the wood at all, the baby grand quite literally fell apart when I tried to move it.

Maybe that was my Higher Power’s way of telling me to let go of those two songs.

And a lot of other things.

What’s On Our Minds?

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL Literature, April 6:

“’Treat your friends as you do your pictures, and place them in their best light.’ ~Jennie Jerome Churchill

…Each of us is endowed with many qualities, some more enhancing than others; it is our hope, surely, that our lesser qualities will be ignored. We must do likewise for our friends. We can focus on the good, and it will flourish—in them, in ourselves, in all situations. A positive attitude nurtures everyone. Let us look for the good and, in time, it is all that will catch our attention.”

Was there ever a time to be tested better than during these days of health scares and uncertainty? Tested in what?

  1. Discipline and patience
  2. Creativity and resilience
  3. Keeping a positive attitude
  4. Holding onto our faith
  5. Trusting in HP’s plan for us

That’s lot to ask of ourselves all at once. I remember telling myself that losing Angie to substance use disorder was how I got into the rooms of recovery. And, even as I was thinking that, I felt it was a terrible betrayal of my daughter.

But then my tunnel vision got wider, and lighter, and I started to see more of the big picture. It convinced me that there was more to my life than my fight to save Angie from the nightmare of heroin addiction. Instead of letting that define me, I started focusing on other aspects of my life that brought me joy.

Changing my attitude about everything, I pivoted from hopelessness to hopefulness. And I felt my blood pressure returning to healthy levels. I started to understand the saying I had heard: “Thoughts become things; choose them wisely.”

I accepted that staying mired in any state of negativity—whether it’s grief, depression, or anger and resentment—actually made me sick. Not the soul sickness many of us feel from depression, but real physical ailments: chest pains, sleeplessness, migraines, and many stress-related illnesses. And as I made an effort to avoid negativity, fostering a more positive outlook both in myself and in those around me, I started to feel better.

Our thoughts do turn into actions, and I’m learning to monitor mine more carefully. It’s a conscious effort to defeat the unconscious thoughts that can defeat me if I let them.

The Folly Of White-Knuckling It

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL, July 19:

“’At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance…’ ~Maya Angelou

Serenity isn’t compatible with struggle. We cannot control forces outside of ourselves. We cannot control the actions of our family or co-workers. We can control our responses to them. And when we choose to surrender our attempts to control, we will find peace and serenity.”

It’s always been so important to me to maintain a sense of control in my life. No matter how bad things got—from growing up in an alcoholic family, to watching my adult daughter lose herself in the hellish world of heroin addiction—I was certain that if I were in control on some level, the pain of it all would go away or, short of that, give me a sense of empowerment. I desperately sought a sense of power to distract me from my problems.

But looking to myself was not working. At that point in my life, the delusion that I had the power to fix anyone outside of myself started to collapse.

That’s when I broke down, and found “the gift of desperation.” I admitted I couldn’t exert my influence over anyone else, took that necessary leap of faith, and handed my burdens over to God. I stopped resisting. I loosened my grip.

I love my family and my daughter. But I’ve surrendered to the reality that there was only one person who I had the power to save at the end of the day: myself. And with my long history of substance use disorder, I had my work cut out for me. I placed the focus firmly back on myself and began, as I continue to begin anew every day, the long process of recovery.

“…the greatest paradox of all: absolute surrender in order to win.” ~Claire Demers

I Think I’ll Let Him

So, I was learning to let go of much of my pride, and I was acquainting myself with the beginnings of humility, something I knew nothing about. Low self-esteem, humiliation, lack of self-worth—none of this language is about humility, though there is often much confusion. I was all of those things, but until I’d accepted that something else in my life was in charge of events as they were unfolding, I couldn’t understand humility. As long as I was playing God, it was a foreign concept.

With great relief I accepted in the second step that there was a force out there that could help me think and live better. So the third step was to allow Him to do so. This is where I started to understand what it meant to be humble: it’s understanding my place in the stream of things next to God’s, which is very small. That’s not thinking little of myself; but it is thinking a lot about God, and letting Him take over the burden of my pain.

And the weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders.

Blossoms Becoming Fruit

The following is an excerpt from my new memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.                                                         

            “Gene had retired from teaching within a year of my retirement, and we opted for a change of scenery. I did the groundwork, and one weekend we flew to New Mexico to buy a little house between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We pooled our resources, pitching in together all we had. Gene and some friends cleared the back quarter acre of sagebrush, and he bought a dozen fruit trees to start an orchard. Over the years, he’s planted and nurtured a total of fifty trees—Rainier cherries, Saturn peaches, Challengers, Shiro plums, apricots, and many kinds of apples. One year we had so many peaches we had to give them away. It was grueling work but gratifying as we watched the blossoms turn into fruit.

            Throwing myself into full-time recovery in New Mexico, I began the process of new growth in myself, attending one or two recovery meetings a day. That became my full-time job, embracing a spiritual way of life. But it’s come with a steep learning curve.

In Virginia, when I first started going to meetings, the guidelines of the program were hard for me to follow. I felt responsible for what was happening to Annie (Angie) and couldn’t let go of my need to save her, unwilling to admit my powerlessness. Doing so seemed counterintuitive to me.

           Late in 2002, after we had sent her to her first rehab, she did well for a little while. I remember saying this at a recovery meeting:

            “I have no doubt that my daughter’s progress parallels my own.” The people at the meeting just nodded, recognizing that was where I needed to be in that moment.

            Still attached to my daughter with no understanding of the concepts of detachment and letting go, I thought I held all the cards—the magic bullet to her recovery. I desperately needed to believe that.

            In time, though, I accepted that addiction is a brain disease—still a matter of much controversy in this country—and not a moral failing. Annie (Angie) was sick. I had no more power over her illness than if she’d had diabetes or cancer.

           Through trial and error, following the road map that had helped many addicts and families of addicts since the 1950s, I learned to let go of the things no longer in my control…And I needed to get on with my life.”

I Can’t

“Step One: Admitted we were powerless over (you name it), that our lives had become unmanageable.”

For a very long time I couldn’t take the first step. I realize now that I was confusing powerlessness with weakness. I couldn’t allow myself to be weak; I had to be strong for my daughter. But only after seeing how unmanageable my life had become in my attempts to be strong was I able to finally see my stubbornness and self-will for what it was: a desperate attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Then, and only then, was I able to let go and accept the unacceptable: I couldn’t save Angie. And I learned, paradoxically, that there is a lot of strength in surrender.

Amen to that.

Looking Ahead

From “The Forum,” August, 2015, p. 19:

“I’m so grateful I found a way out of sadness, a way to take care of myself each day, and a relationship with the God of my understanding, who will never abandon me. The pain I’ve felt in the past is equal to the measure of joy I feel now.”

That’s quite a mouthful. Whoever wrote those words in “The Forum” is saying that somewhere between despair and happiness she or he did some work, and found some answers. For me, anyway, I entered into a state of grace. I quite deliberately let go of my precious wounds, which served no further purpose in my life. The lessons they taught me have been learned. I’ve put my sadness in a back drawer—and replaced it with positive thoughts that keep me motivated to reclaim my life, my remaining loved ones, and keep my heart ticking.

Grief is not a badge I wear anymore. Joyfulness is.

“The Road Less Traveled”

From Each Day A New Beginning, by Karen Casey, January 1:

“Acceptance of our past, acceptance of the conditions presently in our lives that we cannot change, brings relief. It brings the peacefulness we so often, so frantically, seek.”

The drama that filled my life when my daughter, Angie, first got sick was overwhelming. Eventually, it broke me. And I needed to step back and take a look at my behavior. The first thing I did was remove “frantically” from my vocabulary. Next, because I realized that my guilt and inflated sense of responsibility were actually harming her and preventing her from learning, I needed to step way back and detach, but always with love. Loving detachment need not be a slap in the face to our loved one, but rather it gives him/her the freedom and opportunity to be accountable for choices they made, often under the influence. If I continually step in and try to fix everything for my daughter, she will have little or no opportunity to accept life on life’s terms. And isn’t that, without resorting to substance use disorder, what we all need to do?

Life on life’s terms. Substance use disorder around the world is a deeply disturbing reflection of how people respond to loneliness and alienation. When emotional longing collides with the easy availability of substances—dangerous drugs, too much food, alcohol sold at gas stations—that’s a recipe for problems which might end with physical illness, but they didn’t begin that way. Emotional pain, Dr. Edwin Shneidman calls it “psychache,” came first.

There isn’t a nation on earth that doesn’t have people with some form of emotional pain that he writes about, and their solutions vary. In America, though, there has been a growing epidemic of substance use disorder for many years. The experts can figure out what this means, but as a substance user myself, I’m observing my world, and the world of all my friends in recovery, from that perspective. Only time will tell how the pandemic will affect those of us who used various substances to lessen our “psychache.”  But I’m grateful, one day at a time, to continue the work on my emotional sobriety and enjoy the positive effect it has on those closest to me. My world may be turning slower than it used to, but it’s still turning!

“But For The Grace Of God…”

“There’s always going to be someone out there with far less than I have who is happy.”

It’s so important to keep things in perspective. Even though the compounding tragedies that bring us together in the rooms consume us, they needn’t. When I take a fully inventory of my life and recognize that my blessings far outnumber my losses, I know how much worse things could be.

And, for me, that makes all the difference.

Keeping things in perspective is a daily balancing act for me. Especially now, when everyone’s life is out of whack, it’s easy to get overly emotional and overreact to small things that we used to ignore. In a way, with all of our worlds reduced to the inside of our homes, we are living under a microscope. Families that used to send three kids off to school every day with husbands and wives sharing the car with public transportation are having to remain inside their home, constantly bumping into each other.

This is not something I’m experiencing, but millions of other families are, and results from this new normal will start pouring in. All anyone can do is try to make the best of a new situation. Hopefully many families will be stronger on the other side of this. My recovery demands that I remain grateful for my blessings because “there’s always going to be someone out there with far less than I have who is happy.” I’ll take a page from his/her book.