Second Chances

From Courage to Change, Al-Anon conferenced approved literature, May 30:

“As a result of living in a household where alcohol was abused, the concept of being gentle with myself was foreign. What was familiar was striving for perfection and hating myself whenever I fell short of my goals…If I am being hard on myself, I can stop and remember that I deserve gentleness and understanding from myself. Being human is not a character defect!

‘The question is not what a man can scorn, or disparage, or find fault with, but what he can love, and value, and appreciate.’ ~John Ruskin”

We pass on what was given to us. And so the three A’s—awareness, acceptance, and action—have helped me see clearly what I’ve needed to change about myself and, by extension,  others.

As I have learned in recovery to love myself more and to treat myself with kindness, I have passed that on to family and friends all around me.

So often as adults we appear to be on automatic pilot, behaving in ways that make us cringe afterwards. Our caretakers were often our role models, and we learned how to parent from them. No one’s life is perfect, and few people have perfect parents. But however we fared growing up, the beauty of recovery is that we get to do things over—with more gentleness and compassion for ourselves as well as our caretakers. Especially those we learned from. We can do things differently now if we want to. These are “living amends.”

“We have two lives… the life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” ~Bernard Malamud

Little Heroes

From Courage to Change, Al-Anon approved literature, May 31:

“Legends have often told of spiritual journeys in which the hero must face great challenges before gaining treasure at the journey’s end. As the heroes of our own stories, we…have also embarked upon a spiritual journey—one of self-discovery.”

I never thought of myself as a hero. What I am is a recovering addict/alcoholic with an AD who I haven’t seen in eight years. Those are the facts. Have I been challenged by the reality in my life? Of course! But I’m still here. I sleep at night. In spite of my struggle with Annie, I manage my life and relationships better than I ever have.

Before recovery, there were two Marilea’s: the outside one and the inside one; and they didn’t match. Like many people, I wore masks to keep up appearances. But I am learning in the rooms to face myself with more honesty, to let go of habits that weren’t working for me anymore, and in the process I discovered new things about myself, things that give me hope for the future.

People fear change, so it takes courage to do things differently. The biggest and most fundamental change in my life has been my ability to embrace an entity outside of myself (call it God, HP, or a tree) to guide me through the inevitable difficulties in my life.

Before I took the first three steps—the “God” steps—I was entirely self-reliant, feeling and appearing competent, but always frightened on the inside. My “solution” had always been excessive use of various substances—from food to alcohol—to deal with my fears. But that stopped working for me, and I needed help to implement the change I needed. I was desperate enough to accept that my best thinking got me into the rooms of recovery. I was probably my own worst enemy, and I needed help. I had tried so many things, from yoga to many self-help books.

But the one thing missing in all of my solutions was a healthy dose of humility. I still needed to think I was in charge, which, of course, is what got me into so much trouble. I was delighted, finally, to let go of my ego just enough to trust in God to help me manage my life. This was the piece of the puzzle I had been yearning for. My Spirit now fills in the holes that substances used to cover up, and I’m grateful.  

Taking That Leap

“’Joy fixes us to eternity and pain fixes us to time. But desire and fear hold us in bondage to time, and detachment breaks the bond.’ ~Simone Weil

We live both in the material realm and the spiritual. In our material dimension we seek material pleasures, inherent in which is pain. Our human emotions are tied to our material attachments, and joy, at its fullest, is never found here. Real joy lies outside of the material dimension while living fully within us too, in the secret, small place inside where we always know that all is well.”

That secret, small place that is easily hidden by the distractions of our (material) lives? Unless we are Buddhist monks living in Tibet, we are just humans like everyone else, wondering how to get the bills paid. We, in the human dimension, have so many concerns that keep our minds busy. And that is why, when our concerns weigh us down, the spiritual life is comfort and relief.

The first three steps are keys to getting me started on the spiritual journey.  The acceptance (of things I can’t control) that comes with Step One is humbling. But unless it’s fully taken and I put my ego and will in a back drawer, there’s no point in moving forward with the steps. Having admitted my powerlessness, then, I need help to carry the pain I have just assigned myself. So I come to believe that some power will restore my mind to a saner pace. And finally, of course, I take that giant leap of faith by asking that Being to carry the burden for me.

This is the relief I feel every time I take Step Three. This is the leap of faith I need to make to feel joy in the material domain. More prayer, more Eleventh Step, more peace and serenity  when I remember how small I am in the scheme of things. When my HP remains large in my life, I have faith that all will be well.

“…a simple program, but it isn’t easy.”

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, Al-Anon CAL, July 27:

“’To keep a lamp burning we have to keep putting oil in it.’ ~Mother Teresa

Our spiritual nature must be nurtured. Prayer and meditation lovingly kindle the flame that guides us from within. Because we’re human, we often let the flame flicker and perhaps go out. And then we sense the dreaded aloneness. Fortunately some time away, perhaps even a moment in quiet communion with God, rekindles the flame.”

My daily practice of gratitude, reading program literature, and attending frequent meetings keeps my focus on those first three steps. When I do that, I am emboldened to proceed to Step Four and all the steps that come after. The life-enhancing nature of the twelve steps has given me the courage to live my life with much less fear than before. And though I’m far from Mother Teresa (!!!), I do try to live every day as a child of God, worthy of all the peace and happiness that comes my way—when I work for it.

Serenity is the gift that my faith gives me.

Ego, The Double-Edged Sword

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL, July 20:

“’It is ironic that the one thing all religions recognize as separating us from our Creator—our very self-consciousness—is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures.’ ~Annie Dillard

EGO: Edging God Out. A friend told me once that our ego is what separates us from God. And I didn’t know what she meant because I didn’t understand how our egos have the power to save us—but also have the power to destroy.

So  as I’ve come to know myself within the comforting fellowship of many recovery rooms, I’ve started to see more, and more broadly, the concept of “self” and how it can be lovingly managed within the context of substance use recovery.

“This division from others, the barrier that keeps us apart, comes from our individual insecurities.” As Annie Dillard alludes to above, we need no longer make comparisons between ourselves and others. When we ignore our differences, and focus on what brings us together, we come to see ourselves, over time, as a wonderful community of equals. What separates us IS our ego, and thankfully with the First Step we have learned to tame that tricky beast before it gets in the way of our progress.

The Child In Us

From Each Day A New Beginning, by Karen Casey, March 14:

“’The child is an almost universal symbol for the soul’s transformation. The child is whole, not yet divided…When we would heal the mind…we ask this child to speak to us.’ ~Susan Griffin

Perhaps “the child” is a metaphor for a spiritual guide, like our own higher power, that can help us in our journey toward self-acceptance.

‘I may not be perfect, but parts of me are excellent.’”

I love the freedom in this quote. For so much of my life, I’ve been a slave to appearances, to perfectionism, to measuring up to someone else’s arbitrary standards. But my outside never matched my inside, and what a relief to be able to shed my masks and just be who I am, warts and all.

This journey toward self-acceptance has been a long one, and I’m grateful. The twelve steps, in my mind, are terrific character builders. Once I muster (with difficulty) taking the first three steps, the “God Steps,” my work is cut out for me. This is where many people leave. It’s hard work to look in the mirror and look at my defects. Holding onto resentments, too, one of our biggest Waterloos, and our difficulty with accountability blinds us to what we need to change. But once we get over that hurdle and start clearing out the wreckage of our past, the final steps seem like a welcome refuge from the storms of our lives.

The child in us is kind and forgiving. “When we would heal our minds,” we can listen to the voice of the child in us.

And this voice has set me free.

Keeping An Open Mind

From Each Day A New Beginning, September 13:

“’Nobody told me how hard and lonely change is’ ~Joan Gilbertson

…Honest self-appraisal may well call for change, a change in attitude perhaps, a change in specific behavior in some instances, or maybe a change in direction…(But) We find some comfort in our pain because at least it holds no surprises…Courage to change accompanies faith. My fears are telling me to look within to the spiritual source of strength, ever present but often forgotten.”

When I joined my recovery fellowship, my focus was firmly on my daughter. She had a life-threatening disorder, and I wanted to help her. So I helped. And I helped. And I helped…I had the best of intentions, but I needed to step back and reflect upon what, besides protecting her, was motivating me. My fear was getting in the way.

I needed to get help so that I could manage the situation better. It took me a long time to realize and accept that I was making a bad situation much worse. And this was happening because of my own unrecognized problems. Once I saw them and how they affected, not just my relationship with Annie, but with other important people, I found the willingness to work on myself and improve my relationships with others.

One day at a time, I’m still trying. I’m far from perfect, but I’m trying to be my best self. At the end of the day, that’s the only self I can control.

“Stealth Bomber”

“One weekend before we left the country, telling Angel he was on his own with the kids, I drove East to be by the sea. In Ocean City, I got a cheap hotel room, a cheap bottle of vodka, and spent my time numbing myself. Instead of walking on the beach at the ocean I love so well, instead of grabbing a bag and adding more souvenirs to my beautiful collection, I lay on my bed, drank vodka straight out of the bottle, and passed out.

I might as well have stayed in a cheap motel near my own house.

In a fog most of the time, eating junk food from the boardwalk, I ran away from my life. I left my “shell” for the weekend, ventured off by myself, as empty coming out of a bottle as I was going into it.

I learned nothing, gained nothing from escaping for a few days other than missing my children terribly. I was still as hollow as the bleached whelks waiting to be snatched up by grateful collectors.

I would discover, many years down the road, the sneaky and devastating nature of addictive disease: how it stalks you, dupes you into thinking you’re okay “if it’s just once in a while.”  It’s like any virus: it needs a host to take root. And grow.

To flourish. And continue.

Addiction, like any cancer, wants to survive. It filled my empty shell, opportunistic disease that it is, with false-confidence, false promises, false hopes.

Maybe I’ll be happier in Greece…”

Excerpted from my recently released, award-winning memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation

“My Daughter/Myself”

The following is an excerpt from my new memoir, Stepping Stones.

“…Her first year of living independently seemed uneventful at first. Frequently visiting her in the apartment she shared, I took her furniture from her old bedroom so she would feel at home in her new digs. But there were signs that she was changing. She had never had many boyfriends in high school. Then one Sunday morning I arrived to find a friend of hers on the sofa, clearly feeling at home. Later I learned he was a bartender at a watering hole and drug hotspot in Adams Morgan. Well, she was on her own. And by now she was twenty-one; I felt I didn’t have much leverage.

In the spring, though two courses short of her graduation requirements at George Mason University, Annie was allowed to walk with her class, cap and gown and all.

Angel, his wife and I all dressed up for our second child’s college graduation in the spring of 2001, and we all viewed this ceremony as a symbol of hope that Annie was willing and anxious to embrace her adulthood and take on more responsibilities, like other young people.

“Hey, Mom, I want you to meet my friend Shelly. She got me through statistics sophomore year.”

“Hi, Shelly, nice to meet you. Thanks for helping Annie. Is your family here

today?”

“No. They had to work. No big deal for them anyway.”

“Oh. Well I think it’s a big deal, so congratulations from me! It was nice to meet you, Shelly, and good luck.”

Annie’s graduation distracted us from being curious about what she was doing in the evenings. Again, she went to a lot of trouble to cover up behavior that she knew would alarm us and might threaten an intervention.

Just like her mother.

At the end of the summer, she asked if she could move into my basement. Her roommate was buying a condo, she said, and their lease was up anyway. Later on, when I watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded in my own house, I wondered about the truth of that. I thought maybe the roommate saw where Annie was going and asked her to leave. No matter. She was in my house now. The circle was about to close.

Then a shocking discovery—a bowl of homemade methamphetamine on top of my dryer! I had been wondering about the stuff she’d left in my basement laundry room. I read the label: muriatic acid. I looked it up on my computer. So that’s what she used it for!

I moved the bowl up to the kitchen and put it next to the sink, where recessed lighting bore down on it. She couldn’t miss it when she came in the front door. I thought I’d be ready for the confrontation.

At 4:30 in the morning, she exploded into my bedroom while Gene and I were sleeping. I’m glad he was with me that night.

“How dare you mess with my things downstairs! Don’t you ever touch my stuff again, you fucking bitch!” she roared. I thought I was dreaming when I saw her there, animal-like, with wild, blood-shot eyes.

Gene held onto me as I sobbed into my pillow. “Oh God, this isn’t happening, Gene, please tell me this isn’t happening!”

A half hour later, pulling myself together, I went downstairs to make coffee. I still had to go to work.

Annie stomped upstairs from the basement with a garbage bag full of her clothes and brushed by me without a word or a look. After she slammed the door behind her, I ran to the kitchen window and saw her get into her car.

My daughter went from crystal meth, to cocaine, to heroin, as though it were a smorgasbord of terrible choices. Despite four rehabs and family love, her addictive disease continued. There were periods of remission, but they were short-lived. My daughter lived in one pigsty after another, her boyfriends all drug addicts. I would spend a decade trying to reconcile two feelings: complete hatred for the stranger who was living in my daughter’s body and total surrender to my love for her.

Because of our superficial differences, I didn’t realize right away how alike we were.

We’ve both suffered from depression since we were young. The adults in our lives didn’t always acknowledge our screams. We turned to substance abuse for relief: food, cigarettes, and drugs. I added alcohol to my list, but I’m not aware that she ever drank alcoholically. My daughter moved on to heroin.

At least I cleaned up well.

Though Annie was no longer living with me at that point, I tried to continue embracing her, accepting her, so she’d know she was still loved. But I couldn’t yet distinguish between helping and enabling.

I did unwise, misguided, things: I gave her money; I paid her debts; I shielded her from jail when she broke the law.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to contact the authorities about this, Mrs. Rabasa?” the rep asked me when she stole my identity to get a credit card.

“Oh no,” terrified of her going to jail, “I’ll handle it.”

And I did, badly.

This was enabling at its worst. Convinced her addiction came from me, that guilt crippled me and my judgment.

Placing a safety net beneath her only served to ease my anxiety. It did nothing to teach her the consequences of her behavior. I kept getting in her way.

It felt like I was in the twilight zone whenever I visited her. My daughter was buried somewhere deep inside, but the addict was in charge. One body, split down the middle: my daughter, Annalise; and a hard-core drug addict. A surreal nightmare. 

Her apartment smelled of incense and dirty laundry. The soles of her shoes flopped until she could get some duct tape around them. She didn’t offer me anything to eat because there was no food in the refrigerator.

Nothing.

Twice while I was there she ran to the bathroom to vomit.

Heroin. Dope sick.

Annie was hijacked by a cruel disease—cruel because it robs you of yourself while you’re still alive. While destroying your mind, it keeps your body alive long enough to do a lot of damage before it actually kills you. For many drug addicts, it’s an agonizingly slow death.

It was like looking at a movie of my life in reverse, erasing all the good fortune that brought me to where I was, leaving only the pain and ugliness—and hopelessness—of a wasted life. How I might have ended up.

For better or worse, my life had been unfolding as many do with addictive personalities. But to see the same disease taking over the life of my child—to see that mirror up close in front of me—was threatening to be my undoing.

Trying to hold it together, I was imploding. Like all addicts and families of addicts, survival can be reached from many places, but often from the bottom.

Mine was waiting for me.

“Let Go And Let God”

“Every day there are decisions to be made and problems to be solved. When we notice irritations growing into tensions, tensions into near-panic, and old fears returning, it’s time to stop and turn to God. We find that when we supply the willingness, He supplies the power.”

If I’m willing to let Him help me with a problem, then I’m stepping outside of my own ways of thinking which have not always worked well for me. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it “thinking”—more like being on automatic pilot in several areas. So, once again, I recognize that the self-reliance I had in childhood has become a defect as an adult, and I’m willing to look at that.

Changed attitudes have aided my recovery. That and the new and better behavior that has grown out of those changed attitudes have led me toward a happier way of living. My relationships are healthier, and I’ve shed those that cannot support the change in me. There has been a lot of change in my life, and though some of the sorrows that brought me to recovery remain, I’m learning to be a happier person using the tools of the program. I’m deeply grateful for that!