It’s important for families to communicate well, especially where illnesses are involved. We didn’t talk much in my family, especially about the elephant in the living room, my father’s alcoholism. In those days there was so much shame and stigma, and it was swept under the rug.
Not a healthy way to deal. I always knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what. Many children are naturally egocentric, and I thought everything was my fault. I internalized all of the dysfunction and blamed myself. So that’s how I proceeded through life, feeling guilty for what was not my responsibility.
If I had been told what was going on—even later on when I could handle it— I would have gotten a healthier perspective on my family and my place in it. And I would have let go of the guilt, which wasn’t mine to carry.
Talk to your kids, no matter what. It might not change what’s going on, but it might provide a smoother landing pad for your kids later on in their lives. “Knowledge is power.”
“Life holds so much—so much to be happy about always. Most people ask for happiness on conditions. Happiness can only be felt if you don’t set conditions.” ~Arthur Rubenstein
All of us in these rooms have experienced substance use disorder in one form or another: in ourselves or in a loved one. Many serious illnesses are incurable, but SUD is often conquered by the sufferer. Many substance users recognize that they have the power to change if they are committed to recovery. Different people have different ways of dealing with it: some use 12-Step recovery, some use prayer, or yoga, or running, or writing things down. No one way is better than another. Whatever works for you.
Substance use disorder is painful and messy. My life was derailed because of it. But I found a way to recover—from my own substance use as well as my obsession with saving my daughter, and I got my life back.
I’m filled with gratitude every day for that. And I wish us all the same peace and joy for that freedom. I’ve learned to be happy and to make the best of things as they are. And that’s quite a lot. Gratitude keeps me grounded in recovery, and not just on Thanksgiving!
“Learn to love someone even when they are unlovable.”
Substance use disorder is commonly accepted now as a brain disease. This pronouncement by the American Medical Association causes some confusion because the overuse of substances can cause such unacceptable behavior. It’s difficult to recognize, much less accept, that our loved ones aren’t always making conscious choices. They are under the control of a bewildering array of drugs which influence them. My daughter, when she is on drugs, has not even resembled the daughter I raised. She has been angry, combative, and much worse. Her moral compass has flown out the window. I have often felt the need to distance myself from her for my own protection. This is just terrible and so counterintuitive. We want to protect our children from their disastrous choices. But I paid a heavy price by putting myself in the line of her fire. I learned the hard way that I don’t have the power to save her from the life she is living. But I do have the power to save myself.
Twelve-step recovery is not for everyone; I get that. But it has worked for me. One of the reasons it has worked for me is because an important part of the step work involves self-reflection. It involves looking at myself in the mirror and getting to know myself, warts and all. It involves self-forgiveness, forgiveness of others and letting go of resentments. These are just words, but in fact, they are difficult actions to take. Some resentments that we’ve been nursing our whole lives are nearly impossible to let go of. But I have learned that they will eat away at me, like acid, if I don’t. So it’s worth the effort to let them go. As I have learned to shed much of the negativity in my life, I’m learning to like myself better and be comfortable in my own skin. It’s a slow process—I’ve been at it for twenty years!—but it has worked to help me love myself more and feel worthy of happiness.
So how has that improved relationship with myself affected my relationship with my daughter? To be honest, not much at all. She’s on her own path, one that I cannot support or enable. But what it has done is allow me to endure the distance between us without guilt or obsession. What it has done is convince me that I did the best I could with what I had to raise her, and pat myself on the back for that. The sad reality is that she got tagged with an illness that is destroying millions out there. It’s a cruel illness because it often kills our children (their minds, their spirit, their morality) before it actually kills them. Knowing now what I know about substance use disorder, I don’t beat myself up with remorse and an overinflated sense of responsibility. I will always love her unconditionally, no matter what. The door is not closed; it remains open for her to embrace recovery and come back to her family. That will never change.
In the meantime, my recovery is enabling me to bridge the gap between what I’ve lost and what’s left. I have two other children, beautiful grandchildren, a loving partner, siblings and many friends who remind me what a gift it is just to be alive.
Jenny Jerome Churchill said it best: “Life is not always what one wants it to be. But to make the best of it as it is, is the only way of being happy.”
Every week I go swimming at my neighborhood pool. I usually go early in order to get a lane and to avoid a grumpy old codger No such luck today. I do tend to veer off course sometimes and today he barked, “Stay in your own lane!”
“Detachment is not detaching from the person or thing whom we care about or feel obsessed with. Detachment is detaching from the agony of involvement.”
Boundaries…boundaries…boundaries. Where do I end and the other person begins? A strong sense of self enables me to set clear limits with others. I was terribly enmeshed in my daughter’s life; I had never separated from her in a healthy way. Because we were so alike, I identified with her and felt overly responsible for her troubles. Her problems became my problems, and it never occurred to me to let her face her own responsibilities, both for her betterment and my own. Four rehabs started the healthy process of accountability. Then four relapses reversed much of that work. But I still hope that some of what she learned is still with her.
Thankfully my work in recovery has helped me face myself in the mirror and make some important changes. I made the necessary separation, first of all, from my daughter. I detached—with great difficulty. I no longer feel the “agony of involvement” because I’ve let go of her illness and the consequences of her substance use. I can’t save her from herself. I can only love her and be here for her should she choose to walk with me in recovery. This is how I make living amends to my children and others in my life: by living well myself and hoping it inspires them to do the same.
“When I came into Al-Anon at the suggestion of a friend, my life was unmanageable in so many ways. I was unaware that living with alcoholism was involved in my broken relationships, divorce(s), several addictions, inability to be honest with myself, people pleasing, and other things I had not uncovered yet, either because of denial of lack of discovery.”
“lack of discovery…” Bingo! I feel as though I’d been living in a fog for most of my early life, only I didn’t know it. I didn’t know anything about the family disease that (I now know) was interfering with my well-being.
Where was this article—this enlightenment—when I needed it? As a younger woman I blamed myself for everything that was wrong in my life. I understood nothing about the complicated disease of substance use disorder. But twenty years of work in Al-Anon have opened my eyes. The fog has lifted and now I see more clearly. I understand why I internalized so much of the dysfunction that was happening in my family and carried the guilt myself from which there was no relief.
Not until I entered this compassionate fellowship. It is in these rooms that I found forgiveness for my parents and myself, along with critical tools to continue the healing work I was doing. The 12-Steps and the slogans, when practiced, have helped me navigate through my life. And life, itself, is a mixed bag. I’ve had joys, but also incredible sorrows. Using the teaching of Al-Anon as a guide, I’ve learned to be grateful for my blessings. And I’ve learned to accept my sorrows with grace without being destroyed by them. Learning how to put things into healthier perspective has been a gift of the program.
I have been given hope for a better life, and I’ll always be grateful that I opened my mind to some good advice: “Go to a meeting, Marilea. It might be the answer for you.”
It was. And my fears have been replaced by the certainty that all will be well, in God’s plan.
“’Let me tell thee, time is a very precious gift of God, so precious that it’s only given to us moment by moment.’ ~Viola Spolin
Being in tune with now, this moment, guarantees a direct line of communication to God. It also guarantees a full, yet simple life. Our purpose becomes clear as we trust our steps to God’s guidance. How terribly complicated we make life by living in the past, the present, and many future times, all at once…One step, one moment, and then the next step, and its moment. How the simple life bring me freedom!”
It takes a lot of discipline to clear out the clutter in our minds: the clutter littering our past; and the clutter of fear, projection and worry about the future. Before I got into recovery, one foot was in the past, while I massaged my wounds and was full of regret. The other foot was in the future, making dire projections and rendering myself sick with worry.
Stuck in one of those two realities, or both, was punishing and painful. It really was a form of self-flagellation. And doing so prevented me from focusing on what was right in front of me. But as I grew in my recovery, I found a new and higher regard for myself. It was like putting on a new dress, a little stiff and uncomfortable at first. But it had a positive effect on all my relationships, so I kept it in the closet.
That new dress reflected an increased self of self-worth, and the more I wore it the less I needed to punish myself. Guilt had been an old nemesis for many years, but as I grew to love myself, I felt no need to punish myself with it any more. It’s a very destructive, crippling emotion, but it no longer holds me hostage.
Well, now I have a lot of free time! So I keep my eyes on today. My life is full of many wonderful people and moments. I want to stay focused on it today, to appreciate my blessings. It’s a happier way to live—this simple life—and I’m grateful to have the good sense to live in the now. There’s so much freedom in that!
A few years ago I made amends to a number of people, but my three children were at the top of my list. In an excerpt from my memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation, I discover that the outcome is not always what I’d hoped for:
“Throughout Annie’s addiction, I’d been obsessed with saving her, putting my other children in the background. I needed to make some serious amends about that, as well as my neglect during their childhood and so much of their upbringing. Their response to me has been kind.
“Mom,” Carter said, “of course I forgive you. I love you very much. But it’s better for me if I don’t dwell on my childhood. You need to stop bringing it up.”
I’m powerless to erase the parts of his childhood that cause him pain. It’s necessary to accept that he has his own ways to cope with what happened to him, and let it go.
“Mom, it’s okay. I forgive you,” Caroline offered generously. “I get that you had stuff to deal with. Let’s move on from it. Just know that I love you now and appreciate the efforts you’re making.”
I was not as fortunate with Annie five years ago.
I sent her an email because I didn’t have an address to mail her a letter. This was Annie’s response:
“Your “amends”??? Sure, I could use a laugh. And by the way, if you think a couple warm, fuzzy emails ERASE the last 2-3 YEARS of you treating me like SHIT (ESPECIALLY when I’ve been doing everything you and dad wanted me to do, i.e. become financially independent), then you are WRONG. I’ve believed ever since I was in elementary school that you are a JOKE of a parent not to mention UTTERLY full of shit, and the fact that you’ve had the NERVE to email me the last 3-4 years WITHOUT apologizing for the atrocious shit you’ve done and said to me in the last couple years certainly confirms my long-held beliefs about you. Of COURSE I ended up on drugs. I had YOU for a mother.”
When I shared this with my sponsor, she reminded me of something vital to my recovery: when we make amends to someone, we do it for the cleansing of our own souls, not for any anticipated outcome.
It’s freeing to remember that, especially when I can still feel stung and shaken by Annie’s harsh words. I can’t do anything about the past, nor can I make her see that my attempts to help her, though often misguided, sprang from my love for her.
And the best amends, I believe, are not even found in words. They are living amends.
We can’t change the past, but we can try to do things differently now.
“Step Ten invites me to grow up, to be responsible, and to make amends—all for my own benefit. I take Step Ten because I want to be the best I can be.”
For mothers of substance users, detachment is one of the hardest tools to use. We are inevitably joined through years of raising, nurturing and loving our children as best we could. And when things go so horribly wrong as they do with substance use disorder, it’s only natural to question ourselves and how we raised them.
Self-blame is common, as we take on too much responsibility for our child’s illness. I myself overcompensated where I shouldn’t have. I felt guilty and that guilt crippled my judgment. I became an enabler, and that prevented my daughter from learning from the consequences of her (drug-induced) behavior.
Thankfully, I’ve had years of recovery work to learn how to detach from the pain of watching my daughter self-destruct. I did send her to several rehabs and hoped that a sound upbringing and family love would turn her life around. But ultimately the choice to recover is hers alone.
I wish I had the power to change her. I wish things were different. But I have two other children who were raised the same way, and they are blessings in my life. I’ve stopped blaming myself, and I’ve learned to accept a situation I don’t have the power to change. I detach. I move away from obsessing about the pain of losing her. And I focus on the many good things that remain. When I try to keep my attitude positive, my life works better for me.
It’s great to be a giver, a person who thinks of others and can put others first. That’s a beautiful thing. But when my giving compromises my values, drains me, or defeats my purpose, then I need to question my motives.
My guilt crippled me very badly, and in “giving” to my daughter—over and over—I was making a deal with the devil. It backfired badly. And I learned a valuable lesson: work through my guilt first—or it will control me and put my relationship with her at risk.