He Can

“Step Two: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

To take this step I had to stop trying so hard to play God. Of course, I never saw myself in those terms. I saw myself as, first of all, self-reliant and proud of myself for that. In addition, I saw myself as a strong parent who would do anything to save her child; I felt proud of that too. I guess you could say that I had a lot of pride.

But after a few years of being so “strong,” I started to feel frustrated and martyred. All my efforts were coming to nothing. Angie was still a sick drug addict, and I was becoming broken. I needed to believe that there was a greater force out there that could help me make wiser decisions and help me take my life back.

At this point I just had to believe.

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 Talk

From Living Sober, AA World Services, Inc., p. 49:

“Many of us, when drinking, were deeply sure for years that our own drinking was harmless. We were not necessarily smart-alecky about it, but when we heard a clergyman, a psychiatrist, or an A.A. member talk about alcoholism, we were quick to observe that our drinking was different, that we did not need to do any of the things those people suggested. Or even if we could admit that we were having a bit of trouble with our drinking, we were sure we could lick it on our own. Thus we shut the door against new information and help. And behind that door, our drinking went on, of course.

Our troubles had to be pretty dire, and we had to begin to feel pretty hopeless before we could open up a little bit and let in some fresh light and help.”

Not all of us reach the same bottom, of course, before we decide not to drink. For many, it’s that first (or third) DUI. It could be lost employment for others. I’ve seen a couple of people with late-stage alcoholism awaiting liver transplants. Hopefully more and more alcoholics will decide to quit long before that happens.

My bottom cut me to the core and maybe that’s why I haven’t wanted to drink since. My son and his wife had an intervention with me. They called me out on my habit of drinking alone in their basement, something that I thought I was getting away with. Didn’t I think they’d notice all the empty vodka bottles? That and the fact that I was being secretive about it were red flags. Shame and secrecy all play into the denial that enables us to keep up bad habits.

I was stunned and deeply ashamed. And only because I’d had many years of work in another 12-Step group did I have enough recovery to stay in my chair and listen to their concerns. They were concerned about their children, my grandchildren, and the danger of drinking and driving. But most of all they were concerned about me, keeping me safe and alive long enough to enjoy watching them grow up.

I am so grateful to my son for stepping in. He saved my life. My own father was just a couple years older than I am when he died prematurely from alcoholism and smoking. History does not have to repeat itself.

When my children were young, I was not always emotionally present for them. To feel my son’s forgiveness now and to see his concern for my welfare is incredibly gratifying to me. I’ve been given a second chance and I want to take advantage of it. How many people get do-overs like that?

Listen and Learn

“Teaching is mostly listening, and learning is mostly telling.” ~Deborah Meier

“So often I don’t listen. I’m consumed by my own thoughts and the next thing I will say. But there’s so much I don’t know.

I feel I must know a great deal; I must appear strong and competent.

For others.

I know I don’t know everything, but I want to appear confident.

For others.

I would do well to put myself aside and learn from others.

For me.”

“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.

Reaching For Faith

From Each Day A New Beginning, May 11:

“Our attitude is crucial. It determines our experiences. A trying situation can be tolerated with relative ease when we have a positive, trusting attitude. We forget, generally, that we have an inner source of strength to meet every situation…I can turn my day around. I can change the flavor of today’s experiences. I can lift my spirits and know all is well.”

All is well. To firmly believe that, when our lives are roiling with chaos and heartache, requires a certain amount of faith. And that’s something that can’t be taught.

Faith came to me when I was on my knees, broken. When I finally realized that, despite all my efforts to help her, my daughter Angie was going to do as she pleased, and I needed to let go of my desperate attempt to save her. It was then that I started to understand the concept of accepting things I could not change.

But acceptance came with heartache, and I wanted some relief from that. So I turned my eyes upward, and prayed for release from my unremitting pain. The harder I prayed, the more faith I was given. The less I relied on myself and the more I relied on (my concept of) God, the more I believed with certainty that all was well.

I completely understand why people all over the world gather together to worship. It breaks our spiritual isolation. It’s hard now, in the time of coronavirus, to physically come together. So creative churchgoers are meeting in drive-in movie theaters, and what a wonderful idea! The point is that faith is a gift that must be regularly nurtured, either in a church or elsewhere. God has graced me with faith that my life is unfolding as it was meant to. And when I remember that, especially in times of trouble, I feel the peace and serenity that is promised to me. A faith-based attitude of acceptance, gratitude and love carries me through every day.

When I remember to adjust my attitude, I know that all is well.

Mother’s Day in the Time of Coronavirus

I am a blogger for The Addict’s Parents United. The sequel to my award-winning first memoir, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, will be released by She Writes Press on 6/16/20. This is an excerpt from Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation:

         “Several years before I attempted to make amends to Angie, she was in her last rehab in California. It was 2009, and I flew across the country for Parents’ Weekend. After excitedly showing me around the grounds, she bumped into a couple of new friends.

         “Hey, Angela, show us more of those moves.”
        My daughter still enjoyed showing people what she had been able to do as a gymnast in Greece. 

         “Sure.” Proud of her agility, she showed us, among other things, a backward twist that must have been difficult then. She wasn’t ten anymore.

            As she leaned backward toward the floor, her hair fell back; I saw the scar again and wondered how she’d gotten it. She must have had an accident to have sustained such a deep gash around her hairline in the middle of her forehead.

When Angie was a child, she looked like a beautiful mandarin doll. She’d always had a thick pile of bangs to frame her oval face. But her hair didn’t fall that way anymore because of the scar, and she hadn’t been wearing bangs for several years. I remembered the picture of my children from J. C. Penney’s one Christmas in Miami, her pretty brown eyes accented by her thick bangs.

Seeing her then in rehab, I focused on her bangs. How much I missed seeing them on her! What mother doesn’t mourn her child’s innocence and wish a painless life for her?

            The last time I saw her, for Mother’s Day in 2012, I was in a San Francisco motel near the hostel in the Tenderloin where she was staying. She was to spend a night with me and had a key to the room. It was five in the morning when I heard her unlocking the door, and I jumped up to open it.

            “Hi, Mom. This is Pontus.”

            “Hi there,” the much older man said as he offered to shake my hand.

            “Hello, Pontus. Angie, please come in now so I can go back to sleep.”

            “Sure, Mom. See you later, Buddy.”

            I have a picture of her sitting on my bed the next morning, her terrier, Loki, on her lap; she was never without him. Her hair was pulled to the side and held with a clip, exposing the scar.

            She looked so strange—like someone else—without those lustrous bangs. But of course she was . . . someone else.”

Eight years. Some digital contact in all that time—most of it unpleasant. I’ve often said in my commentary over the years that an addict, after long periods of using, seems split down the middle: the child we raised, and what remains after years of substance abuse.

I’ve hoped for the happy ending so many of my fellow mothers are blessed with. I’m so genuinely happy for them, and I hold a fervent wish in my heart that their addicts continue to enjoy sobriety. But many of us have not been so fortunate. And many mothers have buried their children. So how do we move forward with our grief and loss?

Together, for one thing. Together we are stronger. Talking openly about it, putting an end to the shame and isolation. There is strength and empowerment in our ability to stand tall and add our voices to the others out there. Substance use disorder—this is hard to believe—is even more on the rise now. As a result of all the forced isolation in the time of coronavirus—isolation which is a substance user’s worst enemy—a few mothers I know have found themselves frustrated and saddened  to watch their children falling back into the rabbit hole. I pray their relapses are short-lived and they are able to get back to living their lives without using substances to cope.

I think of my Angie on this Mother’s Day, 2020. I don’t know how she is. I sent her an email, telling her how much I love her and I hope she’s well enough to survive another day. The email didn’t bounce back. If she’s still with us in San Francisco, that’s good, because where there’s life there’s hope.

We all have different stories with our children; some are happy and some are sad. This is just my story. But I know that I was the best mom that I could be, and I believe that most mothers are. Because of that stirring belief, I’m proud to celebrate myself and all of you on Mother’s Day, this year and every year. We have more than earned a place in that fellowship.

God Bless Us, Every One Of Us Mamas!