Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps back, one step forward.
“Progress, not perfection.”
It’s the striving—the journey—that matters. And though we get tired from all the struggle, it’s that very work that builds up our resistance to life’s challenges. Substance use disorder, whether it’s in us or a loved one, is a huge test of our mettle. And like many difficult things, we don’t always get it the first time.
I didn’t. With my daughter, I kept thinking that I needed to be in control because she wasn’t making good decisions. But what I’ve learned on my recovery journey is that I don’t have control over another adult’s life, and least of all while they are under the influence of drugs. As painful as that reality is, I do accept it now.
Do I waver? Am I human? Am I tempted to keep trying something else? Of course!
That’s why I keep coming back—to listen and learn.
I love this acronym because it shows how emotions can collide with rational thinking. It also shows that even when we are being rational, we sometimes say the wrong thing. As a writer, I’m aware of the power of words—how they can persuade, or repel, how they can win friends, or lose them. I’ve done them all! When I get too emotional, I’m sure to say the wrong thing. Experience has taught me to use this acronym to weigh carefully what comes out of my mouth. To ask myself if what I say is necessary, or am I just spouting off, releasing steam like Old Faithful in Yellowstone? Am I being honest, or are my words brutal and tactless? Do I care how my words might affect the other person? Am I so emotional, in the moment, that my words might appear unintelligible? And most of all, do my words demonstrate kindness towards the other person?
Of all those terms, kindness for me is the most far-reaching and important. No matter what happens to us in our lives, no matter how deeply we are humbled by our circumstances and shortcomings, if we can remain kind in the face of everything, then that says a lot about our character.
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 victim to substance use disorder, after I had tried and failed over and over again to help 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 the transgressions we inevitably commit 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.
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.
“We forget that the depths teach us how to better appreciate the heights.”
From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL, August 20:
“’Everything in life that we really accept undergoes change. So suffering must become love. That is the mystery.’ ~Katherine Mansfield
Acceptance of those conditions that at times plague us changes not only the conditions but, in the process, ourselves. Perhaps this latter change is the more crucial. As each changes…life’s struggles ease. When we accept all the circumstances that we can’t control, we are more peaceful. Smiles more easily fill us up. It’s almost as though life’s eternal lesson is acceptance, and with it comes life’s eternal blessings.”
This is a hard one for me. Hard because, like many people, it is hard to accept the pain of loss. Like a recent amputee, I miss what’s not there. I miss my childhood; I miss my daughter; I miss some friends who have passed.
And at times I resist. I go into fighting mode where I refuse to accept. But that place is not peaceful for me. It stirs up feelings, long set aside as harmful: guilt, longing, even at times the wish to punish myself.
Whoa! This is why I need my recovery program, to keep me, first of all, on the road and secondly, charting a healthy course. It will do me no good to dwell on the pain of my losses. But it will help me grow a great deal if I can accept them with grace and try to let go of the pain. It will lead me to love.
There are joys in my life that clamor for my attention. That I still have the heart to embrace them openly, not as a consolation, but as emerging gifts worthy of my full attention, is how my grief leads me to a place of love.
Acceptance is the answer for me. It prevents me from getting stuck, and gives me the freedom to move forward.
“…I feel comfortable participating in…meetings because in them I find an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. However, I wasn’t always so open. There have been times in my life when I didn’t trust and I didn’t receive respect, so I withdrew. I didn’t allow myself to stay and work through the challenges offered to me. Now that I’m in recovery, I don’t want to limit my opportunities to grow by restricting my involvement with others, whether or not they are in the program. As always, (my program) teaches me to pray, look at myself and my attitudes, and then take action. For me, this action means detaching from people’s behavior and giving them the same acceptance, consideration, and respect for which I long…When I don’t expect perfection from others or from myself, I am free to participate and be a part of life.”
This quote really resonates with me. As I said in my new book: “Humility, I discovered, is a tremendous leveler, and it would bring me closer to what I’ve been missing my whole life: being part of a community of equals.” I’m so happy to be in a fellowship where we’re all on a level playing field. We try not to compare, just to support.
I’ve heard it said that “expectations are premeditated resentments.” So I try to keep my expectations of others in check, aware of my tendency to control and manipulate. It takes a lot of discipline to remain detached, especially from a loved one. But I can’t control the behavior of (my adult daughter), and so I’ve learned to let go and keep the focus on myself and consider how I might be the author of my own discomfort. When I offer “acceptance, consideration, and respect to others,” the same gifts return to me ten-fold.
From Courage to Change, Conference Approved Literature, December 8:
“The image of an avalanche helps me to give the drinking alcoholic (or addict) in my life the dignity to make her own decisions. It is as though her actions are forming a mountain of alcohol-related troubles. A mound of snow cannot indefinitely grow taller without tumbling down; neither can the alcoholic’s mountain of problems.
Al-Anon has helped me to refrain from throwing myself in front of the alcoholic to protect her, or from working feverishly to add to the mountain in order to speed its downward slide. I am powerless over her drinking and her pain. The most helpful course of action is for me to stay out of the way!
If the avalanche hits the alcoholic, it must be the result of her own actions. I’ll do my best to allow God to care for her, even when painful consequences of her choices hit full force. That way I won’t get in the way of her chance to want a better life.
Today’s reminder: I will take care to avoid building an avalanche of my own. Am I heaping up resentments, excuses, and regrets that have the potential to destroy me? I don’t have to be buried under them before I address my own problems. I can begin today.”
‘The suffering you are trying to ease…may be the very thing needed to bring the alcoholic to a realization of the seriousness of the situation—literally a blessing in disguise.’ (From “So You Love An Alcoholic”)
I wish I had been able to do this fifteen years ago. But we get there when we get there. It’s never too late to start over, whether we’re a using addict or the enabler of one. I say this with kindness and a deep compassion for myself. I truly believe that we all do the best we can with what we’ve got at any given moment.
From Each Day A New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, January 9:
“’The Chinese say that water is the most powerful element, because it is perfectly nonresistant. It can wear away a rock and sweep all before it. ‘ ~Florence Scovel Shinn
Nonresistance, ironically, may be a posture we struggle with. Nonresistance means surrendering the ego absolutely. For many of us the ego, particularly disguised as false pride, spurred us on to struggle after struggle.”
Well, I don’t do anything absolutely, but my time in recovery has strongly encouraged me to remain right-sized in my thinking. EGO—Easing God Out—is a useful reminder that I don’t always know what’s best in any situation. But my resistance often keeps me stuck.
Whether it’s wondering how to cope with my addicted daughter, Annie, or wondering how to face the loneliness of Covid isolation, or determining what to do about a barking dog in the wee hours of the morning, all of these problems require some level-headed judgment, which I don’t always have.
So I find the power of prayer to be a wonderful relief and solution to my thinking that I have to fix every problem.
If it’s a situation I can control, I’ll try to do something.
If it’s not something I have the ability to control, I’ll try to let it go.
And determining which is which, needless to say, is our biggest challenge.
Excerpted from my memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation:
“’Marilea, why don’t you try a recovery meeting?’ my counselor gently advised me. She had heard me week after week moan about Annie turning into a monster I didn’t recognize anymore. It was terrifying; sleep eluded me.
‘Oh no, that’s not for me,’ I responded, echoing my mother from thirty years before when my sister tried to get her to do the same thing.
‘Well, I think it will help you to be around people going through the same thing.’
Thinking about it for a few weeks, though, I took her advice and started going to a meeting on Saturday mornings. Gene also felt it was a good idea.
And so began a long period of faithfully going to several twelve-step meetings, but essentially paying lip service much of the time, particularly to the first three steps, because I was nothing if not the biggest control freak around.
Step One: Admit my powerlessness? Never! I brought her into the world. It was my job to protect and save her.
Step Two: Believe that God could restore me to sanity? What’s insane about trying to save my child?
Step Three: Turn my will over to God? No way! I had to stay in control.
As a child, I took care of my own needs. I’d asked for company, hollered for attention, hoped for forgiveness, but was often ignored. So I became compulsively self-reliant: CSR, I humorously say at meetings. And much of that self-reliance, attempting to appear competent, looked like arrogance.
It took me a long time before I found the humility to get a sponsor. Part of me didn’t want to ask for help; an even bigger part thought I didn’t need help.It was Annie, I argued, who needed help.
Humility, I discovered, was a tremendous leveler, and it would bring me closer to what I’d been missing my whole life: being part of a community of equals.
But without being honest with myself and others, I remained isolated on the outside, looking in.”
From Each Day a New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, May 22:
“’The change of one simple behavior can change other behaviors and thus change many things.’ ~Jean Baer
Our behavior tells others, and ourselves, who we are. Frequently, we find ourselves behaving in ways that keep us stuck. Or we may feel deep shame for our behavior in a certain instance. Our behavior will never totally please us. But deciding we want to change some behavior and using the program to help us, is a first step.”
Change is hard. The older we get, perhaps, the harder it gets. Our years—our habits—can trap us. I’ve been trapped by my own worst defects: “I’m gonna be fine;” “I can handle it on my own;” “I don’t need any help, thank you very much.”
Trying to figure out the why’s of things over the years didn’t help me. That question just kept me stuck. And it kept me from taking responsibility for my own problems. So the suffering continued. Until I learned how to put out fires.
When I’m in the middle of a fire in the woods, I don’t wonder who started it. If I am to survive, I just need to learn how to douse it.
I’ve been challenged by depression for much of my life, but nothing could have prepared me for losing my daughter Annie to the living death of heroin addiction. That was the major conflagration in my life, and I wasn’t fighting it effectively. I made it so much about me and my misplaced guilt that I often used poor judgment in an effort to help her. When I saw that nothing was working, I felt broken. And at my bottom, that’s when I found the courage to change.
Letting go of my feverish attempts to motivate Annie to seek recovery, and my wish to control events, freed me of the painful circumstances that were claiming my peace of mind. Letting go—so counterintuitive when it’s your child—was one of the first steps I needed to take—and accept what I could not change. That was the hardest: knowing that I had no power to change her. But I did and do have the power to change myself, my reactions, and my attitudes.
At some point along the way, we might find ourselves in a fire we need to put out. I learned that I needed to change before I could be truly happy with my life. I needed to pay attention to what was happening in my own hula hoop. Looking outside of myself for answers only distracted me; it did not help me put out the fire.
“One small change today, a smile at the first person I meet, will help me chart a new course.”
“We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.”
There were a few cracks I didn’t see, especially in my children. Growing up I was not perfect and was shamed often because of it. Early in my daughter’s illness, I was mortified, ashamed and in denial about what was going on. It took me a long time to free myself of the shame and guilt. Unfortunately, though, a few others heap it back onto me if I let them.
This is why my recovery fellowship is so vital to my well-being. Guilt has no place in my life anymore. But love does. We can’t save our children if they don’t want to be saved. All we can do is love them. And as hard as this has been, surviving Angie’s illness is how I have chosen to honor her.
Here’s an excerpt from my award-winning memoir, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, written under a pen name, Maggie C. Romero:
“We can’t go back and do things over. And I’m only human. I sometimes ask myself what I did wrong or what I missed seeing. Then I remember that addiction is a disease: ‘I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.’ And like a gentle breeze blowing away the clutter of remorse, I let go of those thoughts and embrace my life again, free of responsibility.
In any case, whatever she chose to do now, I needed to leave her alone to do it. I knew better than to scream and wail in the night to God and all the graces that protected the innocent to save my daughter. Whatever the roots of addiction are, whatever holes were missing in her that this opportunistic disease filled in, I didn’t have the power to combat them. And I just had to let go of the struggle, or I would disappear down that rabbit hole with her.”