Sailing Lessons

“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.” Louisa May Alcott

I grew up in Massachusetts on a lake, and we sailed every summer. Boats and water are a part of my narrative because it’s where I started my life. But it was never really smooth sailing.

Eighteen years ago, my world turned upside down. My boat capsized as I started watching my daughter tumble down the rabbit hole of drug addiction. Mind you, I was living a wonderful life, not perfect, but whose is? I was a hardworking single mother with three kids who seemed to be doing well. Just one of millions of women doing their best for their families. And then I got tagged. Annie became another statistic.

I got sucked into a perfect storm of my own shortcomings colliding with my vulnerable daughter and her addictive character. I was utterly guilt-ridden, and that crippled me and my judgment. I enabled Angie far too much, cradling her in one safety net after another. I inadvertently prevented her from facing consequences and learning from her behavior.

In the end, by taking on far too much responsibility for my daughter’s illness, I had such severe PTSD/clinical depression that I felt compelled to retire. That was my bottom, when I knew I had to change my thinking and some behaviors in order to reclaim my life. Annie is a wounded soul split in half—the addict and all that that entails; and my loving daughter. I believe with all my heart that my loving daughter would want me to survive losing her. And my survival is how I choose to honor her.

I got help in the rooms of twelve-step recovery; there are many, many of them, in every city and here on Facebook. The kind of help I received involved a lot of reflection and reframing my life. I learned not to fear looking back on my childhood, that the answers to much of my coping skills lay there. As I moved forward reflecting on my life as a young mother, I understood why I behaved as I did much of the time. And I awarded myself compassion and forgiveness for doing the best I could in difficult times.

Now I feel blessed, if only because the ground under my feet is more solid. The storms in my life have rocked me many times over the years, but I’m learning how to weather them. When we lose something as precious as a child, everyone and everything in our lives loom larger in importance. It’s a terrible irony of life that the intensity of our joy often comes to us at the cost of much pain. I have a snapshot of me and Annie on my aunt’s sailboat twenty years ago just before she started tumbling away from us all. We’re both smiling, and it doesn’t make me sad to look at it. On the contrary, it reminds me of the fragility of life and how more than ever it’s important to live with intention. I think I sleepwalked through much of my early life, entirely unaware of who I was. But now, thanks to my years of work in recovery, I have learned a better way to live. We all pass through storms in the course of our lives. But they don’t have to destroy us. I wish for all my brothers and sisters in recovery that they find peace and hope for better days—by whatever means possible.

“Two-Stepping the Twelve-Step”

                                         

 “’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.”

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

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.”

Good Vibes

From the blue Nar-Anon pamphlet:

Changing Ourselves

“Addiction is like a chain reaction. It is a disease which affects the addict as well as the family members, friends and co-workers. We try to control, cover up, and take on the responsibilities of the addict. The sickness spreads to those of us who care the most. Eventually, we begin to feel used and unhappy. We worry, lose trust and become angry. The addict blames us and we feel guilty. If only something or someone would change!

When we discover Nar-Anon, we find others with the same feelings and problems. We learn we cannot control the addict or change him. We have become so addicted to the addict that it is difficult to shift the focus back to ourselves. We find that we must let go and turn to faith in a Higher Power. By working the steps, following the traditions and using the tools of the program, we begin, with the love and help of our Higher Power and others, to change ourselves.

As we reach out for help, we become ready to reach out a helping hand and heart to those in need of Nar-Anon. We understand. We do recover. Slowly, new persons emerge. Change is taking place.”

Though I have changed and grown through my work in the program, I. of course, still love my daughter and am available to help her if she reaches out to me for help. Detachment is not desertion. The difference is that I’m a healthier person now and am able to make the tough choices I couldn’t make years ago. I pray she finds the strength to come back to her family. We can’t get back the lost years, but I still have hope, like the warm sun shining on my face, and keeping my love strong.

Love and hope in the time of coronavirus. If “addiction is a chain reaction,” moving through our society like a massive nimbus cloud of loneliness and despair, then kindness and good will can also be a chain reaction, propelling people to examine their lives and make necessary changes. There was never an easier time to do this, when all these weeks of enforced reflection carry the potential for change in all of us. In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” has two characters: one for danger and the other for opportunity.

This is humanity’s opportunity to move forward stronger and more effectively than ever before.

“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” ~Charles A. Beard

“One Day At A Time”

Involvement in the world of substance use disorder is overwhelming, whether I’m a substance user or love one. So when I try to do things on a daily basis, and not for the rest of my life, getting through every day seems more manageable.

I am not able to multitask. Not at all. If I try to do two things at once, neither of them gets done. I’m just not able to juggle two things at once. So I make a lot of lists and I try to manage things simply, doing one thing at a time. This process has taught me a lot of patience, if only because the rest of the world is screaming at my back to hurry up! So—with difficulty— I tune them out, listening to my own drummer.

The pressures of living are out there, relentlessly telling me to do this or finish that. It takes discipline to ignore the ads, the competitive wars I unconsciously wage against others, and proceed at my own pace—often just putting one foot in front of the other. This is more necessary than ever in pandemic mode.

Living for this day only—yesterday never happened and tomorrow is just a dream—keeps things remarkably simple and uncomplicated. I’m also, consciously, learning to set healthy boundaries, where I recognize my own needs as they bump up against the needs of others, figuratively, not physically! It’ll be a while before I bump up against others.

Oh brother! Life is so complicated. That’s why I make an effort to “Keep It Simple”! 🙂

Loving Them/Loving Ourselves


“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 influence of a bewildering array of drugs which influence them. My daughter, Angie, 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 Angie 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 eighteen 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 created 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 continue to tell Angie that I love her because I do. 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. As unlovable as she is when she’s using drugs, I will continue to love her while there’s breath in my body.

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.”

Loosen Your Grip!

White knuckling it through life is exhausting. Different methods to relax work for different people. Yoga, prayer, knitting, running, reading, listening to music—the list is endless. The best thing for me to relax is the Serenity Prayer. It has become my mantra:

“God, grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

I embrace this prayer in big and little ways every day. Its wisdom keeps me right-sized and humble, while at the same time encouraging me to make changes in my life that are within my reach.

We are all challenged, of course, by the last line. That’s why I keep going back to recovery meetings!

Seeing More Clearly

“After coming to Al-Anon, my emotional sight improved.” ~The Forum, 8/19, Al-Anon Family Group, Conference Approved Literature

What does that mean? When I started wearing glasses, I could read better. Improvement in my emotional sight has been slower, and not so dramatic. By using the tools of the program, I started to understand how my own shortcomings were getting in the way of healthy choices for me.

My guilt around Angie’s addiction was getting in my way, keeping me from resisting manipulation and unacceptable behavior in her. I had no healthy boundaries and didn’t feel I deserved to speak up for myself. This is crippling behavior between a parent and a child, especially a child on drugs. Many addicts when using will try to manipulate to get their way, even lie and steal. Lacking the ability to say “No!” to my daughter, she simply ran over me like a fast-moving train.

Now, many years into my recovery program, I have healthier boundaries and stronger defenses against anyone who wishes to harm me. It is the greatest sadness in the world to know that one of those people is my own daughter. But she is split down the middle: the child I raised is lost right now; the addict is in charge when she is using drugs. It is the addict I must be wary of, not my daughter. Those of us with addicts in our lives need to be mindful of this. We can love our child and feel great compassion for him/her. But when addiction rules with all its attendant behavior, my experience has taught me that it’s wise to be vigilant. I need to keep my emotional sight sharp, while remaining kind and compassionate.

It’s quite a juggling act!