I was reading about one of my favorites, Naomi Judd, and how she sadly died by suicide recently. This is what her daughter, Ashley, said about her death:
“When we’re talking about mental illness, it’s very important to be clear and to make the distinction between our loved one and the disease,” she continued. “It’s very real … it lies, it’s savage.”
I believe that. We all know how substance use disorder can change our kids: change their minds, change their lifestyle, change the values we taught them. In my daughter’s case, as long as drugs were flooding her system, she ceased to be the Annie I raised.
So yes, I make the distinction Ashley has called for. And I pray that someday the general public will have as much compassion for our lost children. I remember my daughter before this disease took her away from me. And I take comfort in those memories—because I can separate her from her disease.
In this month that celebrates mothers, I’d like to celebrate a memory of my daughter, Annie (Angie in this book). She was just 22 when she made this tapestry for me after her first rehab. She was always interested in Oriental art and designs. I think the simplicity fascinated her.
For a long time I couldn’t look at it. In my early recovery, I was still wedded to the “If onlys.” But over time, I’ve learned to let go of “might have beens” and accept what is.
I hang the tapestry proudly on my wall now. It’s one of many of my happy memories of her. I had twenty-one years with her as my daughter before substance use disorder hijacked and transformed her.
I’m grateful for the good years I had with my daughter.
I love her.
“When Angie came out of that first rehab, she made me the most beautiful gift.
‘Mom, I’m not quite finished with it. I just have a few more flowers to cut. You’ll need to find a 17-by-22-inch frame to mount it on. Sorry it’s such an odd size. Guess I wasn’t thinking. I copied it from one of my Chinese art books. I hope you like it!’
Right now it’s hanging in my room for me to see. Over the years I’ve taken it on and off the wall, hidden it in a closet, too painful for me to look at. Maybe it’s a sign of my recovery. Now I can leave it on the wall, look at it, and appreciate all the work she put into it. This was her way, I believe, of telling me she loved me and she was sorry, not for getting sick, but for what that sickness drove her to do to me. She never, ever, was able to express her feelings easily with words. So she showed me, in countless ways, as she did once in December 1993.
“Where the hell is that $300 I put away for safekeeping? If you kids want any Christmas presents, you’d better help me find it now,” I shouted, panicking at the thought of losing my hard-earned cash. I was so scattered sometimes. I was perfectly capable of misplacing it.
“Found it, Mom! Don’t you remember when you hid it in this book? Well, here it is. Aren’t you glad I’m as honest as I am?”
“Yes, Angie, my darlin’ girl, I am. And thank you!”
Years are passing by, and sometimes it’s hard to remember her as she was. But when I look at the tapestry she made, I remember:
Angie had a fascination for all things Asian—Chinese, Japanese, it didn’t matter. She loved the grace and flow of much of the artwork. She copied a simple series of flowers. But she did it not with paint or pencil or pen; she cut out every pistil, not completely detailed, a few sepals in place, the rest scattered, all the ovaries in different colors for contrast, every leaf, in varying sizes and colors, every stem, and glued it all together on a piece of gold cloth. It looked just like the picture in her book.
I treasure this gift she made. The tapestry is twelve years old, and sometimes a petal comes unglued and I have to put it back on. I should put it under glass to preserve it. I wish we could put our children under glass—to keep them safe.
I would soon discover, though, that no matter what I did for Angie it would never be enough to protect her from the illness that was consuming her.”
From A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (pen name) (Amazon)
“Living well is the best revenge.” ~George Herbert
I’ve received many emails from moms asking me how I cope with the living death of Annie’s substance use disorder. Many of my friends here know the hellish limbo I’m living in, without any resolution or closure. But I have found a way to cope better and move on with my life. This is what I tell them:
“I put my sadness in a back drawer and close it. Then I look at what’s in my front drawers every morning. I have so many wonderful things to be grateful for. Instead of focusing on my problems, I try to keep my mind on the solutions. This is how I live. It keeps me humble, grateful, and glad to be alive. I will never forget that Annie was once a beautiful, creative young woman. I honor her memory in this way, and I truly believe she would want me to live well and be happy. In this month of love, I celebrate my daughter with happy memories, hopes for her future, and confident in mine.”
“’When people make changes in their lives in a certain area, they may start by changing the way they talk about that subject, how they act about it, their attitude toward it, or an underlying decision concerning it.’ ~Joan Illsley Clarke
…Each positive change we make builds our self-esteem. Realizing that through our own actions we are becoming the kind of women (and men) we admire, gives us the strength, in fact, encourages the excitement in us that’s needed to keep changing…
I will accept an opportunity today to act as if I can handle a situation I used to run from.”
I was desperately unhappy when I joined Al-Anon. I was sure that my misery was caused by my daughter and her substance use disorder. It didn’t occur to me that it was my reaction to those circumstances that was the culprit. But when, after years of struggle, I finally did accept that I was the author of my own unhappiness, I was ready to do some of the real work of the program. Many people write me: “But what made you WANT to change?” I answer them all the same way: “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired” (of myself).
My daughter has gone in and out of recovery from SUD. My recovery, in recent years, has followed a different trajectory. And the key, of course, is being able to cut the umbilical cord and recognize that we are on separate paths.
That’s very hard for most parents, myself included. But when I see the damage that comes from NOT detaching, from staying mired in old resentments, old guilt, old unresolved stuff, I am reminded to let the past go and stay in the here and now. “Annie,” deep in her disease, has consistently tried to keep my focus on past errors, in order to justify her rage and distract her from what she needs to do now to get well.
But that’s the illness talking. I don’t take the bait anymore. I don’t engage unless it’s on a healthy level. Why not? Because it keeps us rolling around in the mud. And that’s not productive.
For a long time I welcomed rolling around in the mud. But not anymore. That’s one of the changes in myself that I’ve enjoyed. With my history, my self-esteem has always been shaky. But the tools of recovery help me learn how to adopt new attitudes about myself. And as the reading suggests, this is most often accomplished by making positive changes in my behavior.
When I do good things, they return to me tenfold. I may not get everything I want in my life. But for me to get up every day and say to myself: “You know, Marilea? You’re okay. You’re a work in progress. You just keep doing things that reinforce that self-directed goodwill, and you’ll be okay.”
Life is unfolding as my HP intended, and all will be well.
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 ill with substance use disorder, after I had tried and failed over and over again to save 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 transgressions inevitably committed 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.
Staying in the weeds prevents me from changing and growing. My recovery fellowship provides the tools to accomplish those two things—with gentleness and kindness. It’s hard, hard work. But when I see positive results in real time, I’m encouraged to keep at it. There’s no graduation from this school of 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.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has said: “I’ve studied alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana and more recently obesity. There’s a pattern in compulsion. I’ve never come across a single person that was addicted that wanted to be addicted. Something has happened in their brains that has led to that process.”
I picked up my tools for recovery in various 12-Step fellowships, which are at times controversial. I was reading in “Psychology Today” an article addressing this controversy. Here’s the link:
I honestly think that I could have picked up some of these life lessons anywhere; Al-Anon doesn’t have a lock on teaching gratitude and acceptance. The fellowship just happens to be where I gained some tools to change my attitudes and try to live better. I learned in more than one program how to take responsibility for my own happiness and how to stop searching for validation outside of myself. I’m happy to be a member. But this is an interesting article, and explains why many people still shy away from 12-Step programs.
Now I need to go on with my life as best I can despite the cloud hanging over me. If my beautiful girl can’t find the courage to say yes to a healthy life, then I will. I’ll do it for her. What could be a better testament to Annie, to all her gifts and possibilities, than to go forward with my life savoring every moment? Wherever she is right now, I know that the best part of her loves me and would want me to be well. I really believe that, in spite of everything her drug-induced mind has brought forth. I have more confidence now. I know without a doubt that I’ve been a good (enough) mother to Annie. I love her. And loving is enough. Loving is always enough. This has been my lesson.
“If you bring me peace then you get more of my time. Simple.”
I read this online a few months ago and I’m so struck by the message, the tone, the unapologetic boundary setting. How many of us can say this to our loved one, whether it’s our child or our third cousin? This is a hard one for me. It puts my own needs first. And good self-care is something I’ve learned late in my life.
Early on in Annie’s disease, I allowed myself to be a battering ram. She was very abusive to me. Now I know that it was the drugs talking. (“What we allow will continue.”) But I was stunned, ashamed and feeling overly responsible at the time. I thought I deserved her wish to punish me (#martyrdom).
What a relief to finally reach a place where I feel worthy of some peace and joy. This has come after several years of working on myself and changing some self-defeating attitudes. Going into reverse, I’m no longer ashamed, and I know I’m not responsible. May we all reach a place where we can deal effectively and intelligently with this baffling disease. And not be destroyed by it. God Bless!
From Opening Our Hearts Transforming Our Losses, Conference Approved Literature, p. 170-172:
“After the acute pain of grief, the one feeling at the forefront now is gratitude— tremendous, overwhelming gratitude.”
“I’ll probably never know why some people are able to find recovery while others are not. Still, I’m astonished to discover that not only in spite of, but because of my losses, I am more keenly aware of the tenuousness, the delicacy, and the beauty of every moment.”
I particularly like this book because it’s straightforward and puts the stress on positive solutions. It takes the disease of substance use disorder out of the closet and shows it at its worst, which is why people affected by it have earned the right to grieve. I know many people who can’t even admit to the disease in their family, much less grieve about it. The book puts our losses out on the table, but doesn’t leave us mourning. The shared stories show us how to move on with our lives.
Whether or not your loved one has died, I highly recommend this book. For the families of substance abusers, it is intensely painful to watch these people descend into this terrible disease. We know many ways to help, but there is no magic bullet to cure them. This fact alone has caused me years of grief. And I found much empathy and comfort in the collection of stories found here.
From Hope For Today, Conference Approved Literature, October 29:
“Now when my son tells me he was teased at school, I pass on my recovery lessons to him as we talk about self-love. I teach him what I have learned in Al-Anon. I help him by suggesting simple ways he can detach. I explain how he can let it begin with him by not retaliating. I help him understand that sometimes he also does things that hurt others and that he can feel better about himself by making amends. Not only has Al-Anon helped heal my past, it’s helping me give my son a healthier future.”
In an excerpt from my Homepage, I draw a similar conclusion:
“The true blessing of my recovery program is that its embedded principles cover all aspects of my life. Letting go of any particular substance is just one step toward spiritual recovery. I have found after a number of years that following the guidelines of recovery enhances my life in all areas. As my confidence grows, my relationships tend to work better, and when there is (inevitable) conflict, the means to work through differences honestly and effectively seem more attainable.
I envision a world where the shame and stigma of substance use disorder is replaced by understanding that it is a brain disease, compassion for those affected by it, and appropriate government intervention in support and treatment of it. My mission is to share my experience, strength and hope with all those affected by this illness. Substance use disorder has reached epidemic proportions in our society, even more so in this time of global pandemic. Many people, in their fear and isolation, are turning to easy solutions to escape the tedium of quarantine. And some solutions are addictive. But none of us is alone. By sharing with others, we can put an end to our isolation. It is my wish to share with you my journey toward wellness in all aspects of my life. As we touch each other’s lives in fellowship, our struggles seem smaller, and our hope for a happier life grows.”