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 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.”

Humanity Is Changing The Face Of Substance Use Disorder

A while back a friend in Naranon shared this link with our group. I watched it and was so heartened to see how attitudes are changing across the country. This PBS special focused on a program in Seattle, WA. It is a practical and above all humane way to deal with substance users. The more we talk about alternative ways to treat substance use disorder, the more likely there will be people to bring pressure to bear on government officials and on insurance companies. And the more likely our loved ones will feel embraced with compassion and understanding instead of fear and judgment.

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/chasing-heroin/

Two Healing Memoirs

My memoirs about me and my daughter are graphically honest portrayals of substance use disorder at its worst. And Angie (Annie) is still alive, so I was a little fearful of exposure. But not anymore.

A few readers have asked me “What would you do if your daughter saw these books someday? Wouldn’t you be horrified?” My answer is this: “No, not at all. The books are not a condemnation of Angie (Annie) They are celebrations of life and love.”

In the Introduction of A Mother’s Story, I showcase Angie/Annie as she was before substance use disorder corrupted her. She was a beautiful child, young woman, a talented gymnast, writer, artist, and college graduate. And most of all she was a loving and thoughtful daughter to her father and me.

The rest of the book is a portrait of the horrors of the life that often accompanies substance use disorder and what it can do to a young woman with her whole life ahead of her. Once the disease took over, this person was no longer the daughter I raised. And I make that clear in the final chapters, how parents can learn to separate their children from the substance users they become in order to keep loving them and deal effectively with this cruel disease.

Stepping Stones is also a book about substance use disorder. But, though Annie plays a role in the story, the narrative focuses on me and my struggles with the disease in order to get sober and live well. This self-focus is the natural progression of my recovery work in several 12-step programs. And I cannot overemphasize the soundness of my getting well first. Only now—while I’m dealing from a position of strength—can I help my daughter in the best possible way.

I recommend keeping a diary or some form of written record to document our journeys. Writing has been the key to unlocking secrets that were getting in my way. Putting down our experiences on paper can help us process our feelings, discover healthier perspectives, and start to heal. My third memoir will come out next year and complete this trilogy of recovery memoirs. It’s a book about love and hope. Stay tuned!

An Important Distinction

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.”

Hmmm…

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.

A Mother’s Story

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.

Memoir Excerpt:

“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)

Transforming My Grief

“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.”

Oh My, How Hard It Is To Change!

Oh My, How Hard It Is To Change!

From Each Day A New Beginning, January 8:

“’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.

Staying Out Of The Weeds

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.

We Do Recover

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:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/where-science-meets-the-steps/201211/why-the-hostility-toward-the-12-steps


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.

“Do whatever works for you—“ that’s my motto.

The Power Of Love, or Why I Wrote My Book

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. 

Happy 42nd birthday, Annie.