It seems logical, doesn’t it? Why would we choose negative thoughts? Well, sometimes it’s all we know, what we learned growing up. It’s been our default setting. And, as my sponsor always used to say, “How’s that been working for you, huh?”
Not well, of course. And it wasn’t until I did a lot of work in recovery that I actively started challenging my thinking. For example, the guilt trip:
“It’s all my fault. I didn’t raise her right.”
Another one: the fear trip:
“OMG, look how she’s destroying her health!”
Another one: the responsibility trip:
“She’s not capable. Only I (my love, my wisdom) can fix her.”
All this tripping did not help me, and it helped her even less.
How can I move my erroneous thinking into a more positive space?
the guilt trip:
My mothering didn’t cause this. It’s a disease. And why are my other children well-adjusted?
the fear trip:
Many substance abusers go into lasting recovery, motivated, among other things, by their own fear.
the responsibility trip:
Only she has power over her disease and has the power to recover from it. It’s totally up to her.
When I move my sometimes faulty thinking to a more sane and reasonable place, it’s much easier to live my life. I can accept what I can’t change. I can surrender to the will of my higher power. This is not giving up. This is understanding my own power and using it to dig out of my despair and arrive at a better place, one filled with faith and hope for better things.
“For me letting go is like a tree shedding its leaves in autumn. It must let go of them to produce even more beauty in the following spring and summer. Letting go of what I do not truly need—whether it be old thoughts, things, or behaviors—makes room for new growth in my life.
Turn that problem over…Then begin to do something about your own life.”
My sponsor told me to “loosen my grip.” How many of us white-knuckle it through life? Holding on to old ideas, old destructive habits—because it’s all we know, all we’re comfortable with? Like holding on to my need to save my daughter from her substance use disorder. The Serenity Prayer encourages me to let go, with grace, of the things that I cannot change. The disease of substance use disorder is one of those things. So I’ve learned to let go. And I’ve found peace in my life—and gratitude for all that remains.
Happy New Year, everyone! May we all find some wellness and joy in 2024.
Almost twenty-two. That’s a lot of time to live with substance use disorder in my child. It’s a third of our normal lifespan. So much time lost to the battle of this relentless disease. Some win the battle and some do not. No matter what “approach” we eventually embrace, some of our children will not make it. We can look for answers in hindsight, second guess ourselves ad nauseam. But to what purpose? Acceptance is what enables me to still get out of bed every day.
At first I was in denial. My kid? No way! This sort of thing happens to other people’s children. I was disabused of my arrogance and complacency pretty early, though, when she brazenly stole my identity—twice. That’s when I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
I got tough at first. I kicked her out, frantically wondering what would become of her. I felt like a moth turned into a butterfly for the moment, like I was taking charge. I was definitely giving her the message to shape up or lose her family. Little did I know at that point that many in the disease couldn’t care less about family.
Oh how this butterfly would flutter and die in subsequent years, as I backtracked over and over again, trading in my courage for equal doses of martyrdom.
This was all characteristic of my disease, of course. My inability to let go of my own guilt and responsibility (which she played on whenever I let her), my needing her in my life at all costs (the martyrdom of the ATM machine), and still thinking that I was her Higher Power. I’m her mother. It’s up to me to save her. Well, that’s bunk, of course. If she had terminal cancer, I wouldn’t be putting myself through all this. When will the world accept that SUD is a complicated brain disease? When will we look on these people with compassion and not crucify them with shame, stigma, and isolation? Do we do that with cancer?
My daughter did go to four rehabs, all of them using the 12-Step approach to recovery. She told me afterwards that she was an atheist and could not buy into it. There are a few other approaches as well, Smart Recovery for example. But whether or not substance abusers accept any form of recovery has everything to do with their willingness to change what they’ve been doing. The willingness to let go of the high they get from drugs. The willingness to face the demons that made them seek numbness and oblivion from pain in the first place.
My daughter has played hide and seek with recovery all these years. She’s had periods of remission that we all celebrated as a family. She was a reader at her brother’s wedding in 2009, for example, and I was sure we had her back then. How could she go back out when it was so clear to her on that joyful occasion what she would be giving up?
But within two years, she was gone again, sucked into the belly of the beast in the underworld of San Francisco. I haven’t see her since May, 2012. Yes, she’s alive. She reminds me of her presence every once in a while with a barrage of emails, blaming me for everything. This is her disease.
So, clearly, my daughter lacks the willingness to do the interior work necessary to disempower the disease that has taken control of her. And if I am to have any peace in my life, I must accept that. She may decide to come back to the living—the willingness to change—but if she does it will be primarily because she wants recovery for herself, and less about me wanting it for her.
I can only pray to accept God’s will for her—and for me.
A few years ago, I was reading about one of my favorites, Naomi Judd, and how she sadly died by suicide. 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 daughter 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. It’s a surreal exercise, I know. But remembering our children as they were—and as they can be again—is profoundly comforting to me. It doesn’t change the present, but it puts things into perspective. Smile about the birthday parties and the piñatas. They happened. I did my best with who I was at the time.
From In All Our Affairs, Making Crises Work For You, Surrender:
“‘Let go and Let God.’ It sounds so simple. But when our circumstances or the circumstances of those we love weigh heavily on our minds, we may have no idea how to do it. Some of us struggle with the very idea of a Higher Power. Others begin to question long and deeply held beliefs, especially in stressful times…
Many of us review the same scenario again and again, looking for that elusive answer that will solve everything, obsessively wracking our brains for something that we could do differently or should have done differently in the past…As long as there is a chance of figuring out a solution, we reason, we should keep trying…We may secretly feel that this problem is too important to trust to God, as if we had the power to prevent God’s will from unfolding by the mere exercise of our resistance. We fear that if we surrender, anything could happen—
Actually, anything could happen whether we let go or not. It is an illusion that as long as we cling to the situation we have some control…Surrender means accepting our powerlessness to change many of the realities in our lives…It means trusting instead in a Power greater than ourselves. Faith has been likened to being in a dark tunnel and seeing no glimmer of light but still crawling forward as if we did.
Though our circumstances may seem dark indeed, when we turn to a Higher Power rather than to our own stubborn wills we have already begun to move toward the light.”
“Moving toward the light…” I really love the sound of those words. What could be darker than watching my daughter self-destruct over the course of twenty-two years? How have I learned to “dance in the rain,” even as she has continued to slip away?
My resistance training at the gym has shown me that pain comes from putting resistance on the force exerted, and that has served me in strengthening my body. But my spiritual life demands just the opposite. My strong will and determination to save my daughter from substance use disorder was instinctive; it would be counterintuitive NOT to step in and interfere in my child’s self-destruction.
However, once I became educated about the nature of addiction as a brain disease, I realized that other than offering my love and emotional support, there was very little I could do. I did send her to four rehabs, which bought her some time. But my efforts were not enough. At what point do we need to make our adult children responsible for their own recovery from this cunning disease?
“Amid chaos, when I most need to find relief and serenity, it can be difficult to slow down and use the tools of prayer and meditation. Even when I can’t still my mind, meditation can help me steer it in the right direction…Meditation helps me to be mindful instead of mindless in all aspects of my life…Mindfulness isn’t limited to techniques like sitting cross-legged, reciting a mantra or focusing on my breathing. It’s about noticing my default mode and realizing that I have choices. It’s a slowing down that grounds me and gives me a sense of opening and expanding, of pushing back against the walls and gaining space. It’s the opposite of pressure and fear.”
My default mode: fear and panic. Slowing down and recognizing the source of my fear helps me get a handle on it. Then mindfulness: I draw on my program and examine my choices about handling that fear. What can I do? Do I have any control over the source of it?
My 44-year-old daughter is in the clutches of substance use disorder. She has been in and out of recovery for twenty-two years. She is not in recovery now. That might make me fearful without my recovery program. What can I do about her? She’s in charge of her own life. I wish I had the power to change it. I don’t. Believe me, I’ve tried. After years of managing my fear and anxiety through enmeshment, helicoptering, and people-pleasing, I’ve learned that those means are unhealthy. They give me the illusion of being close to her and “helping,” which has always backfired. It just kept her learning from her mistakes and growing. So now I have let go. I know that I can only love her. And staying in that positive space removes my fear and makes my life more enjoyable.
Fear has the potential to bury me. Loving sets me free.
We all know people who are set in their ways. I used to be one of them. I had reached a certain age, and I thought I had my life pretty well figured out, though I was a hot mess inside. But what was on the inside was mostly hidden and I wanted to keep it that way: shame, guilt, appearances. Oh dear, what would people think? I had made my deal with the Devil and still thought I could skate through life without needing to change.
Then my middle child, struggling with depression, turned to substance abuse. From then on my carefully manicured world started to collapse. Seeing my beautiful daughter transform herself into an immoral stranger absolutely broke me. It absolutely broke me. And like a broken glass, that’s how the light started to get in. But not all at once. It was a slow wheel, my road to recovery from this. And—surprise, surprise—I learned to carve out a lane for myself, for my own recovery. Why? Because until I learned to rescue myself, I was in no position to help my daughter. The blind leading the blind!
In the rooms they tell us that “we will love you until you learn to love yourself.” I never in a million years thought that I could banish the Devil from my life. But I have, though He tries to visit sometimes. I tell him I don’t need to punish myself anymore. It’s not my fault, what happened to my daughter. Or to me…or to my father…or to my grandfather and aunt. It’s a disease, a complicated family disease. And there is a healthier lane called “Freedom from Suffering” that I try hard to remain in.
I turn to look at my daughter and the lane she’s in. It breaks my heart, my eyes well up with tears, and I grieve for the lost years with her. But I don’t stay there. There are so many others in my life for me to be thankful for. I keep my focus on them.
My years in recovery have changed my perspective and taught me that happiness is not getting what I want. It’s being grateful for what I get.
An old middle school friend of my daughter’s from 30 years ago found me on Facebook this week. Then she called me on Facetime from North Carolina.
“Jaime, omg, how are you? What are you up to?”
“Oh, I’ve got three boys and I’m doing well. But I’ve been wanting to get in touch with Annie.”
So I told her a short version of our story.
“I’m so sorry for the hell you’ve been going through, Marilea. Please know that I remember her to be the best kid, loyal and kind. It’s hard to believe how drugs have changed her so completely. If you ever reconnect with her, tell her I miss her and want to reconnect.”
Christmas is always hard for this mother, no matter how much recovery I have. I’m only human. But Jaime’s phone call made me feel better. It was a real time reminder that I once had a daughter who was doing pretty well in the world. She did some things to be proud of. She had friends who remember her like she was before drugs. And family.
Keeps things in perspective. We all have kids who were once doing well. It wasn’t all bad. As I decorate my Christmas tree, I proudly add the decorations she made in preschool. I remember the good times, and I smile when I look at the tapestry she made for me.
From Hope for Today, Al-Anon approved literature, January 5:
“During each Al-Anon meeting…I hear ‘In Al-Anon we discover that no situation is really hopeless.’ At first I had a hard time comprehending that idea in my mind and heart. I felt anchored in a place so dark and full of despair…Even if Al-Anon folks could stop my mother from drinking, they certainly couldn’t go back in time and give me a happy childhood. I felt doomed. Yet as I looked around me at meetings, I saw many smiling faces. Maybe there was hope after all.”
When I first went into recovery, I always challenged the word “hope.” I said to everyone at the meetings, “Hope for whom?” For my daughter—or for me? In time, though with tremendous difficulty, I accepted that I had no power over my daughter’s choices and I learned to let go. Then I put the focus back on Marilea and started to feel an unfamiliar brand of hope: for myself.
As it says in the reading, “Situations don’t lose hope; people do. What is lost can be found, restored, replaced, or recovered. Even though the members of Al-Anon didn’t change my mother or my childhood, they did help me change my attitude.”
I realized with stunning clarity that my “poor-me” attitude was getting me nowhere, and I’d better make an effort to be more positive if I wanted to be happy. I’m not unique; I’m no different from millions of other parents out there who have lost children. We are an army of men and women who are facing one of our society’s cruelest challenges.
But if we can let go of our substance user at his worst, we find that what’s left in our lives looms larger. My other children are more precious to me now precisely because of the sister they have lost. I would prefer to have all three of my babies healthy and happy. But we don’t always get what we want. Accepting that with all the grace I can muster, I’m able to move forward in my life and enjoy the years left to me.
Hope for whom? Hope for me—because I’m worth it. Believe it with all your heart, my friends, believe it until it comes true.