Mother’s Day in the Time of Coronavirus

I am a blogger for The Addict’s Parents United. The sequel to my award-winning first memoir, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, will be released by She Writes Press on 6/16/20. This is an excerpt from Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation:

         “Several years before I attempted to make amends to Angie, she was in her last rehab in California. It was 2009, and I flew across the country for Parents’ Weekend. After excitedly showing me around the grounds, she bumped into a couple of new friends.

         “Hey, Angela, show us more of those moves.”
        My daughter still enjoyed showing people what she had been able to do as a gymnast in Greece. 

         “Sure.” Proud of her agility, she showed us, among other things, a backward twist that must have been difficult then. She wasn’t ten anymore.

            As she leaned backward toward the floor, her hair fell back; I saw the scar again and wondered how she’d gotten it. She must have had an accident to have sustained such a deep gash around her hairline in the middle of her forehead.

When Angie was a child, she looked like a beautiful mandarin doll. She’d always had a thick pile of bangs to frame her oval face. But her hair didn’t fall that way anymore because of the scar, and she hadn’t been wearing bangs for several years. I remembered the picture of my children from J. C. Penney’s one Christmas in Miami, her pretty brown eyes accented by her thick bangs.

Seeing her then in rehab, I focused on her bangs. How much I missed seeing them on her! What mother doesn’t mourn her child’s innocence and wish a painless life for her?

            The last time I saw her, for Mother’s Day in 2012, I was in a San Francisco motel near the hostel in the Tenderloin where she was staying. She was to spend a night with me and had a key to the room. It was five in the morning when I heard her unlocking the door, and I jumped up to open it.

            “Hi, Mom. This is Pontus.”

            “Hi there,” the much older man said as he offered to shake my hand.

            “Hello, Pontus. Angie, please come in now so I can go back to sleep.”

            “Sure, Mom. See you later, Buddy.”

            I have a picture of her sitting on my bed the next morning, her terrier, Loki, on her lap; she was never without him. Her hair was pulled to the side and held with a clip, exposing the scar.

            She looked so strange—like someone else—without those lustrous bangs. But of course she was . . . someone else.”

Eight years. Some digital contact in all that time—most of it unpleasant. I’ve often said in my commentary over the years that an addict, after long periods of using, seems split down the middle: the child we raised, and what remains after years of substance abuse.

I’ve hoped for the happy ending so many of my fellow mothers are blessed with. I’m so genuinely happy for them, and I hold a fervent wish in my heart that their addicts continue to enjoy sobriety. But many of us have not been so fortunate. And many mothers have buried their children. So how do we move forward with our grief and loss?

Together, for one thing. Together we are stronger. Talking openly about it, putting an end to the shame and isolation. There is strength and empowerment in our ability to stand tall and add our voices to the others out there. Substance use disorder—this is hard to believe—is even more on the rise now. As a result of all the forced isolation in the time of coronavirus—isolation which is a substance user’s worst enemy—a few mothers I know have found themselves frustrated and saddened  to watch their children falling back into the rabbit hole. I pray their relapses are short-lived and they are able to get back to living their lives without using substances to cope.

I think of my Angie on this Mother’s Day, 2020. I don’t know how she is. I sent her an email, telling her how much I love her and I hope she’s well enough to survive another day. The email didn’t bounce back. If she’s still with us in San Francisco, that’s good, because where there’s life there’s hope.

We all have different stories with our children; some are happy and some are sad. This is just my story. But I know that I was the best mom that I could be, and I believe that most mothers are. Because of that stirring belief, I’m proud to celebrate myself and all of you on Mother’s Day, this year and every year. We have more than earned a place in that fellowship.

God Bless Us, Every One Of Us Mamas!

A Good Daughter

From Courage to Change, September 4:

“As we let go of obsession, worry, and focusing on everyone but ourselves, many of us were bewildered by the increasing calmness of our minds. We knew how to live in a state of crisis, but it often took a bit of adjustment to become comfortable with stillness. The price of serenity was the quieting of the constant mental chatter that had taken up so much time; suddenly we had lots of times on our hands and we wondered how to fill it.”         

I’ve learned how to “be still in the stream.” Obsessing over Angie and living in all her drama was threatening my health. I was suffering from severe PTSD and endured many other negative consequences in my life as a result of my constant worry over something I couldn’t control.

So, I took the first three steps in my recovery program. It was hard to do that because I felt that letting go was giving up on my daughter, not loving her anymore. But that’s not how I feel now.       

Once, not so long ago, Angie was a loving daughter to me, a college graduate with her whole life ahead of her. Then, like the great cosmic crapshoot that afflicts millions of families, she fell out of her life and into substance use disorder. She’s been lost to us all for a long time now.

But my daughter Angie, not the addict that lives in her body, would want me to reclaim my life as I have, and learn to be happy.

I believe this with all my heart.

The Three C’s

From Hope for Today, Al-Anon approved literature, January 7:

“One of the first Al-Anon sayings I remember hearing, known as the three C’s, embodies the concept of powerlessness over alcoholism: ‘I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.’…

’I didn’t cause it’ relieves me of any lingering guilt I may feel: ‘If only I had been a better (fill in the blank), (fill in the blank) would not have become (fill in the blank).’…

’I can’t control it’ gives me permission to live my life and take care of myself…

’I can’t cure it’ reminds me that I don’t have to repeat my insane behavior over and over again, hoping for different results.

I don’t have to search for the magic cure that isn’t there. Instead I can use my energy for my recovery.”

When we love someone caught in the trap of addiction, we want to do everything possible to help. That’s only natural. In the beginning of my daughter Angie’s illness, she enjoyed periods of sobriety, and I gave myself a lot of the credit because I was so supportive. Then, over time, her life went south and she went out again. And I was left to feel “What did I do wrong? I’ve been so supportive!” Again, over time, I learned in MY recovery group that Angie’s illness had nothing to do with me. And her facing down her demons and reclaiming her life had even less to do with me.

That’s where the rubber hit the road for me. That’s where I had to do the difficult: lean into acceptance, let go of my own daughter and pray she finds her way back home. A friend used to chide me, “Don’t just sit there; DO something!”

But I’ve done all I can. And I realize that there’s a lot of strength in surrender.

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.”

Sometimes, Loving Is Enough

From Hope for Today, Al-Anon Family Group, Conference Approved Literature,August 14:

“Holding on to anger, resentment, and a “poor me” attitude is not an option for me today…Remembering that alcoholism is a disease helps me see the person struggling beneath the burden of illness.”

It’s so simple to give in to anger. Losing a loved one to addiction is pure hell. I’ve cried out against everyone: God, all those who stigmatize and judge addiction, all those who shun my daughter as though it’s contagious, and myself, too, for my misguided attempts to help her by enabling her behavior.

Many years in the rooms of recovery have opened my eyes and my heart to the “new realities” of addictive disease. When I was growing up, I thought drug addicts wore tattoos and rode motorcycles. And of course they had to grow up in poverty.

When my daughter became an addict, I was sure she would snap out of it. But I was wrong. This disease doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to anybody.

The American Medical Association has helped by declaring addiction a brain disease. Now that I know my daughter has an illness, there is no room for blame or judgment. There is no room in my heart or mind for anger. I can only feel great compassion for her. And I will always love her.

It’s as simple as that.

Just Breathe

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, August 19:

“’…to have a crisis and act upon it is one thing. To dwell in perpetual crisis is another.’ ~Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

Exaggerating the negative element in our lives is familiar behavior for all too many of us. But this obsession is our choice. We can stop at any moment. We can decide to let go of a situation that we can’t control…and be free to look at the possibilities for happiness.”

When my daughter first became sick with addiction, I followed my instincts and ran to her rescue. I was totally caught up in the drama of it, the pain and heartache, eventually even a feeling of martyrdom. It wasn’t long before I became sick too—sick with depression and anxiety—and I sought relief.

My recovery program has helped me understand the nature of addictive disease and accept that I have no more control over it than I would have over diabetes. A diabetic might need to take a pill to get better; Angie also has the power to heal from her illness. But the initial decision rests with her, not me. I can only offer support.

Such acceptance has enabled me to let go of my inflated sense of responsibility and detach from my daughter’s problem. That in turn has allowed me enough space, enough breathing room, to step back and remove myself from all the drama. I no longer get sucked in like I used to. Now I’m “free to look at the possibilities for happiness.”

I truly believe that in her best moments Angie would want me to. God Bless all of our loved ones caught in the hell of addiction! Many find the relief of recovery, and I pray my daughter will too someday.

Where there is life, there is hope.

Walls Or Bridges?

“Thanks to my recovery program, I have learned to build bridges instead of walls.” ~”The Forum,”  Al-Anon Family Group, Conference Approved Literature

What does that mean? From what I’ve learned in recovery, it’s about learning to set healthy, workable boundaries. And what does that word mean? A lot of questions!

I grew up in an alcoholic family without many boundaries. There was a lot of guilt, and a fair amount of permissiveness related to that. My parents were sometimes neglectful and/or passive. I was allowed to run wild and became rebellious. Even my moral code was challenged. I was not a happy camper, and it showed.

As an adult raising my three children, is it any wonder that much of my parenting was the same? We pass on what we were given. When Angie started abusing drugs at age 21, I was blindsided, but I shouldn’t have been. I was in such denial about myself and my own shortcomings that I was incredulous at the change in her. I couldn’t believe it! But, in time, with a lot of my own recovery, I learned to not only believe it but to understand it. And most importantly, not to blame myself for it.

Because of MY misplaced guilt around Angie’s addiction, early on I set almost no boundaries with her. Why would I have to? She was 21; I had instilled a moral code in her since she was a child. What I didn’t realize, and gradually learned with horror, was how the personality of the addict often changes, how they abandon their moral code over and over again to serve their addiction—their new master. Angie lied to me, she stole from me, and she violated me in many ways.

I had to establish a new set of boundaries for her, quite apart from the boundaries I set for my other children. With them, I didn’t need to protect myself. With Angie, I did.

I view an addict while using drugs as a person split down the middle: my Angie, the daughter I raised was endlessly thoughtful, always remembering birthdays and Mother’s Day; the addict on heroin bears no resemblance to the daughter I knew. This is the tragic reality of how addiction hijacks our children and sometimes renders them unrecognizable.

But boundaries are not walls to shut people out. They are bridges to ensure healthier lines of communication. I incorporate boundaries into all of my relationships. Most relationships wouldn’t work well without them. Call them “rules,” or “expectations.” Whatever word we use, they are intended to help our dealings with people work better. Curfews with our teenage children are like lines in the sand, and many kids will tell you that they feel safer when parents impose limits.

With my daughter, I’ve had to impose tough limits because she is still under the influence of drugs. The addict is in charge, and I need to stay safe. Again—the sad reality of loving an addict lost in the hellish underworld of substance use disorder. But love her, I do, and always will. She knows this.

Many addicts recover. It’s miraculous to see them return to their former selves once they stop polluting their brains with substances. I pray Angie will be one of them someday. She knows how to reach me and I pray she will want to one day. In the meantime, setting boundaries is one of the many tools of recovery I enjoy to make all of my relationships work better. I’ve had to learn to reparent myself in recent years and I’m still growing as a parent. And a grandparent! Life goes on…

Breathing Lessons

From Each Day A New Beginning, September 16:

“When working the steps we are never in doubt about the manner for proceeding in any situation. The steps provide the parameters that secure our growth. They help us to see where we’ve been and push us toward the goals which crowd our dreams.”

Many times in recovery meetings people refer to us all as shipwrecked human beings. I like that metaphor because it reminds me that we are all together on that ship, all part of the same human race, triumphing sometimes, often struggling, but together. We are never alone.

But there is much division around the topic of addiction. Much of the problem arises from semantics: is addiction an illness that strikes, like cancer, without permission? Or is it a moral failing? That simple question lends itself to hours of discussion; whole books have been written about it; bloggers have exhausted themselves going back and forth in the argument. I used to enthusiastically participate, certain that I was making valid points here and there.

It’s the “here and there” that finally derailed me as I was hyperventilating on this fast-moving train of rhetoric. In the final analysis, does it really matter what it is? Getting caught up in all the arguments just kept me from putting my focus where it belonged. I needed to get back to self-care. And stepping back. And taking a breath.

How we navigate our lives together on that ship is as varied as the shells in the ocean. Twelve-Step work has a lot in common with many other forms of spiritual recovery, some of them organized religions. I might well have learned many of the principles elsewhere. I happened to learn them in Al-Anon. But this recovery program doesn’t have a lock on the ideas of acceptance of things we can’t change, or on surrender to something bigger and smarter than we are. Those ideas are found in many places. I go out of my way to avoid the “R” word, but don’t we all seek peace and serenity in our troubled world?

The tools we use strive toward the same goal. When I try to keep my eye on the ball, I don’t get embroiled in discussion that leads nowhere. We need not be divided. We all pray for the same miracles, the health and wellness of ourselves and our loved ones. When I remember that, I feel as though we are all part of the same solution.

Empowerment

What I like about my recovery program is learning that I’m not a victim—that I have choices. My daughter, Angie, is an addict, yes, but I haven’t been victimized or punished for my sins. Angie is sick; addiction is a brain disease, and she has the power to fight it. She can choose. Not easily, to be sure, but the power is in her hands.

By detaching myself sufficiently from the agony of her struggle, I can recognize that I am free to choose too. I can help her, if she wants recovery, but beyond that it’s not my battle. As heartbreaking as that is for any mother—to admit her powerlessness—it’s what I have had to do in order to reclaim my life. I love my daughter, and I pray with all my heart that she chooses recovery someday. But in the meantime, I have many blessings to enjoy and pay attention to.

Even if Angie were my only child, there are still sunsets…

Learning From Repetition

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~Aristotle

I remember when my daughter Angie was in early recovery, a doctor we knew told her to replace the using habit with something else, something healthful. Any habit, good or bad, takes up time in our lives. When we want to rid ourselves of bad habits, according to this doctor, we need to replace them with something else that is pleasurable.

Easier said than done, of course, when drugs are surrendered in favor of something else. But creating good habits takes commitment, determination and time. Many addicts give up drugs and rebuild their lives. They just have to stay committed to sobriety.

My wish for all of us caught one way or another in the hellish world of addiction is that we find a better way to live—a way to live well and be happy.