Guilt has been a huge stumbling block for some of us in recovery. This is true because it keeps us stuck in the problem rather than in the solution.
I, too, have struggled with multiple addictions. So when my daughter mirrored my behavior, I was stunned to see her becoming a worse version of myself. The heartache was so real, and so deep, that I carried the responsibility for it. And that miscalculation crippled my judgment in numerous ways, ways in which I knew better. But I was still stuck in the problem.
Gratefully, I’ve become more educated about substance use disorder. It’s a brain disease with many moving parts, both physical and emotional, and with the cooperation of the user, it is highly treatable. But full recovery rests there, in the hands of the suffering addict. There is much we in the family can do to help and encourage, ways to show love and support without drowning ourselves. But we do not have the power to cure our loved one.
I am so heartened by what I’m learning about SUD recovery. More family involvement, love and support can make all the difference to a struggling family member. It encourages me a great deal to see substance use awareness moving in a more positive direction. Someday shame and stigma will be relics of the past, and SUD sufferers will be treated more effectively, with intelligence and compassion.
And guilt, one of the most useless and harmful emotions there is, will be kicked to the curb.
Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps back, one step forward.
“Progress, not perfection.”
It’s the striving—the journey—that matters. And though we get tired from all the struggle, it’s that very work that builds up our resistance to life’s challenges. Substance use disorder, whether it’s in us or a loved one, is a huge test of our mettle. And like many difficult things, we don’t always get it the first time.
I didn’t. With my daughter, I kept thinking that I needed to be in control because she wasn’t making good decisions. But what I’ve learned on my recovery journey is that I don’t have control over another adult’s life, and least of all while they are under the influence of drugs. As painful as that reality is, I do accept it now.
Do I waver? Am I human? Am I tempted to keep trying something else? Of course!
That’s why I keep coming back—to listen and learn.
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 victim to substance use disorder, after I had tried and failed over and over again to help 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 the transgressions we inevitably commit 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.
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 forget that the depths teach us how to better appreciate the heights.”
At the end of the day, all that matters is love. All we have control over is how we share our love. And instead of counting our losses, at the end of the day, all that can never be taken away from us is our love.
In this month that celebrates all matters of the heart, I am happy to celebrate all the loved ones in my life—most especially my daughter Annie. She is lost to me at the moment, but I can still love her as totally and purely as when she came into the world forty-one years ago.
Parents struggle and wage a horrendous war against substance use disorder as we watch our children caught in the web of it. We experience so many conflicting feelings, from hush-hush shame to rage against all the pushers of the world. In my powerlessness and frustration I wanted to lash out against my loved one and tell her to “snap out of it!” Often we retreat to the seemingly safe harbors of enabling and protecting our children from the dire consequences of their drug-induced behavior. I’ve been to all those places and back again. At first I was so joined at the hip to Annie that I didn’t know where she ended and I began.
About a decade ago, I did find out. And I learned that I needed to detach and let her follow her own path. Nineteen years in recovery rooms have given me some important tools and guidance. In educating myself about substance use disorder, I learned that it is a brain disease. My daughter didn’t choose this life; she’s sick. When I accept this, I realize there is no room in my heart for a number of feelings that get in the way of my better self—judgment, resentment, fear and guilt. Those four feelings are destroyers of the peace and serenity we all deserve. None of us is perfect, but I can say with certainty that I did my best with what I had. Most of the parents I know are good, well-intentioned people. And many of them are drowning in the sadness of losing a child to this cruel disease. I understand them. Some days I felt so overwhelmed that I buried myself in grief. If I lived in a bubble, or on the moon, I could isolate myself, cover myself in a cloak of sadness and who would care?
But over time I have found myself empowered by something stronger than sorrow. There are other voices that I need to listen to. Many voices are my loved ones, but not all. When I forget to put out seeds, my Steller’s jay protests loudly. My deer family, bold and fearless, come right up to my deck. Sunrises slowly transform the Olympics into drizzling ice cream cones as I peer out of my window. Voiceless, maybe, but it’s a sight to behold.
Love is more powerful than any other emotion, and that is the only feeling I am left with, the only one I experience with Annie. In this way I know, though I’m human and have been through the gamut of all the above emotions, that I have done my best to reach my daughter. And whether or not I’ve been successful, I can rest easy knowing that she knows, if nothing else, that she is loved.
“Surrounded by other recovering people, we are learning how to heal our broken hearts and create healthy, productive, joyful lives…(our program) has led many of us to serenity, fellowship, and relief from loneliness and pain.”
Because of the stigma and shame surrounding substance use disorder, many of us have kept our loved one’s problem (or our own) shrouded in secrecy. I did most of my life, and only in recent years have I dared to share my family disease with the rest of the world. I realized that until I faced the dreaded subject and learned more about it, it would continue to rule me and my family.
“It” is substance use disorder and all of its effects and consequences. They are far-reaching, especially for the family of an addict. And they can become terribly complicated as we become enmeshed in the lives of those we love. Being in the rooms of recovery has helped me untangle the mess.
That’s why a number of programs have been so valuable to many of us who suffer. We break out of our isolation and share our stories with others like us. We gain valuable perspective by listening to others. Our self-esteem soars as we see others listening to us and validating our experiences. We are offered compassion and understanding inside the rooms when it may be hard to find either of those things on the outside.
And we begin our journey toward getting our lives back—when once they seemed to be lost.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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
“Hi, Mom. This is Pontus.”
“Hi there,” the much older man said as he offered to shake
“Hello, Pontus. Angie, please come in now so I can go back
“Sure, Mom. See you later, Buddy.”
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.
looked so strange—like someone else—without those
lustrous bangs. But of course she was . . . someone
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.
“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
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.
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.
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.
“Learn to love someone even when
they are unlovable.”
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.
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.
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.”