Sailing Lessons

“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.” Louisa May Alcott

I grew up in Massachusetts on a lake, and we sailed every summer. Boats and water are a part of my narrative because it’s where I started my life. But it was never really smooth sailing.

Eighteen years ago, my world turned upside down. My boat capsized as I started watching my daughter tumble down the rabbit hole of drug addiction. Mind you, I was living a wonderful life, not perfect, but whose is? I was a hardworking single mother with three kids who seemed to be doing well. Just one of millions of women doing their best for their families. And then I got tagged. Annie became another statistic.

I got sucked into a perfect storm of my own shortcomings colliding with my vulnerable daughter and her addictive character. I was utterly guilt-ridden, and that crippled me and my judgment. I enabled Angie far too much, cradling her in one safety net after another. I inadvertently prevented her from facing consequences and learning from her behavior.

In the end, by taking on far too much responsibility for my daughter’s illness, I had such severe PTSD/clinical depression that I felt compelled to retire. That was my bottom, when I knew I had to change my thinking and some behaviors in order to reclaim my life. Annie is a wounded soul split in half—the addict and all that that entails; and my loving daughter. I believe with all my heart that my loving daughter would want me to survive losing her. And my survival is how I choose to honor her.

I got help in the rooms of twelve-step recovery; there are many, many of them, in every city and here on Facebook. The kind of help I received involved a lot of reflection and reframing my life. I learned not to fear looking back on my childhood, that the answers to much of my coping skills lay there. As I moved forward reflecting on my life as a young mother, I understood why I behaved as I did much of the time. And I awarded myself compassion and forgiveness for doing the best I could in difficult times.

Now I feel blessed, if only because the ground under my feet is more solid. The storms in my life have rocked me many times over the years, but I’m learning how to weather them. When we lose something as precious as a child, everyone and everything in our lives loom larger in importance. It’s a terrible irony of life that the intensity of our joy often comes to us at the cost of much pain. I have a snapshot of me and Annie on my aunt’s sailboat twenty years ago just before she started tumbling away from us all. We’re both smiling, and it doesn’t make me sad to look at it. On the contrary, it reminds me of the fragility of life and how more than ever it’s important to live with intention. I think I sleepwalked through much of my early life, entirely unaware of who I was. But now, thanks to my years of work in recovery, I have learned a better way to live. We all pass through storms in the course of our lives. But they don’t have to destroy us. I wish for all my brothers and sisters in recovery that they find peace and hope for better days—by whatever means possible.

Blossoms Becoming Fruit

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.”

Good Vibes

From the blue Nar-Anon pamphlet:

Changing Ourselves

“Addiction is like a chain reaction. It is a disease which affects the addict as well as the family members, friends and co-workers. We try to control, cover up, and take on the responsibilities of the addict. The sickness spreads to those of us who care the most. Eventually, we begin to feel used and unhappy. We worry, lose trust and become angry. The addict blames us and we feel guilty. If only something or someone would change!

When we discover Nar-Anon, we find others with the same feelings and problems. We learn we cannot control the addict or change him. We have become so addicted to the addict that it is difficult to shift the focus back to ourselves. We find that we must let go and turn to faith in a Higher Power. By working the steps, following the traditions and using the tools of the program, we begin, with the love and help of our Higher Power and others, to change ourselves.

As we reach out for help, we become ready to reach out a helping hand and heart to those in need of Nar-Anon. We understand. We do recover. Slowly, new persons emerge. Change is taking place.”

Though I have changed and grown through my work in the program, I. of course, still love my daughter and am available to help her if she reaches out to me for help. Detachment is not desertion. The difference is that I’m a healthier person now and am able to make the tough choices I couldn’t make years ago. I pray she finds the strength to come back to her family. We can’t get back the lost years, but I still have hope, like the warm sun shining on my face, and keeping my love strong.

Love and hope in the time of coronavirus. If “addiction is a chain reaction,” moving through our society like a massive nimbus cloud of loneliness and despair, then kindness and good will can also be a chain reaction, propelling people to examine their lives and make necessary changes. There was never an easier time to do this, when all these weeks of enforced reflection carry the potential for change in all of us. In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” has two characters: one for danger and the other for opportunity.

This is humanity’s opportunity to move forward stronger and more effectively than ever before.

“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” ~Charles A. Beard

“Live And Let Live”

This is a hard slogan to practice. When our loved ones are thriving and living good lives, it’s easy to let go of them and concentrate on our own, sometimes messy, lives. But when we love someone who is hurting himself, how can we look the other way? Short of burying our child, the next hardest thing is standing by while he/she self-destructs, knowing we lack the ultimate power to control the disease.

We have learned in recovery that there are many things we can do to help. Drug rehabs work as a recovery tool for many troubled young people, and if parents can make that happen then that’s a good thing. But without the cooperation of our loved ones to follow through on what they learned in those rehabilitation rooms, our efforts are sometimes ineffective. That’s when I have to look the other way. I give myself and my child credit for trying, and then I let go and leave the responsibility for follow-through with the addict. This is hard. I want to fix everything, make it easier for him/her, protect; it’s intuitive for me. Oh, how hard it is to let go, knowing they could die without our vigilance. Even with it, they could die. Addiction is a cruel taskmaster.

And so, as I keep saying over and over, I must leave Angie to the life she is bound to by this relentless disease. If I want to have any peace in my life, any joy in what’s still here for me to cherish, then I must do this. I hope for all my brothers and sisters in recovery that they may find peace in their lives, by whatever means possible.

The Freedom Of Surrender

From Courage To Change, January 23:

“Today’s reminder: At the start of each day I can make the decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God. This way I begin my day with a strong assertion that I choose to accept the reality of my life. I am growing in a healthy direction, growing ever more able to live a good life and to love those I meet along the way.

‘Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free.’”

My will(fullness) has gotten me into trouble often. I’ve exercised bad judgment and made questionable decisions, especially around my daughter Angie. I wanted to help her beat her addiction—as if I had any power over that.

When I was finally, after much trial and error, able to accept my powerlessness, a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Nothing changed in our situation except the way I began reacting (or not) to it.

Taking my attention away from Angie and the struggle that is hers alone, what was I going to do with all my energy?

Focus on myself and all the blessings God has given me. When I turn my burdens over to Him, I am free.

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.

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.

Seeing More Clearly

“After coming to Al-Anon, my emotional sight improved.” ~The Forum, 8/19, Al-Anon Family Group, Conference Approved Literature

What does that mean? When I started wearing glasses, I could read better. Improvement in my emotional sight has been slower, and not so dramatic. By using the tools of the program, I started to understand how my own shortcomings were getting in the way of healthy choices for me.

My guilt around Angie’s addiction was getting in my way, keeping me from resisting manipulation and unacceptable behavior in her. I had no healthy boundaries and didn’t feel I deserved to speak up for myself. This is crippling behavior between a parent and a child, especially a child on drugs. Many addicts when using will try to manipulate to get their way, even lie and steal. Lacking the ability to say “No!” to my daughter, she simply ran over me like a fast-moving train.

Now, many years into my recovery program, I have healthier boundaries and stronger defenses against anyone who wishes to harm me. It is the greatest sadness in the world to know that one of those people is my own daughter. But she is split down the middle: the child I raised is lost right now; the addict is in charge when she is using drugs. It is the addict I must be wary of, not my daughter. Those of us with addicts in our lives need to be mindful of this. We can love our child and feel great compassion for him/her. But when addiction rules with all its attendant behavior, my experience has taught me that it’s wise to be vigilant. I need to keep my emotional sight sharp, while remaining kind and compassionate.

It’s quite a juggling act!

Restore Me To Sanity

R

“Second Step Prayer:

Heavenly Father, I know in my heart that only you can restore me to sanity.

I humbly ask that you remove all twisted thoughts and

addictive behavior from me this day.

Heal my spirit and restore in me a clear mind.”

How often have we tried to play God, to control everything and everyone around us, especially if they’re on a self-destructive path? This, to be sure, is what provides us with a sound rationale for doing so.

“He’s killing himself! We have to do something; we have to stop (SAVE) him!”

I said those words, and played out that scenario, for a number of years. But it got me nowhere. My daughter has been in and out of recovery for seventeen years. And when she was in recovery, I was sure it was because of my efforts to save her from herself. Then, when she slipped out of recovery, I found a way to make myself responsible for that too.

I was so joined at the hip with Angie, enmeshed in her illness, that I wasn’t paying enough attention to mine. I found myself exhausted and broken from all my efforts to save her. So I cut the cord and recognized that the path she was on was hers alone. I needed to forge my own path, continuing on my recovery journey.

Nothing has ever been harder for me than this separation, watching her flounder in the grips of heroin addiction.

Nothing.

So I turn my pain over to God, and that gives me strength.

Serenity Every Day

S

From Hope for Today, November 12:

“Serenity? What is that? For years I was like a weather vane that spun around according to the air currents that other people generated… I attributed these mood swings to nervousness, lack of assurance, and whoever else occupied the room at the time. Serenity always seemed beyond my control… Where does this serenity come from? It comes from trusting that everything in my life is exactly as it should be… It comes when I choose to care for myself rather than to fix someone else…

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: I am powerless over many things, but my serenity is not one of them.”

“Trusting that everything in my life is exactly as it should be…” That’s the hard part, because everything in my life is not great. My daughter Angie is lost to me and has been, on and off for seventeen years. How does one learn to live with that? Everyone is different, but I find serenity by focusing on my blessings. They’re all around me: my other children, my grandchildren, and nature. The honeysuckle just blows me away with its fragrance, and the Spanish broom is an explosion of bright yellow in my back yard. My friends and my partner Gene are my daily supports. And God—he pilots my ship. In spite of my loss, I find myself saying all the time, and feeling sincerely in my heart, that life is good. And I’m filled with the elevating power of gratitude.