Love Them Like It’s Your Last Day Together

                                  

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.

At the end of the day.

The Benefits of Fellowship

From From Survival to Recovery, CAL, p. 19:

“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 Domino Effect

From Each Day a New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, May 22:

“’The change of one simple behavior can change other behaviors and thus change many things.’ ~Jean Baer

Our behavior tells others, and ourselves, who we are. Frequently, we find ourselves behaving in ways that keep us stuck. Or we may feel deep shame for our behavior in a certain instance. Our behavior will never totally please us. But deciding we want to change some behavior and using the program to help us, is a first step.”

Change is hard. The older we get, perhaps, the harder it gets. Our years—our habits—can trap us. I’ve been trapped by my own worst defects: “I’m gonna be fine;” “I can handle it on my own;” “I don’t need any help, thank you very much.”

Trying to figure out the why’s of things over the years didn’t help me. That question just kept me stuck. And it kept me from taking responsibility for my own problems. So the suffering continued. Until I learned how to put out fires.

When I’m in the middle of a fire in the woods, I don’t wonder who started it. If I am to survive, I just need to learn how to douse it.

I’ve been challenged by depression for much of my life, but nothing could have prepared me for losing my daughter Annie to the living death of heroin addiction. That was the major conflagration in my life, and I wasn’t fighting it effectively. I made it so much about me and my misplaced guilt that I often used poor judgment in an effort to help her. When I saw that nothing was working, I felt broken. And at my bottom, that’s when I found the courage to change.

Letting go of my feverish attempts to motivate Annie to seek recovery, and my wish to control events, freed me of the painful circumstances that were claiming my peace of mind. Letting go—so counterintuitive when it’s your child—was one of the first steps I needed to take—and accept what I could not change. That was the hardest: knowing that I had no power to change her. But I did and do have the power to change myself, my reactions, and my attitudes.

At some point along the way, we might find ourselves in a fire we need to put out. I learned that I needed to change before I could be truly happy with my life. I needed to pay attention to what was happening in my own hula hoop. Looking outside of myself for answers only distracted me; it did not help me put out the fire.

“One small change today, a smile at the first person I meet, will help me chart a new course.”

Second Chances

From Courage to Change, Al-Anon conferenced approved literature, May 30:

“As a result of living in a household where alcohol was abused, the concept of being gentle with myself was foreign. What was familiar was striving for perfection and hating myself whenever I fell short of my goals…If I am being hard on myself, I can stop and remember that I deserve gentleness and understanding from myself. Being human is not a character defect!

‘The question is not what a man can scorn, or disparage, or find fault with, but what he can love, and value, and appreciate.’ ~John Ruskin”

We pass on what was given to us. And so the three A’s—awareness, acceptance, and action—have helped me see clearly what I’ve needed to change about myself and, by extension,  others.

As I have learned in recovery to love myself more and to treat myself with kindness, I have passed that on to family and friends all around me.

So often as adults we appear to be on automatic pilot, behaving in ways that make us cringe afterwards. Our caretakers were often our role models, and we learned how to parent from them. No one’s life is perfect, and few people have perfect parents. But however we fared growing up, the beauty of recovery is that we get to do things over—with more gentleness and compassion for ourselves as well as our caretakers. Especially those we learned from. We can do things differently now if we want to. These are “living amends.”

“We have two lives… the life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” ~Bernard Malamud

The Child In Us

From Each Day A New Beginning, by Karen Casey, March 14:

“’The child is an almost universal symbol for the soul’s transformation. The child is whole, not yet divided…When we would heal the mind…we ask this child to speak to us.’ ~Susan Griffin

Perhaps “the child” is a metaphor for a spiritual guide, like our own higher power, that can help us in our journey toward self-acceptance.

‘I may not be perfect, but parts of me are excellent.’”

I love the freedom in this quote. For so much of my life, I’ve been a slave to appearances, to perfectionism, to measuring up to someone else’s arbitrary standards. But my outside never matched my inside, and what a relief to be able to shed my masks and just be who I am, warts and all.

This journey toward self-acceptance has been a long one, and I’m grateful. The twelve steps, in my mind, are terrific character builders. Once I muster (with difficulty) taking the first three steps, the “God Steps,” my work is cut out for me. This is where many people leave. It’s hard work to look in the mirror and look at my defects. Holding onto resentments, too, one of our biggest Waterloos, and our difficulty with accountability blinds us to what we need to change. But once we get over that hurdle and start clearing out the wreckage of our past, the final steps seem like a welcome refuge from the storms of our lives.

The child in us is kind and forgiving. “When we would heal our minds,” we can listen to the voice of the child in us.

And this voice has set me free.

What’s On Our Minds?

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL Literature, April 6:

“’Treat your friends as you do your pictures, and place them in their best light.’ ~Jennie Jerome Churchill

…Each of us is endowed with many qualities, some more enhancing than others; it is our hope, surely, that our lesser qualities will be ignored. We must do likewise for our friends. We can focus on the good, and it will flourish—in them, in ourselves, in all situations. A positive attitude nurtures everyone. Let us look for the good and, in time, it is all that will catch our attention.”

Was there ever a time to be tested better than during these days of health scares and uncertainty? Tested in what?

  1. Discipline and patience
  2. Creativity and resilience
  3. Keeping a positive attitude
  4. Holding onto our faith
  5. Trusting in HP’s plan for us

That’s lot to ask of ourselves all at once. I remember telling myself that losing Angie to substance use disorder was how I got into the rooms of recovery. And, even as I was thinking that, I felt it was a terrible betrayal of my daughter.

But then my tunnel vision got wider, and lighter, and I started to see more of the big picture. It convinced me that there was more to my life than my fight to save Angie from the nightmare of heroin addiction. Instead of letting that define me, I started focusing on other aspects of my life that brought me joy.

Changing my attitude about everything, I pivoted from hopelessness to hopefulness. And I felt my blood pressure returning to healthy levels. I started to understand the saying I had heard: “Thoughts become things; choose them wisely.”

I accepted that staying mired in any state of negativity—whether it’s grief, depression, or anger and resentment—actually made me sick. Not the soul sickness many of us feel from depression, but real physical ailments: chest pains, sleeplessness, migraines, and many stress-related illnesses. And as I made an effort to avoid negativity, fostering a more positive outlook both in myself and in those around me, I started to feel better.

Our thoughts do turn into actions, and I’m learning to monitor mine more carefully. It’s a conscious effort to defeat the unconscious thoughts that can defeat me if I let them.

The Folly Of White-Knuckling It

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL, July 19:

“’At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance…’ ~Maya Angelou

Serenity isn’t compatible with struggle. We cannot control forces outside of ourselves. We cannot control the actions of our family or co-workers. We can control our responses to them. And when we choose to surrender our attempts to control, we will find peace and serenity.”

It’s always been so important to me to maintain a sense of control in my life. No matter how bad things got—from growing up in an alcoholic family, to watching my adult daughter lose herself in the hellish world of heroin addiction—I was certain that if I were in control on some level, the pain of it all would go away or, short of that, give me a sense of empowerment. I desperately sought a sense of power to distract me from my problems.

But looking to myself was not working. At that point in my life, the delusion that I had the power to fix anyone outside of myself started to collapse.

That’s when I broke down, and found “the gift of desperation.” I admitted I couldn’t exert my influence over anyone else, took that necessary leap of faith, and handed my burdens over to God. I stopped resisting. I loosened my grip.

I love my family and my daughter. But I’ve surrendered to the reality that there was only one person who I had the power to save at the end of the day: myself. And with my long history of substance use disorder, I had my work cut out for me. I placed the focus firmly back on myself and began, as I continue to begin anew every day, the long process of recovery.

“…the greatest paradox of all: absolute surrender in order to win.” ~Claire Demers

I Think I’ll Let Him

So, I was learning to let go of much of my pride, and I was acquainting myself with the beginnings of humility, something I knew nothing about. Low self-esteem, humiliation, lack of self-worth—none of this language is about humility, though there is often much confusion. I was all of those things, but until I’d accepted that something else in my life was in charge of events as they were unfolding, I couldn’t understand humility. As long as I was playing God, it was a foreign concept.

With great relief I accepted in the second step that there was a force out there that could help me think and live better. So the third step was to allow Him to do so. This is where I started to understand what it meant to be humble: it’s understanding my place in the stream of things next to God’s, which is very small. That’s not thinking little of myself; but it is thinking a lot about God, and letting Him take over the burden of my pain.

And the weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders.

I Can’t

“Step One: Admitted we were powerless over (you name it), that our lives had become unmanageable.”

For a very long time I couldn’t take the first step. I realize now that I was confusing powerlessness with weakness. I couldn’t allow myself to be weak; I had to be strong for my daughter. But only after seeing how unmanageable my life had become in my attempts to be strong was I able to finally see my stubbornness and self-will for what it was: a desperate attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Then, and only then, was I able to let go and accept the unacceptable: I couldn’t save Angie. And I learned, paradoxically, that there is a lot of strength in surrender.

Amen to that.

Looking Ahead

From “The Forum,” August, 2015, p. 19:

“I’m so grateful I found a way out of sadness, a way to take care of myself each day, and a relationship with the God of my understanding, who will never abandon me. The pain I’ve felt in the past is equal to the measure of joy I feel now.”

That’s quite a mouthful. Whoever wrote those words in “The Forum” is saying that somewhere between despair and happiness she or he did some work, and found some answers. For me, anyway, I entered into a state of grace. I quite deliberately let go of my precious wounds, which served no further purpose in my life. The lessons they taught me have been learned. I’ve put my sadness in a back drawer—and replaced it with positive thoughts that keep me motivated to reclaim my life, my remaining loved ones, and keep my heart ticking.

Grief is not a badge I wear anymore. Joyfulness is.