“Enough is enough when the hurt inflicted is greater than the lesson learned.”
I felt that, because I was Annie’s mother, I just had to put up with things. But underneath that martyred attitude was a shaky self-esteem that whispered to me, “This is what you deserve. It’s your fault.”
When I recognized the truth of that, I became willing to take up the yoke and start working on myself. After many years of working the steps and arriving at a place of self-love, I no longer hear those voices. I’ve gotten my life back, and concentrate on what I can control in my life.
I give thanks, multitudes of thanks, for what I’ve been given. This year on Mother’s Day, I’m able to celebrate myself. And I’m grateful to Annie for getting me into recovery.
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.”
“…I feel comfortable participating in…meetings because in them I find an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. However, I wasn’t always so open. There have been times in my life when I didn’t trust and I didn’t receive respect, so I withdrew. I didn’t allow myself to stay and work through the challenges offered to me. Now that I’m in recovery, I don’t want to limit my opportunities to grow by restricting my involvement with others, whether or not they are in the program. As always, (my program) teaches me to pray, look at myself and my attitudes, and then take action. For me, this action means detaching from people’s behavior and giving them the same acceptance, consideration, and respect for which I long…When I don’t expect perfection from others or from myself, I am free to participate and be a part of life.”
This quote really resonates with me. As I said in my new book: “Humility, I discovered, is a tremendous leveler, and it would bring me closer to what I’ve been missing my whole life: being part of a community of equals.” I’m so happy to be in a fellowship where we’re all on a level playing field. We try not to compare, just to support.
I’ve heard it said that “expectations are premeditated resentments.” So I try to keep my expectations of others in check, aware of my tendency to control and manipulate. It takes a lot of discipline to remain detached, especially from a loved one. But I can’t control the behavior of (my adult daughter), and so I’ve learned to let go and keep the focus on myself and consider how I might be the author of my own discomfort. When I offer “acceptance, consideration, and respect to others,” the same gifts return to me ten-fold.
From Each Day A New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, January 9:
“’The Chinese say that water is the most powerful element, because it is perfectly nonresistant. It can wear away a rock and sweep all before it. ‘ ~Florence Scovel Shinn
Nonresistance, ironically, may be a posture we struggle with. Nonresistance means surrendering the ego absolutely. For many of us the ego, particularly disguised as false pride, spurred us on to struggle after struggle.”
Well, I don’t do anything absolutely, but my time in recovery has strongly encouraged me to remain right-sized in my thinking. EGO—Easing God Out—is a useful reminder that I don’t always know what’s best in any situation. But my resistance often keeps me stuck.
Whether it’s wondering how to cope with my addicted daughter, Annie, or wondering how to face the loneliness of Covid isolation, or determining what to do about a barking dog in the wee hours of the morning, all of these problems require some level-headed judgment, which I don’t always have.
So I find the power of prayer to be a wonderful relief and solution to my thinking that I have to fix every problem.
If it’s a situation I can control, I’ll try to do something.
If it’s not something I have the ability to control, I’ll try to let it go.
And determining which is which, needless to say, is our biggest challenge.
Excerpted from my memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation:
“’Marilea, why don’t you try a recovery meeting?’ my counselor gently advised me. She had heard me week after week moan about Annie turning into a monster I didn’t recognize anymore. It was terrifying; sleep eluded me.
‘Oh no, that’s not for me,’ I responded, echoing my mother from thirty years before when my sister tried to get her to do the same thing.
‘Well, I think it will help you to be around people going through the same thing.’
Thinking about it for a few weeks, though, I took her advice and started going to a meeting on Saturday mornings. Gene also felt it was a good idea.
And so began a long period of faithfully going to several twelve-step meetings, but essentially paying lip service much of the time, particularly to the first three steps, because I was nothing if not the biggest control freak around.
Step One: Admit my powerlessness? Never! I brought her into the world. It was my job to protect and save her.
Step Two: Believe that God could restore me to sanity? What’s insane about trying to save my child?
Step Three: Turn my will over to God? No way! I had to stay in control.
As a child, I took care of my own needs. I’d asked for company, hollered for attention, hoped for forgiveness, but was often ignored. So I became compulsively self-reliant: CSR, I humorously say at meetings. And much of that self-reliance, attempting to appear competent, looked like arrogance.
It took me a long time before I found the humility to get a sponsor. Part of me didn’t want to ask for help; an even bigger part thought I didn’t need help.It was Annie, I argued, who needed help.
Humility, I discovered, was a tremendous leveler, and it would bring me closer to what I’d been missing my whole life: being part of a community of equals.
But without being honest with myself and others, I remained isolated on the outside, looking in.”
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.”
“’Joy fixes us to eternity and pain fixes us to time. But desire and fear hold us in bondage to time, and detachment breaks the bond.’ ~Simone Weil
We live both in the material realm and the spiritual. In our material dimension we seek material pleasures, inherent in which is pain. Our human emotions are tied to our material attachments, and joy, at its fullest, is never found here. Real joy lies outside of the material dimension while living fully within us too, in the secret, small place inside where we always know that all is well.”
That secret, small place that is easily hidden by the distractions of our (material) lives? Unless we are Buddhist monks living in Tibet, we are just humans like everyone else, wondering how to get the bills paid. We, in the human dimension, have so many concerns that keep our minds busy. And that is why, when our concerns weigh us down, the spiritual life is comfort and relief.
The first three steps are keys to getting me started on the spiritual journey. The acceptance (of things I can’t control) that comes with Step One is humbling. But unless it’s fully taken and I put my ego and will in a back drawer, there’s no point in moving forward with the steps. Having admitted my powerlessness, then, I need help to carry the pain I have just assigned myself. So I come to believe that some power will restore my mind to a saner pace. And finally, of course, I take that giant leap of faith by asking that Being to carry the burden for me.
This is the relief I feel every time I take Step Three. This is the leap of faith I need to make to feel joy in the material domain. More prayer, more Eleventh Step, more peace and serenity when I remember how small I am in the scheme of things. When my HP remains large in my life, I have faith that all will be well.
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more I important than the past, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than success. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day…We cannot change the past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way…Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” ~Charles Swindoll
I joined Al-Anon to help my daughter with her substance use issues. But I ended up helping myself so much more. It wasn’t my intention, but I’ve grown a lot in my efforts to heal from a lifetime of living around people with substance use disorder, including myself.
Growing up around alcoholism, and surrounded by a plethora of negative attitudes, I’ve had to unlearn those scripts and rewrite them, as though I were reparenting myself. It is certainly true that our attitude can move mountains…or level them.
I have had a difficult situation with my daughter for years. Early on I was either in denial or hardened in my grief at the loss of Annie. But if I try to keep a healthy perspective on it, if I don’t obsess about it, it won’t control me. I try to keep my heart open to the gifts of this program. Therein lies my happiness. And so, one day at a time, I try to keep a positive attitude, keeping the focus on myself, with gratitude and joy in all I have.
This is a miraculous program that “works if I work it.”
For twenty-five dollars my mother bought a beautiful baby grand piano in the mid- 1950s, and my siblings and I took piano lessons. I forget when my brother and sister stopped their lessons, but I kept at it for quite a few years.
My own children took piano lessons on that same piano, but eventually lost interest, just as I did.
Somehow I kept two songs in my fingers for many decades. Edward McDowell’s “Scotch Poem” and “Improvisation and Melody”. What was I holding onto?
Then, out of sheer neglect, not oiling the wood at all, the baby grand quite literally fell apart when I tried to move it.
Maybe that was my Higher Power’s way of telling me to let go of those two songs.