Most of us have experienced the pain of substance use disorder, either directly or indirectly. It’s everywhere in our society, and addiction in all its forms has the power to take away our happiness and wellbeing. My daughter Annie has scrambled in and out of the rabbit hole for over nineteen years, and much of the time I was in it with her. But I’ve learned to let go of a disease and its ensuing consequences that I have no control over. Yes, let go.
Once the tears dried and I could open my eyes, I looked around to see what was left from all the chaos and devastation: a job I liked, flowers blooming, other family members, good health, enough money to be comfortable, friends who cared and didn’t judge me. The list went on. These little girls are my great joy, and if I didn’t have them I hope I could try to celebrate something else—anything else—in my life, even though some days the grief is overwhelming. Time passes too quickly, and before I know it, mine is up. Life is too precious to waste.
My years in the recovery rooms have taught me grace, and the courage to embrace all of my life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—as an expression of God’s will for me. I’m blessed to be part of a spiritual program that teaches me that painful lesson, despite my loss—or maybe, when I look at this picture, because of it.
Oh! The value of a moment in time, how small and short they are—but how some moments have the power to re-energize us.
I had a rare spiritual awakening recently.
An ordinary real estate deal went south. Boy, I was pissed, counting all the dollar bills I would lose and rapidly tumbling down a rabbit hole worthy of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
Selling our house in New Mexico, Gene and I were thrilled in August to find a couple (from our new home of Seattle, no less!) who said they wanted to buy it. Serendipity, my eyes gazing upward, as I thanked God for our good luck. Their lender pre-approved them, so we accepted a lease-back agreement and they happily moved in. They had till end of October to close the deal. What could go wrong?
Apparently, a lot. Covid-19 hasn’t killed anyone I know, thankfully, but it killed this real estate deal. Surprise! Their lender needs six months to approve them, not three. I had been greedily counting all the money I’d save in capital gains taxes by selling before February. But now that window was closing.
I was faced with a choice: evict them, start showing it again, and get it sold on myschedule, by golly. The hell with them and their dreams. The hell with Covid-19 and making them find a rental and move during a pandemic. That’s their problem.
Or—I could access my own humanity.
My selfishness and self-seeking were churning in my stomach. I didn’t want to get soft; I was afraid of being a sap. But I felt awful about this choice, and until I prayed about it I wasn’t sure why.
What I so love about recovery is that we can hit the reset button any time. I’m not on automatic pilot anymore.
Various recovery fellowships have been home to me for nearly twenty years. Yet real spiritual awakenings are a rarity. I can talk the talk like a pro, but infrequently do I ever have to walk the walk. Little ones, yes. But not on a large scale.
That rabbit hole had mirrors—full length, back and front—and there was no hiding from myself. I didn’t like what I saw. It’s not complicated: I was putting my own needs first; and the hell with the other guy.
Happily, my work in recovery continues to bear fruit. I was able to put my needs aside with these people I don’t even know. Maybe it will work out in the spring. Maybe it will fall through again, and I’ll have to reexamine my capacity for patience and generosity.
But this little exercise in letting go of some of my selfishness has been a gift. An early Christmas present to me and my expanding heart. A happy reminder of why I’ve been in the rooms this long. This program works if I work it!
It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Happy Holidays to all my sisters and brothers in recovery. God Bless!
From Courage to Change, Al-Anon approved literature, May 31:
“Legends have often told of spiritual journeys in which the hero must face great challenges before gaining treasure at the journey’s end. As the heroes of our own stories, we…have also embarked upon a spiritual journey—one of self-discovery.”
I never thought of myself as a hero. What I am is a recovering addict/alcoholic with an AD who I haven’t seen in eight years. Those are the facts. Have I been challenged by the reality in my life? Of course! But I’m still here. I sleep at night. In spite of my struggle with Annie, I manage my life and relationships better than I ever have.
Before recovery, there were two Marilea’s: the outside one and the inside one; and they didn’t match. Like many people, I wore masks to keep up appearances. But I am learning in the rooms to face myself with more honesty, to let go of habits that weren’t working for me anymore, and in the process I discovered new things about myself, things that give me hope for the future.
People fear change, so it takes courage to do things differently. The biggest and most fundamental change in my life has been my ability to embrace an entity outside of myself (call it God, HP, or a tree) to guide me through the inevitable difficulties in my life.
Before I took the first three steps—the “God” steps—I was entirely self-reliant, feeling and appearing competent, but always frightened on the inside. My “solution” had always been excessive use of various substances—from food to alcohol—to deal with my fears. But that stopped working for me, and I needed help to implement the change I needed. I was desperate enough to accept that my best thinking got me into the rooms of recovery. I was probably my own worst enemy, and I needed help. I had tried so many things, from yoga to many self-help books.
But the one thing missing in all of my solutions was a healthy dose of humility. I still needed to think I was in charge, which, of course, is what got me into so much trouble. I was delighted, finally, to let go of my ego just enough to trust in God to help me manage my life. This was the piece of the puzzle I had been yearning for. My Spirit now fills in the holes that substances used to cover up, and I’m grateful.
Memoir Excerpt from 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 Hope For Today, Al-Anon Family Group, CAL, January 23:
“One of the gifts I have received from recovery is learning how to maintain an attitude of gratitude. Before the program I didn’t really understand the true nature of gratitude. I thought it was the happiness I felt when life happened according to my needs and wants. I thought it was the high I felt when my desire for instant gratification was fulfilled.
Today…I know better. Gratitude is an integral part of my serenity. In fact, it is usually the means of restoring my serenity whenever I notice I’m straying from it.
Gratitude opens the doors of my heart to the healing touch of my Higher Power. It isn’t always easy to feel grateful when the strident voice of my disease demands unhealthy behavior. However, when I work my program harder, it is possible.
‘Just for today I will smile…I will be grateful for what I have instead of concentrating on what I don’t have.’”
Accepting life on life’s terms is hard. My daughter has been a substance user for nearly twenty years, and I grieve the loss of her in my life every day. The five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—I know them all, and not always in that order.
My path to recovery involved a lot of denial in the beginning and, as it said in the reading, “the voice of my disease demanded unhealthy behavior.”
So I’m grateful now for the serenity and peace that I have in my life. Acceptance is the gift I give myself every day when I let go and give Annie to God. When I remember that my glass is half full, it dulls the ache from losing my precious daughter.
She’s still alive, but I haven’t seen her in eight years. When they say that there’s always hope, I agree: as long as she’s alive there’s hope for her to recover. Many, many addicts do. But more importantly, there’s hope for me to move on with my life and focus on my blessings. I deserve to be happy, and that’s the only thing that I can control.
“’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.
From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, Al-Anon CAL, July 27:
“’To keep a lamp burning we have to keep putting oil in it.’ ~Mother Teresa
Our spiritual nature must be nurtured. Prayer and meditation lovingly kindle the flame that guides us from within. Because we’re human, we often let the flame flicker and perhaps go out. And then we sense the dreaded aloneness. Fortunately some time away, perhaps even a moment in quiet communion with God, rekindles the flame.”
My daily practice of gratitude, reading program literature, and attending frequent meetings keeps my focus on those first three steps. When I do that, I am emboldened to proceed to Step Four and all the steps that come after. The life-enhancing nature of the twelve steps has given me the courage to live my life with much less fear than before. And though I’m far from Mother Teresa (!!!), I do try to live every day as a child of God, worthy of all the peace and happiness that comes my way—when I work for it.
“’Nobody told me how hard and lonely change is’ ~Joan Gilbertson
…Honest self-appraisal may well call for change, a change in attitude perhaps, a change in specific behavior in some instances, or maybe a change in direction…(But) We find some comfort in our pain because at least it holds no surprises…Courage to change accompanies faith. My fears are telling me to look within to the spiritual source of strength, ever present but often forgotten.”
When I joined my recovery fellowship, my focus was firmly on my daughter. She had a life-threatening disorder, and I wanted to help her. So I helped. And I helped. And I helped…I had the best of intentions, but I needed to step back and reflect upon what, besides protecting her, was motivating me. My fear was getting in the way.
I needed to get help so that I could manage the situation better. It took me a long time to realize and accept that I was making a bad situation much worse. And this was happening because of my own unrecognized problems. Once I saw them and how they affected, not just my relationship with Annie, but with other important people, I found the willingness to work on myself and improve my relationships with others.
One day at a time, I’m still trying. I’m far from perfect, but I’m trying to be my best self. At the end of the day, that’s the only self I can control.
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.
“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.