“’On occasion I realize it’s easier to say the Serenity Prayer and take that leap of faith than it is to continue doing what I’m doing.’
Most of our struggles, today as in the past, are attached to persons and situations we are trying forcibly to control. How righteous our attitudes generally are! And so imposing is our behavior that we are met with resistance, painful resistance. Our recourse is now and always to ‘accept those things we cannot change, and willingly change that which we can.’ Our personal struggles will end when we are fully committed to the Serenity Prayer.
‘The wisdom to know the difference is mine today.’”
Oh yes, the wisdom to know the difference…how often our egos get in the way of living well. We want what we want when we want it! We want our substance abuser to give up drugs and come back to the living. If only that choice were in our hands…
But it’s not. Only substance abusers have the power to reach for their own recovery…and we have the power to reach for our own. That has been my choice for several years now, and I’m learning to be happy despite losing my daughter to the living death of heroin addiction.
A good friend told me that ego is what separates us from God and each other. Ego (Easing God Out) is often our enemy and keeps us from the serenity we so desperately long for. So I’ve learned to turn my pain over to God (Step Three), to “let go and let God,” and that has made all the difference in my life.
My recovery work over the years has brought me out of isolation and pushed me into the circle of love in this picture. I have learned many things in my recovery program, but the most important has been placing a greater value on my worth, my needs and my wants. Learning to set boundaries is another way to take care of myself, letting others know what is and what isn’t acceptable to me. This tool has made my relationships healthier. Without a daily practice of self-care, what shape am I in to interact with those around me?
“Progress, not perfection,” to be sure, and we all have bad days. But I’m grateful to have found a sound guide for living in my recovery program. It doesn’t take away the pain of struggling with my daughter throughout her substance use disorder. But it does offer coping strategies that encourage me to focus on what I can control in my life. No longer drained from fighting a battle I can’t win, I feel energized to move on and celebrate the blessings God has given me.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Attitude is everything.
“The idea of God is different in every person. The joy of my recovery was to find God within me. “ ~Angela Wozniak
One of the promises of 12-Step recovery is that we shall learn to be “happy, joyous and free.” I like the free part best. For too many years I’ve been chained to my own human failings. I never understood with such clarity my own defects and limitations until I started to work this Program. I was so lonely and isolated. But when I came to believe after much trial and error that I was in fact powerless over substance use disorder—mine, my daughter’s, and anyone else’s—I fell to my knees and turned this struggle over. And I felt so much lighter. Now, at last, I was off the hook. I’ve turned over all the lost years with my daughter and turned my attention to things I can control now. And that has given me the freedom to focus on other things.
My spirituality is based on three factors: far less EGO (Easing God Out), humble acceptance of whatever my lot is in life, and the vision to appreciate every day for all the good that I can see and experience. In this way, the principles of this Program have changed my life. It’s really great to be alive, and for so many years my life was utterly joyless. That’s the power of the spirit coming alive in me through my spiritual Program.
It seems logical, doesn’t it? Why would we choose negative thoughts? Well, sometimes it’s all we know, what we learned growing up. It’s been our default setting. And, as my sponsor always used to say, “How’s that been working for you, huh?”
Not well, of course. And it wasn’t until I did a lot of work in recovery that I actively started challenging my thinking. For example, the guilt trip:
“It’s all my fault. I didn’t raise her right.”
Another one: the fear trip:
“OMG, look how she’s destroying her health!”
Another one: the responsibility trip:
“She’s not capable. Only I (my love, my wisdom) can fix her.”
All this tripping did not help me, and it helped her even less.
How can I move my erroneous thinking into a more positive space?
the guilt trip:
My mothering didn’t cause this. It’s a disease. And why are my other children well-adjusted?
the fear trip:
Many substance abusers go into lasting recovery, motivated, among other things, by their own fear.
the responsibility trip:
Only she has power over her disease and has the power to recover from it. It’s totally up to her.
When I move my sometimes faulty thinking to a more sane and reasonable place, it’s much easier to live my life. I can accept what I can’t change. I can surrender to the will of my higher power. This is not giving up. This is understanding my own power and using it to dig out of my despair and arrive at a better place, one filled with faith and hope for better things.
They come every year, this time from Thanksgiving to Christmas. I have many, many years of memories around my children at this time of year. Most of them were so happy and full of excitement. Then about twenty years ago the curtain fell down. My middle child fell into the rabbit hole we all know so well—substance use disorder—and a shadow was cast over my once carefree holidays.
So I, along with many of my fellow travelers on this journey, began to live with the reality of our families under a terrible strain, felt even more keenly at this time of year. And my journey has been a long one, with many bumps in the road. But the lessons I have learned about living with substance use disorder are invaluable and have filled three books!
No one would choose to learn about life and the power of letting go of some things in this way. It’s not like planting a flower in the garden, watching it flounder, and saying, “Oh well, we’ll plant another one next year.” These are our children who are floundering and they cannot be replaced by anything—not next year, not ever. And because of the heartbreaking truth of that, I clung to my grief, as though letting go of it would be disloyal to my daughter. I was forgetting for the moment other sources of joy that are equally important and help to balance my sense of loss.
And therein lies the key to my recovery: gratitude for what remains. My sense of well-being and serenity has been hard won, that’s for sure. Early on in my grief I made myself sick with exhaustion and worry. But I see now that it was a necessary bottom from which I could recover if I kept an open mind. I would be able to recover if I saw that I was powerless over my daughter’s disease, which reflected her bad choices. If I could believe in a power above me that could remove me from this burden, and carry it for me, then I would feel lighter and open my eyes to all the blessings life still affords me. I am blessed, and I have the good sense to see that now.
Joyfulness is a song of the angels. And I have learned to sing again, surrounded by other children, grandchildren, my partner of thirty years and a multitude of friends. “Life doesn’t always give us everything we want. But to make the best of things as they are is the only way to be happy.’ ~Jenny Jerome Churchill
“’Experience is a good teacher, but she sends in terrific bills.’ ~Minna Antrim
Our longing for only life’s joys is human—also folly. Joy would become insipid if it were our steady diet. Joyful times serve us well as respites from the trying situations that push our growth and development as women…Joy and woe are analogous to the ebb and flow of the ocean tide. They are natural rhythms. And we are mellowed by their presence when we accept them as necessary to our very existence.”
Recovery has mellowed me. My growing faith has taken the sting out of the loss of my daughter. I was angry, self-destructive, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden…the list goes on. But that path was leading me nowhere.
One day I woke up with a bright light shining in my face. It was warm and melted away my rough, icy edges. A voice was calling to me; I think it was one of my grandchildren and she said, “I’m right here now, Bela. Look at me! See, I’m wearing the dress you gave me. Please come to my recital!”
I went to her recital and many others afterwards. And I learned that my mother’s heart could be filled up over and over again by these children and so many others. The heart has a great capacity to renew itself and heal. Acceptance of that which I cannot change has helped. And listening to the voices of others—long silenced in me—ring loud and true now as hope for the future.
Almost twenty-two. That’s a lot of time to live with substance use disorder in my child. It’s a third of our normal lifespan. So much time lost to the battle of this relentless disease. Some win the battle and some do not. No matter what “approach” we eventually embrace, some of our children will not make it. We can look for answers in hindsight, second guess ourselves ad nauseam. But to what purpose? Acceptance is what enables me to still get out of bed every day.
At first I was in denial. My kid? No way! This sort of thing happens to other people’s children. I was disabused of my arrogance and complacency pretty early, though, when she brazenly stole my identity—twice. That’s when I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
I got tough at first. I kicked her out, frantically wondering what would become of her. I felt like a moth turned into a butterfly for the moment, like I was taking charge. I was definitely giving her the message to shape up or lose her family. Little did I know at that point that many in the disease couldn’t care less about family.
Oh how this butterfly would flutter and die in subsequent years, as I backtracked over and over again, trading in my courage for equal doses of martyrdom.
This was all characteristic of my disease, of course. My inability to let go of my own guilt and responsibility (which she played on whenever I let her), my needing her in my life at all costs (the martyrdom of the ATM machine), and still thinking that I was her Higher Power. I’m her mother. It’s up to me to save her. Well, that’s bunk, of course. If she had terminal cancer, I wouldn’t be putting myself through all this. When will the world accept that SUD is a complicated brain disease? When will we look on these people with compassion and not crucify them with shame, stigma, and isolation? Do we do that with cancer?
My daughter did go to four rehabs, all of them using the 12-Step approach to recovery. She told me afterwards that she was an atheist and could not buy into it. There are a few other approaches as well, Smart Recovery for example. But whether or not substance abusers accept any form of recovery has everything to do with their willingness to change what they’ve been doing. The willingness to let go of the high they get from drugs. The willingness to face the demons that made them seek numbness and oblivion from pain in the first place.
My daughter has played hide and seek with recovery all these years. She’s had periods of remission that we all celebrated as a family. She was a reader at her brother’s wedding in 2009, for example, and I was sure we had her back then. How could she go back out when it was so clear to her on that joyful occasion what she would be giving up?
But within two years, she was gone again, sucked into the belly of the beast in the underworld of San Francisco. I haven’t see her since May, 2012. Yes, she’s alive. She reminds me of her presence every once in a while with a barrage of emails, blaming me for everything. This is her disease.
So, clearly, my daughter lacks the willingness to do the interior work necessary to disempower the disease that has taken control of her. And if I am to have any peace in my life, I must accept that. She may decide to come back to the living—the willingness to change—but if she does it will be primarily because she wants recovery for herself, and less about me wanting it for her.
I can only pray to accept God’s will for her—and for me.
I raised my family with the best of intentions. I loved my kids to the moon—still do—but I also felt completely responsible for them. That’s understandable when they’re children and young adults. But at some point—and this place is different for all of us—I feel it’s important to relinquish our responsibility and allow our children to be responsible for themselves.
This gets so complicated because mental health issues so often accompany active substance use disorder. There is so much for our children to shoulder, and we want to help.
This understanding is never more critical than when our adult children struggle with this disease. If we are hampered by guilt—a truly crippling emotion—we might allow ourselves to feel overly responsible. We keep moving our own healthy boundaries to accommodate the substance abuser. This in turn puts us at risk of becoming enablers. And that downward spiral will continue—until we break free of it. It’s a hard journey we’re on, and we need help too.
”We didn’t cause it; we can’t control it; we can’t cure it.”
From In All Our Affairs, Making Crises Work For You, Surrender:
“‘Let go and Let God.’ It sounds so simple. But when our circumstances or the circumstances of those we love weigh heavily on our minds, we may have no idea how to do it. Some of us struggle with the very idea of a Higher Power. Others begin to question long and deeply held beliefs, especially in stressful times…
Many of us review the same scenario again and again, looking for that elusive answer that will solve everything, obsessively wracking our brains for something that we could do differently or should have done differently in the past…As long as there is a chance of figuring out a solution, we reason, we should keep trying…We may secretly feel that this problem is too important to trust to God, as if we had the power to prevent God’s will from unfolding by the mere exercise of our resistance. We fear that if we surrender, anything could happen—
Actually, anything could happen whether we let go or not. It is an illusion that as long as we cling to the situation we have some control…Surrender means accepting our powerlessness to change many of the realities in our lives…It means trusting instead in a Power greater than ourselves. Faith has been likened to being in a dark tunnel and seeing no glimmer of light but still crawling forward as if we did.
Though our circumstances may seem dark indeed, when we turn to a Higher Power rather than to our own stubborn wills we have already begun to move toward the light.”
“Moving toward the light…” I really love the sound of those words. What could be darker than watching my daughter self-destruct over the course of twenty-two years? How have I learned to “dance in the rain,” even as she has continued to slip away?
My resistance training at the gym has shown me that pain comes from putting resistance on the force exerted, and that has served me in strengthening my body. But my spiritual life demands just the opposite. My strong will and determination to save my daughter from substance use disorder was instinctive; it would be counterintuitive NOT to step in and interfere in my child’s self-destruction.
However, once I became educated about the nature of addiction as a brain disease, I realized that other than offering my love and emotional support, there was very little I could do. I did send her to four rehabs, which bought her some time. But my efforts were not enough. At what point do we need to make our adult children responsible for their own recovery from this cunning disease?
Substance use disorder doesn’t discriminate. Before my daughter was swallowed up in it, she was a successful ten-year-old gymnast competing in England while we were traveling in the Foreign Service and living in Greece. She was a gifted artist. And she graduated from college with a B.A. in Journalism. When she was 21, it all fell apart.
I no longer speculate on “Why Annie?” Rich, poor, educated or not, substance use disorder can strike anywhere. And sometimes there is a gene component—four generations in my family—but not always.
The particular poignancy of this mother’s story is that Annie and I mirror each other: we both suffer from substance use disorder. So my story has a bit of a spin to it. It’s all graphically portrayed in my books. I’m not as detached as many parents without such baggage. My guilt and overinflated sense of responsibility consistently prevented me from being objective or from acting intelligently. I had to let go of my remorse before I could be helpful to her. And I had to value myself enough first in order to do that.
That came from working the steps of my recovery program. Self-forgiveness is critical to my ability to move on. Mine has been a classic redemption story.
I have learned to live well, despite the fact that my daughter is estranged from me. Many fellow parents, myself included, are primarily interested in the magic bullet that will save our children. But I’m glad I stayed in recovery long enough to learn that even though I’m powerless to save my daughter, I can still save myself. There are other voices in my world who call me: other children, grandchildren, family and many friends. I want to listen and live well for them. That is the message of my story and many others’: that even though I’m weathering one of a parent’s worst nightmares, I’ve learned that there’s no glory in martyrdom, and that I’ve earned the right to live happily, whether Annie recovers or not. Life goes on, and we with it. I’ve lived a blessed life, and only through my work in recovery have I found the good sense to recognize and be grateful for that.
As I’ve watched Annie slipping away all these years, I’ve learned to view my life through a different lens. The tools of recovery have taught me how to be grateful for what I have, how to let go of people and situations that I cannot change, and to have faith in something greater, wiser, and more powerful than I am.
Losing my child to substance use disorder did break me a few years ago, and in my brokenness and despair I turned toward the light that had always been there. I’m so grateful that I still had the eyes to see it.