“One weekend before we left the country, telling Angel he was on his own with the kids, I drove East to be by the sea. In Ocean City, I got a cheap hotel room, a cheap bottle of vodka, and spent my time numbing myself. Instead of walking on the beach at the ocean I love so well, instead of grabbing a bag and adding more souvenirs to my beautiful collection, I lay on my bed, drank vodka straight out of the bottle, and passed out.
I might as well have stayed in a cheap motel near my own house.
In a fog most of the time, eating junk food from the boardwalk, I ran away from my life. I left my “shell” for the weekend, ventured off by myself, as empty coming out of a bottle as I was going into it.
I learned nothing, gained nothing from escaping for a few days other than missing my children terribly. I was still as hollow as the bleached whelks waiting to be snatched up by grateful collectors.
I would discover, many years down the road, the sneaky and devastating nature of addictive disease: how it stalks you, dupes you into thinking you’re okay “if it’s just once in a while.” It’s like any virus: it needs a host to take root. And grow.
To flourish. And continue.
Addiction, like any cancer, wants to survive. It filled my empty shell, opportunistic disease that it is, with false-confidence, false promises, false hopes.
Maybe I’ll be happier in Greece…”
Excerpted from my recently released, award-winning memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation
“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.
The following is an excerpt from my new memoir, Stepping Stones.
“…Her first year of living independently seemed uneventful at first. Frequently visiting her in the apartment she shared, I took her furniture from her old bedroom so she would feel at home in her new digs. But there were signs that she was changing. She had never had many boyfriends in high school. Then one Sunday morning I arrived to find a friend of hers on the sofa, clearly feeling at home. Later I learned he was a bartender at a watering hole and drug hotspot in Adams Morgan. Well, she was on her own. And by now she was twenty-one; I felt I didn’t have much leverage.
In the spring, though two courses short of her graduation requirements at George Mason University, Annie was allowed to walk with her class, cap and gown and all.
Angel, his wife and I all dressed up for our second child’s college graduation in the spring of 2001, and we all viewed this ceremony as a symbol of hope that Annie was willing and anxious to embrace her adulthood and take on more responsibilities, like other young people.
“Hey, Mom, I want you to meet my friend Shelly. She got me through statistics sophomore year.”
“Hi, Shelly, nice to meet you. Thanks for helping Annie. Is your family here
“No. They had to work. No big deal for them anyway.”
“Oh. Well I think it’s a big deal, so congratulations from me! It was nice to meet you, Shelly, and good luck.”
Annie’s graduation distracted us from being curious about what she was doing in the evenings. Again, she went to a lot of trouble to cover up behavior that she knew would alarm us and might threaten an intervention.
Just like her mother.
At the end of the summer, she asked if she could move into my basement. Her roommate was buying a condo, she said, and their lease was up anyway. Later on, when I watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded in my own house, I wondered about the truth of that. I thought maybe the roommate saw where Annie was going and asked her to leave. No matter. She was in my house now. The circle was about to close.
Then a shocking discovery—a bowl of homemade methamphetamine on top of my dryer! I had been wondering about the stuff she’d left in my basement laundry room. I read the label: muriatic acid. I looked it up on my computer. So that’s what she used it for!
I moved the bowl up to the kitchen and put it next to the sink, where recessed lighting bore down on it. She couldn’t miss it when she came in the front door. I thought I’d be ready for the confrontation.
At 4:30 in the morning, she exploded into my bedroom while Gene and I were sleeping. I’m glad he was with me that night.
“How dare you mess with my things downstairs! Don’t you ever touch my stuff again, you fucking bitch!” she roared. I thought I was dreaming when I saw her there, animal-like, with wild, blood-shot eyes.
Gene held onto me as I sobbed into my pillow. “Oh God, this isn’t happening, Gene, please tell me this isn’t happening!”
A half hour later, pulling myself together, I went downstairs to make coffee. I still had to go to work.
Annie stomped upstairs from the basement with a garbage bag full of her clothes and brushed by me without a word or a look. After she slammed the door behind her, I ran to the kitchen window and saw her get into her car.
My daughter went from crystal meth, to cocaine, to heroin, as though it were a smorgasbord of terrible choices. Despite four rehabs and family love, her addictive disease continued. There were periods of remission, but they were short-lived. My daughter lived in one pigsty after another, her boyfriends all drug addicts. I would spend a decade trying to reconcile two feelings: complete hatred for the stranger who was living in my daughter’s body and total surrender to my love for her.
Because of our superficial differences, I didn’t realize right away how alike we were.
We’ve both suffered from depression since we were young. The adults in our lives didn’t always acknowledge our screams. We turned to substance abuse for relief: food, cigarettes, and drugs. I added alcohol to my list, but I’m not aware that she ever drank alcoholically. My daughter moved on to heroin.
At least I cleaned up well.
Though Annie was no longer living with me at that point, I tried to continue embracing her, accepting her, so she’d know she was still loved. But I couldn’t yet distinguish between helping and enabling.
I did unwise, misguided, things: I gave her money; I paid her debts; I shielded her from jail when she broke the law.
“Are you sure you don’t want us to contact the authorities about this, Mrs. Rabasa?” the rep asked me when she stole my identity to get a credit card.
“Oh no,” terrified of her going to jail, “I’ll handle it.”
And I did, badly.
This was enabling at its worst. Convinced her addiction came from me, that guilt crippled me and my judgment.
Placing a safety net beneath her only served to ease my anxiety. It did nothing to teach her the consequences of her behavior. I kept getting in her way.
It felt like I was in the twilight zone whenever I visited her. My daughter was buried somewhere deep inside, but the addict was in charge. One body, split down the middle: my daughter, Annalise; and a hard-core drug addict. A surreal nightmare.
Her apartment smelled of incense and dirty laundry. The soles of her shoes flopped until she could get some duct tape around them. She didn’t offer me anything to eat because there was no food in the refrigerator.
Twice while I was there she ran to the bathroom to vomit.
Heroin. Dope sick.
Annie was hijacked by a cruel disease—cruel because it robs you of yourself while you’re still alive. While destroying your mind, it keeps your body alive long enough to do a lot of damage before it actually kills you. For many drug addicts, it’s an agonizingly slow death.
It was like looking at a movie of my life in reverse, erasing all the good fortune that brought me to where I was, leaving only the pain and ugliness—and hopelessness—of a wasted life. How I might have ended up.
For better or worse, my life had been unfolding as many do with addictive personalities. But to see the same disease taking over the life of my child—to see that mirror up close in front of me—was threatening to be my undoing.
Trying to hold it together, I was imploding. Like all addicts and families of addicts, survival can be reached from many places, but often from the bottom.
“’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.”
Excerpted from my recently released and award-winning memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.
From Living Sober, AA World Services, Inc., p. 49:
“Many of us, when drinking, were deeply sure for years that our own drinking was harmless. We were not necessarily smart-alecky about it, but when we heard a clergyman, a psychiatrist, or an A.A. member talk about alcoholism, we were quick to observe that our drinking was different, that we did not need to do any of the things those people suggested. Or even if we could admit that we were having a bit of trouble with our drinking, we were sure we could lick it on our own. Thus we shut the door against new information and help. And behind that door, our drinking went on, of course.
Our troubles had to be pretty dire, and we had to begin to feel pretty hopeless before we could open up a little bit and let in some fresh light and help.”
Not all of us reach the same bottom, of course, before we decide not to drink. For many, it’s that first (or third) DUI. It could be lost employment for others. I’ve seen a couple of people with late-stage alcoholism awaiting liver transplants. Hopefully more and more alcoholics will decide to quit long before that happens.
My bottom cut me to the core and maybe that’s why I haven’t wanted to drink since. My son and his wife had an intervention with me. They called me out on my habit of drinking alone in their basement, something that I thought I was getting away with. Didn’t I think they’d notice all the empty vodka bottles? That and the fact that I was being secretive about it were red flags. Shame and secrecy all play into the denial that enables us to keep up bad habits.
I was stunned and deeply ashamed. And only because I’d had many years of work in another 12-Step group did I have enough recovery to stay in my chair and listen to their concerns. They were concerned about their children, my grandchildren, and the danger of drinking and driving. But most of all they were concerned about me, keeping me safe and alive long enough to enjoy watching them grow up.
I am so grateful to my son for stepping in. He saved my life. My own father was just a couple years older than I am when he died prematurely from alcoholism and smoking. History does not have to repeat itself.
When my children were young, I was not always emotionally present for them. To feel my son’s forgiveness now and to see his concern for my welfare is incredibly gratifying to me. I’ve been given a second chance and I want to take advantage of it. How many people get do-overs like that?
road to my spiritual life began when I was a young child growing up in an
alcoholic family. But I didn’t start to walk down this road until halfway
through my life when my daughter fell ill with substance use disorder.
was very unhappy growing up. It’s a classic story of family dysfunction that
many of us have experienced as children. But back then I didn’t have Alateen to
go to. My father was never treated and died prematurely because of his illness.
I, too, was untreated for the effects of alcoholism, and grew into an adult
many of us know how rocky that road is: low self-esteem, intense self-judgment,
inflated sense of responsibility, people pleasing and loss of integrity, and
above all, the need to control. I carried all of these defects and more into my
role as a mother to my sick daughter, and predictably the situation only got
was a very hard sell on the first three steps of Al-Anon, and my stubbornness
cost me my health and my career. But once I did let go of my self-reliance, my
whole life changed for the better. The
Serenity Prayer has been my mantra every day. I’ve learned to let go of what I
can’t change. I don’t have the power to free Angie of her disease, but I can
work hard to be healed from my own. This
is where I’ve focused my work in the program.
daughter has gone up and down on this roller coaster for nearly eighteen years,
and right now she’s in a very bad place. But that has only tested me more. My
faith grows stronger every day when I release my daughter with love to her
higher power, and I am able to firmly trust in mine.
of mine ask me, “How do you do that? You make it sound so simple!” I tell them, “First of all, getting here
hasn’t been simple. It’s the result of years of poisoning my most important
relationships with the defects I talked about earlier. I knew I had to change
in order to be happy. Secondly, I fill my heart with faith-based unconditional
acceptance of whatever happens in my life. It’s my choice.
in the readings, someone wrote ‘Pain is not in acceptance or surrender; it’s in
resistance.’ It’s much more painless to just let go and have faith that things
are unfolding as they are meant to. There’s a reason that HP is running the
show the way he is. I just have to get out of the way; I’m not in charge. I
also read somewhere the difference between submission and surrender: submission
is: I’ll do this if I get XYZ; surrender, on the other hand, is unconditional
acceptance of what I get. Well, the
latter is easier because I’m not holding my breath waiting for the outcome. I
just let go—and have faith. Again, it’s a very conscious choice.
all have different stories. What has blessed me about a spiritual life is that
I can always look within myself and find peace regardless of the storms raging
around me. I’m learning how to dance in the rain.
“Learn to love someone even when
they are unlovable.”
use disorder is commonly accepted now as a brain disease. This pronouncement by
the American Medical Association causes some confusion because the overuse of
substances can cause such unacceptable behavior. It’s difficult to recognize,
much less accept, that our loved ones aren’t always making conscious choices.
They are under the influence of a bewildering array of drugs which influence
them. My daughter, Angie, when she is on drugs, has not even resembled the
daughter I raised. She has been angry, combative, and much worse. Her moral
compass has flown out the window. I have often felt the need to distance myself
from her for my own protection. This is just terrible and so counterintuitive.
We want to protect our children from their disastrous choices. But I paid a
heavy price by putting myself in the line of her fire. I learned the hard way
that I don’t have the power to save Angie from the life she is living. But I do
have the power to save myself.
recovery is not for everyone; I get that. But it has worked for me. One of the
reasons it has worked for me is because an important part of the step work
involves self-reflection. It involves looking at myself in the mirror and
getting to know myself, warts and all. It involves self-forgiveness,
forgiveness of others and letting go of resentments. These are just words, but
in fact, they are difficult actions to take. Some resentments that we’ve been
nursing our whole lives are nearly impossible to let go of. But I have learned
that they will eat away at me, like acid, if I don’t. So it’s worth the effort
to let them go. As I have learned to shed much of the negativity in my life,
I’m learning to like myself better and be comfortable in my own skin. It’s a
slow process—I’ve been at it for eighteen years!—but it has worked to help me
love myself more and feel worthy of happiness.
So how has
that improved relationship with myself affected my relationship with my
daughter? To be honest, not much at all. She’s on her own path, one that I
cannot support or enable. But what it HAS done is allow me to endure the
distance created between us WITHOUT guilt or obsession. What it has done is
convince me that I did the best I could with what I had to raise her, and pat
myself on the back for that. The sad reality is that she got tagged with an
illness that is destroying millions out there. It’s a cruel illness because it
often kills our children (their minds, their spirit, their morality) before it
actually kills them. Knowing now what I know about substance use disorder, I
don’t beat myself up with remorse and an overinflated sense of responsibility.
I continue to tell Angie that I love her because I do. I will always love her
unconditionally, no matter what. The door is not closed; it remains open for
her to embrace recovery and come back to her family. That will never change. As
unlovable as she is when she’s using drugs, I will continue to love her while
there’s breath in my body.
meantime, my recovery is enabling me to bridge the gap between what I’ve lost
and what’s left. I have two other children, beautiful grandchildren, a loving
partner, siblings and many friends who remind me what a gift it is just to be
alive. Jenny Jerome Churchill said it
best: “Life is not always what one wants it to be. But to make the best of it
as it is, is the only way of being happy.”
coming to Al-Anon, my emotional sight improved.” ~The Forum, 8/19, Al-Anon
Family Group, Conference Approved Literature
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.
“The Al-Anon program has helped me see that pleasing others over myself is no longer in my best interest.” ~The Forum, 8/19, Al-Anon Family Group, Conference Approved Literature
always been a people pleaser. I wanted others to be happy, and I often
sacrificed something of my own to achieve that. Not always something obvious
like an object: my dessert, my jewelry, or my car. Usually it was much more
subtle so I wouldn’t take notice: my time, my opinions, even my values.
a time when I was like a chameleon, but like the lizard I was usually afraid of
offending people. That’s why I made the “sacrifice.” But it was my integrity
that, over time, I lost.
recovery, I’ve learned to understand that people pleasing isn’t always a
healthy behavior. Often we lose ourselves in the process. My step work has
helped me get to know myself more honestly and like myself anyway. If I value
who I am, it’s easier to stick to my guns and not fear the consequences if
someone disagrees with me. The cost of losing myself to please others is
greater than the benefit of being who I am.
Heavenly Father, I know in my heart that only you
can restore me to sanity.
I humbly ask that you remove all twisted thoughts
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
“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.
So I turn my pain over to God, and that gives me strength.