“Recovering From Fear”

From The Forum, November, 2022:

“When I came into Al-Anon at the suggestion of a friend, my life was unmanageable in so many ways. I was unaware that living with alcoholism was involved in my broken relationships, divorce(s), several addictions, inability to be honest with myself, people pleasing, and other things I had not uncovered yet, either because of denial of lack of discovery.”

“lack of discovery…” Bingo! I feel as though I’d been living in a fog for most of my early life, only I didn’t know it. I didn’t know anything about the family disease that (I now know) was interfering with my well-being.

Where was this article—this enlightenment—when I needed it? As a younger woman I blamed myself for everything that was wrong in my life. I understood nothing about the complicated disease of substance use disorder. But twenty years of work in Al-Anon have opened my eyes. The fog has lifted and now I see more clearly. I understand why I internalized so much of the dysfunction that was happening in my family and carried the guilt myself from which there was no relief.

Not until I entered this compassionate fellowship. It is in these rooms that I found forgiveness for my parents and myself, along with critical tools to continue the healing work I was doing. The 12-Steps and the slogans, when practiced, have helped me navigate through my life. And life, itself, is a mixed bag. I’ve had joys, but also incredible sorrows. Using the teaching of Al-Anon as a guide, I’ve learned to be grateful for my blessings. And I’ve learned to accept my sorrows with grace without being destroyed by them. Learning how to put things into healthier perspective has been a gift of the program.

I have been given hope for a better life, and I’ll always be grateful that I opened my mind to some good advice: “Go to a meeting, Marilea. It might be the answer for you.”

It was. And my fears have been replaced by the certainty that all will be well, in God’s plan.

Making Amends

A few years ago I made amends to a number of people, but my three children were at the top of my list. In an excerpt from my memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation, I discover that the outcome is not always what I’d hoped for:

“Throughout Annie’s addiction, I’d been obsessed with saving her, putting my other children in the background. I needed to make some serious amends about that, as well as my neglect during their childhood and so much of their upbringing. Their response to me has been kind.

“Mom,” Carter said, “of course I forgive you.  I love you very much. But it’s better for me if I don’t dwell on my childhood. You need to stop bringing it up.”

I’m powerless to erase the parts of his childhood that cause him pain. It’s necessary to accept that he has his own ways to cope with what happened to him, and let it go.

           “Mom, it’s okay. I forgive you,” Caroline offered generously. “I get that you had stuff to deal with. Let’s move on from it. Just know that I love you now and appreciate the efforts you’re making.”

            I was not as fortunate with Annie five years ago.

I sent her an email because I didn’t have an address to mail her a letter. This was Annie’s response:

            “Your “amends”??? Sure, I could use a laugh. And by the way, if you think a couple warm, fuzzy emails ERASE the last 2-3 YEARS of you treating me like SHIT (ESPECIALLY when I’ve been doing everything you and dad wanted me to do, i.e. become financially independent), then you are WRONG. I’ve believed ever since I was in elementary school that you are a JOKE of a parent not to mention UTTERLY full of shit, and the fact that you’ve had the NERVE to email me the last 3-4  years WITHOUT apologizing for the atrocious shit you’ve done and said to me in the last couple years certainly confirms my long-held beliefs about you. Of COURSE I ended up on drugs. I had YOU for a mother.”

            When I shared this with my sponsor, she reminded me of something vital to my recovery: when we make amends to someone, we do it for the cleansing of our own souls, not for any anticipated outcome.

            It’s freeing to remember that, especially when I can still feel stung and shaken by Annie’s harsh words. I can’t do anything about the past, nor can I make her see that my attempts to help her, though often misguided, sprang from my love for her.

            And the best amends, I believe, are not even found in words. They are living amends.

            We can’t change the past, but we can try to do things differently now.

            “Step Ten invites me to grow up, to be responsible, and to make amends—all for my own benefit. I take Step Ten because I want to be the best I can be.”

A Quiet Mind

“Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which animates all whom it floats, and you are without effort impelled to truth, to right and a perfect contentment.“ ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

From Courage to Change, September 4:

“As we let go of obsession, worry, and focusing on everyone but ourselves, many of us were bewildered by the increasing calmness of our minds. We knew how to live in a state of crisis, but it often took a bit of adjustment to become comfortable with stillness. The price of serenity was the quieting of the constant mental chatter that had taken up so much time; suddenly we had lots of time on our hands and we wondered how to fill it.”

Over time, I’ve learned how to “be still in the stream.” It took a long time for me to accept my powerlessness. But obsessing over my daughter and living in all her drama was threatening my health. I was suffering from severe PTSD and endured many other negative consequences in my life as a result of my constant worry over something I couldn’t control.

So, I finally took the first three steps in my recovery program. It was hard to do that because I felt that letting go was giving up on my daughter. Not loving her anymore. But that’s not how I feel now.

Once, not so long ago, Annie was a loving daughter to me, a college graduate with her whole life ahead of her. Then, like the great cosmic crapshoot that afflicts millions of families, she fell out of her life and into substance use disorder. She’s been lost to us all for a long time now.

But my daughter, not the addict that lives in her body, would want me to reclaim my life as I have, and learn to be happy.

I believe this with all my heart.

Walls and Bridges

From Courage To Change, January 22:

“Detachment is not isolation, nor should it remain focused on not enabling the sick behavior of the past. Detachment is not a wall; it is a bridge across which (we) may begin a new approach to life and relationships generally.”

I had a hard time at first understanding what detachment was. I thought it was an uncaring way to behave. How could I detach? I was so enmeshed with my daughter Annie and intent on saving her from herself that I couldn’t think straight. I was just being a warrior mom, and I had a lot of company.

It was only when I faced my (misplaced) guilt and recognized it as a stumbling block that I was able to get some emotional distance and see what I was doing.

I needed to get out of the way.

Walls vs. bridges. I used to think that detaching from another person’s problem was like putting up a wall: separating myself emotionally and physically. But I needed to establish healthy boundaries in my relationship with Annie. That’s what was missing.

I realized that it’s not okay to be overprotective; she would learn nothing otherwise. Instead of erecting a wall, I built this bridge, stone by stone, rail by rail, reinforcing it with the boundaries I needed to honor my own needs.

One of those needs was to try and be a responsible parent. I needed to stop enabling Annie to continue her behavior without consequences. I know she’ll do what she wants with or without me. But I have torn down the wall of shame and anger that separated us before.

As long as she’s alive, I have hope that she’ll walk across that bridge and face what’s ahead of her with the love and support of her family.

Staying Out Of The Weeds

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 ill with substance use disorder, after I had tried and failed over and over again to save 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 transgressions inevitably committed 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.

Staying in the weeds prevents me from changing and growing. My recovery fellowship provides the tools to accomplish those two things—with gentleness and kindness. It’s hard, hard work. But when I see positive results in real time, I’m encouraged to keep at it. There’s no graduation from this school of 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.

Seedlings Require Sunlight

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 twenty-one, 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 learn to value myself enough 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.

Today, In Fact, Is All We Have

Spending too much time regretting my past mistakes and/or fearing what may happen in the future keep me from looking at what’s right in front of me. But the present moment is all that’s real and something I can hold onto. So I will try to be present and attentive to what’s going on right now. That’s how I can relish what’s good in my life and enjoy the ride.

I’m not sure why “Just for Today” has always been difficult for me. I was either weighed down with guilt and regret about past mistakes, or else I was frantic with worry about the future. No wonder I was miserable! I do have so many things to feel grateful for. But before recovery, I barely recognized them. It’s like I was living in a dark hole of my own making, and this went on for years without the proper intervention.

To be honest, I went through some “survivor guilt.” How could I be reaching for recovery while my daughter was in such a bad place? But after much step work and learning to forgive myself and treat myself with compassion, I accepted that it would serve no one if I lost myself in substance use disorder as well. There are other people in my life who need me whole and healthy.

And so, I make a choice every day to move forward and do the best I can with what I’ve got. The loss of a loved one doesn’t have to bury me. It can be my teacher. God works in mysterious ways, and I’ll never understand his reasons. But I don’t have to.

That’s where my faith comes in. I believe that something good can come out of pain and suffering. Today I live soberly, with the grace of God, and happily.

That’s something.

Loving and Letting Go

Heroin and all dangerous drugs are the scourge of the 21st century.

My daughter always hated needles as a child. She hated going to the doctor. Now she has hepatitis C from sharing needles with other IV substance users.

I have no idea how to stop this epidemic, which I have no control over. And Annie is caught up in it. I don’t know how it will turn out for her.

But I do know that the only thing I can control is my own life and how I choose to live it.

I’ve spent twenty years obsessing, suffering, denying, covering, enabling, excusing, and manipulating my daughter. I’ve hurt my health and ended my career.

This is not love. This is martyrdom.

The best way to love my child now is to let go, release her to her disease, and pray she chooses recovery. If she reaches out to me in a healthy way, I will happily respond.

I will be forever grateful to the wisdom in the simple 12-Step programs that have helped me reclaim my life, even as I felt I felt I was losing it.

All the self-reflection in the step work helped me face myself with honesty—warts and all—and own both my mistakes and my successes. It doesn’t stop there, though. This is a gentle program, gentle and kind. We learn to forgive ourselves because we did the best we could with what we had. Then, and only after I could let go of my remorse, did I feel worthy to move on, away from all the disappointment and pain.

That sense of worthiness has been the key for me. I spent most of my life not feeling good about myself on the inside. Grappling with all those negative feelings and behaviors took up most of my energy. Now I’m free to take care of myself without feeling selfish. And I’m learning to love Annie in a different way.

My heart is with you, Moms. God Bless.

The Big Crippler

This is a newsletter blurb that I picked up where I used to work:

“Regardless of cause, history or contributing factors, feeling guilty about your past role in the development of your child’s problem behavior will risk sabotaging your parenting roles.  For a more focused relationship with your child: 1) Recognize guilt as negative, self-talk that is normal, but that can be managed or stopped, 2) Acknowledge that a desire for relief from guilt places you at risk for changing the rules, boundaries, and standards that you want followed. 3) Try to act more consistently and proactively, feel better about tough choices, so that you can be less encumbered by what happened in the past.”

What is negative self-talk? It’s when your son gets arrested for burglary and you say you just didn’t raise him right. You blame yourself, so you bail him out.

My guilt around Annie was very great, and in seeking to relieve myself of it I have too often spoiled her, not followed through on adherence to consequences, and cushioned the falls that might have taught her valuable life lessons.

I’m learning to consider tough choices now instead of easy ones. And I’m letting go of my guilt around my past behavior. But it’s a well-worn groove in my character, and I’ll need to work very hard to let go of it completely.

Steps Eight and Nine—the apology steps—provide an opportunity to learn the difference between what is and is not our responsibility and to take a more realistic look at the effects of our actions.  In my case, my sense of responsibility was inflated. So when I crossed the line and tried to fix her, to relieve my anxiety, I messed up. In my desperation to be feel better, I became the consummate enabler. I felt I had to punish myself because my daughter’s substance use disorder must have been my fault. But I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve learned to let go. It’s a journey to freedom that parents will make in their own way and at their own pace.

God Bless us All!

Personal Freedom

When I joined Al-Anon, I was in my Fifties and determined to help my daughter let go of her substance abuse disorder.  But, oh, what a relief it’s been to let go of that obsession, which was becoming so shrill and counterproductive.

I was glad to turn the focus back on myself and learn that my faulty attitudes were the source of my pain, not the people around me.

Regarding the amends steps, it’s possible to overuse them, just as we might exaggerate our negative defects in the 4th step. I’ve done both! That’s why it’s so important to understand the purpose of amends: reaching personal freedom.

These are intended to be hopeful steps, not self-flagellation. Making this list and then acting on it is just another way to weed our garden. My partner is always reminding me to weed close to what we’re growing, so that nothing interferes with the growth of the plant.

Making amends is not always pretty, and rather than freedom I sometimes look for forgiveness and closure. With my daughter, Annie, she threw them right back in my face. But my sponsor helped me appreciate my efforts and then let them go.

My real reward has been surviving that loss without the need to punish myself for it. Truth is, I’m really not that important! Things happen in life, and it’s not always my fault.