I like to end my shares at meetings with these words. Why am I thanking the people there for my recovery? Because they and so many others are the mirrors I need to see myself as I really am. And grow from it.
Before my recovery in the rooms, I was depressed and very isolated. I still saw people, I worked, I had friends. But on what level was I operating a lot of the time? I was often very dishonest, with myself most of all. So I shuffled through life, bewildered, often feeling like a victim, sad, and unaware of the tools out there that, if utilized, gave me the power to be happy.
The 12-Steps and other tools I’ve picked up in the rooms are my guideposts for living. They encourage me to review my life, but not to stay stuck in the past. They ask me to look at my imperfections, ways I may have hurt others, make amends for them, and move on. This is where the mirrors I mentioned are especially critical, why it’s helpful to have a sponsor and other friends who can give me honest feedback about myself. Help me to be accountable. To grow. Up. Shed any illusions about myself that may have been getting in my way.
I got my life back in the rooms. Regardless of the storms whirling around me, and we all know what that’s like, if I have myself and my health and wellbeing to anchor me, I’m much stronger to weather any difficulties.
In this month that celebrates mothers, I’d like to celebrate a memory of my daughter, Annie (Angie in this book). She was just 22 when she made this tapestry for me after her first rehab. She was always interested in Oriental art and designs. I think the simplicity fascinated her.
For a long time I couldn’t look at it. In my early recovery, I was still wedded to the “If onlys.” But over time, I’ve learned to let go of “might have beens” and accept what is.
I hang the tapestry proudly on my wall now. It’s one of many of my happy memories of her. I had twenty-one years with her as my daughter before substance use disorder hijacked and transformed her.
I’m grateful for the good years I had with my daughter.
I love her.
“When Angie came out of that first rehab, she made me the most beautiful gift.
‘Mom, I’m not quite finished with it. I just have a few more flowers to cut. You’ll need to find a 17-by-22-inch frame to mount it on. Sorry it’s such an odd size. Guess I wasn’t thinking. I copied it from one of my Chinese art books. I hope you like it!’
Right now it’s hanging in my room for me to see. Over the years I’ve taken it on and off the wall, hidden it in a closet, too painful for me to look at. Maybe it’s a sign of my recovery. Now I can leave it on the wall, look at it, and appreciate all the work she put into it. This was her way, I believe, of telling me she loved me and she was sorry, not for getting sick, but for what that sickness drove her to do to me. She never, ever, was able to express her feelings easily with words. So she showed me, in countless ways, as she did once in December 1993.
“Where the hell is that $300 I put away for safekeeping? If you kids want any Christmas presents, you’d better help me find it now,” I shouted, panicking at the thought of losing my hard-earned cash. I was so scattered sometimes. I was perfectly capable of misplacing it.
“Found it, Mom! Don’t you remember when you hid it in this book? Well, here it is. Aren’t you glad I’m as honest as I am?”
“Yes, Angie, my darlin’ girl, I am. And thank you!”
Years are passing by, and sometimes it’s hard to remember her as she was. But when I look at the tapestry she made, I remember:
Angie had a fascination for all things Asian—Chinese, Japanese, it didn’t matter. She loved the grace and flow of much of the artwork. She copied a simple series of flowers. But she did it not with paint or pencil or pen; she cut out every pistil, not completely detailed, a few sepals in place, the rest scattered, all the ovaries in different colors for contrast, every leaf, in varying sizes and colors, every stem, and glued it all together on a piece of gold cloth. It looked just like the picture in her book.
I treasure this gift she made. The tapestry is twelve years old, and sometimes a petal comes unglued and I have to put it back on. I should put it under glass to preserve it. I wish we could put our children under glass—to keep them safe.
I would soon discover, though, that no matter what I did for Angie it would never be enough to protect her from the illness that was consuming her.”
From A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (pen name) (Amazon)
Self-Care demands discipline from us. And I haven’t always had a lot of that! But people can change. That’s the beauty of 12-step recovery. It helps me be the best human being I can be.
Physical Self-Care has many faces. For some of us it’s making sure we get enough sleep. Or trying to eat healthy foods. Taking enough vitamins. I do all of those things, and I try to walk a mile a day. Sometimes I do that just running up and down stairs in my own home. Gardening and putting plants in the earth is life-enhancing and gives me hope.
Spiritual Self-Care is equally important to me. I start the day with an entry in my gratitude journal. The old me, before recovery, would dwell on the sadness of losing Annie in my life. Next month it will be ten long years since I’ve seen her! But the new me takes joy in my other children and grandchildren. And my many friends. It’s where I put my focus now, if only because I have some control over these relationships. Prayer and talking to God is critical, too, because I don’t have power over some things, and I need His guidance in choosing my battles. And on a bad day, helping me feel the sunshine.
“Deal from strength:” I heard this many years ago, and I understand it now. I’m not in a good position to help others if I’m too sick myself. I will continue to care for myself so that my presence can be of benefit to others. The people in my life now will thank me for it.
“All we are asked to bear we can bear. That is the law of the spiritual life. The only hindrance to the working of this law, as of all benign laws, is fear.” ~Elizabeth Goudge
I’ve read that fear and anxiety are at the basis for many substance use disorders. I can’t speak for all of them, or for everyone, but I can speak for myself. Fear precipitated much of my self-destructive behavior. Fear of being “less than,” fear of criticism and disapproval, fear of not belonging, fear of failure, and fear of retribution.
And it was fear that kept me obsessed with my daughter’s choices. Fear for her well-being—and for mine. That fear kept me enmeshed in her life and her choices, thinking I was always riding to her rescue when I was doing nothing of the kind; shielding her from consequences just kept her from learning and growing. I needed to think that I had the power to save her.
Letting go of my obsession and fear—replacing them both with faith—has brought peace into my life. Now I’m better educated about the disease of substance use disorder; I’m learning what I can do and what I can’t do. How can I be helpful? And what must I surrender? All good questions and the answers are coming to me through my 12-Step work.
There are many paths to peace, and I respect them all. I’m just grateful that the path I have chosen has delivered me from a lifetime of fear and isolation and closer to the God of my understanding. No matter what happens in my life, I believe all will be well, according to God’s plan.
“’Somewhere along the line of development we discover what we really are, and then we make our real decision for which we are responsible. Make that decision primarily for yourself because you can never really live anyone else’s life, not even your own child’s. The influence you exert is through your own life and what you become yourself.’ ~Eleanor Roosevelt”
Through my recovery work, I’m learning to take better care of myself. I’m making wiser choices, living better, and embracing my life. Firm boundaries, healthy perspectives, daily gratitude are just a few of the tools that help me live well. In this way I’m trying to be a good example to those who come after me.
We all leave footprints somewhere. We have stories to tell. We all leave a legacy. May we all find some level of recovery as we weather the storm of substance use disorder. Our newer, healthier selves are a worthy legacy to pass on to the next generation. This is how I honor Annie’s memory, and this is how I will always love her: by living well myself.
“Living well is the best revenge.” ~George Herbert
I’ve received many emails from moms asking me how I cope with the living death of Annie’s substance use disorder. Many of my friends here know the hellish limbo I’m living in, without any resolution or closure. But I have found a way to cope better and move on with my life. This is what I tell them:
“I put my sadness in a back drawer and close it. Then I look at what’s in my front drawers every morning. I have so many wonderful things to be grateful for. Instead of focusing on my problems, I try to keep my mind on the solutions. This is how I live. It keeps me humble, grateful, and glad to be alive. I will never forget that Annie was once a beautiful, creative young woman. I honor her memory in this way, and I truly believe she would want me to live well and be happy. In this month of love, I celebrate my daughter with happy memories, hopes for her future, and confident in mine.”
“Serenity? What is that? For years I was like a weather vane that spun around according to the air currents that other people generated… I attributed these mood swings to nervousness, lack of assurance, and whoever else occupied the room at the time. Serenity always seemed beyond my control… Where does this serenity come from? It comes from trusting that everything in my life is exactly as it should be. It comes when I choose to care for myself rather than to fix someone else…
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: I am powerless over many things, but my serenity is not one of them.”
“Trusting that everything in my life is exactly as it should be…” That’s the hard part, because everything in my life is not great. My daughter Annie is lost to me and has been, on and off for twenty years. How does one learn to live with that?
Everyone is different, but I find serenity by focusing on my blessings. They’re all around me: my other children, my grandchildren, and nature. The salt air just blows me away with its fragrance, and the trees in this rain forest are already budding a little. My friends and my partner Gene are my daily supports. And God—he pilots my ship. In spite of my loss, I find myself saying all the time, and feeling sincerely in my heart, that life is good. And I’m filled with the elevating power of gratitude.
Like any good habit, I have to practice it every day: my gratitude journal; the therapy of writing down my stories. And ever so gradually over the years—I don’t remember exactly when—my dark world started to get brighter. I began to laugh more. I found joy in my grandchildren—not consolation. And I knew—though I’ve lost a piece of my heart—that I would find a way to get past the heartache.
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.
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.