“My Daughter/Myself”

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

today?”

“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.

Nothing.

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.

Mine was waiting for me.

The Talk

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?

Choosing A Life

T.H.I.N.K. (Thoughtful, Honest, Intelligent, Necessary, Kind)

“This day is a beautiful room that’s never been seen before. Let me cherish the seconds, minutes, and hours I spend here. Help me to THINK before I speak and pray before I act. ‘The program helps me gain the freedom to make wise choices that are good for me. I choose to put that freedom in my life today.’”

I used to be on automatic pilot, prone to old actions and reactions that were familiar to me. But I wasn’t happy. So when I began my recovery program eighteen years ago, I learned that I can switch that autopilot off. I learned that I have choices about how I want to live.

Losing Angie to the hellish world of substance use disorder helped bring some things into focus for me. But not until I spent a lot of time grieving for her. I tried to help her, made many mistakes in the process, but ultimately as a matter of survival, I had to let go and practice acceptance of what I couldn’t change.

I did so without shame or guilt. I started to hear, faintly at first, the voices of other people in my life calling out for attention. Ten years ago my first grandchild was born, and that changed me forever. I was no longer just a mother who had struggled to raise her children. With the birth of both of my grandchildren, I could now start over with a clean slate. I’m not the same troubled young woman who raised my children. Now I’m a recovering grandmother with better health and a happier spirit to help raise this new generation. This is God’s gift to me, a second chance to try and live well without the demons that plagued me when I was younger.

And the beneficiaries of this second chance? Everyone who is in my life today: my remaining family, of course. But even without family, the world is a big place: neighbors, co-workers, the delivery man, the man I pass when I walk in the morning, my friends in and out of recovery, the people I sing to in the nursing home (on hold for the foreseeable future! L)—the list is endless.

Let me open my eyes and appreciate this beautiful room that I’ve never seen before. I believe that if I look for joy, I will find it.

Guilt And Redemption

“This journey of mine, this parenting journey, would involve going two steps forward sometimes and then three steps backward. It was not vertical progress I was making, but it was progress. And strangely, the more I kept the focus on myself and striving to be happy, the easier it was to let go of my child. I knew I had paid my dues, and I feared no one’s judgment, least of all God’s.

I’ve railed at God many, many times during these dozen years of joy and pain, this God they speak of at Twelve-Step meetings. How many times had I sinned in my life? Many, more than I want to remember. And so the child in me had been sure, earlier on, that I was being punished for all of them. It was my karmic payback. “What goes around comes around,” etc. Indeed, for all of my life, before my breakdown, I had no faith in anything or anyone other than myself. I grew up very lonely and isolated, and if there was a god, he wasn’t paying any attention to me. So I learned to be very independent and self-reliant. 

But when I finally found myself on my knees, I felt broken and whole at the same time: broken because my MO for dealing with my problems hadn’t been working; and whole because I finally let myself believe in something outside of myself to strengthen me, to fill in the gaps that were missing in me, and to help me cope. I was starting to develop and cling to a faith that assured me that I was not being punished and that I would be OK in the end, no matter what happened to my daughter.  And I realized that fighting Angie’s battles for her was not only a waste of time; it was also useless and of questionable value.

            My energies, spent though they were, would be better directed toward reclaiming my own life, which had been sorely compromised in the fight to save my daughter. And in reclaiming my own life, I was bidding for my redemption, long overdue, but just within my reach. This was my journey now, I knew it; I sadly accepted it. I wanted us to be connected but we weren’t. I wanted her struggle to be our struggle, but it wasn’t. I wanted to save her life but I couldn’t. I could only save my own. And I’d keep working at it—or this relentless disease would claim two more victims instead of one.”

You can find my award-winning book, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (pseudonym) on Amazon.

Seeing More Clearly

“After coming to Al-Anon, my emotional sight improved.” ~The Forum, 8/19, Al-Anon Family Group, Conference Approved Literature

What does 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.

It’s quite a juggling act!

“Look Back Without Staring”

From Hope for Today, September 13:

“Never underestimate the power of self-awareness to put past experience into a new perspective…Until we take the time to look at ourselves honestly. we may never be free of the bondage in which alcoholism holds us captive.”

As the mother of an addict, I was focused completely on my daughter Angie and her problems. In the beginning of her addiction, I failed to see that how I handled the chaos in my home might have more to do with me than with her. I didn’t realize what a powder keg my past was bringing to an already explosive situation.

My own history of substance abuse played a big role in my reactions. Whoever said “Blame is for God and small children” forgot about me. I thought Angie’s illness was my fault. I burdened myself with guilt and an inflated sense of responsibility, and that burden crippled me when dealing with the consequences of her bad choices. I often lost my own moral compass, the one I raised her to follow. That guilt put at risk all the healthy boundaries I had set in place with all of my children. I became lost.

Much of my behavior was a misguided attempt to protect my daughter. I became overprotective, and shielded her from the logical consequences of many choices that might have taught her some valuable life lessons.

I did step up and put her through four rehabs. I was happy to do that and so hopeful. But after she got out and relapsed every time, I fell back into old patterns. I didn’t see how I might be part of the problem.

My enabling just kept her stuck, and I became stuck too in a vicious cycle that wasn’t helping either one of us. I needed to distance myself just enough to learn how to detach from my daughter. To do it lovingly and without any judgment.

It’s a fine line we mothers walk between protecting our children and letting them go to learn how to live well. Since so many addicts stop growing emotionally when they start using, it’s easy to step in and do too much for them. There’s nothing easy about what we face with our children.

But the more I learn about myself, the more armed I am to avoid the pitfalls along the way. As I find the need to change much of my behavior, so do those around me. My recovery has affected all those I come into contact with. And it has “freed me of the bondage that had held me captive” all of my life, so that I can let go of the past, and more effectively deal with the challenges that face me now.

Happy Distractions

From Courage to Change, June 9:

“If my problems have brought me to prayer, then they have served a purpose.”

 

There are so many different ways to pray: walking; meditating; talking to a Higher Power; singing; baking bread; sewing. I view prayer as letting go of myself for the time being and turning my attention to another activity. Turning to something else that calls me, that enriches me.

My problems with my AD Angie leveled me to the ground in the beginning. I took it on myself as if that were my calling. And I felt good about myself in the process because I was trying to fix a terrible problem. But what distinguished my behavior from prayer was that it was all about me. Far from turning to someone or something else, my obsession about saving my daughter was grounded in misplaced guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and stubborn will. I was addicted to my daughter.

I’m grateful I found a recovery program for parents of addicts that was compassionate and useful. I wasn’t helping myself or my daughter by blaming myself for an illness I didn’t cause. I needed to let go of behaviors toward her that weren’t helping. Though I’m always ready to help Angie when she asks for help, I’ve moved on.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know one thing for certain: I deserve to enjoy what’s left of my life. I don’t want addiction and its wreckage to claim two victims in my immediate family.

 

 

 

 

Enough

“Enough is enough when the hurt inflicted is greater than the lesson learned.”

 

I felt that because I was Angie’s mother, I just had to put up with things. But underneath that martyred attitude was a shaky self-esteem that whispered to me, “This is what you deserve. It’s your fault.”

When I recognized the truth of that, I became willing to take up the yoke and start working on myself. After many years of working the steps and arriving at a place of self-love, I no longer hear those voices.

I’ve gotten my life back, and concentrate on what I can control in my life. I give thanks, multitudes of thanks, for what I’ve been given. This year on Mother’s Day, I’m able to celebrate myself. And I’m grateful to Angie for getting me into recovery.

God Bless Us, Mamas. We do the best we can!

Guilt, The Most Crippling Emotion

A Memoir of Recovery

“The ride (to rehab) was quiet. Xavier played a lot of tapes so we wouldn’t be able to talk much. And what could we say? All I could think was that Angie would snap out of this. She would get it right away; I was sure of it. How could this be happening anyway? I was certain I had been dreaming and would wake up from this nightmare. This sort of thing happens to other people’s children, I assured myself.

Angie was a Foreign Service brat.  She was born in South America and moved easily from country to country, or so it seemed.  When we lived in Greece, she competed in England with the gymnastics team. When we lived in Rome, a scout picked her to be in a movie. She was a shining star, and her outward accomplishments duped me into thinking she had a bright future. Oh boy, was I ready to take the credit! Ten years later, when she was twenty-one, I was completely unprepared when she started tumbling into the hell of drug addiction. I should have, but I didn’t see it coming. Oh boy, was I ready to take the blame.” excerpt from my award-winning memoir, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero.

 

It has taken me sixteen years of 12-Step recovery to relieve myself of the guilt that acted as a roadblock not only in my own recovery but, so very tragically, in Angie’s. Guilt kept me pandering to her needs and enabling her at every turn. It put at risk all the healthy boundaries all parents need when dealing with this disease. My guilt and shame prevented her from facing the logical consequences of her behavior. Now she’s on her own in San Francisco, completely estranged from her family for almost six years. I pray she finds the motivation to reach for recovery as so many addicts do. Miracles happen every day. I know that inside the addict my daughter still lives, and I have hope that she’ll return to her family someday. I will always keep my hope alive and a warm place in my heart for Angie.

 

Embracing Our Freedom

From Each Day A New Beginning, April 1:

“‘It is only when people begin to shake loose from their preconceptions, from the ideas that have dominated them, that we begin to receive a sense of opening, a sense of vision.’ ~Barbara Ward

…The past that we hang onto stands in our way. Many of us needlessly spend much of our lives fighting a poor self-image. But we can overcome that. W can choose to believe that we are capable and confident. We can be spontaneous, and our vision of all that life can offer will change—will excite us, will cultivate our confidence…We can respond to life wholly. We can trust our instincts. And we will become all that we dare to become…Each day is a new beginning. Each moment is a new opportunity to let go of all that has trapped me in the past. I am free. In the present, I am free.”

I’m not on automatic pilot anymore. My step work has helped me know myself better, be accountable for my actions, make amends when necessary, and move on. That last one is critical: moving on. When I get stuck on something, my sponsor in the program helps me shake free of it. Get unglued. Life is too short to bury myself in the past that I can’t do anything about anyway. And tomorrow? Well, I could get hit by a car!

If I make an effort to stay in today, I have an opportunity to make “cleaner” choices and live better. At my age, that matters a lot to me. The three A’s are an important tool: Awareness, Acceptance and Action. I choose to act differently now. I have the freedom to choose.

I’m not in a coma…I’m an actor in my own script—not someone else’s. I feel tremendously empowered by this, taking control of my own life. Awareness has been a key in maintaining my emotional sobriety. And that awareness is reinforced all the time by the mirrors that surround us.

As a friend says when she shares at meetings, “Thank you for my recovery.”