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.

“Let Go And Let God”

From Courage to Change, Conference Approved Literature, December 8:

“The image of an avalanche helps me to give the drinking alcoholic (or addict) in my life the dignity to make her own decisions. It is as though her actions are forming a mountain of alcohol-related troubles. A mound of snow cannot indefinitely grow taller without tumbling down; neither can the alcoholic’s mountain of problems.

Al-Anon has helped me to refrain from throwing myself in front of the alcoholic to protect her, or from working feverishly to add to the mountain in order to speed its downward slide. I am powerless over her drinking and her pain. The most helpful course of action is for me to stay out of the way!

If the avalanche hits the alcoholic, it must be the result of her own actions. I’ll do my best to allow God to care for her, even when painful consequences of her choices hit full force. That way I won’t get in the way of her chance to want a better life.

Today’s reminder: I will take care to avoid building an avalanche of my own. Am I heaping up resentments, excuses, and regrets that have the potential to destroy me? I don’t have to be buried under them before I address my own problems. I can begin today.”

‘The suffering you are trying to ease…may be the very thing needed to bring the alcoholic to a realization of the seriousness of the situation—literally a blessing in disguise.’ (From “So You Love An Alcoholic”)

I wish I had been able to do this fifteen years ago. But we get there when we get there. It’s never too late to start over, whether we’re a using addict or the enabler of one. I say this with kindness and a deep compassion for myself. I truly believe that we all do the best we can with what we’ve got at any given moment.

Two-Stepping The Twelve-Step

Excerpted from my memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation:

 “’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.”

The Domino Effect

From Each Day a New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, May 22:

“’The change of one simple behavior can change other behaviors and thus change many things.’ ~Jean Baer

Our behavior tells others, and ourselves, who we are. Frequently, we find ourselves behaving in ways that keep us stuck. Or we may feel deep shame for our behavior in a certain instance. Our behavior will never totally please us. But deciding we want to change some behavior and using the program to help us, is a first step.”

Change is hard. The older we get, perhaps, the harder it gets. Our years—our habits—can trap us. I’ve been trapped by my own worst defects: “I’m gonna be fine;” “I can handle it on my own;” “I don’t need any help, thank you very much.”

Trying to figure out the why’s of things over the years didn’t help me. That question just kept me stuck. And it kept me from taking responsibility for my own problems. So the suffering continued. Until I learned how to put out fires.

When I’m in the middle of a fire in the woods, I don’t wonder who started it. If I am to survive, I just need to learn how to douse it.

I’ve been challenged by depression for much of my life, but nothing could have prepared me for losing my daughter Annie to the living death of heroin addiction. That was the major conflagration in my life, and I wasn’t fighting it effectively. I made it so much about me and my misplaced guilt that I often used poor judgment in an effort to help her. When I saw that nothing was working, I felt broken. And at my bottom, that’s when I found the courage to change.

Letting go of my feverish attempts to motivate Annie to seek recovery, and my wish to control events, freed me of the painful circumstances that were claiming my peace of mind. Letting go—so counterintuitive when it’s your child—was one of the first steps I needed to take—and accept what I could not change. That was the hardest: knowing that I had no power to change her. But I did and do have the power to change myself, my reactions, and my attitudes.

At some point along the way, we might find ourselves in a fire we need to put out. I learned that I needed to change before I could be truly happy with my life. I needed to pay attention to what was happening in my own hula hoop. Looking outside of myself for answers only distracted me; it did not help me put out the fire.

“One small change today, a smile at the first person I meet, will help me chart a new course.”

Second Chances

From Courage to Change, Al-Anon conferenced approved literature, May 30:

“As a result of living in a household where alcohol was abused, the concept of being gentle with myself was foreign. What was familiar was striving for perfection and hating myself whenever I fell short of my goals…If I am being hard on myself, I can stop and remember that I deserve gentleness and understanding from myself. Being human is not a character defect!

‘The question is not what a man can scorn, or disparage, or find fault with, but what he can love, and value, and appreciate.’ ~John Ruskin”

We pass on what was given to us. And so the three A’s—awareness, acceptance, and action—have helped me see clearly what I’ve needed to change about myself and, by extension,  others.

As I have learned in recovery to love myself more and to treat myself with kindness, I have passed that on to family and friends all around me.

So often as adults we appear to be on automatic pilot, behaving in ways that make us cringe afterwards. Our caretakers were often our role models, and we learned how to parent from them. No one’s life is perfect, and few people have perfect parents. But however we fared growing up, the beauty of recovery is that we get to do things over—with more gentleness and compassion for ourselves as well as our caretakers. Especially those we learned from. We can do things differently now if we want to. These are “living amends.”

“We have two lives… the life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” ~Bernard Malamud

Cracks In The Wall

“We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.”

There were a few cracks I didn’t see, especially in my children. Growing up I was not perfect and was shamed often because of it. Early in my daughter’s illness, I was mortified, ashamed and in denial about what was going on. It took me a long time to free myself of the shame and guilt. Unfortunately, though, a few others heap it back onto me if I let them.

I don’t.

This is why my recovery fellowship is so vital to my well-being. Guilt has no place in my life anymore. But love does. We can’t save our children if they don’t want to be saved. All we can do is love them. And as hard as this has been, surviving Angie’s illness is how I have chosen to honor her.

Here’s an excerpt from my award-winning memoir, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, written under a pen name, Maggie C. Romero:

“We can’t go back and do things over.  And I’m only human. I sometimes ask myself what I did wrong or what I missed seeing. Then I remember that addiction is a disease: ‘I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.’ And like a gentle breeze blowing away the clutter of remorse, I let go of those thoughts and embrace my life again, free of responsibility.

 In any case, whatever she chose to do now, I needed to leave her alone to do it. I knew better than to scream and wail in the night to God and all the graces that protected the innocent to save my daughter. Whatever the roots of addiction are, whatever holes were missing in her that this opportunistic disease filled in, I didn’t have the power to combat them. And I just had to let go of the struggle, or I would disappear down that rabbit hole with her.”

Keeping An Open Mind

From Each Day A New Beginning, September 13:

“’Nobody told me how hard and lonely change is’ ~Joan Gilbertson

…Honest self-appraisal may well call for change, a change in attitude perhaps, a change in specific behavior in some instances, or maybe a change in direction…(But) We find some comfort in our pain because at least it holds no surprises…Courage to change accompanies faith. My fears are telling me to look within to the spiritual source of strength, ever present but often forgotten.”

When I joined my recovery fellowship, my focus was firmly on my daughter. She had a life-threatening disorder, and I wanted to help her. So I helped. And I helped. And I helped…I had the best of intentions, but I needed to step back and reflect upon what, besides protecting her, was motivating me. My fear was getting in the way.

I needed to get help so that I could manage the situation better. It took me a long time to realize and accept that I was making a bad situation much worse. And this was happening because of my own unrecognized problems. Once I saw them and how they affected, not just my relationship with Annie, but with other important people, I found the willingness to work on myself and improve my relationships with others.

One day at a time, I’m still trying. I’m far from perfect, but I’m trying to be my best self. At the end of the day, that’s the only self I can control.

“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.