Boundaries and Self-Regard

“If you bring me peace then you get more of my time. Simple.”

I read this online a few months ago and I’m so struck by the message, the tone, the unapologetic boundary setting. How many of us can say this to our loved one, whether it’s our child or our third cousin? This is a hard one for me. It puts my own needs first. And good self-care is something I’ve learned late in my life.

Early on in Annie’s disease, I allowed myself to be a battering ram. She was very abusive to me. Now I know that it was the drugs talking. (“What we allow will continue.”) But I was stunned, ashamed and feeling overly responsible at the time. I thought I deserved her wish to punish me (#martyrdom).

What a relief to finally reach a place where I feel worthy of some peace and joy. This has come after several years of working on myself and changing some self-defeating attitudes. Going into reverse, I’m no longer ashamed, and I know I’m not responsible. May we all reach a place where we can deal effectively and intelligently with this baffling disease. And not be destroyed by it. God Bless!

Enough

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

 I felt that, because I was Annie’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 Annie for getting me into recovery.

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

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.

“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.