A simple message, but not easy to execute. I do this, not because it comes naturally to me (it doesn’t), but because my experience has shown me over and over again that self-flagellation just keeps me down and out—stuck in a bad place and unable to reach higher. So many years of that negativity and I started to feel that it was my destiny.
Then I was introduced to a recovery movement that changed my life. And it began with what was between my ears.
At what point do we feel restored and able to get up and join the living with confidence and hope for a better life? We are all different and reach that point at different times. I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired. The student was finally ready for the teacher. May we all rise up and reclaim our own wellness.
Pat yourself on the back often. Because you’re worth it!
“Detachment is not detaching from the person or thing whom we care about or feel obsessed with. Detachment is detaching from the agony of involvement.”
Boundaries…boundaries…boundaries. Where do I end and the other person begins? A strong sense of self enables me to set clear limits with others. I was terribly enmeshed in my daughter’s life; I had never separated from her in a healthy way. Because we were so alike, I identified with her and felt overly responsible for her troubles. Her problems became my problems, and it never occurred to me to let her face her own responsibilities, both for her betterment and my own. Four rehabs started the healthy process of accountability. Then four relapses reversed much of that work. But I still hope that some of what she learned is still with her.
Thankfully my work in recovery has helped me face myself in the mirror and make some important changes. I made the necessary separation, first of all, from my daughter. I detached—with great difficulty. I no longer feel the “agony of involvement” because I’ve let go of her illness and the consequences of her substance use. I can’t save her from herself. I can only love her and be here for her should she choose to walk with me in recovery. This is how I make living amends to my children and others in my life: by living well myself and hoping it inspires them to do the same.
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.”
It’s great to be a giver, a person who thinks of others and can put others first. That’s a beautiful thing. But when my giving compromises my values, drains me, or defeats my purpose, then I need to question my motives.
My guilt crippled me very badly, and in “giving” to my daughter—over and over—I was making a deal with the devil. It backfired badly. And I learned a valuable lesson: work through my guilt first—or it will control me and put my relationship with her at risk.
“They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm.” ~Dorothy Parker
Do I see myself here? Somewhat, if I’m honest, as cynical as that quote is. Maybe in the beginning I was addicted to the drama of Annie’s substance use disorder. That—and all the martyrdom I subjected myself to. But this did not bring me happiness. There are a number of ways, I have learned, to stay involved with an addicted child—ways that might have helped us both navigate this illness better. But for a long time I was stuck and didn’t know how to free myself of the downward spiral.
Over time, my obsession broke me down and wore me out. I do enjoy the peace in my life now, though I still experience some PTSD. So many years, it seems, of struggling to help her, and then for both our sakes, letting go of the struggle to save her. Addressing once and for all my own substance use—so that my presence could benefit my other loved ones. Don’t think for a moment that I don’t feel the pain of losing Annie. I do. The trauma of losing a child, to whatever illness, never goes away. But, in my experience, it isn’t so heavy to carry. It feels lighter now. Hang in there, Moms. Many things are resolved with better education and the passage of time. Keep loving yourselves and the world around you. Love is the great healer of all things!
“Loving, like prayer, is a power as well as a process. It’s curative. It is creative.” ~Zona Gale
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.
“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 a substance user, I was focused completely on my daughter Annie and her problems. In the beginning of her illness, 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 use played a big role in my reactions. Whoever said “Blame is for God and small children” forgot about me. I thought Annie’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 substance users 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.
I’m a mother. When my kids were little, it was my job to keep them safe from harm. If they ran across the street with a car coming, I might have spanked them a little so they’d remember to look both ways next time. Yes: pain; yes: consequences. Yes: both good teachers.
But when Annie was twenty-one and started making terrible choices, I still thought it was my job to protect her from harm, self-inflicted or otherwise. And I still treated her like a two-year-old.
When she first stole from me early on, I went into a long period of denial and guilt, minimizing my feelings and believing her incredible explanations. My inaction only emboldened her, and she went on to steal in other ways. Several times, she stole my identity, with no explanations. So even when it was clear to me that her behavior was unacceptable, I still behaved inappropriately: I did nothing. Even when the credit card company told me to do something—that it would be a lesson for her—I still did nothing.
Where was the smack on the rear she would have gotten from running across the street? Where were the consequences that would have reminded her to be careful? I presented Annie with no consequences in the beginning of her illness and so she learned nothing. Her progressive illness got much worse. My guilt was crippling me as an effective parent.
Not until I started working my own program of recovery was I able to release myself from the hold that was strangling us both. I needed to get out of my daughter’s way. She wasn’t two anymore.
I’ve made a lot of progress since those early days. I’ve learned to let go and leave Annie to the life she has chosen. Four rehabs helped her turn her life around for a while, but she always slipped back into her substance use disorder and the life that goes with it. But staying out of the way has given me the freedom to take back my life and learn to live well by focusing on something else. It has also given Annie the freedom to take responsibility for her own life and hopefully her own recovery. If she reaches for it again, and I pray she will, how much more rewarding it will be for her to find her own way!