My friend from my old Tuesday night Al-Anon meeting in Virginia sent me an email. He said he had just read my book and took it to his son to read who is serving a six-month sentence in jail. Justin was so moved by the book that he has decided to write his own story. I am thrilled to have been a source of inspiration for him, because just the act of writing my story has been healing for me. Likewise, it could prove to be the catharsis Justin needs to finally face his demons and walk away from drugs.
David Sheff’s (Beautiful Boy, Clean) son, Nick, a meth addict, wrote his own story, Tweak, which was very successful.
We all have a story to tell. And even though we’re not best-selling authors, our stories have value especially to those of us walking down the painful road of substance use disorder. I hope Justin and many other substance abusers out there write their stories. More of us need to get our stories onto Amazon. The shame and stigma of this cruel disease will fade in time if we all come out of the shadows and tell our truths.
A mother wrote me recently: “Your memoir has released me from my shame. Reading your recovery story has shown me how, in spite of everything bad that’s happening now, I can get on with my life and learn to be whole and happy again. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
My story takes you through my recovery from addiction and the effects of living with it. But it didn’t start out that way. I began it several years ago solely as a story about my daughter’s substance use disorder. And as I got deeper into the writing of it I realized that there was much more of a story to tell, and that that story began with me in my childhood.
And so I began the excavation process, the unfolding of my life, and laid myself out before the reader in the Introduction. Annie didn’t get sick in a vacuum. She is the latest in at least four generations of troubled souls. So I allow you, the reader, to get to know me long before my daughter was hijacked by this cruel disease. It adds another dimension to my very personal story, and allows you to consider that addiction is often a generational illness. And you will see why it is, indeed, “A Mother’s Story.”
Ironically it was my daughter whose disease brought me to a place of wellness and peace in my life. All the ugliness of behavior and spirit that often goes with unbridled substance use disorder is documented in the book, as addiction is a monster that takes few prisoners. Yet Annie was a beautiful young woman with her whole life ahead of her before this disease seduced her. Her tapestry described in the book reminds us that beauty is often born out of loss.
This is a story about my recovery in the face of all this heartbreak. How I’ve been able to accomplish this is a testimony to the power of spiritual transformation. And so, paralleling the roller coaster ride of her illness, I share with the reader throughout the book my evolving recovery and my journey toward serenity.
This journey has freed my children from the same oppression that held me hostage growing up. Many people who have suffered through the darkness of substance use disorder are consumed by despair. But as I continue to grow and change, my loved ones are the beneficiaries. Perhaps some elements of my story will resonate with you as well.
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. There were 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—a murky place— 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 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.
It’s important for families to communicate well, especially where illnesses are involved. We didn’t talk much in my family, especially about the elephant in the living room, my father’s alcoholism. In those days there was so much shame and stigma, and it was swept under the rug.
Not a healthy way to deal. I always knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what. Many children are naturally egocentric, and I thought everything was my fault. I internalized all of the dysfunction and blamed myself. So that’s how I proceeded through life, feeling guilty for what was not my responsibility.
If I had been told what was going on—even later on when I could handle it— I would have gotten a healthier perspective on my family and my place in it. And I would have let go of the guilt, which wasn’t mine to carry.
Talk to your kids, no matter what. It might not change what’s going on, but it might provide a smoother landing pad for your kids later on in their lives. “Knowledge is power.”
Deborah Meier said in her book, The Power of Their Ideas, “Teaching is mostly listening, and learning is mostly telling.”
I love this because as a former teacher I used to have it turned all around. I got better, fortunately, but then I retired. Now I’m an author and what I’ve learned about myself by writing has filled three books.
I speak a lot, telling my story, mostly at recovery meetings. And when I’m not speaking to other people, I’m speaking to a piece of paper—many pieces of paper. It’s my therapy. It’s how I learn about myself.
It’s a constant practice of self-discovery, this discipline of pen to paper. I cross out, revise, change my mind, rephrase things. All this writing and rewriting helps me clarify my thoughts, my understanding of what’s real to me: what’s authentic. It’s how I learn about myself.
How I’m learning.
It’s an ongoing process.
I find that as I keep growing and changing my writing reflects that as well. There’s nothing static about me or about my writing.
And just as the words flow out of my pen onto paper, my recovery continues to flow from my heart to those around me. It’s a real symbiosis, this relationship I have with my pen. It eases the words out of me so that I can share what I’ve learned with others.
The rare epiphany I experience is like a volcanic eruption. I had one recently, and writing and rewriting about that has taught me so much about its meaning. But mostly I’m just going with the flow of life, trying to pay attention with what’s going on with me.
So I continue to do public speaking, which is a tremendous learning experience. And the more I write—the more I speak on paper—the more I learn about who I am and who I’m becoming.
“Learn to love someone even when they are unlovable.”
Substance use disorder is commonly accepted now as a brain disease. This pronouncement by the American Medical Association causes some confusion because the overuse of substances can cause such unacceptable behavior. It’s difficult to recognize, much less accept, that our loved ones aren’t always making conscious choices. They are under the control of a bewildering array of drugs which influence them. My daughter, when she is on drugs, has not even resembled the daughter I raised. She has been angry, combative, and much worse. Her moral compass has flown out the window. I have often felt the need to distance myself from her for my own protection. This is just terrible and so counterintuitive. We want to protect our children from their disastrous choices. But I paid a heavy price by putting myself in the line of her fire. I learned the hard way that I don’t have the power to save her from the life she is living. But I do have the power to save myself.
Twelve-step recovery is not for everyone; I get that. But it has worked for me. One of the reasons it has worked for me is because an important part of the step work involves self-reflection. It involves looking at myself in the mirror and getting to know myself, warts and all. It involves self-forgiveness, forgiveness of others and letting go of resentments. These are just words, but in fact, they are difficult actions to take. Some resentments that we’ve been nursing our whole lives are nearly impossible to let go of. But I have learned that they will eat away at me, like acid, if I don’t. So it’s worth the effort to let them go. As I have learned to shed much of the negativity in my life, I’m learning to like myself better and be comfortable in my own skin. It’s a slow process—I’ve been at it for twenty years!—but it has worked to help me love myself more and feel worthy of happiness.
So how has that improved relationship with myself affected my relationship with my daughter? To be honest, not much at all. She’s on her own path, one that I cannot support or enable. But what it has done is allow me to endure the distance between us without guilt or obsession. What it has done is convince me that I did the best I could with what I had to raise her, and pat myself on the back for that. The sad reality is that she got tagged with an illness that is destroying millions out there. It’s a cruel illness because it often kills our children (their minds, their spirit, their morality) before it actually kills them. Knowing now what I know about substance use disorder, I don’t beat myself up with remorse and an overinflated sense of responsibility. I will always love her unconditionally, no matter what. The door is not closed; it remains open for her to embrace recovery and come back to her family. That will never change.
In the meantime, my recovery is enabling me to bridge the gap between what I’ve lost and what’s left. I have two other children, beautiful grandchildren, a loving partner, siblings and many friends who remind me what a gift it is just to be alive.
Jenny Jerome Churchill said it best: “Life is not always what one wants it to be. But to make the best of it as it is, is the only way of being happy.”
“’It’s odd that you can get so anesthetized by your own pain or your own problem that you don’t quite fully share the hell of someone close to you.’ ~Lady Bird Johnson
Preoccupation with self can be the bane of our existence. It prevents all but the narrowest perspective on any problem. It cuts off any guidance…that may be offered through a friend…When we open our minds to fresh input from others, insights emerge. We need the messages others are trying to give us.”
An end to my isolation. Opening my mind and heart to what others offer me.
For many years, I closed myself off from these offerings. I was busy with my life, self-sufficient…but unhappy. I was pretty bewildered about that—yet resigned to it.
Then—for the worst possible reason—I joined a recovery program that provided tools to help me climb out of my self-imposed misery. There are many new attitudes that I have adopted over time. But the most critical, I think, has been taking the risk to open myself to others and learn about myself using others’ perspectives to add balance to my own.
I’m not afraid of mirrors anymore.
I’ve had to let go of years of denial and preconceived notions about myself. I’ve had to learn how to be honest. And in doing that, I have discovered my own humanity. I am not unique, but part of a fellowship of equals who share a common bond.
No longer alone or lonely, I’m learning how to accept life on life’s terms…and be happy.
“‘One has to grow up with good talk in order to form the habit of it.’ ~Helen Hayes
Our habits, whatever they may be, were greatly influenced, if not wholly formed, during childhood. We learned our behavior through imitation, imitation of our parents, our siblings, our peer group. But we need not be stuck in habits that are unhealthy. The choice to create new patterns of behavior is ours to make…We can find strength from the program and one another to let go of the behavior that stands in the way of today’s happiness. And we can find in one another a better, healthier behavior to imitate…I am growing up again amidst the good habits of others, and myself.”
I often say that I grew up in the rooms as well. I’m over seventy years old, so that’s a lot of years to look at and take inventory. But I’ve learned to “look back without staring.” Not to obsess about things that are over, that I can’t change now. To let go of what’s past and focus on what’s right in front of me.
The tools I’ve picked up in my recovery program have been essential for guiding me into new ways of behaving—“acting my way into right thinking.” And doing things differently now—whether it’s eating right, power walking, not drinking alcohol, or remembering to tell people I love them every day—are changing the way I think. And this, in turn, has the effect of elevating me—moving me away from old negative patterns that kept getting in my way.