A Mother’s Story

In this month that celebrates mothers, I’d like to celebrate a memory of my daughter, Annie (Angie in this book). She was just 22 when she made this tapestry for me after her first rehab. She was always interested in Oriental art and designs. I think the simplicity fascinated her.

For a long time I couldn’t look at it. In my early recovery, I was still wedded to the “If onlys.” But over time, I’ve learned to let go of “might have beens” and accept what is.

I hang the tapestry proudly on my wall now. It’s one of many of my happy memories of her. I had twenty-one years with her as my daughter before substance use disorder hijacked and transformed her.

I’m grateful for the good years I had with my daughter.

I love her.

Memoir Excerpt:

“When Angie came out of that first rehab, she made me the most beautiful gift.

‘Mom, I’m not quite finished with it. I just have a few more flowers to cut. You’ll need to find a 17-by-22-inch frame to mount it on. Sorry it’s such an odd size. Guess I wasn’t thinking. I copied it from one of my Chinese art books. I hope you like it!’

Right now it’s hanging in my room for me to see. Over the years I’ve taken it on and off the wall, hidden it in a closet, too painful for me to look at. Maybe it’s a sign of my recovery. Now I can leave it on the wall, look at it, and appreciate all the work she put into it. This was her way, I believe, of telling me she loved me and she was sorry, not for getting sick, but for what that sickness drove her to do to me. She never, ever, was able to express her feelings easily with words.  So she showed me, in countless ways, as she did once in December 1993.

“Where the hell is that $300 I put away for safekeeping? If you kids want any Christmas presents, you’d better help me find it now,” I shouted, panicking at the thought of losing my hard-earned cash. I was so scattered sometimes. I was perfectly capable of misplacing it.

“Found it, Mom! Don’t you remember when you hid it in this book? Well, here it is. Aren’t you glad I’m as honest as I am?”

“Yes, Angie, my darlin’ girl, I am. And thank you!”

Years are passing by, and sometimes it’s hard to remember her as she was. But when I look at the tapestry she made, I remember:

Angie had a fascination for all things Asian—Chinese, Japanese, it didn’t matter. She loved the grace and flow of much of the artwork. She copied a simple series of flowers. But she did it not with paint or pencil or pen; she cut out every pistil, not completely detailed, a few sepals in place, the rest scattered, all the ovaries in different colors for contrast, every leaf, in varying sizes and colors, every stem, and glued it all together on a piece of gold cloth. It looked just like the picture in her book. 

I treasure this gift she made. The tapestry is twelve years old, and sometimes a petal comes unglued and I have to put it back on. I should put it under glass to preserve it. I wish we could put our children under glass—to keep them safe.

 I would soon discover, though, that no matter what I did for Angie it would never be enough to protect her from the illness that was consuming her.”

From A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (pen name) (Amazon)

“Is It Working For You?”

From “The Forum,” June, 2015:

“The Suggested Preamble to the Twelve Steps have been the most helpful in my recovery: ‘We believe alcoholism is a family illness and that changed attitudes can aid recovery.’ That is to say, it is our attitudes, not our situation, that cause our unhappiness.
When I first came to Al-Anon, and heard these words being read, it was like listening to a foreign language that I did not speak. It was beyond my comprehension that I could find peace and happiness through a change in my own attitude. As I heard these words being read week after week and meeting upon meeting, I resisted the suggestion that I could find peace and contentment if I would become willing to change the attitudes that kept me a prisoner of pain and suffering.
First of all, I didn’t know that I had any particular attitude. My thinking made perfect sense to me. There was nothing wrong with my attitude. I didn’t even understand what my attitude was. Slowly, as I listened in meetings and began working the Steps with my Sponsor, my attitude did begin to change. I was not consciously aware of the change, but I did recognize that my life was less stressful and I was finding periods of happiness and serenity.
One night, a few years into the program, it hit me. I was leading a meeting and as I read the Suggested Preamble to the Twelve Steps, these words ‘…changed attitudes can aid recovery’ struck me. I wanted to laugh out loud and say, ‘Duh…do you think?’ It was so completely clear to me. I got it. I really got it!
Although up to that point, I had changed in many ways, I really believe that this singular, amazing, and powerful moment of clarity was the turning point in my recovery. Reflecting on that moment and remembering the words ‘changed attitudes can aid recovery’ during personal struggles and moments of frustration, kept me willing to continue my journey of self-discovery and brought me a spiritual awakening I would never have thought possible.”

Beautifully spoken by Paula W. of Arizona. I can’t really add much to that, except something my sponsor told me to always ask myself when complaining about a situation that I find myself in: “Is it working for you?” I should always ask myself, and if it’s not, what can I do to change it? Often, it’s a change in my own behavior, but when that proves fruitless then sometimes a change in attitude is all I need to get a good night’s sleep. Is it a problem I have any control over? No? Then let go and let God. Go to sleep. Maybe other solutions will present themselves tomorrow. But for now, give yourself a good night’s rest—because you’re worth it.

Who’s Responsible?

From Susan Packer Swafford 

“My mom did not sleep. She felt exhausted. She was irritable, grumpy, and bitter. She was always sick until one day, suddenly, she changed.

One day my dad said to her:

– I’ve been looking for a job for three months and I haven’t found anything, I’m going to have a few beers with friends.

My mom replied:

– It’s okay.

My brother said to her:

– Mom, I’m doing poorly in all subjects at the University.

My mom replied:

– Okay, you will recover, and if you don’t, well, you repeat the semester, but you pay the tuition.

My sister said to her:

– Mom, I smashed the car.

My mom replied:

– Okay daughter, take it to the car shop & find how to pay and while they fix it, get around by bus or subway.

Her daughter-in-law said to her:

– Mother-in-law, I came to spend a few months with you.

My mom replied:

– Okay, settle in the living room couch and look for some blankets in the closet.

All of us gathered worried to see these reactions coming from Mom.

We suspected that she had gone to the doctor and that she was prescribed some pills called “I don’t give a damn”… Perhaps she was overdosing on these!

We then proposed to do an “intervention” w/my mother to remove her from any possible addiction she had towards some anti-tantrum medication.

But then … she gathered us around her and my mom explained:

“It took me a long time to realize that each person is responsible for their life. It took me years to discover that my anguish, anxiety, my depression, my courage, my insomnia & my stress, does not solve your problems, but aggravates mine.

I am not responsible for the actions of anyone & it’s not my job to provide happiness, but I am responsible for the reactions I express to that.

Therefore, I came to the conclusion that my duty to myself is to remain calm and let each one of you solve what corresponds to you.

I have taken courses in yoga, meditation, miracles, human development, mental hygiene, vibration and neurolinguistic programming and in all of them, I found a common denominator in them all…

I can only control myself, you have all the necessary resources to solve your own problems despite how hard they may be. My job is to pray for you, love on you, encourage you but it’s up to YOU to solve them & find your happiness.

I can only give you my advice if you ask me & it depends on you to follow it or not. There are consequences, good or bad, to your decisions and YOU have to live them.

So from now on, I cease to be the receptacle of your responsibilities, the sack of your guilt, the laundress of your remorse, the advocate of your faults, the wall of your lamentations, the depositary of your duties, who should solve your problems or spare a tire every time to fulfill your responsibilities.

From now on, I declare all independent and self-sufficient adults.

Everyone at my mom’s house was speechless.

From that day on, the family began to function better because everyone in the house knew exactly what it is that they needed to do.

For some of us this is hard because we’ve grown up being the caregivers feeling responsible for others. As moms & wives we are fixers off all things. We never want our loved ones to go through difficult things or to struggle. We want everyone to be happy.

But, the sooner we take that responsibility off of our shoulders & on to each loved one, the better we are preparing them to be MEsponsible.

We are not here on earth to be everything to everyone. Stop putting that pressure on yourself.”

As I’ve grown in recovery, I’ve grown in humility, too. My friends, I’m just not that important!!! God Bless all our children as they make their way in life. Whether we want to or not, we must do the same.

Fear vs. Faith

From Each Day A New Beginning, April 4:

“All we are asked to bear we can bear. That is the law of the spiritual life. The only hindrance to the working of this law, as of all benign laws, is fear.” ~Elizabeth Goudge

I’ve read that fear and anxiety are at the basis for many substance use disorders. I can’t speak for all of them, or for everyone, but I can speak for myself. Fear precipitated much of my self-destructive behavior. Fear of being “less than,” fear of criticism and disapproval, fear of not belonging, fear of failure, and fear of retribution.

And it was fear that kept me obsessed with my daughter’s choices. Fear for her well-being—and for mine. That fear kept me enmeshed in her life and her choices, thinking I was always riding to her rescue when I was doing nothing of the kind; shielding her from consequences just kept her from learning and growing. I needed to think that I had the power to save her.

Letting go of my obsession and fear—replacing them both with faith—has brought peace into my life. Now I’m better educated about the disease of substance use disorder; I’m learning what I can do and what I can’t do. How can I be helpful? And what must I surrender? All good questions and the answers are coming to me through my 12-Step work.

There are many paths to peace, and I respect them all. I’m just grateful that the path I have chosen has delivered me from a lifetime of fear and isolation and closer to the God of my understanding. No matter what happens in my life, I believe all will be well, according to God’s plan.

Surrender

“The Journey” ~Mary Oliver
 
“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.”  

How eloquently she describes the convergence of conflict with awareness and resolution in our lives. As “the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds,” my world became brighter and more light-filled. As I shed the depression that used to be my constant companion, I embraced the idea that I could be as happy as I made up my mind to be.

The rest, as they say, is up to me!    

Letting Go

This poem addresses the idea of letting go, as opposed to clinging to, much of the negativity in my life—much of what used to weigh on me and drag me down into depression.

Detachment is a skill that allows me to create a safe distance between myself and my daughter. I have learned that if I don’t, I will be swallowed up in her black hole before I know it. As a parent, I’ve often felt that I didn’t deserve the gift of detachment. But I do. I did the best I could with what I knew at the time. I’ve learned to forgive myself for any mistakes I made with my daughter. It took a long time, but this was an important step in my recovery. Until I did that, I risked being forever enmeshed in her pain and the mess of her life as it is now.

Once I could reach some level of detachment, I was freer to work the steps. In hindsight, I see now why I couldn’t really do the first three steps in a more timely manner. I simply had not let go of my responsibility in her life, my importance in her life, and therefore my need to fix her life.

I needed to be humbled—in the best sense of the word.

I took Step One.

Transforming My Grief

“Living well is the best revenge.” ~George Herbert

I’ve received many emails from moms asking me how I cope with the living death of Annie’s substance use disorder. Many of my friends here know the hellish limbo I’m living in, without any resolution or closure. But I have found a way to cope better and move on with my life. This is what I tell them:

“I put my sadness in a back drawer and close it. Then I look at what’s in my front drawers every morning. I have so many wonderful things to be grateful for. Instead of focusing on my problems, I try to keep my mind on the solutions. This is how I live. It keeps me humble, grateful, and glad to be alive. I will never forget that Annie was once a beautiful, creative young woman. I honor her memory in this way, and I truly believe she would want me to live well and be happy. In this month of love, I celebrate my daughter with happy memories, hopes for her future, and confident in mine.”

Accepting The Unacceptable

From Each Day Is A New Beginning, January 6:

“’There are as many ways to live and grow as there are people. Our own ways are the only ways that should matter to us.’ ~Evelyn Mandel

Wanting to control other people, to make them live as we’d have them live, makes the attainment of serenity impossible. And serenity is the goal we are seeking in this recovery program, in this life. We are each powerless over others, which relieves us of a great burden. Controlling our own behavior is a big enough job.”

I justified my behavior for years. I wanted to control my daughter’s life. No, I wanted to change it. What mother wouldn’t, when she saw her child heading towards a cliff? Annie was a runaway train.

But the more I tried, the sicker I got with anguish and frustration as I saw her careening toward disaster. I knew that if I didn’t get off that fast-moving train, I would go down with her.

I was at a crossroads. I had to dry my tears and wake up to the reality that my grown daughter was in charge of her own life. Well, truthfully, substance use disorder was in charge, but either way, I wasn’t part of the equation anymore.  I had to step back and accept the unacceptable: that she might become another sad statistic.

This journey that so many parents are on is short for some: either in death or an enlightenment that brings their kids to recovery. Others of us have been on this road a long time: loving our broken children just as we did when they were little with a broken finger. We wanted to take their pain away. We still want to, hoping and praying that they will find enlightenment and grace. 

But the longer I’m on this seemingly endless journey, the stronger I grow in my faith that all things happen for a reason, and that I must put my faith in my Higher Power. As I wrote in A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, “How I’ve been able to even think about my own recovery, much less reach for it—on the bones of my daughter—is a testimony to the power of transformation through spiritual recovery.  And only as my recovery deepens have I been able to withstand this struggle with any serenity or grace.”

Oh My, How Hard It Is To Change!

Oh My, How Hard It Is To Change!

From Each Day A New Beginning, January 8:

“’When people make changes in their lives in a certain area, they may start by changing the way they talk about that subject, how they act about it, their attitude toward it, or an underlying decision concerning it.’ ~Joan Illsley Clarke

…Each positive change we make builds our self-esteem. Realizing that through our own actions we are becoming the kind of women (and men) we admire, gives us the strength, in fact, encourages the excitement in us that’s needed to keep changing…

I will accept an opportunity today to act as if I can handle a situation I used to run from.”

I was desperately unhappy when I joined Al-Anon. I was sure that my misery was caused by my daughter and her substance use disorder. It didn’t occur to me that it was my reaction to those circumstances that was the culprit. But when, after years of struggle, I finally did accept that I was the author of my own unhappiness, I was ready to do some of the real work of the program. Many people write me: “But what made you WANT to change?” I answer them all the same way: “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired” (of myself).

My daughter has gone in and out of recovery from SUD. My recovery, in recent years, has followed a different trajectory. And the key, of course, is being able to cut the umbilical cord and recognize that we are on separate paths.

That’s very hard for most parents, myself included. But when I see the damage that comes from NOT detaching, from staying mired in old resentments, old guilt, old unresolved stuff, I am reminded to let the past go and stay in the here and now. “Annie,” deep in her disease, has consistently tried to keep my focus on past errors, in order to justify her rage and distract her from what she needs to do now to get well.

But that’s the illness talking. I don’t take the bait anymore. I don’t engage unless it’s on a healthy level. Why not? Because it keeps us rolling around in the mud. And that’s not productive.

For a long time I welcomed rolling around in the mud. But not anymore. That’s one of the changes in myself that I’ve enjoyed. With my history, my self-esteem has always been shaky. But the tools of recovery help me learn how to adopt new attitudes about myself. And as the reading suggests, this is most often accomplished by making positive changes in my behavior.

When I do good things, they return to me tenfold. I may not get everything I want in my life. But for me to get up every day and say to myself: “You know, Marilea? You’re okay. You’re a work in progress. You just keep doing things that reinforce that self-directed goodwill, and you’ll be okay.”

Life is unfolding as my HP intended, and all will be well.

Staying Out Of The Weeds

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.