“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.

“Two-Stepping the Twelve-Step”

                                         

 “’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.”

Excerpted from my recently released and award-winning memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.

The Folly Of White-Knuckling It

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL, July 19:

“’At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance…’ ~Maya Angelou

Serenity isn’t compatible with struggle. We cannot control forces outside of ourselves. We cannot control the actions of our family or co-workers. We can control our responses to them. And when we choose to surrender our attempts to control, we will find peace and serenity.”

It’s always been so important to me to maintain a sense of control in my life. No matter how bad things got—from growing up in an alcoholic family, to watching my adult daughter lose herself in the hellish world of heroin addiction—I was certain that if I were in control on some level, the pain of it all would go away or, short of that, give me a sense of empowerment. I desperately sought a sense of power to distract me from my problems.

But looking to myself was not working. At that point in my life, the delusion that I had the power to fix anyone outside of myself started to collapse.

That’s when I broke down, and found “the gift of desperation.” I admitted I couldn’t exert my influence over anyone else, took that necessary leap of faith, and handed my burdens over to God. I stopped resisting. I loosened my grip.

I love my family and my daughter. But I’ve surrendered to the reality that there was only one person who I had the power to save at the end of the day: myself. And with my long history of substance use disorder, I had my work cut out for me. I placed the focus firmly back on myself and began, as I continue to begin anew every day, the long process of recovery.

“…the greatest paradox of all: absolute surrender in order to win.” ~Claire Demers

Blossoms Becoming Fruit

The following is an excerpt from my new memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.                                                         

            “Gene had retired from teaching within a year of my retirement, and we opted for a change of scenery. I did the groundwork, and one weekend we flew to New Mexico to buy a little house between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We pooled our resources, pitching in together all we had. Gene and some friends cleared the back quarter acre of sagebrush, and he bought a dozen fruit trees to start an orchard. Over the years, he’s planted and nurtured a total of fifty trees—Rainier cherries, Saturn peaches, Challengers, Shiro plums, apricots, and many kinds of apples. One year we had so many peaches we had to give them away. It was grueling work but gratifying as we watched the blossoms turn into fruit.

            Throwing myself into full-time recovery in New Mexico, I began the process of new growth in myself, attending one or two recovery meetings a day. That became my full-time job, embracing a spiritual way of life. But it’s come with a steep learning curve.

In Virginia, when I first started going to meetings, the guidelines of the program were hard for me to follow. I felt responsible for what was happening to Annie (Angie) and couldn’t let go of my need to save her, unwilling to admit my powerlessness. Doing so seemed counterintuitive to me.

           Late in 2002, after we had sent her to her first rehab, she did well for a little while. I remember saying this at a recovery meeting:

            “I have no doubt that my daughter’s progress parallels my own.” The people at the meeting just nodded, recognizing that was where I needed to be in that moment.

            Still attached to my daughter with no understanding of the concepts of detachment and letting go, I thought I held all the cards—the magic bullet to her recovery. I desperately needed to believe that.

            In time, though, I accepted that addiction is a brain disease—still a matter of much controversy in this country—and not a moral failing. Annie (Angie) was sick. I had no more power over her illness than if she’d had diabetes or cancer.

           Through trial and error, following the road map that had helped many addicts and families of addicts since the 1950s, I learned to let go of the things no longer in my control…And I needed to get on with my life.”

Mother’s Day in the Time of Coronavirus

I am a blogger for The Addict’s Parents United. The sequel to my award-winning first memoir, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, will be released by She Writes Press on 6/16/20. This is an excerpt from Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation:

         “Several years before I attempted to make amends to Angie, she was in her last rehab in California. It was 2009, and I flew across the country for Parents’ Weekend. After excitedly showing me around the grounds, she bumped into a couple of new friends.

         “Hey, Angela, show us more of those moves.”
        My daughter still enjoyed showing people what she had been able to do as a gymnast in Greece. 

         “Sure.” Proud of her agility, she showed us, among other things, a backward twist that must have been difficult then. She wasn’t ten anymore.

            As she leaned backward toward the floor, her hair fell back; I saw the scar again and wondered how she’d gotten it. She must have had an accident to have sustained such a deep gash around her hairline in the middle of her forehead.

When Angie was a child, she looked like a beautiful mandarin doll. She’d always had a thick pile of bangs to frame her oval face. But her hair didn’t fall that way anymore because of the scar, and she hadn’t been wearing bangs for several years. I remembered the picture of my children from J. C. Penney’s one Christmas in Miami, her pretty brown eyes accented by her thick bangs.

Seeing her then in rehab, I focused on her bangs. How much I missed seeing them on her! What mother doesn’t mourn her child’s innocence and wish a painless life for her?

            The last time I saw her, for Mother’s Day in 2012, I was in a San Francisco motel near the hostel in the Tenderloin where she was staying. She was to spend a night with me and had a key to the room. It was five in the morning when I heard her unlocking the door, and I jumped up to open it.

            “Hi, Mom. This is Pontus.”

            “Hi there,” the much older man said as he offered to shake my hand.

            “Hello, Pontus. Angie, please come in now so I can go back to sleep.”

            “Sure, Mom. See you later, Buddy.”

            I have a picture of her sitting on my bed the next morning, her terrier, Loki, on her lap; she was never without him. Her hair was pulled to the side and held with a clip, exposing the scar.

            She looked so strange—like someone else—without those lustrous bangs. But of course she was . . . someone else.”

Eight years. Some digital contact in all that time—most of it unpleasant. I’ve often said in my commentary over the years that an addict, after long periods of using, seems split down the middle: the child we raised, and what remains after years of substance abuse.

I’ve hoped for the happy ending so many of my fellow mothers are blessed with. I’m so genuinely happy for them, and I hold a fervent wish in my heart that their addicts continue to enjoy sobriety. But many of us have not been so fortunate. And many mothers have buried their children. So how do we move forward with our grief and loss?

Together, for one thing. Together we are stronger. Talking openly about it, putting an end to the shame and isolation. There is strength and empowerment in our ability to stand tall and add our voices to the others out there. Substance use disorder—this is hard to believe—is even more on the rise now. As a result of all the forced isolation in the time of coronavirus—isolation which is a substance user’s worst enemy—a few mothers I know have found themselves frustrated and saddened  to watch their children falling back into the rabbit hole. I pray their relapses are short-lived and they are able to get back to living their lives without using substances to cope.

I think of my Angie on this Mother’s Day, 2020. I don’t know how she is. I sent her an email, telling her how much I love her and I hope she’s well enough to survive another day. The email didn’t bounce back. If she’s still with us in San Francisco, that’s good, because where there’s life there’s hope.

We all have different stories with our children; some are happy and some are sad. This is just my story. But I know that I was the best mom that I could be, and I believe that most mothers are. Because of that stirring belief, I’m proud to celebrate myself and all of you on Mother’s Day, this year and every year. We have more than earned a place in that fellowship.

God Bless Us, Every One Of Us Mamas!

Guilt And Redemption

“This journey of mine, this parenting journey, would involve going two steps forward sometimes and then three steps backward. It was not vertical progress I was making, but it was progress. And strangely, the more I kept the focus on myself and striving to be happy, the easier it was to let go of my child. I knew I had paid my dues, and I feared no one’s judgment, least of all God’s.

I’ve railed at God many, many times during these dozen years of joy and pain, this God they speak of at Twelve-Step meetings. How many times had I sinned in my life? Many, more than I want to remember. And so the child in me had been sure, earlier on, that I was being punished for all of them. It was my karmic payback. “What goes around comes around,” etc. Indeed, for all of my life, before my breakdown, I had no faith in anything or anyone other than myself. I grew up very lonely and isolated, and if there was a god, he wasn’t paying any attention to me. So I learned to be very independent and self-reliant. 

But when I finally found myself on my knees, I felt broken and whole at the same time: broken because my MO for dealing with my problems hadn’t been working; and whole because I finally let myself believe in something outside of myself to strengthen me, to fill in the gaps that were missing in me, and to help me cope. I was starting to develop and cling to a faith that assured me that I was not being punished and that I would be OK in the end, no matter what happened to my daughter.  And I realized that fighting Angie’s battles for her was not only a waste of time; it was also useless and of questionable value.

            My energies, spent though they were, would be better directed toward reclaiming my own life, which had been sorely compromised in the fight to save my daughter. And in reclaiming my own life, I was bidding for my redemption, long overdue, but just within my reach. This was my journey now, I knew it; I sadly accepted it. I wanted us to be connected but we weren’t. I wanted her struggle to be our struggle, but it wasn’t. I wanted to save her life but I couldn’t. I could only save my own. And I’d keep working at it—or this relentless disease would claim two more victims instead of one.”

You can find my award-winning book, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (pseudonym) on Amazon.

Remembering Angie

Today is my daughter’s 40th birthday. 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 addiction hijacked and transformed her.

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

I love her.

Expectations

A Memoir of Recovery

Memoir excerpt:

“In recovery, we learn to profoundly adjust our expectations, hard as it is. We raised one child, and now we have another. We are all too aware of the change that drugs have produced in our children. A parent wrote in Sharing Experience, Strength and Hope a very revealing statement, something I could have written myself. It is a key to understanding my story, my mother and father’s stories, and my daughter’s painful struggle:

‘I expected my children to be perfect, to always do the right thing. I tried to control them by giving them direction and making them do things in a way that I felt was correct! When they didn’t, I could not handle it. I could not accept their drug use and I felt that their behavior was a reflection on me. I was embarrassed for myself and scared to death for them. I became so distrusting of my children that I showed them no respect. I would meddle and invade their privacy looking for any excuse to challenge and confront them. When I came to Nar-Anon, I learned that my interference and my attempts at controlling them were actually standing in the way of their recovery. I learned to let go of the control I never had in the first place.'”

You can find my book, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (pseudonym) on Amazon.

Freeing Our Children

F

“Angie told me once that that’s why she hated NA meetings: often in attendance were drug addicts not in recovery, people she needed to avoid. But in her case I don’t think that’s true. I think she didn’t go to meetings because she needed to deal with her addiction her way, and not be told by anyone else what to do: CSR—compulsively self-reliant—just like her mother.

Or maybe she just wasn’t ready to embrace recovery at all, a painful possibility I had not yet considered. I was still determined, at that point, to believe that she was going to beat her addiction and that I, of course, would be the glorious savior she would spend the rest of her life thanking, handing me my redemption on a silver platter.

I would finally, thank God, let go of the oppressive burden I was placing on my daughter by demanding she get well so that I could be OK. My mother unconsciously did the same thing with her children: she was a demanding perfectionist, beating back the pain of self-doubt and unworthiness by raising “successful” children. I’m very glad to have found recovery from my dysfunctional upbringing. It has helped to  “relieve me of the bondage of self” (Anonymous Press 63). And most importantly, most importantly of all, my recovery has freed my children.”

You can find my book, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (pseudonym) on Amazon.

Bangs

When Angie was in her last rehab in 2009, I flew across the country for Parent’s’ Weekend. After excitedly showing me around the grounds, she bumped into a couple of new friends.

“Hey Angela, show us more of those moves.”
 Angie still enjoyed showing people what she had been able to do as a gymnast in Greece.

“Sure,” she said, proud of her agility. She showed us, among other things, a backward twist that must have been difficult then. She wasn’t ten anymore.

When she leaned backwards toward the floor, her hair fell back and I saw the scar. She must have had an accident when she sustained a deep gash around her hairline in the middle of her forehead.

When Angie was a child, she looked like a beautiful mandarin doll. She always had a thick pile of bangs to frame her oval face. But her hair didn’t fall that way anymore because of the scar and she could no longer wear bangs.

The last time I saw my daughter was in 2012. She was still using, and since then has cut herself off from her family. But I wanted to see her and stayed in a San Francisco motel very near the hostel in the Tenderloin where she was living. She was to spend a night with me and had a key to the room. It was five in the morning when I heard her unlocking the door, and I jumped up to open it.

“Hi Mom.”

“Hi honey. I need to get back to sleep.”

I have a picture of her sitting on my bed the next morning, her hair pulled to the side and held with a clip.

She looked so strange—like someone else—without those lustrous bangs. But of course she was…

Someone else.