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)

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.”

Where Is My Focus?

From Hope for Today, November 12:

“Serenity? What is that? For years I was like a weather vane that spun around according to the air currents that other people generated… I attributed these mood swings to nervousness, lack of assurance, and whoever else occupied the room at the time. Serenity always seemed beyond my control… Where does this serenity come from? It comes from trusting that everything in my life is exactly as it should be. It comes when I choose to care for myself rather than to fix someone else…

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: I am powerless over many things, but my serenity is not one of them.”

“Trusting that everything in my life is exactly as it should be…” That’s the hard part, because everything in my life is not great. My daughter Annie is lost to me and has been, on and off for twenty years. How does one learn to live with that?

Everyone is different, but I find serenity by focusing on my blessings. They’re all around me: my other children, my grandchildren, and nature. The salt air just blows me away with its fragrance, and the trees in this rain forest are already budding a little. My friends and my partner Gene are my daily supports. And God—he pilots my ship. In spite of my loss, I find myself saying all the time, and feeling sincerely in my heart, that life is good. And I’m filled with the elevating power of gratitude.

Like any good habit, I have to practice it every day: my gratitude journal; the therapy of writing down my stories. And ever so gradually over the years—I don’t remember exactly when—my dark world started to get brighter. I began to laugh more. I found joy in my grandchildren—not consolation. And I knew—though I’ve lost a piece of my heart—that I would find a way to get past the heartache.

The Healing Memoir

The Healing Memoir

A few years ago, I listened with pleasure to John Evans on Friday’s NAMW Teleseminar. My recovery memoir exemplified a number of the kinds of writing he talked about in the interview with Linda Joy Myers: writing for healing and transformation; affirmative writing; legacy writing; and transactional writing.

A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore began as an attempt to heal from the pain of my daughter’s substance use disorder. But as I dug deeper into those dark places he referred to, I uncovered many more truths about myself that I was ready to expose and come to terms with. This isn’t automatic for many memoir writers; indeed, this is often that terrifying place where the writing process stops and they back away, hoping to revisit another time. Readiness comes at a different time and place for all of us, but I’m glad I was prepared to do the work that led to self-discovery and change. The cathartic process of typing ten hours a day for two years until my hands ached with arthritis proved to be a worthwhile effort. The grief around my daughter and my family of origin ceased to be a crippling force in my life, and I’ve truly been able to move on. Anger and depression left me, forgiveness (of self and others) came easily, and most importantly, acceptance of things as they were—without resistance— became my mantra.

Shedding the negativity that had imprisoned me for so many years led me to another kind of writing that John Evans talked about: affirmative writing. In a way, my whole memoir, from beginning to end, stood under the light-filled umbrella of my recovery. I injected the positive change in me into every chapter as I looked back on my life—not with anger, sadness, and guilt—but with a fresh perspective. Gratitude, understanding, love and acceptance of what was were so much easier to carry. And they were the big takeaway from my story. It started out in a very dark place, but as the memoir expanded, thankfully, “the light got in.”

John also talked about legacy writing. How do we want people to think about us, and how do we want to be remembered? This brings me to the last type of writing he discussed: transactional writing. This is “getting down to business,” where we address issues on the page with someone else. But the other people we’re talking to need to be listening!

In my case, my siblings have not read the memoir because they fear the opening of old wounds. This is a reflection of where they are in their own healing process. Also, and John mentioned this in his own experience, siblings often have very different memories growing up in the same home. My brother, sister and I are all five years apart, and this was the case with us. Clearly, we’re not all on the same page, and there’s much more healing to be done in my family. But at the same time, some key people in my life haven’t heard my message. When I asked John about this, he assured me that the business was between my text and me—therein lays the benefit. That may be true. Many strangers have read my story and now they know me intimately and even understand me somewhat. But it’s my family that I wanted to know and understand me differently. Perhaps that’s work destined for another place down the road.

So for me alone writing my memoir was a tremendously healing endeavor, and I have indeed found myself transformed by undertaking such an arduous task. This work, to use John’s words, “has helped me move beyond what I thought I couldn’t get over.” I would wish that same clarity and transcendence for all of us!

Accepting What Is

From Each Day A New Beginning, November 24:

“’If onlys’ are lonely. ~Morgan Jennings

The circumstances of our lives seldom live up to our expectations or desires. However, in each circumstance we are offered an opportunity for growth or change, a chance for greater understanding of life’s heights and pitfalls. Each time we choose to lament what isn’t, we close the door on the invitation to a better existence.”

Oh, that’s a mouthful of wisdom. But it took me years to swallow it. Maybe because what God was asking me to accept—addiction and the horrible life accompanying it in my beautiful daughter—the unacceptable. I simply couldn’t. But, over time, I saw what non-acceptance was doing to both me and my daughter.

It kept me in perpetual denial as I stubbornly refused to follow the suggestions for families in recovery. Eventually, my noncompliance broke me, and I was humbled into a state of acceptance.

But it hasn’t ended there. Every day now I open the door “to a better existence.” There IS life after loss. I focus these days on all the people and blessings who remain in my life. I will always grieve the loss of years with Annie. But life goes on. In an excerpt from A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (me):

“When addiction claims our loved ones, we often feel resentful. It feels to us like we had been tagged, even though we had run as hard as we could. It’s taken me a few years to get to a place where I don’t feel angry or gypped anymore. My lot is no better or worse than any other mother’s whose child was struck down by illness. Whether or not she outlives me—as is the law of nature—remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I must remember to watch the mountain turn into a big red watermelon, and enjoy the colors of New Mexico.” (2014)

God’s Love

From Each Day a New Beginning, November 1:

“’Love and the hope of it are not thing one can learn; they are a part of life’s heritage.’ ~Maria Montessori

Love is a gift we’ve been given by our Creator. The fact of our existence guarantees that we deserve it. As our recognition of this grows, so does our self-love and our ability to love others.

High self-esteem, stable self-worth were not our legacies before finding this program. We sought both through means which led nowhere. These Steps and our present relationships are providing the substance and direction needed in our lives to discover our worthiness.

Had we understood that we were loved, in all the years of our youth, perhaps we’d not have struggled so in the pain of alienation…”

Happiness surely is an inside job. And it’s in several 12-Step fellowships that I have learned to treat myself with kindness and dignity. I’ve turned my new self inside out so that it’s visible to the world. It colors all of my relationships. No matter what happens in my life, I trust in the goodness of my Creator. All will be well.

In this excerpt from my award-winning memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation, I come to the same realization: I am a child of God, and I am worthy of love. All good things will flow from there.

                                                         Grace

            “While working at Harvard back in 1972, I spent a lot of time at a particular thrift shop in Cambridge. Making only about six thousand dollars a year, I was grateful to have acquired a taste for second-hand merchandise.

For twenty dollars, I bought a large print of Maxfield Parrish’s most famous painting, Daybreak, mounted in a handsome frame. Something stirred in me as I caught the alluring blues in an obscure corner of the shop where someone had placed the painting. It has held a prominent place over every bed I’ve slept in since that year.

             I am the woman lying on the floor of the temple, one arm casually framing her face, shielding it from the sun. Columns support the temple and there are leaves, water, rocks and mountains in the background, painted in tranquil shades of blue.

            Bending over me is a young undressed girl. I am in conversation with her. My face feels warm and I’m smiling. The setting in this picture is one of absolute calm, beauty, and serenity.

           That has been my ever-present wish: to be as watched over and cared for, as it appears that woman was.

           All my life, though I wasn’t always awake and aware of it, I have been.”

“We are all broken; that’s how the light gets in.”

“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 all these 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 any thing or any one 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.”

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

My Daughter/Myself

My story with Annie has always been a complicated one. A number of moms I’ve met in these rooms are double winners, like myself, and that reality only made my recovery work harder. And lengthier! This excerpt demonstrates how I was dealing with my daughter from a terribly weak position. And until I dealt with my own issues, I would be in no position to intelligently cope with hers.

Enjoy this poignant excerpt. It’s a window into my life before I surrendered to a power greater than myself, before I began reaping the rewards of my own recovery.

https://www.thefix.com/my-daughter-myself

The Power Of Love, or Why I Wrote My Book

Now I need to go on with my life as best I can despite the cloud hanging over me. If my beautiful girl can’t find the courage to say yes to a healthy life, then I will. I’ll do it for her. What could be a better testament to Annie, to all her gifts and possibilities, than to go forward with my life savoring every moment? Wherever she is right now, I know that the best part of her loves me and would want me to be well. I really believe that, in spite of everything her drug-induced mind has brought forth. I have more confidence now. I know without a doubt that I’ve been a good (enough) mother to Annie. I love her. And loving is enough. Loving is always enough. This has been my lesson. 

Happy 42nd birthday, Annie.

The Many Faces of Gratitude

Though nothing can restore the years we’ve lost with Annie, I feel more and more able to embrace the life around me and revel in the gifts I’ve been given. On my gratitude list this morning: “I thought the rose bush was dead, but a little more water and it’s come back.”  Simple things—

How is it possible for me to be grateful, even, to Annie, whose illness brought me into the rooms of 12-Step recovery? How is this possible?

My unsent letter to my child:

Dear Annie,

Ironic, isn’t it, that you have become my teacher and not the other way around—teacher of life, teacher of love, and beacon of surrender.

I’m so grateful that you were born, even though at times I’ve felt otherwise. God works in mysterious ways, doesn’t he? Though you haven’t been in my life long, and not always happily, it’s been your very existence that has propelled me into a serenely spiritual life, even happiness. I never would have done the work necessary to reach this place without your inspiration.

You are my child, my teacher. As I’ve stumbled on this rocky path, my thoughts of you have guided me; they guide me still.

All that I’ve become are gifts from you, my daughter: life lessons, trial by fire. How do I honor you?

By living well—By loving well.

Mom