Excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, Gene and Toots: A Love Story
“When my daughter was in trouble, my instinct was to rescue and protect her from harmful consequences. It was losing my child to the torture of substance use disorder that led me, quite accidentally, into confronting myself and the landscape of all my own inner conflict. And in so doing, ironically, it was I who came away more healed, less broken, and more able to accept—with grace—the disappointments in my life. Now, after years of recovery, I know that those same consequences might have been her best teachers. This is precisely where faith might have helped me; I didn’t have any when I most needed it.”
An old middle school friend of my daughter’s from 30 years ago found me on Facebook this week. Then she called me on Facetime from North Carolina.
“Jaime, omg, how are you? What are you up to?”
“Oh, I’ve got three boys and I’m doing well. But I’ve been wanting to get in touch with Annie.”
So I told her a short version of our story.
“I’m so sorry for the hell you’ve been going through, Marilea. Please know that I remember her to be the best kid, loyal and kind. It’s hard to believe how drugs have changed her so completely. If you ever reconnect with her, tell her I miss her and want to reconnect.”
Christmas is always hard for this mother, no matter how much recovery I have. I’m only human. But Jaime’s phone call made me feel better. It was a real time reminder that I once had a daughter who was doing pretty well in the world. She did some things to be proud of. She had friends who remember her like she was before drugs. And family.
Keeps things in perspective. We all have kids who were once doing well. It wasn’t all bad. As I decorate my Christmas tree, I proudly add the decorations she made in preschool. I remember the good times, and I smile when I look at the tapestry she made for me.
Excerpt from my first memoir, written under a pseudonym, as my healing journey began:
“Meth addicts can go for days without sleep sometimes, and then they need to crash, recoup their energy and start the cycle all over again. I went back upstairs, tiptoeing around the house, a minefield waiting to be activated by just the wrong look or comment. Most of the time I felt like a scared rabbit.
Angie came and went like a phantom between the holidays. She was a body, yes, but nothing else resembled my daughter. Her face was still healing from the burns she had gotten from freebasing crack cocaine back in October. She lost all her beautiful eyelashes then and had been wearing false ones ever since. How bizarre: false eyelashes at age twenty-two. And the eye drops—always the eye drops. She ate not at all as far as I could see, nothing from my refrigerator anyway. She was painfully thin. But, of course, meth took away your appetite. That was the point, one of them, anyway. All those years ago when I took amphetamines, I delighted in the same side effect. Life was repeating itself and I was in a time warp observing myself at the very same age. God, it was so painful.
We barely spoke. Sometimes she mumbled “Hello,” but mostly she just needed a place to crash and get her clothes…Every day was a surreal pageant, dancing around with this stranger. The terror was so disorienting that I lapsed into denial sometimes and pretended it wasn’t happening. But that was easier to do when I was working. I was on a break from school now and I couldn’t escape from it. It was right in front of me.
As New Year’s approached, I couldn’t bear it anymore. Did I snap? I hadn’t even joined Al-Anon yet, but years later I would hear a saying at meetings: “In Al-Anon we learn to trade a wishbone in for a backbone.” Amazing! I was ready to cross these frightening waters before I even had the support of the group. But I would flee, in subsequent years, to higher ground all too often, unable to navigate effectively. This was going to be a journey as much for me as for Angie, I soon found out. And like most journeys there would be many bumps in the road.”
“Life holds so much—so much to be happy about always. Most people ask for happiness on conditions. Happiness can only be felt if you don’t set conditions.” ~Arthur Rubenstein
All of us in these rooms have experienced substance use disorder in one form or another: in ourselves or in a loved one. Many serious illnesses are incurable, but SUD is often conquered by the sufferer. Many substance users recognize that they have the power to change if they are committed to recovery. Different people have different ways of dealing with it: some use 12-Step recovery, some use prayer, or yoga, or running, or writing things down. No one way is better than another. Whatever works for you.
Substance use disorder is painful and messy. My life was derailed because of it. But I found a way to recover—from my own substance use as well as my obsession with saving my daughter, and I got my life back.
I’m filled with gratitude every day for that. And I wish us all the same peace and joy for that freedom. I’ve learned to be happy and to make the best of things as they are. And that’s quite a lot. Gratitude keeps me grounded in recovery, and not just on Thanksgiving!
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.
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.”
My memoirs about me and my daughter are graphically honest portrayals of substance use disorder at its worst. And Angie (Annie) is still alive, so I was a little fearful of exposure. But not anymore.
A few readers have asked me “What would you do if your daughter saw these books someday? Wouldn’t you be horrified?” My answer is this: “No, not at all. The books are not a condemnation of Angie (Annie) They are celebrations of life and love.”
In the Introduction of A Mother’s Story, I showcase Angie/Annie as she was before substance use disorder corrupted her. She was a beautiful child, young woman, a talented gymnast, writer, artist, and college graduate. And most of all she was a loving and thoughtful daughter to her father and me.
The rest of the book is a portrait of the horrors of the life that often accompanies substance use disorder and what it can do to a young woman with her whole life ahead of her. Once the disease took over, this person was no longer the daughter I raised. And I make that clear in the final chapters, how parents can learn to separate their children from the substance users they become in order to keep loving them and deal effectively with this cruel disease.
Stepping Stones is also a book about substance use disorder. But, though Annie plays a role in the story, the narrative focuses on me and my struggles with the disease in order to get sober and live well. This self-focus is the natural progression of my recovery work in several 12-step programs. And I cannot overemphasize the soundness of my getting well first. Only now—while I’m dealing from a position of strength—can I help my daughter in the best possible way.
I recommend keeping a diary or some form of written record to document our journeys. Writing has been the key to unlocking secrets that were getting in my way. Putting down our experiences on paper can help us process our feelings, discover healthier perspectives, and start to heal. My third memoir will come out next year and complete this trilogy of recovery memoirs. It’s a book about love and hope. Stay tuned!
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.
“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)
“’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.”
“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.