Finding My Comfort Zone

From Hope for Today, Al-Anon CAL, July 10:

“…I feel comfortable participating in…meetings because in them I find an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. However, I wasn’t always so open. There have been times in my life when I didn’t trust and I didn’t receive respect, so I withdrew. I didn’t allow myself to stay and work through the challenges offered to me. Now that I’m in recovery, I don’t want to limit my opportunities to grow by restricting my involvement with others, whether or not they are in the program. As always, (my program) teaches me to pray, look at myself and my attitudes, and then take action. For me, this action means detaching from people’s behavior and giving them the same acceptance, consideration, and respect for which I long…When I don’t expect perfection from others or from myself, I am free to participate and be a part of life.”

This quote really resonates with me. As I said in my new book: “Humility, I discovered, is a tremendous leveler, and it would bring me closer to what I’ve been missing my whole life: being part of a community of equals.” I’m so happy to be in a fellowship where we’re all on a level playing field. We try not to compare, just to support.

I’ve heard it said that “expectations are premeditated resentments.”  So I try to keep my expectations of others in check, aware of my tendency to control and manipulate. It takes a lot of discipline to remain detached, especially from a loved one. But I can’t control the behavior of (my adult daughter), and so I’ve learned to let go and keep the focus on myself and consider how I might be the author of my own discomfort. When I offer “acceptance, consideration, and respect to others,” the same gifts return to me ten-fold.

Love Them Like It’s Your Last Day Together

                                  

At the end of the day, all that matters is love. All we have control over is how we share our love. And instead of counting our losses, at the end of the day, all that can never be taken away from us is our love.

In this month that celebrates all matters of the heart, I am happy to celebrate all the loved ones in my life—most especially my daughter Annie. She is lost to me at the moment, but I can still love her as totally and purely as when she came into the world forty-one years ago.

Parents struggle and wage a horrendous war against substance use disorder as we watch our children caught in the web of it. We experience so many conflicting feelings, from hush-hush shame to rage against all the pushers of the world. In my powerlessness and frustration I wanted to lash out against my loved one and tell her to “snap out of it!” Often we retreat to the seemingly safe harbors of enabling and protecting our children from the dire consequences of their drug-induced behavior. I’ve been to all those places and back again. At first I was so joined at the hip to Annie that I didn’t know where she ended and I began.

About a decade ago, I did find out. And I learned that I needed to detach and let her follow her own path. Nineteen years in recovery rooms have given me some important tools and guidance. In educating myself about substance use disorder, I learned that it is a brain disease. My daughter didn’t choose this life; she’s sick. When I accept this, I realize there is no room in my heart for a number of feelings that get in the way of my better self—judgment, resentment, fear and guilt. Those four feelings are destroyers of the peace and serenity we all deserve. None of us is perfect, but I can say with certainty that I did my best with what I had. Most of the parents I know are good, well-intentioned people. And many of them are drowning in the sadness of losing a child to this cruel disease. I understand them. Some days I felt so overwhelmed that I buried myself in grief. If I lived in a bubble, or on the moon, I could isolate myself, cover myself in a cloak of sadness and who would care?

But over time I have found myself empowered by something stronger than sorrow. There are other voices that I need to listen to. Many voices are my loved ones, but not all. When I forget to put out seeds, my Steller’s jay protests loudly. My deer family, bold and fearless, come right up to my deck. Sunrises slowly transform the Olympics into drizzling ice cream cones as I peer out of my window. Voiceless, maybe, but it’s a sight to behold.

Love is more powerful than any other emotion, and that is the only feeling I am left with, the only one I experience with Annie. In this way I know, though I’m human and have been through the gamut of all the above emotions, that I have done my best to reach my daughter. And whether or not I’ve been successful, I can rest easy knowing that she knows, if nothing else, that she is loved.

At the end of the day.

“Let Go And Let God”

From Courage to Change, Conference Approved Literature, December 8:

“The image of an avalanche helps me to give the drinking alcoholic (or addict) in my life the dignity to make her own decisions. It is as though her actions are forming a mountain of alcohol-related troubles. A mound of snow cannot indefinitely grow taller without tumbling down; neither can the alcoholic’s mountain of problems.

Al-Anon has helped me to refrain from throwing myself in front of the alcoholic to protect her, or from working feverishly to add to the mountain in order to speed its downward slide. I am powerless over her drinking and her pain. The most helpful course of action is for me to stay out of the way!

If the avalanche hits the alcoholic, it must be the result of her own actions. I’ll do my best to allow God to care for her, even when painful consequences of her choices hit full force. That way I won’t get in the way of her chance to want a better life.

Today’s reminder: I will take care to avoid building an avalanche of my own. Am I heaping up resentments, excuses, and regrets that have the potential to destroy me? I don’t have to be buried under them before I address my own problems. I can begin today.”

‘The suffering you are trying to ease…may be the very thing needed to bring the alcoholic to a realization of the seriousness of the situation—literally a blessing in disguise.’ (From “So You Love An Alcoholic”)

I wish I had been able to do this fifteen years ago. But we get there when we get there. It’s never too late to start over, whether we’re a using addict or the enabler of one. I say this with kindness and a deep compassion for myself. I truly believe that we all do the best we can with what we’ve got at any given moment.

Other Voices Are Calling Me

Most of us have experienced the pain of substance use disorder, either directly or indirectly. It’s everywhere in our society, and addiction in all its forms has the power to take away our happiness and wellbeing. My daughter Annie has scrambled in and out of the rabbit hole for over nineteen years, and much of the time I was in it with her. But I’ve learned to let go of a disease and its ensuing consequences that I have no control over. Yes, let go.

Once the tears dried and I could open my eyes, I looked around to see what was left from all the chaos and devastation: a job I liked, flowers blooming, other family members, good health, enough money to be comfortable, friends who cared and didn’t judge me. The list went on. These little girls are my great joy, and if I didn’t have them I hope I could try to celebrate something else—anything else—in my life, even though some days the grief is overwhelming. Time passes too quickly, and before I know it, mine is up. Life is too precious to waste.

My years in the recovery rooms have taught me grace, and the courage to embrace all of my life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—as an expression of God’s will for me. I’m blessed to be part of a spiritual program that teaches me that painful lesson, despite my loss—or maybe, when I look at this picture, because of it.

The Benefits of Fellowship

From From Survival to Recovery, CAL, p. 19:

“Surrounded by other recovering people, we are learning how to heal our broken hearts and create healthy, productive, joyful lives…(our program) has led many of us to serenity, fellowship, and relief from loneliness and pain.”

Because of the stigma and shame surrounding substance use disorder, many of us have kept our loved one’s problem (or our own) shrouded in secrecy. I did most of my life, and only in recent years have I dared to share my family disease with the rest of the world. I realized that until I faced the dreaded subject and learned more about it, it would continue to rule me and my family.

“It” is substance use disorder and all of its effects and consequences. They are far-reaching, especially for the family of an addict. And they can become terribly complicated as we become enmeshed in the lives of those we love. Being in the rooms of recovery has helped me untangle the mess.

That’s why a number of programs have been so valuable to many of us who suffer. We break out of our isolation and share our stories with others like us. We gain valuable perspective by listening to others. Our self-esteem soars as we see others listening to us and validating our experiences. We are offered compassion and understanding inside the rooms when it may be hard to find either of those things on the outside.

And we begin our journey toward getting our lives back—when once they seemed to be lost.

Our Human Resistance

From Each Day A New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, January 9:

“’The Chinese say that water is the most powerful element, because it is perfectly nonresistant. It can wear away a rock and sweep all before it. ‘ ~Florence Scovel Shinn

Nonresistance, ironically, may be a posture we struggle with. Nonresistance means surrendering the ego absolutely. For many of us the ego, particularly disguised as false pride, spurred us on to struggle after struggle.”

Well, I don’t do anything absolutely, but my time in recovery has strongly encouraged me to remain right-sized in my thinking. EGO—Easing God Out—is a useful reminder that I don’t always know what’s best in any situation. But my resistance often keeps me stuck.

Whether it’s wondering how to cope with my addicted daughter, Annie, or wondering how to face the loneliness of Covid isolation, or determining what to do about a barking dog in the wee hours of the morning, all of these problems require some level-headed judgment, which I don’t always have.

So I find the power of prayer to be a wonderful relief and solution to my thinking that I have to fix every problem.

If it’s a situation I can control, I’ll try to do something.

If it’s not something I have the ability to control, I’ll try to let it go.

And determining which is which, needless to say, is our biggest challenge.

Two-Stepping The Twelve-Step

Excerpted from my memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation:

 “’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.”

The Domino Effect

From Each Day a New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, May 22:

“’The change of one simple behavior can change other behaviors and thus change many things.’ ~Jean Baer

Our behavior tells others, and ourselves, who we are. Frequently, we find ourselves behaving in ways that keep us stuck. Or we may feel deep shame for our behavior in a certain instance. Our behavior will never totally please us. But deciding we want to change some behavior and using the program to help us, is a first step.”

Change is hard. The older we get, perhaps, the harder it gets. Our years—our habits—can trap us. I’ve been trapped by my own worst defects: “I’m gonna be fine;” “I can handle it on my own;” “I don’t need any help, thank you very much.”

Trying to figure out the why’s of things over the years didn’t help me. That question just kept me stuck. And it kept me from taking responsibility for my own problems. So the suffering continued. Until I learned how to put out fires.

When I’m in the middle of a fire in the woods, I don’t wonder who started it. If I am to survive, I just need to learn how to douse it.

I’ve been challenged by depression for much of my life, but nothing could have prepared me for losing my daughter Annie to the living death of heroin addiction. That was the major conflagration in my life, and I wasn’t fighting it effectively. I made it so much about me and my misplaced guilt that I often used poor judgment in an effort to help her. When I saw that nothing was working, I felt broken. And at my bottom, that’s when I found the courage to change.

Letting go of my feverish attempts to motivate Annie to seek recovery, and my wish to control events, freed me of the painful circumstances that were claiming my peace of mind. Letting go—so counterintuitive when it’s your child—was one of the first steps I needed to take—and accept what I could not change. That was the hardest: knowing that I had no power to change her. But I did and do have the power to change myself, my reactions, and my attitudes.

At some point along the way, we might find ourselves in a fire we need to put out. I learned that I needed to change before I could be truly happy with my life. I needed to pay attention to what was happening in my own hula hoop. Looking outside of myself for answers only distracted me; it did not help me put out the fire.

“One small change today, a smile at the first person I meet, will help me chart a new course.”

Second Chances

From Courage to Change, Al-Anon conferenced approved literature, May 30:

“As a result of living in a household where alcohol was abused, the concept of being gentle with myself was foreign. What was familiar was striving for perfection and hating myself whenever I fell short of my goals…If I am being hard on myself, I can stop and remember that I deserve gentleness and understanding from myself. Being human is not a character defect!

‘The question is not what a man can scorn, or disparage, or find fault with, but what he can love, and value, and appreciate.’ ~John Ruskin”

We pass on what was given to us. And so the three A’s—awareness, acceptance, and action—have helped me see clearly what I’ve needed to change about myself and, by extension,  others.

As I have learned in recovery to love myself more and to treat myself with kindness, I have passed that on to family and friends all around me.

So often as adults we appear to be on automatic pilot, behaving in ways that make us cringe afterwards. Our caretakers were often our role models, and we learned how to parent from them. No one’s life is perfect, and few people have perfect parents. But however we fared growing up, the beauty of recovery is that we get to do things over—with more gentleness and compassion for ourselves as well as our caretakers. Especially those we learned from. We can do things differently now if we want to. These are “living amends.”

“We have two lives… the life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” ~Bernard Malamud

A Holiday Recovery Moment

Oh! The value of a moment in time, how small and short they are—but how some moments have the power to re-energize us.

I had a rare spiritual awakening recently.

An ordinary real estate deal went south. Boy, I was pissed, counting all the dollar bills I would lose and rapidly tumbling down a rabbit hole worthy of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Selling our house in New Mexico, Gene and I were thrilled in August to find a couple (from our new home of Seattle, no less!) who said they wanted to buy it. Serendipity, my eyes gazing upward, as I thanked God for our good luck. Their lender pre-approved them, so we accepted a lease-back agreement and they happily moved in. They had till end of October to close the deal. What could go wrong?

Apparently, a lot. Covid-19 hasn’t killed anyone I know, thankfully, but it killed this real estate deal. Surprise! Their lender needs six months to approve them, not three. I had been greedily counting all the money I’d save in capital gains taxes by selling before February. But now that window was closing.

Kerplunk.

I was faced with a choice: evict them, start showing it again, and get it sold on my schedule, by golly. The hell with them and their dreams. The hell with Covid-19 and making them find a rental and move during a pandemic. That’s their problem.

Or—I could access my own humanity.

My selfishness and self-seeking were churning in my stomach. I didn’t want to get soft; I was afraid of being a sap. But I felt awful about this choice, and until I prayed about it I wasn’t sure why.

What I so love about recovery is that we can hit the reset button any time. I’m not on automatic pilot anymore.

Various recovery fellowships have been home to me for nearly twenty years. Yet real spiritual awakenings are a rarity. I can talk the talk like a pro, but infrequently do I ever have to walk the walk. Little ones, yes. But not on a large scale.

That rabbit hole had mirrors—full length, back and front—and there was no hiding from myself. I didn’t like what I saw. It’s not complicated: I was putting my own needs first; and the hell with the other guy.

Happily, my work in recovery continues to bear fruit. I was able to put my needs aside with these people I don’t even know. Maybe it will work out in the spring. Maybe it will fall through again, and I’ll have to reexamine my capacity for patience and generosity.

But this little exercise in letting go of some of my selfishness has been a gift. An early Christmas present to me and my expanding heart. A happy reminder of why I’ve been in the rooms this long. This program works if I work it!

It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Happy Holidays to all my sisters and brothers in recovery. God Bless!