Grief and sadness are heavy. They weigh us down. Are we aware of the heavy backpack some of us are carrying? Remorse, anger, resentment, rage, disappointment and loss. That negative space is like a black hole. It’s dark and we can’t see clearly. “Our thinking becomes distorted…”
It’s been hard to let go, even of the pain and abuse, because it was my only connection to my daughter. I wanted to stay connected at any cost. But it was hurting me. I realized that I was sinking into that black hole, and then I reversed course. I didn’t want to throw my life away as well. I had too much else to live for.
I’m okay now, mostly free of the feelings that were burying me. I guess I’ve had some survivor’s guilt, but that’s faded, too. It’s been a rough twenty-two years, but life goes on in spite of the challenges. My recovery program has been a guiding light in helping me live a better life. Living in grace diminishes my pain and anger. It softens my edges.
“My Twelve-Step recovery, so far, has brought me a great deal of gratitude and serenity, mostly when I remember that voice from God telling me to let go of control and resistance. Yet there’s another part of me that hurts terribly when I witness the destruction of my daughter at the hands of substance use disorder. How can I be well while Angie is so sick? I’ve spent all these years searching for an answer.
Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Long Goodbye, in an interview discussing her own grief about losing her mother, says this: ‘I’m changed by it, the way a tree is changed by having to grow around an obstacle.’
It’s the subliminal mother force in me. Grief and loss—they change us. I keep getting beamed onto Planet X, then back again, my molecules getting rearranged every time. Just as Angie has changed, so have I. I’ve loved my daughter as best I could for half of my life. How can losing her to this living death not change me?”
From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL, August 20:
“’Everything in life that we really accept undergoes change. So suffering must become love. That is the mystery.’ ~Katherine Mansfield
Acceptance of those conditions that at times plague us changes not only the conditions but, in the process, ourselves. Perhaps this latter change is the more crucial. As each changes…life’s struggles ease. When we accept all the circumstances that we can’t control, we are more peaceful. Smiles more easily fill us up. It’s almost as though life’s eternal lesson is acceptance, and with it comes life’s eternal blessings.”
This is a hard one for me. Hard because, like many people, it is hard to accept the pain of loss. Like a recent amputee, I miss what’s not there. I miss my high school job; I miss my daughter; I miss some friends who have passed.
And at times I resist. I go into fighting mode where I refuse to accept. But that place is not peaceful for me. It stirs up feelings, long set aside as harmful: guilt, longing, even at times the wish to punish myself.
Whoa! This is why I need my recovery program, to keep me, first of all, on the road and secondly, charting a healthy course. It will do me no good to dwell on the pain of my losses. But it will help me grow a great deal if I can accept them with grace and try to let go of the pain. It will lead me to love.
There are joys in my life that clamor for my attention. That I still have the heart to embrace them openly, not as a consolation, but as emerging gifts worthy of my full attention, is how my grief leads me to a place of love.
Acceptance is the answer for me. It prevents me from getting stuck, and gives me the freedom to move forward.
This is a hard slogan to practice. When our loved ones are thriving and living good lives, it’s easy to let go of them and concentrate on our own, sometimes messy, lives. But when we love someone who is hurting him/herself, how can we look the other way? Short of burying our child, the next hardest thing is standing by while he/she self-destructs, knowing we lack the ultimate power to control the disease.
We have learned in recovery that there are many things we can do to help. We can try to remain a positive force for them, offering love and encouragement. Drug rehabs work as a recovery tool for many troubled young people, and if parents can make that happen then that’s a good thing. But without the cooperation of our loved ones to follow through on what they learned in those rehabilitation rooms, our efforts are sometimes ineffective. That’s when I have to look the other way. I give myself and my child credit for trying, and then I let go and leave the responsibility for follow-through with the substance user. This is hard. I want to fix everything, make it easier for him/her, protect; it’s intuitive for me. Oh, how hard it is to let go, knowing they could die without our vigilance. Even with it, they could die. Substance use disorder is a cruel taskmaster.
And so, as I keep saying over and over, I must leave my daughter to the life she is bound to if she doesn’t choose recovery from this relentless disease. If I want to have any peace in my life, any joy in what’s still here for me to cherish, then I must do this. I hope for all my brothers and sisters in recovery that they may find peace in their lives, by whatever means possible.
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.
“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!
“Learn to love someone even when they are unlovable.”
Substance use disorder is commonly accepted now as a brain disease. This pronouncement by the American Medical Association causes some confusion because the overuse of substances can cause such unacceptable behavior. It’s difficult to recognize, much less accept, that our loved ones aren’t always making conscious choices. They are under the control of a bewildering array of drugs which influence them. My daughter, when she is on drugs, has not even resembled the daughter I raised. She has been angry, combative, and much worse. Her moral compass has flown out the window. I have often felt the need to distance myself from her for my own protection. This is just terrible and so counterintuitive. We want to protect our children from their disastrous choices. But I paid a heavy price by putting myself in the line of her fire. I learned the hard way that I don’t have the power to save her from the life she is living. But I do have the power to save myself.
Twelve-step recovery is not for everyone; I get that. But it has worked for me. One of the reasons it has worked for me is because an important part of the step work involves self-reflection. It involves looking at myself in the mirror and getting to know myself, warts and all. It involves self-forgiveness, forgiveness of others and letting go of resentments. These are just words, but in fact, they are difficult actions to take. Some resentments that we’ve been nursing our whole lives are nearly impossible to let go of. But I have learned that they will eat away at me, like acid, if I don’t. So it’s worth the effort to let them go. As I have learned to shed much of the negativity in my life, I’m learning to like myself better and be comfortable in my own skin. It’s a slow process—I’ve been at it for twenty years!—but it has worked to help me love myself more and feel worthy of happiness.
So how has that improved relationship with myself affected my relationship with my daughter? To be honest, not much at all. She’s on her own path, one that I cannot support or enable. But what it has done is allow me to endure the distance between us without guilt or obsession. What it has done is convince me that I did the best I could with what I had to raise her, and pat myself on the back for that. The sad reality is that she got tagged with an illness that is destroying millions out there. It’s a cruel illness because it often kills our children (their minds, their spirit, their morality) before it actually kills them. Knowing now what I know about substance use disorder, I don’t beat myself up with remorse and an overinflated sense of responsibility. I will always love her unconditionally, no matter what. The door is not closed; it remains open for her to embrace recovery and come back to her family. That will never change.
In the meantime, my recovery is enabling me to bridge the gap between what I’ve lost and what’s left. I have two other children, beautiful grandchildren, a loving partner, siblings and many friends who remind me what a gift it is just to be alive.
Jenny Jerome Churchill said it best: “Life is not always what one wants it to be. But to make the best of it as it is, is the only way of being happy.”
“Living fully requires enough trust to release our manipulative, tight-fisted control of life, for only then can we accept the guidance of a Power greater than ourselves. For adult children of alcoholics, our damaged, devastated trust has to be healed and nurtured bit by bit until we feel safe enough to truly let go and let God. Trust does not come from reading a book, however inspired, but from experiencing new relationships in which we are trusted and we can learn to trust those around us…If we willingly surrender ourselves to the spiritual discipline of the Twelve Steps, our lives will be transformed…Though we may never be perfect, continued spiritual progress will reveal to us our enormous potential…We will laugh more. Fear will be replaced by faith, and gratitude will come naturally as we realize that our Higher Power is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves…”
“We will laugh more.” How can I, beset by depression and instability for many of my years, come to revisit my life now from another perspective? How have I learned how to laugh and see the comedy in things? What has enabled me at last to live well and be happy?
Being in the rooms.
But I hasten to add that we can learn the same tools elsewhere: the tools of letting go and accepting what we can’t change; the tool of gratitude; the tool of detachment and understanding our personal boundaries in relation to our substance user. There are many places where we can pick up these life skills: from our family, friends, church, from our own life experiences…
I might have been luckier, like many of you, and learned these tools in a happy, functioning family when I was growing up. But I learned them later.
And it’s never too late to learn how to be happy.
White knuckling it through life is exhausting. Different methods to relax work for different people. Yoga, prayer, knitting, running, reading, listening to music—the list is endless. The best thing for me to relax is the Serenity Prayer. It has become my mantra:
“God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
I embrace this prayer in big and little ways every day. Its wisdom keeps me right-sized and humble, while at the same time encouraging me to make changes in my life that are within my reach.
We are all challenged, of course, by the last line. That’s why I keep going back to recovery meetings!
A while back a friend in Naranon shared this link with our group. I watched it and was so heartened to see how attitudes are changing across the country. This PBS special focused on a program in Seattle, WA. It is a practical and above all humane way to deal with substance users. The more we talk about alternative ways to treat substance use disorder, the more likely there will be people to bring pressure to bear on government officials and on insurance companies. And the more likely our loved ones will feel embraced with compassion and understanding instead of fear and judgment.