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.
“Al-Anon won’t give you the keys to let you into heaven, but it will give you the keys to let yourself out of Hell. One of those keys, they say, is ‘detachment.’”
I couldn’t detach for a long time. How could I? I felt it was like dropping the ball, not caring about my daughter enough to try and help her. I thought I was helping my daughter—by providing a safe landing pad to crash on. When she broke the law, I was afraid to send her to jail and prayed she would straighten out on her own. When she needed money for rent, I gave it to her, afraid she’d be on the street. I made a few other mistakes, and all they did was help her avoid the very consequences that might have been her best teachers.
Eventually, I started learning about detaching with love. Setting and honoring my own boundaries. And letting go of my guilt and inflated sense of responsibility. I had a lot of work to do on my own recovery, to reach a place where I could separate enough from my daughter to let her face her own demons, and hopefully make better choices for herself.
That’s where I am now—with hope in my heart—that my daughter will want to live a better life, just as I am now. These are my living amends to her. I love her without reservation and I continue to tell her so. Wherever she is and whatever she’s doing, it’s important that she know she is loved.
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!
“The serenity I am offered in Al-Anon is not an escape from life. Rather it is the power to find peacefulness within life.
Al-Anon does not promise me freedom from pain, sorrow, or difficult situations. It does, however, give me the opportunity to learn from others how to develop the necessary skills for maintaining peace of mind, even when life seems most unbearable…
Serenity is not about the end of pain. It’s about my ability to flourish peacefully no matter what life brings my way.”
In the movie, “The Shack,” Mac has a dream and in it he meets God. Mac had recently lost his young daughter, and in his anger and bitterness he lashed out at God. Who else to blame? God (a woman in the movie) came right back at Mac with Her own defense: She didn’t orchestrate all the misery on earth: Aleppo, slaughter in Ukraine, children starving in Nigeria. “Don’t blame me for all that,” She said.” My purpose is to help you rise above it.”
Al-Anon has the same purpose in my life. God doesn’t have the power to return my daughter to me. But if I continue my daily practice of gratitude, accept what I don’t have the ability to change, and have faith that God’s plan is unfolding for a greater good than I may ever see, I can live peacefully and even joyfully, savoring all the goodness that is in my life. It’s my choice.
I like to end my shares at meetings with these words. Why am I thanking the people there for my recovery? Because they and so many others are the mirrors I need to see myself as I really am. And grow from it.
Before my recovery in the rooms, I was depressed and very isolated. I still saw people, I worked, I had friends. But on what level was I operating a lot of the time? I was often very dishonest, with myself most of all. So I shuffled through life, bewildered, often feeling like a victim, sad, and unaware of the tools out there that, if utilized, gave me the power to be happy.
The 12-Steps and other tools I’ve picked up in the rooms are my guideposts for living. They encourage me to review my life, but not to stay stuck in the past. They ask me to look at my imperfections, ways I may have hurt others, make amends for them, and move on. This is where the mirrors I mentioned are especially critical, why it’s helpful to have a sponsor and other friends who can give me honest feedback about myself. Help me to be accountable. To grow. Up. Shed any illusions about myself that may have been getting in my way.
I got my life back in the rooms. Regardless of the storms whirling around me, and we all know what that’s like, if I have myself and my health and wellbeing to anchor me, I’m much stronger to weather any difficulties.