“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.
Self-Care demands discipline from us. And I haven’t always had a lot of that! But people can change. That’s the beauty of 12-step recovery. It helps me be the best human being I can be.
Physical Self-Care has many faces. For some of us it’s making sure we get enough sleep. Or trying to eat healthy foods. Taking enough vitamins. I do all of those things, and I try to walk a mile a day. Sometimes I do that just running up and down stairs in my own home. Gardening and putting plants in the earth is life-enhancing and gives me hope.
Spiritual Self-Care is equally important to me. I start the day with an entry in my gratitude journal. The old me, before recovery, would dwell on the sadness of losing Annie in my life. Next month it will be ten long years since I’ve seen her! But the new me takes joy in my other children and grandchildren. And my many friends. It’s where I put my focus now, if only because I have some control over these relationships. Prayer and talking to God is critical, too, because I don’t have power over some things, and I need His guidance in choosing my battles. And on a bad day, helping me feel the sunshine.
“Deal from strength:” I heard this many years ago, and I understand it now. I’m not in a good position to help others if I’m too sick myself. I will continue to care for myself so that my presence can be of benefit to others. The people in my life now will thank me for it.
“All we are asked to bear we can bear. That is the law of the spiritual life. The only hindrance to the working of this law, as of all benign laws, is fear.” ~Elizabeth Goudge
I’ve read that fear and anxiety are at the basis for many substance use disorders. I can’t speak for all of them, or for everyone, but I can speak for myself. Fear precipitated much of my self-destructive behavior. Fear of being “less than,” fear of criticism and disapproval, fear of not belonging, fear of failure, and fear of retribution.
And it was fear that kept me obsessed with my daughter’s choices. Fear for her well-being—and for mine. That fear kept me enmeshed in her life and her choices, thinking I was always riding to her rescue when I was doing nothing of the kind; shielding her from consequences just kept her from learning and growing. I needed to think that I had the power to save her.
Letting go of my obsession and fear—replacing them both with faith—has brought peace into my life. Now I’m better educated about the disease of substance use disorder; I’m learning what I can do and what I can’t do. How can I be helpful? And what must I surrender? All good questions and the answers are coming to me through my 12-Step work.
There are many paths to peace, and I respect them all. I’m just grateful that the path I have chosen has delivered me from a lifetime of fear and isolation and closer to the God of my understanding. No matter what happens in my life, I believe all will be well, according to God’s plan.
Relying on God, however we understand God’s presence, is foreign to many of us. I was encouraged from early childhood to be self-reliant. Even when I desperately needed another’s help, I feared asking for it. When confidence wavered, as it so often did, I hid the fear—sometimes with alcohol, sometimes with pills or too much food. Sometimes I simply hid at home. My fears never fully abated…Slowly and with practice it became easier to turn within, to be God-reliant rather than self-reliant.”
There’s a saying in the Program that “our best thinking got us here (into the rooms of recovery).” And it’s so true! I joke at meetings that I’ve always been “CSR,” compulsively self-reliant.” I have been for much of my life, afraid to ask for help and even more afraid to accept it. As a child I had to rely on myself for so many things, and that became a survival strategy. But as an adult, that very façade of strength can become a terrible defect. Appearing to be a formidable wall of arrogance, it only served to isolate me and separate me from my peers. I had to tear down that wall.
And when I did, when I found the ability to bare my fears and vulnerabilities and ask for help when I needed it, I found my humanity. My faith in a power greater than myself enabled me to let go of my self-reliance and join hands with others as we reached out and helped one another.
It hasn’t removed the problems from my life. But it has made facing and living with them so much easier.
This poem addresses the idea of letting go, as opposed to clinging to, much of the negativity in my life—much of what used to weigh on me and drag me down into depression.
Detachment is a skill that allows me to create a safe distance between myself and my daughter. I have learned that if I don’t, I will be swallowed up in her black hole before I know it. As a parent, I’ve often felt that I didn’t deserve the gift of detachment. But I do. I did the best I could with what I knew at the time. I’ve learned to forgive myself for any mistakes I made with my daughter. It took a long time, but this was an important step in my recovery. Until I did that, I risked being forever enmeshed in her pain and the mess of her life as it is now.
Once I could reach some level of detachment, I was freer to work the steps. In hindsight, I see now why I couldn’t really do the first three steps in a more timely manner. I simply had not let go of my responsibility in her life, my importance in her life, and therefore my need to fix her life.
I needed to be humbled—in the best sense of the word.
“Living well is the best revenge.” ~George Herbert
I’ve received many emails from moms asking me how I cope with the living death of Annie’s substance use disorder. Many of my friends here know the hellish limbo I’m living in, without any resolution or closure. But I have found a way to cope better and move on with my life. This is what I tell them:
“I put my sadness in a back drawer and close it. Then I look at what’s in my front drawers every morning. I have so many wonderful things to be grateful for. Instead of focusing on my problems, I try to keep my mind on the solutions. This is how I live. It keeps me humble, grateful, and glad to be alive. I will never forget that Annie was once a beautiful, creative young woman. I honor her memory in this way, and I truly believe she would want me to live well and be happy. In this month of love, I celebrate my daughter with happy memories, hopes for her future, and confident in mine.”
“’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.
“’When people make changes in their lives in a certain area, they may start by changing the way they talk about that subject, how they act about it, their attitude toward it, or an underlying decision concerning it.’ ~Joan Illsley Clarke
…Each positive change we make builds our self-esteem. Realizing that through our own actions we are becoming the kind of women (and men) we admire, gives us the strength, in fact, encourages the excitement in us that’s needed to keep changing…
I will accept an opportunity today to act as if I can handle a situation I used to run from.”
I was desperately unhappy when I joined Al-Anon. I was sure that my misery was caused by my daughter and her substance use disorder. It didn’t occur to me that it was my reaction to those circumstances that was the culprit. But when, after years of struggle, I finally did accept that I was the author of my own unhappiness, I was ready to do some of the real work of the program. Many people write me: “But what made you WANT to change?” I answer them all the same way: “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired” (of myself).
My daughter has gone in and out of recovery from SUD. My recovery, in recent years, has followed a different trajectory. And the key, of course, is being able to cut the umbilical cord and recognize that we are on separate paths.
That’s very hard for most parents, myself included. But when I see the damage that comes from NOT detaching, from staying mired in old resentments, old guilt, old unresolved stuff, I am reminded to let the past go and stay in the here and now. “Annie,” deep in her disease, has consistently tried to keep my focus on past errors, in order to justify her rage and distract her from what she needs to do now to get well.
But that’s the illness talking. I don’t take the bait anymore. I don’t engage unless it’s on a healthy level. Why not? Because it keeps us rolling around in the mud. And that’s not productive.
For a long time I welcomed rolling around in the mud. But not anymore. That’s one of the changes in myself that I’ve enjoyed. With my history, my self-esteem has always been shaky. But the tools of recovery help me learn how to adopt new attitudes about myself. And as the reading suggests, this is most often accomplished by making positive changes in my behavior.
When I do good things, they return to me tenfold. I may not get everything I want in my life. But for me to get up every day and say to myself: “You know, Marilea? You’re okay. You’re a work in progress. You just keep doing things that reinforce that self-directed goodwill, and you’ll be okay.”
Life is unfolding as my HP intended, and all will be well.
Substance use disorder doesn’t discriminate. Before my daughter was swallowed up in it, she was a successful ten-year-old gymnast, competing in England while we were traveling in the Foreign Service and living in Greece. She was a gifted artist. And she graduated from college with a B.A. in Journalism. When she was twenty-one, it all fell apart.
I no longer speculate on “Why Annie?” Rich, poor, educated or not, substance use disorder can strike anywhere. And sometimes there is a gene component—four generations in my family—but not always.
The particular poignancy of this mother’s story is that Annie and I mirror each other: we both suffer from substance use disorder. So my story has a bit of a spin to it. It’s all graphically portrayed in my books. I’m not as detached as many parents without such baggage. My guilt and overinflated sense of responsibility consistently prevented me from being objective or from acting intelligently. I had to let go of my remorse before I could be helpful to her. And I had to learn to value myself enough to do that.
That came from working the steps of my recovery program. Self-forgiveness is critical to my ability to move on. Mine has been a classic redemption story.
I have learned to live well, despite the fact that my daughter is estranged from me. Many fellow parents, myself included, are primarily interested in the magic bullet that will save our children. But I’m glad I stayed in recovery long enough to learn that even though I’m powerless to save my daughter, I can still save myself. There are other voices in my world who call me: other children, grandchildren, family and many friends. I want to listen and live well for them. That is the message of my story and many others’: that even though I’m weathering one of a parent’s worst nightmares, I’ve learned that there’s no glory in martyrdom, and that I’ve earned the right to live happily, whether Annie recovers or not. Life goes on, and we with it. I’ve lived a blessed life, and only through my work in recovery have I found the good sense to recognize and be grateful for that.
As I’ve watched Annie slipping away all these years, I’ve learned to view my life through a different lens. The tools of recovery have taught me how to be grateful for what I have, how to let go of people and situations that I cannot change, and to have faith in something greater, wiser, and more powerful than I am.
Losing my child to substance use disorder did break me a few years ago, and in my brokenness and despair I turned toward the light that had always been there. I’m so grateful that I still had the eyes to see it.