“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.”
“Detachment is not detaching from the person or thing whom we care about or feel obsessed with. Detachment is detaching from the agony of involvement.”
Boundaries…boundaries…boundaries. Where do I end and the other person begins? A strong sense of self enables me to set clear limits with others. I was terribly enmeshed in my daughter’s life; I had never separated from her in a healthy way. Because we were so alike, I identified with her and felt overly responsible for her troubles. Her problems became my problems, and it never occurred to me to let her face her own responsibilities, both for her betterment and my own. Four rehabs started the healthy process of accountability. Then four relapses reversed much of that work. But I still hope that some of what she learned is still with her.
Thankfully my work in recovery has helped me face myself in the mirror and make some important changes. I made the necessary separation, first of all, from my daughter. I detached—with great difficulty. I no longer feel the “agony of involvement” because I’ve let go of her illness and the consequences of her substance use. I can’t save her from herself. I can only love her and be here for her should she choose to walk with me in recovery. This is how I make living amends to my children and others in my life: by living well myself and hoping it inspires them to do the same.
For mothers of substance users, detachment is one of the hardest tools to use. We are inevitably joined through years of raising, nurturing and loving our children as best we could. And when things go so horribly wrong as they do with substance use disorder, it’s only natural to question ourselves and how we raised them.
Self-blame is common, as we take on too much responsibility for our child’s illness. I myself overcompensated where I shouldn’t have. I felt guilty and that guilt crippled my judgment. I became an enabler, and that prevented my daughter from learning from the consequences of her (drug-induced) behavior.
Thankfully, I’ve had years of recovery work to learn how to detach from the pain of watching my daughter self-destruct. I did send her to several rehabs and hoped that a sound upbringing and family love would turn her life around. But ultimately the choice to recover is hers alone.
I wish I had the power to change her. I wish things were different. But I have two other children who were raised the same way, and they are blessings in my life. I’ve stopped blaming myself, and I’ve learned to accept a situation I don’t have the power to change. I detach. I move away from obsessing about the pain of losing her. And I focus on the many good things that remain. When I try to keep my attitude positive, my life works better for me.
“’I came for a quick fix and found a way of life.’ ~Bertie P., Florida
As I look back, when I walked through the doors of Al-Anon, I had planned to stay long enough to find out how to get the miracle of sobriety in my home. I’m still there!
I was broken spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I had given up on everything and everyone. A friend dragged me to Al-Anon, but I was sure it was hopeless.
After my first meeting, I was still very angry. How could all those people be happy and smiling? Their homes could not be as bad as mine. Fortunately, I wanted to laugh and smile too. A member, who later became my sponsor, took an interest in me as a newcomer, and I kept coming back.
The slogans and all the tools annoyed me, and I didn’t share. Did I ever have a closed mind! But…I kept going…
I started taking care of myself and gave the alcoholic a choice to get help or go his own way. Five years later, the real miracle was finding me…I learned how to change my life and really live.”
Wishing/hoping/praying that my daughter will tire of her life and seek recovery is holding myself hostage to something I have no control over. And I don’t want to be a hostage. I want to be free. My recovery program has given me the tools to live my life unencumbered by other people’s choices.
“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.”
“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!
“Addiction is like a chain reaction. It is a disease which affects the addict as well as the family members, friends and co-workers. We try to control, cover up, and take on the responsibilities of the addict. The sickness spreads to those of us who care the most. Eventually, we begin to feel used and unhappy. We worry, lose trust and become angry. The addict blames us and we feel guilty. If only something or someone would change!
When we discover Nar-Anon, we find others with the same feelings and problems. We learn we cannot control the addict or change him. We have become so addicted to the addict that it is difficult to shift the focus back to ourselves. We find that we must let go and turn to faith in a Higher Power. By working the steps, following the traditions and using the tools of the program, we begin, with the love and help of our Higher Power and others, to change ourselves.
As we reach out for help, we become ready to reach out a helping hand and heart to those in need of Nar-Anon. We understand. We do recover. Slowly, new persons emerge. Change is taking place.”
Though I have changed and grown through my work in the program, I. of course, still love my daughter and am available to help her if she reaches out to me for help. Detachment is not desertion. The difference is that I’m a healthier person now and am able to make the tough choices I couldn’t make years ago. I pray she finds the strength to come back to her family. We can’t get back the lost years, but I still have hope, like the warm sun shining on my face, and keeping my love strong.
Love and hope in the time of coronavirus. If “addiction is a chain reaction,” moving through our society like a massive nimbus cloud of loneliness and despair, then kindness and good will can also be a chain reaction, propelling people to examine their lives and make necessary changes. There was never an easier time to do this, coming out of the pandemic, when two years of enforced reflection carry the potential for change in all of us. In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” has two characters: one for danger and the other for opportunity.
This is humanity’s opportunity to move forward stronger and more effectively than ever before.
“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” ~Charles A. Beard
I have a huge collection of shells that I’ve amassed over fifty years. But I’ve pretty much stopped collecting because I have no more room to put them! It’s time to enjoy what I have. And to wonder what they’ve represented to me all these years.
Ego. Such a fundamental part of the human condition, and yet it’s the very thing that makes me human and separates me from God. It’s ego that keeps me struggling in my relationships, ego that keeps me from accepting things as they are and feeling content with what I have. It’s ego and my willfulness beneath it that traps me in my restless search to outdo myself and others.
And it’s ego that makes me want to leave an imprint in the sand.
All human beings wrestle with ego, but substance users have found a solution that elevates us from our soul sickness: losing ourselves in substances and behaviors that provide oblivion for a time. “We want what we want when we want it.” That tired old phrase smacking of egocentricity and childishness.
Substance users in their disease are all about themselves. In Alcoholics Anonymous, one definition of an alcoholic is an egomaniac with an inferiority complex..
To be “relieved of the bondage of self,” as the Third Step Prayer states in the Big Book, I’m learning how to nurture a relationship with God and remember my place in relation to Him. My importance is next to nothing in the scheme of things. This keeps me right-sized and humble. I’m just another grain of sand on the beach.
Learning to live beyond ego has been one of my biggest challenges. And, like all my work in the school of recovery, there is no graduation.
I line up all my conches and other shells, like students in a classroom, mindful of what they are teaching me.