The Folly Of White-Knuckling It

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL, July 19:

“’At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance…’ ~Maya Angelou

Serenity isn’t compatible with struggle. We cannot control forces outside of ourselves. We cannot control the actions of our family or co-workers. We can control our responses to them. And when we choose to surrender our attempts to control, we will find peace and serenity.”

It’s always been so important to me to maintain a sense of control in my life. No matter how bad things got—from growing up in an alcoholic family, to watching my adult daughter lose herself in the hellish world of heroin addiction—I was certain that if I were in control on some level, the pain of it all would go away or, short of that, give me a sense of empowerment. I desperately sought a sense of power to distract me from my problems.

But looking to myself was not working. At that point in my life, the delusion that I had the power to fix anyone outside of myself started to collapse.

That’s when I broke down, and found “the gift of desperation.” I admitted I couldn’t exert my influence over anyone else, took that necessary leap of faith, and handed my burdens over to God. I stopped resisting. I loosened my grip.

I love my family and my daughter. But I’ve surrendered to the reality that there was only one person who I had the power to save at the end of the day: myself. And with my long history of substance use disorder, I had my work cut out for me. I placed the focus firmly back on myself and began, as I continue to begin anew every day, the long process of recovery.

“…the greatest paradox of all: absolute surrender in order to win.” ~Claire Demers

I Can’t

“Step One: Admitted we were powerless over (you name it), that our lives had become unmanageable.”

For a very long time I couldn’t take the first step. I realize now that I was confusing powerlessness with weakness. I couldn’t allow myself to be weak; I had to be strong for my daughter. But only after seeing how unmanageable my life had become in my attempts to be strong was I able to finally see my stubbornness and self-will for what it was: a desperate attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Then, and only then, was I able to let go and accept the unacceptable: I couldn’t save Angie. And I learned, paradoxically, that there is a lot of strength in surrender.

Amen to that.

The Talk

From Living Sober, AA World Services, Inc., p. 49:

“Many of us, when drinking, were deeply sure for years that our own drinking was harmless. We were not necessarily smart-alecky about it, but when we heard a clergyman, a psychiatrist, or an A.A. member talk about alcoholism, we were quick to observe that our drinking was different, that we did not need to do any of the things those people suggested. Or even if we could admit that we were having a bit of trouble with our drinking, we were sure we could lick it on our own. Thus we shut the door against new information and help. And behind that door, our drinking went on, of course.

Our troubles had to be pretty dire, and we had to begin to feel pretty hopeless before we could open up a little bit and let in some fresh light and help.”

Not all of us reach the same bottom, of course, before we decide not to drink. For many, it’s that first (or third) DUI. It could be lost employment for others. I’ve seen a couple of people with late-stage alcoholism awaiting liver transplants. Hopefully more and more alcoholics will decide to quit long before that happens.

My bottom cut me to the core and maybe that’s why I haven’t wanted to drink since. My son and his wife had an intervention with me. They called me out on my habit of drinking alone in their basement, something that I thought I was getting away with. Didn’t I think they’d notice all the empty vodka bottles? That and the fact that I was being secretive about it were red flags. Shame and secrecy all play into the denial that enables us to keep up bad habits.

I was stunned and deeply ashamed. And only because I’d had many years of work in another 12-Step group did I have enough recovery to stay in my chair and listen to their concerns. They were concerned about their children, my grandchildren, and the danger of drinking and driving. But most of all they were concerned about me, keeping me safe and alive long enough to enjoy watching them grow up.

I am so grateful to my son for stepping in. He saved my life. My own father was just a couple years older than I am when he died prematurely from alcoholism and smoking. History does not have to repeat itself.

When my children were young, I was not always emotionally present for them. To feel my son’s forgiveness now and to see his concern for my welfare is incredibly gratifying to me. I’ve been given a second chance and I want to take advantage of it. How many people get do-overs like that?

“The Road Less Traveled”

From Each Day A New Beginning, by Karen Casey, January 1:

“Acceptance of our past, acceptance of the conditions presently in our lives that we cannot change, brings relief. It brings the peacefulness we so often, so frantically, seek.”

The drama that filled my life when my daughter, Angie, first got sick was overwhelming. Eventually, it broke me. And I needed to step back and take a look at my behavior. The first thing I did was remove “frantically” from my vocabulary. Next, because I realized that my guilt and inflated sense of responsibility were actually harming her and preventing her from learning, I needed to step way back and detach, but always with love. Loving detachment need not be a slap in the face to our loved one, but rather it gives him/her the freedom and opportunity to be accountable for choices they made, often under the influence. If I continually step in and try to fix everything for my daughter, she will have little or no opportunity to accept life on life’s terms. And isn’t that, without resorting to substance use disorder, what we all need to do?

Life on life’s terms. Substance use disorder around the world is a deeply disturbing reflection of how people respond to loneliness and alienation. When emotional longing collides with the easy availability of substances—dangerous drugs, too much food, alcohol sold at gas stations—that’s a recipe for problems which might end with physical illness, but they didn’t begin that way. Emotional pain, Dr. Edwin Shneidman calls it “psychache,” came first.

There isn’t a nation on earth that doesn’t have people with some form of emotional pain that he writes about, and their solutions vary. In America, though, there has been a growing epidemic of substance use disorder for many years. The experts can figure out what this means, but as a substance user myself, I’m observing my world, and the world of all my friends in recovery, from that perspective. Only time will tell how the pandemic will affect those of us who used various substances to lessen our “psychache.”  But I’m grateful, one day at a time, to continue the work on my emotional sobriety and enjoy the positive effect it has on those closest to me. My world may be turning slower than it used to, but it’s still turning!

Choosing A Life

T.H.I.N.K. (Thoughtful, Honest, Intelligent, Necessary, Kind)

“This day is a beautiful room that’s never been seen before. Let me cherish the seconds, minutes, and hours I spend here. Help me to THINK before I speak and pray before I act. ‘The program helps me gain the freedom to make wise choices that are good for me. I choose to put that freedom in my life today.’”

I used to be on automatic pilot, prone to old actions and reactions that were familiar to me. But I wasn’t happy. So when I began my recovery program eighteen years ago, I learned that I can switch that autopilot off. I learned that I have choices about how I want to live.

Losing Angie to the hellish world of substance use disorder helped bring some things into focus for me. But not until I spent a lot of time grieving for her. I tried to help her, made many mistakes in the process, but ultimately as a matter of survival, I had to let go and practice acceptance of what I couldn’t change.

I did so without shame or guilt. I started to hear, faintly at first, the voices of other people in my life calling out for attention. Ten years ago my first grandchild was born, and that changed me forever. I was no longer just a mother who had struggled to raise her children. With the birth of both of my grandchildren, I could now start over with a clean slate. I’m not the same troubled young woman who raised my children. Now I’m a recovering grandmother with better health and a happier spirit to help raise this new generation. This is God’s gift to me, a second chance to try and live well without the demons that plagued me when I was younger.

And the beneficiaries of this second chance? Everyone who is in my life today: my remaining family, of course. But even without family, the world is a big place: neighbors, co-workers, the delivery man, the man I pass when I walk in the morning, my friends in and out of recovery, the people I sing to in the nursing home (on hold for the foreseeable future! L)—the list is endless.

Let me open my eyes and appreciate this beautiful room that I’ve never seen before. I believe that if I look for joy, I will find it.

“Live And Let Live”

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 himself, 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. 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 addict. 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. Addiction is a cruel taskmaster.

And so, as I keep saying over and over, I must leave Angie to the life she is bound to by 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.

Rain Dancing

The road to my spiritual life began when I was a young child growing up in an alcoholic family. But I didn’t start to walk down this road until halfway through my life when my daughter fell ill with substance use disorder.

I was very unhappy growing up. It’s a classic story of family dysfunction that many of us have experienced as children. But back then I didn’t have Alateen to go to. My father was never treated and died prematurely because of his illness. I, too, was untreated for the effects of alcoholism, and grew into an adult child.

Well, many of us know how rocky that road is: low self-esteem, intense self-judgment, inflated sense of responsibility, people pleasing and loss of integrity, and above all, the need to control. I carried all of these defects and more into my role as a mother to my sick daughter, and predictably the situation only got worse.

I was a very hard sell on the first three steps of Al-Anon, and my stubbornness cost me my health and my career. But once I did let go of my self-reliance, my whole life changed for the better.  The Serenity Prayer has been my mantra every day. I’ve learned to let go of what I can’t change. I don’t have the power to free Angie of her disease, but I can work hard to be healed from my own.  This is where I’ve focused my work in the program.

My daughter has gone up and down on this roller coaster for nearly eighteen years, and right now she’s in a very bad place. But that has only tested me more. My faith grows stronger every day when I release my daughter with love to her higher power, and I am able to firmly trust in mine.

Friends of mine ask me, “How do you do that? You make it sound so simple!”  I tell them, “First of all, getting here hasn’t been simple. It’s the result of years of poisoning my most important relationships with the defects I talked about earlier. I knew I had to change in order to be happy. Secondly, I fill my heart with faith-based unconditional acceptance of whatever happens in my life. It’s my choice.

Somewhere in the readings, someone wrote ‘Pain is not in acceptance or surrender; it’s in resistance.’ It’s much more painless to just let go and have faith that things are unfolding as they are meant to. There’s a reason that HP is running the show the way he is. I just have to get out of the way; I’m not in charge. I also read somewhere the difference between submission and surrender: submission is: I’ll do this if I get XYZ; surrender, on the other hand, is unconditional acceptance of what I get.  Well, the latter is easier because I’m not holding my breath waiting for the outcome. I just let go—and have faith. Again, it’s a very conscious choice.

We all have different stories. What has blessed me about a spiritual life is that I can always look within myself and find peace regardless of the storms raging around me. I’m learning how to dance in the rain.

The Freedom Of Surrender

From Courage To Change, January 23:

“Today’s reminder: At the start of each day I can make the decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God. This way I begin my day with a strong assertion that I choose to accept the reality of my life. I am growing in a healthy direction, growing ever more able to live a good life and to love those I meet along the way.

‘Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free.’”

My will(fullness) has gotten me into trouble often. I’ve exercised bad judgment and made questionable decisions, especially around my daughter Angie. I wanted to help her beat her addiction—as if I had any power over that.

When I was finally, after much trial and error, able to accept my powerlessness, a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Nothing changed in our situation except the way I began reacting (or not) to it.

Taking my attention away from Angie and the struggle that is hers alone, what was I going to do with all my energy?

Focus on myself and all the blessings God has given me. When I turn my burdens over to Him, I am free.

The Spirit Within

“The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles…only by a spiritual journey…by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.” ~Wendell Berry

Without the gift of spirit in my life, I would be drifting on an island in the middle of the ocean. Spirit can be anything we want it to be: some people say God, or Higher Power; others focus on a statue or a tree in the garden. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that it’s not US. “My best thinking got me here.” (into the rooms of recovery)

Here’s another acronym: EGO=Easing God Out.

That floating island in the middle of the ocean can be a dangerous vessel without a steering wheel. Maybe not dangerous; just completely self-reliant and without guidance.

Self-reliance was something I learned as a child because I had to. The adults in  my life were often distracted with their own problems, so I learned to do things by myself. This was a vital survival strategy when I was a child. But as an adult, it became a huge defect.

As an adult, I’ve too often carried that survival tool into situations in my life that required outside guidance. Too proud sometimes, or afraid, to ask for help or advice, I steered my ship into some dangerous waters. Like everyone else, I’ve made mistakes, and some of them were preventable if I’d had the humility to ask for help.

So, again like everyone else, I’m just a child of (God, a tree, the stars), and I’m growing every day, learning (hopefully) from my mistakes and trying to do better. Humility is a great leveler, and it has brought me closer to the one thing I’ve missed all my life: being part of a community of equals. When I’m in touch with the spirit within me, I’m no longer alone or isolated. I’m at one within my fellowship—and it feels good to be alive.

Hope For Whom?

From Hope for Today, Al-Anon approved literature, January 5:

“During each Al-Anon meeting…I hear ‘In Al-Anon we discover that no situation is really hopeless.’ At first I had a hard time comprehending that idea in my mind and heart. I felt anchored in a place so dark and full of despair…Even if Al-Anon folks could stop my mother from drinking, they certainly couldn’t go back in time and give me a happy childhood. I felt doomed. Yet as I looked around me at meetings, I saw many smiling faces. Maybe there was hope after all.”

When I first went into recovery, I always challenged the word “hope.” I said to everyone at the meetings, “Hope for whom?”  For my daughter—or for me? In time, though with tremendous difficulty, I accepted that I had no power over Angie’s choices and I learned to let go. Then I put the focus back on Marilea and started to feel an unfamiliar brand of hope: for myself.

As it says in the reading, “Situations don’t lose hope; people do. What is lost can be found, restored, replaced, or recovered. Even though the members of Al-Anon didn’t change my mother or my childhood, they did help me change my attitude.”

I realized with stunning clarity that my “poor-me” attitude was getting me nowhere, and I’d better make an effort to be more positive if I wanted to be happy. I’m not unique; I’m no different from millions of other parents out there who have lost children. We are an army of men and women who are facing one of our society’s cruelest challenges.

But if we can let go of our addict, we find that what’s left in our lives looms larger. My other children are more precious to me now precisely because of the sister they have lost. I would prefer to have all three of my babies healthy and happy, but we don’t always get what we want. Accepting that with all the grace I can, I’m able to move forward in my life and enjoy the years left to me.

Hope for whom? Hope for me—because I’m worth it.