The Many Faces of Gratitude

Though nothing can restore the years we’ve lost with Annie, I feel more and more able to embrace the life around me and revel in the gifts I’ve been given. On my gratitude list this morning: “I thought the rose bush was dead, but a little more water and it’s come back.”  Simple things—

How is it possible for me to be grateful, even, to Annie, whose illness brought me into the rooms of 12-Step recovery? How is this possible?

My unsent letter to my child:

Dear Annie,

Ironic, isn’t it, that you have become my teacher and not the other way around—teacher of life, teacher of love, and beacon of surrender.

I’m so grateful that you were born, even though at times I’ve felt otherwise. God works in mysterious ways, doesn’t he? Though you haven’t been in my life long, and not always happily, it’s been your very existence that has propelled me into a serenely spiritual life, even happiness. I never would have done the work necessary to reach this place without your inspiration.

You are my child, my teacher. As I’ve stumbled on this rocky path, my thoughts of you have guided me; they guide me still.

All that I’ve become are gifts from you, my daughter: life lessons, trial by fire. How do I honor you?

By living well—By loving well.

Mom

Dancing In The Rain

                                                               

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 recovery road until halfway through my life when my daughter fell ill with substance use disorder.

I was 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. 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.

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 struggling 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 my daughter 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 twenty 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 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 whatever 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.

Our Human Resistance

From Each Day A New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, January 9:

“’The Chinese say that water is the most powerful element, because it is perfectly nonresistant. It can wear away a rock and sweep all before it. ‘ ~Florence Scovel Shinn

Nonresistance, ironically, may be a posture we struggle with. Nonresistance means surrendering the ego absolutely. For many of us the ego, particularly disguised as false pride, spurred us on to struggle after struggle.”

Well, I don’t do anything absolutely, but my time in recovery has strongly encouraged me to remain right-sized in my thinking. EGO—Easing God Out—is a useful reminder that I don’t always know what’s best in any situation. But my resistance often keeps me stuck.

Whether it’s wondering how to cope with my addicted daughter, Annie, or wondering how to face the loneliness of Covid isolation, or determining what to do about a barking dog in the wee hours of the morning, all of these problems require some level-headed judgment, which I don’t always have.

So I find the power of prayer to be a wonderful relief and solution to my thinking that I have to fix every problem.

If it’s a situation I can control, I’ll try to do something.

If it’s not something I have the ability to control, I’ll try to let it go.

And determining which is which, needless to say, is our biggest challenge.

Two-Stepping The Twelve-Step

Excerpted from my memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation:

 “’Marilea, why don’t you try a recovery meeting?’ my counselor gently advised me. She had heard me week after week moan about Annie turning into a monster I didn’t recognize anymore. It was terrifying; sleep eluded me.

‘Oh no, that’s not for me,’ I responded, echoing my mother from thirty years before when my sister tried to get her to do the same thing.

‘Well, I think it will help you to be around people going through the same thing.’

Thinking about it for a few weeks, though, I took her advice and started going to a meeting on Saturday mornings. Gene also felt it was a good idea.

And so began a long period of faithfully going to several twelve-step meetings, but essentially paying lip service much of the time, particularly to the first three steps, because I was nothing if not the biggest control freak around.

Step One: Admit my powerlessness? Never! I brought her into the world. It was my job to protect and save her.

Step Two: Believe that God could restore me to sanity? What’s insane about trying to save my child?

Step Three: Turn my will over to God? No way! I had to stay in control.

As a child, I took care of my own needs. I’d asked for company, hollered for attention, hoped for forgiveness, but was often ignored. So I became compulsively self-reliant: CSR, I humorously say at meetings. And much of that self-reliance, attempting to appear competent, looked like arrogance.

It took me a long time before I found the humility to get a sponsor. Part of me didn’t want to ask for help; an even bigger part thought I didn’t need help.It was Annie, I argued, who needed help.

Humility, I discovered, was a tremendous leveler, and it would bring me closer to what I’d been missing my whole life: being part of a community of equals.

But without being honest with myself and others, I remained isolated on the outside, looking in.”

Cracks In The Wall

“We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.”

There were a few cracks I didn’t see, especially in my children. Growing up I was not perfect and was shamed often because of it. Early in my daughter’s illness, I was mortified, ashamed and in denial about what was going on. It took me a long time to free myself of the shame and guilt. Unfortunately, though, a few others heap it back onto me if I let them.

I don’t.

This is why my recovery fellowship is so vital to my well-being. Guilt has no place in my life anymore. But love does. We can’t save our children if they don’t want to be saved. All we can do is love them. And as hard as this has been, surviving Angie’s illness is how I have chosen to honor her.

Here’s an excerpt from my award-winning memoir, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, written under a pen name, Maggie C. Romero:

“We can’t go back and do things over.  And I’m only human. I sometimes ask myself what I did wrong or what I missed seeing. Then I remember that addiction is a disease: ‘I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.’ And like a gentle breeze blowing away the clutter of remorse, I let go of those thoughts and embrace my life again, free of responsibility.

 In any case, whatever she chose to do now, I needed to leave her alone to do it. I knew better than to scream and wail in the night to God and all the graces that protected the innocent to save my daughter. Whatever the roots of addiction are, whatever holes were missing in her that this opportunistic disease filled in, I didn’t have the power to combat them. And I just had to let go of the struggle, or I would disappear down that rabbit hole with her.”

Little Heroes

From Courage to Change, Al-Anon approved literature, May 31:

“Legends have often told of spiritual journeys in which the hero must face great challenges before gaining treasure at the journey’s end. As the heroes of our own stories, we…have also embarked upon a spiritual journey—one of self-discovery.”

I never thought of myself as a hero. What I am is a recovering addict/alcoholic with an AD who I haven’t seen in eight years. Those are the facts. Have I been challenged by the reality in my life? Of course! But I’m still here. I sleep at night. In spite of my struggle with Annie, I manage my life and relationships better than I ever have.

Before recovery, there were two Marilea’s: the outside one and the inside one; and they didn’t match. Like many people, I wore masks to keep up appearances. But I am learning in the rooms to face myself with more honesty, to let go of habits that weren’t working for me anymore, and in the process I discovered new things about myself, things that give me hope for the future.

People fear change, so it takes courage to do things differently. The biggest and most fundamental change in my life has been my ability to embrace an entity outside of myself (call it God, HP, or a tree) to guide me through the inevitable difficulties in my life.

Before I took the first three steps—the “God” steps—I was entirely self-reliant, feeling and appearing competent, but always frightened on the inside. My “solution” had always been excessive use of various substances—from food to alcohol—to deal with my fears. But that stopped working for me, and I needed help to implement the change I needed. I was desperate enough to accept that my best thinking got me into the rooms of recovery. I was probably my own worst enemy, and I needed help. I had tried so many things, from yoga to many self-help books.

But the one thing missing in all of my solutions was a healthy dose of humility. I still needed to think I was in charge, which, of course, is what got me into so much trouble. I was delighted, finally, to let go of my ego just enough to trust in God to help me manage my life. This was the piece of the puzzle I had been yearning for. My Spirit now fills in the holes that substances used to cover up, and I’m grateful.  

Ego, The Double-Edged Sword

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL, July 20:

“’It is ironic that the one thing all religions recognize as separating us from our Creator—our very self-consciousness—is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures.’ ~Annie Dillard

EGO: Edging God Out. A friend told me once that our ego is what separates us from God. And I didn’t know what she meant because I didn’t understand how our egos have the power to save us—but also have the power to destroy.

So  as I’ve come to know myself within the comforting fellowship of many recovery rooms, I’ve started to see more, and more broadly, the concept of “self” and how it can be lovingly managed within the context of substance use recovery.

“This division from others, the barrier that keeps us apart, comes from our individual insecurities.” As Annie Dillard alludes to above, we need no longer make comparisons between ourselves and others. When we ignore our differences, and focus on what brings us together, we come to see ourselves, over time, as a wonderful community of equals. What separates us IS our ego, and thankfully with the First Step we have learned to tame that tricky beast before it gets in the way of our progress.

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?