Unlocking the key to this is the key to 12-Step recovery, because with it I become empowered to intelligently deal with the substance use disorder of a loved one (and/or myself). In a letter to another parent I said, “ I love my daughter with all my heart and soul. And I deeply grieve the loss of her. But it’s been learning how to love and value myself that has elevated me from the reality I live with”—“elevate,” as in rise above, detach from, avoid becoming enmeshed in and manipulated by my child. Oh, it’s a sad, sorry catechism we mothers of substance users must learn in order to survive the illness of our children, which changes some of them into people we don’t even recognize.
How I think about myself is conveyed to others. If I put myself down, or have self-deprecating humor, what will others think of me? I will try to guide my thoughts better and guard my tongue more.
But if I can create even a little bit of distance and objectivity from the problem that is consuming me, I might be given some freedom: to look around me and appreciate other blessings in my life, whether it’s a good job, good health, other healthy children, grandchildren, or a sunny day. Life goes on, relentlessly, with or without me. I choose to live well in my golden years. And I’ll do what’s necessary to insure that. My recovery has taught me that I deserve to.
A few years ago, I listened with pleasure to John Evans on Friday’s NAMW Teleseminar. My recovery memoir exemplified a number of the kinds of writing he talked about in the interview with Linda Joy Myers: writing for healing and transformation; affirmative writing; legacy writing; and transactional writing.
A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore began as an attempt to heal from the pain of my daughter’s substance use disorder. But as I dug deeper into those dark places he referred to, I uncovered many more truths about myself that I was ready to expose and come to terms with. This isn’t automatic for many memoir writers; indeed, this is often that terrifying place where the writing process stops and they back away, hoping to revisit another time. Readiness comes at a different time and place for all of us, but I’m glad I was prepared to do the work that led to self-discovery and change. The cathartic process of typing ten hours a day for two years until my hands ached with arthritis proved to be a worthwhile effort. The grief around my daughter and my family of origin ceased to be a crippling force in my life, and I’ve truly been able to move on. Anger and depression left me, forgiveness (of self and others) came easily, and most importantly, acceptance of things as they were—without resistance— became my mantra.
Shedding the negativity that had imprisoned me for so many years led me to another kind of writing that John Evans talked about: affirmative writing. In a way, my whole memoir, from beginning to end, stood under the light-filled umbrella of my recovery. I injected the positive change in me into every chapter as I looked back on my life—not with anger, sadness, and guilt—but with a fresh perspective. Gratitude, understanding, love and acceptance of what was were so much easier to carry. And they were the big takeaway from my story. It started out in a very dark place, but as the memoir expanded, thankfully, “the light got in.”
John also talked about legacy writing. How do we want people to think about us, and how do we want to be remembered? This brings me to the last type of writing he discussed: transactional writing. This is “getting down to business,” where we address issues on the page with someone else. But the other people we’re talking to need to be listening!
In my case, my siblings have not read the memoir because they fear the opening of old wounds. This is a reflection of where they are in their own healing process. Also, and John mentioned this in his own experience, siblings often have very different memories growing up in the same home. My brother, sister and I are all five years apart, and this was the case with us. Clearly, we’re not all on the same page, and there’s much more healing to be done in my family. But at the same time, some key people in my life haven’t heard my message. When I asked John about this, he assured me that the business was between my text and me—therein lays the benefit. That may be true. Many strangers have read my story and now they know me intimately and even understand me somewhat. But it’s my family that I wanted to know and understand me differently. Perhaps that’s work destined for another place down the road.
So for me alone writing my memoir was a tremendously healing endeavor, and I have indeed found myself transformed by undertaking such an arduous task. This work, to use John’s words, “has helped me move beyond what I thought I couldn’t get over.” I would wish that same clarity and transcendence for all of us!
The circumstances of our lives seldom live up to our expectations or desires. However, in each circumstance we are offered an opportunity for growth or change, a chance for greater understanding of life’s heights and pitfalls. Each time we choose to lament what isn’t, we close the door on the invitation to a better existence.”
Oh, that’s a mouthful of wisdom. But it took me years to swallow it. Maybe because what God was asking me to accept—addiction and the horrible life accompanying it in my beautiful daughter—the unacceptable. I simply couldn’t. But, over time, I saw what non-acceptance was doing to both me and my daughter.
It kept me in perpetual denial as I stubbornly refused to follow the suggestions for families in recovery. Eventually, my noncompliance broke me, and I was humbled into a state of acceptance.
But it hasn’t ended there. Every day now I open the door “to a better existence.” There IS life after loss. I focus these days on all the people and blessings who remain in my life. I will always grieve the loss of years with Annie. But life goes on. In an excerpt from A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (me):
“When addiction claims our loved ones, we often feel resentful. It feels to us like we had been tagged, even though we had run as hard as we could. It’s taken me a few years to get to a place where I don’t feel angry or gypped anymore. My lot is no better or worse than any other mother’s whose child was struck down by illness. Whether or not she outlives me—as is the law of nature—remains to be seen.
In the meantime, I must remember to watch the mountain turn into a big red watermelon, and enjoy the colors of New Mexico.” (2014)
“I maintain my struggles with righteous behavior. They lose their sting when they lose my opposition. I will step aside and let God.”
Somewhere in the readings, someone wrote ‘Pain is not in acceptance or surrender; it’s in resistance.’ It’s much less painful to just let go and have faith that things are unfolding as they are meant to. There’s a reason that my Higher Power is running the show the way he is. I’m not in charge; 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; it’s entirely transactional. Surrender, on the other hand, is unconditional acceptance of what I get in life. 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 can get bogged down in semantics. But each day as I go about my routines, I pray to keep Spirit close in all my affairs. For a long time I had an adversarial relationship with my Higher Power because I needed to be in control. My self-will was running rampant. I was white-knuckling my way through life. And getting very sore knuckles.
It’s been such a relief to learn how to surrender without feeling like I have failed. In some other places we are called warrior moms. And that very term says that we must do battle. Well, we have been, in some of the most painful ways. I have many battle scars, along with my brothers and sisters in these rooms.
At some point, embracing the idea of acceptance became my only option if I wanted any peace in my life. I will always love my daughter, and I tell her so. She has options, too. I can only pray that she exercises healthy ones someday.
In the meantime, though, I take comfort in accepting realities that I cannot change. Lord knows I’ve tried. Haven’t we all?
‘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 Skovel 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. ‘Can’t they see I’m right,’ we moaned, and our resistance only created more of itself.
Conversely, flowing with life, ‘bubbling’ with the ripples, giving up our ego, releases us from an energy that heals the situation—that smooths the negative vibrations in our path. Peace comes to us. We will find serenity each time we willingly humble ourselves.”
‘Resistance is more familiar. Nonresistance means growth and peace. I’ll try for serenity today.’
I wrote in my first memoir toward the end: “This is where I was in my recovery as I left San Francisco, at that hard won place I’d fought through years of resistance to find: the end of the battle—acceptance.” That’s what the above reading is all about, I think. Letting go of my desperate need to save my daughter from her substance use disorder, and coming to accept that I simply don’t have that power. I can only love her.
What could be harder for any parent than to accept our powerlessness over our child’s substance use disorder? Yes, there are many things we can do to help, not the least of which is continue to love our kids unconditionally. My experience has taught me, though, that when I make decisions out of fear, I risk making bad choices. When my actions flow from a place of love, including love of self, all will be well.
I’m a mother. When my kids were little, it was my job to keep them safe from harm. If they ran across the street with a car coming, I might have spanked them a little so they’d remember to look both ways next time. Yes: pain; yes: consequences. Yes: both good teachers.
But when Annie was twenty-one and started making terrible choices, I still thought it was my job to protect her from harm, self-inflicted or otherwise. And I still treated her like a two-year-old.
When she first stole from me early on, I went into a long period of denial and guilt, minimizing my feelings and believing her incredible explanations. My inaction only emboldened her, and she went on to steal in other ways. Several times, she stole my identity, with no explanations. So even when it was clear to me that her behavior was unacceptable, I still behaved inappropriately: I did nothing. Even when the credit card company told me to do something—that it would be a lesson for her—I still did nothing.
Where was the smack on the rear she would have gotten from running across the street? Where were the consequences that would have reminded her to be careful? I presented Annie with no consequences in the beginning of her illness and so she learned nothing. Her progressive illness got much worse. My guilt was crippling me as an effective parent.
Not until I started working my own program of recovery was I able to release myself from the hold that was strangling us both. I needed to get out of my daughter’s way. She wasn’t two anymore.
I’ve made a lot of progress since those early days. I’ve learned to let go and leave Annie to the life she has chosen. Four rehabs helped her turn her life around for a while, but she always slipped back into her substance use disorder and the life that goes with it. But staying out of the way has given me the freedom to take back my life and learn to live well by focusing on something else. It has also given Annie the freedom to take responsibility for her own life and hopefully her own recovery. If she reaches for it again, and I pray she will, how much more rewarding it will be for her to find her own way!
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has said: “I’ve studied alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana and more recently obesity. There’s a pattern in compulsion. I’ve never come across a single person that was addicted that wanted to be addicted. Something has happened in their brains that has led to that process.”
I picked up my tools for recovery in various 12-Step fellowships, which are at times controversial. I was reading in “Psychology Today” an article addressing this controversy. Here’s the link:
I honestly think that I could have picked up some of these life lessons anywhere; Al-Anon doesn’t have a lock on teaching gratitude and acceptance. The fellowship just happens to be where I gained some tools to change my attitudes and try to live better. I learned in more than one program how to take responsibility for my own happiness and how to stop searching for validation outside of myself. I’m happy to be a member. But this is an interesting article, and explains why many people still shy away from 12-Step programs.
“This journey of mine, this parenting journey, would involve going two steps forward sometimes and then three steps backward. It was not vertical progress I was making, but it was progress. And strangely, the more I kept the focus on myself and striving to be happy, the easier it was to let go of my child. I knew I had paid my dues, and I feared no one’s judgment, least of all God’s.
I’ve railed at God many, many times during all these years of joy and pain, this God they speak of at Twelve-Step meetings. How many times had I sinned in my life? Many, more than I want to remember. And so the child in me had been sure, earlier on, that I was being punished for all of them. It was my karmic payback. “What goes around comes around,” etc. Indeed, for all of my life, before my breakdown, I had no faith in any thing or any one other than myself. I grew up very lonely and isolated, and if there was a god, he wasn’t paying any attention to me. So I learned to be very independent and self-reliant.
But when I finally found myself on my knees, I felt broken and whole at the same time: broken because my MO for dealing with my problems hadn’t been working; and whole because I finally let myself believe in something outside of myself to strengthen me, to fill in the gaps that were missing in me, and to help me cope. I was starting to develop and cling to a faith that assured me that I was not being punished and that I would be OK in the end, no matter what happened to my daughter. And I realized that fighting Angie’s battles for her was not only a waste of time; it was also useless and of questionable value.
My energies, spent though they were, would be better directed toward reclaiming my own life, which had been sorely compromised in the fight to save my daughter. And in reclaiming my own life, I was bidding for my redemption, long overdue, but just within my reach. This was my journey now, I knew it; I sadly accepted it. I wanted us to be connected but we weren’t. I wanted her struggle to be our struggle, but it wasn’t. I wanted to save her life but I couldn’t. I could only save my own. And I’d keep working at it—or this relentless disease would claim two more victims instead of one.”
From A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (pen name)
My story with Annie has always been a complicated one. A number of moms I’ve met in these rooms are double winners, like myself, and that reality only made my recovery work harder. And lengthier! This excerpt demonstrates how I was dealing with my daughter from a terribly weak position. And until I dealt with my own issues, I would be in no position to intelligently cope with hers.
Enjoy this poignant excerpt. It’s a window into my life before I surrendered to a power greater than myself, before I began reaping the rewards of my own recovery.