Writing As A Tool To Heal

“Oh I hate to write, Marilea. It’s like pulling teeth. And I’m afraid of what I might find.”

“Bingo, girlfriend, that’s the whole point. Discovery. I’ve been writing my heart out for more than a decade, and what I’ve learned about myself in the process could fill a book. In fact, it did. It filled three books and countless essays.”

“Yeah, but you’re a good writer and I’m just a hack.”

“Whoa! There’s all that judgment we keep heaping on ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you write well or not. The work is putting your words on paper. How they are received is also not important. What you do with those words is not important. Just get them out of you and examine what’s on the page. Maybe you will learn something new.”

So my friend and I went back and forth about the value of writing. She said she’d get back to me.

But I learned many things about myself from reading my early writing. I learned that I was extremely angry and judgmental toward my daughter. How could she be behaving so badly? And then I wrote about my own youth and realized that we were mirror images of each other.

Discovery.

I learned that I needed to be in the rooms as much as my daughter, if not more, because there were two of us who were sick. And that was the beginning of my healing. My words on the page stood out like red flags everywhere. That’s when I stopped being so angry or judgmental. If I could forgive myself for my sick soul and the behavior it reflected, I could certainly forgive my daughter. And that smoothed the way for her to come back to her family when she was ready.

Our lives rarely enjoy Hollywood endings. My story has not ended well for my daughter. But my writing has helped me cope with that too. The two of us might have fallen down the rabbit hole and never returned. But the catharsis I experienced from being honest on the page has freed me to look beyond my daughter and see my life in perspective. I have a wonderful life, surrounded by people I love. And though I miss my daughter and feel the loss of her every day, I can transform my grief into something positive: joy and gratitude for all that’s left in my life. This book, Opening Our Hearts, Transforming our Losses, is a great resource for those who don’t know what to do with their grief. Take a look.

Memoir Excerpt

“All my children had finished college and had spread their wings. Caroline lived in San Francisco, and Carter was about to leave for Austin to get his master’s. But Annie was still living in the area, utterly transformed by the disease of substance use disorder. I bore witness, close-up, to unbelievable changes in her character, shocking new behaviors, as I experienced a mother’s bewildering sadness and grief. I felt sometimes, like going to bed and staying there.

              Exploding into my living room a year later with a pit bull and an overflowing suitcase, her eyes were blood red as she pleaded with me.

             ‘Mom, help me. I can’t do this anymore!’

              Of course I’ll help you, my darling girl. We’ll arrange for another rehab, and I know it will work this time.

             ‘Annalise,’ I told her without giving her a choice, ‘I’m taking you to Arlington Hospital. They can help you there. Where is your car? How did you get here?’

             ‘My car was stolen. I got a ride here,’ she said, looking toward the door, wild-eyed. ‘Please get me out of here. I need help.’

             ‘Honey, it’ll be okay,’ I offered. ‘I’m sure they’ll give you something to calm you in the hospital.’

            Thank God Gene was living with me then and happened to be home.

             ‘Gene,” I was trembling, ‘you need to take Dante to the animal shelter in Alexandria. I’m sure they’ll find a home for him.’ I wasn’t sure of that at all, but it helped Annie say goodbye to her dog.

             I got in the car with her and drove the short distance away, illegally parking right at the entrance. The staff checked her in to the psych ward. As I turned to leave, Annie suddenly approached me, panicked. Of course she was afraid. She was putting herself in a situation where she would have to stop abusing drugs as long as she was there.

              ‘Annie,’ warmly offering her a hug, ‘Gene and I will visit you every day. And Dad and Paula will come over from Georgetown, too. Just try to get better. We all love and miss you so much.’

              She turned away from me and followed the nurse. The door to the psych ward slammed behind her. It only opened in one direction. She was locked in.

              And I was locked out. I still couldn’t accept the fact that Annie was a runaway train—and I couldn’t stop the wreckage. It was October, 2007, my favorite time of year. But I was blind to the autumn beauty all around me. The world appeared bleak and colorless.

              After I got home, I repeated Psalm 23 over and over again: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…’

            I was praying as hard as I could. But not hard enough.

           Total Wine wasn’t far from my condo. I popped in there for an economy-size bottle of Chardonnay, not even waiting for the change. The twist-off cap let me start right there in the parking lot. Once again I felt rattled and sick with worry. Alcohol was how I was finding my courage more and more in those days. The courage to watch my daughter fall into the rabbit hole of substance use disorder and be helpless to stop her.

Mirror, mirror…I was following her down that hole.

By the time Gene returned from taking Annie’s dog to the shelter, I’d finished about half of the bottle, was terribly drunk, dizzy, and sprawled on the sofa, wailing out loud.

‘I’ll never do this again, make me promise! This is the last time!’

Gene just held my hand.”

© Marilea C. Rabasa and Gene Dunne, 2023. Excerpt from Gene and Toots: A Story of Love…and Recovery (Sidekick Press).

Others Need Us Too

I’ll never forget a friend I had years ago. She was the youngest of three girls in her family. The middle sister had suffered from cancer years before and had died. My friend was ten when her sister died at age fourteen. But it wasn’t the death that traumatized Jillian so much. It was the years of care, heartbreak and obsession with saving her dying child that her mother endured—to the exclusion of her other two girls—that turned Jillian into an angry, rebellious teenager. She did not get her share of mother love, she felt, and to this day she has not forgiven her mother. I should have remembered that story while I was obsessing over my daughter.

I have since made amends to my other children and family members for allowing my daughter’s illness to take up so much emotional energy in my life. And they have forgiven me. It’s so easy for a loving mother to become enmeshed in the life of a troubled child. But I need to remember that there are other people in my life, and I will try to keep a healthy perspective and a sense of balance. For them. Because they matter too.

Find Something To Smile About

Silver linings are everywhere in our lives. I try to appreciate them when I see them. My family has lived through four generations of alcoholism, but it wasn’t until my daughter was stricken with substance use disorder that I was motivated to go into serious recovery for myself. Losing her all these years to this cruel disease has been heartbreaking, and my serenity has come at a very high price. But though I’ll never get over these lost years with her, I like to think that she would be glad that I’ve survived and am learning to live well. This is how I honor her memory. She’s left a few flowers along the way, and I’m grateful.

Living In The Solution

I messaged a friend on Facebook: “Oh, God Bless, Maryann, my heart goes out to you and all of us mothers. I often say in my book and on these sites that I’m grieving a living death because my daughter is not the person who’s walking in her shoes. She’s split right down the middle. Anyway, we all have different stories, but some parts are so familiar. My books are all about finding solutions for myself, and I hope they help you too. One thing I’ve learned on this difficult journey is to live in the solution, not in the problem. That’s how I’ve learned to be happy. Hugs to you!”

From a Nar-Anon handout: “People like myself whose problems have brought them to the point of despair have come to Nar-Anon to seek advice and find solutions. As soon as they attend the first meeting they feel like they have come home and feel like they are among people who really understand. And fortunate is the newcomer who finds a group that permits such expression. It gives those who have gone before them a way to give encouragement and hope. The newcomer discovers that it is by giving and receiving in our sharing that we are able to heal ourselves, and slowly we are able to regain control of our lives again.

But still more fortunate is the newcomer who finds a group that does not allow such unburdening to continue meeting after meeting. There is work to be done; Nar-Anon is not a sounding board for continually reviewing our miseries, but a way to learn how to detach ourselves from them.

A Recovery reminder:

I will learn by listening, by reading all the Nar-Anon literature as well as all good books on the subject of substance use disorder by working and trying to live the 12 Steps. The more I read and study the more knowledge I receive. Knowledge is power, and I will be able to help myself as well as others.”

Surround Yourself With Love, And Not Just On Valentine’s Day!

My recovery work over the years has brought me out of isolation and pushed me into the circle of love in this picture. I have learned many things in my recovery program, but the most important has been placing a greater value on my worth, my needs and my wants. Learning to set boundaries is another way to take care of myself, letting others know what is and what isn’t acceptable to me. This tool has made my relationships healthier. Without a daily practice of self-care, what shape am I in to interact with those around me?

“Progress, not perfection,” to be sure, and we all have bad days. But I’m grateful to have found a sound guide for living in my recovery program. It doesn’t take away the pain of struggling with my daughter throughout her substance use disorder. But it does offer coping strategies that encourage me to focus on what I can control in my life. No longer drained from fighting a battle I can’t win, I feel energized to move on and celebrate the blessings God has given me.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Attitude is everything.

The Spirit Coming Alive

“The idea of God is different in every person. The joy of my recovery was to find God within me. “ ~Angela Wozniak

One of the promises of 12-Step recovery is that we shall learn to be “happy, joyous and free.” I like the free part best. For too many years I’ve been chained to my own human failings. I never understood with such clarity my own defects and limitations until I started to work this Program. I was so lonely and isolated. But when I came to believe after much trial and error that I was in fact powerless over substance use disorder—mine, my daughter’s, and anyone else’s—I fell to my knees and turned this struggle over. And I felt so much lighter. Now, at last, I was off the hook. I’ve turned over all the lost years with my daughter and turned my attention to things I can control now. And that has given me the freedom to focus on other things.

My spirituality is based on three factors: far less EGO (Easing God Out), humble acceptance of whatever my lot is in life, and the vision to appreciate every day for all the good that I can see and experience. In this way, the principles of this Program have changed my life. It’s really great to be alive, and for so many years my life was utterly joyless. That’s the power of the spirit coming alive in me through my spiritual Program.

The Power Of Our Thoughts

“Thoughts become things: choose the good ones.”

It seems logical, doesn’t it? Why would we choose negative thoughts? Well, sometimes it’s all we know, what we learned growing up. It’s been our default setting. And, as my sponsor always used to say, “How’s that been working for you, huh?”

Not well, of course. And it wasn’t until I did a lot of work in recovery that I actively started challenging my thinking. For example, the guilt trip:

“It’s all my fault. I didn’t raise her right.”

Another one: the fear trip:

“OMG, look how she’s destroying her health!”

Another one: the responsibility trip:

“She’s not capable. Only I (my love, my wisdom) can fix her.”

All this tripping did not help me, and it helped her even less.

How can I move my erroneous thinking into a more positive space?

the guilt trip:

My mothering didn’t cause this. It’s a disease. And why are my other children well-adjusted?

the fear trip:

Many substance abusers go into lasting recovery, motivated, among other things, by their own fear.

the responsibility trip:

Only she has power over her disease and has the power to recover from it. It’s totally up to her.

When I move my sometimes faulty thinking to a more sane and reasonable place, it’s much easier to live my life. I can accept what I can’t change. I can surrender to the will of my higher power. This is not giving up. This is understanding my own power and using it to dig out of my despair and arrive at a better place, one filled with faith and hope for better things.

Recovery.

Hope For The New Year

From Hope for Today, April 20:

“For me letting go is like a tree shedding its leaves in autumn. It must let go of them to produce even more beauty in the following spring and summer. Letting go of what I do not truly need—whether it be old thoughts, things, or behaviors—makes room for new growth in my life.

Turn that problem over…Then begin to do something about your own life.”

My sponsor told me to “loosen my grip.” How many of us white-knuckle it through life? Holding on to old ideas, old destructive habits—because it’s all we know, all we’re comfortable with? Like holding on to my need to save my daughter from her substance use disorder. The Serenity Prayer encourages me to let go, with grace, of the things that I cannot change. The disease of substance use disorder is one of those things. So I’ve learned to let go. And I’ve found peace in my life—and gratitude for all that remains.

Happy New Year, everyone! May we all find some wellness and joy in 2024.

Holiday Thoughts

They come every year, this time from Thanksgiving to Christmas. I have many, many years of memories around my children at this time of year. Most of them were so happy and full of excitement. Then about twenty years ago the curtain fell down. My middle child fell into the rabbit hole we all know so well—substance use disorder—and a shadow was cast over my once carefree holidays.

So I, along with many of my fellow travelers on this journey, began to live with the reality of our families under a terrible strain, felt even more keenly at this time of year. And my journey has been a long one, with many bumps in the road. But the lessons I have learned about living with substance use disorder are invaluable and have filled three books!

No one would choose to learn about life and the power of letting go of some things in this way. It’s not like planting a flower in the garden, watching it flounder, and saying, “Oh well, we’ll plant another one next year.” These are our children who are floundering and they cannot be replaced by anything—not next year, not ever. And because of the heartbreaking truth of that, I clung to my grief, as though letting go of it would be disloyal to my daughter. I was forgetting for the moment other sources of joy that are equally important and help to balance my sense of loss.

And therein lies the key to my recovery: gratitude for what remains. My sense of well-being and serenity has been hard won, that’s for sure. Early on in my grief I made myself sick with exhaustion and worry. But I see now that it was a necessary bottom from which I could recover if I kept an open mind. I would be able to recover if I saw that I was powerless over my daughter’s disease, which reflected her bad choices. If I could believe in a power above me that could remove me from this burden, and carry it for me, then I would feel lighter and open my eyes to all the blessings life still affords me. I am blessed, and I have the good sense to see that now.

Joyfulness is a song of the angels. And I have learned to sing again, surrounded by other children, grandchildren, my partner of thirty years and a multitude of friends. “Life doesn’t always give us everything we want. But to make the best of things as they are is the only way to be happy.’ ~Jenny Jerome Churchill

Happy Holidays!