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!

Mother’s Day in the Time of Coronavirus

I am a blogger for The Addict’s Parents United. The sequel to my award-winning first memoir, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, will be released by She Writes Press on 6/16/20. This is an excerpt from Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation:

         “Several years before I attempted to make amends to Angie, she was in her last rehab in California. It was 2009, and I flew across the country for Parents’ Weekend. After excitedly showing me around the grounds, she bumped into a couple of new friends.

         “Hey, Angela, show us more of those moves.”
        My daughter still enjoyed showing people what she had been able to do as a gymnast in Greece. 

         “Sure.” Proud of her agility, she showed us, among other things, a backward twist that must have been difficult then. She wasn’t ten anymore.

            As she leaned backward toward the floor, her hair fell back; I saw the scar again and wondered how she’d gotten it. She must have had an accident to have sustained such a deep gash around her hairline in the middle of her forehead.

When Angie was a child, she looked like a beautiful mandarin doll. She’d always had a thick pile of bangs to frame her oval face. But her hair didn’t fall that way anymore because of the scar, and she hadn’t been wearing bangs for several years. I remembered the picture of my children from J. C. Penney’s one Christmas in Miami, her pretty brown eyes accented by her thick bangs.

Seeing her then in rehab, I focused on her bangs. How much I missed seeing them on her! What mother doesn’t mourn her child’s innocence and wish a painless life for her?

            The last time I saw her, for Mother’s Day in 2012, I was in a San Francisco motel near the hostel in the Tenderloin where she was staying. She was to spend a night with me and had a key to the room. It was five in the morning when I heard her unlocking the door, and I jumped up to open it.

            “Hi, Mom. This is Pontus.”

            “Hi there,” the much older man said as he offered to shake my hand.

            “Hello, Pontus. Angie, please come in now so I can go back to sleep.”

            “Sure, Mom. See you later, Buddy.”

            I have a picture of her sitting on my bed the next morning, her terrier, Loki, on her lap; she was never without him. Her hair was pulled to the side and held with a clip, exposing the scar.

            She looked so strange—like someone else—without those lustrous bangs. But of course she was . . . someone else.”

Eight years. Some digital contact in all that time—most of it unpleasant. I’ve often said in my commentary over the years that an addict, after long periods of using, seems split down the middle: the child we raised, and what remains after years of substance abuse.

I’ve hoped for the happy ending so many of my fellow mothers are blessed with. I’m so genuinely happy for them, and I hold a fervent wish in my heart that their addicts continue to enjoy sobriety. But many of us have not been so fortunate. And many mothers have buried their children. So how do we move forward with our grief and loss?

Together, for one thing. Together we are stronger. Talking openly about it, putting an end to the shame and isolation. There is strength and empowerment in our ability to stand tall and add our voices to the others out there. Substance use disorder—this is hard to believe—is even more on the rise now. As a result of all the forced isolation in the time of coronavirus—isolation which is a substance user’s worst enemy—a few mothers I know have found themselves frustrated and saddened  to watch their children falling back into the rabbit hole. I pray their relapses are short-lived and they are able to get back to living their lives without using substances to cope.

I think of my Angie on this Mother’s Day, 2020. I don’t know how she is. I sent her an email, telling her how much I love her and I hope she’s well enough to survive another day. The email didn’t bounce back. If she’s still with us in San Francisco, that’s good, because where there’s life there’s hope.

We all have different stories with our children; some are happy and some are sad. This is just my story. But I know that I was the best mom that I could be, and I believe that most mothers are. Because of that stirring belief, I’m proud to celebrate myself and all of you on Mother’s Day, this year and every year. We have more than earned a place in that fellowship.

God Bless Us, Every One Of Us Mamas!

Good Vibes

From the blue Nar-Anon pamphlet:

Changing Ourselves

“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, when all these weeks 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

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.

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.

The Three C’s

From Hope for Today, Al-Anon approved literature, January 7:

“One of the first Al-Anon sayings I remember hearing, known as the three C’s, embodies the concept of powerlessness over alcoholism: ‘I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.’…

’I didn’t cause it’ relieves me of any lingering guilt I may feel: ‘If only I had been a better (fill in the blank), (fill in the blank) would not have become (fill in the blank).’…

’I can’t control it’ gives me permission to live my life and take care of myself…

’I can’t cure it’ reminds me that I don’t have to repeat my insane behavior over and over again, hoping for different results.

I don’t have to search for the magic cure that isn’t there. Instead I can use my energy for my recovery.”

When we love someone caught in the trap of addiction, we want to do everything possible to help. That’s only natural. In the beginning of my daughter Angie’s illness, she enjoyed periods of sobriety, and I gave myself a lot of the credit because I was so supportive. Then, over time, her life went south and she went out again. And I was left to feel “What did I do wrong? I’ve been so supportive!” Again, over time, I learned in MY recovery group that Angie’s illness had nothing to do with me. And her facing down her demons and reclaiming her life had even less to do with me.

That’s where the rubber hit the road for me. That’s where I had to do the difficult: lean into acceptance, let go of my own daughter and pray she finds her way back home. A friend used to chide me, “Don’t just sit there; DO something!”

But I’ve done all I can. And I realize that there’s a lot of strength in surrender.

Loving Them/Loving Ourselves


“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 influence of a bewildering array of drugs which influence them. My daughter, Angie, 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 Angie 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 eighteen 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 created 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 continue to tell Angie that I love her because I do. 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. As unlovable as she is when she’s using drugs, I will continue to love her while there’s breath in my body.

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.”