“A Open Letter to My Family (from the substance user)
I am a drug user. I need help.
Don’t solve my problems for me. This only makes me lose respect for you.
Don’t lecture, moralize, scold, blame, or argue, whether I’m loaded or sober. It may make you feel better, but it will make the situation worse.
Don’t accept my promises. The nature of my illness prevents my keeping them, even though I mean them at the time. Promising is only my way of postponing pain. Don’t keep switching agreements; if an agreement is made, stick to it.
Don’t lose your temper with me. It will destroy you and any possibility of helping me.
Don’t allow your anxiety for me to make you do what I should do for myself.
Don’t cover up or spare me the consequences of my using. It may reduce the crisis, but it will make my illness worse.
Above all, don’t run away from reality as I do. Drug dependence, my illness, gets worse as my using continues. Start now to learn, to understand, to plan for recovery. Find NAR-ANON, whose groups exist to help the families of drug abusers.
I need help: from a doctor, a psychologist, a counselor, from an addict who found recovery in NA, and from God.
Enmeshment can be crippling: we don’t have enough emotional distance, often, to deal intelligently and effectively with the substance user. Stepping back, detaching, takes discipline and restraint. Such a hard thing to do when we’re in this emotional minefield. It has taken me years in my recovery program to act more and react less. I need to deal from strength to be any help to my daughter. The oxygen mask must go on me first.
“’…we could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.’ ~Helen Keller
We chase after joy, like a child after a firefly…”
Yes I did, all my life, and then I changed. I stopped chasing the butterfly, not because it was a waste of time, but because my time could be better spent on other things.
In a quote from Cathy Hull Taughinbaugh’s new book, The Compassion Antidote:
“While you may feel your happiness or well-being depend on what your child does or doesn’t do, the more you can focus on yourself and your happiness the better…And the more you work on yourself, the better off your child will be—now and in the future…You will then become a role model for your child. She will see you not just as her parent, but as a strong person who can weather the storms that life throws at her.”
Our children are watching. The suffering in my family has gone on for over twenty years. But if I can turn my sadness and grief into lessons in resilience and hope for the rest of my family, then it was time well-spent.
I was reading about one of my favorites, Naomi Judd, and how she sadly died by suicide recently. This is what her daughter, Ashley, said about her death:
“When we’re talking about mental illness, it’s very important to be clear and to make the distinction between our loved one and the disease,” she continued. “It’s very real … it lies, it’s savage.”
I believe that. We all know how substance use disorder can change our kids: change their minds, change their lifestyle, change the values we taught them. In my daughter’s case, as long as drugs were flooding her system, she ceased to be the Annie I raised.
So yes, I make the distinction Ashley has called for. And I pray that someday the general public will have as much compassion for our lost children. I remember my daughter before this disease took her away from me. And I take comfort in those memories—because I can separate her from her disease.
In this month that celebrates mothers, I’d like to celebrate a memory of my daughter, Annie (Angie in this book). She was just 22 when she made this tapestry for me after her first rehab. She was always interested in Oriental art and designs. I think the simplicity fascinated her.
For a long time I couldn’t look at it. In my early recovery, I was still wedded to the “If onlys.” But over time, I’ve learned to let go of “might have beens” and accept what is.
I hang the tapestry proudly on my wall now. It’s one of many of my happy memories of her. I had twenty-one years with her as my daughter before substance use disorder hijacked and transformed her.
I’m grateful for the good years I had with my daughter.
I love her.
“When Angie came out of that first rehab, she made me the most beautiful gift.
‘Mom, I’m not quite finished with it. I just have a few more flowers to cut. You’ll need to find a 17-by-22-inch frame to mount it on. Sorry it’s such an odd size. Guess I wasn’t thinking. I copied it from one of my Chinese art books. I hope you like it!’
Right now it’s hanging in my room for me to see. Over the years I’ve taken it on and off the wall, hidden it in a closet, too painful for me to look at. Maybe it’s a sign of my recovery. Now I can leave it on the wall, look at it, and appreciate all the work she put into it. This was her way, I believe, of telling me she loved me and she was sorry, not for getting sick, but for what that sickness drove her to do to me. She never, ever, was able to express her feelings easily with words. So she showed me, in countless ways, as she did once in December 1993.
“Where the hell is that $300 I put away for safekeeping? If you kids want any Christmas presents, you’d better help me find it now,” I shouted, panicking at the thought of losing my hard-earned cash. I was so scattered sometimes. I was perfectly capable of misplacing it.
“Found it, Mom! Don’t you remember when you hid it in this book? Well, here it is. Aren’t you glad I’m as honest as I am?”
“Yes, Angie, my darlin’ girl, I am. And thank you!”
Years are passing by, and sometimes it’s hard to remember her as she was. But when I look at the tapestry she made, I remember:
Angie had a fascination for all things Asian—Chinese, Japanese, it didn’t matter. She loved the grace and flow of much of the artwork. She copied a simple series of flowers. But she did it not with paint or pencil or pen; she cut out every pistil, not completely detailed, a few sepals in place, the rest scattered, all the ovaries in different colors for contrast, every leaf, in varying sizes and colors, every stem, and glued it all together on a piece of gold cloth. It looked just like the picture in her book.
I treasure this gift she made. The tapestry is twelve years old, and sometimes a petal comes unglued and I have to put it back on. I should put it under glass to preserve it. I wish we could put our children under glass—to keep them safe.
I would soon discover, though, that no matter what I did for Angie it would never be enough to protect her from the illness that was consuming her.”
From A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (pen name) (Amazon)
“Detachment is not isolation, nor should it remain focused on not enabling the sick behavior of the past. Detachment is not a wall; it is a bridge across which (we) may begin a new approach to life and relationships generally.”
I had a hard time at first understanding what detachment was. I thought it was an uncaring way to behave. How could I detach? I was so enmeshed with my daughter Annie and intent on saving her from herself that I couldn’t think straight. I was just being a warrior mom, and I had a lot of company.
It was only when I faced my (misplaced) guilt and recognized it as a stumbling block that I was able to get some emotional distance and see what I was doing.
I needed to get out of the way.
Walls vs. bridges. I used to think that detaching from another person’s problem was like putting up a wall: separating myself emotionally and physically. But I needed to establish healthy boundaries in my relationship with Annie. That’s what was missing.
I realized that it’s not okay to be overprotective; she would learn nothing otherwise. Instead of erecting a wall, I built this bridge, stone by stone, rail by rail, reinforcing it with the boundaries I needed to honor my own needs.
One of those needs was to try and be a responsible parent. I needed to stop enabling Annie to continue her behavior without consequences. I know she’ll do what she wants with or without me. But I have torn down the wall of shame and anger that separated us before.
As long as she’s alive, I have hope that she’ll walk across that bridge and face what’s ahead of her with the love and support of her family.
“My mom did not sleep. She felt exhausted. She was irritable, grumpy, and bitter. She was always sick until one day, suddenly, she changed.
One day my dad said to her:
– I’ve been looking for a job for three months and I haven’t found anything, I’m going to have a few beers with friends.
My mom replied:
– It’s okay.
My brother said to her:
– Mom, I’m doing poorly in all subjects at the University.
My mom replied:
– Okay, you will recover, and if you don’t, well, you repeat the semester, but you pay the tuition.
My sister said to her:
– Mom, I smashed the car.
My mom replied:
– Okay daughter, take it to the car shop & find how to pay and while they fix it, get around by bus or subway.
Her daughter-in-law said to her:
– Mother-in-law, I came to spend a few months with you.
My mom replied:
– Okay, settle in the living room couch and look for some blankets in the closet.
All of us gathered worried to see these reactions coming from Mom.
We suspected that she had gone to the doctor and that she was prescribed some pills called “I don’t give a damn”… Perhaps she was overdosing on these!
We then proposed to do an “intervention” w/my mother to remove her from any possible addiction she had towards some anti-tantrum medication.
But then … she gathered us around her and my mom explained:
“It took me a long time to realize that each person is responsible for their life. It took me years to discover that my anguish, anxiety, my depression, my courage, my insomnia & my stress, does not solve your problems, but aggravates mine.
I am not responsible for the actions of anyone & it’s not my job to provide happiness, but I am responsible for the reactions I express to that.
Therefore, I came to the conclusion that my duty to myself is to remain calm and let each one of you solve what corresponds to you.
I have taken courses in yoga, meditation, miracles, human development, mental hygiene, vibration and neurolinguistic programming and in all of them, I found a common denominator in them all…
I can only control myself, you have all the necessary resources to solve your own problems despite how hard they may be. My job is to pray for you, love on you, encourage you but it’s up to YOU to solve them & find your happiness.
I can only give you my advice if you ask me & it depends on you to follow it or not. There are consequences, good or bad, to your decisions and YOU have to live them.
So from now on, I cease to be the receptacle of your responsibilities, the sack of your guilt, the laundress of your remorse, the advocate of your faults, the wall of your lamentations, the depositary of your duties, who should solve your problems or spare a tire every time to fulfill your responsibilities.
From now on, I declare all independent and self-sufficient adults.
Everyone at my mom’s house was speechless.
From that day on, the family began to function better because everyone in the house knew exactly what it is that they needed to do.
For some of us this is hard because we’ve grown up being the caregivers feeling responsible for others. As moms & wives we are fixers off all things. We never want our loved ones to go through difficult things or to struggle. We want everyone to be happy.
But, the sooner we take that responsibility off of our shoulders & on to each loved one, the better we are preparing them to be MEsponsible.
We are not here on earth to be everything to everyone. Stop putting that pressure on yourself.”
As I’ve grown in recovery, I’ve grown in humility, too. My friends, I’m just not that important!!! God Bless all our children as they make their way in life. Whether we want to or not, we must do the same.
Self-Care demands discipline from us. And I haven’t always had a lot of that! But people can change. That’s the beauty of 12-step recovery. It helps me be the best human being I can be.
Physical Self-Care has many faces. For some of us it’s making sure we get enough sleep. Or trying to eat healthy foods. Taking enough vitamins. I do all of those things, and I try to walk a mile a day. Sometimes I do that just running up and down stairs in my own home. Gardening and putting plants in the earth is life-enhancing and gives me hope.
Spiritual Self-Care is equally important to me. I start the day with an entry in my gratitude journal. The old me, before recovery, would dwell on the sadness of losing Annie in my life. Next month it will be ten long years since I’ve seen her! But the new me takes joy in my other children and grandchildren. And my many friends. It’s where I put my focus now, if only because I have some control over these relationships. Prayer and talking to God is critical, too, because I don’t have power over some things, and I need His guidance in choosing my battles. And on a bad day, helping me feel the sunshine.
“Deal from strength:” I heard this many years ago, and I understand it now. I’m not in a good position to help others if I’m too sick myself. I will continue to care for myself so that my presence can be of benefit to others. The people in my life now will thank me for it.
“All we are asked to bear we can bear. That is the law of the spiritual life. The only hindrance to the working of this law, as of all benign laws, is fear.” ~Elizabeth Goudge
I’ve read that fear and anxiety are at the basis for many substance use disorders. I can’t speak for all of them, or for everyone, but I can speak for myself. Fear precipitated much of my self-destructive behavior. Fear of being “less than,” fear of criticism and disapproval, fear of not belonging, fear of failure, and fear of retribution.
And it was fear that kept me obsessed with my daughter’s choices. Fear for her well-being—and for mine. That fear kept me enmeshed in her life and her choices, thinking I was always riding to her rescue when I was doing nothing of the kind; shielding her from consequences just kept her from learning and growing. I needed to think that I had the power to save her.
Letting go of my obsession and fear—replacing them both with faith—has brought peace into my life. Now I’m better educated about the disease of substance use disorder; I’m learning what I can do and what I can’t do. How can I be helpful? And what must I surrender? All good questions and the answers are coming to me through my 12-Step work.
There are many paths to peace, and I respect them all. I’m just grateful that the path I have chosen has delivered me from a lifetime of fear and isolation and closer to the God of my understanding. No matter what happens in my life, I believe all will be well, according to God’s plan.
“One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice — though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. ‘Mend my life!’ each voice cried. But you didn’t stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations, though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. But little by little, as you left their voice behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do — determined to save the only life that you could save.”
How eloquently she describes the convergence of conflict with awareness and resolution in our lives. As “the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds,” my world became brighter and more light-filled. As I shed the depression that used to be my constant companion, I embraced the idea that I could be as happy as I made up my mind to be.
“’Somewhere along the line of development we discover what we really are, and then we make our real decision for which we are responsible. Make that decision primarily for yourself because you can never really live anyone else’s life, not even your own child’s. The influence you exert is through your own life and what you become yourself.’ ~Eleanor Roosevelt”
Through my recovery work, I’m learning to take better care of myself. I’m making wiser choices, living better, and embracing my life. Firm boundaries, healthy perspectives, daily gratitude are just a few of the tools that help me live well. In this way I’m trying to be a good example to those who come after me.
We all leave footprints somewhere. We have stories to tell. We all leave a legacy. May we all find some level of recovery as we weather the storm of substance use disorder. Our newer, healthier selves are a worthy legacy to pass on to the next generation. This is how I honor Annie’s memory, and this is how I will always love her: by living well myself.