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.”

The Domino Effect

From Each Day a New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, May 22:

“’The change of one simple behavior can change other behaviors and thus change many things.’ ~Jean Baer

Our behavior tells others, and ourselves, who we are. Frequently, we find ourselves behaving in ways that keep us stuck. Or we may feel deep shame for our behavior in a certain instance. Our behavior will never totally please us. But deciding we want to change some behavior and using the program to help us, is a first step.”

Change is hard. The older we get, perhaps, the harder it gets. Our years—our habits—can trap us. I’ve been trapped by my own worst defects: “I’m gonna be fine;” “I can handle it on my own;” “I don’t need any help, thank you very much.”

Trying to figure out the why’s of things over the years didn’t help me. That question just kept me stuck. And it kept me from taking responsibility for my own problems. So the suffering continued. Until I learned how to put out fires.

When I’m in the middle of a fire in the woods, I don’t wonder who started it. If I am to survive, I just need to learn how to douse it.

I’ve been challenged by depression for much of my life, but nothing could have prepared me for losing my daughter Annie to the living death of heroin addiction. That was the major conflagration in my life, and I wasn’t fighting it effectively. I made it so much about me and my misplaced guilt that I often used poor judgment in an effort to help her. When I saw that nothing was working, I felt broken. And at my bottom, that’s when I found the courage to change.

Letting go of my feverish attempts to motivate Annie to seek recovery, and my wish to control events, freed me of the painful circumstances that were claiming my peace of mind. Letting go—so counterintuitive when it’s your child—was one of the first steps I needed to take—and accept what I could not change. That was the hardest: knowing that I had no power to change her. But I did and do have the power to change myself, my reactions, and my attitudes.

At some point along the way, we might find ourselves in a fire we need to put out. I learned that I needed to change before I could be truly happy with my life. I needed to pay attention to what was happening in my own hula hoop. Looking outside of myself for answers only distracted me; it did not help me put out the fire.

“One small change today, a smile at the first person I meet, will help me chart a new course.”

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.”

All I Want For Christmas…

 ‘Tis the season…yes, it’s the time of giving and thinking of others.

I think of my daughter often and even more so during the holiday season when she is so missed in our family. But I have learned over the years that the best gift I can give her is the gift of detachment with love. One of the hardest ways we can love our children struggling with substance use disorder is to let go and encourage them to choose recovery. This is something we cannot do for them.

We can pay their rent, buy them a car—in short, we can make their lives comfortable. But is it always wise to support them financially? I know that every case is different, especially when grandchildren are part of the picture—and my heart goes out to you grandmothers, who deserve a special place in Heaven. But in my case, my generosity prevented my daughter from taking more responsibility for herself.

So I’ve learned the hard way to let her face the consequences of her choices. It’s the hardest thing…to remove the safety net we want to put under our children. It’s the hardest thing… to watch them flounder in the grips of this cruel disease.

So all I want for Christmas is the serenity to remember that I don’t have the power to save Annie. All I can do is love her. She was raised in a loving family for twenty-one years before she turned to harmful solutions to deal with her life. Wherever she is and whatever she’s doing, I know she knows this.

Two-Stepping The Twelve-Step

Memoir Excerpt from 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.”

The Gift Of Life

From Each Day A New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, November 7:

“’…we will be victorious if we have not forgotten how to learn.’ ~Rosa Luxemburg

For most of us the struggle was long, painful and lonely to the place we are now. But survive we have, and survive we will. The times we thought we could go no further are only dimly recalled…Step by Step, we are learning to handle our problems, build relationships based on honesty, and choose responsible behavior.”

Probably the most important factor in my recovery is the ability to remain teachable. We can become set in our ways, “you can’t teach an old dog…,” and older people sometimes can be resistant to change. This is all fine for those of us who have a life without serious challenges.

And then there are the rest of us.

My years in recovery have, out of necessity, showed me how to open my mind and heart in an effort to be forever teachable, to be always willing to learn the lessons that life puts before me. Without such flexibility and the willingness to view things differently, to let go of ideas and patterns that were bad for me, I would still be stuck in a life that was fundamentally unhappy. I say “fundamentally” because on the outside many things looked good. But on the inside, I was screaming.

Eighteen years ago, I entered the rooms of recovery out of a desperate desire to save my daughter. But after years of trying, I ultimately couldn’t provide her with the magic bullet to free her of her substance use disorder. That magic bullet doesn’t exist. My daughter has and always has had the power to recover. That’s one of the many things I learned in the rooms. And, over time, as I learned to turn the mirror back on myself, I have learned to face a number of things that were getting in the way of my own capacity to live well.

What I’ve learned was that life is a gift, and nowhere has that been made clearer to me than by watching my loved one throwing it away. My first instinct, of course, was to put myself between Annie and her bad choices. But that only made me sick and forced me into early retirement. That was my bottom.

Well, at the bottom I had two choices: either stay there—or lift myself up. I’m happy that I chose to keep on living. There are other people in my life who rely on me, other ways I can try to be of service. I’m not the first adult child out there, not the first parent to lose a child to this cruel disease. There are millions of us out there, a vast community of equals reaching out to help one another. And we do, right here sharing with one another, a daily reminder that we are not alone.

Keeping An Open Mind

From Each Day A New Beginning, September 13:

“’Nobody told me how hard and lonely change is’ ~Joan Gilbertson

…Honest self-appraisal may well call for change, a change in attitude perhaps, a change in specific behavior in some instances, or maybe a change in direction…(But) We find some comfort in our pain because at least it holds no surprises…Courage to change accompanies faith. My fears are telling me to look within to the spiritual source of strength, ever present but often forgotten.”

When I joined my recovery fellowship, my focus was firmly on my daughter. She had a life-threatening disorder, and I wanted to help her. So I helped. And I helped. And I helped…I had the best of intentions, but I needed to step back and reflect upon what, besides protecting her, was motivating me. My fear was getting in the way.

I needed to get help so that I could manage the situation better. It took me a long time to realize and accept that I was making a bad situation much worse. And this was happening because of my own unrecognized problems. Once I saw them and how they affected, not just my relationship with Annie, but with other important people, I found the willingness to work on myself and improve my relationships with others.

One day at a time, I’m still trying. I’m far from perfect, but I’m trying to be my best self. At the end of the day, that’s the only self I can control.

A Different Lens

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more I important than the past, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than success. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day…We cannot change the past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way…Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” ~Charles Swindoll

I joined Al-Anon to help my daughter with her substance use issues. But I ended up helping myself so much more. It wasn’t my intention, but I’ve grown a lot in my efforts to heal from a lifetime of living around people with substance use disorder, including myself.

Growing up around alcoholism, and surrounded by a plethora of negative attitudes, I’ve had to unlearn those scripts and rewrite them, as though I were reparenting myself. It is certainly true that our attitude can move mountains…or level them.

I have had a difficult situation with my daughter for years. Early on I was either in denial or hardened in my grief at the loss of Annie. But if I try to keep a healthy perspective on it, if I don’t obsess about it, it won’t control me. I try to keep my heart open to the gifts of this program. Therein lies my happiness. And so, one day at a time, I try to keep a positive attitude, keeping the focus on myself, with gratitude and joy in all I have.

This is a miraculous program that “works if I work it.”

“Stealth Bomber”

“One weekend before we left the country, telling Angel he was on his own with the kids, I drove East to be by the sea. In Ocean City, I got a cheap hotel room, a cheap bottle of vodka, and spent my time numbing myself. Instead of walking on the beach at the ocean I love so well, instead of grabbing a bag and adding more souvenirs to my beautiful collection, I lay on my bed, drank vodka straight out of the bottle, and passed out.

I might as well have stayed in a cheap motel near my own house.

In a fog most of the time, eating junk food from the boardwalk, I ran away from my life. I left my “shell” for the weekend, ventured off by myself, as empty coming out of a bottle as I was going into it.

I learned nothing, gained nothing from escaping for a few days other than missing my children terribly. I was still as hollow as the bleached whelks waiting to be snatched up by grateful collectors.

I would discover, many years down the road, the sneaky and devastating nature of addictive disease: how it stalks you, dupes you into thinking you’re okay “if it’s just once in a while.”  It’s like any virus: it needs a host to take root. And grow.

To flourish. And continue.

Addiction, like any cancer, wants to survive. It filled my empty shell, opportunistic disease that it is, with false-confidence, false promises, false hopes.

Maybe I’ll be happier in Greece…”

Excerpted from my recently released, award-winning memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation

Two Songs

For twenty-five dollars my mother bought a beautiful baby grand piano in the mid- 1950s, and my siblings and I took piano lessons. I forget when my brother and sister stopped their lessons, but I kept at it for quite a few years.

My own children took piano lessons on that same piano, but eventually lost interest, just as I did.

Somehow I kept two songs in my fingers for many decades. Edward McDowell’s “Scotch Poem” and “Improvisation and Melody”. What was I holding onto?

Then, out of sheer neglect, not oiling the wood at all, the baby grand quite literally fell apart when I tried to move it.

Maybe that was my Higher Power’s way of telling me to let go of those two songs.

And a lot of other things.