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.

Sailing Lessons

“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.” Louisa May Alcott

I grew up in Massachusetts on a lake, and we sailed every summer. Boats and water are a part of my narrative because it’s where I started my life. But it was never really smooth sailing.

Eighteen years ago, my world turned upside down. My boat capsized as I started watching my daughter tumble down the rabbit hole of drug addiction. Mind you, I was living a wonderful life, not perfect, but whose is? I was a hardworking single mother with three kids who seemed to be doing well. Just one of millions of women doing their best for their families. And then I got tagged. Annie became another statistic.

I got sucked into a perfect storm of my own shortcomings colliding with my vulnerable daughter and her addictive character. I was utterly guilt-ridden, and that crippled me and my judgment. I enabled Angie far too much, cradling her in one safety net after another. I inadvertently prevented her from facing consequences and learning from her behavior.

In the end, by taking on far too much responsibility for my daughter’s illness, I had such severe PTSD/clinical depression that I felt compelled to retire. That was my bottom, when I knew I had to change my thinking and some behaviors in order to reclaim my life. Annie is a wounded soul split in half—the addict and all that that entails; and my loving daughter. I believe with all my heart that my loving daughter would want me to survive losing her. And my survival is how I choose to honor her.

I got help in the rooms of twelve-step recovery; there are many, many of them, in every city and here on Facebook. The kind of help I received involved a lot of reflection and reframing my life. I learned not to fear looking back on my childhood, that the answers to much of my coping skills lay there. As I moved forward reflecting on my life as a young mother, I understood why I behaved as I did much of the time. And I awarded myself compassion and forgiveness for doing the best I could in difficult times.

Now I feel blessed, if only because the ground under my feet is more solid. The storms in my life have rocked me many times over the years, but I’m learning how to weather them. When we lose something as precious as a child, everyone and everything in our lives loom larger in importance. It’s a terrible irony of life that the intensity of our joy often comes to us at the cost of much pain. I have a snapshot of me and Annie on my aunt’s sailboat twenty years ago just before she started tumbling away from us all. We’re both smiling, and it doesn’t make me sad to look at it. On the contrary, it reminds me of the fragility of life and how more than ever it’s important to live with intention. I think I sleepwalked through much of my early life, entirely unaware of who I was. But now, thanks to my years of work in recovery, I have learned a better way to live. We all pass through storms in the course of our lives. But they don’t have to destroy us. I wish for all my brothers and sisters in recovery that they find peace and hope for better days—by whatever means possible.

“My Daughter/Myself”

The following is an excerpt from my new memoir, Stepping Stones.

“…Her first year of living independently seemed uneventful at first. Frequently visiting her in the apartment she shared, I took her furniture from her old bedroom so she would feel at home in her new digs. But there were signs that she was changing. She had never had many boyfriends in high school. Then one Sunday morning I arrived to find a friend of hers on the sofa, clearly feeling at home. Later I learned he was a bartender at a watering hole and drug hotspot in Adams Morgan. Well, she was on her own. And by now she was twenty-one; I felt I didn’t have much leverage.

In the spring, though two courses short of her graduation requirements at George Mason University, Annie was allowed to walk with her class, cap and gown and all.

Angel, his wife and I all dressed up for our second child’s college graduation in the spring of 2001, and we all viewed this ceremony as a symbol of hope that Annie was willing and anxious to embrace her adulthood and take on more responsibilities, like other young people.

“Hey, Mom, I want you to meet my friend Shelly. She got me through statistics sophomore year.”

“Hi, Shelly, nice to meet you. Thanks for helping Annie. Is your family here

today?”

“No. They had to work. No big deal for them anyway.”

“Oh. Well I think it’s a big deal, so congratulations from me! It was nice to meet you, Shelly, and good luck.”

Annie’s graduation distracted us from being curious about what she was doing in the evenings. Again, she went to a lot of trouble to cover up behavior that she knew would alarm us and might threaten an intervention.

Just like her mother.

At the end of the summer, she asked if she could move into my basement. Her roommate was buying a condo, she said, and their lease was up anyway. Later on, when I watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded in my own house, I wondered about the truth of that. I thought maybe the roommate saw where Annie was going and asked her to leave. No matter. She was in my house now. The circle was about to close.

Then a shocking discovery—a bowl of homemade methamphetamine on top of my dryer! I had been wondering about the stuff she’d left in my basement laundry room. I read the label: muriatic acid. I looked it up on my computer. So that’s what she used it for!

I moved the bowl up to the kitchen and put it next to the sink, where recessed lighting bore down on it. She couldn’t miss it when she came in the front door. I thought I’d be ready for the confrontation.

At 4:30 in the morning, she exploded into my bedroom while Gene and I were sleeping. I’m glad he was with me that night.

“How dare you mess with my things downstairs! Don’t you ever touch my stuff again, you fucking bitch!” she roared. I thought I was dreaming when I saw her there, animal-like, with wild, blood-shot eyes.

Gene held onto me as I sobbed into my pillow. “Oh God, this isn’t happening, Gene, please tell me this isn’t happening!”

A half hour later, pulling myself together, I went downstairs to make coffee. I still had to go to work.

Annie stomped upstairs from the basement with a garbage bag full of her clothes and brushed by me without a word or a look. After she slammed the door behind her, I ran to the kitchen window and saw her get into her car.

My daughter went from crystal meth, to cocaine, to heroin, as though it were a smorgasbord of terrible choices. Despite four rehabs and family love, her addictive disease continued. There were periods of remission, but they were short-lived. My daughter lived in one pigsty after another, her boyfriends all drug addicts. I would spend a decade trying to reconcile two feelings: complete hatred for the stranger who was living in my daughter’s body and total surrender to my love for her.

Because of our superficial differences, I didn’t realize right away how alike we were.

We’ve both suffered from depression since we were young. The adults in our lives didn’t always acknowledge our screams. We turned to substance abuse for relief: food, cigarettes, and drugs. I added alcohol to my list, but I’m not aware that she ever drank alcoholically. My daughter moved on to heroin.

At least I cleaned up well.

Though Annie was no longer living with me at that point, I tried to continue embracing her, accepting her, so she’d know she was still loved. But I couldn’t yet distinguish between helping and enabling.

I did unwise, misguided, things: I gave her money; I paid her debts; I shielded her from jail when she broke the law.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to contact the authorities about this, Mrs. Rabasa?” the rep asked me when she stole my identity to get a credit card.

“Oh no,” terrified of her going to jail, “I’ll handle it.”

And I did, badly.

This was enabling at its worst. Convinced her addiction came from me, that guilt crippled me and my judgment.

Placing a safety net beneath her only served to ease my anxiety. It did nothing to teach her the consequences of her behavior. I kept getting in her way.

It felt like I was in the twilight zone whenever I visited her. My daughter was buried somewhere deep inside, but the addict was in charge. One body, split down the middle: my daughter, Annalise; and a hard-core drug addict. A surreal nightmare. 

Her apartment smelled of incense and dirty laundry. The soles of her shoes flopped until she could get some duct tape around them. She didn’t offer me anything to eat because there was no food in the refrigerator.

Nothing.

Twice while I was there she ran to the bathroom to vomit.

Heroin. Dope sick.

Annie was hijacked by a cruel disease—cruel because it robs you of yourself while you’re still alive. While destroying your mind, it keeps your body alive long enough to do a lot of damage before it actually kills you. For many drug addicts, it’s an agonizingly slow death.

It was like looking at a movie of my life in reverse, erasing all the good fortune that brought me to where I was, leaving only the pain and ugliness—and hopelessness—of a wasted life. How I might have ended up.

For better or worse, my life had been unfolding as many do with addictive personalities. But to see the same disease taking over the life of my child—to see that mirror up close in front of me—was threatening to be my undoing.

Trying to hold it together, I was imploding. Like all addicts and families of addicts, survival can be reached from many places, but often from the bottom.

Mine was waiting for me.

“Two-Stepping the Twelve-Step”

                                         

 “’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.”

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

Blossoms Becoming Fruit

The following is an excerpt from my new memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.                                                         

            “Gene had retired from teaching within a year of my retirement, and we opted for a change of scenery. I did the groundwork, and one weekend we flew to New Mexico to buy a little house between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We pooled our resources, pitching in together all we had. Gene and some friends cleared the back quarter acre of sagebrush, and he bought a dozen fruit trees to start an orchard. Over the years, he’s planted and nurtured a total of fifty trees—Rainier cherries, Saturn peaches, Challengers, Shiro plums, apricots, and many kinds of apples. One year we had so many peaches we had to give them away. It was grueling work but gratifying as we watched the blossoms turn into fruit.

            Throwing myself into full-time recovery in New Mexico, I began the process of new growth in myself, attending one or two recovery meetings a day. That became my full-time job, embracing a spiritual way of life. But it’s come with a steep learning curve.

In Virginia, when I first started going to meetings, the guidelines of the program were hard for me to follow. I felt responsible for what was happening to Annie (Angie) and couldn’t let go of my need to save her, unwilling to admit my powerlessness. Doing so seemed counterintuitive to me.

           Late in 2002, after we had sent her to her first rehab, she did well for a little while. I remember saying this at a recovery meeting:

            “I have no doubt that my daughter’s progress parallels my own.” The people at the meeting just nodded, recognizing that was where I needed to be in that moment.

            Still attached to my daughter with no understanding of the concepts of detachment and letting go, I thought I held all the cards—the magic bullet to her recovery. I desperately needed to believe that.

            In time, though, I accepted that addiction is a brain disease—still a matter of much controversy in this country—and not a moral failing. Annie (Angie) was sick. I had no more power over her illness than if she’d had diabetes or cancer.

           Through trial and error, following the road map that had helped many addicts and families of addicts since the 1950s, I learned to let go of the things no longer in my control…And I needed to get on with my life.”

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!