Dancing In The Rain

                                                               

The road to my spiritual life began when I was a young child growing up in an alcoholic family. But I didn’t start to walk down this recovery road until halfway through my life when my daughter fell ill with substance use disorder.

I was unhappy growing up. It’s a classic story of family dysfunction that many of us have experienced as children. But back then I didn’t have Alateen. My father was never treated and died prematurely because of his illness.  I, too, was untreated for the effects of alcoholism, and grew into an adult child.

Many of us know how rocky that road is: low self-esteem, intense self-judgment, inflated sense of responsibility, people pleasing and loss of integrity, and above all, the need to control. I carried all of these defects and more into my role as a mother to my struggling daughter, and predictably the situation only got worse.

I was a very hard sell on the first three steps of Al-Anon, and my stubbornness cost me my health and my career. But once I did let go of my self-reliance, my whole life changed for the better.  The Serenity Prayer has been my mantra every day. I’ve learned to let go of what I can’t change. I don’t have the power to free my daughter of her disease, but I can work hard to be healed from my own.  This is where I’ve focused my work in the program.

My daughter has gone up and down on this roller coaster for twenty years, and right now she’s in a very bad place. But that has only tested me more. My faith grows stronger every day when I release my daughter with love to her higher power, and I am able to firmly trust in mine.

Friends of mine ask me, “How do you do that? You make it sound so simple!”  I tell them, “First of all getting here hasn’t been simple. It’s the result of years of poisoning my most important relationships with the defects I talked about earlier. I knew I had to change in order to be happy. Secondly, I fill my heart with faith-based unconditional acceptance of whatever happens in my life. It’s my choice.

Somewhere in the readings, someone wrote ‘Pain is not in acceptance or surrender; it’s in resistance.’ It’s much more painless to just let go and have faith that things are unfolding as they are meant to. There’s a reason that HP is running the show the way he is. I just have to get out of the way. I also read somewhere the difference between submission and surrender: submission is: I’ll do this if I get XYZ; surrender, on the other hand, is unconditional acceptance of whatever I get. Well, the latter is easier because I’m not holding my breath waiting for the outcome. I just let go – and have faith. Again, it’s a very conscious choice.

We all have different stories. What has blessed me about a spiritual life is that I can always look within myself and find peace regardless of the storms raging around me. I’m learning how to dance in the rain.

Can We Give Ourselves A Break?

Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps back, one step forward.

 “Progress, not perfection.”

It’s the striving—the journey—that matters. And though we get tired from all the struggle, it’s that very work that builds up our resistance to life’s challenges. Substance use disorder, whether it’s in us or a loved one, is a huge test of our mettle. And like many difficult things, we don’t always get it the first time.

I didn’t. With my daughter, I kept thinking that I needed to be in control because she wasn’t making good decisions. But what I’ve learned on my recovery journey is that I don’t have control over another adult’s life, and least of all while they are under the influence of drugs.  As painful as that reality is, I do accept it now.

Do I waver? Am I human? Am I tempted to keep trying something else? Of course!

That’s why I keep coming back—to listen and learn.

Personal Freedom

When I joined Al-Anon, I was in my Fifties and determined to help my daughter let go of her substance abuse disorder.  But, oh, what a relief it’s been to let go of that obsession, which was becoming so shrill and counterproductive.

I was glad to turn the focus back on myself and learn that my faulty attitudes were the source of my pain, not the people around me.

Regarding the amends steps, it’s possible to overuse them, just as we might exaggerate our negative defects in the 4th step. I’ve done both! That’s why it’s so important to understand the purpose of amends: reaching personal freedom.

These are intended to be hopeful steps, not self-flagellation. Making this list and then acting on it is just another way to weed our garden. My partner is always reminding me to weed close to what we’re growing, so that nothing interferes with the growth of the plant.

Making amends is not always pretty, and rather than freedom I sometimes look for forgiveness and closure. With my daughter, Annie, she threw them right back in my face. But my sponsor helped me appreciate my efforts and then let them go.

My real reward has been surviving that loss without the need to punish myself for it. Truth is, I’m really not that important! Things happen in life, and it’s not always my fault.

Staying Out Of The Weeds

Before I went into recovery, I was pretty lost. On the outside, my life seemed to be rolling along well. But on the inside, I was insecure and sad. I dealt with these feelings in unhealthy ways, but didn’t feel much pressure to change them. I never missed a day of work, and I appeared to be fine. But appearances can be deceiving. Nothing had yet occurred to call my choices into question. Nothing had happened yet to push me out of my complacency.

But when my middle child fell victim to substance use disorder, after I had tried and failed over and over again to help her, I broke. The carefully manicured life I had been living was a treasured glass from my cupboard, smashed onto the kitchen floor. Many little shards, and some big ones. I cut my fingers cleaning it up.

My recovery fellowship comes with a philosophy that teaches me many different things. And one of those things is to forgive myself and others for the transgressions we inevitably commit in our lives. Our common humanity dovetails at every meeting I go to, where we encourage ourselves to face our defects, let them go, and move on.

For years, I held on to mine to punish myself for my part in Annie’s disease, and most importantly, for failing to “save” her. I have learned, gratefully, that my daughter suffers from substance use disorder, as do I, and I could no more save her from it than if she’d had diabetes. I simply don’t have that power.

So I try to stay away from martyrdom and self-pity, because neither of those feelings will help Annie get well, and they hurt me a great deal. That’s where the weeds are. They muddy the waters; they keep me angry and sad. When I steer clear of them, it takes some of the sting out of losing my daughter. I can more easily open my heart to what remains in my life.

The miracle of my recovery is that, like a gentle breeze blowing away the clutter of remorse, my eyes can see my life through another lens now, one full of gratitude, humor and love. The fruits of my recovery rest on these three things.

“We forget that the depths teach us how to better appreciate the heights.”

Love Them Like It’s Your Last Day Together

                                  

At the end of the day, all that matters is love. All we have control over is how we share our love. And instead of counting our losses, at the end of the day, all that can never be taken away from us is our love.

In this month that celebrates all matters of the heart, I am happy to celebrate all the loved ones in my life—most especially my daughter Annie. She is lost to me at the moment, but I can still love her as totally and purely as when she came into the world forty-one years ago.

Parents struggle and wage a horrendous war against substance use disorder as we watch our children caught in the web of it. We experience so many conflicting feelings, from hush-hush shame to rage against all the pushers of the world. In my powerlessness and frustration I wanted to lash out against my loved one and tell her to “snap out of it!” Often we retreat to the seemingly safe harbors of enabling and protecting our children from the dire consequences of their drug-induced behavior. I’ve been to all those places and back again. At first I was so joined at the hip to Annie that I didn’t know where she ended and I began.

About a decade ago, I did find out. And I learned that I needed to detach and let her follow her own path. Nineteen years in recovery rooms have given me some important tools and guidance. In educating myself about substance use disorder, I learned that it is a brain disease. My daughter didn’t choose this life; she’s sick. When I accept this, I realize there is no room in my heart for a number of feelings that get in the way of my better self—judgment, resentment, fear and guilt. Those four feelings are destroyers of the peace and serenity we all deserve. None of us is perfect, but I can say with certainty that I did my best with what I had. Most of the parents I know are good, well-intentioned people. And many of them are drowning in the sadness of losing a child to this cruel disease. I understand them. Some days I felt so overwhelmed that I buried myself in grief. If I lived in a bubble, or on the moon, I could isolate myself, cover myself in a cloak of sadness and who would care?

But over time I have found myself empowered by something stronger than sorrow. There are other voices that I need to listen to. Many voices are my loved ones, but not all. When I forget to put out seeds, my Steller’s jay protests loudly. My deer family, bold and fearless, come right up to my deck. Sunrises slowly transform the Olympics into drizzling ice cream cones as I peer out of my window. Voiceless, maybe, but it’s a sight to behold.

Love is more powerful than any other emotion, and that is the only feeling I am left with, the only one I experience with Annie. In this way I know, though I’m human and have been through the gamut of all the above emotions, that I have done my best to reach my daughter. And whether or not I’ve been successful, I can rest easy knowing that she knows, if nothing else, that she is loved.

At the end of the day.

Other Voices Are Calling Me

Most of us have experienced the pain of substance use disorder, either directly or indirectly. It’s everywhere in our society, and addiction in all its forms has the power to take away our happiness and wellbeing. My daughter Annie has scrambled in and out of the rabbit hole for over nineteen years, and much of the time I was in it with her. But I’ve learned to let go of a disease and its ensuing consequences that I have no control over. Yes, let go.

Once the tears dried and I could open my eyes, I looked around to see what was left from all the chaos and devastation: a job I liked, flowers blooming, other family members, good health, enough money to be comfortable, friends who cared and didn’t judge me. The list went on. These little girls are my great joy, and if I didn’t have them I hope I could try to celebrate something else—anything else—in my life, even though some days the grief is overwhelming. Time passes too quickly, and before I know it, mine is up. Life is too precious to waste.

My years in the recovery rooms have taught me grace, and the courage to embrace all of my life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—as an expression of God’s will for me. I’m blessed to be part of a spiritual program that teaches me that painful lesson, despite my loss—or maybe, when I look at this picture, because of it.

The Benefits of Fellowship

From From Survival to Recovery, CAL, p. 19:

“Surrounded by other recovering people, we are learning how to heal our broken hearts and create healthy, productive, joyful lives…(our program) has led many of us to serenity, fellowship, and relief from loneliness and pain.”

Because of the stigma and shame surrounding substance use disorder, many of us have kept our loved one’s problem (or our own) shrouded in secrecy. I did most of my life, and only in recent years have I dared to share my family disease with the rest of the world. I realized that until I faced the dreaded subject and learned more about it, it would continue to rule me and my family.

“It” is substance use disorder and all of its effects and consequences. They are far-reaching, especially for the family of an addict. And they can become terribly complicated as we become enmeshed in the lives of those we love. Being in the rooms of recovery has helped me untangle the mess.

That’s why a number of programs have been so valuable to many of us who suffer. We break out of our isolation and share our stories with others like us. We gain valuable perspective by listening to others. Our self-esteem soars as we see others listening to us and validating our experiences. We are offered compassion and understanding inside the rooms when it may be hard to find either of those things on the outside.

And we begin our journey toward getting our lives back—when once they seemed to be lost.

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.”