Excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, Gene and Toots: A Love Story
“When my daughter was in trouble, my instinct was to rescue and protect her from harmful consequences. It was losing my child to the torture of substance use disorder that led me, quite accidentally, into confronting myself and the landscape of all my own inner conflict. And in so doing, ironically, it was I who came away more healed, less broken, and more able to accept—with grace—the disappointments in my life. Now, after years of recovery, I know that those same consequences might have been her best teachers. This is precisely where faith might have helped me; I didn’t have any when I most needed it.”
From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, October 1:
“’Women are often caught between conforming to existing standards or role definitions and exploring the promise of new alternatives.’ ~Stanlee Phelps and Nancy Austin
…Recovery means change in habits, change in behavior, change in attitudes. And change is seldom easy. But change we must, if we want to recover successfully.”
This applies to both substance users and to those who love them, for we all need recovery.
At first, many years ago, I had no idea that loving a substance user had the potential to make me sick: denial, guilt, obsession, depression and anxiety; it would be hard for a parent to not experience one of those things.
But over time, I realized that I was doing things I never would have done under normal circumstances. These were not normal circumstances, and I let myself justify a number of things, the most damaging being not making my daughter accountable for her actions. I enabled and overprotected, which stood in the way of her growing, changing, and recovering.
Fortunately for me, I have adopted many new attitudes from sitting in the rooms and enjoying the support of many other parents. My knee-jerk habit of rescuing has stopped, and my behavior has changed toward everyone in my life. I believe that it has a lot to do with my inventory work in Al-Anon, but others find the ability to change through other means. It doesn’t matter where we gain our strength. The important thing is to make the necessary changes that will enable us to live well and be happy—because we all deserve to have a good life.
An old middle school friend of my daughter’s from 30 years ago found me on Facebook this week. Then she called me on Facetime from North Carolina.
“Jaime, omg, how are you? What are you up to?”
“Oh, I’ve got three boys and I’m doing well. But I’ve been wanting to get in touch with Annie.”
So I told her a short version of our story.
“I’m so sorry for the hell you’ve been going through, Marilea. Please know that I remember her to be the best kid, loyal and kind. It’s hard to believe how drugs have changed her so completely. If you ever reconnect with her, tell her I miss her and want to reconnect.”
Christmas is always hard for this mother, no matter how much recovery I have. I’m only human. But Jaime’s phone call made me feel better. It was a real time reminder that I once had a daughter who was doing pretty well in the world. She did some things to be proud of. She had friends who remember her like she was before drugs. And family.
Keeps things in perspective. We all have kids who were once doing well. It wasn’t all bad. As I decorate my Christmas tree, I proudly add the decorations she made in preschool. I remember the good times, and I smile when I look at the tapestry she made for me.
Excerpt from my first memoir, written under a pseudonym, as my healing journey began:
“Meth addicts can go for days without sleep sometimes, and then they need to crash, recoup their energy and start the cycle all over again. I went back upstairs, tiptoeing around the house, a minefield waiting to be activated by just the wrong look or comment. Most of the time I felt like a scared rabbit.
Angie came and went like a phantom between the holidays. She was a body, yes, but nothing else resembled my daughter. Her face was still healing from the burns she had gotten from freebasing crack cocaine back in October. She lost all her beautiful eyelashes then and had been wearing false ones ever since. How bizarre: false eyelashes at age twenty-two. And the eye drops—always the eye drops. She ate not at all as far as I could see, nothing from my refrigerator anyway. She was painfully thin. But, of course, meth took away your appetite. That was the point, one of them, anyway. All those years ago when I took amphetamines, I delighted in the same side effect. Life was repeating itself and I was in a time warp observing myself at the very same age. God, it was so painful.
We barely spoke. Sometimes she mumbled “Hello,” but mostly she just needed a place to crash and get her clothes…Every day was a surreal pageant, dancing around with this stranger. The terror was so disorienting that I lapsed into denial sometimes and pretended it wasn’t happening. But that was easier to do when I was working. I was on a break from school now and I couldn’t escape from it. It was right in front of me.
As New Year’s approached, I couldn’t bear it anymore. Did I snap? I hadn’t even joined Al-Anon yet, but years later I would hear a saying at meetings: “In Al-Anon we learn to trade a wishbone in for a backbone.” Amazing! I was ready to cross these frightening waters before I even had the support of the group. But I would flee, in subsequent years, to higher ground all too often, unable to navigate effectively. This was going to be a journey as much for me as for Angie, I soon found out. And like most journeys there would be many bumps in the road.”
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 my daughter’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 substance user at his worst, 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 muster, 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. Believe it with all your heart, my friends, believe it until it comes true.
It’s important for families to communicate well, especially where illnesses are involved. We didn’t talk much in my family, especially about the elephant in the living room, my father’s alcoholism. In those days there was so much shame and stigma, and it was swept under the rug.
Not a healthy way to deal. I always knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what. Many children are naturally egocentric, and I thought everything was my fault. I internalized all of the dysfunction and blamed myself. So that’s how I proceeded through life, feeling guilty for what was not my responsibility.
If I had been told what was going on—even later on when I could handle it— I would have gotten a healthier perspective on my family and my place in it. And I would have let go of the guilt, which wasn’t mine to carry.
Talk to your kids, no matter what. It might not change what’s going on, but it might provide a smoother landing pad for your kids later on in their lives. “Knowledge is power.”
“Life holds so much—so much to be happy about always. Most people ask for happiness on conditions. Happiness can only be felt if you don’t set conditions.” ~Arthur Rubenstein
All of us in these rooms have experienced substance use disorder in one form or another: in ourselves or in a loved one. Many serious illnesses are incurable, but SUD is often conquered by the sufferer. Many substance users recognize that they have the power to change if they are committed to recovery. Different people have different ways of dealing with it: some use 12-Step recovery, some use prayer, or yoga, or running, or writing things down. No one way is better than another. Whatever works for you.
Substance use disorder is painful and messy. My life was derailed because of it. But I found a way to recover—from my own substance use as well as my obsession with saving my daughter, and I got my life back.
I’m filled with gratitude every day for that. And I wish us all the same peace and joy for that freedom. I’ve learned to be happy and to make the best of things as they are. And that’s quite a lot. Gratitude keeps me grounded in recovery, and not just on Thanksgiving!
“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 control of a bewildering array of drugs which influence them. My daughter, 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 her 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 twenty 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 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 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.
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.”
“Detachment is not detaching from the person or thing whom we care about or feel obsessed with. Detachment is detaching from the agony of involvement.”
Boundaries…boundaries…boundaries. Where do I end and the other person begins? A strong sense of self enables me to set clear limits with others. I was terribly enmeshed in my daughter’s life; I had never separated from her in a healthy way. Because we were so alike, I identified with her and felt overly responsible for her troubles. Her problems became my problems, and it never occurred to me to let her face her own responsibilities, both for her betterment and my own. Four rehabs started the healthy process of accountability. Then four relapses reversed much of that work. But I still hope that some of what she learned is still with her.
Thankfully my work in recovery has helped me face myself in the mirror and make some important changes. I made the necessary separation, first of all, from my daughter. I detached—with great difficulty. I no longer feel the “agony of involvement” because I’ve let go of her illness and the consequences of her substance use. I can’t save her from herself. I can only love her and be here for her should she choose to walk with me in recovery. This is how I make living amends to my children and others in my life: by living well myself and hoping it inspires them to do the same.