I love this acronym because it shows how emotions can collide with rational thinking. It also shows that even when we are being rational, we sometimes say the wrong thing. As a writer, I’m aware of the power of words—how they can persuade, or repel, how they can win friends, or lose them. I’ve done them all! When I get too emotional, I’m sure to say the wrong thing. Experience has taught me to use this acronym to weigh carefully what comes out of my mouth. To ask myself if what I say is necessary, or am I just spouting off, releasing steam like Old Faithful in Yellowstone? Am I being honest, or are my words brutal and tactless? Do I care how my words might affect the other person? Am I so emotional, in the moment, that my words might appear unintelligible? And most of all, do my words demonstrate kindness towards the other person?
Of all those terms, kindness for me is the most far-reaching and important. No matter what happens to us in our lives, no matter how deeply we are humbled by our circumstances and shortcomings, if we can remain kind in the face of everything, then that says a lot about our character.
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.”
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.
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.
Pity the poor fly. Its brain is pretty miniscule and not capable of making decisions that might lead it to its final flight.
Have you ever wondered what they were thinking flying through our open doors and/or windows? Well, they weren’t thinking; remember, they’re just flies. They had just spent a lovely day outside, gobbling up insects, laying eggs on piles of compost, and just frittering away their time, wondering what to do next.
“Oh, there’s an open door,” they venture excitedly, “maybe there’s more food through that door.”
“Nope, not a good choice,” we implore, as we flail around trying to whisk them back outside. But too late for some. They get lost in the curtains, the laundry room, the bathrooms. They do tend to linger around windows as they wistfully wonder how to get back out into the open air. Yet they have no idea how to accomplish that.
“Oh, look at all those ants…” precursors of a thought, their jaws watering at the sight of all the insects through the living room window. My son leaves the doors open sometimes, just so that they can escape the doom that awaits them.
But then more just come in.
Oh, pity those poor flies. They’re not suicidal. That would require some forethought, and they don’t think at all, remember. They just like to eat bugs. And poop. And make more flies. One place to do all that seems just like any other one.
Wrong! Inside most reasonably well-kept houses there are not a lot of bugs. So there they sit, or flit from room to room, vainly scrounging around for some edible bugs, while they slowly lose their energy, utterly bewildered by it all.
Finally, unable to carry on and fly, these lost and confused insects drop down onto the floor where I find them, usually near the windows—those glass barriers that kept them from swooping down and devouring all those ants. One by one I pick them up and take them outside, where they become dinner for other insects.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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?
I am a
blogger for The Addict’s Parents United. The sequel to my award-winning first
memoir, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t
Live Here Anymore, will be released by She Writes Press on 6/16/20. This is
an excerpt from Stepping Stones: A Memoir
of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation:
“Several years before I attempted to
make amends to Angie, she was in her last rehab in California. It was 2009, and
I flew across the country for Parents’ Weekend. After excitedly showing me
around the grounds, she bumped into a couple of new friends.
“Hey, Angela, show us more of those
My daughter still enjoyed showing people what she had been able to do as
a gymnast in Greece.
“Sure.” Proud of her agility, she
showed us, among other things, a backward twist that must have been difficult
then. She wasn’t ten anymore.
As she leaned backward
toward the floor, her hair fell back; I saw the scar again and wondered how
she’d gotten it. She must have had an accident to have sustained such a deep
gash around her hairline in the middle of her forehead.
Angie was a child, she looked like a beautiful mandarin doll. She’d always had
a thick pile of bangs to frame her oval face. But her hair didn’t fall that way
anymore because of the scar, and she hadn’t been wearing bangs for several
years. I remembered the picture of my children from J. C. Penney’s one
Christmas in Miami, her pretty brown eyes accented by her thick bangs.
her then in rehab, I focused on her bangs. How much I missed seeing them on her!
What mother doesn’t mourn her child’s innocence and wish a painless life for
last time I saw her, for Mother’s Day in 2012, I was
in a San Francisco motel near the hostel in the Tenderloin where she was
staying. She was to spend a night with me and had a key to the room. It was
five in the morning when I heard her unlocking the door, and I jumped up to
“Hi, Mom. This is Pontus.”
“Hi there,” the much older man said as he offered to shake
“Hello, Pontus. Angie, please come in now so I can go back
“Sure, Mom. See you later, Buddy.”
have a picture of her sitting on my bed the next morning, her terrier, Loki, on
her lap; she was never without him. Her hair was pulled to the side and held
with a clip, exposing the scar.
looked so strange—like someone else—without those
lustrous bangs. But of course she was . . . someone
Eight years. Some digital contact in all that time—most of it unpleasant. I’ve often said in my commentary over the years that an addict, after long periods of using, seems split down the middle: the child we raised, and what remains after years of substance abuse.
I’ve hoped for the happy ending so
many of my fellow mothers are blessed with. I’m so genuinely happy for them,
and I hold a fervent wish in my heart that their addicts continue to enjoy
sobriety. But many of us have not been so fortunate. And many mothers have
buried their children. So how do we move forward with our grief and loss?
Together, for one thing. Together we are stronger. Talking openly about it, putting an end to the shame and isolation. There is strength and empowerment in our ability to stand tall and add our voices to the others out there. Substance use disorder—this is hard to believe—is even more on the rise now. As a result of all the forced isolation in the time of coronavirus—isolation which is a substance user’s worst enemy—a few mothers I know have found themselves frustrated and saddened to watch their children falling back into the rabbit hole. I pray their relapses are short-lived and they are able to get back to living their lives without using substances to cope.
I think of my Angie on this Mother’s
Day, 2020. I don’t know how she is. I sent her an email, telling her how much I
love her and I hope she’s well enough to survive another day. The email didn’t
bounce back. If she’s still with us in San Francisco, that’s good, because
where there’s life there’s hope.
We all have different stories with our children; some are happy and some are sad. This is just my story. But I know that I was the best mom that I could be, and I believe that most mothers are. Because of that stirring belief, I’m proud to celebrate myself and all of you on Mother’s Day, this year and every year. We have more than earned a place in that fellowship.
in the world of substance use disorder is overwhelming, whether I’m a substance
user or love one. So when I try to do things on a daily basis, and not for the
rest of my life, getting through every day seems more manageable.
I am not
able to multitask. Not at all. If I try to do two things at once, neither of
them gets done. I’m just not able to juggle two things at once. So I make a lot
of lists and I try to manage things simply, doing one thing at a time. This
process has taught me a lot of patience, if only because the rest of the world
is screaming at my back to hurry up! So—with difficulty— I tune them out,
listening to my own drummer.
pressures of living are out there, relentlessly telling me to do this or finish
that. It takes discipline to ignore the ads, the competitive wars I
unconsciously wage against others, and proceed at my own pace—often just
putting one foot in front of the other. This is more necessary than ever in
this day only—yesterday never happened and tomorrow is just a dream—keeps
things remarkably simple and uncomplicated. I’m also, consciously, learning to
set healthy boundaries, where I recognize my own needs as they bump up against
the needs of others, figuratively, not physically! It’ll be a while before I
bump up against others.
Oh brother! Life is so complicated. That’s why I make an effort to “Keep It Simple”! 🙂