“People can be more forgiving than you can imagine. But you have to forgive yourself. Let go of what’s bitter and move on.”
“People can be more forgiving than you can imagine. But you have to forgive yourself. Let go of what’s bitter and move on.”
As the mother of a chemically dependent child, my biggest fear was that he would die. It’s not an irrational fear: addiction/alcoholism is responsible for accidents, homicides, suicides. I am not telling you something that you don’t already know; these fears probably haunt you, too.
I will be the first to admit that, for the most part, I dealt with that fear in a pretty graceless way. I was obsessed with my son’s potential death to the point of not being present in his life. I was preoccupied with what he did/what he might do to the point of overlooking the bright moments in his day and mine. Guilty as charged for overlooking “the present” of today! I was absent from the lives of other loved ones; I was shrill; I was depressed; I was afraid.
I read today about a transcendent mom who, unlike me, looked death squarely in the eye and refused to let it strip her of her child’s life. The mother of a terminally ill toddler, writer Emily Rapp delighted in her child’s short life and learned tremendous lessons from him. You can read about Emily, her son Ronan, and parenting a child with no future. Emily learned so much from Ronan, and we can all learn so much from Emily about how to love a child without life’s guarantees.
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” – Melody Beattie
There are times that I can begin to let the challenges of my life become my total focus. Even though I know that living my life from a place of gratitude is where I find the peace and serenity, it is not always easy. I know that there are concerns and life cannot be totally stress free. But it is how I deal with these situations. Do I face them head on and look for the learning and silver linings? Do I see keep things in perspective or let them run rampant in my mind to a place that is not healthy? Sometimes I do well and other times I need to self-correct.
When I come from a place of gratitude it is like the quote from Melody Beattie above. I can turn chaos into order and I can turn confusion into clarity. Being grateful starts your day with a sense of calm and a place of serenity. I have to remind myself daily to be grateful. Sometimes I write down a list of what I am grateful for. You can also keep a journal and refer to it when you are feeling down or stressed. Keep the gratefulness in your heart and that will help to keep the peacefulness in your head!
Chemical dependency can redesign the role of every member in the family. At the climax of our family’s wild ride through the Land of Addiction, I morphed from (relatively) healthy nurturer to rabid fixer. When my son messed up, I became the self-appointed clean-up crew. I had to save him from himself, which clearly took the responsibility off of him to manage his life and the consequences of his bad choices. I wanted to make it all better, to kiss the boo-boo and put a Happy Face Band-Aid on it. Isn’t that what moms do?
At one particularly low moment, I remember muttering to him, “I made you, you little (bleep). I can break you.” Talk about delusions of power! I couldn’t stop him from making bad choices, and I couldn’t force him to make good choices. But I could get out of his way and give him the power to steer his own ship away from the rocky shore.
Drs. Daniel Amen and David Smith describe how to change this unhealthy dynamic in Unchain your Brain: 10 Steps to Breaking the Addictions that Steal Your Life. “To heal one person, the whole family must be healed. Family members have to examine their own behaviors to determine how they might be contributing to the problem and be willing to change their ways.”
Everyone in our family had to change when I began to understand my role in my child’s illness. My husband had to take on some of the responsibilities that I had previously held so tightly to my chest because –of course– I knew best how to take care of the problem (Not!). My son had to experience the consequences of his poor choices with no soft Mommy Pillow to soften his fall. The prospect of sleeping in the gutter without that soft Mommy Pillow provided a compelling reason to change. Whether he grasped that opportunity was up to him, not me.
I’m amazed how the power of situations can trigger the flight or fight response of my nervous system. These ordinary situations for most people are uneventful. For me, they are perceived differently. I’m sure it’s a phenomenon of loving someone struggling with substance abuse. The drive to correct their behavior becomes a life or death mission of impossible. And many years in the trenches has had consequences.
Triggers are everywhere for me: the sight of a homeless person, a news story of a standoff, or the sound of a siren; all flashbacks to an event I imagine my sons have been. Driving home one night a police officer had pulled someone over; the lights were bright and ominous I glimpsed at the “suspect’s” car, where is my son right now? Is that his car? A moment of panic sets in and fear takes over. When my phone rings from an unknown caller, or my doorbell sounds, my first sense is trouble. An elderly resident at a retirement community shares their sad story of having their home burglarized so many times, they sell and move. This shakes me up. My sense of guilt that it could have been someone I know who is searching for saleable items to feed their addiction.
It’s as if my brain evolved pathways of neurons that trigger cues around me into guilt, angst, unfounded responsibility, and un-needed adrenaline. Resources are there for people like me but I had to first admit I could not solve this on my own.
Recovery is learning to act and think differently in similar situations. New thinking happens over time, but I’m convinced there is a biological restructure of neurons in my brain. Old triggers no longer take me hostage as new pathways to serenity have formed.
“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.” - Ayn Rand Quote for Overcoming Addiction
Living a happy, joyful life is a right for each and every one of us. Yet sometimes our lives take a turn for the worse; whether an accident, illness or just bad luck we aren’t always in control of these events. In the case of a loved one struggling with addiction we often have the illusion that we can control, contain or somehow change the course. And in our effort to do this we find our own lives in a downward spiral. We wake up one day and wonder how it all got so bad and how in the world am I going to get back to a day without disruption, pain and worry. Yet we all know deep inside that we can somehow, someway find our way back. I love Ayn Rands quote and especially the last sentence, ‘It exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.’
The road back may not be easy but we must persevere to a place where we feel whole again. In the depths of my despair I can share with you that there were times when I felt hopeless and helpless. Yet when I pulled from deep within myself I realized that I had to take the steps to get to the world that I desired. I had to ‘detach with love’ from my daughter and her addiction. I did not ever detach from loving her but I did detach from the chaos of her life. In doing so I gave her the opportunity to start solving her dilemmas and it was amazing how she also began to reclaim her life and move towards the life she desired. Step by step the healing began and a horizon to the life we both desired was in reach.
“The first recipe for happiness is: avoid too lengthy meditation on the past.”
Parents of addicts or alcoholics are often advised to “detach with love,” which is much easier said than done. How do you detach with love when the beloved child you raised now appears as a Tasmanian Devil, creating intolerable chaos and destruction in your life? What do you do with your anger, fear and grief? What does “detaching with love” mean, anyway??
For me, detaching with love goes hand in hand with another expression: “Love the addict, hate the addiction.” It means that I now try to intellectually separate my child’s unacceptable behavior from the fundamentally good kid I know him to be because I have come to understand the brain disease of addiction. It means that I choose not to participate at every fight he invites me to because I realize that they are addict-initiated power struggles. It means I reclaim my power to be present in my child’s life on my healthy terms rather than as a defensive reaction to the addict’s shrill mandates.
Most of all, it means that I set healthy limits with kindness rather than fury. I have learned to raise the bar for his behavior by explaining, “I’ve changed, and that behavior is not OK with me now. I will not welcome you in my home/life/fill in the blank if you are using drugs or drinking.” I’ve said No, and I’ve said No More in a loving way because I love my child, because I am worth it and because I owe it to the rest of our family
Detaching with love means that I show respect to my child, and –even more important—to myself by setting healthy limits in a loving way. As I refuse to be the doormat for unacceptable behavior, I lovingly set a standard for how I deserve to be treated. With any luck plus some divine intervention, my change in approach gives my beloved child, and not the addict, a compelling reason to come home.
One day I was driving my son to a local transit station. I quickly glanced his way to see if he was wearing his seat belt. The last time I was driving him he did not have his seat belt on and I realized it just when a police officer pulled up next to us. This panicked me and bothered me to no end. I don’t want any trouble. At the time he was 28 years old, by the way. Now he has acquired a ginormous tattoo that runs from his shoulder to his wrist on one arm. I’m struggling to accept it. I kept seeing it in my periphery. Soon I noticed other things around me. At an intersection, the car just next to me pulled up to the stop light. Here was a young driver who had all the earmarks of a young drug dealer. There were several young people at the corner gas station, loitering; they too looked suspect to me – did I just see them nod to that drug dealer driver? And the car on my right, the driver also had a very noticeable tattoo… Somewhere there was loud music BOOM BOOM BOOMING… Everywhere around me were suspicious people, my son’s age, in cars, on sidewalks, parking lots and bus stations, all seemingly with no direction or purpose. It was like the ZOMBIES had all come out in the afternoon. This is an area I drive daily and I never noticed this before!
What just happened here? I was uneasy about his tattoo. Why? One word: Judgment. I was placing judgment on him AND would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned about how people would judge me! So, as sneaky as my EGO can be, I involuntarily defaulted to my old defects of character – placing judgment on those around me – they looked suspicious! This tactic used to work good when I did not want to take a good look at myself. Let’s face it. If I put the focus on them, I don’t see where there is any “me” in the equation. This time, however, I CAUGHT ME!
I never know when I’m going to resort to old habits where character defects surface, but I am able to recognize what I’m doing and stop it soon after. Before recovery in the Al-Anon Family Group I would not have considered my viewpoint the problem. I sometimes look forward to finding another thing I’m wrong at because it’s so humbling! What a gift!