I am captivated by Anne Lamott’s book, Imperfect Birds. Certainly, Anne was channeling me as she wrote this novel about a daughter’s secretive addiction.
Her book, although fiction, is uncannily familiar as she describes the seeming innocence of her daughter and friends, who were blatantly using drugs right in front of oblivious parents like me. Instead of “lame,” I prefer to look back at myself as trusting, hopeful, and a firm believer in the innocence and purity of childhood. Drug addiction did not fit into that idyllic picture.
Anne Lamott and I are now kindred spirits, bonded by the experience of addicted children, real or fictional. I am buoyed by this sisterhood of understanding and compassion. It’s the same sisterhood that blossomed at a parents’ Al-Anon meeting where I discovered that many of us were struggling through the dark and uncertain woods. After weeping uncontrollably in a room filled with total strangers, I was brought into the fold. We shared the common threads of grief and despair and even hope, although I couldn’t see that at the time. But I knew I was no longer alone, and that made all the difference.
I’m not far into the book, so I don’t know how the story ends. Guess what? We never know how the story ends until we get there. Until then, we need to forge ahead through the uncertainty, reach out to others who are stumbling alongside us, and head towards the light of day—one step at a time.
There was a time I used the siblings to debrief my anguish and worry about the other “one” – the child whose absence or drama was taking center stage and getting my full attention. Unaware of how damaging this would be to the remaining family members, I did this for a long time. The realization that my actions might have contributed to a form of suffering on them was a hard nut to swallow. I had to learn it the hard way; it seems to be a recurring theme for me. I first pondered the notion when listening to Alateens share their hurt, abandonment and other issues they kept to themselves while watching mom or dad get progressively worse in their futile attempts to straighten up the “affected” one’s life. I’d hear how some would become overly protective and sometimes take the role of caretaker, worried about the troubled sibling. Some would get resentful about all the attention given to the other. The entanglement of the family disease is cunning, baffling and powerful. To the “normal” sibling, the desire for mom and dad to get happy again would become their focus. So, in a sense, young co-dependents were forming as the family disease reached epidemic proportions. I wondered which role my children fell into.
Becoming aware didn’t actually help me with how to do better…the Al-Anon Family Group and 12 step recovery program was my road map for change. I had to start over with training wheels, in a sense, beginning with me and my contributions to the family disease. It began with accepting I had problems of my own to work on. The hope for me was that I could mend broken relations with all those who mattered in my life.
Today, with guarded mouth and awareness of the family disease, I try to keep the focus and be present with those who stand before me. I no longer ask prying questions about the “other” one whose lifestyle is concerning. I consciously choose to seize those opportunities with gratitude to be allowed the accompaniment of their presence. Most critically, I get to be PRESENT with no conditions and that is my GIFT to them.
When my son was released from incarceration the 2nd time, I was better equipped to not come rescuing like the first time. The first time I arranged to meet him, buy him clothes, toiletries and a hotel room until he found a sober living situation. I paid for his lodging and soon followed with food shopping extravaganzas. Though I believed I was cautiously treading and not helping to the extreme, he was indirectly relying on my assistance and I was relying on his success.
I was reminded that each time I helped in matters he was capable of doing himself; he did not have to focus on the necessities of life. Since those were being “handled” by me, he could focus on other things which may or may not result in favorable outcomes. I carried a hidden expectation that he would find a job and become self sufficient. It ultimately became clear addiction and all the consequences that go with it trumped us all.
It’s a fine line to walk as a mother. Naturally, there are choices one takes, but, if my actions, no matter how innocent or caring, interferes with my son doing for himself, then it’s the wrong thing to do. And here’s a mind bender – I’m still fooling myself if I try to control someone by withholding help if I attach an expectation to it! The “I won’t buy you food, so you will be forced to work!” control mentality. And helping because it makes me feel better doesn’t fly with me anymore. Such disrespect SHOUTS “I’m helping because you are not capable and it kills me to see it” – that is not the message I really want to convey!
Getting out of the way is that way! It’s the way I can give with no hidden, read-the-fine-print mommy babble because it keeps a healthy boundary between us both. There are no strings attached. He may go right or left and it’s not my business. Such was my lesson. I was once again reminded that I’m powerless over this disease. I was once again reminded that if I could not or would not accept the powerlessness part, then I would always be in conflict with him and play a critical role in contributing to the cunning, baffling nature of the disease. I had to get out of the cage and stop dancing with the gorilla. My sons’ 2nd chance has thus far had drastic favorable results and he gets all the credit. All I did was get out of the way with a strong belief he is capable of figuring it out, whatever “it” is. (And I pray for the stranger).
I panicked at first when a mom who knew about my circumstance reached out to me. Would I be able to help her? How could I smooth things over when I know outcomes may not be great? Was it even my business to try? I have grown a great deal in my 12 step recovery program of Al-Anon Family Groups but I’m not perfect. I re-wound my history playbook recalling my own experience of the “son-in-prison powerlessness”. He had fainted in the shower room and cut his head. Word was he’d been transferred to a hospital. No one “inside” knew his status or even what happened. That helpless and hopeless feeling of not knowing! I have uncontrollable mother bear instincts! Unlike when he was 8 years old at the lake and had fainted on a rock outcropping…the children yelling for help, his dad and I frantically swimming to his rescue…in desperation, I could not help this time. My fear! My panic! The “must do something” response and immediate reaction to save him! Back to present State Corrections Department and my powerlessness, I later found on the website an inmate/family liaison contact and I emailed them. Days later someone responded! I wanted to know if he was alright and my Higher Power answered me – “he’s OK!”
Having shared with this mom, days later she thanked me for listening. Realizing there were some options in the prison industry that worked for me, she found someone to assist her situation. I learned that not being able to do something right away has merit for my life lessons in recovery from the family disease. I have learned in Al-Anon the three A’s: Awareness, Acceptance, and then Action. That “must do something” response is really unfiltered “reaction” and no longer serves me well. Today I have choices once I step back and get awareness of the situation. I had the same feelings to help this mom. I’m aware that my urge to immediately help is an unconscious response and I don’t need to act on it. I can accept that feelings are not facts. It is here that my action, if any, will be more appropriate and often results in positive outcomes.
One way I have learned to improve my relationships with my adult children whose issues with substance abuse bothered me is to remember to keep my big mouth shut…tight! My friend says “I have the right to remain silent; I just don’t have the ability to!” Finally, I’m given a reason for my behavior – I’m powerless over the desire to comment! A symptom of co-dependency, it perpetuates my unhappiness with the outcomes. Even though I’m aware of the negative consequences, I forget the tools that help me behave differently. Slowly, I remember those tools before my tongue takes over and my ability to communicate with maturity improves.
I use to override or completely miss the signs that the other person doesn’t want to engage or is put off by something I have said. I tend to do this uncensored with the ones closest to me. For example, I want to offer advice that wasn’t requested from me or offer a better solution to something they share. Their reaction is silence, withdrawn or irritated outburst. Outbursts are unpleasant, but silence seems worse! The sound of silence triggers my need to break it with a question. Questions can be aggressive. Usually, I ask prying questions under the guise of being loving or interested. A question can put people on the defensive and coupled with substance abuse, there is also an open invitation for lying. Questions can also be perceived as prying and nosey. That is not the kind of mother I want to be and if I had continued without change, I would have pushed others further away from me – the exact opposite of what I desire!
Understanding my role in the family disease has helped me appreciate the significance of the slogan W.A.I.T. This is an acronym I picked up in Al-Anon which stands for “why am I talking?” A good reminder to keep my urge to say something in check. Another problem with questions is I’m usually not prepared for the answer! I’ve grabbed onto the saying, “Don’t ask if you don’t want to know!” Learning to listen and accept the situation, without comment, gets easier the more I practice. I have come to realize that silence is not unpleasant but rather a time I can compose myself to breathe, invite my Higher Power in, and be mindful of my own character defects.
I recall and still experience people (landlords, relatives, employers, friends) who contact me of a status or question about one of my sons. Never mind they are over 18, adults! Their drug addiction progressed to unacceptable behavior to society at large and the only dependable contact is me. Usually it is a phone call, so the sound of the ring can put me on edge. It’s been a few years since the extreme drama. However, the intensity may have slowed down but not entirely, nor the feelings I get. Each time someone comes at me regarding my child, I take the situation as if I were the one that did it. I’d probably do the same thing if someone were coming at me about a miraculous good deed or achievement they did; I’d take credit for that too! Those scenarios typically don’t happen in a family affected by the disease of alcoholism and substance abuse. My feelings are a force within, so strong I’m propelled to take action: clean it up, apologize, and make excuses. I’ve come to understand this is a common experience for a parent whose child’s early adult years are plagued with substance abuse. Left untreated, it can lead to many health concerns as did happen to me.
With treatment through Al-Anon, I’ve learned a new way to handle my reactions; one that helps me determine if the matter is mine. There is a saying “if you put on a hula hoop, all things that happen inside the hula hoop belong to me and everything outside the hula hoop belongs to them.” This has given me a visual that is easy to remember. Today, I’m better at handling the “outside the hula hoop” matters as they still come up. It doesn’t necessarily center around addiction or my sons. But I’m learning that it’s a part of life and it’s what people do. People will come at me with matters that don’t necessarily belong to me. When it happens I can relapse to old ways and get defensive or take blame for something I did not do. Alternatively, I utilize choices in how I react based on recognizing what belongs to me and what doesn’t. These choices are healthier. The feelings of take charge and fix-it are still very strong! The Hula-Hoop tool is more about my own rehabilitation from my affliction of the family disease of co-dependency.
This was a directive to my son (who paid no attention to my threats). He was in his disease of addiction. He’d leave my house in a huff and go directly to Grandma’s house to swoon her over. Things changed drastically, and fast. It wasn’t long before I had grandma complaining to me about the lack of follow-through with my son. I would get the calls, inquires, concerns and complaints – as if I was the “Agent” representing and responsible to the community at large. I took on this obligation because I believed it too, but I was getting resentful. All I wished was that he’d stay away from Grandma because of how it was affecting me and the worry of her well being. Time would reveal the progressive nature of addiction and how the family dynamics would get further strained – a symptom unique to addiction I subsequently learned. Turns out I’m not the only co-dependent!
Parents: He’s got a drug problem and won’t go to rehab, we are learning more about addiction.
Grandma: He’s a good boy, “Once he starts working …”
Parents: We are not going to buy him another car, he isn’t insurable.
Grandma: I co-signed; I knew you would help with payments…
Parents: He cannot live in our house, he’s untrustworthy. We believe he has to experience discomfort before he will choose another way.
Grandma: He’s temporarily living in my home – we discussed my terms and it’s under control.
Parents: We’re concerned for grandma – she has opened her door and won’t listen to any reasoning!
Grandma: I can’t turn my back on him and THROW him to the streets!
After bringing Grandma to a few counseling sessions and I witnessed her sentiment I had once felt: Counseling is not giving me the answers I want to hear on how to fix him; therefore, this is a waste of time. I didn’t stop searching for answers. Desperation forced me to find further support and I landed in the Al-Anon Family Group. This is where I learned that I would have to employ boundaries in all my life’s affairs. I learned I could not control my son, his girlfriend, his grandmother, his landlord, his employer… any of THEM. I had choices, and being triangulated was something within my own ability to take control of if I wanted relief and serenity in my life. I found other grandparents in my support group that helped me understand their point of view. I learned compassion and understanding that this disease branches through the family tree, everyone is affected. I learned that the ones I love must decide for themselves, if they want to change, I can’t decide for them.
When I follow the years of progression of the disease of addiction with my son, I sometimes see 10+ years having gone down the drain. Now, for a 50 odd year old, one year flies by at the speed of light and a whole lot can be accomplished! For a 20 year old, 10 years seems a lifetime. It’s a matter of perspective. However it feels, it’s still 10 years and sometimes I’m overtaken with despair.
I now realize that the 10+ years past is what it’s supposed to be; I don’t have any right to judge the usefulness of it. I sometimes question, when will he choose recovery? Will he ever? How can there be hope when over and over the same thing happens and it’s never good. This is the time I find myself going to a 12-Step Recovery Program, open to the public: AA or NA , where I can listen to others in recovery. It’s a good way to get re-energized. I’ve even found recordings on the internet to download of recovered persons who share their story. There is so much hope in their stories. By listening to them, I learn about the disease and it gives me another perspective to understand that recovery happens for each person differently, and on different time lines. Rarely do I hear someone speak on the help they got from their mom or dad. Sometimes there is an honorable mention to Al-Anon, where friends and family learned to stop enabling. The true source of help is inevitably something bigger than me or someone else – the unknown source, a Power, Greater than I – something I’ve come to welcome. I observe that some find recovery early, some get it years and years later. Sadly, some never get it. For the latter possibility, I’m reminded to be thankful each moment that I’m afforded an opportunity to see, hear or be in some sort of communication with my adult children. Years can fly by or the opposite. Sometimes days, and even hours can drag out for an eternity. Either way, if I stay in the presence of a Power, greater than myself, I can find serenity in the knowledge that when and if they ever decide, someone will be there to offer a new way to do life, with their own hope for the future. I can let go of my need to be overly involved and learn how to be a loving parent, unconditionally, when opportunities present themselves.
In life you need either inspiration or desperation.— Tony Robbins
I heard on a spiritual talk show the statement, “Desperation was a gift, it saved me”. At first I was curious how one could say that and then recalled that it was desperation that made me seek out a support group for families who have a member addicted to alcohol and drugs. The hurt and uncertainty was too great to function.
I began to realize desperation is what it takes for most people in codependent relationships to find relief, and that this last resort is the end game towards recovery. It took a long time to understand that desperation was actually a gift. Without desperation, I’d still be fighting, over and over in varying ways, to regain control of the uncontrollable: drugs and alcohol addiction of a loved one.
As with anything, desperation can be a double edged sword. Having utter lack of hope, untreated, without intervention or rehabilitation, one might continue towards a path of insanity, institutionalization or death from related disorders. It certainly is a cross-road and as a gift, it created a change in my arsenal of tactics: listen and learn what others are saying.
And the beauty of hearing other people’s perspective helps me self- analyze my own progress in recovery. What initially began as a quest to save my sons turned out to be much more than I imagined. I was initially inspired by the hope that there is a possibility of recovery for them, and nowhere else had I been given that. I even believed there was hope that they too might find the gift of desperation – I realize now that desperation is only a gift if I surrender old ways and chose another. If not, then desperation can further damage. I don’t know if it is a necessary predecessor to change but that is what did it for me.
I sometimes ponder how quickly my fear and sadness of having a child with a drug problem resulted in my own physical issues: The teeth grinding at night, hair loss, weight gain, and high blood pressure to name a few. Initially, throwing quick fixes to the symptoms has had high costs: dental work, medical bills and revenue recovery.
With righteous indignation, I had plenty of excuses. If you walked in my shoes, you might understand why. It was easy to blame THEM for what THEY were putting me through. To add insult to injury, the disease of addiction and alcoholism were also affecting my immediate family and I resented that too.
But further contemplation while working the 12 steps of Al-Anon has shown me that I am better off doing a self-examination of myself, my motives and reasons. I had to relearn how to take ownership of my own actions and quit already with the excuses.
My attitude, if left unchecked, models the addict/alcoholic. I can easily blame others and have a distorted view on life. When I take the focus off THEM and work my own program of recovery, I am given gifts beyond measure. Here, true rehabilitation begins at the root cause – ME. I am able to deflect and change the course of how I feel both emotionally and physically.
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