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.
A child’s chemical dependency can give birth to tremendous disappointment. We yearn for the son or daughter who didn’t grow up the way we expected. We were hoping for college, but we got jail; we were anticipating joyful holiday celebrations, but instead we served up bitterness and swallowed our pride at the Thanksgiving table. Sometimes, horrifically, we don’t just lose our dreams for our children; we lose a child altogether.
What does a parent do with overwhelming grief when a child dies? When I heard Diedrea Welch’s story on the radio (scroll down to the Healing Arts story), I was transfixed by the way she dealt with the loss of her young son to a drunk driver. He was just eight years old.
Diedrea’s wisdom can make us all stronger, no matter what our challenges. She found that, after a period of immense grieving, her son’s death ultimately “led her to her own truth: it woke me up to the reality of who I am as a human being.” To paraphrase her experience, after being immobilized by his loss, she began to figure out what was really important in her life and about her life. And she began to examine what attitudes were serving her, and which attitudes weren’t. She began to spend her time and her life on the truly important things.
Diedrea transformed her loss in a truly transcendent way, and I owe it to myself to try to learn from her. So I ask– Which of my attitudes are serving me, and which are doing me (and others) harm? What is really important about my life? Where should I devote my energy—in light of, or in spite of—the fears and losses I’ve known? If I can answer these questions, then I have learned well from my child’s chemically dependency, however heart-wrenching that has been.
Healing comes in many forms, even via radio waves….
For parents whose children struggle with substance abuse, the New Year gives us an opportunity to start fresh and welcome new, healthier attitudes or behaviors. But what happens if we find ourselves clenching grief or loss so tightly that we cannot embrace happiness or joy? Ricki Townsend, a Parent Pathway “Expert,” grief counselor and interventionist, shares some ideas about letting go of grief.
“We have dreams and hopes for our children as they grow and discover life. Then one day we wake up to find they have become involved in the battle of addiction. And so our life as we hoped it would be has changed. As parents, we may find we have trouble sleeping, we may start to have health issues, we may find ourselves crying or even angry over the simplest of things. Please look at the possibility that you are grieving the loss of your child as you knew him or her.
Grief and loss are naturally interwoven into addiction. Grief is different for each one of us, but please don’t discount it. We put so much energy into getting back our child that we often forget about ourselves. Here are some ways to deal with your grief:
- If you acknowledge that you are grieving, I invite you to work through the grieving process with a counselor who will help you understand your losses and deal with them in a healthy and constructive way.
- Grief can feel suffocating. A good exercise to release grief is to take a very deep breath, hold it tightly and then release it slowly. You will feel your body calm down. It is also therapeutic to cry in the shower or yell in the car or smash pillows with a tennis racquet—anything physical to vent your sorrow, your anger, your disappointment.
- You might also want to write a letter to whatever is running your life—addiciton, fear, remorse—and tell it that you are taking back your life. You can also write down your sorrows and regrets and burn them in a fireplace or “burning bowl.” The important thing is to symbolically purge your “if only’s” so that you can free yourself to live more in the moment.
- There are also some great books that will help support recovery. Check out The
Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman or The Precious Present by Spencer Johnson.
It is up to each of us to ‘push the clouds away’ in order to be happy. Don’t sit on the sidelines and don’t become a victim—you have the power to reclaim your serenity. If you have questions about grief or any other substance abuse issues, please feel free to send me your questions. Best wishes for a healthy New Year.”
Ricki Townsend, NAADAC, interventionist and family counselor