Love The Addict, Not The Addiction

This is the mantra of all SUD parents, everywhere, all the time, ad infinitum.

It sounds ludicrous. Similar to “love the thief, but not the theft.” In reality it’s closer to “love the depressed but not the depression” because addiction is a form of mental illness. No question it can devolve into criminal activity: stealing, dealing illegal drugs, buying said drugs, assault and battery, prostituting, driving uninsured/unlicensed or under the influence, destruction of private property, skipping out on jobs/taxes/bills. If this feels like an unhelpful psychic dump – well, so be it. This is the unvarnished truth of watching the disease unfold.

Sigh. Love the addict, not the addiction.
Still, this is how most of us parents feel. Regardless of the attenuating circumstances.

But it doesn’t come without effort. Especially when you witness their umpteenth battle. Sometimes you are in the crossfire. Sometimes you are the target. It’s not personal we tell ourselves. But it is. Not that we are personally hurt – we learn to move beyond that after a few dozen incidents. Instead we begin a sympathetic slow bleed. Their brain is scrambled and ours is bruised by default.

So what to do if you find yourself ringside again? Eventually we learn it is their fight, not ours. Taking on the role of a health care advocate is invaluable. Be accessible and have an emergency plan ready – a list of places that are insurance card acceptable, and a plan for what you will and won’t support. (And try not to feel guilty if your “won’t” list grows longer over time.)

Until that day comes, can you become a harbinger of peace? You may have to close your eyes to envision it. A friend from long ago told me that at bedtime she places one hand over her heart and one hand over her belly and tries to sync breath and heartbeat – and then she offers it up to her struggling son. A bit woo-woo, yes….but also effective from a “positive psychic dump” sort of place.

Speaking of positive psychic dumps I have been reading Sadhguru’s book, A Yogi’s Guide to Crafting Your Destiny. In it he warns of man’s propensity to rely on articulate memory for direction. Articulate memory being the conscious data we accumulate from everyday living. This “memory data” guides our present and future moments. (Most of us call it learned behavior.) Of course it has built in blinders because it is based on personal experience. This narrows our ability to see what truly is, and to navigate in novel ways. Sadhguru’s thesis mirrors scientific study of the brain: our neurological pathways are built by initial experiences and then reinforced and strengthened by future experiences (which are often predetermined because we are creatures of habit and, well, because we have already built that neural pathway!).

Ah the cyclical nature of disease, brain theory, madness! Who wants out? (Me, me, me!)

So how does one repair a brain sick from habitual emotional reactivity? Teach it to move in a positive direction. It’s not easy (bad, bad brain!) but it gets easier by practicing unfiltered awareness of everyone and everything in the present moment. (Sadhguru coaches setting an alarm on your phone every hour to waken yourself from that cyclical reverie.) Start small. Notice the faces of people around you, the smell of wet grass, the way your body can relax when you allow it too. Build some positive off-ramps to that diseased neurological super highway.

Now none of this is novel – many meditative, yogic and psycho-social practices have been preaching this for centuries. We also know it’s trendy as fu$%. Sometimes the sheer number of bumper stickers and t-shirts can make me want to give a few people the finger. Maybe you want to give me the finger. 🙂

And, yah, some of those future unfiltered moments are gonna be bad. We know they are. As my husband warns, ‘Why live them before they have happened? Why live them twice?’ And sometimes that bad experience will turn into something positive – it happens all the time. So many, many people heal from their addictions. It’s time for me to do the same.

We Begin Again Too.

When a family member relapses waking moments are not fully your own. Work seems less important. Socializing seems trivial. Food loses its flavor. Affection is harder to feel because sorrow has taken up residence in your breastbone and your heart can no longer radiate. You feel unjustifiably tired. Tears hang out right behind your eyeballs. It takes a lot of effort to keep them there.

This is the time when I lecture myself to “pony up” because the disease is worse for those with SUD than it is for me. At least that is how I have always looked at it. But lately I have begun to second guess myself. When someone is fully in their disease they aren’t experiencing crippling worry (unless it’s how to secure their next fix). And once they get high, they certainly aren’t thinking about you. The only person who can think about you is you.

Someone once reminded me, “as they begin again, so do we.”

But this “beginning” occurs on separate paths. Thinking about this makes me sad. As much as we may want to prop each other up, addiction for families is not a team sport. It may be called a “family disease” but there is little togetherness. Addiction is the opposite of together. Even in the closest of families it does it’s best to destroy connection. The problem with this is that as a parent you believe it is your duty to move everyone forward; like a sheepdog gathering it’s herd. For twelve long years that is what I tried to do. I now know that the only way toward peace and clarity is to strike out on my own.

Last week as I sat on my patio feeling the warm sun on my face, i began to ugly cry. Immediately I tried to shut that pity parade down. As I tried to suppress my feelings I considered how I would council a friend. I knew I would tell them that what they were going through was definitely sad and that crying is a natural response. So I stopped holding my breath and allowed myself to cry. And it felt honest. Which is a small victory because honesty is something addicts, and their loved ones, are terribly afraid of.

I considered what “beginning again” had meant to me in the past. It had meant getting my loved one back on track. Finding beds in detoxes, rehabs and sober homes, double-checking insurances, packing up apartments, handling transitions, medications, cigarette runs, money, clothing deliveries, speaking with counselors, attending family meetings, researching new therapies. For me it’s always meant this laundry list of things. These things are hard and getting through them requires an amnesiac version of auto pilot. But the truth is this time around the amnesia is leaving me. Clarity has finally rung its little bell and left a little dent in my shiny armor.

I know I should be completely satisfied that my loved one is beginning again. I am aware that my despondence over being at the starting point again is not helpful. I know that relapse is part of recovery. I know that I am not qualified to solve this problem. I know that they are doing their very best. I know that love doesn’t solve all things. And I know that where there is life there is hope.

I know all these things. I suspect I need a new path to walk. A road with a new signpost. Maybe it will say “let it be” or “hello me.”

Paper Airplanes of Love.

Everything is a love poem.

Someone said this recently.
I think they were joking because their tone was a bit flippant.
But after he said it he let a long pause hang in the air.
And the pause felt like a challenge.

I guess I would like to believe that everything is a love poem.
I admit I embarrass myself. Am I just a silly girl?

Yet there is a whole lot of love tucked into nearly every day: A smile from a stranger, the cat that follows you down the driveway, the extra cheese someone put on your sandwich, the feel of the wind on your cheek, an evening swim, a pink sky, music on the radio, cold ice in a drink, the feel of a warm embrace. Right now my big old red dog is laying down under a tree and sniffing the air. If he catches me looking at him he will feel the need to come stand by me, and in doing so he will have to move his arthritic hips. I look quickly away so he will not struggle. Love, love, and more love.

Of course we can’t dismiss the broken hearts, the divorces, the deaths.
Yet these hurt because they showcase another side of love: the loss of it, the memory of it, the importance of it.

Then there is self love. Contrary to what our media feed may tell us self love is not a day at the spa or a healthy meal delivery from an internet box service. True self love depends upon unconditional love.

The first time I considered the meaning of “unconditional love” was after a text from our family therapist. She implied that I might have been lacking it. She sent it upon the aftermath of my umpteenth midnight run to pick up my screaming daughter from a police lock up. The therapist was wrong. Nothing my child did or said could have made me love her less. I was just not willing to equate loving her with letting her go. I was not willing to “live and let live.”

Sometimes I criticize myself for all the time spent “loving” her – often at the expense of the other members of my family, and my own. (If you think you are hard on yourself ask a mother of an addict how she feels deep down inside.)

I had a fabulous therapist for a year who asked the most ridiculous questions: what kind of wild animal did you see today? what is your love language? But she was also spot on. She brought me back to the love that was all around me (that old dog under the tree, that cheese on my sandwich, that pink sky).

Unconditional self love, however, is a strange concept. We misinterpret it. We think a self improvement regimen is as an act of self love. Or we recite our strengths to feel worthy of it. But self love requires something completely different. It requires accepting that mountain of other, quieter, stuff; our operating quirks, our bias, our mistakes. That mountain grows as we get older. Maybe that is why so many of us address it later in life.

My New Year’s resolution is to take time to sit quietly.   To sit quietly atop my mountain of stuff.  And I am going to write some love poems.  And I am going to let them fly.

Sthira vs. Sukha

Sthira and Sukha are popular yoga terms meant to convey a “yin and yang” sensibility. I think of sthira as “roots” and sukha as “wings.” A more accurate translation of the Sanskrit would be “stability” vs. “lightness.” When practicing Ashtanga yoga I have always sought the sukha, or the potential to fly. I sometimes giggle aloud when my feet release skyward or my heart floats up to the ceiling. It is such a rare treat to escape gravity’s pull.

Sthira, however, is quite different – in many cases it requires the engagement of the larger, lower, muscle groups (the quads, the glutes, the abdominals). For two weekends now I have been reminded that stability is key. Scot, our instructor, has had us feel our feet, bend our toes, challenge our inner and outer thigh muscles…he even put us in cat pose and had strangers balance their bodies atop us in a form of improv contact. These undulating movements required constant shifting of my center of gravity in order to take someone else’s flight – or to entertain my own.

I thought I understood: ground yourself before you take off in flight!

Once again, I required re-direction. I overheard Scot explain that being actively grounded allows the upper body to be consciously free. “Active” being the key word.  Do not rest in your present position – but fully feel it for what it is (whether it be crooked floorboards, the push of another body against your spine, or the outward turn of your imperfect feet.) By doing this you are not actively seeking flight or lightness of being. You are instead grounding yourself to the earth and thereby engaging an interior reservoir of strength. Only then will your body feel safe enough to bravely reach upwards.

That is when the lesson sunk in. I have lived this lesson. For years I tried to create and recreate stable, safe footing for my daughter who suffers from addiction. I bounced between “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe I should have said this. Maybe I missed something developmentally. Maybe a new school will work. Maybe a new friend circle. Maybe a new therapist. Maybe a new medication. Maybe exercise. Maybe more consequences. Maybe less consequences. Maybe a different insurance plan. Maybe, maybe, maybe….” I left no rock unturned. I needed her, us, to be free. But sukha was nowhere to be found.

I remember the moment when I finally accepted our situation. I was driving and the sun was setting and and my whole sense of being was flooded by the fact that my daughter had relapsed again. I didn’t know how to be. How could I just be with this? I remember breathing and releasing into that moment with a complete acceptance of the truth. It was dusk and the sky opened up before me and I thought, “this.” There is “this” too.

This acceptance, which I still feel vaguely uncomfortable with, was a long time coming. I had to fully acknowledge that change may not be possible – at least not in this present moment. This is not an easy thing for a mother to fully feel. But once I did I noticed the sky. It sounds so cliche – but at that moment I was fully awakened to the incredulous sky. I also understood this to be the second part of Scot’s admonition: to be consciously free. I chose to see the sky.

Since that day, nearly three years ago, I have looked upwards and found something akin to flight. And, incredulously, for two years my daughter has stood on terra firma.

We are free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Partying with the Sober Folk.

This time a year ago I was my daughter’s guest at a recovery barbecue. We made our way there via a South Boston park with harbor views. People were playing what appeared to be a game of “pick up” baseball. A handful of lucky fans sat under the few trees that sported shade. I kept walking through invisible puffs of cigarette smoke. Children were screaming with their mouths entirely full of half eaten hotdogs. It was, you know, quintessential American stuff.

We found the recovery center across the street – in the scrubby back yard of a former church property. Outside an old man with a gold tooth was watering an incredible, and I mean incredible, garden. He smiled at us.

Inside the yard we were handed raffle tickets. Strangers cooked us hamburgers. We drank extremely cold sodas from an overly iced trash can. People made room for us at crowded picnic tables. We ate watermelon and chips from wicker baskets. We listened to top 40 music from speakers slung here and there.

I watched a young man perform a break dance that was skillful and unabashed. He spun with pure joy on a small patch of concrete. His eyes were half closed. My self conscious self had nothing in common with him. At the time I thought it was the dance that enthralled me.

Later this same boy shared his story. His drug use had left him homeless. He had slept under a bridge for a year: through a Boston winter. His life had been saved by another person at the party.  His life had been saved by some guy at the party.

How many of us ever save anything? Maybe we salvage a burning dinner, or retrieve a lost accounts payable receipt. Better yet, we preserve a colleague’s job. Or rescue a stray dog. Those are all great for sure… but not quite the same.

Clearly this was not your typical barbecue.

When the young man won the raffle prize (a long sleeved jersey) he handed it to my daughter. He knew she liked it. Possibly he was trying to impress her, but of that I am not certain. I do know that he most likely owned very little…and he gave it away just to see her smile.

Inside the building we found my daughter’s counselor playing the cello. She had it steadied between her legs, and her tattooed wrist held a delicate, long bow. A young man with the teeth of a meth addict accompanied her on the guitar. The sound of her cello and the sound of his voice broke my heart into a million, billion pieces.

I have been turning this day over in my head for a very long time.

“PTSD” – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

This is when I am supposed to reference Webster’s dictionary. I can picture the bulleted item list that has been carefully compiled by doctors and psychiatrists, and craftily winnowed down by editors.

Yet words are bound to fail. PTSD creates a feeling that can not be contained by bullets or paragraphs. If forced to use words they would be: “sense of dread.”

A sense of dread accompanied by unwelcome imagery. Imagery that is not imaginary. Dread that is not unjustified.

The ring of the phone makes me ill. Physically ill.
A knock on the door? Visions of a police officer.
An envelope without a return address?  Bad news.
My daughter not texting for a few days? Relapse.
Sad song on the radio? Message of doom.
Bitter snow? Frostbitten child.
Cheap motels off the highway? Sadness, loneliness, death.

My list could be longer. But it hurts to write it. If I suffer from PTSD, how badly must my daughter suffer? I have seen the results of her use, but have not lived through the experience of it.

“Conquer your fears” is written everywhere nowadays – from business journals to self help magazines. But the kind of fear they often refer to is that of financial risk. (Or a lifestyle change: try that new vegan diet! get a new partner! make a career switch!) I am talking about a different kind of fear. A primal fear. The fear of losing your stormy green eyed child to something so unpredictable, so misunderstood, so maddeningly unacceptable. I have written my daughter’s obituary in my head. I have actually looked in my closet to see if I have an acceptable black dress. These were my attempts to conquer my fear. My attempts to claim and manage the unacceptable.

Nelson Mandela says that “courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” That the “brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

I am not there yet. But my daughter is. She is putting one step in front of the other…. steady and straight. Even with those swirling thoughts that must exist in her head. If I had to provide a picture of bravery for Webster’s dictionary it would be of my stubborn green eyed child making her way across a tight rope.

And I am waiting on the other side.