Coming to terms with my brother’s death from overdose (more than a decade later)

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by Patti Fish Stephens

March 2017

Over the past few months I have begun writing and speaking openly about my daughter’s struggle with alcohol and heroin addiction. The result has astounded me: more people than I can count have, in turn, shared with me stories of addiction–and loss–in their family or loved ones. This has given me great hope that through continued conversation and education we, as a society, can eventually remove the stigma of addiction and further the understanding and treatment of it as a disease. In the course of sharing about my journey through addiction with my daughter, I have mentioned my brother’s death several times, but never shared the difficult details of losing him until now. It is my great hope that  sharing my story will also further the conversation about grief, especially of overdose deaths, in our modern culture.

Saturday, December 31, 2005 was the last time I ever saw my older brother, Glenn. I was 36 and he was 43 years old. He looked, quite honestly, terrible. He’d had surgery on his arm just a few days before Christmas, and had a bad cold on top of it, so I had been checking up on him by phone. When he called to wish me a happy birthday on December 12, we’d had a jovial conversation which ended with us making a bet about how long our family Christmas dinner would last; the winner would get to pick a restaurant for lunch and the loser had to pay the bill. We had planned to work out the details the following week after we determined which one of us won the bet.

But when I saw him at our belated family Christmas luncheon that day, he looked like he had aged years since the last time I’d seen him, which had been a few months; normally I would’ve seen him at Thanksgiving, but that year he had been sick. So I probably hadn’t seen him in person since his annual Fourth of July party. In the months since then he had put on a significant amount of weight, his face looked drawn and ashen, and his hands were shaking so badly that I had to cut his steak for him. I was concerned about him and despite my insistent offers to drive him home so he wouldn’t have to drive his stick shift car with one arm in a sling, he brushed off my worry and refused my offers of help. He told me he had a follow-up doctor’s appointment on January 5th and I made him promise to call me afterwards with an update.

But later that evening I was pleasantly surprised by a phone call from him, even though we had just seen him and planned to talk again in a few days. He was very emotional and wanted to thank me and my husband for one of the Christmas gifts we had given him: a new belt sander. I was humbled by how much the sander meant to him. I will never forget how choked up he sounded when he asked me to thank my husband and said, “That was the nicest thing anyone has ever–that anyone has done for me in a really long time.” I asked him if he wanted to talk to Brian himself. He said no and asked me to pass along the thanks; then he went on to tell me how lucky we were to have found each other and how glad he was that he knew Brian was such a good husband to me, something along the lines of how it was comforting for him to know that Brian “took care of” me. This struck me as only slightly odd, because my brothers were very overprotective of me when we were growing up, and it took Glenn quite awhile to approve of Brian. But later I would remember this conversation and wonder if the comment about me being taken care of indicated something deeper.

He never called that week to schedule our lunch date. He never made it to his doctor’s appointment. And to my eternal shame and regret, I never called to check up on him when I didn’t hear from him; I was busy recovering from the holidays and preparing for my husband’s birthday, which is January 9th, and I had a passing thought that I should call Glenn on Monday if I hadn’t heard from him by then. I figured we could go out to lunch that week.

We never had that lunch date. On Sunday evening, January 8, 2006, after a relaxing dinner at Claddagh celebrating my husband’s birthday, I got the phone call that changed my life forever. My niece had found her dad, my brother, dead. He was at home in his bed. She called her siblings, who called my other brother, who then called my mother and me. The phone connection was at first bad, and the call dropped. Then my brother’s wife called back and when I answered, she asked to speak to my husband, which I thought was odd. I could tell from Brian’s face and voice that something was very wrong. When he got off the phone and said, “It’s Glenn” I heard a waver in his voice I had never heard before; he said, as gently as possible, “Patti, he’s dead.” I will never forget the feeling of my legs going numb; as I slid down onto my knees, I just repeated, “No, no, no, no, no” over and over until I couldn’t speak or breathe through my sobs.

I then called my dad and step-mom to inform them. We all had the same initial reaction:  disbelief. Glenn had epilepsy; I thought maybe it was a mistake, that he was unconscious from hitting his head during a seizure, and once they took him to the hospital he would be alright.  But it was evident to the few people who saw him that my brother head been dead for some time. This was always the hardest part for me to process and tell others, and the thing that still haunts me: he died alone, then laid there for days–possibly a full week–alone. He had put his beloved English bulldog, Sparky, in his crate in the basement before he went to bed for the last time. Sparky was barely alive when he was found, and never really recovered. He died a few months later, I heard.

Because of the condition of my brother’s body, we were unable to have an open casket at the wake and funeral. This made grasping the reality of his death harder for me. My bereavement counselor later explained to me that not being able to say goodbye or see the loved one’s dead body causes “complicated grief,” or what is technically labeled as Complicated Bereavement Disorder. This means, in the simplest terms, that it takes the grieving person much longer to accept the loved one’s death. That was certainly the case for me.

The thing that made grieving Glenn’s death even more complicated, however, was not knowing how or even when he died. The first thing people ask when they hear you’ve lost a loved one is how the person died. I don’t know why this is; I guess it is human nature. I have asked the same question myself. But with a complicated death like my brother’s where we had no cause of death, I didn’t know how to answer the most basic question people asked. It became excruciating to even speak about his death, yet I could think of nothing else. He had been sick with a bad respiratory infection on top of the arm surgery he’d had on December 23. He had also recently told me his doctor wanted to put him on medication for high blood pressure. Questions and conjectures circled round and round in my brain in the weeks and months after his death. Did he take too much cold medicine that caused his heart to beat erratically, resulting in a heart attack? Did he have an epileptic seizure that somehow injured him, leading to his death? Did someone break in and assault him? Did he take too many pain pills from his surgery?

Did he do it on purpose?

This was the question many of us asked ourselves and each other in the early months following Glenn’s death: was there any chance this was a suicide? After many years of replaying his last weeks and days over and over, I do not believe it was. Despite the fact that, in hindsight, I realize he was far more depressed than I knew or he let on, there were also many indications that he was not suicidal. Also, I don’t believe he would have left his dog defenseless and trapped that way.  But it was the autopsy report from the coroner that provided the final evidence I needed to know in my heart that his death was accidental.

It was in April, over three months after his death, before we got the report from Glenn’s autopsy, and the result was a shock: the cause of death was listed as overdose, but not from pain pills. Although he did have one dose of pain killers in his system, it was his blood alcohol content that was off the charts. It was measured in several blood draws from different areas of his body, and the highest reading was measured at .59. Yes, you read that correctly. The blood alcohol content normally associated with the legal definition of intoxication is .08 to .10, and the level considered to cause unconsciousness is around .30. Death can occur with a blood alcohol content of .37, and a level of .45 or over is considered fatal for anyone, no matter how much tolerance they have. Now that I had a cause of death, I had another shock to try to process. And now I still didn’t want to answer the question of how he died, due to the shame and stigma of that word: overdose.

I couldn’t stand the thought that someone would judge my brother’s character and entire life based on just one piece of information–really just one word–that described how he died: overdose.

Clearly, my brother had built up an astonishing tolerance to alcohol if he could consume far more than enough to kill him. Most people would pass out long before they could reach such astronomically high blood alcohol levels. I had to accept the fact that not only was my brother far more depressed than I realized, he also had a serious drinking problem that he hid fairly well for a long time. I also believed for a long time that I chose not to see it, even when it should have been glaringly obvious. For many years since his death, I have had a tremendous amount of guilt that I didn’t know how much he was struggling. I have berated myself for not reaching out to him more. I have wondered, in the past two years as I have learned about addiction and recovery alongside my daughter, why I–and others–didn’t see the signs of severe depression and alcoholism in him.

But strangely, it was going through my daughter’s struggles with addiction, rehabilitation, relapse, overdose, and recovery that has helped to finally give me some peace about my brother’s death. It has taught me how truly ignorant I was about addiction before my daughter’s disease took hold. Tending to my own recovery in Nar-Anon has helped me to forgive myself for not recognizing certain signs of his disease, and for not knowing what to do about the signs I did see; despite having grown up in a family with many alcoholics, I had never seen any kind of treatment or rehabilitation attempted by anyone I knew; the term alcoholic was never even used. So even when my brother got a DUI and pointedly asked me if I thought he was an alcoholic, it still didn’t occur to me to encourage him to get treatment.

Because what we grow up with, we normalize.

I grew up with depression and alcoholism. It simply never occurred to me that there was anything to be done about his drinking. It was just the way certain people were. Even if I had recognized the severity of my brother’s alcohol addiction, I had no model for seeking rehabilitation. Despite the ubiquitous Alcoholics Anonymous references all around me in society, it never occurred to me that AA could help my brother, or that he needed it. The only people I knew who had gone to “rehab” were a couple of kids at school, whispered about in the halls during their extended absences. The idea of treatment was nothing more than sensationalized gossip; the kids who needed it were both pitied and revered. I encouraged my brother to seek counseling and to call me when he needed to talk. I thought that he drank because he was depressed, and that he was depressed because he was lonely after his divorce; therefore if he got counseling, he would have someone to talk to, he would would not be depressed, and wouldn’t need to drink. Problem solved.

But learning about the disease of addiction through family days at my daughter’s inpatient and outpatient rehabs, along with educating myself through community programs, online resources, videos, books, and my fellow Nar-Anon members, I now understand that addiction is a stand-alone disease. Yes, it often co-exists alongside other mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety (this is called co-morbidity), but addiction is not caused by these illnesses. No amount of counseling or anti-depressants would have helped him without treatment for his alcoholism as well. Addiction is a brain disease with a genetic component which makes the brains of alcoholics and addicts react very differently to drugs and alcohol than the brains of people without the disease (see end of post for more info. on this).  But I, like so many others in our society, did not understand this simple truth while my brother was still alive.

Now, more than eleven years after his death, I can say without shame that my big brother, Glenn–who loved me, protected me, teased me, took care of me, listened to me, encouraged me, and sometimes drove me to high school on his motorcycle–died tragically from an alcohol overdose at just 43 years of age.

And despite the fact that it still hurts like hell to say he’s gone and I still miss him desperately, I am no longer afraid or ashamed to say how he died, because I now understand he was very, very sick. He had a deadly, debilitating disease that stole him away from all of us far too young. Are people ashamed to admit their loved ones died of cancer? Heart disease? Diabetes? No, of course not. Because we as a society understand that these are diseases which we can sometimes impact for better or worse with our own behavior, but we don’t blame someone when the disease kills them. We sympathize and empathize with their plight and their loved ones’ grief. And that’s exactly how we, as a society, need to learn to react when we hear someone died of an overdose. That person was someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s parent, someone’s cousin, someone’s friend. And all of those people love and grieve their loss just as they would any other. They don’t deserve to feel shame for their loved one’s deadly illness. They deserve compassion, especially because during the months and years leading up to their addict’s death, they likely have been through hell trying to save them.

Sadly, in the decade since my brother’s death, overdose deaths have skyrocketed in the United States, especially here in my home state of Ohio. If you or a loved one needs help, please reach out.

For an explanation of the difference between the brains of alcoholics/addicts and other people, I highly recommend the videos in the “Loved Ones Group” section under the  “Resources” tab of the Robby’s Voice website: robbysvoice.com

If this post was helpful to you, please feel free to share and please subscribe (click ‘follow’ button and enter email address) to my blog to receive an email each time I post (usually not more than once a week). Also check out my past posts about addiction and recovery on my blog.

Patti Fish Stephens

http://www.hyacinthstofeedthesoul.wordpress.com

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The importance of self-care when living with a loved one’s addiction (and what this looks like for me)

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Small, simple acts of creative self-indulgence can make an enormous impact on our sense of well-being. This antique wheel barrow was planted with alyssum…to feed the soul.

by Patti Fish Stephens

January 26, 2017

A few months ago I promised a post on self-care for those dealing with the effects of a loved one’s addiction. It has taken me a while to write about this, but I am glad I waited, because recently I happened across another blogger’s post about self-care for persons with depression. Then a reading at a recent Nar-Anon meeting focused on grief. Reading these two pieces helped me to think about the connections among addiction, depression, and grief. I personally have struggled with depression, grieved a complicated grief, and currently live with a recovering addict, so I have had to redefine self-care for myself numerous times. What amazes me is how difficult it can be to practice during the times I most need it, and how similarly the stresses of living with addiction, depression, and grief have affected me. Here I will be sharing what has worked for me; maybe some of it will work for you, too.

On self-care

Before talking about how I personally practice self-care, I want to comment on the term itself. The blogger who wrote about self-care during depression commented that this phrase is thrown around so often in professional development programs for social workers that it has become virtually meaningless. My own experience in the workplace supports that claim; I was one of only three non-nurses in a department of more than twenty full-time and many more part-time nursing instructors at a small college. All of these nurses either had practiced or were currently practicing in area hospitals. During department meetings and professional development programs, self-care would be stressed alongside the statistics of burnout, medical errors, and other major issues of this helping profession. But during these same meetings with exhortations to take good care of ourselves –get plenty of rest, eat healthfully, exercise, drink plenty of water, etc.– I was, on numerous occasions, the recipient of thinly-veiled martyr-complex comments simply because I went to the ladies’ room. Comments like, “I have worked 12 hour shifts without ever taking a bathroom break” and “You’d never make it as a nurse” or “As a nurse you learn to hold it because you have to” were common.

These comments, although generally spoken in good humor, contained an undercurrent of judgement which I found to be not only unkind, but hypocritical. (Now, lest I sound judgemental here myself, I freely confess I have been guilty of the same kind of self-martyring comments from time to time; just ask my husband about the “definition of full handed for moms vs. dads” diatribe I have spouted at him periodically since our kids were in diapers.) Freedom from physical discomfort, including hunger, thirst, cold, heat, need to void, etc., is the most basic human requirement on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. “Holding it” is, therefore, a denial of a most basic human physical need, and is nothing to brag about or shame someone else for not being able to do, especially after encouraging “self-care.”

Meeting the body’s most basic physical needs is self-care, but it is only the beginning. Self-care ideally encompasses the mind and heart and spirit as well as the body, but during crisis mode–such as a bout of clinical depression, the sudden onset of grief, or living with active or recovering addiction–taking care of even the most basic physical needs can be overwhelming. This means self-care will look different not only from person to person but from time to time in the same person’s life.

Over the past year I have sincerely tried to embrace self-care, especially since my daughter’s overdose in March of 2015. When she came home from the hospital I spent so much time taking her to appointments with specialists, driving her back and forth to IOP (Intensive Out Patient therapy) each day, and making sure she took her medicine every 12 hours that I had begun to ignore my own basic needs, as well as the not-so-basic ones. What made this worse was that when she relapsed again just a few weeks after her nearly-fatal overdose, I felt betrayed. I had worked so hard to help her stay healthy. How could she do this to herself–and to me?

Nar-Anon Family Group

This is where Nar-Anon came in for me. My husband and I started attending meetings while my daughter was still in the hospital, and those meetings soon became our lifeline. It was in these meetings that I found the strength to refocus my energy on myself instead of the addict in my life. By listening to the experiences of others in the group, I was able to see that focusing on my own needs–that is, practicing self-care–was truly the only thing I could control in my life. I couldn’t control my daughter, her addiction, her recovery, or others’ response to this crisis in our family. The only thing I can control in my life is my own response to whatever occurs around me. While this has always been true, it took my daughter’s journey through addiction to teach me that this is simply another way to express the core belief of recovery: that I am powerless over anyone else’s life choices.

So, my journey of self-care began at Nar-Anon, but seeds of certain aspects of recovery had been planted before this at family programs we attended at our daughter’s outpatient and inpatient rehab. I have mentioned in previous posts that my daughter had two especially gifted rehab counselors who not only helped her but our whole family. One of these counselors suggested I try, among other things, restorative yoga to help relieve my symptoms of stress, which had reached an all-time high. I was most appreciative of her kindness but highly skeptical of her suggestions, which all sounded like New Age mumbo-jumbo to this WASPy, midwestern, middle-class mom.

Restorative Yoga Classes

It’s funny what you’ll try when you feel you have nothing left to lose.

True story: I cried through most of my first yoga class. I left puddles on my mat on either side of my head where the tears silently dripped off my face as we did “legs up the wall.” Mind you, this was a Gentle 1 yoga class. In other words, the only level below this class would be sleep (which also happens to be highly therapeutic). All of the poses are done on the floor; there are no standing poses. There is nothing highly strenuous–physically or mentally–about a Gentle 1 class, as it is meant to be restorative. Yet the simple act of stretching out my over-stressed body released so much tension that it hurt, both physically and emotionally. We talk about being “stressed-out” in our society, about getting tension headaches. We know that when we are stressed, our shoulders get tight. But what happens to our bodies when we let go of that stress? There has to be a converse reaction (Newton’s third law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction) and this is just as true for our physical bodies as it is in science class experiments and car crashes. So when we release our tension, stress, and emotional pain, it is no surprise that we then feel physical pain, as our bodies are reacting every bit as much as our minds. This is the mind-body connection at work.

Meditation Classes

While attending weekly yoga classes I saw a flyer for six-week meditation sessions offered by the instructor I had come to trust during gentle yoga. I had, for some time, been curious about meditation, but once again my conservative upbringing judged this to be another New-Agey fad. The yoga had helped my stress levels so much, though, that I decided to give it a try. Another true story: I cried through almost my entire first Yoga Nidra session. By now my instructor knew me a little bit and I had shared some of what was going on in my life, so she probably wasn’t too shocked when the pools formed on my mat again. I, however, knew I was crying for more than stress relief: during the guided meditation of Yoga Nidra, I envisioned my brother, who had been dead for ten years by then, and physically felt his presence. New Agey mumbo-jumbo? Sounds like it. But have you ever had a dream about someone you’ve lost that seems so real that you forget for just a moment when you wake up that they are gone? That’s what this was like, except I knew this was just a visit. It was so intense and so real that I could barely contain the noise of my sobbing during the meditation. Meditation, like yoga, has both physical and emotional/mental/spiritual benefits.

Individual Counseling

I had actually begun seeing a therapist several months before my daughter’s addiction came to light. I had been having a difficult time managing several chronic health issues–mostly related to or exacerbated by stress–and had tried everything I could think of on my own. I had implemented an exercise routine, lost a significant amount of weight, and completely changed my eating habits. I had read self-help books, worked through their exercises, and tried to change my mindset in addition to my body. But still my physical symptoms persisted. I was beginning to show signs of depression from dealing with the frustration of so many chronic health issues, and that was the tipping point for me. I had tried to change everything about my self that I could control and I was still stressed beyond reason. Clearly, I needed another perspective. I did some research on the Cleveland Clinic website and found a psychologist who specialized in dealing with chronic health issues and grief, among other things.

From my first meeting with my therapist, I knew I had made the right choice for me. I know that I was lucky, as not everyone develops a good rapport with the first counselor they meet, or even the second. It helped tremendously that I live in a suburban area flush with hospitals and healthcare providers of every stripe. I had a lot of options. Not everyone is so fortunate. I also have excellent, affordable healthcare which allowed me to visit my therapist as often as once a week if necessary. I am aware that many do not have these advantages, and for what I have, I am truly thankful.

I had been seeing my psychologist for several months and just starting to get to the root of some of my issues when my daughter’s addiction came to light. All of my focus turned to dealing with this new challenge in our family. I have, for about two years now, largely been operating in crisis mode. My therapist, in conjunction with my Nar-Anon Family Group, have helped me to focus on taking care of my own needs while also trying to support my daughter in her recovery. It was my therapist who helped me give myself permission to leave a position in a workplace that was so ill-fitting and toxic that I could no longer deny it was the major source of my stress. My daughter’s disease was the factor that tipped the scales and finally gave me the impetus to leave, but it was my psychologist who helped me through the practical steps of actually quitting and embarking on a new kind of life, one that truly suited me and that helped reduce my stress levels despite being in the worst nightmare a parent could imagine.

Gardening

The summer before I left my job I had grown various herbs and tomatoes in containers on my deck. For years I had fantasized about having a garden, but it always seemed to be such an overwhelming task to undertake for someone who hadn’t grown anything since about first grade. The following winter was when our daughter’s addiction came to our attention, and by the first summer of living with her disease, the planting a real garden had taken on a great deal of symbolism in my mind. I needed something to focus on other than the physical and emotional pain I was in. This was during the time of my worst chronic health symptoms, and my therapist fully supported and encouraged planting and tending a garden as a therapeutic exercise. I was still at my job but taking extensive FMLA time to try to get my health issues under control and also deal with my daughter’s ongoing battle with alcohol and heroin addiction.

That summer was a revelation. Planting and tending that garden was truly life-changing for me. Not only did it give me a place to focus my energy, it gave me tomatoes. And basil. And lemon thyme. (How did I ever cook without it?)  And a sense of purpose. And real, living proof that something I invested in did indeed reap a harvest. The garden was a tangible reminder that, despite how long it took to be visible, real growth was occurring, both in me and my daughter. In a word, the garden gave me hope.

Journaling/Writing

The first thing I did upon leaving my job that summer was to start blogging about my garden. It was the smallest of gardens, but that didn’t deter me from sharing my thoughts, experiences, successes, and failures with others. I was done with being self-critical, so I just wrote. My 4 x 4 foot garden plot was worthy of my time and attention, and it contained revelations I had never imagined. Soon I was writing about other things as well: my quest toward minimalism; the whole-food, plant based diet we had adopted; different types of exercise I had experimented with; recipes I concocted and, more recently, my experiences with my daughter’s heroin addiction.

In addition to writing on my blog, I returned to my practice of journal writing. I had kept a journal on and off for 15 or more years, ever since first reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way in the late 1990s, but while working full time I had let go of the habit. Writing just 3 pages first thing in the morning, in longhand, helps me purge my anxieties onto the page, leaving the space in my brain to process and address the more urgent issues in my life that need attention. These journal entries are never meant to see the light of day; they are not structured or planned in any way. They are free-association, stream-of-consciousness babbling with no regard for grammar, punctuation, handwriting, or even logic. They are simply a means to an end: a warm-up exercise for the brain, if you will. And you don’t have to be a writer for this practice to help you. Everyone and anyone can benefit from the practice of Morning Pages. For more information on this practice, check out The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron from your local library or used book store.

Walking in Nature

One of the other things that has helped keep my stress level in check these past few years has been exercise. When I first started my full-time job in 2012, long before my daughter’s addiction was on our radar, I handled the stress of all the changes in my life by hiking almost every day in Cleveland’s MetroParks. Admittedly, we have one of the best and most enviable MetroPark Systems in the country, but anyplace outside with fresh air will do. For me, the benefits were many: first, the fresh air and natural surroundings had a calming effect on me; second, the aerobic exercise was good for my circulatory system, my respiratory system, my weight, and my muscle tone; third, the time with my husband (my hiking partner) helped us stay connected and strengthened our bond; and finally, talking about our respective work days helped us work out our frustrations and celebrate our successes.

Other Exercise

Eventually I added Barre classes to my exercise regimen, and these classes, which combine yoga, pilates, strength training, and ballet, helped me lose a significant amount of weight. I also developed more core strength and muscle tone than I had ever had in my life. My husband and I purchased a pair of bicycles for each other for our 25th anniversary, and we added that to our exercise routines as well. Being active is the best anti-depressant I have ever known, and has at least as many mental/emotional benefits as it does physical benefits. But I suffered a serious injury on my bicycle in June of 2014 which has plagued me ever since, and I have not yet achieved the previous level of physical activity we enjoyed up until that time. After my injury (a tibia bone bruise) hadn’t healed in over a year, I was put in a boot in the summer of 2015. I was supposed to taper off the boot and do physical therapy starting around Labor Day, but my daughter had a major relapse that weekend and I transitioned out of the boot too quickly and delayed my physical therapy. I can see the negative consequences of not making exercise a higher priority in my self-care regimen, and plan to work very hard this spring and summer to get back on track in this area, as I know how much better I feel physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually when I am exercising regularly.

Small Creative Indulgences

I have always been creative. I loved art class in elementary school almost as much as I enjoyed writing and reading. I also loved singing and dancing. But somewhere along the way from junior high to high school, I lost my confidence in doing most of these things (as most adolescent American girls do). I still loved writing, but I felt sure I was no good at anything else. I now know that’s completely untrue, and what’s more, why does it matter if I am any good at it? If I want to draw a totally crappy drawing, who cares? If it makes me happy to paint a terribly cliche, saccharine painting of wildflowers, why shouldn’t I? There is no reason I shouldn’t. And so I have.

A few summers ago (okay, maybe 10 or more) I was at an estate sale where I stumbled upon an old Roger Burrows coloring book from the early 1980s. I was delighted! I had had one of these as a kid and spent hours upon hours coloring the geometric designs with crayons, colored pencils, and markers. I loved the feel of the slick markers on the smooth paper, the waxy smell of the crayons, the pastel subtlety of the pencils, and the planning of what color scheme I would use. If you aren’t familiar with Burrows’s books, they are full of geometric patterns that can be colored in infinite combinations to emphasize certain patterns over others. Long before the adult coloring craze began, I bought this cast-off coloring book and rummaged around our school supply cupboard for some colored pencils and stealthily colored when no one else was home. It felt like stolen bliss. It felt like childhood. So it was no wonder to me when the adult coloring book market exploded a few years ago…my only question was, why did it take so long for others to discover this joy?

The discovery of that Burrows coloring book made me realize something else, though. And it’s that small acts of creative indulgence can go a really long way toward restoring our sanity in this crazy world, especially when we’re dealing with predators as big and scary as  depression, addiction, or grief. I have developed several creative hobbies through the years–chiefly scrapbooking and rubber stamping–and while my craft room is currently a source of stress due to my over-abundance of supplies, I try to take a creative respite at least once a week, even if only for a few minutes, and make something. Lately I’ve been making greeting cards and inspirational bookmarks. Last winter I was into coloring with glitter markers in a snowflake-themed coloring book.

And last summer, I splurged and bought two whole flats of alyssum to fill a trash-picked wooden wheel-barrow with a sea of pastels–just because it made me happy. It made me happy all summer and fall to look out my kitchen window every day and see the delicate lavender, pink, purple and cream blossoms peeking over the edge of the whitewashed wood. And it makes me happy still, every time I look at the photo I took of it. Really, what other purpose is there for us to plant flowers, other than to make us happy? Isn’t that why we buy hyacinths–or alyssum–to feed our souls?

Find what feeds your soul and do it as often as possible.

Practice self-care for your body, mind, heart, and spirit.

And remember, you don’t have to go it alone. Reach out.

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If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my blog to get email updates about new posts.

If you liked the idea of morning pages, regular walks, and creative indulgences, check out The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

If you want some sweet coloring pages, check out any of Roger Burrows’s geometric design books.

And if you want a reminder that you don’t have to go it alone, listen to “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” by U2. You can find it on YouTube, or on their excellent 2004 album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

 

 

 

 

The profound freedom of acceptance

img_4750by Patti Fish Stephens

January 2017

hyacinthstofeedthesoul.wordpress.com

There is a small pamphlet used in 12-step programs called “Just for Today.” I readily admit that this type of literature never appealed to me before I joined Nar-Anon, but I have found that no matter how Pollyanna-ish some of the writing may sound and no matter how many cliches it may repeat, it also usually contains a significant portion of wisdom. Cliches are, more often than not, true.

Just for today, I will adjust myself to what is, and not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my “luck” as it comes, and fit myself to it.

Recently I have been thinking a lot about this part of “Just for Today” as it pertains not only to dealing with my daughter’s addiction, but to all of the significant relationships in my life. “And since,” as my literary hero Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, “I think best with a pencil in my hand, I started naturally to write.”

I will adjust myself to what is

This phrase is just another way of describing acceptance. Nothing could have prepared me for having to accept that I had a child addicted to heroin. Before my daughter’s addiction came to light (and for a while after as well), I thought that I could change any situation in my life if I just tried hard enough. After all, isn’t this the American Way? To better myself through hard work and dedication? Isn’t this what every self-help tome extols and every motivational speaker preaches? Don’t like your job? Work harder! Visualize it and you will land that dream job! (Horatio Alger was a fictional character, my friends. Stop with the blasted bootstrap metaphors.) Unhappy marriage? Use these tricks to improve your relationship without your spouse even knowing! Want more money? Say this prayer and believe hard enough, and it will appear!

But here’s the thing about all of that self-help advice: it’s mostly bullshit. And for an adult child of an alcoholic, it can be downright toxic.

It’s one thing to try to better yourself. It’s quite another to take on the responsibility of everything in your sphere and try to manipulate it to be the way you want it to be or think it should be instead of accepting the reality of a situation or relationship. There is nothing like living with an addict to drive home this point. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make my daughter want to get better while she was in active use, and my efforts to do it for her very likely only prolonged her active addiction and delayed her decision to get help for treating her disease. It took multiple relapses for me to understand that although I said I accepted my powerlessness over her disease, I was only giving it lip service. I was still, at times, trying to “fix” it for her. The only way to accept the situation was to stop trying to fix it, because it wasn’t mine to fix no matter how badly I wanted the crisis to end so that I could go back to my peaceful, carefree life. Part of my yoga mantra for the past year has been I will accept what is.

and not try to adjust everything to my own desires.

I grew up in a home where alcoholism and depression were the norm. Screaming matches which occasionally turned physical were a major source of stress for me as a small child. My coping mechanism was perfectionism; my escape was reading. I thought that if I was just quiet enough, if I was just good enough, the adults in my life would stop yelling and our family would be happy. This type of coping mechanism, which is very common among adult children of alcoholics/addicts (ACOAs), leads to behavior patterns which can be very harmful later in life. The child knows something isn’t right about her atmosphere, but no adult is making it right, therefore the child takes on this responsibility, resulting in a skewed perception of boundaries and influence.

I have done this my entire life. I have never accepted the reality of a “bad” situation or relationship because I always thought I could–and should–change it. And if I couldn’t fix it? Then the bad situation or relationship was my fault, which then added a layer of guilt to my unhealthy perception of responsibility. Add to this the fact that ACOAs often develop an abnormally strong sense of loyalty “even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved” (see Janet Woititz’s book, Adult Children of Alcoholics), and the result is disastrous for an ACOA’s self-esteem. A strong sense of responsibility is fine as long as it really pertains something in my sphere of control, such as my own decisions or behavior. The problem is, an ACOA thinks everyone’s problems are her own. This is not hubris; it is desperation. She is still trying to fix what could never be fixed in her childhood.

This most often manifests itself as trying to influence or change the behavior of the people closest to us in our network of relationships.  This is why the first step of Nar-Anon’s 12 step program is:  We admitted we were powerless over the addict — that our lives had become unmanageable. This is especially difficult for parents to accept, because we have spent our lives trying to shape our offspring into decent human beings. It’s our job (up to a certain point) to make sure they behave in socially acceptable ways, according to our particular set of societal and family values. But when addiction enters the picture, everything changes. The old models of parent/child relationships no longer work. We must cease trying to change our addict’s behavior and control our addict’s disease in order to survive the ordeal. That doesn’t mean we don’t love or offer assistance to our addicts, but it does mean that we stop trying to emotionally manipulate our addict into getting clean, or manipulate situations or other people to help our addict avoid the consequences of their addiction, or otherwise try to change their behavior to fit our idea of who they should be.

Learning, in such a visceral way, that I can’t control or change another person’s behavior–even in the face of a life-threatening illness–is having a profound impact on how I relate to family and friends. I have, necessarily, had to focus a great deal on my own recovery, especially over the last year since my daughter’s nearly fatal overdose. This has given me a lot of time to reflect on past and present relationships and what I can do to improve them (there’s that ACOA behavior again), or, in some cases, to recognize what I can’t fix. Trying to truly practice the principles of the Nar-Anon program has helped me to be more sensitive to the types of situations in which this kind of controlling behavior occurs. Initially I learned from dealing with these situations with my daughter, but over time, accepting powerlessness over others and responsibility only for myself has led to another epiphany: no one else can–or should–try to control or change me. And I don’t have to let them. If someone doesn’t accept me exactly the way I am, it is not a healthy relationship for me.

Want to know how an addict feels when we try to “help” them? Think about the exasperation you felt the last time someone tried to talk you into something you had clearly stated you didn’t want to do (like the pushy telemarketer, door-to-door petition collector, or proselytizers trying to convert you with their pamphlets). Or badgered you with instructions on exactly how to fix your problem because they “knew better.” Or dropped what they thought were subtle hints about something they thought you needed to do or change in your life. Or gave you unsolicited advice instead of empathy during a crisis. Yes, we’ve probably all been guilty of doing this at one time or another, and we’ve all probably been on the receiving end of it as well. But if this behavior becomes a pattern in any relationship, then it is time to look for some help in setting boundaries. Nar-Anon, Al-Anon, and private counseling can all help, whether you are the giver or receiver of this type of behavior. (Stepping down off soap box.)

I will take my “luck” as it comes, and fit myself to it.

For me, this means, first and foremost, accepting that my daughter is a recovering addict; this is the reality of my family and my life as I now know it, and I cannot change that. 

Secondly, “fitting myself to it” means choosing how I let that reality impact me. As much as I want to take responsibility for it, my daughter’s addiction is not my problem, therefore it is not my job to “fix” it. My job is to decide what recovery looks like for me and to live in that truth.  That means that my recovery comes first for me. Only when I am healthy can I help anyone else. Right now, I have decided that my role in my daughter’s life is to support her recovery while not trying to manage it or change her.

But I can apply this principle to nearly any situation in my life, realizing that it is no longer my responsibility (it never was!) to try to change a given situation, only to choose my response to it. Sometimes “fitting” myself to a situation may mean to step away from it. Other times it may mean to dig in and fight for something I believe in. But it never, ever means that I am to be a doormat for others or take on the role of victim. And that, my friends, is liberating. You are only responsible for you, and I am only responsible for me. And that’s the way it should be.

***

If this post has resonated with you, please share it. And if you want a humorous (albeit profane) take on setting boundaries, check out The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight.

 

What the worst year of my life has taught me about gratitude

img_4787By Patti Fish Stephens

A few months ago I wrote a post about what my daughter’s addiction has taught me about unconditional love. At the time I wrote it I thought the worst of this year was over, and I hoped for nothing more fervently than to have an uneventful last few months to 2016 (this is the fondest wish of families of addicts: to live peaceful, even boring lives). It seems the universe had a few more lessons in store for me this year, because within days of posting that blog piece, tragedy struck near us and a series of events unfolded for my son, my daughter, and our friends that would change all of our lives.

The year started off with great hope: my daughter had accumulated four months of clean time and was moving home after living in a sober house for three months, my son was living with a girl he loved and working at a well-paying job he was good at. My husband and I even worked up the courage to plan a trip to Florida to visit my parents and extended family that live there. We rang in the new year with my Florida cousin and her husband, and my daughter found a sober club where she could celebrate. Life was looking up. 2016 was going to be our year.

Our trip to Florida went so well, in fact, that my husband and I decided to return to go someplace I had always wanted to go: Captiva. We had never made the time to venture over there when we were in the Tampa area, so we decided to plan a dedicated trip which would make up for the anniversary weekend we had to cut short a few months earlier when our daughter had relapsed in early September of 2015. The Captiva trip was scheduled for spring break in March of 2016.

A few weeks before we were scheduled to go to Captiva, our daughter celebrated six months of sobriety. We thought this was a good sign that her addiction was “cured” and that she had finally “gotten” how to do sobriety. As anyone who has read my post on unconditional love knows, our daughter relapsed and overdosed while we were on that trip in Captiva. She spent a week in the hospital, developed complications, spent a week in a mental health facility, then came home to outpatient treatment only to relapse again within a few weeks. She then went back to inpatient rehab, and has now been clean for almost eight months.

The emotional agony my husband and I went through while our daughter was in the hospital was overwhelming. It was during that time that we found our Nar-Anon Family Group. We had faithfully attended family education and therapy programs at our daughter’s rehab facility and attended Al-Anon meetings, but it was at our area Nar-Anon meeting that we finally found the support we needed. At our very first meeting, one of the long-time group members told me, after hearing our story, “We’re your family now.” I had no idea how true that statement would end up being as the year progressed. I was just so grateful my daughter was alive and we had found new friends who understood what our new normal was like as the parents of an addict.

As spring turned into summer, our daughter moved from the inpatient rehab facility to a very strict sober house. During this time we spent our weekends driving back and forth to visit her, and after three months at the sober house she moved back home with us. Cleveland had just celebrated the Cavs’ history-making championship win. The Indians were on a winning streak and the city dared to hope that maybe, just maybe, we had another championship win in our future. Just a few weeks before our daughter was to move back home, our son proposed to his girlfriend and we had another happy event to celebrate and be thankful for.

Summer turned into fall and we felt such gratitude that our daughter was alive, clean, and working a good program. Our son was happy and our family had a wedding to look forward to. It was a great time to be a Clevelander. I finally felt I had processed a lot of what had happened in the spring and was able to write about it in the post about unconditional love. My husband and I both got a wonderful response to that post of overwhelming support from friends, family and strangers. I was, once again, filled with gratitude that our daughter had survived her overdose, or I would have been writing a very different kind of blog post.

And then, in a matter of just a few weeks, our dear friends’ son overdosed and died, our son’s engagement was called off and he moved back home with us temporarily, and our daughter discovered she was pregnant. Our hearts broke for our friends who lost their son, and their loss was a reminder to all of us with addicts in our lives that there is no guarantee that our loved ones will stay clean even after extended periods of sobriety. Our son was broken-hearted. And our daughter was overwhelmed by the news of an unexpected pregnancy. There was nothing we could do but love all of these hurting people in our lives. Pretty much the only good thing to happen in October was that our rescue dog, Milton, turned (at least) 15; we celebrated having him in our lives for the last 14 years.

As Thanksgiving approached, my husband and I reflected on our gratitude that both of our children were, despite their present difficulties, alive and in our lives. For the month that our son stayed with us after his break-up, I was reminded how wonderful (and sometimes crowded) it was to have the whole family together, just the four of us, like when the kids were growing up. My son began to heal and it was reassuring to have him physically near to see that he was doing better during that time. We slowly began to absorb the news that our daughter was going to have a baby. Due to her history of addiction as well as the genetic clotting disorder that was found in follow-up testing after her overdose, her pregnancy is solidly in the high-risk category. Within 10 days of finding out she was pregnant, she had quit smoking altogether. She had been trying to quit ever since receiving the diagnosis of the clotting disorder, but it was a difficult battle. The pregnancy gave her the incentive she needed and we were grateful that she was finally able to quit.

So November turned into December, and my husband and I–as well as many of our Nar-Anon friends–commented that we would be so glad to see this awful year end. So much hardship had occurred for members of our group and our family, and we were all looking forward to a brighter 2017. And then last Saturday night, I got a call that my son had been in a car accident and that his car had flipped upside down. It was during a freezing rain storm that blanketed the area in ice. We had just been to lunch with him earlier that day, and I had texted with him hours before; during our texting conversation he had said, “I’m indestructible” as a lighthearted way to tell me he was okay after getting some bad news that afternoon. Apparently the universe agreed, because despite the fact that his car flipped over, the windshield shattered, both windows exploded and both doors were crushed, he crawled out over the glass and walked away from the wreck. His car was totaled, but no one else was hurt and no other cars were involved.

Once again, I had found myself unable to breathe after the phone call from my son’s friend, who had been following my son in his own car. Although he had told me my son was “okay,” I had to see him for myself. He was soaking wet, covered in sleet and blood, and still had glass chips stuck to his clothing, but I never wanted to let him go once we got him back to our house. He kept telling me, “I’m okay, Mom; I’m okay. Mom, I’m okay!” Amazingly, his only injuries appeared to be several long cuts on his left hand. He didn’t show any signs of concussion, and had no broken bones. The cuts didn’t even need stitches, much to our surprise; but we had all suffered a bad scare, and it has taken us days to come down off the accompanying adrenaline rush. We found out the next day that our daughter had also been in the ER early Sunday morning due to possible symptoms of a miscarriage. Thankfully, the baby’s heartbeat was strong and my daughter was sent home.

At our Nar-Anon meeting this week, I shared a bit about our weekend with our group, commenting how grateful I was that both of my children were alive and mostly well. I knew that had things gone just slightly differently in March and December, we could have lost both of our children in the same year. Not twenty-four hours after making this statement, I got the horrible news that another friend’s son had overdosed and died. My heart breaks for her and their whole family. This has served as yet another humble reminder of how fortunate I am to have both of my children not only alive, but in close physical proximity to me as well as in a healthy, loving relationship with me and their dad.

So many of my friends don’t have the luxury of even talking regularly to their addicted loved ones, let alone knowing they are sober or even physically safe. I can never allow myself to forget this and I can never cease to be grateful for the current day in which both of my children are alive. We all know there are no guarantees in life, and with the previous losses our family has suffered (my brother, my nephew), we have been reminded of this again and again. But living with heroin addiction brings this realization home in an even more urgent and terrifying way; life can end in an instant due to this cunning, baffling, and deadly disease of addiction.

We are losing people at an unprecedented rate to overdose; in 2015 alone, more than 52,000 Americans died of overdose, the most ever. That’s over 1000 Americans dying of overdose EACH WEEK of 2015. (For comparison, 37,000 people died in car crashes.) Heroin overdose deaths alone increased 23% to nearly 13,000, making death from heroin overdose now more common than death by gun homicide. And deaths from synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl (which nearly killed my daughter when it was spiked into her heroin) are up a whopping 73%. (Source: CDC death statistics report via CBS news.) What these statistics can’t show is the emotional toll these deaths are taking on our communities. It seems every week my daughter hears of the death of someone with whom she was in treatment, or lived in a sober house, or went to AA meetings. How do you quantify the effects of losing friend after friend from the same disease you have?

We talk about the “opioid epidemic” and we quote statistics, but when people are dying from overdose at such an unprecedented rate, how does it affect the psyche of those left behind? In my case, it creates an atmosphere of constant terror; I can no longer live in a bubble where I haven’t been affected by this epidemic. I nearly lost my daughter to overdose; my husband has attended funerals of former students who died from overdose; my daughter has attended countless funerals of former classmates and friends; and now our support group has lost several loved ones. All of this loss reminds me to be profoundly grateful for every day I have with my daughter, my son, my husband, my parents, my friends, and my extended family. This is a lesson I wish I could have learned some other way, but life didn’t give me that choice. This is my reality, as it is the reality of an unprecedented number of Americans. Please reach out to someone you know who has been affected by addiction and remind them that you are grateful for their life and sorry for their struggles. And hug your loved ones tightly this holiday season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You don’t have to do this alone: resources for parents and families of addicts

img_4749

“What you will get are the tools you need to live with your loved one’s addiction, whether your loved one seeks treatment or not, and whether your love one is in active addiction or recovery.”

by Patti Fish Stephens

October 2016

Since my post last week on unconditional love, I have received many requests for help in finding support for parents and families of addicts. There are a multitude of organizations, both national and local, plus books, videos, websites, and more. The amount of information can be overwhelming, and I wouldn’t dream of trying to compile an exhaustive list. What I can do is tell you what worked for our family, and point you in the direction to get support NOW. Education truly is the key to understanding and dealing with addiction. Below you will find resources for emotional support and education.

If you are the mother of an addict, you can find support for yourself and resources for treating addiction at The Addict’s Mom, a website just for mothers where we can Share Without Shame. There are discussion threads for newcomers (Introduction); Supportive Resources (information on rehab, detox, sober living, and more); information about local and Events, Rallies, and Support Groups; a Sounding Board where you can go to share and get support; a thread about Success Stories, providing hope to all of us; and much more. The great thing about The Addict’s Mom is that you can go to addictsmom.com NOW to start getting the support you need. You will need to set up a simple, free account with your email address and a password. You can also join The Addict’s Mom Facebook page as well.

img_4750The most important step that my husband and I took to get the support we needed was to go to our local Nar-Anon weekly meeting. Nar-Anon meetings are for relatives and friends who are concerned about the addiction or drug problem of another. We resisted doing this for quite some time, not because we didn’t feel we needed a support group (we did) but because the meeting we attend is in a neighboring community to where we live as well as the school district where my husband works. For the first year of our daughter’s addiction, we didn’t go to this meeting because we didn’t know how to handle running into parents of students my husband taught or currently teaches. Once we finally did attend the meeting, we knew instantly that we were in the right place. Check out the website now, where you can get basic information about the organization and search for a meeting near you at nar-anon.org.

During the first year of our daughter’s addiction, we attended many different Al-Anon meetings, which provide “strength and hope for friends and families of problem drinkers.” Al-Anon is a much older organization than Nar-Anon, just as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is much older than Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and therefore there are many, many more Al-Anon meetings in any given area than there are Nar-Anon meetings. We are so fortunate to live in an area where we have many choices about meetings. I know that others may not be so fortunate. My husband and I found that while Al-Anon was moderately helpful, Nar-Anon members understood our plight much more clearly than did many at Al-Anon meetings. That being said, this was our particular experience, and if you do not have the option of a Nar-Anon meeting near you, by all means you should seek out the support of an Al-Anon meeting. The website for Al-Anon offers basic information about the organization and you can search for a meeting at al-anon.org. Also, if the addict has a teen in their life who could use support, there are also Alateen meetings. Get more information here: al-anon.alateen.org

An important note about Al-Anon and Nar-Anon meetings: don’t give up after one or two meetings if the group doesn’t seem to be your style. Some people are resistant to attending 12-step groups because of the caricatures of these types of programs in popular media. Yes, some of the slogans or sayings may seem hokey at first. No, you are not going to get the magical answers for how to “fix” your addict at meetings. What you will get are the tools you need to live with your loved one’s addiction, whether your loved one seeks treatment or not, and whether your loved one is in active addiction or recovery. We found in our Nar-Anon group a new family that understood our plight in a way no one else can, and it was a Godsend.

Another important source of support and education for us were the family programs offered by both the inpatient and outpatient facilities where our daughter was treated. When our daughter was in an outpatient program, there was a family night offered once a week. This consisted of a portion of the evening with just other family members as well as a portion of the evening with both families and addicts together. I won’t lie; sometimes these sessions were very difficult. It is hard to talk about the most painful thing going on in your life with perfect strangers, but in our experience, once we were able to share with others we found our burden to be lightened. Our daughter’s in-patient facility offered a much more in-depth family program which consisted of an all day program on Sundays. We drove an hour each way and had to be there between 8 and 9 p.m. and the program went until anywhere from 3 – 5 p.m. This was a LONG day, but well worth it. Not only did it result in better understanding of addiction through the educational lectures, it helped us be able to talk with our daughter about her addiction in a safe setting where we were guided by a trained drug counselor/therapist. It also helped us to bond with other families going through the same crisis, and to know we were not alone.

By attending the family sessions at our daughter’s treatment facilities, we were also able to get to know her drug counselors. Her outpatient counselor was a huge help to our family, offering individual family sessions for us and even one-on-one sessions with me and my husband during the most critical crises in our daughter’s treatment. It was our daughter’s outpatient counselor who encouraged us to attend Nar-Anon or Al-Anon and to find other ways of handling the stress of addiction in our family. She stressed the importance of self-care for us and gave us practical advice and information on resources. Likewise, our daughter’s inpatient counselor also went above and beyond and scheduled a special family counseling session with us when we felt we needed counseling in addition to what we were getting on Family Day. While the drug counselors’ main focus is, of course, the addict, we found that they were also tremendously supportive of families. “Addiction is a family disease” is something you will hear over and over again, and because it is true, good treatment centers and drug counselors will offer support and education to addicts’ families as well.

Several books have been very helpful to me on this journey. One book that especially spoke to me is called Comeback: a mother and daughter’s journey through hell and back by Claire Fontaine and Mia Fontaine. This memoir, narrated alternately by the mother and the daughter, gave me hope that my daughter could come out on the other side as did the daughter in the book. Another book that I highly recommend is the Nar-Anon daily reader: Sharing Experience, Strength, and Hope or SESH for short. We bought our copy at our first meeting and it is a great tool for staying grounded between meetings. Finally, a book that is not directly about addiction but which can be really helpful in establishing boundaries during this critical time is Melody Beattie’s The Language of Letting Go.

These resources are just a start, but I hope they are helpful to anyone searching for support and coping tools during the painful journey of a loved one’s addiction. Please share this post with anyone you know who has an addict in their life. If this post has helped you, please follow my blog (hyacinthstofeedthesoul.wordpress.com) to continue receiving information on what helped our family through this crisis. The more we speak out in the open about this topic, the less stigma it will have.

Self-care is crucial for loved ones dealing with addiction. Please watch for an upcoming post on this important topic.

Read more at hyacinthstofeedthesoul.wordpress.com

 

Why a routine phone call from a recovering addict is anything but routine

A few minutes ago my recovering addict daughter called. As my phone lit up and rang, my daughter’s name displayed across the screen. My stomach clenched involuntarily as my blood pressure spiked and scenarios zipped through my mind: OVI/ DUI arrest, possession charges, and fraudulent use of my credit card were the first few to pop up.

I steeled myself for the worst as I answered the phone. “So the funniest thing just happened,” she said. “I literally just walked into [insert big box store name here] and right as I walked in my phone rang and it was the lady from [big box store]. I have been walking around the store taking to her for ten minutes and she said I am unofficially hired; they just have to complete the background check…so, which dishwasher pods do you want, because I can’t find them…”

My blood pressure was returning  to normal. As I jokingly unofficially congratulated her on her unofficial job, she continued to chat on about her haircut “she cut a lot off, more than I expected, because so much of it was dead,” she told me; and had I heard our stylist’s good news? “She seems really happy…” she is saying, and that’s when I realize that as I am sitting in the living room on my brown love seat, talking on the phone to my 23 year old daughter on a Friday afternoon at 2:30, smiling like an idiot with tears in my eyes,  I am happy.

How long had it been since I had had such a simple, normal conversation with her like this? She sounded so much like her old self that I couldn’t help but tear up with the overwhelming gratitude that she was here, alive, clean, sober, and healthy; that she was happy to pick up dishwasher pods for me on her way home from the hair salon. Because this is what the families of addicts live with every day: the terrifying reality that relapse is always just a phone call away, as is the chaos of active addiction. Even worse is the fear that each mundane conversation about dishwasher pods could be your last with your addict. The next phone call could be from the police or hospital, informing you that your child or spouse or sibling or parent has just upped the tally in that week’s statistics report on overdose deaths.

This is the reality of living with a recovering addict, and I am profoundly grateful that I have the opportunity to talk to my daughter today–regardless of the stress that caller I.D. gives me–because so many other parents no longer have that chance, and never will again.

Please feel free to share this post with anyone you know who has an addict in their life, but especially with those who don’t, so that they can get a glimpse into the everyday struggles of families living with addiction. And if this post has helped you, please subscribe to my blog to continue the conversation about addiction so that together we can end the stigma of this disease and move forward into finding and funding treatment programs that save lives.

What my daughter’s addiction has taught me about unconditional love

screenshot_2016-09-07-19-49-28-2by Patti Fish Stephens

September 2016

I have not spoken (or written) publicly about this issue until now. My daughter and husband have both read this essay and given me permission to share it.

In March of 2015, my daughter realized she had a drinking problem and sought treatment. She was 21 years old, just two months shy of 22. I was devastated. While alcoholism runs in my family, I thought that my husband and I had adequately warned our two children against the dangers of drinking combined with their gene pool. The alcoholics in my family were almost exclusively male, so it somehow never occurred to me that my daughter could become one.

Once evaluated, our daughter was referred to outpatient treatment. Just before she was to complete the six-week program, she relapsed. We got a call from her outpatient program counselor recommending our daughter seek inpatient treatment at a nearby facility. We thought inpatient treatment would nip her problem in the bud. We were supportive. We didn’t yell. We didn’t scream. We cried. We assured her we loved her and would stand by her. And then we took her to the facility, dropped her off, and slept a full night for the first time in months.

When she called after the 72 hour waiting period, I thought I had never been so happy to hear her voice in all my life. I asked how her sessions were going and what the program and daily schedule was like. She said she was still in detox; she hadn’t started any of those things yet. I was baffled. Detox? She hadn’t been out of our sight since the relapse, and there was no alcohol in the house. Why did she need to detox? She said it was just protocol, not to worry. I put it out of my mind, grateful she was in rehab.

We were advised not to come to visitation or family day the first weekend after our addict’s arrival at the facility (to allow the patient to detox and acclimate). So it was nearly two weeks before we were able to see our daughter and hold her in our arms again. I had never been apart from her that long and it seemed like cruel and unusual punishment that we couldn’t see her when she most needed our support. She seemed edgy during that first visit, nervous. I chalked it up to the new environment, the rules, and the loss of her coping mechanism, alcohol.

So when she told us she had something to tell us, I had no idea what was coming. I was just so happy to see her, so relieved that she was getting the help she needed, that I was completely blindsided when she said she was in treatment not just for her addiction to alcohol, but for something else: heroin. I felt my world shift sideways; I thought I might pass out. In that moment, everything I thought I knew about my daughter, my identity as a parent, and our family changed. Nothing would ever be the same again.

In our family sessions, I heard the sentiment over and over (and I even expressed it myself that first time) that I just wanted my child to get better so our family and our lives could go back to the way they used to be. But here’s something I have learned on the roller coaster ride through hell that my family and I have been on for the last two years: things are never going to go back to the way they used to be for the family of any alcoholic or addict. This is something families must accept. Any other course of action is a recipe for heartache and could be harmful to the addict’s recovery as well as the web of family relationships. Out of recovery a stronger family can actually re-emerge if all members seek education about the disease of addiction as well as recovery for themselves.

Our daughter was in anguish as she told us how she had started using heroin while in IOP for alcohol abuse; dealers waited in the parking lots outside of AA meetings. She was full of shame, remorse, guilt, and fear that we would hate her. No matter what I felt that day or in the months after, I assured her then, as I do now, that I could never hate her. On the contrary, I felt only a mother’s love for her hurting child. I felt so broken-hearted for her that I wanted to help her in any way I could.

And we did continue to help her. Through two more rounds of in-patient treatment, an arrest for OVI (Operating a Vehicle while Intoxicated), a weekend in jail during which we did NOT bail her out, subsequent court appearances, elaborate fabrications to cover up multiple relapses,  long weekends of driving the hour each way to grueling 8 hour family therapy sessions plus visiting days, paying for rent at a sober house, and conferences with drug & alcohol counselors, we supported her emotionally, financially, and physically. And through it all, we loved her. Through the lies, the unexplained dents in the car, the lost jobs, the sleepless nights when she didn’t come home, the thousands of dollars in attorney fees and medical bills, we never gave up on her.

Did we make mistakes in how we supported her? Of course. Sometimes we were too gullible. We missed key signs of relapse. We gave her too many chances, didn’t set hard enough boundaries early on. But we learned from our mistakes. When she got arrested for driving under the influence, we left her in jail and sold her car, as we had told her we would when we suspected she had driven impaired before. When there was no denying relapse, we made her choose: go to rehab or leave our home.

We educated ourselves at every opportunity. We learned the difference between supporting her recovery and supporting her addiction. We learned how to talk to friends, family, and coworkers about her addiction. We learned how to ask for support for her, and what kinds of support to request. And we learned how to educate and take care of ourselves while she was learning how to recover from her disease.

But all that we had learned, all that we had experienced, all that we thought we knew, was eclipsed on the morning of March 24, 2016 by the phone call from a neighbor that our unconscious daughter was being carried out of our home on a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance. With over 6 months clean and on Naltrexone, an opiate blocking medication, we had allowed her to stay at our home with a friend while we went to Florida for the anniversary trip we had canceled the previous fall when she was arrested for OVI. During that week she stopped taking her meds and relapsed, overdosing on just $5 to $10 worth of fentanyl- and cocaine-spiked heroin which killed 12 other people in our county that week.

Our universe had shattered in that one brief phone call, and the next 12 hours were the most agonizing of our lives. We had to change our flight to get home immediately; check out of our lodging; return our rented bikes and car; pack up our belongings and inform family of the situation. Never in our lives had we been more scared. Our son rushed to the hospital to be with her and texted us what information he could, but cell service was spotty on the plane and his messages weren’t all coming through. By the time we reached the hospital 12 hours later, our fear was accompanied by anger. I think we both thought she would be released before we ever got home. We hear all the time of overdoses where the patient is simply hydrated and released after regaining consciousness, but it quickly became evident that this was no ordinary overdose; our daughter had been admitted with a blood sugar of 37, had nearly died, and was not yet out of the woods.

When we reached her room in the Intensive Care Unit, she was heavily sedated. Her kidneys were not functioning properly. She couldn’t hear out of one ear at all, and barely out of the other. She could barely speak to us, and hardly registered our presence. Her condition was so much worse than we expected; our anger evaporated. It was clear she wasn’t coming home any time soon. It finally dawned on me that she might not come home at all, that she could actually die. In the moment I realized the gravity of her situation, life became a crystallized pinpoint of clarity: this was my beloved child, whom I loved beyond measure. I loved her despite the lies, the betrayal, the fear, the sorrow, the relapses, the deception. I loved my son as I watched him fear for his little sister and comfort her, staying by her side for hours. I loved them both as deep and as fathomless as I imagined the universe to be. And there was no room for anything else in my heart but this love.  Everything else faded into background noise.

As her recovery from the overdose progressed, however, other emotions forced their way to the surface. There was shock and anger at the family members who took the opportunity of her overdose to tell us—while she still lay in the hospital fighting for her life–just exactly how we were wrong in our handling of her addiction (despite the fact that those family members had never dealt with anything remotely like our situation). There was sorrow, disappointment, and confusion about why so many of her aunts, uncles, and cousins never showed up to visit her or support us during her six day stay in the hospital. We so appreciated those people who showed us unconditional support and made the trip to the hospital or sent flowers or care packages as soon as they heard she was hospitalized. A coworker of my husband’s sent enough food to feed us for nearly a week; other friends I had lost touch with came to the hospital or brought us food, despite the distance that had grown between us. I was so grateful for their return to my life, regardless of the circumstances.

On Easter Sunday, our son, his girlfriend, and my parents came to our home for a quick Easter dinner before we all headed to the hospital for a visit. As we were sitting down to eat, the neighbor who had seen our daughter being loaded into the ambulance came to our door. Never once did he ask how our daughter—his child’s babysitter for years—was doing; he wanted to know why there were so many police cruisers at our house when she was taken to the hospital. He could clearly see we had company and were trying to eat our holiday meal, but he insisted on continuing to ask for details about what had happened. Our worst nightmare was like a train wreck people couldn’t help gawking at and speculating about. We felt preyed upon in our weakest moment.

Throughout that week and the months that followed, my anger with those who should have supported us unconditionally throughout this trauma grew in direct proportion to my love for my daughter. I had told her, as she cried tears of shame in the hospital, that there was nothing, no matter how bad she thought it was, that she could ever do to make me love her less. In that moment, I finally understood unconditional love. It was loving her not only despite her mistakes or flaws, but because this kind, creative, funny, smart, talented, beautiful human being deserves it no matter what; because she is a child of the universe and the child of my womb; and because I know how it feels to not be loved when it is most crucially needed. In that moment, I knew I would never forsake her no matter how many relapses, no matter how many tries it takes her to get clean. And I knew that there is always the possibility that this disease could kill her anyway.

Five years ago this month, in September of 2011, my 22-year-old nephew committed suicide by jumping from a seventh story parking garage. He was hundreds of miles from home, and had reportedly been struggling in recent months with drug use and mental illness. Our family was in shock. It had only been five years earlier, in 2006, that my brother died alone in his home of acute alcohol poisoning; his blood alcohol content was measured at .59 in the autopsy report. It had taken me years to recover from the grief of my brother’s sudden death at the age of 43 and to come to terms with its causes. After my nephew’s suicide, I thought our family couldn’t bear any more loss. I gathered my grief-stricken son and daughter around me and said this: There is nothing, NOTHING, in this life that you can’t come back from—except death. There is NOTHING that you could do to ever make me stop loving you. If you need me, I will ALWAYS come for you. Always. Never forget that.

I never thought that this promise would be put to the test so dramatically, but I am grateful that through the journey of my daughter’s addiction–through treatment and relapse, overdose and recovery, and from those who have supported us and not supported us–I have learned the true character of unconditional love. The disease of addiction is known in the recovery community as being “cunning, baffling, and deadly.” My child is alive and clean for today, and for that I am deeply grateful. I know that every day with my daughter is a gift, and it is one that I will never take for granted.

I love you to the moon and back, Peanut. Forever. Unconditionally.

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