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


“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.