When you have a loved one in long term recovery things begin to ease up. It’s a slow process, but if you work on letting go and understanding you have no control you inch closer and closer to being able to breathe. One day you realize you fell asleep and woke up without that band of anxiety gripping your chest. When your phone rings and it’s your loved one, panic is no longer your instinctive reaction. The fear stays with you, but you learn to keep it at bay. You remind yourself it’s their life, and that projecting will do you no good. Live for today, be joyful for everything that is good in your life. Amen.
That’s what I would have written a few months ago. But all it took was my mother’s intuition –honed to pinpoint precision through years of codependency – to sound a warning bell and I took ten giant steps backward. My son did not relapse, but he was having a difficult time. I could feel it coming, and the panic, helplessness, terror and anxiety stampeded back into my life and, like puzzle pieces, settled into the familiar spaces in my brain shaped just for them.
Life is not easy. We all have things that knock us down, make us want to throw the covers over our head and just hide out for a bit – preferably with some Ben&Jerry’s to keep us company. I get that. But with my son in recovery, every bump in his road has concerned me – for some reason this one really wound me up. Perhaps it had to do with the upcoming holidays. November and December can be anxiety inducing in so many ways. We are expected to be happy whether we want to be or not, whether we are capable of doing so or not. All I know is I became anxious about my son’s well-being. Not in a ‘oh my God he may go out and use’ way, but I was concerned because he was in a funk and having a hard time. What does a concerned mother do? She picks up the phone. And when my son had not answered or returned my calls in days – which, in all honesty is perfectly normal for him, I mean, he’s 30 years old for goodness sake – and when I am already in a codependent anxious snit because I had a feeling, I opened the gates and allowed in the stampede.
I was really frustrated with myself. I understand about boundaries, codependency and how his life is his own. So why was I back here again projecting horrible scenarios in my mind. Because of course I went from being concerned he seemed a bit depressed to picturing him in his room not breathing. That’s a puzzle piece in my mind that I guess will take longer than I realized to banish – if that is even possible.
I was once again back to feeling anxious and helpless and increasingly frustrated with myself because I knew better. It’s not my life, not my choices, and out of my control. Over the past 6 months I had heard so many stories from all over the country of loss and relapse. We are fighting every day to get people to understand that they have to stop thinking, ‘not my kid, it can’t happen to me’……. I can’t pretend ‘that can’t happen to me’ when I speak to parents, spouses and loved ones all the time who have lost their loved ones to overdose, and many of them to overdose because of relapse. My anxiety was at a level it had not been at in over a year and I was adding to it by being upset that I was anxious because I thought I had things under control.
… and a Smack on the Head
About a week before Christmas I had a very ungracious stumble as I was walking into a building. I had an appointment with people I had never met, parents of a friend. I could see them waiting for me in the lobby of the building, so as I pitched forward and the stairs came to meet my face, all I could think about was how mortified I was that they were witnessing my fall. As the crack of my forehead hitting the stairs rang in my head I was simply grateful there were people there to help me. In the ensuing minutes my friend’s mother literally took the shirt off of her back so I could wipe the blood from my eyes and apply pressure to my head. The rest is really a blur but there were so many people who helped me that day, from my friend’s mother giving me her shirt, someone calling 911, and the paramedics and EMT’s taking such good care of me. My friend went above and beyond, missing her daughter’s school Christmas party to come to the hospital and keep me company as they stitched my forehead.
We all fall many times in our lives, though maybe not as literally as my klutzy trip up the stairs. We need to let go of the instinctive mortification we feel when we are caught being imperfect. Shame keeps us from asking for help. Shame often keeps us from admitting we fell. In my case I was embarrassed, but those around me leapt to their feet to help me. People with substance use issues have such a deep sense of shame when they find themselves having fallen that they don’t want to ask for help. And often, the response is not people leaping to their feet. I have heard of SO many people who have rushed their loved one to the ER assuming they will find help for this life threatening condition only to be told they can’t do anything for them, here’s a list of phone numbers….
The judgement and stigma and ‘they did this to themselves’ attitude makes those battling substance use too ashamed to ask for help, and when they do ask for help, it is not easily available. Wasn’t I at fault when I fell? After all I should have been paying more attention to the threshold of the building than looking around for the people I was meeting. Nobody told me I should have been watching where I was going. I got a lovely ambulance ride to the hospital and was brought straight back to be stitched up.
Two days after my fall the pain in my forehead became secondary to the headaches, dizziness, vertigo, nausea and fuzziness of the concussion. My face was beautifully decorated for Christmas as the black eyes blossomed and the bruises formed tear like lines down my face. My forehead healed quickly and the bruises faded, but it took longer for my brain to begin to function normally. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to those in recovery. Their bodies are cleansed of toxins, they gain weight and look like themselves again, but their brains are still healing. Functioning with a constant headache, reaching in frustration for words that wouldn’t come to me, unable to think my way through a simple problem, and being totally overwhelmed walking grocery store aisles I began to appreciate how those in early recovery feel. Overwhelmed, dizzy and trying to think through things that others think are so simple, all the while fending off cravings and PAWS* symptoms. (*see Addiction is a Family Affair. We All Need Recovery.)
After the stairs jumped up and smacked me in the head, I didn’t have time to be codependent and anxious about my son. I was too busy just getting through the day. Kind of like our loved ones as they navigate their way through early recovery. They don’t have the bandwidth to worry about our codependence issues.
A funny thing happened when I stopped perseverating on my son’s bout of blues. Nothing. Nothing happened. He is fine. Because whether I worry about him or not, he will do with his life as he chooses. He is choosing to survive. He is choosing to put one foot in front of the other. He is choosing to know that things don’t get better overnight. It’s still a slog 23+ months later, but he listens at his meetings, and others tell him it does get better. And he believes them. It does not make every day a walk in the garden, and some days are still ‘I wish I could hide under the covers’ days, but as he moves forward there are fewer days where he actually stays hiding but instead makes himself come out to see the sunshine.
I had someone ask me during my weeks of anxiety, ‘but isn’t your son in recovery and working?’ Well, that just made me feel worse. Of course every day that my son is in recovery is a good day, I am grateful and thankful and relieved, and I know that I should not project or borrow trouble. But here is the cold, bald truth. I know no matter how long my son is in recovery I will be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Some days that shoe will be way up high in the sky, just a pinpoint if you squint and look for it – but it’s up there somewhere. Other times I will be living in the shadow of the shoe as it hovers inches above my head – because I don’t have control. THAT is the reality. So I am done beating myself up when others think that I should be great and fantastic all the time because my son is in recovery. We all have our Ben & Jerry’s as well as our ‘wander the rose garden and smell the beautiful blooms’ kind of days. Sometimes they can even happen on the same day. That’s life.
As my husband says, ‘you have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable’.
Maybe I needed that smack in the head to help hammer his words into my brain. The angry line on my forehead will fade, but it will always be a reminder to me that every day in life is not comfortable, and I’m just going to have to be OK with that.