Step four: filling empty spaces.

The calendar went around the table, and I passed it as usual, but not before pausing and looking at the next week’s topic: Step four. I had been thinking about signing up for the lead, but not on step four. Someone else who had actually worked the step could take that one.

By the end of the meeting, still no one had signed up. As I walked out the door, T called my name and asked if I would do the lead. “You would do such a great job,” she said. “I’ll sit next to you and help lead the meeting.”

My Higher Power speaks to me through the kind people I meet in Al Anon. She gave me the push I needed. Later that week, she texted me: “Thank you for offering the lead and I’ll help you along. We just share our experience, strength, and hope of step four. Don’t be concerned with having “worked” the step in some formal way. Higher Power gives us the words and those always speak to the hearts of the members. See you Tuesday and feel free to call me.”

I am so grateful to be a part of this community. Below is my first Al Anon lead.

Step four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory.

When I first signed up to do the lead for this week, I wasn’t sure about what I would talk about. I haven’t “formally” worked step four, so what could I possibly have to share that would be helpful to others? (And by “formally” working a step, I was thinking of someone who worked with a sponsor to physically write out their moral inventory.) But after encouragement from members of this group and thinking it over more, I realized that we all work the steps in different ways. There is no right or wrong way. And I have been weaving step four into my everyday life since I first came to Al Anon. I hope my story today can bring you strength and hope where you need it.

I’d like to start with a reading from Courage to Change, page 55:

Isn’t it exasperating to go to the grocery for an item, only to find the shelf empty? Fortunately, grocers can correct that situation by taking inventory to learn which shelves need replenishment.

The same is true for me. A fourth step inventory illuminates my own empty spaces, my shortcomings. This doesn’t have to be a painful or scary experience. I don’t have to pass judgment on an empty shelf, but unless I take the time to become aware of it, I won’t do anything to fill it, and the problem will continue. By taking inventory, my empty spots can be filled with the help of the remaining steps. I experience the healing power of these steps whenever the formerly hurtful circumstances recur while the pain that I once felt does not.

I believe if we don’t take action to fill our empty spaces with something positive – if we don’t replace the fear with love – resentment begins to grow there, instead.

When my husband was in active addiction, I had a lot of anger. I felt like I was doing most of the work when it came to caring for our child. On the weekdays, I’d get our son ready for daycare, drop him off, pick him up, feed him, play with him, give him a bath – while my husband slept, “worked late,” found some reason to leave the house or spend time in the garage. On the weekends, I’d wake up with our little one while my husband slept in. When I tried to wake him up, I yelled. “Wake up! I’m doing everything! This isn’t fair!” It typically didn’t end well.

As many of you know, sobriety doesn’t solve all of our problems. Our moral inventories are still there, the empty shelves waiting to filled, and no one can fill them but us. My husband got clean, and resentment grew in that angry, empty space.

I remember one Saturday morning, standing in the kitchen, the dishwasher open in front of me. I had just put all the dishes away, and the sink was full of more dishes to load. At my legs, our little one, asking when I would be done. A Sesame Street CD played in the background. Laundry tumbled in the washer downstairs. A to-do list building in my head. Upstairs, my husband’s alarm clock blaring for the last half hour. Him, in bed, sleeping, oblivious.

The anger began to wash over me – the same old thoughts of “this isn’t fair, he’s never going to change, I’m doing everything, I’m all alone, it’s all his fault.” But I didn’t want to feel angry anymore. I didn’t want to go upstairs and yell at him to wake up. I didn’t want to let him sleep and be angry the rest of the day, punishing him with my silence. I had been through all of that before, and it didn’t help. It didn’t help us move forward. The anger held us back.

I cried. The anger moved through me. It turned into sadness, confusion, a feeling of being overwhelmed and alone. I just wanted help. I just wanted him to be with us. I allowed myself to feel and accept these the feelings as mine to face. Then, I released them, and I went upstairs.

I didn’t yell. I replaced the anger with communication, and I told him I needed him. I needed help. It was all too much for me and I couldn’t handle it anymore. Would he please wake up and help me?

He responded better to that. And with love, compassion, communication, came perspective. I realized – he’s trying. He’s clean. He’s working on his issues and he’s not perfect and he needs help, too. He doesn’t want to sleep all day and miss out on his family. And so, with time, it’s getting better. We take it one day at a time. We have breakfasts together on the weekends now. We have a weekday routine in the mornings and evenings, tag-teaming the drives to and from daycare, dinner time, bath time, bed time. I don’t feel like I’m going at it alone anymore. We’re on the same page, doing it together, moving through each day with the same loving rhythm. Our son is four, and starting to feel big emotions. Rather than dismiss them, we are teaching him how to identify them, to know that they’re okay, and to release them. I suppose it’s never too early to start making your searching and fearless moral inventory, right?

As I prepared for this lead, I kept coming back to this: Step four is all about self love. It’s about loving yourself no matter what. Love yourself enough to recognize and celebrate your good qualities. Love yourself and allow yourself to feel, accept, and release the negative. Know that you are not your feelings, or thoughts, or behaviors. Self doubt and self hate have no place in your path forward. Love yourself enough to let go and let your Higher Power guide you. You are enough. Just ask your Higher Power to help you fill the empty spaces with what you already have within.

 

Our gift from the universe.

Little m turned 4 in February, and he ended his last day of being 3 with an epic 45-minute meltdown because he didn’t want to brush his teeth. M and I chalked it up to m being sick the few days prior, thus out of routine, and a long day of birthday party-ing and after party-ing. “Maybe he’s getting out all of the 3-year-old tantrums that he never had before he turns 4,” I joked as M and I sat in our bedroom, waiting it out and listening to little m cry in the next room.

Since that night, m has had countless tantrums and whining episodes for reasons including, but not limited to: wanting to watch TV right now, having to wait too long, not wanting to get dressed, not getting to listen to Darth Vader’s theme song for the millionth time, etc. You know, normal reasons for a 4-year-old to whine.

Except m rarely whined or threw tantrums before this. He usually listened to us after a brief time out or having some space to just cry. Then after getting it out of his system, he’d come to us and say sorry or just be ready to move on. So these consistent whining episodes and tantrums were fairly new to us.

I  always tell M that our son is our gift from the universe, and not in the same way all children are gifts. By four months old, he was sleeping through the night and we didn’t have sleep issues since. He eats all his vegetables – sweet potatoes, green beans, broccoli – and loves trying new things like roasted seaweed snacks, oxtail stew, hot sauce. He doesn’t cry when he gets shots. He says please and thank you and puts his away his dishes after every meal. Every one of his babysitters has commented on how easy he is. At mommy groups, I often feel left out because everyone else is complaining about their children. I stay quiet because I don’t want to be the mom with that perfect kid.

“The universe knew we had a lot of shit to deal with,” I’d say to M. “So it gave us little m and said, ‘Look. Here’s the easiest baby in the world. He’s impossible to screw up. Just make sure he stays alive at the end of every day while you figure out your mess.'”

The moment little m was born, there was a shift in our relationship. The massive transition to parenthood was hard on us, M especially, and when placed on top of two lifetimes of not knowing how to love ourselves, we began to slowly crumble. Our son came into our lives and introduced a new kind of love, an energy so strong that it was able to hold us all together while everything else fell apart. For the most part, m made parenting easy so we could hold our family up while recovering the fallen pieces of our ourselves, our marriage, and build back our foundation.

And now, 4. M and I have reached a place where we can communicate our fears, celebrate the small wins, practice gratitude for the present moment and how far we’ve come. It is here, quite loudly, that little m is telling us he needs us – more than he ever has since his newborn days.

So we are listening. We put aside the articles and books on addiction, recovery, spirituality, marriage, and started looking for resources on child discipline.

The “counting to three and sending to time out” method had worked when m was 2, but now we are put off by the idea of sending him to be alone without addressing underlying issues. Communication has been so critical to our marriage, and we want there to be communication between all three of us. We want to find an approach that will let m know what he’s feeling is okay, and we are here for him while he struggles with difficult feelings, while not “rewarding” unacceptable behaviors by just giving him what he wants.

Not giving him what he wants. This is where I have struggled because doesn’t he want attention when he’s behaving this way? Aren’t we giving him what he wants and reinforcing his behavior by paying attention instead of sending him to his room?

I’m starting to learn that the answer is no. What he wants is more TV, or to skip brushing his teeth, or basically to just get his way. He wants control. What he needs is our attention. His whining, his crying, his meltdowns are his way of saying “I am feeling something, and I don’t understand it, and I can’t control it, and I need you to help me right now.”

Oh, sweetie. I’ve been there.

// Deborah MacNamara, How to get to the bottom of whining via Motherly

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

Let sadness in…

Release…

“Emotions are like waves … There are calm, rolling waters and there are storms that arrive and pass. In the boat, you’re together and you ride the waves. If you stay calm and present, you can navigate, and know the storms (intensely strong emotions) are a normal fact of being on the water, and they always pass.” // Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma

This too shall pass…

As I read more and more the different ways to address children’s behavior, what resonates most are the approaches that most align with what I’ve learned in my own healing process. Surprise, surprise, right? But what does surprise me is how much they align, and the incredible timing of it all.

Trust the process…

M and I had to do our own suffering, feel our own emotions and then let them go, learn how to talk about and focus on what lies beneath rather than the behavior or reaction that might be bothering us. It’s like we’ve been training for this the past few years. And now, our recovery is steering us in the right direction so that we can connect with this little human and teach him about the love, empathy and communication from which our family now grows.

 

8.

Eight years married. Last year, the significance of seven was not lost on us. Seven chakras, seven colors of the rainbow, seven days of creation. And then: 8. The first day of the new week. A never ending flow. Another beginning of our infinite cycle.

Today is also a full moon, and your first day back to school after our small nightmare. We survived it. Yet another. After eight years, we’ve survived more small nightmares than most people. Looking back, it was probably around our fourth year, our halfway mark, that we hit a peak of our marriage. We got pregnant. We got ready for the next step. And then, our sweet son came to us in the middle of the night in the most unexpected way imaginable. We survived his 10 days in the NICU. Our first survival as parents, as a family. I don’t want to say it all went downhill from there, because the day he came to us, we learned the true strength of love. And then, life got hard. Maybe that’s why the universe put our son in our lives when it did – because it knew we would need that strength to help us get through the next three years as we completed our first full cycle of marriage. As the waves seemed to pull us under and we continued to find our way back up for air.

We ebb and flow. The waves of the ocean are influenced by the cycle of moon, and so are we made up of water and energy and vibrations, our bodies and minds and spirits in a constant state of ups and downs. We grow toward the light. Like the leaves on our house plants that have been drawing me in lately. Watching as new growth stems from the top, small baby leaves peeking into life. We pull away the dying leaves and make room for the new. We place crystals around our home and marvel at their beauty, their magic, their knowing. Their sacred patterns that help balance our vibrations like a tuning fork, bringing us back into the flow of the universe. We let love in. We breathe love out.

Who knows where this next cycle will take us? A part of me wants to lean toward fear – we barely survived the last one! How can we do it again? Well. First, we’ll take a deep breath. We’ll recognize that within our cycle of marriage are our own journeys to love and light, our own reflections and intentions, our own unique vibrations, our own purpose. And we’ll take each other’s hands, and let go of fear. Nothing can ever prepare us for what is to come. I go into the next with no expectations. But I know more now than I did then. And I know, my love, that as the next cycle pulls and pushes and feels as thought it’s weighing us down; in the moments when we may forget about our strength – we can be a lighthouse for each other. Let’s always leave the light on to guide the other home – back to infinite comfort of the other’s circling arms.

I am hopeful.

So we have this ideal of what love is and then these very, very unhelpful narratives of love. And they’re everywhere. They’re in movies and songs. And we mustn’t blame songs and movies too much. But if you say to people, “Look, love is a painful, poignant, touching attempt by two flawed individuals to try and meet each other’s needs in situations of gross uncertainty and ignorance about who they are and who the other person is, but we’re going to do our best,” that’s a much more generous starting point.

So,the acceptance of ourselves as flawed creatures seems to me what love really is .Love is at its most necessary when we are weak, when we feel incomplete, and we must show love to one another at those points.

– Alain de Botton, from the On Being with Krista Tippett podcast episode “The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships”

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6:01 AM, Saturday, September 15. I am awake. I am tired. m will be up at 7 and my body and my eyes are telling me to go to sleep, get some rest before he’s awake and asking for TV and juice and someone to play with. But I’m here, typing words on the page because things are hard right now, and I’m mentally exhausted from all of the confusion going on in my head – trying to practice empathy while also trying to figure out what it is I need to take care of myself, get the rest and the support I need.

Depression is weird. On the outside, it can look like laziness. M has trouble getting out of bed in the morning, and I can understand why. He is currently on administrative leave from work. He tells me it’s hard to get out of bed to get things done, especially when he doesn’t have work or a regular routine. I said if work isn’t currently giving him a routine, he should make his own. “It doesn’t work like that,” he told me. I don’t know how it works.

So I have been picking up the slack with taking care of m and keeping the house in order, and it’s been exhausting. I start to dread mornings again. I feel the resentment creeping in. I expect it. I try to let it go.

Focus on the good things. He is clean. Last night, on the way dinner, we caught a glimpse of the sun setting as we passed the prairie reserve. M turned into the next parking lot and we got out, pulled out m’s trike from the trunk, and walked along the path as the sky went from deep orange to pink to twilight blue. He has been staying up late in the garage, but he’s spending his time painting, coloring, nurturing his new found desire to create something beautiful. I have been keeping up with a daily yoga practice for almost two weeks now, and I’m slowly working on finding a community on Instagram and through my own blog. I am here, writing.

We are human beings who have come to the realization that we need to love ourselves before we can truly love another. I have been telling myself this a lot lately whenever I feel like I deserve better, like I should have the picture-perfect marriage of equally-split housework and child caring. But we all have our struggles. He suffers from ADHD and possibly depression. He is currently on leave from work due to circumstances out of our control. He is a recovering addict. He is clean. He is trying. We are trying. Am I making excuses for his behaviors? That’s where the mental exhaustion comes in – my mind pulling in two different directions. He is struggling. But what about me?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have an appointment with my therapist on Monday, and I will ask the same questions there. Tuesday, couples therapy. Wednesday, M’s individual therapy. Hopefully somewhere in there, M can go back to work. Hopefully we can move on from this and grow stronger. Hopefully I can let go of expectations on how long healing and positive change is supposed to take, and to accept that this is a lifelong process – to look back at where we were a year ago, two years ago, and see the incredible progress that we’ve already made. Hopefully I can get the support I need. Maybe I have to let go of the idea that “he should just know, he should do it on his own, why do I have to keep reminding him” and just ask for the help when I need it. Hopefully, just because this is where we’re at right now doesn’t mean it’s where we’ll be forever.

I am hopeful.

To the wife of a heroin addict.

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To the wife of an heroin addict: You are not alone.

I know you may feel alone in many, many ways. Like when you’re alone with your child on a weeknight, and your husband is supposed to be home but he’s not. He’s at work late, but by now you know that he’s driving into the city for heroin, and you’ve been trying to get a hold of him for hours, and his responses are misspelled texts filled with excuses and lies, if there is any response at all. You feed and bathe your little one, and your husband arrives just as you’re putting him down to bed.

He’s there, but not really there.

You eat dinner with him in front of the TV, and you watch as his head nods off into his plate. “Are you okay?” you ask him. “Yeah,” he says, “Just tired.” But you know it’s more than that. The way his knees bend slightly when he’s standing, his body swaying up and down, side to side, and you’ve even seen the entire upper half of his body droop in front of him, so he’s nearly at a right angle, his fingers practically touch his toes, and he just sways there for several minutes. He’s there, but not really there.

It’s especially lonely when you can’t tell anyone about it. What are you supposed to say? “My husband is addicted to heroin, he chooses to head out to the west side after work for drugs instead of spend time with his family, he’s draining our bank account and lying to me every day and I don’t even know who he is anymore?” Maybe you have a close childhood friend or a sister who won’t judge you, who will listen to you and be a shoulder to cry on, except maybe her shoulder is on the other side of the country, and all you can do is cry into the phone while you sit in your car in a random parking lot, alone.

And you don’t want to tell your parents, because they live out of state also, and what will they think? What will they say? They’ll hate him, tell you to leave him, never look at him the same way again. They’ll see his addiction as a choice, not a disease. And even though he’s there, but not there, he’s still there. In there, somewhere, the man you married. There is just a demon taking hold of him, and he’s struggling. And you see him with your son and despite the drugs, he’s still a good father. When they’re spending time together, there is so much love. There is still laughter, and playtime, and endless love. You still love the man you married, and you don’t want to give up on him.

Eventually, perhaps you tell his family, because you can’t handle the weight of it by yourself anymore. They live nearby, and they’re able to watch your little one when your husband finally agrees to get help. They pick up your son from daycare and pack an overnight bag for him while you sit in the ER with their son, who is still high, and you are pulling needles out of his pocket and wondering if he’ll even be taken in if he’s not experiencing withdrawals yet, but they have to. “If he comes home, he’ll use again,” you tell the doctor, your voice wavering with desperation. The doctor looks at you and maybe you see sadness and even empathy in his eyes. He is moved to a rehab facility, and as you’re leaving, the withdrawals are starting to kick in, and he’s threatening to leave, but the nurse is able to calm him down with one his own prescriptions, maybe a Xanax? You can’t remember anymore, you just remember that he stayed, and you went home, alone.

His parents are there for you, but their struggle is different. You check out local support groups for families, and you notice that you’re mostly surrounded by parents of opiate addicts. Because the parents, of course, are the ones who will never leave. Even if they have kicked their kid out of the house and broke off all communication, there is still that tie to their children that will never break.

There are some wives in your Al Anon group, but their husbands are alcoholics, which is a different struggle, as well. You find there are far more spouses who stay with husbands addicted to alcohol, and you’re starting to wonder where all the wives of opiate addicts are. Did they leave? Did they lose the fight? Were they forced to let go and move on? You start to think that maybe that’s your future, too. You turn to Google and search for phrases like “wives of addicts” and “I’m married to a heroin addict.” Looking for a support group, a community, a blog, an article – anything from another wife who shares your story. Who has to live every day with this horrible disease and watch it eat away at the man she fell in love with, at her family, her marriage, herself. Who empties tiny little baggies of powder down the toilet, and finds nearby dumpsters to throw away needles. Who frantically searches for more, because hard evidence is the only way she can get him to admit he’s using, any speculations or gut feelings met only with excuses, lies, defenses, disgust. Who wakes up in the middle of the night, night after night, to an empty bed, and wonders if he’s overdosed in the garage. Who is constantly looking for her husband at family gatherings and finding him in the bathroom, door locked, or else not finding him at all. Who wonders what it looks like to other people. Who wonders how much longer she can live with the lies and the pain.

You find a few articles on rehab websites with advice for spouses, and even a few articles from women who eventually left their husbands. But where is the article telling you there is hope for your marriage?

A former therapist of mine once told me, “There is always hope.”

This story is mine. Maybe it’s yours, too. If it is, then we’ve found each other. There’s some hope, right there. And I have more to tell you. I am writing and rewriting my story every moment, every day.

It’s been 20 months since my husband returned home from rehab. He came back the first time just before Christmas, and he was back in days later – just as the year was ending. He was five months clean before he relapsed again. By that time I was going to Al Anon every day, praying to a Higher Power that I had never known before, learning how to take care of myself because it was the only thing I could do. The only things I have control over are my own health and sanity, which were slowly slipping as I lived in a home filled with lies and mistrust. I had to remove myself and my son from the situation, so we went to Las Vegas to stay with my sister. My husband got clean while we were gone, on his own terms this time, and he stayed clean for another 10 months before he used again.

This time, it was only a week before he told me about it and stopped. We wondered how it could have happened – we were going to couples therapy, he was going to a support group once a week, we were communicating better, he had found healthy hobbies and made new friends, we were doing good. How could it happen?

Addiction is a scary and powerful disease. It can take hold of someone, no matter how strong or how far in recovery, and it will stick him in a dark tunnel with a light shining on nothing but one thing – heroin. And that’s all he can see, and it’s all he can move toward, and all reason and love is silenced in the darkness, and there is just that. One. Thing.

Somehow, after he told me, I found peace. A trust in the power that was in me, in him, in us – in everything. A sense of relief, because it wasn’t going to be another cycle of lies this time. The truth had revealed itself quickly, and he was back on track to recovery once again. Perhaps this last relapse meant there was more work to do, and with that, he made an appointment with an individual therapist and looked deeper inside himself and the universe for the strength needed to quit.

Progress. It’s all I can ask for, and all I can hope for, because relapses will happen. Is this my life now? I used to ask myself when I feared another relapse. Yes, it is. But it’s not about worrying about the next relapse, wondering if and when it will happen, fearing the pain it will bring. It’s about finding peace in the now, and celebrating how far we have come in just under two years. Despite all of it, I can tell you that right now, in this moment, I am happy.

I’m not going to leave my husband because he suffers from addiction. It’s a family disease from which we are both struggling. It will always be a part of our lives. But it doesn’t have to control our lives. We’ll work together to keep darkness out and shine a light on the good things. And as long as there is love and trust, ‘til death do us part.

Here’s to love. Here’s to hope. Here’s to you and to us. We are not alone.

Recovery homework: a letter.

Dear M,

During the time that you were using, I felt a lot of things. I’d feel alone when I woke up in the middle of the night to an empty bed. Only to get up and find you passed out – standing up in the kitchen, in your car, in the garage. Or in the garage with the door locked. Your sleeping habits made me worried, concerned for your health and the health of our family. I felt resentful because you would stay up all night and sleep in the mornings, leaving me alone with our son for a good part of the day.

On days when I didn’t know where you were after work, I was worried out of my mind. Hysterical, almost. Angry because I knew you were going to the city for drugs when your wife and your child were at home, missing you and wanting to be with you. You’d make it home with barely enough time to even see your son.

Our son. I was scared for our son and what kind of life was ahead of him if you didn’t stop. I was worried about the disappointment and the hurt he would feel if he were old enough to understand.

I felt betrayed when you would lie to my face or text me things like – My phone’s about to die. It was across the room so I didn’t answer. I lost my phone! I’m going to the mall to get your Xmas present. I don’t know who that contact is in my phone. His texts are all gibberish.

Confused. Who was this person who would lie to me like this? Who thought I was dumb enough to believe him?

I was angry when you got high the night before Thanksgiving. At one point you had your face in a piece of raw steak in the kitchen, swaying back and forth. What are you doing? I asked. Smelling the steak, you replied.

I was scared when you didn’t come home that night. I thought it was all my fault – that I handled it all wrong.

I was devastated when you had to go back to rehab – not because you used again, but because I hated seeing you so broken. I was scared.

I am scared. I am worried. I’m confused. I’m still all these things. But I am hopeful.

I love you.