Just Love Her

I was in an Al-Anon meeting one day and was listening to one father speak of his drug-addicted, alcoholic son. It was Christmas time and all of us were getting cards and letters from friends and family…the ones where we learn about how miraculous everyone else’s children are.

This particular father was the comedian in our group. He almost always had something funny to say. When it came his time to share, he read aloud to our group one of those letters. And then he showed us a copy of what he did with the letter. In red marker, he replied, “That’s terrific news. You must be so proud. My son’s in prison.”

Most of us laughed. The only ones who were silent were the first-time parents, the ones who had not yet worked through the shame and the utter disappointment the rest of us were used to feeling.

There is a journey that every parent, every child, every sibling of an addict takes – a journey from the life that we dreamed for our family members, and the life that they actually chose for themselves.

For some people, the ones who write the Christmas letters, that journey is short. Their family members grew into wonderful people who may have even exceeded expectations. But for those of us with addicts in our midst, that journey between what we dreamed and the life actually chosen by the addict is a rocky and steep path spread across thousands of miles of treacherous terrain.

On the face of it, it might seem that the shorter path is the better path. But for those of us who have made the difficult journey, we have discovered a depth of understanding about ourselves that we would never have come to know without the pain we had to suffer along the way.

The journey is not one of love, but of acceptance. Few of us ever stop loving our children, spouses or parents. But many of us reject, sometimes aggressively, the life they have chosen.

And so we sit on a self-righteous high horse pouring out our love conditions with our every comment, every threat, and every glance of disapproval.

This is a difficult, almost impossible place to be—not wanting to validate the drug use, the abhorrent lifestyle, the destructive behavior—but also not wanting to invalidate the souls of the people we have loved, in part, for who they were before the addiction came.

As with so many things, it may be that the old dream has to die before the new dream can emerge. But dreams die hard.

I remember sitting across from my once beautiful daughter. I hadn’t seen her in months and the image before me was disturbing. She wore dirty sweatpants and a sweatshirt that clearly did not belong to her. She smelled bad and clearly had not washed her hair in weeks. And the scabs on her face from all the drug use were bloody and dripping puss.

I was judging her with every fiber of my being. I couldn’t hear a word she was saying because she couldn’t have been farther away from the person that she used to be.

But then, unexpectedly, a vivid thought entered my head, “Don’t judge her for the next five minutes. Just love her.” It was the best five minutes I’d had in ten years. I allowed myself to love her for the pure joy of seeing my daughter and knowing that for these few minutes, she was safe, well fed and cared for. I listened to her intently, and I think for the first time in a long while, she felt listened-to.

But then the time came I needed to send her back into the life I had come to dread, and the sadness returned as my dream for her died all over again. I jumped back onto the painful path.

My son is in prison. My daughter is in prison. Can you ever say that and be okay?

If you had asked me 30 years ago if I would have chosen this version of my family, my answer would have been a predictable, “No way!” But if you were to ask me that same question today, I would tell you that addiction has both destroyed and rebuilt my family into something that none of us would ever trade away.

I love her for who she is, what she is and how she has shaped me into the person I am today. The shame I feel today is not for what she became, but for who I was when she became that person.