Presence and Recovery
I always thought of myself as singularly non-addictive until my daughter entered treatment seven years ago and I started attending Al-anon meetings for the family members and friends of alcoholics. It didn’t take long to realize I was in denial about my compulsive responses to the beloved addicts in my life. I could not bear to simply be with my daughter’s behavior or suffering, but instead of taking a drink, I assuaged my anxiety by writing her a check or giving her advice.
“Alcoholics want it now — whatever it is: thrills, satisfaction, pleasure, the end of unpleasantness” —Kevin Griffin
I too wanted it now: the end of my daughter’s pain, her depression and anxiety, her addiction. I wanted a happy, healthy daughter.
In resistance to reality, my interactions with her were aimed at trying to fix her. Into her mid-thirties, I was still paying for therapies, medications, alternative health regimes, not to mention her rent on occasion. I was still giving lots of adviceand suggestions, still fixated on making her better or different. I could not be present with her as she was.
My father was an alcoholic, and my sister had long struggles with drug addiction. With my father and sister, I learned to accept them as they were and to shield myself from the worst of their behavior. With my daughter no such detachment was possible. I not only wanted her to be different but felt it was my job to help her change. This seemed to be my responsibility as a parent, not just when she was a child, but also when she was an adult. Denial accompanies addictive habits, and we don’t necessarily recognize what is driving us, especially when it comes in the guise of love.
In his beautiful book on Buddhism and the Twelve Steps, One Breath at a Time, author and teacher Kevin Griffin describes the tendency to want to change our experience as “the root of the alcoholic/addict’s dilemma — the desire to feel differently.” I did not have to be an alcoholic or addict to want to feel differently, to want to escape the discomfort caused by the self-destructive behaviors of those I loved.
“First noticing that craving, then not reacting to it, strengthens our sobriety, and also begins to wear down our habitual escapist tendencies. And when we aren’t escaping, we are, by definition, here and now.”
We now know, based in part on findings from neuroscience, that not only substances but processes can become addictive when used to numb or avoid pain, stress, anxiety, boredom or other uncomfortable states. Many of us who don’t identify as addicts, find ourselves nevertheless unable to stop some particular behavior, playing video games, for instance, or in my case, checking my email five times a day.
This is not to minimize the seriousness of other addictions. That is, my compulsive desire to “fix” my daughter does not equal a compulsion to gamble away one’s mortgage or an addiction to cocaine. Nevertheless, whether we are learning not to give into a craving for a drink or drug or junk food or a compulsion to play a slot machine or to change another person, the process is basically the same. It requires a particular kind of attention.
If we turn our attention towards the unwanted experience in the present, something new is possible.
It is this miserable need to escape and struggle for control that is interrupted by the counterintuitive first step of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable.” For me that step translates as admitting to my powerlessness over other people, over my daughter.
The reason this first step works for so many is that it involves a moment of awareness and clarity, which pierces the denial of the suffering entailed in this futile battle for control. Then the second and third steps allow one to “turn the struggle over” to a power greater than ourselves, which may deliver us out of fighting mode and into a state of acceptance and openness to receive help.
Such help came to me through my Al-anon meeting and the sense of community, shared wisdom, and support. When I realized that my need to alter my daughter’s experience was not a choice but actually a compulsive need to alter my own experience, I saw that she and I shared the urge to avoid the pain of the present, albeit through different means.
The compulsion to control someone else’s life is based on a dependence on others for one’s sense of self, or one’s emotional security. Emotional sobriety is what I needed to cultivate in relation to my daughter. Fixating on her kept me busy with the past (what did I do wrong) and the future (what can I do) and prevented the actual experience of the present discomfort. I learned to take the focus off her and turn it back towards myself, and my automatic responses to her actions. I learned to “turn her over,” which for me meant to accept that she, not I, was responsible for herself.
The practice of mindfulness is perfectly designed to help the recovering addict stop trying to dominate craving, by providing the opportunity to simply be present with the craving or compulsive habit in ever deepening self-awareness until it loses its power. Thus physical sobriety can lead to emotional sobriety — the learned ability to witness one’s emotional weather while not engaging or reacting to it. As Griffin points out: “Learning non-reactivity in meditation practice gives a formal structure to the non-reactivity you have to learn in order to stay sober.”
Meditation was not new for me. It has supported me in meeting other life challenges — such as nursing another sister through her struggle with breast cancer — with relative calm and acceptance. But my involvement with the Al-anon program reinvigorated and deepened my practice as I began to understand the intensity of the conditioning holding me hostage. I was helped and inspired by other parents who faced their adult children’s addiction with serenity. They could love their children — living on the street, living criminal lifestyles, or in prison — without that love driving them to unwise action or compromising their values. If they were able to let go, maybe I could too.
I stopped identifying with my thoughts and became more aware of emotions, sensations in the body, memories, attitudes, and images. I became able to observe all of this without believing the story I was spinning: What if she OD’s? What if she never gets it together? What if she ends up in a mental institution? What if I have to care for her the rest of my life? When I die, what will become of her?
I developed the ability to witness and distinguish fear for my child’s health and safety from a need to keep my self-image as a good mother intact. I learned to distinguish the desire to escape the pain of disappointed expectations from basic human empathy. Instead of analyzing her behavior and planning some new strategy to spur a change, I became aware of the heaviness in my sternum, the tightness in my gut. I started to recognize embodied in me all sorts of inherited and automatic fears that had me breathing shallow, chewing fast if I were eating, keeping my jaw tight when I was sleeping. How conveniently my fixating on the problems of others has allowed me to escape awareness of the tensions inside me.
Whether in the process of recovery from addiction or in letting go of a bad habit, it is mindfulness that helps one recognize the “triggers” that start the craving or the automatic behavior. The most challenging trigger for me is my daughter’s depression. In that state, she is non-verbal and exudes hopelessness. She stops washing her hair. Being with her in those times stimulates fear, grief, and guilt — all feelings that I had tried to escape by trying fix her problem — from asking questions to making her tea and treats, to looking up the latest information on the internet to calling therapists, to handing her a bottle of shampoo or writing a check.
As I gained the ability to be present with myself while spending time with her, I became able to accept my own experience — and to hear the birds outside the window, to see the dust motes in the air, to feel the rhythm of my own breathing and the round shape of the teacup warming my hands, to smell cinnamon on the steam rising up.
At such moments, presence happens. This presence might include a wide palette of emotional tones and flashes of memory. Sometimes I was simply blessed with an appreciation of how connected we are, my daughter and I. This connection may be rooted in biology but at the deepest level, it is independent of this interactive dance of her habits and mine.
I used to justify my obsessing as normal maternal worry, assuaged by giving good advice. There is nothing wrong with giving advice, especially when asked. But I started to notice when my daughter (or spouse or friend or acquaintance) was engaged in any kind of struggle, the pressure building inside me and the pleasurable change in my own chemistry when my mouth opened and suggestions tumbled out. I had little choice over this response. This showed me not only the intensity of my own inner conditioning, but my arrogance in thinking “I know what is right for other people and how things are supposed to be.” I realized: “If it is so difficult for me to keep my mouth shut, how can I judge anyone else for picking up a drink or drug when there is the additional brain chemistry system of reward and release from pain involved?”
Silence and simple listening on the other hand, challenge a lifetime of habits cultivated in response to fear and uncertainty. The process of recovery has meant many such moments of waking up out of an unconscious or automatic behavior, a release from the small me or ego into an expanding and aware spaciousness. Paradoxically then, working with addictive habits can be a powerful method of growing our capacity for presence, in which the compulsion or discomfort itself becomes the dharma bell ringing us back from our mind’s habitual dwelling in fantasy and memory into the present.
This essay is printed with the knowledge and permission of all parties mentioned who are in recovery.