TO DETACH, WITH LOVE
My story of surrender, strength and a mother’s love
By Stacee Flanagan
My name is Stacee and I am a grateful recovering codependent. What is a codependent? Wikipedia defines codependence as a tendency to behave in overly passive or excessively care taking ways that negatively impact one’s relationships and quality of life. It also often involves putting one’s needs at a lower priority than others while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. In her book, “Codependent No More,” Melody Beattie says codependents either over-react or under-react, but rarely do they act. In other words, they are frozen and don’t respond to a situation adequately, or they go to the other extreme and over-react to a situation. But rarely do they appropriately respond. My story is about my journey to and through recovery for my codependent behavior. My hope is that you will be able to see my instances of this behavior in which I control by either over-reacting or under-reacting, and how I learned to start acting.
My only child, Skylar, was a heroin addict and in active addiction for about five years, beginning at the age of 15.
Skylar was born on December 9, 1987. I had a wonderful, uneventful pregnancy, and aside from a five-week stint of colic, Skylar was a happy and bright baby. I have to admit, though, that I had Skylar for extremely codependent reasons. I married his dad when I was 22-years old, knowing it probably wasn’t a good idea. He had drug problems and issues resulting from those drug problems, but being the codependent that I am, I believed I could mold him into the man that I thought he should be. Well, that didn’t work. After four years of a lonely marriage, I decided that a baby would fill the hole in my life. And maybe fix my marriage. Enter Skylar!
He was truly my little buddy. We did everything together and I adored him. Unfortunately, my relationship with his father continued to deteriorate, and we separated when Skylar was 5. One of the biggest reasons I wanted out of the marriage was because of my former husband’s drug use and I didn’t want Skylar exposed to it. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I just transferred my codependency from my former husband to my son.
Skylar was in kindergarten and he assimilated well into his new school. He had a wonderful teacher and a great kindergarten year. First grade, however, was a much different story. Skylar was struggling with reading. He would come home from school in tears, telling me that the teacher yelled at him all the time and he just felt stupid. Of course, I knew that he wasn’t stupid, but he was definitely struggling and I wanted to do all I could to help him.
I had Skylar tested and he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD). Because of that diagnosis, we were able to get him some additional resources from the school system, which helped. After agonizing over whether I should put him on medication, I decided to give it a try. It did seem to help him with his schoolwork, but it created other problems for him: he developed headaches, didn’t eat well and felt strange. But with the additional help at school and the medication, Skylar was able to get through elementary school.
As a responsible parent, I responded to his issues appropriately; however, they fueled my codependency. From the time he was diagnosed with ADD, I went overboard to make things easier for him, rather than letting him learn from his struggles. While I made sure he had tutors and other resources to help him through school, I didn’t hold him accountable for getting his schoolwork done. When it came to school projects, I did more of the work than he did to ensure that he passed. Maybe this sub-consciously gave him the message that I didn’t think he was smart enough to do it himself. He was smart enough, though, to take full advantage of my willingness to be his crutch.
When Skylar was in fifth grade, I purchased a home that took us into a neighboring school district. He finished the fifth grade at his current school, but transferred to the new district for middle school. Skylar always hated change and this was yet another big change that I put upon him. I took him away from the friends he had grown up with and their parents whom I knew, to a new school where neither he nor I knew anyone. He quickly fell into a group of troubled kids and I was not paying attention to him or his friends, or getting to know their families like I had done in the past. Shortly after moving, I met Terry — now my husband — and was distracted with our relationship, as well as establishing a relationship with his four children; I wasn’t sensitive to Skylar’s issues with assimilating into a family of seven after spending seven years as a family of two.
Like many addicts, Skylar started with marijuana at age 13 but moved to heroin by age 15. Apparently at that time, heroin was more readily available and cheaper than marijuana. I knew he most likely used marijuana because his father was a regular pot smoker, but I was unaware of the heroin addiction until he was almost 18. I always thought that drug addiction was merely a choice one made and not a disease. This is what made it difficult for me to tolerate my ex-husband’s drug use and leaving the marriage was my solution to his poor choices.
Prior to knowing about the heroin addiction, I spent many times in the hospital emergency room with Skylar while he went through withdrawals. I thought he had some mysterious stomach ailment because, despite all the tests, the doctors could not tell me why he went through these periods of horrific cramping and non-stop vomiting. It wasn’t until I knew he was a heroin user that I put it all together. Since I believed drug use was a behavioral issue, I was sure that if Skylar wanted to quit, he could. He and I would argue about this and he would say to me exasperated, “You don’t understand, Mom. There are voices in my head that won’t let me quit.” He was right — I didn’t understand, nor did I begin to understand until I later hit my bottom in utter despair from the years of worry, lies, manipulations, stealing and money wasted.
Finally, after catching Skylar shooting up in my home, I broke. Skylar and I spent an entire night crying, with me pleading with him to stop this craziness. I was at a loss for what to do to relieve his pain and mine. I loved him so much but I was completely powerless to help him. I had tried so hard and for so long but nothing helped—it only got worse. Skylar asked me to give him the title to his car so he could pawn it for money to buy enough heroin to end things. All he wanted to do was die. I thought at that moment in the dark hours of the early morning that the only thing I could do was to give in and hand over the title to let him do what he thought he wanted to do. I told him I would. I couldn’t believe that we had spiraled down to this point. You see, doing that would cause the very thing I feared the most — his death — and kept me unable to set proper boundaries with Skylar. That’s when my journey toward understanding the disease of addiction began.
Soon after I told him I would give him the car title, I snapped out of the horror of that thought. With renewed vigor, I managed to wear him down to the point that he agreed to go to Peachford one more time. While he was there, his psychiatrist talked with me in depth about opiate addiction and how it alters the brain chemistry. He discussed medications that are available, which help block the opiate receptors in the brain, and suggested they might be something to consider in Skylar’s case. The doctor at Peachford strongly recommended long-term, inpatient treatment for Skylar and told me about MARR. Skylar had been through outpatient programs in the past and I knew that wouldn’t work. I researched MARR and other facilities, but I liked the idea of MARR’s 90-day minimum treatment and felt that the community aspect of their program would be a great option for him.
Because I wanted to learn what else I could do to help Skylar and myself through this mess, I joined a Nar-Anon meeting. I found a women’s meeting at a local church in Sandy Springs, which meets every Tuesday at noon. During the first meeting, I took comfort in the fact that each of the women understood what I was going through. By sharing their own experiences, I began to learn how to take care of myself, how to detach with love and how to set the boundaries that I hoped would enable Skylar to take responsibility for his own life and actions. This was the beginning of freedom for me. It wasn’t until then that I realized the confining and restrictive nature of codependency; I learned that “No!” is a complete sentence. I decided that Skylar would not be allowed back home after Peachford but rather, needed to successfully complete a long-term, inpatient treatment program before I would consider accepting him back.
I am a codependent and prior to this I thought I could fix Skylar and his problems. I also thought that if Skylar loved me enough, he would quit doing drugs and grow up. I learned through Nar-Anon that if I took control of my actions and myself, that my family and my life could — and would — be less insane. To my surprise, it worked.
The hardest part for me was learning how to detach with love and separate my actions as a parent into what was enabling behavior and what was appropriate behavior. I learned that by having the courage to tell him he could no longer live with me until he went through a recovery program, I was helping him move in the right direction. Al-Anon, Nar-Anon and other similar organizations offer guidance on how to detach, set boundaries and practice the 12 Steps.
I strongly encouraged Skylar to check into MARR, and on October 17, 2007, at age 19, he did. I was relieved. MARR recommended that Terry and I join one of their family support groups. We took the advice and joined a group that meets every Tuesday night. It was one of the best decisions we made and we still attend that group today. Similar to Al-Anon, this group helped us understand how to take care of ourselves, set boundaries and live up to those boundaries. Just like the addict or alcoholic in recovery, family members need to work their own recovery program. Addiction is a family disease — it affects everyone who loves the addict.
After entering MARR, Skylar tested my resolve and my boundaries on two occasions. In both cases, he wanted to leave the facility because his cravings were so intense; he did not believe MARR was the place for him. The first time, I responded by telling Skylar that the decision to stay or leave MARR was totally his, but that he would have to figure out where he would go because he could not come back to our house. I told him I loved him, but that I believed he was at the best place he could be and I hoped he would work with his recovery community to get through the rough patches. My coming to his rescue as I had done so many times in the past was not the answer. If he decided otherwise, then he needed to figure out his plan before he left MARR.
The second instance, Skylar wanted to go to another treatment center in South Georgia. This time I got angry. I told him that I was not going to drop everything to rescue and take him to another facility. I said I didn’t believe another facility was the answer, but if that’s what he wanted to do then he could make the necessary arrangements to get himself there and figure out how to pay for it. I was done. If he left MARR, I told him not to call me but instead, put a note in his wallet with my name and phone number, along with instructions to call me so I could bury him when they found him dead. I knew he would die if he didn’t work his recovery program.
On both occasions (and after much prayer on my part), Skylar decided to go to a meeting instead. These were surely tests! He never called me again about leaving. Our relationship began to recover and he knew that Terry and I were working on our recovery as well — that this wasn’t just his problem. We found a common dialogue in our recovery paths that brought us back to a closeness we hadn’t experienced in so long. Skylar completed his 90 days and moved into the extended recovery program at MARR.
Unfortunately, my story does not have the happy ending we all pray for, and I have lived through the very event that every parent fears the most. After about a month and a half into the extended recovery program (nearly six months sober), Skylar relapsed and died on April 2, 2008 of an accidental heroin overdose. He was 20. I’m sure you must wonder how it is that I am able to share my story with others after enduring the absolute greatest loss of my life — there are times I wonder that myself. Simply put, I get my strength and faith from God, Skylar and Terry.
I promised Skylar on the day I buried him that I would find purpose in all of this. Terry and I are still — and will always be — in recovery. We continue to learn how to take care of ourselves, and we are always gaining insight on the disease of addiction and codependency. Today, I better understand the role I played in Skylar’s life. And most importantly, for our recovery and in Skylar’s memory, we volunteer in the recovery community at MARR. You see, it is not only the addict or alcoholic who must recover, but also those of us who love him or her. We, too, must spend the rest of our lives working our recovery program. Recovery is a path, not a destination; it never ends. I can look myself in the mirror and know I did everything that was within my control at the time to help my son through his recovery. I had no power to prevent his relapse.
As family members of addicts or alcoholics, we must find a way to take care of ourselves. We need support around us, similar to the support a loved one gets in his or her treatment program. In support groups, we learn how to detach with love, and we learn from the experiences of others. Sharing is so important. No one is alone and should not suffer alone.
If you are struggling with a loved one’s addiction, it is important to understand that you are not the one equipped to help your loved one. You are in recovery, too, and must work on your own recovery program just as your loved one must work on his or hers. Even seemingly innocuous help can be hurtful. Here is an example of what I mean:
A little more than 30 days before Skylar’s overdose, he asked for a job as a call center agent with my company. He was already working at Babies R Us and doing well, but he wanted to make more money so he could better take care of himself and his financial responsibilities. Rather than directing him back to his MARR community and his sponsor, I put him in touch with our recruiter and he was hired. He still worked at Babies R Us on the weekends. Here I was thinking that all this work was great, especially since he had never really kept a job in the past; however, I see now that he put his employment before his recovery.
Intellectually, Skylar was working his program, but he didn’t have it in his heart yet. He missed mandatory meetings and had stopped calling his sponsor. Because of not following MARR rules, he was asked to leave on March 31. To Skylar’s credit, he took full responsibility for why he was asked to leave MARR and was checking into his other options, knowing that coming home to me was not a good option for either of us. Nonetheless, he was far down the relapse path at that point and I think he thought he would use and then start over. Unfortunately, there was tainted heroin in the area and he did not survive his relapse.
Now, I am not racked with guilt over helping him find a job. And I also know that relapse is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. Skylar chose to use drugs rather than use his recovery tools, and there was nothing I could have done to stop him. I merely bring it to your attention to remind you that you are not the one to help your loved one with his or her decisions through recovery. That job belongs to their recovery community, meetings and sponsor. Remember, whatever the addict or alcoholic puts before his or her recovery will be lost (including recovery itself and maybe even life!). When the addict or alcoholic tries to involve you in solving his or her problems, your response should be something along the lines of “you’ll figure it out” or “have you discussed this with your sponsor or your community.” If you see your loved one heading down the path of possible relapse, you can acknowledge the fact that you believe he or she is in an unsafe place and pray for awareness — that your loved one will use the appropriate tools to stop the relapse course and return to the path of recovery. But remember, it is totally out of your control.
Terry and I struggled with what it meant to take care of ourselves. I think he summed it up best: modifying our behavior to influence a change in the behavior of the addict. He says we can either continue to be part of the problem or find a way to become part of the solution. By learning that we are the only ones we can control and setting appropriate boundaries, we stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.
The Serenity Prayer is what I use to keep myself in check when I don’t want to fall prey to my codependent behavior in all sorts of situations, including figuring out how to detach with love when necessary. One of the counselors at MARR helped me to better understand the Serenity Prayer. I had a hard time understanding how I was supposed to know what I should accept and when I needed courage to change. Here is what he shared with me:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change [people, places and things]
The courage to change the things I can [me]
And the wisdom to know the difference.
There are never guarantees that a loved one won’t relapse, but I promise if you become a part of the solution by setting and keeping proper boundaries, the addict or alcoholic stands a much better chance of recovery. Otherwise, the old way that didn’t work before still won’t work and could be fatal to your loved one.
I share our story with you in the hopes that we can save lives through our experiences. I urge you to find support and share your stories whenever appropriate to help yourself, your addicted loved one and others who may not know where to turn for help. I believe that when you are able to share your story, you are able to get past the shame or embarrassment typically associated with addiction or alcoholism; you are at the point where your story is no longer a burden to you but becomes a gift to be shared with others.
After confronting her abductor during his sentencing hearing, Elizabeth Smart said she was ready to start a “beautiful” chapter in her life by helping other child victims who can’t speak for themselves or are still missing. She said, “I think one of the biggest ways to overcome any trial in life, to heal from any kind of experience, is by helping those around you. Because by lifting those around you up, you end up lifting yourself up as well.” That struck a chord with me and helps me verbalize why I so willingly share my story today.
I am grateful that Skylar is at peace finally and I don’t have to hold my breath anymore, but I love and miss him so much every day and I will forever be sad that he felt he had to resort to drugs to cope with his short life. I am not ashamed of Skylar, nor am I unwilling to talk about his addiction and how it affected — and still affects — us. Skylar gave us the gift of recovery. We share that gift in the hopes of keeping it for ourselves. If by sharing our story we can help at least one person understand better how to become part of the solution, if we can save just one more life, then Skylar, Terry and I are fulfilling our purpose. It is my prayer that my experience, strength and hope can (and will) lift you up out of this nightmare, because it lifts me up as well.