My friend Ada lost her husband, Sam, a year ago. She believes Sam’s sudden heart attack was caused by his grief and anguish over their son’s addiction.
At the time of Sam's death, he had been desperately trying to locate their son, Greg, a former marine and addict who had been homeless on the streets of San Francisco for months while he and Ada lived 3000 miles away on the East Coast. Sam was 48. Suddenly Ada’s nightmare as a mom dealing with an adult’s child’s addiction became much worse. Now she was a widow, too.
Ada had a happy family, a loving husband and gifted son. They were all employed and happy until Greg’s military service ended and he was prescribed opiates for a backache at a VA hospital. A year and a half later, with her son missing and her husband gone, Ada didn’t want to live anymore. But she kept thinking, “What if Greg wants help and comes home looking for me? He’d be an orphan. What a terrible thing for him.”
Even then, Ada could only think about Greg’s possible need for her as her only reason for living. This sounds familiar to me. I know many families that think only of trying to fix a loved one lost to addiction. This is can be true for all people who provide special attention and care to someone who isn't well, however. Giving is natural and a good thing. But when nothing can be done to help another, the risk becomes losing one's own will to live.
I remember thinking the same thing Ada did about my own life during a desperate time. I felt I'd had quite enough living but had to stay alive in case a loved one wanted or needed me. Living for another is hardly satisfying. It never occurred to Ada, or me, at that time that we could be happy when someone we loved had either passed away, or was alive but lost to us forever. We didn't think we mattered. Addiction in the family damaged our own sense of worth and self esteem.
Those who learn to live again, and even to thrive, reclaim their lives by thinking less about the problems of their loved ones and more about the people around them who need or want or value them. Amazing concept. Ada, who thought she had nothing, found out that her friends at church and new contacts at Al-Anon all cared deeply about her. And they were there to show her she wasn’t alone. Ada began volunteering at a senior center, attending weekend seminars and learning new skills. She can now do mani pedis for her friends and is learning to draw. Ada is also thinking about taking up dancing again, and has grown out her hair. Only one year later, this is what she told me.
“I’m happy. Sometimes several days go by when I don’t think of Sam or Greg. I have friends to do things with, and I love volunteering with seniors. Their courage gives me inspiration of how to think about life. Seniors have all lost loved ones. I see so much sadness in the world, but also a lot of joy. I try to do something enjoyable, or new, every day. My being happy is important. I never thought that before.”
This is a powerful recovery story. And we need to hear more of stories like Ada’s because family members suffer deeply and matter very much. Ada found her recovery answer in new things and people to think about. We often hear that gratitude is the key to recovery. But there is no single key to open the door to reclaiming hurt lives. Just look around.