What my addicted child taught me about letting go—and holding on

By Beverly Conyers

“I hate you! I hate you!” my daughter screamed into the phone. “I never want to see you again!”

She hung up before I could respond, my hands shaking so hard I struggled to hit re-dial. Not that it mattered. I knew she wouldn’t pick up. I left a long, tearful message, something about only trying to help and just wanting her to be happy. Pointless platitudes I’d uttered a thousand times before. Even as I spoke, I could hear her biting response in my head: “You should’ve thought of that before you ruined my life,” or, “If you wanted me to be happy, you should’ve tried being a better mother.”

Four years into her heroin addiction and with countless clashes behind us, her lines of attack had become painfully predictable. Just as my desperate attempts to save her had become glaringly futile. Just that morning, an ugly squabble had erupted when I tried to stop her from leaving the house with her boyfriend, a fellow addict who was waiting out front in his car.

“Please don’t go,” I’d pleaded, visions of car accidents, arrests, and overdoses flooding my head. “He’s nothing but trouble.”

“You don’t know anything about him. He loves me.”

“If he loves you, he’d want you to get clean.”

“I am clean, Mother. And so is he. So mind your own fucking business.” She wrenched away as I tried to grab hold of her. “And for your information, he does love me. He loves me a lot more than you ever did.”

She ran down the sidewalk and slid into the passenger seat. I watched until they disappeared around the corner, feeling the familiar ache of despair in the pit of my stomach. Asking myself when I was ever going to learn that it was beyond my power to save her from herself.     

At twenty-three, Margie had moved in and out of our family home half a dozen times since leaving high school. When she’d returned this time—after yet another stint in rehab—she’d promised to follow the “rules of the house,” rules that included being clean and staying away from known drug users. How stupid could I be, I asked myself, to think that a promise could outweigh the irresistible compulsion that is addiction?

Sick at heart, I wandered aimlessly through the house. I picked up a framed photo of Margie as I liked to remember her, a happy child with long pale-gold hair, shining blue eyes, and a Cupid’s mouth curved in an impudent grin.

She’d been an athlete and dancer and born entertainer. At the age of eight, she brought down the house in a school talent show with a solo rendition of a song from Gypsy. She sparkled in dance recitals and theatrical skits and chorus performances and made family and friends laugh with her wry wit and boundless humor.

When she was eighteen she was the lead singer in a local band. I went to a club one night to watch her perform. She stood on stage like a pale wraith, wearing a pink baby doll top and looking as insubstantial as a drift of smoke. The chattering voices around me stopped when she began to sing, for there was something hypnotic about the slender girl in the tepid spotlight. She was still blond, still graceful, but there was a new and haunting vulnerability about her. And there was heartbreak in her voice.

I was moved to tears by her performance, and by something that caused me to quiver with alarm. For beyond the boundaries of my conscious awareness, I sensed that my daughter stood on the edge of a precipice. I didn’t know what was happening to her—denial prevented me from facing the truth for a very long time—but Margie had already begun her perilous descent into drug addiction.

She’d started experimenting with drugs when she was fifteen and discovered that she liked them. From there, it seems, it was no leap at all for her to learn that life was tolerable only when there were drugs pumping through her veins: pot, LSD,  alcohol, cocaine, and finally, by the time she was nineteen, heroin. During those years she dropped out of college, moved out of our house, rejected old friends, turned to prostitution, lost jobs, lost possessions, lost touch, lost the sparkle and laughter that had once defined her. She became anxious, volatile, suspicious, and withdrawn. And I began the painful process of trying to cope with my daughter’s addiction.

I didn’t do a very good job of it.

I became obsessed with her problems, losing interest in work, friends, even my other children. I was constantly thinking about her, constantly worrying, constantly trying to come up with ways to get her into rehab, get her a job, get her new friends, get her arrested—whatever I thought might be the magic solution.

I spent countless hours in therapy sessions and support groups, where I hoped to discover the secret of getting my daughter clean. Instead, I heard about “letting go,” “focusing on yourself,” and “setting boundaries.” I secretly feared that putting any of this into practice would mean that I’d have to turn my back on my daughter. I could never do that.

And yet…. And yet, none of my desperate attempts to help her had worked. Maybe, just maybe, it was time to try something different.

When she called that afternoon, my relief quickly turned to dismay. She was obviously high, her words slurred, her voice heavy with that disconcerting blend of sleepiness and anxiety that’s peculiar to addicts who are starting to panic about getting their next fix.

Her purse had been stolen, she said, and they were out of gas and had no way to get home and she needed me to send money right away.

“Where are you?” I asked.

She wasn’t sure, but she knew it was far away. “Please, Mommy. We just need to get some gas and then I’ll be home for supper. I promise. Maybe we can watch a movie together.”

I was tempted. The prospect of spending a peaceful evening with my daughter was powerfully appealing. I so desperately wanted to believe her. But sad experience had taught me the emptiness of her promises. Appeasing her had never worked. Maybe something different would.

Stealing myself against the rage that was sure to come, I said, “I’m sorry, darling. I can’t send you money. But I will come and get you. Please tell me where you are and—”

“I hate you!” she broke in. She ranted for another minute or so before ending the call.

Feeling sick, I immediately called her back, desperate words of love spilling out of me as usual, words I knew she would not hear.

Afterwards, I cried for a long time. But deep down, I felt the stirring of resolve to change, to begin in earnest the hard work of letting go—not of my daughter, but of the obsessive behaviors that had turned our relationship into an endless, futile tug-of-war. I wanted to let go of fear and learn to trust that she would find her path to recovery in her own time and own way. I wanted to let go of despair and replace it with hope.

I’m still a work in progress. Change is hard, and the old obsessions, the old urge to take control still rear their heads. But I keep trying, because I’m learning that, sometimes, letting go can be an act of profound love.

Beverly Conyers began writing about addiction in 2003, after learning that her adult daughter had become addicted to heroin. Her books include the acclaimed Addict in the Family: Support for Loss, Hope, and Recovery. Conyers lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English at a community college. Follow her on Facebook.

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