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Unravelling … a real hero’s journey.



The ball of yarn was tightly woven and new. The threads were sparkly, with hints of glit­ter in the soft blue hues of inno­cence. It was wrapped in criss-cross pat­terns of youth­ful exu­ber­ance, in the joy of becom­ing … of all that life held dear. Fam­ily, friend­ship, ath­leti­cism, con­fi­dence and the know­ing that love, the uni­fy­ing fil­a­ment, was woven into every aspect of existence.

The yarn, how­ever, had begun to fray. At first not to be seen in a sim­ple glance, but when one looked closely, the torn fibers were vis­i­ble. As time passed, the destruc­tion con­tin­ued. Tiny fibers shred­ded and when it could no longer resist, the yarn began to unwind. A sin­gle thread fol­lowed their foot­steps, sub­tle and devi­ous, and gained momen­tum as if rolling down­hill. The ball had become ugly, dark and filled with rage and despair. Its name was addiction.

My beau­ti­ful Emma, my mid­dle child was the joy of my life. I love all of my chil­dren, but this one had a spe­cial place in my heart. I brought her home when she was only 20 hours old. 5 pounds, 18 inches, she was doll-like and per­fect. Despite her size, she was strong and deter­mined to make her place in the world from the very begin­ning. Her birth mother chose me … a gift that brought great honor, over­whelm­ing respon­si­bil­ity, and a love that blos­somed instantly. This child was truly my own. We laughed, loved and found that we were so alike in joy for move­ment, for sport, for com­pe­ti­tion and per­for­mance. I intro­duced her to dance and to ice skat­ing, which became her pas­sion. For years we braved the 4am prac­tices. We trav­eled to com­pe­ti­tions where I watched my daugh­ter become a beau­ti­ful, tal­ented skater; myself, the cheer­ing, proud mom watch­ing from the bleach­ers and writ­ing end­less checks that sup­ported her com­mit­ment. Her lit­tle sis­ter, Amy, fol­lowed in her foot­steps; skat­ing, per­form­ing and proud to be rec­og­nized. Emma was loved by all, espe­cially as she began to teach new skaters — shar­ing her gifts with chil­dren. Idol­ized by many, she was the role model that other par­ents rec­og­nized … I drank in the achieve­ments of my child, feel­ing blessed that she was part of my life and that she was such a pos­i­tive influ­ence in Amy’s. What a future she would have!

Until the yarn rolled beyond her reach … and mine. Addic­tion is an ugly thing. It devours lives, tor­tures fam­i­lies, and when fed, it kills. Cocaine, an exper­i­ment that went ter­ri­bly wrong, brought addic­tion into our lives. It began to eat away at my daughter’s world. It left cracks in the rela­tion­ship we had and it’s splin­ters tore into her younger sis­ter, Emma’s great­est fan. The pain was ago­niz­ing … and the ball of yarn con­tin­ued to unwind. What could I do to stop it? Every time I tried to pick it up, to fran­ti­cally rewind the strands, it burned my hands and escaped. I refused to believe that she could be slip­ping from my grasp. Worse yet, I believed her lies in my des­per­a­tion to hold her close. My world unrav­elled one day at a time as Emma began to fade away … she was sel­dom home, and with­drawn and angry when we were together. I was los­ing her, and she was leav­ing our fam­ily in the rub­ble of bro­ken dreams.

My ter­ror finally gave way to action. I had to face addic­tion, before the yarn unrav­elled com­pletely. I could no longer watch or pre­tend that it would go away. What bat­tles raged within! I could fix any­thing … I could coun­sel peo­ple into tak­ing respon­si­bil­ity, con­vince a fail­ing stu­dent that they could achieve, com­fort a cry­ing stranger; sur­vive mul­ti­ple surg­eries and phys­i­cal ther­apy with a smile on my face … why couldn’t I “fix” my own child? My con­trol freak ten­den­cies were in over­drive, until I real­ized what my prob­lem was in this mess of unrav­el­ling ugli­ness that threat­ened to tan­gle all of our lives. It was not about me!

That real­iza­tion came at great cost. Anger, denial, guilt … these three pow­er­ful emo­tions needed to be put away, but they fought back with a vengeance. Emma was con­fronted on more than one occa­sion; we yelled, cried, came to phys­i­cal restraint, and even talked to police offi­cers. Her strong will and deter­mi­na­tion, com­bined with over­whelm­ing regret, was both a strength and a fac­tor that kept her from seek­ing help. She wanted to “do it alone,” to prove that she could walk away from the chaos — and she did so by walk­ing out of my house.

I real­ized then, that I was also try­ing to “do it alone.” My hus­band was buried in his anger and despair … my youngest daugh­ter was suf­fer­ing even more. She had to watch her sis­ter go through hell, and her par­ents were impo­tent to stop it. I did the hard­est thing I have ever done. I asked for help. This may seem like a sim­ple task … but when one is steeped in the (ques­tion­able) value of tak­ing com­plete respon­si­bil­ity, keep­ing per­sonal issues pri­vate, of see­ing my tears as weak­ness, all while being the one to coun­sel oth­ers with uncon­di­tional love, I real­ized that I was human and that I could not do this by myself. I needed help, com­fort, encour­age­ment and the love and sup­port of oth­ers. It was a huge rev­e­la­tion. “Oh my gosh … I am not super­woman, I can not be per­fect, and I must get out of my own way!” By sav­ing myself, my child would be saved as well.

I reached out, but not to fam­ily. I started dia­logues on Face­book. I kept Emma’s name out of it, but I poured out my heart and despair, asked for advice, and allowed myself to become vul­ner­a­ble. I am still amazed at the cas­cade of kind­ness. The gen­eros­ity of strangers; of friends that I would not rec­og­nize on the streets, began to trans­form our lives. Hun­dreds began friend­ship prayer chains, and stood up in churches and asked peo­ple to pray for my daugh­ter and our fam­ily. Many offered advice, and told their own sto­ries, the suc­cess­ful as well as the tragic. I was no longer alone. I was bathed in heal­ing light and I too, began to pray. I have never been reli­gious, in the sense of an orga­nized form, but I believed in the higher power of life, and a force that is beyond our sim­ple under­stand­ing. I prayed, we all prayed … and I knew that I had the strength to find help for my child.

The search for help was fraught with frus­tra­tion … of insur­ance denials, of lack of funds, and all the awful bureau­cratic messes that go with med­ical issues. I no longer pleaded, cried or begged my beloved daugh­ter to lis­ten to me. I knew, in my heart, that we would find a way. Emma returned home, fright­ened and beaten, her tiny ball of yarn clasped in her heart … she wanted help and she knew she could not do it alone any­more. Together we sought treat­ment, and she enrolled in a day­time rehab cen­ter. For weeks, she worked with other addicts; coun­sel­ing, sup­port­ing and encour­ag­ing each other to live life with­out sub­stance abuse. She treated it like another com­pe­ti­tion at first, “win­ning rehab.” I strug­gled with the desire to advise, to sug­gest, to tell her how to do it, but I focused on sup­port and good old fash­ioned “tough love.” I would not allow drugs in my house, and I would no longer sac­ri­fice my youngest child to its terrors.

Emma did well … she became strong phys­i­cally and cut off ties with all of her for­mer friends. It was not easy for her. At 19, she was still so young and despite the addic­tion, she had not expe­ri­enced much of life. She landed a job as a sales rep in a com­pany that gives for­mer addicts a chance at a new begin­ning. Things appeared to be on the right track. She had one relapse, one week­end of pure hor­ror, which I rec­og­nized as some­thing that is not unusual, though it re-opened wounds and feel­ings of inad­e­quacy in myself. This time, how­ever, I put it away. My power to accept, and to rec­og­nize what I had no con­trol over, had become a source of true enlight­en­ment … and gave me a sense of strength and pur­pose. The seren­ity prayer had become my mantra; its sim­plic­ity and absolute truth never failed.

Emma has never looked back since that awful week­end. She is now 22, hugely suc­cess­ful at her job, and is in love. I am very proud of her. She leads a recov­ery group and is rec­og­nized for her lead­er­ship skills. She con­tin­ues to work with a spon­sor with whom she has a trust­ing rela­tion­ship and is a true con­fi­dante. In the past few years, I have had one more giant hur­dle to over­come, that is still a work in progress. Though I think I have suc­ceeded in fight­ing most of the demons, my final chal­lenge was for­give­ness. I had to real­ize that my dreams for Emma’s life, were mine and not hers. She had to find her own way, with­out my con­trol. I had to for­give her for caus­ing chaos in our lives, and I had to for­give myself. I didn’t cre­ate her prob­lems … they were hers to own. I did not “miss” some­thing and most of all, I did not fail as a par­ent. Bad things hap­pen to good peo­ple … a few years ago I would have laughed at that cliche. But it is true. Things hap­pen that are beyond our con­trol and it is up to us, to choose a path that is heal­ing and forgiving.

I now see my role as one of guid­ance and encour­ager. Allow­ing a child to grow up and find their own way, is a dif­fi­cult sep­a­ra­tion. Addic­tion robbed us of the chance to see this unfold nat­u­rally. She was forced to con­tend for self reliance and auton­omy in a way that was far beyond a “nor­mal” grow­ing up. She had to fight for her very life and a future that still held the pos­si­bil­ity for health and hap­pi­ness. I had to come to the real­iza­tion that I wouldn’t see a first day of col­lege, a per­for­mance of Dis­ney On Ice that fea­tured my child in the cast … all those ear­lier dreams were gone. I had to look for new dreams, those that held pos­si­bil­ity for Emma, and those that were mine. I had to let go — and find an avenue of health and hap­pi­ness for myself. This would lead to heal­ing my entire fam­ily as well.

Relin­quish­ing con­trol is my most dif­fi­cult chal­lenge. I have always had to con­trol my life, to nur­ture myself, to take respon­si­bil­ity for every­thing. I was very guarded about let­ting my vul­ner­a­bil­ity show. I under­stand that the roles we play in child­hood, and the “tapes” we lis­ten to in our minds, have incred­i­ble power to influ­ence our adult lives. Some of the influ­ences are self destruc­tive and get in the way of real per­sonal growth. Suf­fer­ing with Emma as she bat­tled addic­tion, was a life-altering expe­ri­ence. While tear­ing at my heart, as even today I am plagued with night­mares every so often, it has given me per­mis­sion to be human. I seek rela­tion­ships with a new found admi­ra­tion for friend­ship. I allow myself to be exposed, to speak not only what is on my mind, but in my heart. It is both hum­bling and empowering.

Emma and I still have our argu­ments, and we occa­sion­ally find the guilt and hurt creep­ing into our con­ver­sa­tions, on both sides. We both feel regret for what could have been, but that is fad­ing. We are more likely to laugh about the future (yay, grand­chil­dren some day!) as we make plans and enjoy each oth­ers com­pany. I find peace in watch­ing Emma and her younger sis­ter spend time together. We are heal­ing … we are becom­ing a fam­ily again, with a new mem­ber in Emma’s boyfriend, one day at a time.
I have expe­ri­enced what no par­ent ever wants to expe­ri­ence. I acknowl­edge the learn­ing that goes along with such pain, and has the poten­tial to pro­vide a pos­i­tive impact. Emma does it by lead­ing a weekly group and I focus on new rela­tion­ships with peo­ple I would never have met if I had not been open to dis­cuss that which I would never have revealed in the past. I take classes that enrich my life and increase my skills and com­pe­tence. I believe my coun­sel­ing abil­i­ties are much more authen­tic now that I have stopped try­ing to be every­thing to every­one, par­tic­u­larly myself. I sense an increased ease with stu­dents and a new found appre­ci­a­tion for what peo­ple strug­gle with in life. It has been eas­ier to make friends too, now that I don’t guard myself so care­fully. I have lived through hurt, so it no longer ter­ri­fies me.

The yarn works in mys­te­ri­ous fash­ion … to unwind just enough to catch my atten­tion, yet it remains intact. It is not as shiny as it once was, the glit­ter has faded and it is really more gray than blue today. There are quite a few frayed edges, but the ball is whole again, each strand wound in criss-crossed pat­terns that have seen suf­fer­ing and pain. Most impor­tantly, it is wrapped with resilience, and it knows love, com­pas­sion, matu­rity and hope. Together, we have grown through the years … it is my life.


  1. Sandy Stabler

    Marian…Wow. Just Wow. I’m search­ing for the right words but pow­er­ful comes to mind. Inspir­ing. Coura­geous. I admired you greatly before this story but after hav­ing read your expe­ri­ence I felt my admi­ra­tion for you pro­moted to a level that I have no words to describe. May God con­tinue to bless you and your fam­ily with love and heal­ing and pro­found happiness.

    Sandy Chaney Stabler ()

    • marian

      Thank you so much for the kind words. They are very appreciated.

  2. William Cohea

    Thank you for open­ing up your heart and soul.

  3. It is a relief to know that some­one has pos­i­tively made it to the other side of a rela­tion­ship where addic­tion is involved. My part­ner is an alco­holic and we’re about to begin fam­ily coun­sel­ing and I’m about to begin indi­vid­ual counseling.

    Your hus­band has a knack of shar­ing things in newlet­ters and posts on face­book that I need to hear. I’m so very glad he share this with us.


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