Portrait by Frank A. Rinehart

Portrait by Frank A. Rinehart

Shamanism is a way of talking about old medicine; medicine as old as our hearts.

I recently learned that a woman who attended one of my classes (we became friendly) died in suicidal circumstances.  Substance abuse played a role in her life, as well as through her life partner and with some of the people she chose to be with.  When I met her 5 years ago, she was reaching out to a different reality, trying to create something positive and good for herself and her two young daughters.  She was a bright star, tall and strong and powerful.  She was determined to succeed in business (and did amazing things in record time), and had a good and kind heart.  As for my part, I felt the old medicine in her, and saw her as a warrior.  So it was more than her being a student or our being friends; I felt her essence, a kind of solidity and similarity, and I respected her.

But she didn’t separate herself from the people in her life that wanted to keep her with them, in the warm but deathly grip of addiction.  Sometimes we have to put boundaries in place with the folks we love if they are creating problems in our lives; the chaos created by addiction will take us down if we don’t set the limit to protect ourselves.  She set limits, then stepped back into the fire, and her daughters are now motherless. My heart aches for them, and I’m angry.  And it is bringing up my own pain about my parents’ addiction and how it left me parentless.

My brother was visiting this last weekend, himself a recovering addict (he readily offers this information, so I am not “outing” him.)  Receiving the news of my friend’s death while he was here with me forced me to look at my frustration with the detrimental power of addiction and how it has changed my life, my family’s lives.  It is a story very close to home.

I have yet to have any resolution with my family of origin about the abuses that occurred as children or the present-day denial of their addiction and how it has affected our relationship.  Apparently, it is me with the problem.  My great challenge has been to remember that I am the one who escaped the dysfunction in my family of origin…because I healed myself, a day to day choice…and have refused to put myself back in the toxicity of the environment of those addictive people (that I care very much about.)  It is a survival decision of choosing myself over them.  This is a frequent choice of people who love addicts.

As I was washing dishes this morning and ruminating about her, my hands in the warm water, I realized that she reminded me of me.  I was not an addict (I couldn’t afford to be)…but I could have been.   I was in a tremendous amount of pain as a young person, and could easily have fallen into the arms of addiction as a way to numb myself.  So easy, so easy.  But I didn’t, thanks to some pivotal choices that I made, and thanks to grace.  I was one who got out, and healed the pain that drove me.  It is a moment-to-moment, daily decision to keep walking on that narrow path.  I’m blessed and rewarded with a healthy, beautiful life, marriage, and family of my own.

In the old medicine, we talk about possession.  Not the Hollywood, spewing green pea soup version, but the real acquisition of a person’s life force.  This can happen in several ways, and addiction is one of the most prevalent.  The addiction takes precedence because the person has given their power over to it.  It began as a dance with choice…my parents and my friend chose the alcohol/drugs…and it remained in the realm of choice for a time.  But now there is no more choice, no more power.

In addiction (of any kind), something else within a person is driving them, taking over their life…the person is not themselves anymore.  Shamanically speaking, this is possession.  Possession was a regular part of daily life, even before modern society and its array of temptations and ills.  It must be a human thing to give away or have our power stolen.  In shamanism, all medicine serves to correct power placement and restoration; our life force is precious, and a coveted commodity if we don’t take ownership of it ourselves.  All we need to do to see the evidence of this in modern culture is watch the prevalence of companies vying for our dollars in advertising, or the emotional manipulation in the media.  As living human beings with free will, we are powerful.  As adults, we have a responsibility to guard our spirit, our essence (and to model and teach this to our younger generations.)  We are responsible for the amazing gift of our life.

We often have compassion for addicts, citing the “disease” that is talking, and make provisions for them, even send them to rehab.  Compassion is indeed needed for addicts, but what about the people impacted by the behavior of the addict?  We are so focused on the dysfunction of the addict that we forget the incredible chaos created around them in the people who love or depend on them.  We say that addicts hurt themselves (and they do), but they also hurt others.  Terribly.  My friend’s daughters will have a hard road.  And I have had a hard road.

Addiction ruins relationships, and ruins lives.  I wish that my parents could make different choices sometimes, but of course I have no power over their choices.  My biological mother and father have missed almost entirely the childhood of my sons, who are now grown adults.  Their addiction made them different people, affected their ability to be present, to show up, to take responsibility…to love.  In order to save myself and retain my hard-won sanity, as well as to protect my children, I set boundaries with them that we not be around them when drinking, drugging, or smoking.  I asked them to come to therapy with me so that they could know the intended impact of my not enabling the addiction was hopefully that we could be in relationship, that they could enjoy my children.  I felt guilty because I could not save them from themselves, so I kept trying.

They were angry at me for setting boundaries; how dare I ask them not to drink?  How dare I try to control them?  The addiction/possession has colored their view of me.  I’m the evil/crackpot daughter that broke the code and stopped enabling them.  For this I have paid with excruciating years of scapegoating (adding to the insidious self-blame that the people who love addicts place on themselves), absence from them and the other people in the family who have not awakened to how they enable the addiction.  You might say it is good that we are apart from each other, and it is healthy, in many ways.  But I have missed them, too.

They are different people than they would have been had they not been addicts.  My beautiful friend/sister had a brilliant heart when she was lucid.  Addiction changed her, too.  It changes everyone, covers up their light.  A therapist told me she won’t even see a recovering addict until they have dried out for 6 months…it takes that long for their brain to begin to make sense again!   There’s no shortage of literature out there about addiction and how it ruins relationships, lives, the brain…so I won’t requote it here.

But, dammit!  Stop giving your power away if you are an addict…get help!  And if you love one, don’t enable them, get help!   How different would my life and my siblings lives have been if someone had intervened, stopped the generational addiction cycle in my family of origin?  How different could my children’s lives have been, my parent’s lives have been…we would be in relationship right now.

And my beautiful warrior friend, who would you be if you had remained your own?  If your power stayed in your hands instead of given to the sly beast of addiction?  If your daughters, who love you despite your flaws, could sit across the kitchen table from you over a cup of tea when they are having marriage trouble, or need the special understanding that can only come from their mother, the one who made them?

We have lost out on your goodness, sister.  May you rest in peace.