In Recovery

By Leslie Glass Photography by Dale Clancy February 1, 2011

On my birthday in 1999, a year and a half after my divorce from the man I had adored and fought in equal measures since I was 22, my daughter, Lindsey, phoned me from college in Baltimore. She was in trouble and called the one person she thought could help her—the mother she’d been battling since she was 15.

“I need to go detox for a few days in Miami,” she announced.

“Detox is for addicts,” I said. “You’re not an addict.”

“Something happened,” she muttered.

The something? She had taken pills and passed out, leaving the water running in her apartment. It was the second time something like this had happened, she said. What she told me made no sense. How could I not have seen this coming? I was bewildered—and terrified. This was the end of parental innocence.

I had been on the battlefields of cancer for years with my mother and father, and lost them both. I lost my brother and only sibling to financial bickering, which meant I also lost my only nieces and the comfort of close family in tough emotional times. I had nobody when I lost my marriage to Miserable Family Syndrome. And then, just when I thought my son and daughter and I could finally begin to heal from decades of family trauma, I was faced with the one loss I couldn’t survive. This was the Mount Everest of challenges. People make it through addiction, or they are gone. There was no way I would let my precious child go.

Fighting addiction is not like fighting cancer. It is not like warring siblings, or a failed marriage. It is not even like mental illness, which also is frightening and difficult to negotiate. Addiction combines everything we most fear and revile. It is the ultimate disease of contradictions. It destroys lives and families, often without anyone acknowledging that something’s going very wrong until the damage is done.

I would learn that what happened to Lindsey was not uncommon: a breakdown in parental care, high school and college supervision and a lack of healthcare guidelines about unhappy kids and substance abuse. In high school, the dean knew what the kids were doing but didn’t tell this parent. In college, no one was watching. As for me, I never asked the right questions. When I heard a cry for help in high school, I sent Lindsey to therapists who never thought of giving a drug test, or asking what she was taking. Worst of all, our family dysfunction had become so dramatic and distracting that Lindsey’s safety slipped through the cracks of my attention. For years she was afraid to tell me she needed help because she didn’t want to hurt me.

Even though the reality TV show Intervention was not on the air in 1999, I’d seen enough Skid Row bums and heavy drinkers toppling like trees at parties in the ’80s to think I knew what addiction looked like. I didn’t see any of that in Lindsey. I never saw her strung out. I never saw her lurching around.

But she was often lethargic. She didn’t want to do much. Nearly every family occasion was fraught with drama. If I happened to suggest anything or ask anything of her, a bitter fight ensued. But that was the case with everyone in the family. We looked good, but we were not happy.

The night of the call I was having dinner with a friend who’s a prominent psychiatrist. He took the phone from me and went outside to talk to Lindsey and assess the situation. When he came back in, he said, “Lindsey’s a borderline. This is only the beginning. You’ll never be free.”

“Borderline” is mental health jargon for someone who has no boundaries, no sense of right and wrong, no impulse control, someone who will do drugs or lie or steal and expect to get away with it. My daughter had no history of those behaviors. She was beautiful and smart and kind. She would never knowingly hurt anyone. She’d been good at hiding her pain.

But the girl who walked in the next day was not the beautiful daughter I knew. She was thinner than I had ever seen her, pale, shaky. And scared. My psychiatrist friend sent us to an addiction specialist, who got her a bed at Sierra Tucson, the famous rehab center in Arizona. In the three days before she left, Lindsey openly took Valium and Xanax, which the doctor had prescribed because she was at risk for a seizure.

We both remember shopping at the Gap for suitable clothing for her month’s stay. Her wardrobe for the last five years had consisted almost entirely of club clothes—tank tops, short skirts, inappropriate everything. Had I not noticed? Of course I had. But clueless as I was, I had just been happy that Lindsey wasn’t tattooed or pierced. If she wanted to flaunt outfits with sequins and dye her hair pink, I figured that was her right.

I took Lindsey to the airport but couldn’t go with her. I had a speaking engagement I couldn’t cancel.

“You’re going to be fine,” I told her. “We’re going to get through this. You have a good aura.” Magical thinking.

For 10 days she was in detox, which is rehab jail. They would not let her out until she could eat. Three weeks in, father, mother, and brother went to family week. It was intense, and we learned more bad things about ourselves in five days than we had in a lifetime together.

They tried to teach us how to talk to each other, to start relating without blame or criticism. Mostly we heard how our family dynamic had damaged us all. We were all shell-shocked from criticism, anger and sniper attacks. We were all hyper-vigilant, like war veterans.

“You can’t have recovery without acceptance,” the counselor told us. I had no acceptance at all. I thought Miserable Family Syndrome was everybody else’s fault. I was the fixer who always tried to make things perfect and pleasant. Except, of course, when I erupted with nuclear warheads.

In dysfunctional families, there’s often someone with a martyr syndrome, who thinks everything good comes from her and everything bad comes from everybody else. That saintly person is always loved and hated in unequal measures. That saintly person would be me.

We all drew pictures of what we’d like Lindsey to be like healthy again. That made her cry. Like a complete idiot, I drew a stick figure writing a book. Lindsey had no interest in writing anything. I hadn’t gotten so much as a postcard from her since her last year at camp.

After rehab, Lindsey went to Promises in Venice, Calif., for aftercare, where she got an angel tattooed on her back. Maybe she needed someone more competent than I was to watch over her. She was away for two months. When I picked her up in Venice, she looked much better, like a normal girl again. But when we got home to New York and I watched her unpack her medication, I was shocked. While still recovering from the recreational drugs she’d been taking, she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was agreed, by whom I still don’t know, that was her core problem—taking drugs was just a symptom. She was taking more medication than I’d ever seen a person take—mood stabilizers, antidepressants and anti-seizure medicines. Some of the pills had unpleasant side effects. Her hands shook and she couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t eat much, either.

Where had this diagnosis come from? I’d seen Lindsey sad, but clinically depressed? And I’d never seen her manic at all. I was to learn later that bipolar is a common misdiagnosis for addicts. Drug use alters brain function and can create symptoms similar to bipolar behavior.

I spent the summer trying to make Lindsey smile, trying to make her eat, and taking her shopping. She didn’t want to do anything. But how could she? She was so heavily medicated she could not perform the simplest task.

But her spirit was intact. At the end of three months, Lindsey insisted on returning to Johns Hopkins for her senior year of college. She wanted to graduate and to be with her friends. I didn’t want her to go back there, but I took her interest in finishing school as a good sign. We made a deal: She had to be drug tested, and she had to take extra courses and stay through winter break to finish her degree requirements.

She did it. In the spring of 2000, she graduated on time with her class. She doesn’t like to see her graduation photo now. She had gained weight from the medications and is toasting herself with a can of beer.

Lindsey returned to New York smoking cigarettes and drinking a little. I didn’t complain. You choose your battles. To me smoking was the least of it. Beer? Not a problem. Lindsey is alcohol-intolerant. More than two drinks make her sick, so she could never get high. Her drugs of choice were pills—especially downer pills—and pot. She’d stopped all the club drugs after rehab, but she still smoked pot. Some people can smoke pot from time to time. Others need it to go to the grocery store, to take a bath, to walk the dog. Addiction experts say that pot is an incentive thief. Parents wonder why their teens have no ambition, don’t do well in school, can’t get or keep a job.

Back in New York, the prominent psychiatrists treating Lindsey never asked about pot or told her that using it would stall her recovery. They just continued to prescribe medicine for depression and mood disorders. Meanwhile, I worried constantly about her health and future. I did not tell anybody that my precious child had taken drugs in college or gone to rehab two years ago. I did not tell about our Miserable Family Syndrome. I did not tell that my son had fled to college when he was 16 and showed no signs of ever returning. Secrecy is a key component of the addiction cycle, and those who are locked into co-dependence with an addict guard their secrets fiercely.

Lindsey was accepted in a training program at Sotheby’s and made it through. Then, three years after she had been diagnosed as bipolar, she decided to stop taking the prescribed medicines. She’d known for a long time they actually made her feel worse. And she said she wanted to come out of the cloud and see what kind of person she’d be without them. With the help of her doctor, she weaned herself off all medication. And something unexpected happened. For the first time since she was 15, my daughter’s funny, bright personality re-emerged. I thought she’d turned the corner.

What we didn’t know is recovery doesn’t come all at once. It is a process of turning little corners. Emotional growth stops when a young person starts using drugs. Learning new coping tools and new ways of thinking takes time. Without prescription meds, Lindsey improved. She went to grad school and got a master’s degree. She got an editing job at Random House, left her job a year later, and moved across the country to California. She had an idea for a script—my stick figure drawing for her had become a reality! She wanted to write about rehab. She also wrote a script about a girl who wanted to hire a hit man to kill her. It was a comedy with a character who happened to be a clueless mom. I liked that.

But Hollywood didn’t like the subject. When the script kept getting rejected, Lindsey smoked some pot to feel better. She didn’t consider pot a drug. Everyone in California smokes pot. It’s like drinking water. You can even get a prescription for it there. Lindsey had a bad back, and the doctor agreed she needed pot for the pain. Easy-peasy.

When I went to visit her, I could see something was wrong. Lindsey was very thin again. I thought: food disorder. I suggested food rehab and urged her to go back into therapy. A few days later, she found a well-known L.A. psychiatrist who prescribed the same antidepressants that hadn’t worked for her before. She started taking them and again felt better. She met an attractive man and got engaged. I gave her a

fancy engagement party at L.A.’s Peninsula Hotel and a beautiful wedding in the Hamptons.

In 2007, shortly after her wedding, I flew out to see her. She didn’t look the happy bride, and she wasn’t happy to see me.

“Why did you have to come now?” she demanded. She had just had her wisdom teeth removed, and the dental surgeon had given her painkillers.

And although she didn’t tell me this, pot smoking had become a part of her marriage. She was worried and unhappy, but she didn’t want me to see her pain.

“When are you going to stop trying to control my life?” she demanded.

I had no idea what she was talking about. I had just given her a fairy-tale wedding. I loved her with all my heart.  

“Are you going to be one of those people who are always miserable

no matter how much people do for you or how much you have?” I spat back.

I left California the next morning, vowing never to return, never to interfere or contribute to Lindsey’s life again. I cried every day. How could the beloved child I’d tried to protect, guide and help want to be free of me?

“I had to set a boundary,” is how Lindsey explains it now.

And that simple step achieved what all my love, advice, anguish and admonitions could not. Alone on the other side of that boundary, Lindsey had no one to blame when things went wrong. I was no longer hovering, frantically trying to fix her, so she was finally free to fix herself. Four months after our fight she enrolled in the outpatient recovery program at Promises, this time determined to stop the pot smoking forever. And, difficult as it was, the marriage ended, too.

“I thought each milestone would fix the feeling of emptiness I had,” she says now. “If only I finished college. If only I got my master’s. If only I got a job. If only I got married. Then I would feel all right. But I never did.” With a clear goal of being sober in mind, she could now learn how to feel all right.

I had feared we would never be friends again. But after a few months, we started to talk. Six months after the breakup, I went back to California to help her move. She got a job and was doing well. I should have been doing better, too—but I wasn’t. I felt lost. I was mistrustful and hyper-vigilant about her every move. One day, what started as a friendly long-distance telephone conversation exploded into an all-out battle.

“You’re out of control,” Lindsey said. “You need to go to Al-Anon.”

And I hate you, too,I thought. I was not an alcoholic, and I certainly had nothing in common with alcoholic families. And amazingly, after a decade of struggling with my child’s addiction, I still did not know what the 12 steps were, or how they helped people recover. I thought everything would be fine once the using stopped. But recovery doesn’t happen that way.

My outburst made me realize I had to change something about the way I was thinking and acting if I wanted to stay close to my daughter. So despite some misgivings, I went online and found an Al-Anon meeting nearby. A few days later I walked into a group of strangers, feeling nervous—and vulnerable. I don’t belong here, I kept thinking. I don’t want to be here. Just because my daughter is in recovery doesn’t mean I have to be.

Then a woman across the room opened her mouth, and the story she told was my story. I listened spellbound as another stranger started to talk, and it was my story all over again. The characters were a little different, and some stories were more agonizing and dramatic than mine. But over and over, the emotions and the behavior they

described were my emotions and behavior—the anguish, the fear, the anger and the helplessness. I listened. That day, in a room full of strangers, I cried for 20 minutes straight. It was the first time in a decade that I was in a safe place with my secret.

Before Bill Wilson created Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-step program 75 years ago, addiction was a hopeless progressive disease that was ugly and unmanageable. Untreated, it still is. Now legal and illegal drugs and alcohol are everywhere, and very few people on the planet haven’t tried whatever intoxicant is available and culturally acceptable. In the United States, some 10 percent of the population—at least 30 million people—are addicted to drugs and alcohol. In addition, every addict impacts four to five other people, which means approximately half our population has been affected by addiction. Only one in nine addicts receives the treatment he or she desperately needs. Many will die of their disease.

We would never tolerate so much destruction from any other progressive disease. The media portrays addiction as an endless cycle of rehab and bad behavior, but rarely do we learn that recovery works. Lindsey and I are here to say that recovery does work. Lindsey and I traveled our own paths to recovery. She got there first, and I’m proud of her for dragging me along.

Truth is, addiction is a family disease. No one’s fault, but we all must accept it before we can manage it. Now Lindsey and I communicate in a way we never could before. Recovery has forced us both to shed our destructive patterns and look at ourselves in fresh ways. Although alcohol was not Lindsey’s drug and was never a problem for me, I decided to stop drinking—even when she’s not around. That’s helped me to understand what it feels like to be sober when others are not. It’s been surprising to see how even the best-intentioned friends become uncomfortable when I turn down my favorite martinis and how they press me to reconsider.

Now I understand the kind of pressure recovering addicts experience every day. A sad truth is that alcoholism is more accepted in our society than sobriety.

Sobriety turned out to be the biggest gift I ever gave Lindsey—and myself. It’s not only brought us closer—it’s sparked a new career. We’ve become filmmakers. Last summer we traveled the country making The Secret World of Recovery, a documentary that tells how people get sober and stay sober. It’s our story, too. And some of it was filmed right here in Sarasota. Our documentary will be featured at the Sarasota Film Festival in April, with a special day of screenings and panels of addiction and recovery experts at the Van Wezel. Together, Lindsey and I also wrote Rehab Is For Quitters, a feature comedy that will be produced later this year.

We hope you’ll join us at the film festival and share our journey of hope. For more information on the movie and the festival, call 364-9514.

A screenwriter and novelist whose work includes the best-selling April Woo detective series, Sarasota’s Leslie Glass won a bronze award from the Florida Magazine Association for Best Investigative Reporting for “Scam,” about Art Nadel’s financial swindles, published in our Summer 2010 issue.


Then and Now

Lindsey Glass contrasts addiction with recovery.

It’s 1999, and I’m hopelessly addicted to drugs. I’ve known I have “issues” with substances since I was 16 and fell in love with pot at first toke. I knew it even more clearly at 18, when, as a senior in high school, I was snorting Ritalin in a friend’s car during school. I knew it was wrong when I partied at a club called Tunnel on the weekends until dawn. But now I’m 21, and it’s really out of control. I’m mixing all kinds of pills together all the time, so it’s impossible to know what I’m feeling. I’ve gotten down to 90-something pounds. My mother is scared I have cancer or some other wasting disease and has told me so.

But I can’t live without using. Literally. I could go into seizure if I stop doing what I’m doing. The few people who can still stand to hang around with me are feeding me Mounds bars, baby food and Coca-Cola. I can’t eat solid food anymore. I’m failing out of school because I never go to class. I can feel that my time is running out and know I can’t do it anymore. I finally call my mom for help. Oh, yeah, it’s her birthday.  

Today, in 2011, I’ve been off all medications for four years. I went into structured recovery more than three years ago. Life improved very quickly. I exercise, eat well, and continue to do the work. I have no mental health issues, but I must admit I do love sugar.

I used to hear people say this and I thought they were crazy, but here it is: My life is better than I ever thought it could be, and I’m grateful for it every day. The thing about addiction is it messes with your thinking. All those smarts go to dark places. Going from feeling crazy every day to feeling serene and focused is a miracle. I’m almost never sad now. It was a long and difficult journey, and I know it is ongoing; but that doesn’t scare me anymore. Life is manageable. By the way, I learned about spirit and persistence from my mom.

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