It is my great pleasure to welcome Barbara Stoefen. In this interview, Barbara tells her story, shares how she made the decision to write her book, A Very Fine House, and gives some helpful suggestions for families that are struggling.
Here is Barbara’s interview!
Please briefly introduce yourself to those that don’t know you.
Cathy, thank you so much for the invitation to share my story and my book. As you know, I’m the mom of a daughter who is now in long-term recovery from alcohol and meth addiction. Never in a million years did I think addiction could happen in our family, let alone meth addiction.
And then once it did happen, never in a million years did I think we’d ever find our way out! But over a period of years there were many lessons… lessons I never wanted to learn. One of these lessons was learning that if things were going to change, it would need to start with me. There are these crazy spiritual principles at work in the world that seem so simplistic, but when put into action, there really can be profound results.
I’ve also become fascinated by the field of addiction. For a disease that reportedly affects 10% of the American public, it’s something that is so misunderstood… especially by the medical community. I’ve thrown myself into self-study, and into drug prevention work, so I guess you could say I now know more about addiction than is really normal. LOL.
What inspired you to write A Very Fine House?
It’s actually kind of funny that I would write a book. I never aspired to be a writer, and often joke that the extent of my writing experience had been an occasional consumer complaint letter. Many people who have survived trying times sometimes muse they should write a book, and so did I when Annie was in early recovery. But then the book “Beautiful Boy” came out. I thought, wow… well, the book’s been written. And it’s been done brilliantly!
So I gave up any thoughts of writing. That is, until several years later when I experienced a “divine nudge” one Friday morning when starting work in my office. “Write a book about the gifts you were given,” is what I heard. Yeah, like I knew how to do that. To borrow from William P. Young, author of “The Shack,” I experienced God as “the voice within my own.” People who don’t talk to God will often roll their eyes when I share this, but it’s truly what happened.
I’d often thought of the things I learned during my daughter, Annie’s, active addiction and subsequent recovery as gifts. So I just started writing and I guess you could say “acted as if” I was a writer. I truly had no clue what I was doing, but just kept writing.
It felt like I was unveiling a completely new part of myself… one I never even knew was there. The fact that a major publisher later acquired my story was yet one more gift. (Aspiring writers who have interest in the details of how I kept writing, and the publication process that ensued, may be interested in a 4-part series I wrote for WordServe Literary. It can be found here.
You mention in your book that “Your secrets can make you sick, but your life authentically can help you heal.” What tips do you have for parents who are held back by the stigma and shame of their child’s substance use?
When Annie was in active addiction, and when she later entered recovery, there was much I needed to change in the way of codependent behavior. I needed to stop trying to control her and trying to force outcomes. I needed to focus on my own life and not Annie’s.
But feeling shame, and experiencing stigma, was not one of my issues. For some reason I never felt like I needed to keep Annie’s addiction a secret. I can’t tell you why, I just know that I never felt shame as a mother. I definitely worried at times if I had screwed up as a parent, but I didn’t feel ashamed of Annie. I knew that something was terribly wrong and all I wanted was help.
I do know, however, that shame is a tremendous problem for many families. There remains tremendous stigma in this country surrounding addiction. I get it.
There was one occasion when I attended a meth summit in my community and several hundred people turned out for the event. When I eyed a woman I knew, I took a seat beside her. The woman asked why I was there, and I told her everything… that my daughter was using meth and she was now living on the street.
I asked why she was there, and she told me that as a nurse she felt she needed to keep abreast of this very important public health issue. I continued to talk with her throughout the evening, sharing some very personal details. Ultimately, the woman changed her story and told me the real reason she was at the summit.
Her son was also addicted to meth and she was there for help and information. I realized in that moment, and in countless other encounters, that when I was real about my life, it seemed to give others permission to be real about their own. Being authentic allows us to feel less alone, and it opens the doors for us to be able to help one another.
Having a child in the throes of active addiction requires advanced parenting skills. It is a life or death matter and the least of our worries should be what other people think. Our job is to reach inside ourselves and find our strength, and to be the best advocate possible for our child.
That task becomes nearly impossible if we’re worried about who will find out. Furthermore, this is trailblazing work. Addiction is still grossly misunderstood by most people in our country. If we want to see a change in attitudes, and in the services provided, it’s really up to us… those who are living it… to be that catalyst for change.
What kept you going in your darkest hour when you were concerned about your daughter?
The grief was immense, and I’m sure I cried daily. But there ultimately came a time when the daily ambiguity of not knowing when or if my daughter would survive, or what would happen next, simply became too much for me. I knew I couldn’t continue to live that way. So I chose not to. I know that sounds ridiculously simplistic, but somehow I found it inside myself to “choose. “
My mother had lots of health problems when I was growing up, and she often referred to Viktor Frankl’s most famous quote: “…the last of human freedom: to choose one’s own attitude in any set of circumstances…”
Well, that stuck with me. Frankl had survived a Nazi concentration camp, which in my estimation is about as bad as the human condition can get. I hoped that if he could choose an attitude, then maybe I could too. I couldn’t change Annie’s circumstances, but I could manage my own. I could choose to experience joyful things in my life.
Long before I was Annie’s mother, I was Barbara. And Barbara has a life and a future and a destiny. So I gave myself permission to be Barbara. It was incredibly freeing.
We mothers tend to think we need to sacrifice absolutely everything for our children, and it is of course at times appropriate that we do for our children what they cannot do for themselves. But we are not, and cannot be responsible for the choices of our adult children.
To the extent that the disease of addiction is not a choice we can, and must, advocate for our child and do everything in our power to intervene medically and with treatment. But after we’ve done all we can do, we must get on with our own life.
Nowhere is it written that to be a good mother we must become sick too. In fact, being physically, emotionally and spiritually fit will help us better support our child’s efforts to find recovery.
Knowing that my life was bigger than any one problem in it, bigger than my daughter’s addiction, helped me to find some balance. I’m not saying it was easy, but it made impossible circumstances sometimes feel less overwhelming.
What gave you hope when you were in the midst of your daughter’s use?
I prayed. A lot. Belief that a power greater than myself could achieve what I could not was lifesaving for me. It helped me to live with the daily uncertainty, and to release my grip on things over which I had no control. I gave Annie to God every day… multiple times a day. And it saved me.
I didn’t know what the outcome would be… but I was very sure it wasn’t going to be up to me. I don’t claim that my prayers saved Annie. I know many mothers who have prayed for their children and they have not had the happy outcome we have.
Our children have their own life path, and they of course have to be active participants in their own recovery. But while prayer does not guarantee a particular outcome, it is the stuff that hope is made of.
I also had hope that Annie would remember who she was. She came from a place of love and warmth. She was a beloved daughter, sister and niece. She had gifts. She had promise. She had a future. And she knew there was help waiting for her if she chose to step back into her life.
What are three suggestions for families who are just realizing that their child is using substances?
- The first thing I always tell parents is “it’s not your fault.” Thinking we somehow failed our child, or that we may be the cause of their substance use or addiction, will keep us stuck and cause needless pain. There is nothing we did, or didn’t do, to cause our child’s addiction. It is no one’s fault.
- Reach out and get support. It is critical that we take care of ourselves, and we can’t do this alone. 12-Step groups like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon and Codependents Anonymous can be of great help. We need to learn to set boundaries, and where our responsibilities begin and end. A SMART Recovery program can help, and connecting with other parents that are experiencing what we are can make us feel less alone. Private counseling can also be instrumental. We often “can’t see the forest but for the trees” and an experienced therapist can help give us perspective.
- Become educated. Learn absolutely everything you can about the science of addiction, the impact on the brain, and the reasons why people use drugs in spite of negative consequences. The more we understand the nature of addiction, the better we’ll be able to advocate for our child. With understanding also comes the ability to forgive some of the wreckage that invariably comes with a child’s compulsive drug use.
What have been the positive outcomes for your family because of this experience?
This week Annie celebrates 9 years free and sober. Not a drink or a drug in all that time. She is truly better than ever, and the daughter I always dreamed she would be. Recovery is possible… and it continues to blow me away.
I have recovered myself, and continue to recover. There was a time when I carried the world on my shoulders, and man-o-man was it heavy! I was full of shoulds and oughts, judgments and rules.
I used to think struggling people just needed a better pair of bootstraps. I now know that we’re all in various states of brokenness, it’s just more apparent in some of us than others. I’ve let go of a lot of the things I used to judge, and tried to control.
I have such gratitude. Our family is more whole, more welcoming, more giving and forgiving. There are a lot of new people in our lives, and we have Annie to thank for that. People in recovery are some of the coolest human beings I’ve ever known.
Barbara Cofer Stoefen is a drug prevention activist in Oregon, and advocate for families with a loved one who suffers from substance use disorder. She is also an active board member on several coalitions working to reduce drug use among minors, by providing education and raising community awareness about addiction. Barbara also speaks in schools, colleges, churches, and at community events, and is a featured blogger at www.addiction.com.
While she pursues this work with passion, her background is in business and not addiction. Barbara spent her early career in human resource management at well-known high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, and for the past twenty years has earned her living as owner of a Northwest physician recruitment firm.
Barbara has been married to Pete for 35 years, and their adult children, Annie and Jeff, are the joys of their lives.
You can read Barbara’s full story in her book, A Very Fine House: A Mother’s Story of Love, Faith and Crystal Meth (Zondervan/Harper Collins, 2014) It’s an intimate memoir of anger, pain, and loss. But it is also a story of transformation, of stepping back and stepping aside, of love redefined. Barbara’s obsession to save Annie at all costs, and her rage against God for allowing drugs to devour her college-age daughter, gave way to new insights about herself. Annie’s addiction changed them both.
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