Saying No to Guilt, By Rosanne Cash

Grammy Award-winner Rosanne Cash shares how she struggled against self-blame to help a daughter in crisis.

Private Anguish

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I can only talk about it now, years later, because enough time has passed, because she is doing so well, and because she gave me her unequivocal permission to do so.

On August 6, 2001, my beautiful and beloved daughter, Caitlin, who was 21 years old, overdosed on a combination of drugs. This was not an isolated incident but the nightmarish culmination of seven years of drug abuse, four stays in rehab, countless therapy sessions and interventions, multiple disciplinary actions from school, and literally hundreds of sleepless nights for me. My anxiety about her had become the background music of my life. My four other children became accustomed to a distracted, depressed mother whose attention was always riveted on the other child. My marriage was stretched to breaking because my husband, who is not Caitlin's father, had inherited a young child and two angry adolescents when we married in 1995 and was about to lose his mind. No one in my life, not my parents or my closest friends, knew the full extent of Caitlin's struggle and my anguish. The weight of secrecy, isolation, and fear contributed to the central and overriding characteristic of my personality and self-image and the overall tone of my life: debilitating guilt.

Blaming Myself

It was all my fault -- everything. Her drug use spoke volumes about me as a parent. If only I had been a smarter, more mature mother instead of the clueless 24-year-old I was when I gave birth to her. If I had been better at interpreting the red flags in her personality -- her volatility, sensitivity, impulsivity, need to take risks, and even the fact that she had terrible colic as an infant -- maybe I could have provided the structure or the freedom, the stability or the flexibility, or whatever it was she needed to help her sidestep addiction. Or if I had not divorced her father at the exact moment she stood on the cusp of adolescence, if I had not been distracted by my own troubles, if I could only start over and give birth to her now, in my 40s. Now I would do it right -- I would correct every misstep and misjudgment I made about her emotional needs and would avert the present disaster.

    Addicted to Guilt

    I spent years working out every angle of "if only," and I found no relief. At some point during Caitlin's infancy, the seeds of self-blame were planted: perhaps the bitterly cold night I underdressed her for bed and found her icy to the touch and suffering from a head cold the next morning or the time when I came home from a weeklong trip to find her clingy and upset. Somewhere, the nagging in my subconscious about my failings and my responsibility for her pain (real or imagined) had taken deep root. And now, the inside job I was doing on myself was about to dismantle my life and marriage and alienate me from my children. Not only that, but it was disempowering me from truly taking care of my sick daughter. The guilt was so intense and so all-consuming that it finally drove me to church -- not to get "saved," or be forgiven, or find an answer, but to be in a place where I could take the guilt and perhaps just give it over to a force greater than myself for an hour.

    Letting Go

    In church, beat up from the inside out and wearing a million worry lines, I sat and tried to let the Episcopal liturgy roll over me. As I drifted in my discomfort, an image came into focus. I saw my guilt as if it were a drug, wrapped in white paper, lying on a countertop. It was divided up in dime bags, like heroin or morphine. I saw myself reach for it. As my hand hovered over the drug, I understood that my drug was just as destructive as Caitlin's, that the focus on it was just as narcissistic, and that I had to stop reaching for it. If I didn't, her chances of recovery were cut in half, and we would both go down together. As her mother, I had to model an intact, functioning ego, because hers was shattered. I had to hold a vision for her future, because she had none. It was clear that if I gave up my addiction, I could release her to her own destiny, which, I prayed, included a healing of her body and spirit. I was in tears and scared to death to let go, but I made a decision. I was going to get clean. I was going to give up the guilt.

    It wasn't easy. But I forced myself to interrupt the internal litanies about my failures and their impact on Caitlin. Sometimes I would even say it aloud: "Stop! I am not picking up this drug!" I was ruthless about it. But the less guilt I felt, the more grief rose to the surface about sweet Caitlin and the normal adolescent moments she had already missed. It was a different kind of torture, but at least it wasn't toxic. It wasn't all about me. It was real and appropriate.

      A New Beginning

      This story ends with a hospital, an intensive-care room, a nurse telling us to prepare ourselves to lose her, and absolute, gut-wrenching despair, followed by a six-week stay in a rehabilitation hospital, which, miraculously, worked. It may seem too easy for me to give you a fairy-tale ending, where we both turn out happy, healthy, grateful, and wise, but that is the real ending -- and the real beginning of another, life-affirming story.

      Caitlin, now lives on her own, is a successful partner in an independent young company, and is stunningly beautiful. She's more clear-eyed, clear-headed, and wise than most people twice her age, having traversed a dark and dangerous psychic terrain and taken all the excruciating steps to recovery. She's hysterically funny and dry, with a lightness of spirit that comes from being turned inside out and scraped clean. My relationship with her is one of the most satisfying of my life. We speak almost daily, and she is effusive in her love for me, as I am in mine for her. She is extraordinarily knowledgeable about the nuances of personal development and the complexities of intimate relationships, and she gives me wonderful advice. She is one of the best listeners I know. I am in awe of her.

      Life Lessons

      As for me, I was transformed by the hard inner labor, the refusal to remain in an emotional state that was easy but deadly. I could not afford guilt in the same way that Caitlin could not afford narcotics. They both cut wide swaths through our souls, in mirror-image fashion. In my deepening emotional acuity, it became clear that guilt or any other narcissistic, destructive exercise that would divert me from the intense focus required to keep Caitlin on the planet would ultimately be the undoing of both of us. When I released my addiction to guilt and self-torture, my daughter was able to get clean.

      Occasionally, there are times when I linger too long on the mental images of Caitlin during her addiction or feel waves of sorrow about the simple pleasures we both missed out on during those years and I am tempted to reach out and use my old drug. But when that happens, if I get even close to it, the alarms go off in all my daughters and they descend on me like a SWAT team. They are hypersensitive to the cloying aroma of guilt, and they do not tolerate even a momentary indulgence. My guilt, by its very nature, preempts their feelings, and the anxiety that arises in them makes them feel compelled to take care of me. That's not their job, so I am forced to put it down.

        What I Learned

        And the rest of my family? My 6youngest son has probably received the greatest rewards from the lessons his sisters have taught me. I make my decisions about him confidently. I follow my instincts, and I never indulge in obsessive anxiety or self-blame. I trust myself with him, and he thrives in that trust. My marriage, against all odds, also recovered from the catastrophic effects of those years. I didn't realize how much the guilt was poisoning my relationship. How lucky I am that it healed so beautifully once the guilt was removed.

        What did I learn? More than I could write on these pages. More than I could even say with words. Caitlin taught me about the nature of true love, how it can be strangled by dark habits, and how unconditional love requires relinquishing the need to assess all circumstances in terms of how they reflect on me. And in the process, I found a vast resource of that same love, as well as patience, faith, and commitment that has not only served my children but defined my entire life. If you asked me if I would change the past, of course I would say yes. I would wipe out all the pain, the loss, and the damage in a second. But since I can't change what happened, I have to say the whole experience was perfect. Caitlin is perfect, I'm perfect. I gave up the guilt, she gave up the drugs, and we gained each other.

        Is Your Guilt Hurting Your Child?

        When parents blame themselves for the problems their children are facing -- whether it's being a picky eater, an unmotivated student, or an aggressive child -- they're unable to really be there for their kids and offer them the suppport and understanding they need, explains Samuel L. Pauker, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Parents often have an ideal that they feel their kids should live up to, and they see any failure as a reflection of their parenting, says Dr. Pauker. In fact, some parents find it hard to accept that they aren't the sole factor in determining their child's success. "As parents, it's important to try to be the best guides we can be. And when our children hit roadblocks, it's our responsibility to take our guilt out of the equation," adds Dr. Pauker. "Instead, we need to concentrate on what we can offer them that's both constructive and productive." It's a lesson parents can benefit from early on.

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          Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the May 2005 issue of Child Magazine.

            All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.