Is it possible to find peace and happiness when a loved one is addicted? Twenty years ago, prized author Beverly Conyers would have said "no." She thought acceptance meant giving up, and she would have sacrificed everything to keep her daughter safe. Now after two decades of learning and living, Conyers has changed her tune: "I have my own life and I have to live it." What other advice does she have for parents and loved ones? Tune in for this hopeful conversation with William C. Moyers.
0:00:13 William Moyers
Hello and here we are again, Let's Talk. A podcast series brought to you by Hazelden Betty Ford. I'm your host, William C. Moyers. And we're glad that you've joined us today. Also joining us today, Beverly Conyers. A mother, grandmother, advocate, and healer. And the author of Addict in the Family: Support for Loss, Hope, and Recovery. It was published by Hazelden Betty Ford in October of 2021 and is already in its second edition. Beverly, welcome to Let's Talk.
0:00:48 Beverly Conyers
Thanks so much, it's a pleasure to be here.
0:00:51 William Moyers
You're joining us today from your home in central Massachusetts.
0:00:54 Beverly Conyers
0:00:55 William Moyers
And I wonder what's changed in your perspective since you began to write about your family's experience?
0:01:03 Beverly Conyers
Let me just start by saying I first started writing about addiction in 2003. When I first learned that my daughter was addicted to heroin. And back then, I don't think that addiction was as widely recognized a problem as it is today. Today it seems like addiction permeates almost every corner of our society, from small towns to big cities and suburbs to farmland. So it seems like it's everywhere today. And unfortunately the problem hasn't gone away in these twenty years. If anything it seems that it's more prevalent. So, the problem of addiction itself has changed. And my understanding of addiction has changed. When I first started this journey, I honestly thought that I needed to get my daughter into counseling. Get her treatment, get her help, and it would go away. She'd be all better and things would go back to normal. And that's obviously not what happened.
0:02:13 William Moyers
And so, how has your perspective changed along the way?
0:02:19 Beverly Conyers
I have become more accepting of the fact that addiction is an incredibly complicated disease. I've accepted that there are limits to what I can do to change my daughter's behavior. To give her the happy life that I always wanted for her. And so I think acceptance has been a big part of it. And I've also learned how not to—to hopefully not contribute to her problems. I think early on I would get so involved with her life and try so hard to change everything for her that I probably ended up making things worse.
0:03:13 William Moyers
Hindsight of course is 20/20, right? For all of us. [chuckles]
0:03:17 Beverly Conyers
0:03:18 William Moyers
So, Beverly, accepting doesn't mean that you don't try to help your daughter. But how do you draw that boundary between trying to help your daughter and accepting that there's only so much you can do? That must be hard.
0:03:36 Beverly Conyers
I'm so glad you said that. Because I struggled with acceptance for years. I felt like accepting it means I'm giving up. That I'm just throwing my hands up and saying 'Oh, well, if she has this problem, there's nothing I can do about it.' But accepting really to me has to do with facing reality. Accepting that things are as they are at this moment in time. That she has this struggle. And also accepting that I'm responsible for my own life. As much as I want to help her, my primary responsibility is to live my own life to the best of my ability. So accepting reality kind of opened my eyes to that.
0:04:30 William Moyers
And how do you take care of yourself on a daily basis? And I ask you that in the context of knowing that we're gonna have a lot of parents, a lot of grandparents, a lot of caring people, watching this podcast who are struggling with exactly what you have struggled with. Which is to love somebody who has addiction or mental illness who might be walking their own walk, and at the end of the day, all we can do—and I say we 'cause all of us probably deal with this—is take care of ourselves. So how do you do it?
0:05:04 Beverly Conyers
It is a daily struggle. And it's one that I think it's a process. I don't think that early on, if someone is just beginning to deal with the addiction of a loved one, I don't think that early on you really can just say 'Well I'm just gonna focus on myself and things will work out for the best hopefully.' I think it is a process of letting go of that need to control. And that sense of responsibility. But also, along with that acceptance is recognizing that your own life has value. And trying to find some happy moments even if you're in the midst of despair. To find a happy moment in the day. Whether it's appreciating something in nature, reading something beautiful, talking with someone who's encouraging or supportive or understanding. So reaching out, seeing something beyond your own immediate concerns, to something higher than yourself—
0:06:16 William Moyers
0:06:17 Beverly Conyers
—Something that can kind of nurture your own spirit.
0:06:20 William Moyers
And of course in your example, those things are true. You also have given back through your writing. You've published a number of books with Hazelden Betty Ford. You have carried the message outside of where you're sitting right now. Tell us why writing is important to you and what you hope to achieve with the books that you've written and the stories you've told.
0:06:47 Beverly Conyers
That you know that really does bring me back to the early days of my daughter's addiction. When life just seemed like an endless nightmare to be honest. I found this wonderful Nar-Anon group. Who were people who were parents just like me—mostly parents, a few spouses, but for the most part, parents. Who had been there or who were going through what I was going through. And I lived from one Tuesday to the next basically just waiting for that day that I could get with that group and feel that support. And it occurred to me at that time that there are a lot of people who maybe don't have that advantage of having a wonderful group that can support them. Or maybe are too afraid or shy or hesitant to go find a group like that. And so, sitting at home alone and feeling despair. So I really wanted—I wanted to write something that would offer people the support that I found in this support group. So to take the wisdom that I had learned there and share it with people so they wouldn't feel so alone. And that was really a big motivator for me.
0:08:13 William Moyers
And from the people that read your book or your books, what are two or three of the questions that seem to be themes? In terms of what they come to you with. What do they wanna know?
0:08:28 Beverly Conyers
I think that, you know, it sort of depends on where you are in your journey. If you're fairly new to it, if you're in crisis, the biggest question is what can I do? Because as much as we know that we cannot fix another person, when you love someone who you see is destroying themselves, destroying their lives, you want to help. So, that's the biggest question. What can I do to help my loved one? What is the best, biggest thing I can do to be of help? And then, how can I live a happy life when this terribly painful thing has happened to me? How can I find any peace of mind? Because it is so hard. And I think another thing worth mentioning is the idea of shame. I think shame keeps people from reaching out for the help they need. And I think it also can keep someone stuck in addiction. If you're so consumed with shame that you can't face things that you feel bad about, then you just wanna numb it. Or hide from it. So, overcoming shame, learning that addiction is a disease. And it's not—it shouldn't be something to be ashamed of. I think is a big step towards finding some peace of mind no matter where your loved one is in this journey.
0:10:19 William Moyers
And on that point about no matter where your loved one is on this journey, there is a common theme if you will that the only way to help the person who is struggling with addiction or mental illness is to wait until they hit bottom. What is your answer to that?
0:10:38 Beverly Conyers
I think that we can help our loved one in so many ways. Waiting 'til they hit bottom implies that you kind of turn their back on them and wait 'til they're on death's doorstep before you reach out and do something. I think that our buried behavior, or the way we interact with our loved one, is a way of helping. And I'm not talking about badgering them to get into treatment or, you know, or trying to make them feel ashamed of what they're doing, which is a terrible thing to do. But simply showing encouragement, showing love, showing support. [Moyers nods] I know a counselor I talked to once said that the best thing you can do for an addict is to believe in him. Because addicts don't believe in themselves. So, I think that reminding our loved ones that we do believe in them, we do believe they can have a better life. We do believe they're a good person. Is a way of reaching out and there's no point in waiting 'til some mythical bottom happens.
0:11:51 William Moyers
Beverly, what is the antidote to shame?
0:11:56 Beverly Conyers
I think it's love. I think it's loving yourself, loving life enough to say that no matter how something may embarrass you, you might be embarrassed if your family name's in the paper. People know these secrets that you wish they didn't know, it may be embarrassing. But if you love someone, it's not a source of shame, it's just reality. Accepting the fact that we're human and loving our loved one enough to accept their humanity with all the flaws, all the mistakes. And accepting ourselves in the same way.
0:12:48 William Moyers
And doing all of that [chuckles] sounds rather daunting. [Beverly chuckles] Doing all of that is a process, right? There's no way to learn it in a book or do it in a day.
0:13:01 Beverly Conyers
Oh it's definitely a process. It's definitely a process. And it's not like there's an end point where you say, 'Phew! I'm there now.' [Moyers chuckles] Because we always—there's always backsliding, there's always mistakes. We say things we regret. We have emotions that we say, 'Wow, I thought I was past that.' But there we are.
0:13:20 William Moyers
What has been the most difficult or let me put it another way—what was the toughest point in your journey from then to now?
0:13:32 Beverly Conyers
You know, there are a lot of incidents that I could recount that were pretty horrifying, pretty frightening. That I could say, 'Oh that was a low point, that was a low point. When this happened, that was awful.' But, I think the hardest thing for me has been learning to let go. Because for years and years and years I truly believed that I could make my daughter's life the way I felt it should be.
0:14:13 William Moyers
Beverly, do you ever take back, even though you've learned to let go?
0:14:18 Beverly Conyers
I haven't in a long time. And you know what, I think that as I'm saying that, I recognize there's a fine line between taking back as you put it and still being a mother. Because as much as I know that I can't control my daughter's life, that doesn't mean that I don't offer advice. Or offer my opinion. I've learned to bite my tongue, to not say things. I think that's probably more valuable than saying things sometimes. But I'm still a mother, I still can offer advice and not feel like I'm trying to control my daughter. And I make it clear: 'This is my opinion, this is what I think, take it or leave it.'
0:15:06 William Moyers
Beverly, there are going to be a lot of parents and grandparents, spouses, significant others, and siblings who are tuning in to listen to us talk today desperate to know what to do with their loved one. What's your counsel to those families?
0:15:22 Beverly Conyers
It's very complicated. I would say be prepared; it's not going to be easy. Accept that it's gonna be a long road but most of all, learn as much as you can about the disease of addiction. And how it affects people. The more you understand how addiction affects behavior and thinking, the less likely you'll be to become overwhelmed by it. So get educated and get support. It's not something you want to deal with alone. Support from other people who've been there can be so valuable. And counseling or whatever it is that—whoever it is that can give you that support you need, that's so important. And finally, don't give up hope, even in the darkest, darkest days. I mean I've heard amazing stories of recovery. So, don't give up hope.
0:16:24 William Moyers
Well, Beverly Conyers, you certainly are a good student and also a wonderful teacher—
0:16:30 Beverly Conyers
[chuckles] Thank you.
0:16:31 William Moyers
—And we thank you for bringing your very intimately personal journey to the very public arena of our podcast. And an audience that I know will soak up every bit of wisdom that you have shared with us today. On this podcast. And in your books. Beverly Conyers, thank you so much for joining us today.
0:16:55 Beverly Conyers
Thank you so much, it's really been a pleasure.
0:16:58 William Moyers
And thanks to all of you for tuning in to our Let's Talk podcast. My email address if you have any questions: wmoyers@HazeldenBettyFord.org. Remember, from healing the whole family to prevention, research, academic higher ed, advocacy, and resources for the community, Hazelden Betty Ford covers it all. So tune in next time for Let's Talk. We'll see ya then.