Healing from my Mom’s Addiction


The Dream

I had the most vivid dream when I was ten. I stood by my mom’s bed, clutched her cold hand, and watched her waste away. Her soul left her body before my eyes. A white, ghostly, agonized mom floated upward, and a greenish, yellowish body of my mom lay simultaneously in the bed. I woke up crying, mourning the loss of my alive mom.

I used to think this dream meant I was afraid of my mom dying. She was very sick during most of my childhood. Now I feel that my subconscious self simply knew something my conscious brain wasn’t yet willing to accept. Soon after I had that dream, the mom I knew up to that point…left. Her addictions ate away at her true being. All that remained of her, essentially, was her body. She lost the familiar loveliness I had known as a young child. She became a stranger.

Starting the Healing Process

When I was a senior in high school, I randomly got a voicemail from my stake president. All it said was that he wanted to meet with me. I knew that could only mean one of two things: 1. I had a new stake calling. 2. I was in trouble. My world was pretty black-and-white back then.

I remember approaching the stake president’s office with sweaty hands and a fluttering heart. A middle-aged man walked out of his office as I walked in. He and President Ostler looked like they were on the tail end of a deep conversation. I immediately got the feeling I wasn’t there to receive a new calling.

President Ostler led me into the office. I looked uncertainly at a formal, dark wood desk with a chair on either side. Then I looked at two comfortable, large chairs. He must have seen my hesitation in choosing a seat and directed me to a comfy chair. “Friends don’t sit across from each other with a desk in the way,” he gently said. I liked how easily he referred to me as a friend. I hadn’t had many one-on-one interactions with him before that day.

“Angela,” he began, “Do you know why I invited you here today?”

“No,” I admitted, looking down and rubbing my sweaty hands together.

 He showed me a thick stack of papers: fine print, single-spaced, double-sided. It was a list of every name that belonged to our stake.

“There are a lot of people on this list who need to be reached out to by God. But God made it clear He needed me to reach out to you.”

He wasn’t sure why he was supposed to call me, but he followed the prompting anyway. I explained a little bit of what I had been going through and President Ostler seemed to understand. We started meeting every week.

Every time I sat down in his office, he always started and ended our meetings by telling me how much Heavenly Father loves me. He would always say that God let him feel a fraction of that love for me as well. I listened. I started believing that the person he saw in me could be who I really am.

He tried asking me questions about my life at home, and he caught on pretty quickly that I didn’t have the ability to trust anyone with that part of my heart. He asked me if it would be easier to write it all down in an email. I tried that and it helped a little. But I found it very hard to share my experiences while being vulnerable with my emotions. I could tell him facts, but I couldn’t connect the feelings that should have naturally accompany them. After 8 years of feeling my mom’s addiction destroy her, I realized it was destroying me too.

I wasn’t just watching. I was responding to deception and manipulation and theft and illness. I was just as at mercy to her addiction as she was. And like her, I was in complete denial.

He printed my email.

“Angela.” He always addressed me by my name. I could never question if his message was meant specifically for me. “What you are experiencing is abuse.”

Wanting to Forgive, Not Wanting to Heal

For some reason the word “abuse” made me feel like an anvil was being lifted off my chest. I could breathe again. Finally, I recognized that my relationship with my mom wasn’t healthy.

But I felt really guilty, too. I felt the purpose of my visits with my stake president was to help me forgive my mom, and yet we spent all of our meeting time talking about me “healing.” What does that even mean? I wondered constantly. I didn’t see how focusing on myself would help me have a better relationship with her. I wanted to skip to the part of healing that I could look at her and see her exactly as God sees her. Why can’t I just forgive her? I felt like I was failing.

I didn’t understand then that healing is a process. And that’s really okay. God didn’t expect me to understand everything all at once. He didn’t expect me to leave layers of scars in just a few sittings. So, He offered me the opportunity to serve a mission.

The Great California San Diego Mission, Trigger Speaking

It hurt my heart a little bit when elders and sisters would bear their testimony on their last day and talk about how much they loved their missions. I would feel this twinge of regret and sadness, because I wanted to feel lighter, like them. I wanted to not be afraid. I wanted to love my mission. In those moments, God reminded me that He never promised I would be completely healed by the time I went on my mission.

A line from my setting apart blessing is, “You will be fit to meet this challenge in your life.” It never promised, “This will be the best 18 months of your life.” I’m now coming to terms with that. It’s okay. My mission didn’t feel like a joyful ministry a lot of the time. It brought me nose to nose with trigger after trigger. God didn’t let me forget what I had gone through. He let me face it again and again, so that I could work through it.

My mission started in an affluent area of San Diego. I experienced intense anxiety after my companions fell asleep most nights. I usually slept between 10:15 p.m. and 3 or 4 a.m., and then I’d be awake the rest of the day. On most mornings, I heard a father verbally and physically abuse his young child out in the cold in the mornings. They lived right across the hall from me. Though faceless behind the door, I knew her. I knew she had brown hair and wore glasses. I knew she was a Girl Scout. We would chat when she was on her way into her dad’s apartment and we were on our way to an appointment. But when I didn’t see her, I knew her so much better.

I heard her cry and try to be brave when his slurred voice ordered her to stop. Her sweet voice rang in my ears throughout the day. I eventually told my sister training leader, my companion, and the apartment manager what I had witnessed. However, as a missionary, I couldn’t put the Church in a position of liability. If I reported the crime, even anonymously, there was a chance I could be called as a witness.

If I couldn’t help this girl, then why did God place me in the apartment across from her? Out of all 422 missions, He sent me to San Diego. Out of all 13 zones, he sent me to my zone. Out of all 7 areas, he sent me to my area. Why, if I could not help the person in my area who I knew needed the most help?

Everywhere I went, I was always surrounded by people who reminded me of my mom. Some people reminded me of the way she was when the addiction was just alcohol, and when I was completely oblivious to it. Others were similar to the way I saw her at that time. Drugs had taken everything that was important to them—their families, their health, and their sanity.

Others still showed me a reflected image of who my mom could become in the future. We taught a kind, generous, changed man who had just gotten out of jail for abusing drugs and his longtime girlfriend. He had found God in jail and was ready to turn his life around. Another was a woman who was so far gone that she would bring up alien invasions she had experienced during our Gospel Principles class.

Meeting all these people in my first area whose lives were touched and changed by drugs slowly led me realize that these people still mattered to God. They were still full of worth; they still had stories to tell; they were still full of love and able to be loved; most importantly, they were still agents unto themselves who had the power and innate ability to change. I saw beautiful things happen to these people in the short time I got to be their missionary. Beautiful things happened because they willed them to happen, and because God enabled them to happen.

Putting Away my Sister Tag and Becoming a Daughter Again

It was really good to see my mom again. I hadn’t seen her physically in 18 months, but I hadn’t seen her body and soul in the same space for nearly 10 years. I was released from my calling as a missionary the day I got home. My mom and I drove to the church building together, and we both went straight to the Ladies’ room to get a little cuter before it was time to meet with my stake president.

For the first time that I can remember, my mom apologized.

She had said the words “I’m sorry” before, but it would always be followed with a “but,” which would always be followed with a blame. And evidently, I was usually to blame.

This time I could see her eyes. They had her soul lighting them again. This time, I felt her spirit tell me she’s sorry for all the pain she’s caused me. She remorsefully admitted that she didn’t remember all that she had done to me, but she was still so sorry.

“Mom, it’s okay.” The words surprised me because they were true. All the meetings and triggers and hurt feelings and numbness and tears and prayers led to the healing, at last culminated in three words. Forgiveness isn’t a step in the healing process. Healing is forgiveness. One part cannot be complete without the other.

Then, there in the church restroom, I hugged my mom’s body and soul for the first time since I was 10. The dream and nightmares disappeared. I wasn’t staring down at her lifeless body in a bed anymore.

I was watching her rise from her deathbed.

In the year and a half that I was away, my mom had started going to therapy, receiving medication for bipolar disorder, and participating in the Church’s 12-Step Program. Many medications they had tried really messed her up. I didn’t hear much about the process while I was gone, and in my family, no news is bad news.

Somehow, the doctors figured out an optimal medication cocktail that still allowed her to be human while treating her mental illness. God gave me my mom back, and she is just as sweet and lovely as I remembered her.

Thankfully, by the grace of her choices and God, I got my mom back, ten years after I had that awful dream of her dying. But my mission taught me that I could heal and love my mom without being dependent on her changing. I could forgive her and be okay, over and over, even if she never changed. God used my mission as a chance to have hardly any contact with my mom. He led me to forgive her during the one time in my life that I had no idea how she was doing.

Healing, not Healed

Jesus with Mary and MarthaLike a recovering alcoholic can never be a former alcoholic, I am healing and will never be healed in mortality. Healed implies completeness, wholeness. I’m not there yet. I don’t think it’s pessimistic to believe I’ll never be there fully as a human. I still find it difficult to trust even those I love the most. It’s hard to trust completely even those who have never betrayed my trust. My mom still occasionally struggles. Her medications give her terrible physical side effects. She has a hard time feeling and expressing deep emotion on her medication, which used to be a natural talent of hers. She has lost some of herself in the process of healing. I still ache for her, and I still ache for me too. Sometimes, even just to ache for someone alive is healing.

Angela Cava is a writer for MormonHub. She currently studies journalism at Brigham Young University, and plans to become an international broadcast journalist upon graduation.