Inside Every Monster

clareElsaesserThis past week, Dave has been out of town on a backpacking trip with his kids, and I have been taking care of business at home—which has included reorganizing my office (Okay the re part is a lie—it never was organized to begin with).

In the process, in the bottom of a drawer, I came across an old handwritten note from Dave. Normally, I wouldn’t share such a thing on my blog—especially since so many women never receive a single such letter in their lives. I’m aware how fortunate I am.

But I have a reason for sharing this one. Here’s the note—minus some goopy stuff.

This is a love note to you. I love you with my whole heart. You interest me. You interest me more than any other woman. You are a continually unfolding gift to me. …You impress me with your courage to face your life, and live it, and grow it to something you can’t see now or hardly name. Good things are ahead for you and us, let us pursue and wait in faith together. I think a new Heather who was always there is walking out into the Light. It’s not my life or my work, but I’m here—a witness. I’m lucky. Thank you for your love and your beauty. You grace me . . . I love you, Dave

It’s an amazing letter, isn’t it? But here’s the shocking part. Dave always dates his notes—and this one is dated Feb 7, 2007. That’s six weeks before my big surrender in March of that year when I finally did walk into the light, tell the truth about my alcoholism, and reach for help.

How on earth could my husband have written such a note during what were in retrospect the darkest days of our marriage and of my alcoholism? I drank to black out almost every night. I physically attacked Dave in drunken rages and often woke up in the guest room.

How could he have written that I “grace” him? How could I not even remember ever getting this letter?

Seven and a half years later, I think two things are true. Part of Dave must have sensed that I was nearing a breaking point, on the verge of a huge shift. But more important, I now realize that it probably wouldn’t have happened when it did if Dave hadn’t done what he did in this note.

Which was to see past my monsterish behavior to the hurting girl who was trapped inside. Which was to say to me, “I see you, Heather. I know you’re in there. I know this isn’t who you really are or what you really want. I believe in the better you.”

By some miracle, my heart must have heard him, even if my head didn’t know it.

So I guess I’m sharing this note as a way of reminding you, and maybe inspiring you, that if it is at all possible (it might not be for you right now), one of the kindest and most powerful ways you can help an alcoholic or addict—or for that matter, anyone you love—is to look past the ugly actions that come from their wounded places and affirm the goodness of who they really are underneath.

I think that’s what Dave did for me. Of course, loving a broken person toward their better self can seem like a herculean task. I so get that. But I know if Dave was here, and I showed him this note, he’d agree. With God’s help, anything is possible. And inside every monster is a miracle waiting to happen.

P.S. I’d love to hear from you today. I’m not sure if I’m done with summer break, so let’s just agree that while I’m trying to get pregnant with a next book (God’s not really cooperating :)), I’m bound to be sporadic on my blog. Love and miss you guys.  

P.S.S. In case you’re interested, here’s a link to Dave’s Q and A he did for my blog a while back.(Warning: super cute picture of him).


The Promise of Shared Brokenness


I get a lot of emails from people who’ve read Sober Mercies, which means so much to me. But I keep noticing how one particular line from the book keeps coming up. Last week, after three people in a row quoted the same sentence, I went back to read it in context (italicized below):

 “The particular brand of love and loyalty that seemed to flow so easily here [in recovery meetings] wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced, inside or outside of church. But how could this be? How could a bunch of addicts and alcoholics manage to succeed at creating the kind of intimate fellowship so many churches have tried to achieve and failed?

Many months would pass before I understood that people bond more deeply over shared brokenness than they do over shared beliefs.”

Aha! Clearly, a lot of you have shared my experience—felt a lack of community in a church setting or been surprised by the depth of community in another kind of group. I think my conclusion resonated because it hints at the reason why. After lots of thought, here’s a more developed theory:

  • When folks gather around a system of shared beliefs, the price of acceptance in the group is usually agreement, which means the greatest value—stated or not—is being right. Unfortunately, this often creates an atmosphere of fear and performance, which in turn invites conformity.
  • But when people gather around a shared need for healing, the price of acceptance in the group is usually vulnerability, which means the greatest value—stated or not—is being real. This tends to foster an atmosphere of safety and participation, which in turn invites community.

I’m not saying recovery or support groups are good and church groups are bad. But I do think the latter could learn something from the former about how to create safe places where intimate community can happen.

Of course, we all face the same challenge on how to foster authentic connection. As much as our souls crave it, our ego fears it. For most of us, it’s fairly easy to share intellectual head space with someone: We know this, we think that. Not much risk there.

But inviting that person into our heart space where we may feel broken in places takes courage, sometimes even desperation.

Last week, a recently widowed friend of mine came to stay in our guest room for a week. As much as she was tempted to isolate at home, she had the bravery to finally admit she needs to be around people right now, and let them into her grief.

And here’s the beautiful part. Dave and I needed this, too. Since all our kids are long gone, her presence in our home felt like such a gift. Having her join us for dinner or watching TV—she in her pajamas—gave us a dose of that family feeling we keenly miss.

On this Good Friday, I find myself thinking about the crucifixion in the context of connection. How the Old Testament Law failed to bring mankind close enough to God. How God sent his Son to die—beaten and broken on the cross—so He could make his home in our very soul.

Maybe God understood that we bond more deeply over shared brokenness than we do over shared beliefs—not just with each other, but with him, too.


At the Intersection of Addiction and Grace

My son Noah

As some of you know, on Monday I flew to Virginia to speak to a gathering of Salvation Army officers who operate their addiction rehabilitation centers in the Southeast. I was pretty nervous about it. I was also deeply grateful for the opportunity.

My grown son Noah joined me on the trip, and I can’t tell you how much it meant to have him with me. As we sat at a gate waiting for a delayed flight and Noah was tracking his fantasy football teams on his phone while eating a huge bag of airport popcorn, I was overcome by joy.

Just to have him next to me. Alive. Sober. Just to have him squeeze my shoulder now and then and say, “You’re going to do great, Mom.”

How can this be the same young man who used to smoke pot for breakfast? Who I used to fear would turn out like my father—addicted, depressed, and suicidal?

How can I be the same mother who used to drown my worry about Noah’s drugging and drinking by getting drunk myself? Who used to live in dread of being exposed as an alcoholic and would rather die than declare it from a podium?

The only explanation is that Noah and I are walking, talking miracles—living proof of God’s goodness and grace.

This was never so clear to me as it was on Monday as I spoke about the role of faith in my journey of recovery. Noah graciously allowed me to share some parts of his story, too—including how he’d probably be dead if the apartment where he was living when he hit bottom had had a garage.

After I spoke, we had a buffet lunch with the Salvation Army folks, and I noticed how easily Noah chatted with people. Several times I overheard someone ask him hopefully, “So do you speak, too?”

He laughed and said no. But you know what? He does speak. His life speaks. And nothing speaks louder than the story he can’t help telling just by being who he is today.

At one point, a man whipped out his wallet to show Noah and me a photo of a ragged-looking young man. “This here is ‘Frank’ before,” he explained, meaning before he came to their program. “And this is him after,” he said, showing us a photo of a clean-cut, smiling man who now works for their organization.

He couldn’t have been prouder had he been this guy’s father.

When I was invited to speak to the Salvation Army, initially I was perplexed. What came to mind first were the thrift stores I spent half my childhood trapped in with my bargain-loving mother.

What came to mind next were the red donation cans and the tinkling bells at Christmas.

And then, I thought of my father. Mentally ill and addicted, he spent the second half of his too-short life homeless, in mental hospitals, in halfway houses—and in more than a few Salvation Army rescue missions.

Early in my recovery, I attended a meeting downtown where the “Sallys”—the men participating in the nearby Salvation Army rehab program—reminded me of my father. Their stories touched me deeply for this reason, but also because the changes in their lives were often so dramatic. I’d listen in near disbelief, thinking, You mean to tell me this articulate, hard-working man was living under a bridge just a year ago? 

Sadly, my dad wasn’t one of these success stories. He never found recovery for long, and he took his own life at 47.  No one ever pulled his mug from their wallet to show how the program works.

My dad shortly before his death.
My dad shortly before his death.

Yet in Virginia, I was struck by the sweetness of God to bring me to speak here, and especially with Noah along. It felt like coming full circle, like this was the real end to my dad’s story.

Best of all, I got a chance to look some of these folks from the Salvation Army in the eye and say a belated, Thank you. My father was hungry and you fed him. My father needed clothes and you clothed him. My father was homeless and you sheltered him.

This is what it looks like to live out the gospel. This is what it means to stand at the intersection of addiction and grace.


Dave Speaks (a Q & A with my husband)


I can’t tell you how excited I am to have a guest post today by my husband Dave. On Monday, I asked you to submit any questions for him you might have regarding our journey through my alcoholism and recovery. You sent great questions! Some of them we combined or edited for clarity. I didn’t edit a word of his answers, though. He’s pretty darn honest here, so my hat is off to him.

In Sober Mercies, Heather refers to “dumb drunk Heather fights,” which sometimes led to physical attacks by her and often ended with her sleeping in the guest room. What was that like for you?

I hated the craziness and the violence. It tore me up inside—still does when I think about it. I didn’t grow up in a family where people threw hateful words around, much less fists and boots. Heather grew up clawing to get what she needed, though. That was her way, and sometimes alcohol made her go there.

In the craziest times, I would stare into the horror of what had become of us and see no way out. I didn’t want to be married to her anymore. But I didn’t want to start over again either (I’d already been a loser in marriage once).

But when the smoke cleared, I would look across the room and see Heather Babe—not a monster. I really loved her. I’ve always been grateful that the affection didn’t run out before the sobriety arrived! I know some aren’t so blessed.

 Did you know that Heather was an alcoholic?

 I thought so, but I didn’t know. Of course, I didn’t realize how much she was putting away either. I would try to change her drinking habits by changing mine, including abstaining entirely for spells. That didn’t work. She just got hostile and I got more resentful.

 Why do you think you didn’t catch on that she was drinking in secret?

She was a pretty good sneak. Most addicts are, I guess. Also, I didn’t ever venture into her closet, which is where she kept her stash. Still don’t go in there, by the way. She’s not a neatnik—just sayin’.

During those years, we drank together, and I often drank too much. That didn’t help me know what was actually going on. And then there were the maintenance prescriptions that had been affecting Heather in one way or another since we met. When she got loony later in the evening, I blamed the meds.

 How did you manage not to follow the same path as Heather?

I shared her life but, I don’t share her genes. In a way, I’m living proof that alcoholism has a huge physiological dimension. Heather has as much willpower as me; she’s as moral and as spiritual—not that we can really measure those things. Clearly, her body just reacts differently to alcohol.

Relapse is a common story in recovery. Have you ever worried that Heather would go back to her drinking? How would you handle that?

We’ve been there, thanks to the Minneapolis airport. That and the aftermath were hell. I didn’t know what would happen next. I was angry and afraid. I will be eternally grateful that she so quickly chose to start over again.

I don’t know what I’d do if she went out again. I don’t like to think about it. Everyone who’s married to an addict must worry about it sometimes. Honestly, I’m afraid to say anything that would appear to give her permission to do that again. But of course, I can’t control her decision. It’s hers to make. My job is to stay clean and sane in my own areas of blindness and weakness. There are so many.

Day to day, though, I have a huge amount of trust in Heather. Her commitment to sobriety and spiritual health inspires me. I want to be like her when I grow up.

My husband is addicted to alcohol and drugs, and I don’t know how to help him. He has failed so many times. What have you done to help Heather in her recovery? Is there one thing she would say has been most important to her?

 I’m really sorry for about your situation. You must often feel helpless and afraid. I went through many years trying to figure out what to do to help Heather. Whatever I did try—talking to her, trying to delete alcohol from our lives entirely, suggesting counseling—didn’t work. I didn’t try an intervention, and maybe I should have, although I doubt she would have quit until she was good and ready.

The day she told me sobbing that she needed to get help, I knew she was serious. After that, I did everything I could to get her into rehab before she changed her mind.

Since she’s been in recovery, she has said that my going to recovery meetings with her has been the single most helpful thing. On average, I probably go once every two weeks. She goes much more often, of course. But going together gives us a shared life and language, and many shared friends. And, hey, it feels like love to her.

 How has being a part of Heather’s program of recovery affected you personally or spiritually?

 We’re growing together—emotionally, spiritually, in our relationship—in ways that were probably impossible before. I mean, we were so much more stuck than we knew! ‘Course, we’re still freaks, but now at least we have a safe relationship. We have a home that isn’t hiding anything. We have seen miracles in our family. We’ve gotten our life back.

Every day is a gift, and I am filled with gratitude. 

Finally, what advice would you give a spouse whose partner has an obvious problem with alcohol, drugs or addictive behavior of any kind?

Any of us can stand outside of that kind of situation and have the “right” opinions. But truly, there’s no way for us to know what’s really happening in that person’s world. When the one we love is addicted, our choices—and especially our perceived choices—get all tangled up in love, shame, resentment, self-judgment, duty, habit and just what comes easier on any given day.

Everybody’s story is different, but here’s what I wish I had done differently:

1] I wish I had taken the step myself to name and own the problem. I needed to fully face what was happening, and my part in it—whatever that was. I had things I was hiding too, things that needed more truth-telling. Like shame over how much alcohol had us in its grip, and my part in letting that happen. Like fear of what would become of us as a couple if we actually took the alcohol skeleton out of the closet.

2] I wish I had gotten help for myself. I needed to say, “I have a problem that requires outside help,” and then act on the admission. I need to regularly drive off to counseling or Al-Anon—and she needed to see me doing it. It would have been a confrontation of sorts with our reality. She would have been outraged and disdainful, I’m guessing. And I doubt she would have changed any of her choices, but at least we wouldn’t have been tacitly lying about the hell we were in. And more to the point—I would have been working on understanding my part in the craziness.

One thing I know now, looking back, is that there is a way out. Sounds so obvious, but I didn’t believe that for years, and I know Heather didn’t either. So many don’t really believe change is possible—for others maybe, but not for them. But change is possible. And God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves—we just have to let him. With humility and courage and a good dose of desperation, we can find the door.  As Heather and I have discovered, that door opens to a recovery community that welcomes fellow desperadoes with open arms, shows us a proven path to living differently, and is willing to walk with us on it.

P.S. I’m doing book promotion stuff all day and so address any comments or questions to Dave and he will reply. 

Why I Wrote This Book (and this blog)

sobermerciesforblogSince tomorrow is the official release of my memoir, I want to talk today about why I wrote it. I mean, does the world really need another recovery memoir? What’s so special about my story? And anyway, why would I want to share such embarrassing stuff with the world?

These are all questions I’ve asked myself.

It’s true that recovery memoirs abound these days. Harrowing tales of a good person’s descent into the mortifying abyss of addiction. The story usually climaxes when the author reaches her lowest point—she loses her relationships, career, dignity or health. Or all of the above. Finally, she seeks outside help.

And then the story is over.

Early in my drinking days, these stories assured me that I hadn’t fallen nearly so low as the author. Whew!  I still had plenty of time left to drink before I hit that kind of bottom! The story’s tragic end—the author having to quit—inspired me to try even harder to manage my own drinking so I’d never have to. 🙂

As my dependency worsened, I finished these memoirs with a strange mix of hope and dread. Hope, because it was clear that the author had found a way out of her nightmare.  But dread, too, because of the deafening silence in most memoirs about what happened next.

I needed to know, what did happen next? What happens after you quit the drug or the drink or whatever it was you were addicted to? How could a life devoid of one’s favorite and most necessary thing be anything but miserable?

I needed to read a recovery memoir that was actually about recovery. I was desperate to hear a newly sober person talk about joy. And if possible, to hear from a woman of faith who had succumbed to addiction, quit, and come out the other side without losing God in the process.

At the time, I couldn’t find that book.

Perhaps this, more than any other reason I have for writing my story, is the one that matters most: I believe there’s someone like me out there searching for a story like mine.

A lot of someones, actually. It’s precisely because my story isn’t special or my experience unique that it matters. Given that one in ten people over age 12 is classified with drug dependence or addiction, I’m convinced that churches today are filled with folks who suffer in silence, many of whom are too ashamed to admit the truth or reach for professional help.

So yes, I’m willing to risk a little public embarrassment. To the same degree I once felt compelled by shame to keep my alcoholism a secret, today I feel compelled by gratitude to bring it into the light. But in case that sounds noble, you should know that it’s also a bit selfish. Being open about my recovery helps me stay sober.

And yet, while alcoholism was the catalyst for my journey, any painful event that brings us to the end of ourselves can spark the kind of spiritual crisis I’ve written about. For others it might be a divorce, financial ruin, a painful loss or a daunting physical challenge.

That’s why I think my story isn’t just for addicts, but for any person who has ever doubted the sincerity of his or her own faith, who has ever felt scalded by secret shame, who has ever repeatedly betrayed God and those they love…and can’t seem to change.

Most of all, I want Sober Mercies to speak to those who want to start over but are losing hope that such a thing is even possible. I want to tell you what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.

Because what it’s like now is pretty amazing.

P.S. On Thursday, I’m featuring a guest post by–drum roll, please–my husband, Dave.  It will be a Q. and A. about his experience of my addiction and his role in my journey to healing.  If you have questions you’d like to ask him, please email them to me at

P.S.S.  If you want to spread to the word about my book, this is a great article by my amazing agent about how to help an author.

Holler for Mercy

Art by Georges Rouault
Art by Georges Rouault

I’ve been in a funk lately. One of those kinds where you feel sad for no reason, unmotivated by your work, blah about the future.

Jesus could come back today and I’d be like, Meh.

When I get like this, my first impulse is to look around my life and try to assign blame. It’s Dave’s fault. It’s the weather. It’s my stupid health issues. It’s my blog. It’s the fact that I’m a recovering alcoholic.

But I know it’s not any of those things. It’s just me being human. And lucky for me, usually, there’s some spiritual practice—gratitude, meditation, or connection with others—that helps me feel better.

Once I’m done wallowing, that is. And don’t rush me.

Yesterday I read in Luke about the blind man begging on the side of road. When he hears that Jesus is passing by, he begins to cry out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

People try to shut him up. But he only yells more loudly.

And it works. Jesus tells those nearby to bring the man to him. And then Jesus famously asks him what sounds like a dumb question: “What do you want me to do for you?”

Isn’t it rather obvious? The man would please, very much like to see again!

In the past I’ve been taught that Jesus asks his question because not everyone who’s sick or disabled wants to be made well. Didn’t you know—maybe you’ve heard this too—that some would rather suffer than take responsibility for their lives?

I used to think that. But these days, I’m more inclined to believe that if a really sick person doesn’t want to get well, that’s a good indication that they’re far too sick to know what they want.

Which isn’t a bad laymen’s definition for active alcoholism, or for that matter, clinical depression.

I’m definitely not depressed like that. I have a simple case of the blahs. I have the luxury of knowing that when feeling bad stops feeling good to me, I’ll find a way to quit.

Others aren’t so fortunate. A dear friend, for example, suffers from a mood disorder so powerful that the emotional drag becomes physical. Her body feels too heavy to move, people are too hard to connect with, and ordinary life is just way too much and not nearly enough at once.

She’s the beggar on the side of the road who might not bother to holler because she doesn’t think she deserves the help. Or doesn’t think the cure would work for her.

Or doesn’t have the energy to lift her voice.

My dad was sick this way, too. So broken by addiction and depression that he could hardly wish for wholeness. So hopeless, in fact, that he bowed out of life early.

One thing I noticed in the story from Luke is that after Jesus restores the beggar’s sight, he says, “Your faith has made you well.”

Which could almost make it sound like Jesus found him deserving. But if you ask me, that’s a ridiculous conclusion to draw. The beggar didn’t even cry out, “Open my eyes, Lord! I know you can!”

All he did was holler bloody murder for the one thing Jesus never denied a single person or ever will.


Maybe that’s a better moral to this story. If you’re following Jesus today and you’re in the crowd, feeling well, feeling better, do what Jesus did. Show mercy without condition.

And if you’re in the dark, beside the road, not even sure what you need or if you really want what you need, do what the blind man did.

Cry, Lord, have mercy. And keep on hollering.

What if You’re Doing Better Than You Think?

shutterstock_189675050One of the hazards of recovery—and probably Christianity, too—is that we get so focused on change and growth that we forget that we’re okay right now. God isn’t waiting for us to finally get it all together so he can love us more.

Not long ago, I was helping a friend do some step work around a snarly job situation that had spawned a snake’s nest of resentments. As we talked through her anger at others, her part in it all started coming at her fast and furious: Ego. Pride. Denial. Compromise.

My friend was in tears, disappointed and scared. “How could this have happened when I’ve been trying so hard?”

There she was, sitting across the table from me, face scrunched with crying, all her pages of writing spread out between us. And in that moment, I thought I caught a glimpse of God’s compassion for her—how completely precious her sincere struggle was to him.

“Look at you!” I said, sitting back. “Do you see yourself? Look how hard you’re trying. Taking hours out of your busy day to do this work—all because you want to grow spiritually and live in God’s will and help others. I think you’re totally amazing, and so does he. You’ve never been a more beautiful person than you are right now.”

She gazed at me with at least a little doubt.

“No, really,” I said, plunging ahead. “God’s not waiting for you to finally lick all these things or get it all together. Guess what? That will never happen! This is it. You’re doing it. The stumbling forward, falling back, wobbling this way and that—this is life. It’s how God made us, and it’s okay.”

“Oh my God…you’re right!” she said finally. She heaved a sigh, and started scribbling notes, trying to capture what I’d just said.

On the way home in the car, I couldn’t help wishing someone would say those words to me. I related a little too closely to my friend’s situation—where you think you’ve got some shortcoming licked, only to have it kick your butt again.

An hour later, I opened an email from a reader and saw that she’d included a quote:

“What if it’s all okay? What if we’re all doing better than we could ever imagine? What if God is pleased with us even on our most ordinary, ego-driven days? What if this is simply what it looks like to be a human being on earth and we should all worry less? What if there’s nothing we need to necessarily FIX today? What a shame if we all run around living in FIX-it mode—only to discover that we could have relaxed into God instead and let ourselves be okay with being a bit broken?”

I was halfway through the quote before I realized that I’d recently written these words in Raw and then promptly forgot them. Now my reader was quoting them back to me.

Oh, the kindness—and good humor—of God! Clearly, he’d been humming around my heart, giving me words for my friend in advance of her needing them. And now, he wanted to make sure I got the message, too.

I read it again, slowly, and I saw the words ricochet—from God through me to my reader and then back again to lodge in my heart.

I thought you might need to hear them today, too.

P.S. It feels a bit awkward to quote myself to you twice in one blog. But I wonder, do you ever say to someone else what you really need to hear yourself …and not hear a word of it?