When Mercy Trumps Judgment

Art by Angelina Rusin, click image to visit her on Etsy
Art by Angelina Rusin, click image to visit her on Etsy

In early May, I’m speaking at an annual fundraiser for a large women’s center in Texas. Their mission is to provide housing and services to homeless and addicted women who are trying to rebuild their lives.

As I plan what to say, I realize I’ll be speaking to a rare kind of audience: People glad to show up where they know they’ll be asked to give money to help addicts and alcoholics.

Typically, you see, we’re not a group that easily evokes sympathy. Our cause doesn’t tug at the heart—or purse—strings the same way child hunger or breast cancer does.

And I get why. To the casual observer, addiction looks more like selfishness at full throttle than a progressive disease. We addicts tend to be stubborn, manipulative, and in many cases, criminal. Some of us are known for squandering what help we do receive.

No wonder we evoke disdain or distancing more quickly than generosity. Why would anyone want to throw good money after the likes of us?

Actually, I can think of several good reasons. More than two-thirds of American families are touched by addiction. It plays an enormous role in poverty, unemployment, crime, child abuse, and accidental death. The collateral damage is just huge.

On the positive side, many of us do recover. An estimated 20 million people today are enjoying long-term recovery.

Yet, despite these numbers, we don’t seem to have the collective will as a society to galvanize around this issue. It’s as if the stigma attached to addiction extends even to our willingness to invest in recovery. And I don’t see that changing until our compassion for the addict outweighs our aversion.

One of the biggest obstacles to such a shift is the erroneous belief that addiction is mainly a moral issue. Even though addiction is classified as a disease, many good people can’t get past the idea that addicts choose their sickness.

I get this. And it’s true that addiction usually begins with bad choices and risky behaviors. But trust me, no one sets out to become addicted. We set out to escape pain or feel better, unable—until it’s too late—to conceive of a force so great it could hijack our brain and steamroll our will power.

And who among us hasn’t felt desperate to change the way we feel? Who of us can be certain we wouldn’t have become addicts ourselves had we been born in another place or time?

My plea for empathy raises another important point. Like a lot of folks, I used to assume that addicts were perfectly happy getting high or wasted or what have you. I had no idea they actually suffered.

When I spiraled into my own alcoholism, I learned the awful truth. Few people are more miserable than an addict who desperately wants to quit, but can’t find a way to stop. Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to imagine what this kind of powerlessness feels like.

It feels like being stuck in a nightmare where you open your mouth to scream, but nothing comes out.

It feels like watching in disbelief as you begin to betray your conscience and your values, even as you pray to do the right thing.

It feels like knowing you’re hurting the people you love the most—and knowing you’ll do it again tomorrow.

It feels like losing your job, your driver’s license, your home, your family and marriage—and still not being able to quit.

It feels like coming to believe you must have been born for nothing, since that is what you are accomplishing with your life.

Imagine feeling all of that, and I bet you’ll agree that addiction isn’t something any sane person wants. And maybe it’s time to let mercy trump judgment.


P.S. Another post that helps bring balance to this issue is this one. That’s No Excuse.

P.S.S. Several of you are asking where I’m speaking. I’m at the Downtown Women’s Center in Amarillo, TX May 6. Here’s a link. (Tickets can be bought online in a couple days).





For the Loved Ones

Image by Dutch artist Annelies van Biesbergen, click to visit her on Etsy

Last Friday I wrote a guest post for addicts who can’t seem to surrender. This morning, I feel compelled to share the other half of that message.

Today’s post is for the loved ones of addicts and alcoholics who may have heard an incomplete message about your role. The message goes something like this:  I am completely powerless to help the addict I love, and the only thing I can do is stay out of the way until he or she “hits bottom.”

It’s absolutely true that in trying to help we can unwittingly enable an addict or shield him from the very consequences that might spark a change. Wisdom is required, for sure. Alanon exists in large part for this reason—we can’t change another person; we can only change ourselves.

But none of this means we should do nothing while a loved one spirals ever further toward tragedy or death.  

This topic is very personal to me. As most of you know, my oldest son began a scary descent into alcoholism and drug abuse in his teens that continued into his twenties. When he was 21, a worried friend of his alerted us that he was drinking himself to death—literally.

We scrabbled together a small family intervention and got my son into a three-month treatment program. He loved sobriety and was excited about the future. Then, on his first night out of rehab, he drank. He couldn’t explain why, and he didn’t get sober for another five years.

But here’s the thing. Despite the seeming failure of that intervention, I honestly don’t know if Noah would be alive today had we not acted. Who can say what seeds of hope were planted during his stay in treatment?  Or whether, when he finally hit a horrible bottom years later, his memory of that time wasn’t part of the reason he reached for help instead of a gun? 

If your loved one is in serious trouble with addiction, you may want to consider an intervention, too.  An intervention happens when family and friends of an addict create a plan to lovingly but firmly confront an addict and urge him or her to get into treatment. Some families enlist professional help, while others go it alone. (See link below for a helpful article on this topic.)

Of course, many interventions fail. The addict refuses to accept help. Or, the help doesn’t seem to stick.

So why bother going to all that trouble and expense? Here are seven reasons why an intervention might be worth the risk.

  1. Addiction is a progressive disease that only gets worse if left untreated and is often fatal. Especially with kids and young adults whose brains are still developing, a delayed response diminishes the chance for a full recovery. Waiting for a teen to “hit bottom” can be like waiting for stage 2 cancer to get to stage 4 before starting treatment.
  2. Interventions are often necessary to save lives because a hallmark of addiction is denial and resistance. Why would we let a clear symptom of a dangerous disease keep us from trying to get help for the sufferer?
  3. Some addicts and alcoholics have to get sober for a while in order to realize they actually want to be sober. That’s why rehab or even jail can turn a person’s life around. The fog of insanity lifts enough that they can willingly reach for recovery.
  4. Turning points don’t have to arrive on the heels of great devastation or loss. Paradoxically, they can also be chosen. In recovery we say, “The bottom is where you decide to get off the elevator,” and, “The bottom happens when you stop digging.”
  5. Despair, shame, and mortification alone won’t bring most addicts to the point of change. Often, these painful emotions merely fuel the cycle of self-hatred and self-sabotage, reinforcing an addict’s fear that they don’t deserve to recover. A loving intervention can be a powerful message in this context.
  6. For most of us, a low point does not become a turning point unless hope is part of the picture. With no view to a better life and nothing to lose, an addict can bump along a series of should-be bottoms for years. A strategic intervention by loved ones can point the way to a life that’s worth staying sober for.
  7. Without intervention, many addicts simply won’t hit bottom until they’re six feet under—or have put someone else there. I often look around the room at all the years of sobriety represented in a recovery meeting and try to imagine what carnage the world has been spared.

Regardless of outcome, stepping in to urge treatment and set boundaries is a way of showing an addict just how far they’ve fallen at the same time that you’re showing them how deeply you love them. Being part of such an event can be a profound, even sacred experience. If it doesn’t change the addict, it might change you.

I realize that I’ve only touched the surface of a complicated issue, but I hope this list will spark some thinking. If you know someone who loves an addict, pass this message along.

(Here’s an article from the Mayo Clinic about what’s involved in an intervention).


This Way is Better (Or, Moms Who Drink Too Much)

shutterstock_114386725One afternoon last week I was working upstairs in my hot, muggy office, trying not to suffocate, when I heard the sound of a can snap open. I yelled from my chair, “Hey, I heard that. Where’s mine?”

My husband Dave was working from home that day. Moments later, he came into my office with an ice-cold can of sparkling water. I thanked him profusely and popped the tab. Snap! “Remember when that was always the sound of a beer?” I asked.

Click here to keep reading.  This week I’m honored to be guest posting over at my friend Gillian Marchenko’s site.

Gillian writes and speaks about parenting kids with Down syndrome, faith, depression, imperfection, and adoption. Her memoir about her daughter Polly’s birth and diagnosis of Down syndrome in the former Soviet Union will be published with T.S. Poetry Press by the end of 2013.

P.S. If you missed my piece here, “On a Scale of Numbness,” it’s on the Huffington Post and could use support. Here’s the link.

The Shame Slayers

bigstock-Profile-40214233“Lasting addiction recovery solutions have been found, but the most credible faces and voices to support these solutions have been hidden and silenced for decades.”

–From the movie, The Anonymous People.

Many of my recovery readers will have seen the clip below already, but I thought I’d post it this weekend for those of you who haven’t. It’s actually the trailer for a documentary called, The Anonymous People, but it’s worth viewing on its own merit.

The film is about how “deeply entrenched social stigma have kept recovery voices silent and faces hidden for decades.” The makers of the film are part of a passionate new movement which “aims to transform public opinion, engage communities and elected officials, and finally shift problematic policy toward lasting solutions.”


I haven’t seen the film yet, but I love what they’re up to. It brings to mind the term, “shame slayers,” which I picked up from Glennon Melton of Momastery.

But here’s the rub. The film is causing a small stir in the recovery community around the long-held tradition of anonymity.

Since the creation of the 12 Steps in the 1930’s, people in groups such as AA, NA, SLA, OA and others have worked to keep private their own and others’ status as members. But recent years have seen a push by some to do away with aspects of this tradition that seem outdated and even counterproductive.

I don’t think anyone in recovery is arguing the importance of protecting each other’s anonymity. It’s never my right to disclose another person’s membership or association with any recovery group.

The movie itself is careful to respect this aspect of the tradition. And yet, the emphasis on the need for all of us to be more outspoken encourages a rethinking of anonymity with regard to press, radio and film.

The tradition of anonymity at the public level is important, because it keeps any single person from becoming the “face” of our community. This in turn preserves our sense of diversity, protects our reputation from scandal, and prevents members from profiting via their association with the group.

But a lot has changed since the inception of the 12 Steps in the 1930’s. Back then, the label alcoholic came loaded with a much fiercer stigma of shame and fear. Today, an increasing number of people are proud to be in recovery. Hiding in the shadows doesn’t sit well with them.

Another huge change is that the advent of the internet and social media have blurred the lines between private and public media. What about my Facebook? Is that me talking to my friends, or me broadcasting to the world?

Finally, given the horrific epidemic of addiction in our society, it strikes many as irresponsible to be coy about the solution. It strikes some too as a contradiction of the organization’s stated purpose:  “To the carry the message to those who still suffer.”

In some ways, the conflict surrounding anonymity reminds me of the gospel story where Jesus is scolded by the Pharisees for healing a man on the Sabbath because “work” was forbidden on the Sabbath.

When rules or traditions get in the way of love, service and compassion, hasn’t something gone awry?

I don’t think the recovery community is going to arrive at a consensus anytime soon. Individuals will continue to simply choose to do what they think is best. And ironically, the very traditions we sometimes squabble over will continue to give us the freedom to do that.


[Addendum: A recent comment made me think I should add a link to this post as well.]

I’d love to hear your thoughts on anonymity, shame, stigma, and how we can better advocate on behalf of addicts. In case you’re interested, a while back I wrote a post about anonymity in the context of my blog. For more about TheAnonymousPeople visit their site

Just Say Yes

boyOn Thursday I talked about why a Just Say No approach might not be enough when it comes to preventing substance abuse with our kids. I promised to tell you today what to do differently.

Ever since, I’ve been wrestling with what to say. (What was I thinking? What do I know?)

Then came Saturday, and news of the tragic suicide of pastor Rick Warren’s 27-year-old son, who apparently suffered from mental illness and depression. Such a sad and senseless loss—a bright kid, a loving and involved family, and still, a fatal choice.

As a parent familiar with depression and suicide, it hit way too close to home. And it was a heartbreaking reminder that when it comes to complex issues like mental illness or substance abuse, none of us has a silver bullet. Not even the best parents—Christians included— can claim to have The Answer.

In the spirit of not having The Answer, I decided to scrap for now my list of 7 things you could do to protect your children from drug or alcohol abuse. Instead of advice, I want to share with you a few of my biggest regrets in hopes that you can glean from my mistakes.

I regret that I didn’t listen well to my kids. I regret that I was too wrapped up in my own “important” grown up problems to take seriously enough just how deadly serious every single one of their problems seemed to them. I gave them answers. I wish I had given them my full attention.

I regret that I didn’t show my kids more compassion. I can still picture my oldest son at 16, in bed in the middle of the day, his covers over his head. And there I was yelling at the top of my lungs about how could he do such a stupid thing. How mortified I was. How much he had let down and embarrassed his band mates and his very favorite teacher.

He’d been caught, you see, smoking dope and getting drunk while at the state competition for the prestigious jazz ensemble he was part of in high school. Police arrested him behind a McDonald’s, and the school was forced to forfeit a contest they’d been favored to win.

Why didn’t I hug him? Cry with him? Why didn’t I get on my knees by his bed and talk to him about shame and guilt and assure him that he would find a way to make things right again and be forgiven—even though he couldn’t change what happened?

Why didn’t I ever, before or after that, talk to him about that nagging feeling of emptiness that we all feel no matter how much we love God or life? Why didn’t I acknowledge how hard it is to turn down the chance to feel better? Why didn’t I try to help him name and process the feelings he was so desperate to escape?

I regret that my words—don’t drink or drug—were just too damn convenient. And what’s worse, my words didn’t at all match the real message I was sending by example. Which was, “Alcohol is the best way to unwind or reward yourself. No dinner, party, or celebration is complete without drinking. It’s normal to rely on alcohol to navigate social situations. Drinking makes any bad thing better and any good thing great.”

Obviously, how we approach our own compulsions—whether we numb through substances, food, endless TV, or even shopping—speaks louder to our kids than anything we say.

Then there’s the role of heredity. I regret that I was too prideful to put Heather and her Dad and Grandmother together. Duh! We have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism in my family. Oh I could joke about it, sure. But I couldn’t apply it to me or my kids until I was ready to stop drinking. And I wasn’t, even for them.

What I don’t regret at all is that today I’m living proof that when all my best efforts fail, God doesn’t. He is always good. He has been my redeemer, and he will be my children’s too.

Unfortunately, we can’t require as a condition of trusting God that he will keep our kids safe from drugs or alcohol or any other harmful choice. But we can trust him to keep them safe in his eternal love in a way that goes way beyond this world.

Meantime, we parents get to lead the way in showing our kids how to Just Say Yes to life.


Pick a Chair: AA or Celebrate Recovery?

Now and then, I get emails from readers who wonder whether I recommend Alcoholics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery.

My answer is always the same: It all depends. I know people in both programs who have experienced the miracle of long-term recovery. I also know plenty of people who tried one or the other and didn’t like it, so they switched.

Both programs base their approaches on Christian principles. But there are important differences:

AA is the original source of the now widely used 12 Steps. CR uses a revised version of the 12 Steps and 8 Principles based on the Beatitudes.

AA’s main text is the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, while CR has its own Bible-based curriculum.

AA takes an inclusive approach to God, encouraging people to rely on a God of their own understanding, often referred to as a “higher power.” CR teaches that Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible is the only true path to God.

AA and its sister groups, such as NA (Narcotics Anonymous) or OA (Overeaters Anonymous), focus on specific addictions. CR is broader, and it addresses all kinds of “hurts, habits, and hang-ups.”

AA considers itself a recovery program and avoids promoting any single religion or faith tradition. CR describes itself as a ministry, and is unapologetically evangelical. (If you don’t know Jesus, they want to introduce you.)

Not surprisingly, both Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery have plenty of vocal proponents, some who honestly believe theirs is the only right or effective path to lasting recovery. But I have seen that God works through both programs. In fact, I’m convinced that God is so eager to rescue and heal that he will rush to the aid of any addict who cries out to him for help, regardless of what room they’re sitting in.

But if you need to choose, how might you proceed? Consider:

CR might work best for you if:

  • Christian doctrine is of first importance to you, especially with regard to your recovery.
  • You enjoy an evangelical Christian atmosphere that may include community worship as part of the program.
  • You prefer a gender-specific approach, where men and women always attend separate groups.
  • You’re most relaxed when surrounded by like-minded people who generally share your beliefs and values.
  • You view addiction as a spiritual and moral problem, not a disease.

AA might work best for you if:

  • You don’t mind sitting next to people who don’t share your moral convictions or faith beliefs (and who may use foul language on occasion).
  • You welcome the chance to encounter familiar spiritual truths in a fresh way.
  • You’d rather not attend recovery groups with the same people you worship next to on Sunday.
  • You see a secular recovery setting as an opportunity to serve and love people who might never darken the door of a church.
  • You believe addiction is not only a spiritual and moral problem, but also a disease.

I know—my list is somewhat arbitrary and incomplete, and anyone could argue with it. But I’m going out on a limb here because I want those who suffer to know what options are available and that both these programs can be found in almost every community in North America.

If you are looking for help, consider trying both groups, maybe more than once. Keep in mind that each meeting will have its own flavor and doesn’t necessarily reflect the larger program. Sometimes, proximity or schedule will limit your choices. But the best fit is always the one you can attend on a regular basis. (Maybe, like some people I know, you’ll choose to attend both!)

Of course, you’re no more likely to find a perfect recovery program than you are a perfect church. And even if you did, once you showed up, it would no longer be perfect, right?

The first time I went to a recovery meeting, I was convinced that it was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. It turned out to be the best.

So pick a chair, why don’t you?  Somewhere, God is saving a seat for you.

P.S. Why take my word? You can learn more about either group at: www.celebraterecovery.com or AA.org. Also, these are NOT the only two options, just the most popular.  I’d love to hear from you today, especially if you have experience with one or both groups to share.

Does God Answer Slurred Prayers?

Art by Carrie Neumayer, used by permission

Because I was a Christian long before I became an alcoholic, a part of me always understood that God was my only hope. Some nights, I’d get drunk and beg God to do a miracle and make me stop. In the morning, sick with shame and regret, I’d remind myself: God doesn’t answer slurred prayers, Heather. 

But is that really true?

What if God not only hears those prayers, he’s willing to help drunks get sober—even if they don’t pray in Jesus name, or even if they use a recovery program that isn’t exclusively Christian?

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that when I first got into recovery, it shocked me to see God so clearly at work in the lives of people who didn’t call him by the “right” name or necessarily identify themselves as Christians.

The longer I attended meetings among such folks, the more I saw that not only was God helping them to recover, in many cases, they depended on him in a more actual way than I ever had—like a crippled person leans on and trusts a cane.

I noticed something else, too. No matter what people called their “higher power,” it always sounded a lot like the Christian God of the Bible—good, loving, just, and forgiving.

What did it all mean?

Today, I think it means that left to their own devices, people seem naturally drawn to an idea of God inscribed on their hearts by their Creator.

I think it means that God can and does draw people to himself without the help of expert Christians, church, or the Bible.

I think it means that God’s kindness is so great and his love so far-reaching that he rushes to the aid of any who cry out to him for help.

Tuesday, my daily Bible reading included this passage:

“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being…” Act 17: 26-28

Paul perfectly describes what I witness in the rooms of recovery every day. People desperately groping about for God and finding him—even if they don’t yet fully understand Who they’ve laid hold of.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone in recovery is a Christian. But it does mean that God doesn’t wait to help us until after we get our beliefs right. How else could God’s kindness lead us to repentance?

I’ll close with this passage from the Psalms:

“..The Lord is faithful to all his promises

and loving toward all he has


The Lord upholds all those who fall

and lifts up all who are bowed


Psalm 145:13-14

I’d love to hear from you today. Do you think there are limits to how much God can or will help someone who isn’t a Christian?