“Does Daddy Drink Because I’m Bad?”

sadboy“Because Daddy’s sick.”

Throughout my childhood, this was my mother’s explanation to my siblings and me for why our father behaved erratically, why we had to move across the country to get away from him, and why he was no longer part of my life.

On the one hand, I applaud my mother’s wisdom. She was on the right track with “sick.” It described my father’s chronic drug addiction and mental illness in a way that didn’t denigrate him or make us kids feel like we were to blame for his absence.

But at the same time, without further elaboration and discussion, sick left me a bit confused. In my child-mind, sick was what happened when you got the flu. It didn’t change how you behaved, and it didn’t make people want to divorce you.

Never once in my memory did my mother use the word “drug” or “addiction.” An unintended, unfair (to her) consequence is that I grew up furious at her for leaving my poor, sick daddy. “You should have waited for him to get better!” I’d shout.

Of course, today I understand my mom did the best she could with what she knew—and she probably deserves an award. Especially when you consider how back in the 70s, she had few resources at her disposal and there wasn’t near as much awareness around addiction.

It wasn’t until seven years ago, when I got into recovery for my own alcoholism, that I began to grasp the complexities of the disease my mother had been up against. Now I get how hard it must have been for her to understand my father’s chronic relapses and empty promises—much less explain them to four little kids.

Even in our more enlightened age, discussing addiction with a child can sound like an intimidating proposition. Especially since kids are bound to ask painful questions like: Does Daddy drink because I’m bad? or, Why doesn’t my mom love me enough to stop taking pills?

But the importance of educating ourselves and getting comfortable with such conversations can’t be overstated. Kids need to process out loud just like adults do. And the child of an alcoholic or addict probably needs repeated reassurance that their parent’s unloving behavior has nothing to do with their own worth or lovability.

I recently got acquainted with a mother in recovery who stayed sober long enough to finally regain custody of her blonde toddler son. For months, she faithfully brought him to meetings, sitting him on her lap, kissing the back of his head dozens of times in the course of an hour.

A few weeks ago, she showed up without her son in tow. She’d had a bad relapse, and her boy had been returned to foster care. Needless to say, this child has a long road ahead of him. And I can only hope and pray that somewhere along the way a compassionate adult will talk with him in an age-appropriate way about his mother’s alcoholism.

Which brings me to Carolyn Hannan Bell’s books, Daddy’s Disease and Mommy’s Disease: Helping Children Understand Alcoholism. By doing what their subtitle says, both of these books fill an important gap in resources for families affected by substance abuse. They’re written and illustrated for kids—probably older children, since they’re a bit heavy on dialogue.

But honestly, I think these books are just as helpful for adults who don’t know what to say as they are for kids who don’t know what to think. The mom and dad in these two stories gently lead the way and show you what to say. I hope you’ll buy one for yourself or someone who needs this message.

I know I’ve only brushed the surface of a big topic here, so if you have wisdom to add, please comment.

Daddys-Diseasemommy's disease

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.

 Heather,
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).

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The Key in Our Hand

Art by Amber Mintert, click image to visit her on Etsy
Art by Amber Mintert, click image to visit her on Etsy

Some days, blogging about addiction and recovery gives me so much joy. Other times, it feels impossible. How can I write helpfully about such a baffling subject?

I’m reminded of a line in a Rumi poem:

“One of the marvels of the world
is the sight of a soul sitting in prison
with the key in its hand.”

Isn’t that so true? It’s one of the most crazy-making aspects of addiction—how it seems to us (and others, too), like freedom is clearly within our grasp. Just use the key, quit the addiction, and walk out of jail.

If only it were that simple. Instead, we scream bloody murder for rescue, and then run at the first sign of help.

It’s hard to explain, except to say that addiction seems proof of our split nature. In the grip of compulsions, we become a soul divided—part of us wants to surrender and part of us fights to hold on.

The demoralizing tug-of-war that results is surely one of the main reasons addicts tend to hate themselves so thoroughly. Add to this an endless series of self-inflicted wounds, humiliations, and losses—and you can imagine how shame fuels the engine of addiction.

Unfortunately, prevailing wisdom says the addict must experience ever more painful consequences, tragedies, and heartbreak—until they finally hit rock bottom and become willing to change.

I agree that desperation is necessary for surrender. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve arrived at an incomplete conclusion. If “hitting bottom” alone is the magic bullet, how come so many addicts suffer one devastating blow after another—and still don’t recover?

What happens when all you have left to lose is your life?

After seven years of hearing addicts’ stories, I have a theory of my own. I think most of the time a low point doesn’t become a turning point unless an addict hits bottom and hope at the same time.

Hope looks different for each of us, of course. For me, hope looked like meeting Susan, who happened to be in recovery. Her obvious zest for life gave me reason to believe that sobriety didn’t have to be equal parts deprivation and misery.

For a bunch of women in Amarillo, Texas, hope looks like a place called the Downtown Women’s Center, where I’m speaking today. As I’ve mentioned, they provide long-term help to homeless and addicted women so they can rebuild lives worth staying sober for.

Given my thoughts about bottoms and hope, you can imagine how much I want to see this amazing organization raise a bunch of money.

If you think of it, pray for me today. Part of what I’ll be trying to say is how hitting bottom without hope mostly leads to despair and too often, death. But hitting bottom with hope can lead to surrender.

And that’s when we notice the prison key in our hand.

 

P.S. By amazing coincidence, today is also the day Sober Mercies releases in paperback. Since an important message of my book is hope, rather than apologize for shameless self-promotion, I encourage you to buy a copy for someone who loves an addict, struggles with a compulsion, or simply adores memoir.

If you want to make a donation to the Downtown Women’s Center, click here.

 

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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).

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My Sister’s Addiction

Art by Sascalia, click to visit her on Etsy
Art by Sascalia, click image to visit her on Etsy

A few mornings back, I came upon an excerpt from a book my sister sent me a couple years ago, along with a note that said: “This is me! This is me!”

Here’s what she sent:

“I have been learning that the life of a caretaker is as addictive as the life of an alcoholic. Here the intoxication is the emotional relief that temporarily comes when answering a loved one’s need…

While much good can come from this, especially for those the caretaker attends, our care itself becomes a drink by which we briefly numb a worthlessness that won’t go away unless constantly doused by another shot of self-sacrifice…

 At the heart of this is the ever-present worry that unless we are doing something for another, there is no possibility of being loved. So the needs of others stand behind a bar that, try as he or she will, the caretaker cannot resist…” –From The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo.

I think sending this was my sister’s way of saying, See Heather, I have compulsions, too! We’re not so unalike. I understand you and your alcoholism, but do you really understand me? I need to be needed because that’s what feels like love to me.

Something clicked. I understood for the first time ever that I’m not the only one whose compulsions have cost me. My sister has paid a high price for her addiction to self-sacrifice: As long as she kept impulsively giving, she couldn’t grasp that she’d still be loved even if she gave nothing.

During my active alcoholism, not surprisingly, I took my sister’s care-taking nature for granted. Since she liked to be selfless without expecting much in return, I thought I was doing her a favor by cooperating.

When on occasion she complained that she was more invested in our relationship than I was, I blew her off as being too needy and over-sensitive. So what if we don’t talk unless she calls me? So what if I forgot the plans we made? Why did she have to take things so personally?

Thankfully, I’ve changed a lot, and my sister has, too. But both of us had to hit “bottoms” around our compulsions and seek outside help to discover a healthier relationship.

Still, escaping old patterns has been difficult. It’s just so tempting to go into default mode and play a childhood role. Katherine is the dutiful, good girl who takes care of everybody. Heather is the snotty brat who manages to get away with murder.

These roles have been so engrained in us since childhood that trying to change them has at times felt like trying to knock a marble out of a deep groove by simply blowing on it.

Still, more and more, we are learning to love each other with conscious intention. She keeps healthy boundaries and doesn’t take my occasional thoughtlessness so personally. I affirm her importance to me and do my part to tend our relationship.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a beautiful process.

We all know addiction and co-dependency tend to run in families. But guess what? Recovery does too.

I’d love to hear from you today.  Are you a caretaker type of person, or do you attract them?

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Her Pretty Little Neck

Art by Arsinoes Temple
Art by Arsinoes Temple (Click image to visit her on Etsy)

One recent afternoon, I was sitting at my desk feeling lonely and anxious when I noticed the sun was shining through the blinds in a way that felt perfect on my face.

I shut my eyes and basked in the light. For the next few minutes, I let everything go and invited God to mend the achy places in my heart. 

 Instead, he broke it open further. Which has been happening a lot, I’ve noticed, ever since I started asking God to help me grow in compassion. I should have known his answer would be to allow me to feel other people’s pain in a very real way.

The person on my heart that afternoon was a friend who relapses often and has recently been taken out again by her alcoholism. She’s someone I tried hard to help once and had to let go before I acted on the urge to wring her pretty little neck.

In the past couple of weeks, God’s been prompting me to call her again. And I’ve delayed, telling myself I wasn’t sure I heard clearly.

But sitting there with the sun on my face, I realized the real reason behind my reluctance: I enjoy my cushy life too much.

The thought sort of shocked me, but I knew it was true. I’ve gotten so comfortable in my safe little bubble of recovery that I’ve totally lost touch with the gritty, hard work of loving sick people who can’t love you back.

Sure, I sponsor women. But they’re all my friends, too. They’re perfectly nice, do the work, and make me feel good about myself. Meanwhile, I notice I no longer go out of my way to help the hard cases, invite newbies to lunch, or give my number to the jittery girl who just got out of detox.

It’s a scary realization, since there’s no quicker way to lose your sobriety than to stop giving it away.

So, I called my friend with the pretty little neck and left a message. It’s been a couple days and she hasn’t called back. No great surprise. It takes a lot of hope to pick up the phone, and I’m pretty sure she’s low on that.

She’s been in this cycle for years, you see. Rehab after rehab, relapse after relapse, and in between, promising periods of sobriety that often end in a seedy motel or in the ICU.

When she’s not drinking, she tries to find meetings where no one knows her—which is getting harder and harder. I can’t imagine how humiliated she must feel at times. To be that person, the one everyone knows can’t seem to stay sober. The one everyone knows has left in her wake a trail of people who tried to help and only got worn out.

Today, I’m wondering where she finds the courage to keep coming back.To try one more time. She might be the bravest person I know.

I also keep thinking about something Jesus said,  “What credit is it to you if you only love people who love you?”

And it dawns on me, even as I write this, that maybe God’s not asking me to help my friend, just to love her. Not because I can make a difference, but precisely because I probably can’t.

Maybe this is where compassion begins.

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For the Loved Ones

altelierva
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).

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