“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

The Best Thing We Can Do

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Good morning, friends. Forgive me if this gets long or rambly. I only have time for that kind of post this morning. I woke up thinking about two recent comments from either the blog or email:

“I just wonder if I will ever be able to forgive myself for hurting my closest friend. I have been a fool….drinking and talking…talking out of deep pain and having no idea what I was even saying….I am in recovery….but struggle with hating myself for hurting her.

Oh, how I wish I could change the past & take my daughter’s pain away. Alcoholism is such a cruel disease for the alcoholic & the one that have to endure the wrath it brings. All I could do was listen to her pain & let her express her anger towards me without becoming defensive. It hurt but I would do anything to help her to heal & being heard is important. What it’s done to me is bring up tremendous guilt & shame.

Dealing with broken relationships, guilt, and shame is by far one of the hardest things folks in recovery—from addiction, alcoholism, or just plain being human and selfish—have to deal with. Most of us arrive here sooner or later, though. Stricken with remorse, willing to change our ways, but stuck in an endless loop of regret.

Our recovery literature promises us that if we get sober and make amends eventually “we won’t regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” But most of us find it hard to not want to slam that door and escape the truth of how deeply we hurt others.

Of course, the irony is that if we do continue to wallow in guilt and regret, we’re actually more likely to climb back into the same horrible behaviors that hurt people we love and made us so sorry in the first place. Why is that?

Because shame never set any one free. And because the meaning of forgiveness is to forgo taking vengeance. And if we are the person we need to forgive and we refuse to do that, we’ll find a way—consciously or not—to take vengeance on ourselves through self-sabotage. We’ll be so tortured by our inability to let go of the past that we’ll end up hating ourselves beyond what our soul can bear and eventually we’ll be so desperate to escape our pain we’ll decide we might as well drink or drug anyway, since we need relief and we clearly don’t deserve sobriety. The condemnation of others and our own selves seems to prove this.

Here’s another reason it’s so hard to forgive ourselves. We’ve bought into the lie that to feel guilty is somehow noble, a virtue, or proof of our repentance. It’s one of the most subtle but powerful lies in the universe: My own remorse and self-punishment can somehow pay the price for my mistakes and failures and the way I’ve wounded others.

But none of us can ever suffer enough to make up for how we hurt people. It’s impossible. Only God can bridge that gap by his grace—and if we refuse to accept that grace, we take the path of Judas and self-destruction. We spread more pain. I think that’s the path my father took—he couldn’t get over the mess he’d made of his life and all the wasted years and how he’d abandoned his own kids. I’m convinced it was part of what finally drove him to suicide.

All this to say, my heart breaks for the women who wrote those notes. They long not just to be forgiven, but to know how to forgive themselves. They long not just to make things right, but to have a key relationship restored. Unfortunately, some relationships don’t survive the ravages of how we fail each other in this life. Not because some of us are less worthy of forgiveness, but because some of us can’t see beyond the wounds we’ve suffered.

I wish I had amazing advice for these readers, but mostly I want to just beg them to forgive themselves by faith. Piling on apologies doesn’t usually help. Continuing to try to prove your new intentions by groveling doesn’t help either. Instead, it just keeps the focus on our own guilty feelings and make us it all about us all over again.

Our friend or mother or child or whoever we hurt is not moved by our self-pity. The best thing we can do is set about to live in a way that proclaims the power of compassion and healing, that proves we’ve been set free from the past not because we’re worthy but because the horrors of our mistakes forced us to discover in God a source of hope and mercy that is finally greater than our stubborn hearts can resist.

We can live in  a way that bears witness to the understanding that every single one of us, believe it or not, has been doing the best we possibly can–given our own wounds, our past, what we know or don’t, and the DNA we’ve been blessed/cursed with. Few people are evil, I’m convinced. Most of us are just unhealed.

Yesterday I sat with an alcoholic in my office who had relapsed yet again and who was overcome with self-loathing. Determined to make it through the night sober, she wanted me to give her something to do when she got home. I told her I want her to ponder all the recent wreckage and havoc and insanity she’s caused—and then write a letter to herself forgiving herself.

She broke into sobs. “I can do that,” she said. “I want to do that.”

Let’s all do that today the best we can. And if you happen to be reading this and you’re one of those folks whose been wounded too times to count by a very sick person like my friend or myself and you can’t figure out how to forgive, I suggest the same exercise. Start by forgiving yourself.

Hope this helps someone today. I love you guys.

P.S. Here’s a link to a related post about how to fall out of hate with yourself. And an addendum:

Because I love this poem so much and I saw it on this other post, I’m going to add it to this one right here, too:

It’s by the poet Hafiz:

Once a young woman said to me, “Hafiz, what

is the sign of someone who knows God?”

I became very quiet, and looked deep into her

eyes, then replied,

“My dear, they have dropped the knife. Someone

who knows God has dropped the cruel knife

that most so often use upon their tender self

and others.”

 

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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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Ditch the Gas Cans

Image from Shutterstock

When I first ran across this cartoon, it totally cracked me up. It’s hilarious the lengths some of us are willing to go in our battle against destructive compulsions.

But if you think about it long enough, it’s sad, too. The desperation depicted by our guy with the gas cans is all too real for millions of people who can’t find a way to beat their addictions.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories of addicts who, in a reckless bid to disrupt their disease, consciously or unconsciously put themselves and others at risk of death.

Still other addicts take drastic measures that can only be called ill-advised. A few weeks back, I got a frantic email from a mom whose heroine-addicted son had just left her house to go commit a crime in hopes it would land him in jail and “give him a break from his demons.”

She didn’t know what to hope for. I didn’t know what to tell her.

But I understood that son’s twisted thinking. When I finally entered treatment, I too—or at least some small part of me—welcomed the idea of losing access to alcohol. For me, though, it was about revenge. After so many years of failing to conquer  my Inner Drunk, I couldn’t wait to watch her finally lose.

As it turned out, what helped me most had little to do with not drinking. What mattered more, what made all the difference, were the bonds I formed with fellow sufferers.

A line from our recovery literature says, “Almost without exception, alcoholics are tortured by loneliness.” Tortured is the right word, by the way. Especially since our favorite solution to loneliness is to further isolate ourselves.

Which makes me wonder: What if Gas Guy’s biggest problem isn’t that he can’t quit smoking, but the fact that he’s trying to quit on his own?

It’s no coincidence that every successful recovery program I’ve ever heard of places a premium on community. Treatment modalities differ, but they all understand and harness the same mysterious power of one addict talking honestly to another.

Today, you might feel a lot like our guy with the gas can. You’ve tried everything you can think of to control or outwit your addiction, or punish yourself for having it. So far nothing’s worked. You’re beginning to think it’s time to play high stakes poker. What if I stacked the deck so high that if I drank, everything I cared about would go up in flames? Would I pick up then?

You probably would.

Here’s a radical idea to try instead. What if you went to one of those meetings specifically designed to help people just like you with your exact problem.

I swear to God, we don’t bite. Very few of us smell bad. Sure, sometimes we cry. But mostly, we share our stories and laugh a lot.

For the rest of you, a question: What ridiculous lengths have you gone to in order to indulge or not to indulge your addiction? Are you willing to go to the same lengths to stay sober?

P.S. I love this cartoon, but I like this one even better.

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Secretly Hoping for Edmund’s Demise

edmundborderWhen I was newly sober, I had a list of possible tragedies which, should they come to pass, I thought would warrant a relapse. Surely, if my husband died or I got terminal cancer, no one would begrudge me a drink, right?

But since part of me hoped for such an excuse, I amended the list to include the more bearable scenario of my dog Edmund’s sudden and tragic passing. 🙂

Which might explain why twice during my early recovery Edmund was almost killed due to negligence on my part. Once a car hit him because I had him off leash. Fortunately, he’s so small he bounced off the front spoiler and rolled away to safety. Another time, while lowering my passenger seat for a nap, I inadvertently pushed Edmund out the rear window and onto the freeway in Denver. Fortunately, traffic was stalled and we noticed he was no longer in the car before we drove off.

If you’re an alcoholic, you understand why I used to think, When’s this little prick gonna die so I can drink?

Today, the idea that I might drink seems unlikely—a fact which, ironically, makes me more vulnerable to relapse. Especially when you consider I never saw it coming when, at six months sober, I drank at Dave in the Minneapolis airport.

So, in the spirit of vigilance, here’s an unscientific list of conditions that may increase our risk of relapse.

  1. We have a history of slipping. The more we relapse, the more relapse starts to feel like an option we can come back from—until we can’t.
  2. We were active in our addiction for many years. It makes sense that the longer we used or drank, the more deeply engrained those patterns of behavior can be, and the harder to break.
  3. We have been in recovery a long time. It’s true. The longer we stay sober, the harder it is to remember our powerlessness, and the easier it is to think we’ve changed enough that we could handle a drink.
  4. We have a lot of YETs. We haven’t yet got a DUI. We haven’t yet lost our job, our kids, or our marriage due to our stupid habit. Yets are good news until they make us wonder if we’re really alcoholics or addicts like the rest of those people we meet in meetings.
  5. We aren’t part of a recovery community. Most of us just can’t do this thing alone. We need the support and accountability that comes from being vulnerable with—and deeply connected to—others on the same journey.
  6. We take prescription meds that can be addictive. For many alcoholics and addicts, this is a slippery slope that takes us right back to our drug of choice.
  7. We keep our recovery secret from friends and family. If the most important people in our lives wouldn’t know or care if we relapsed, we probably don’t have enough at stake in our sobriety.
  8. We live or work in an environment rife with “triggers.” Repeated exposure to situations that weaken our resolve—for example, excessive stress, anxiety and conflict—set us up to seek relief in our bad old ways.
  9. We think we’re beyond danger. There’s a big difference between healthy confidence and the kind of cockiness that results in complacency. The latter is likely to lead us to a drink.
  10. We are unwilling to seek outside help. Many of us get sober only to discover we need to address other mental health issues, which if neglected, can threaten our sobriety.
  11. We fail to take the actions our program suggests. We rely on God to keep us sober, but God relies on us to do our part. Unless we take the steps historically proven to help, our sobriety is likely to be precarious.
  12. We don’t help other alcoholics. We often remind each other in meetings that we keep what we have by giving it away. Assisting newcomers reminds us of the nightmare we’ve been saved from, and helping others gets our attention off of ourselves.

You know what? Reading through this list right now, I realize that at least three of these apply to me today. This doesn’t mean I’m doing anything wrong, it just means that like everyone else in recovery, I need to stay vigilant if I want to stay free.

By the way, don’t worry about Edmund. Let’s face it, he has good reason to believe he’ll live forever.

In the meantime, I no longer secretly hope for his demise.  And if he dies, I promise not to drink at his funeral.

I’d love to hear from you today. What do you think I should add to this list? What else puts us at risk of relapse?

In case you’re interested in this topic, I wrote another post about relapse called No One Will Know if I Eat This Cake: The 12 Lies of Relapse.  

 

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A Lot More Beautiful

Art by Casspaintings, click image to visit on Etsy.
Art by Casspaintings, click image to visit on Etsy.

It seems my post about bonding over brokenness versus beliefs hit home for many of you (and set a new record on my blog—thank you!). It also raised the question: So what could the church do better to create connection and community?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Let’s agree that many churches do work hard to provide the kind of openness and safety that invite intimate fellowship.

And of course, beliefs and brokenness aren’t mutually exclusive; you can embrace both, and most Christians I know try to do this.

The point I hoped to raise in that post is that sometimes it seems like we Christians care more about what people believe than we do about loving them. And when “right beliefs” become the basis for inclusion in our fellowships, some of the most broken among us don’t feel welcome.

Maybe this is part of why the church Dave and I go to now has no official creed. In fact, when our pastor baptizes babies, in addition to the traditional things you’d expect to hear, he says, “We will not presume to tell you what you have to believe…”

The first time we heard this, we glanced at each other in alarm. What on earth? Isn’t that the purpose of church—to make sure we believe all the right things—and all the same things—about all the important things?

Up to now, we  hadn’t realized Christ-centered churches like this one existed. Churches that welcome everyone. That care about tradition but don’t double check your doctrine at the door.  That have enough faith to believe that God is present and at work in everyone’s journey.

It was a lot to take in. Yet we also found comfort in knowing that if we decided to stay, we wouldn’t have to agree with anyone’s theological, social, or political leanings in order to worship together, or to be accepted and loved.

We knew we had finally found home there the first time we celebrated Communion. When the pastor held up the loaf of bread and invited us to the Table, something in the way he spoke about Jesus being broken and given brought tears to our eyes.

I’m not saying my church is perfect or even the best. But years later, we’re still there and more involved than ever. Recently, Dave and I got to facilitate a month of adult Sunday school classes around the topic of addiction, recovery, and faith.

The first Sunday, I shared my journey from out-of-control drinking into recovery. Another Sunday, Dave shared his side of the story. We looked at the (dismaying) statistics about the prevalence of addiction. We looked at Scripture (Paul had a thing or two to say about doing—over and over again—the very thing he hated.)

But given the topic, it was such a relief to know no one was evaluating our spiritual correctness or critiquing our theology. We got to be vulnerable about our mistakes and weaknesses, and people responded in kind.

It got me wondering what might happen if we did this kind of thing in church more often. Maybe sharing our actual stories—what life was like, what happened, what life’s like now, and what doesn’t look like it’s freaking ever going to get better even though we’re following Jesus—would help to foster the kind of rich community so many find in recovery.

The power of truth telling to free us and change us can’t be overestimated. And hearing one another’s stories is how we realize we’re not alone, and that it’s okay to be human.

Mysteriously, when we share our shattered and less shiny parts with each other, our differences disappear. Healing happens. Community blossoms. We become a little more whole—and a lot more beautiful.

 

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The Promise of Shared Brokenness

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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.

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