“They Come in Droves”

Eight years ago, when Dave and I first moved into our circa 1890s house in Colorado Springs, the neighbors warned us about Halloween.

Apparently, our Victorian-era neighborhood was a big trick-or-treating destination. And we could see why. With its spook-ready architecture, enormous trees (lots of fall leaves to kick through), old-fashioned lamp posts, and light traffic on wide streets, our part of town is pretty much goblin heaven.

“They come in droves,” one neighbor told us.

We should have asked her to define “droves.” We figured it probably meant dozens, and prepared accordingly. But before that first Halloween night was over, Dave had made three emergency runs to Safeway for more candy. Apparently, droves means h-u-n-d-r-e-d-s.

I had never seen so many trick-or-treaters in my life, and such original costumes! The Energizer Bunny with his drum, the ghost of Raggedy Ann, a jumbo box of Crayola crayons, bee babies, angels, pirates…they all charged our door that night, buckets and bags in hand, in a line that stretched out to the sidewalk.

At moments, it felt like mayhem. And yet, when things finally settled down at around 9—it was a school night, after all—I was sad to see it end.

The next morning, out for a walk with Edmund, we saw signs of Halloween-past everywhere. A pirate’s scarf stuck on our fence post. A Kit Kat on the walkway. “When I went to the gym earlier,” Dave said, “I saw glittering angel wings blowing down the street.”

I imagined an angel from the night before—now waking up, just a little girl again. I wondered how she lost her wings, and if her parents promised to make her new ones for next year.

Later that day, I came upon the familiar verse in Hebrews that invites us to, “Come boldly to the throne of grace so we can find help in our time of need.” I had always loved that passage, but now the word “boldly” struck me as a stretch. Did God really want me to approach him with that kind of audacity? Like I expect something good—even now?

You see, this was also my first year in recovery. And just two weeks before Halloween, I had suffered a relapse —gotten angry at Dave and drank at him. Lately, I was more inclined to approach God like Edmund approaches me after he’s gotten into the garbage again—skulking, ears back with guilt.

Then I remembered all those kids from the night before. How confidently they had come tromping up to our door. None of them came because they thought they deserved our candy. They came because they knew we wanted them to come, hoped they’d come.

Surely, that’s how it is with God, too, I decided. God doesn’t care how spectacularly we’ve failed, or how recently we’ve lost our wings.

I don’t know what Halloween looks like where you live. But I hope it involves lots of excited kids. And I hope they remind you to storm God’s door, breathless with a good kind of greed for a grace more generous than you could possibly deserve.

P.S. If you’re in the neighborhood tonight, stop by for a bowl of soup, to sit by the fire, or—if you dare—take your turn on the porch with the candy. Last year, we counted a thousand kids…and every single one got a treat!

P.S.S. This post was oringaly published two years ago.

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).


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.




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.  



No Matter What (For Moms of Addicts)

Art by Susie Zol, click to visit her on Etsy
Art by Susie Zol, click to visit her on Etsy

This time, she’s wearing a floral dress and pink lipstick. The pained expression I recognize well. Before she even opens her mouth, I’m pretty sure she is the mother of an addicted son or daughter.

I meet this mom too often, I’m afraid. This particular one I met on Tuesday, after I spoke. She’s scared out of her mind, guilt-ridden, and confused. How could this happen to her baby? And her worst fear is too great to voice: I’m terrified my child is going to die.

I’m scared her child will die, too. In the U.S. alone, addiction and alcoholism kill on average 300 people a day, many of them young. That’s a jumbo jet filled with passengers going down. Every. Single. Day.

The hardest part might be that I can’t even tell this mom, “Trust God—it’s gonna be okay.” Because it might not be. Ask any parent who earnestly prayed for God to protect their child and then said goodbye in a morgue. [To continue reading, click here and follow me over to the Huffington Post.]

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.







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.