“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.

“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

“What I Thought Was Impossible”

jack and anna
Anna with Jack

I don’t even have words to explain how much this post means to me. As I mentioned last week, today I get to introduce you to Anna Whiston-Donaldson, a beloved friend and one of the most talented writers on the planet. Maybe more important, I’ve never worked with someone so brave, honest, or willing to be broken open on the written page.

Anna’s memoir, Rare Bird: A memoir of loss and love (Convergent Books, 2014) comes out September 9th. It’s the story of how one ordinary afternoon three years ago, Anna encouraged her two kids to go out and play in the rain and only one came home.

But as Anna explains in the introduction, this is not a scary book. “It’s about how God and my son showed me—a buttoned up, rule-following Christian—that I needed a bigger God. I needed the God of the universe who somehow held a plan in His hand—a plan for the ages, a plan that I hated—that went far beyond my meager understanding. Because my God of rules and committee meetings and sermon notes and praise music wasn’t going to be enough for pain this big.”

What follows is a three-part excerpt from Rare Bird, followed by a not-to-be-missed book trailer.

As I write about what those days and weeks are like, the what seems less important than the how. How does one wake up the next day and the next? How do you force yourself to breathe and to eat when both seem disgusting and ridiculous? How do you keep from losing your mind? How do you live knowing the dirty secret that most moms try to stave off as long as possible if they ever face it at all—that control is an illusion?

Because despite my attempts to follow my mother’s example and relax and trust God with my kids, I’d clung to the belief that I could somehow control our futures if I just tried hard enough. And if my solo efforts weren’t enough, there was always God. Surely God could see how we wanted to live our lives for Him. How we had formed our family around loving and serving Him. And praying.

Jack was well prayed for. That he would be healthy and grow. That he would make true friends. That others could see in him what we did. That he would know his own worth. Prayers of courage. Prayers of protection. Was it all a crock?

We made sure we were in church every single week. Not because we believed in getting credit for good behavior but because we wanted our kids to understand our house was built on something bigger than ourselves, on the solid rock of God, not the shifting sand of money, status, or busyness that was so valued in our society.

Now I can’t shake the image we have on video of three-year-old Jack singing his Sunday school song with motions, some of his r’s coming out more like w’s in his little-boy voice: “The wain came down and the floods came up. …The wain came down and the floods came up, and the house on the rock stood firm.”

How will our house stand this flood?

[Later she writes]

And then there are the moments I don’t tell anyone about, when I feel like a bad griever. When I step into the crisp fall air, the sunshine warms my hair, and laughter comes quickly and easily. A gentle sense of contentment rests on me. Part of my brain feels aware that God is using Jack’s shocking death for something important, and that feels powerful and holy and somehow good, even though I don’t understand the details.

In these fleeting moments, and on these rare days, I can look beyond our circumstances for a while, away from what Jack is missing out on, away from the creek, and feel joy and hope. I don’t know what I’m hoping for, because the thought of a future without Jack makes my stomach turn. But thinking of Jack doesn’t. It makes me smile and fills me with gratitude that he was once mine and somehow still is.

[And still later]

I understand now there is no way to get an A in grief. I can just be honest about my feelings, try to live gently with others, and when that’s too hard, give myself a little break and find some distance. I can commit to plucking out the seeds of bitterness about how unfair life is when they sprout up again and again as they have on these pages. I can decide each day to trust that God knows what He’s doing….

Mostly, what I’m still learning is yet another way to look at Jack’s favorite Bible verse, “For nothing is impossible with God. ” Jack used that verse to encourage himself in doing hard things, despite life’s challenges. Then with the accident, the verse seemed to mock me. For (even with) God, nothing is impossible! Our precious child could die! Eventually, it revealed itself in a third way: signs. Why had I thought that a holy God wouldn’t or couldn’t use those means to show His love? Nothing is impossible with God. And finally, I’ve been learning that with God so close to me in my heartache, what I thought was impossible is possible, surviving and perhaps eventually thriving despite losing my Jack.”

Anna Whiston-Donaldson
Anna Whiston-Donaldson is a former high school English teacher who lives in the Virginia Suburbs. Her blog, An Inch of Gray, shares Anna’s stories of humor, motherhood and loss and has twice been voted one of BlogHer’s Voices of the year.

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.

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.


Why Just Say No is Just Not Enough

shutterstock_55206409My kids grew up in the era of Just Say No. Despite being mired in my own secret battle with alcoholism—or maybe because of it—I was desperate to protect my children from drugs and alcohol.

My strategy with my kids involved:

  • Discussions about the dangers of drug and alcohol use.
  • Clear consequences for violating the no drugs or alcohol rule.
  • Monitoring my kids’ activities and friends.
  • Watching for tell-tale signs of inebriation or drug use.
  • Scare tactics. “Look at this article. Six teens were killed. That could be you!”

If home drug tests had been available then, I would have added that to the list.

None of these tactics are wrong-headed, and most of them are helpful. But alone, they weren’t enough to keep my kids from using drugs and alcohol as teens. My oldest son continued to battle substance abuse into his mid-twenties.

Today my approach as a parent would be radically different. Yes, we need to help our kids understand the dangers of drugs and give them moral and legal imperatives to abstain. But limiting our message to a Just Say No campaign ignores what I believe is the real problem:

Drugs work.

Kids drink or get high for the same reasons adults do, after all. It helps them relax in social settings. It brings pleasure and even feelings of euphoria. It relieves performance anxiety. It gives them liquid courage to do hard things, like talk to the opposite sex. It helps them fit in, because most everyone else is partaking. It serves as an escape from the depression and disillusionment that are so much a part of high school. It eases isolation and loneliness. It puts them in touch with what feels like spiritual enlightenment—a mysterious connection to a larger reality.

And our mighty answer as a mom or dad to all that is, “Practice your ‘nuh-uh’ honey”?

When you consider all the things a drug or drink can do for you and all the torturous questions adolescents are asking—Who am I? Who loves me? What will become of me?—why wouldn’t kids want to indulge?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people in recovery talk about the “magic” of their first experiences with alcohol or drugs. They say thing like, “I felt okay for the first time in my life,” or “I had finally stumbled upon a way to escape what was going on inside.”

Of course, the truth is that in the long run, and in anything but careful moderation in safe contexts, drugs and drink don’t work. They stop doing all those promising things that lured you in the first place. They leave you with less than you had. They viciously turn on you.

But I think it’s grossly shortsighted and disrespectful of our kids’ actual experience in the world to only acknowledge the dangers without also acknowledging the appeal. Without that honesty, we’re kidding ourselves to expect our kids to avoid a trap that has lured millions of smart adults to their deaths.

Too often, it works like this. A kid grows up hearing how horrible and wrong it is to drink or drug, and then one day after a football game, he tries a joint or a couple of beers. Just as a pleasant buzz descends, a thought comes: Mom and Dad lied. This is no big deal—and it feels good!

Later, when he gets caught, parents pile on shame in hopes that the child’s suffering will dissuade him from repeating the mistake.

But here’s what you have to understand. In his mind, the two don’t correlate. Mom’s angry reactions and hysterics and alarm seem unrelated to the wonderful high he felt when he just said yes. Worse, piling on shame and guilt can actually launch kids more quickly into a cycle of substance abuse as they reach for relief from the pain of being such a disappointment to everyone.

Okay, so I’ve spent this whole post talking why Just Say No is not enough, which is definitely not enough.

On Monday, I’ll tell you what I think might work better, so please stay tuned.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. What was your experience yourself or with your kids on this issue? What messages worked or didn’t? 

The Hunger Games, Hope, and Hitting Bottom

Donald Sutherland as President Snow in The Hunger Games.

It wasn’t my plan, but I’ve seen the The Hunger Games twice now.

As often happens for me, one particular line of dialogue in the movie stood out. The evil President Snow, concerned that the heroine’s courage will inspire a rebellion among his oppressed subjects, warns his underling, “A little hope is effective, but a lot of hope is dangerous.”

The first part of this statement is especially true for addicts. A little hope is effective to keep a person oppressed by addiction from acting to escape. As long as an addict has the slightest hope that he can continue to manage his life without having to surrender his obsession, he won’t.

This explains why in recovery we say the more hopeless an active drunk is, the better. Hopelessness is synonymous with “hitting bottom.” Bottom is that place of misery so deep that an addict is finally more desperate to find a way out of his addiction than he is to feed it.

This truth has important implications for the family and friends of any addict. Especially in the case of alcohol and drugs, “helping” an addict to manage the fallout of his choices can keep his hope alive just long enough to spell his death.

Especially if you’re a parent, this is a hard message to hear. Rushing in to rescue our kids, keeping hope afloat for them, is what we do best. Plus, since many addicts don’t hit bottom until they’re six feet under, we know that letting go doesn’t guarantee anything, either.

So what should parents, friends, or spouses of addicted loved ones do?

Speaking from experience, I think you should do what I failed to when my own son was losing his life to drugs and alcohol. (I wrote about his story here). Seek help for yourself in a community such as, Alanon, Codependants Anonymous, or Celebrate Recovery.

Loving an addict isn’t for sissies or the self-reliant. A community of caring people who share similar heartaches can offer priceless comfort and support. Plus, you’ll learn the powerful meaning behind the saying: “You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” 

I learned first-hand that addiction tends to run in families. But the good news is that recovery runs in families, too. On numerous occasions I’ve watched it spread like a beautiful contagion through families and beyond.

And here’s more good news. The second piece of President Snow’s observation is also true. While a little hope is effective to keep a person in bondage, “a lot of hope is dangerous” to whatever keeps them bound—in this case, the power of addiction itself.

Paradoxically, one of the first things many addicts experience when they’re new in recovery is a lot of hope. I’ll never forget how it felt to look around in a meeting and realize these people shared my seemingly un-fixable problem—yet they’d found a way out. And they looked happy!

In that same bit of dialogue, President Snow also says: “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.”

Well, I think he’s right again. Hope has to be more powerful than fear because so many of us fear hope itself. Let’s face it. Few things in life hurt worse than hope that is dashed or disappointed.

So why should we even dare to hope for those we love who are captives to an addiction?

The Psalms are filled with statements like, “Happy are those trust in God,” and “He who hopes in the Lord will not be disappointed.” I used to think that meant people who hope in God get the outcome they want, so of course they’re happy.

But now I read these passages differently. I think they’re saying that we’re happy as we trust God, because hope sustains us, brings us peace, and helps us relax into the knowledge that God is good, no matter what.

What will be will be. But for you and me, right now, hope can be its own reward. 

P.S.  An important later post that relates to this one and could sound contradictory is here. What I mean by the importance of hopeless here is about an addict becoming hopeless about his ability to manage or conquer his addiction on his own. In reality, without hope, most addicts won’t want their lives enough to want to face them sober.