Hearing Voices

shutterstock_158676188Two nights ago, Dave and I watched the season premier of Homeland, a show about a brilliant but terribly flawed CIA agent played by Claire Danes. At one point in the episode, her sister, who happens to be a doctor, says to her something like: “What’s wrong with you is so wrong there’s not even a diagnosis.”

Ha! I thought this was such a funny line. Then I realized it was kind of familiar, too. It sounded exactly like the kind of thing the mean voice I hear in my head on a regular basis would say: You’re such a fraud and a failure! You’re bad and broken in ways that go way beyond what it means to be a regular human.  

My sister has a lot of experience with this mean voice, too. Lately, she’s been going to Alanon, which has been a great help to her—and me, too. Last week, she called to tell me something she heard a woman say after a meeting that was so powerful to her she thought it might change her life.

Really? I thought. A single idea could change your life?  And then she told me what the woman said: “I’m single and I live alone, but I’m in an abusive relationship.”

Meaning, with herself.

Wow. My sister was right. This idea could change my life, too. Of course, the notion that we’re hard on ourselves is nothing new, but putting it in terms of being in a potentially abusive relationship is a fresh, helpful way to look at the importance of how we talk to and treat ourselves.

Especially when you consider that, apart from God, the relationship we have with ourselves is the most constant, lasting, and influential one we’ll ever have.

No wonder in recovery we emphasize self-care so much. Being in an abusive relationship with yourself is pretty much the definition of addiction, don’t you think?  So it goes to reason that healing this relationship would be a big part of what it takes to achieve long term recovery.

This was brought home to me in a real way yesterday when I got a  call from a friend who’s in the same treatment center I went to seven years ago. She, too, was asked to write a letter to herself about her alcoholism and how she intends to stay sober.

I’ll never forget how much I cried and how surprisingly healing it was for me to write that letter. And it was the same for my friend. Something about intentionally talking  to yourself in an encouraging, compassionate way makes you realize how much of the time you unintentionally talk to yourself in ways that bring you down.

So maybe it’s worth asking questions like these more often: If that voice in my head were incarnated into a person—what would our relationship look like? What do I put up with that I shouldn’t? How might I set better boundaries about how I let myself think and behave toward myself?

And since that voice in my head isn’t about to reform or leave any time soon, how can I respond to her in a way that doesn’t just antagonize her further? How can I show that hurt, fear-driven part of myself the kind of compassion I’d show a sick friend?

I need to think a lot more about this, and maybe you do, too.

In the meantime, as we watch out for the mean voice in our head, we can also listen—with all our heart—for the voice of love that comes from our soul, created in God’s image.

I hope you hear that voice often.

Hugs and love, Heather

“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

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.]

When Mercy Trumps Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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





For the Loved Ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It Was Me Who Reached Out for You

Art by Magaly Ohika
Art by Magaly Ohika, used by permission

Recently I heard from a couple readers who know they’re addicts or alcoholics, but just can’t find the willingness to reach for help. Their emails came with heartbreaking confessions. One began, “I’m drinking as I write this…”

I’ve so been there: you know you have a problem, you’re desperate to quit, you might even see the end coming, but you’re not quite ready to give up and reach for help.

It’s such a miserable place. In recovery we say, “It takes what it takes.” But we also say, “You reach the bottom when you quit digging.”

Another common thread in the emails I’ve been getting is fear of embarrassment or rejection. I so get that, too. It was a huge part of the reason I spent so many years begging God for a huge  private miracle. I wanted him to zap me from heaven and declare in a booming voice, Your faith has made you well, Heather! Go your way and drink no more.

Or better yet, “Go your way and drink no more… than two glasses a night.”  🙂

 The point is, I wanted my miracle my way.

I see a little of myself in the woman in the gospel story who’d been bleeding for twelve years. She thinks—correctly, it turns out—that if she can just reach out and touch Jesus’ garment, she’ll be healed. And no one will know.

But Jesus did know. He turns around and asks, “Who touched me?”

His disciples give him a funny look. “Uh, gee. We’re, uh, walking through a crowd?”

But Jesus persists. “I felt power flow from me,” he says.

Trembling with fear, the woman steps forward to confess that she’s the one who reached for him.

I’m pretty sure Jesus already knew this. And I wonder if he didn’t also know that naming her need in public was somehow a necessary part of her healing.

I was sober for a couple years before I understood that God’s power to heal and help me had been there all along. I simply couldn’t receive the miracle because I wanted it on my own terms—in a way that would spare my pride.

And what if God had chosen to deliver me my way? It would have been wonderful. I could have returned to my old life, relieved and grateful. Whew! That ‘being a drunk’ thing was awful! I’m so glad I’m past that now! 

But God would have gotten no credit. And I would never have gotten into recovery, or written about it, or fell in love with the wonderful sober friends I had over for dinner last Tuesday night. I would never have come to understand how good it is to have to rely on God utterly, and on a daily basis.

Today, I’m so grateful that God in his kindness waited for me to say yes to healing on his terms and in his way. And the miracle is still going on. I experience it every time I grasp again for the dusting of grace that lies heavy on God’s cloak.

Every morning, I hear Jesus ask, “Who touched me?”

And every morning, I get to answer, “Me, Lord. It was me who reached out for you.”

I’d love to hear from you today. Have you ever begged God for a miracle on your own terms and gotten one on his?


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.