Except for the Blow up Bed

noahbdayA few mornings ago, I was jogging with my dog Edmund on a nearby path that runs just above and alongside a creek. I happened to notice a young man sitting on a big rock by the water, reading a book.

As I got closer, I saw that it was my son, Noah. My heart instantly lit. Spontaneous joy, you know? Recently Noah got a dog, Lucy, so I figured their morning walk had brought them here.

What a perfect thing to happen. In a flash I already saw us smiling with surprise, hugging each other, and remarking at the weather, all in a way of trying to say to each other, Isn’t life good? Aren’t we glad to be us, right here, right now, this morning?

I was about to call out his name, since his back was to me, the pages of his book lit from the sun behind us—when I suddenly realized it wasn’t him. It wasn’t my Noah. It was some other young man with remarkably similar build and coloring.

I jogged on past, disappointed but grateful I hadn’t called out too soon to the wrong son. Because he was someone else’s son, right? I thought about that for a while, how likely it is that some other woman would have been so delighted to come upon her boy like that.

It took me another half mile to realize that if I wanted, I could be just as happy to have spotted this young man as I would have had it really been Noah. And in some strange way, maybe I even owed it to his mother to rejoice at her son’s existence.

It hit me then that in a very true sense, my son and her son are the same son to God. Uniquely special, but equally precious expressions of God’s grace in the world, born of the same God-breathed desire.

So I chose to let a wave of joy wash over me. And I thanked God for the young man reading his book, because think about what that means. It means he’s not in jail. It means he’s not horribly hung over. It means he’s not using an assault rifle to shoot up a school.

It means he’s giving a random jogger a reason to celebrate sons who bless the world.

Speaking of celebrating, today is Noah’s 32nd birthday. Dave and I already had a small party with him on Saturday. But last night, Noah’s dad,Tom, flew in from California to spend Noah’s birthday with him, just the two of them. Which I’m pretty sure has never happened before.

Which means Noah woke up this morning and remembered with a happy start that his dad was sleeping somewhere nearby on a blow up bed.

So this is what I’m thinking about and feeling sort of dizzily grateful for today. That some mom’s son turned out to be the kind of young man who’d sit by a creek and read a book. And that my son’s dad gets to spend the entire day with the baby we made at 18—now grown into an amazing young man.

Given how happy this makes me for Tom, it might as well be me.

Except I’ll pass on the blow up bed.

Another Coconut Cake

With my sons Noah and Nathan
With my sons 

Yesterday the last of my family who were here for my 50th birthday flew home. I hoped I’d wake up this morning with something amazing to say to you about aging with grace, the wisdom of years, or the spiritual meaning of wrinkles.

Instead, I feel worn out, uninspired and, um, thicker.

I blame the coconut cake. The large, moist, yummy-beyond-belief one they make at Montague’s Parlour, here in Colorado Springs. Since I got only one slice at the party, I had the brilliant idea the next day to buy another one to celebrate my daughter-in-love’s upcoming birthday.

After that celebration with Kelsey, we kept the rest of the cake on the island in the kitchen. For the next couple days, I unofficially ate coconut cake for breakfast, lunch, even for between-meal snacks.

One afternoon, Kelsey caught me standing at the cake, my fork loaded in mid-air, not a plate in sight. I was embarrassed—until she laughed and said, “I’ve been doing that all day, too. That’s my fork on the counter.”

Now you can see why I love this girl so much.

And you can also see why I might never again as long as I live want another bite of coconut cake. Which gets me thinking today about the difference between over-indulgence and addiction. I can’t tell you how many times I drank wine until I it made me sick. Or worse, felt compelled to drink even though I was already sick. But not once did I lose my taste for alcohol.

It’s as good a proof as any of the insanity of addiction—and that I’m not addicted to coconut cake.

Still, it was a good reminder that I’ll always be vulnerable to compulsive behaviors that bring pleasure in the moment but leave me with regret.

This morning, as I totter about with a fresh pound of frosting around my waist, I wonder why I did that. Why did I find it necessary to treat my body so recklessly? What painful feeling was I trying to numb?

Maybe I was nervous about having all these people here to celebrate…me? Maybe I figured I had earned the right, thank you very much, to pig out on my birthday.

Or maybe, quite possibly, I just adore coconut cake.

One of the hazards of spending so much time thinking and writing about recovery issues is that I can get too serious, sifting everything through the grid of addiction.

Sometimes, the truth is simpler. Maybe I’m spiritually flat today because, for almost a week, it’s been hard to pray and meditate in my office when a daughter or sister is sleeping there on a blow-up bed.

Maybe I’m emotionally weary today because I’m companied out.

Last night, I made it to my first meeting in a week. I had little to contribute, apart from this truth: “I’m really sick of Heather. It feels like it’s been all about Heather for weeks. And yet, at the same time, I miss my own soul. Does that make sense?”

They all nodded. That’s how I know it’s going to be all right.

As long as I don’t see another coconut cake again. Forever.

Okay, for a couple weeks.

My daughter-in-love Kelsey with her own cake
My daughter-in-love Kelsey with her own cake


My Sister’s Addiction

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

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

Here’s what she sent:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



My Best Tricks

Art by vvoe via Shutterstock
Art by vvoe via Shutterstock

Some mornings I think of you and I wonder what you need. I wish I could spy on your hearts and see, because I confess that I want to be the one to say just the right thing.

Instead the best I can do is to remember that you’re a lot like me. So I think about where I’m at these days and I suppose you might be near there, too.

If that’s true, then it’s no secret that you feel less than joyous anticipation about this holiday season. You hide it well, but the days are unfolding slow and dull like a rerun of Christmas years past.

Or maybe for you it is much worse than that, and you would trade me spots in a heartbeat. Maybe you carry a fresh grief that promises to rip your heart open at the slightest provocation.

Or maybe like most of us, you simply have a few hard things to do, like going to a work party where everyone gets drunk and your boss is bound to hit on you. Or spending time with people you love who bring out the worst in you—I’m talking about family, of course.

Today, I was thinking about how hard these gatherings can be: The relative we want to strangle; the stress of making chit-chat; the fear of awkward silences (which turn me into a talking fool), the loneliness that can overtake us in the middle of a crowded room.

And of course, the way our addictions dance in our heads like sugarplums, enticing us to reach for easy relief.

I asked myself if I had any advice to help you make it through with just a touch more grace. And I thought of the usual tips—know how to say no; bring a second car; drink your sparkling water from a pretty glass; call a friend for support…

But you can find such tips lots of places. So then I asked myself, what one thing has helped me most? What came to mind first was how I coped before, back when I would escape to the bathroom to drink alcohol from my purse and hope Dave wouldn’t notice my long absence.

It hit me then that the bathroom is still my favorite sanctuary in social situations. Only now I don’t go there to drink, but to get on my knees and pray. I know of others who do this, too. And it makes me smile to think of us all doing the same thing at the same time on any given day during the holidays.

Sometimes, I wonder how God feels when he sees us there, bent in prayer on a cold tile floor on the off chance that it might help, half-way thinking ourselves crazy and mostly noticing that someone needs to clean behind the toilet.

But this is it, folks—what helps me most. Nine times out of ten, if I wait long enough, I feel God’s hand on the top of my head, gentle and reassuring.

And that’s all, really. It fixes nothing, except my resistance to the whole situation slowly starts to soften.

After a while God says to me, Now it’s time to get back out there. Remember that every person here is just another you. Go look around that room of Heathers and see what you can give.

That’s pretty much the only advice I have to offer this morning.

Except for once I did encourage a friend who was on her way to a dreaded event: “That relative you mentioned,” I said. “The one you’re afraid you might hate? When she says something awful or truly annoying that makes you want to scream or worse—notice how God is winking at you.”

“And maybe,” I added, “you could even wink back.”

These are my best tricks, I’m afraid. I’d love to hear some of yours.

Is Addiction Stronger Than Love?

My friend Becca looks like a model, lives in a beautiful home, and has an adoring husband and three young children.

But she’s also an alcoholic who struggles to stay sober. For the past ten months she’s worked hard to recover from a series of devastating relapses that almost cost her everything—including her marriage and kids.

A few weeks ago, I attended a surprise party she threw for one of her children. It also felt like a celebration of Becca’s return to health and happiness. She looked radiant. Her kids clung to her. Her husband beamed with obvious pride.

Only days later, she relapsed again. Friday, she called me crying and asked for help.  I went to see her where she’s staying—a skanky, drive-up motel, the kind where drugs are rampant and no one is actually on vacation.

I hardly recognized her. She looked scary thin. Her eyes were flat and dead, her face blotchy. She couldn’t sit up, kept falling sideways. Clothing and garbage were strewn everywhere. She denied being drunk or on drugs, but she could barely form the words, “I’m not lying.”

And there, on a nightstand by the bed—a mattress with no sheets—was a beautiful framed photo of her three kids. The incongruity and irony made me want to scream, “How could you! Don’t you love your kids? How could you do this to your husband again!”

I drove home in tears, haunted by a question I’ve asked myself for years: Is addiction stronger than love?

Sure seems like it. I couldn’t quit drinking to save my son from his own alcoholism.  I couldn’t quit drinking for my husband, either. If he’d given me an ultimatum—“I love you, babe, but it’s me or alcohol”—I might have chosen alcohol.

But this weekend, after seeing Becca, I found myself thinking differently.  I decided that addiction isn’t really stronger than love because love has nothing to do with it.

Today I am more convinced than ever that addiction is a mental illness. What else but insanity can turn caring mothers into uncaring monsters, loyal spouses into liars and cheaters, promising sons and daughters into criminals and whores?

I’m reminded of one of the best zombie movies ever made, “28 Days Later.” It’s often confused with the Sandra Bullock movie about an addict going through rehab, “28 Days.” But in a way, both films depict the same horrific scenario—what happens when good people morph into something less than human.

Which is part of what makes zombies so scary. Unlike monsters or aliens, these people still look like your loved ones or neighbors, except they’re not anymore.

The same can be said of an addict. The Becca I saw in the motel on Friday was not the Becca I know and love. She was like the living dead, incapable of choosing love.

And where does that leave her husband? Tonight he’s probably still wondering, “Why doesn’t she love me enough to quit?” He’s putting their small children to bed alone. They’re asking, “Daddy, where’s Mommy?” And he has no answer. The mommy they love has disappeared.

In all of this, hope is so hard to find, but it’s there if you look. Addiction might seem stronger than love, but God is stronger than addiction. Because this is true, some addicts do come back from the dead. I did. I’m writing this post as a zombie in full remission.

Becca just might come back, too.

You might be suffering today because you love an addict whose behavior seems to prove they don’t love you. How do you handle that? 

P.S. I changed my friend’s name and a couple details to protect her anonymity. But if you pray for Becca–God can probably figure it out.:)