Two 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.
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.
As many of you know, since getting into recovery more than seven years ago, I’ve discovered that God is in the business of drawing people to himself quite apart from religion, the Bible, church, or professional Christians.
I didn’t used to think God could do that.
Today I recognize and celebrate how God works wonders not only through myriad religious traditions, but through folks in my own tradition that I don’t necessarily agree with. It seems no matter how narrow or stunted the funnel we hold up to God, given the tiniest opening for love, God pours himself into the world.
Which brings me to the excerpt I want to share with you today. It’s condensed from a longer version in author James Finley’s book, Christian Meditation. Just to set you up, a “river enterer” is Finley’s metaphor for a person who seeks to experience God.
I know it’s way long, but I think it’s worth your time.
I hope that those of you in the Christian tradition whose spiritual odyssey has been expanded and enriched in opening yourself to other religious traditions will relate to this parable.
Now imagine that you are a river enterer. Imagine, too, that you have learned to be a river enterer in the religious tradition that traces its roots back to Jesus. But there is something missing, something that is not right. Seeking to sort out just what the difficulty is, you study the history of your river-entering community.
You discover that at first it was very simple. Men and women simply entered the river. Soon a path began to form leading down to the water’s edge. Word got out, and a growing number of people began showing up to use the path.
One day, someone observed that river entering is so important it seemed only fitting there should be a ceremony celebrating the admission of new members into the river-entering community. And before long, there arose rituals with hymns and candles as people gathered at the river.
Then one day someone observed that river entering is so special that there should be some kind of little tent over the path that goes down into the river. Others agreed. And a festive, brightly colored tent was built over the path.
Then someone observed that river entering is so special that a tent was hardly a suitable way to honor all the ways that river entering enriched their lives. Others agreed. And so there was the first fund drive to raise money to build a large and beautiful building over the tent that covered the path that went into the river. And everyone agreed that it was an inspiring and uplifting building indeed.
Then someone wrote a book titled The Meaning of River Entering. Someone read the book, did not agree with its premise, and so wrote another book refuting the teachings of the first book. Someone read both books, disagreed with both, and wrote a third. Soon there was a proliferation of books on the meaning of river entering. A second fund drive was required to build a library.
Then someone suggested that a school be built to promote the study of riverology and the granting of degrees to learned riverologists. Another fund drive raised the moneys to build a fine school, a seminary of sorts.
Then someone observed that [the path to the river] was getting so crowded, it might be best if everyone did not enter the river. It might be better if only certain members of the community entered the river, and then distributed river water to the others. The decision was made to create a new ritual to celebrate authority invested in the riverologists to distribute river water to the community.
Somewhere along the way, the riverologists tended not to enter the river nearly as much as they used to. At some point they began to pipe river water into the building. And there were rumors that the water was actually shipped in from undisclosed sources.
This is the situation that has developed in the river-entering community in which you find yourself. It seems that most everyone is content to sip bottled river water, read books on river entering, attend river-entering ceremonies, and agree and disagree with each other about the meaning of river entering.
Disheartened, you walk alone one day down by the river, trying to grasp just how everyone got into this predicament. As you are walking along, you slip and fall into the water. In doing so, you discover that the river is so gracious as to accept you completely in your solitary mishap. All alone, unplanned—with no building, no teaching, no ceremony—you get completely wet.
You come out of the river and start walking down the shore, and you are surprised to come upon a group of people who have built a large building over a tent that is over a path that goes down into the river. You are inclined at first to tell them they can’t do what they are doing. You are tempted to tell them they are not even really getting wet. They only think they are getting wet. If they want to really get wet they are going to have to travel with you to join the river-entering community from which you came. Or perhaps some riverologists from your community could come to show them the correct and truly effective way to get wet.
But then, in recalling the personal journey that has brought you to this place, you decide instead to ask if they would mind if you used their path that goes down into the river. In doing so, you get completely wet. Relieved and grateful, you venture father down the shore to discover other buildings where river enterers gather. You use their path that goes down into the river and, in doing so, discover how completely wet you get, regardless of the color of the tent that is over the path.
Although the teachings regarding the meaning of river entering vary greatly, one thing remains clear: each time you enter the river you get completely wet. And in each community you discern the presence of seasoned river enterers, men and women who even in the scorching sun remain drenched in the graciousness of the river.
In venturing still farther down the shore you eventually come to the point at which the river empties into the sea. As you wade out into the water there is only water as far as you can see. Taking all this in, you are surprised to discover yourself being interiorly drawn back to the river-entering community from which your journey first began.
As you arrive back at your origins, you enter the large building and head straight for the path that goes down into the river. You are touched by the sincerity and devotion that went into setting up the festive little tent that covers the path. You are touched, too, by the depth of religious feeling and commitment that went into each detail of the building. You see all these things not as diversions from river entering, but as sincere efforts of men and women attempting to honor and reverence a grace and mystery they hold dear. You realize that perhaps you were a tad too judgmental. Perhaps, had you humbly done more river entering yourself, you would have realized that more river entering was going on than you had realized.
You enter the river, and in doing so you become completely wet. As those standing about see how completely drenched you are as you come up out of the water, they are moved to enter the river as well. You, together with them, rediscover the origins of your own tradition of river entering. Together you seek to give witness to the good news that we are, from all eternity, completely wet.
This 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).
I don’t know about you guys, but I excel at spiritual insights I can’t manage to implement. No matter how hard I try, the gap between what I know in my head and how I live that out keeps getting bigger.
I know it’s a human thing, not a Heather thing. But sometimes it bums me out.
Last week, though, a chance encounter with an old friend shifted my perspective a bit. I hadn’t seen him for ages and was anxious to catch up. For the past year or so, he told me, he’d felt certain God was preparing him for a specific role in a particular ministry.
A few weeks ago, they hired someone else. “It felt like the bottom dropped out of my life,” he explained. “I ended up sobbing on the floor in front of my wife.”
His honesty surprised me. In the past, I think pride would have kept him from disclosing such a personal disappointment. He would have put on a brave face for everyone but his wife.
Instead, I’ve never seen him more relaxed, real, and open. At one point he said, “I don’t understand God. I don’t get life. I don’t get how any of it works, anymore.”
But he said this without a trace of bitterness, and even with some relief. The longer we spoke, the clearer it was to me that my friend had undergone a huge surrender. He’s been forced to let go of a dream, to relinquish spiritual certainties, and to accept that God’s will is infinitely mysterious—and often, disappointing to us.
And yet, I’m tempted to say he seemed happy. Not the kind of happy that comes from getting what you want, but the kind that comes from giving up on what you want altogether.
As tough as that sounds, I almost felt jealous. It made me want to undergo a similar humongous surrender.
But not really, of course. Because surrender itself is bloody, hard work. What I really want is to live in the aftermath of surrender. That peaceful place where you’re finally okay with whatever happens to you or doesn’t. You have nothing left to lose because you’ve let it all go. No one can hurt your pride because there’s none left to protect.
Let’s be honest, though. Most of us experience only a handful of these kinds of huge surrenders in our lifetime. One of my biggest came in 2007 when I finally became willing to get help for my alcoholism.
Since then, it’s been a series of smaller but necessary surrenders. I say, necessary, because as much as I try to abandon myself entirely to God every morning—I tend to renegotiate as the day unfolds.
As some of you know from a previous post, God’s been encouraging me lately to “quit deeper.” At first, I thought this would look like something really big. A major surrender to rock my world.
Instead, it’s turning out to be a series of small relinquishments and capitulations: How can I let go here? What do I need to accept? What would giving up look like?
But maybe that’s okay. Maybe “quit deeper” happens one small shovel of surrender at a time. And maybe the gap between my best intentions and my ability to carry them out is part of God’s plan, too.
One of the best gifts I got for my birthday is a Roomba. If you’re not familiar, it’s an amazing little machine that vacuums carpets and floors for you. When it’s done cleaning a room, it automatically returns to its home base to recharge its batteries.
Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. The first time I used Roomba, I made a common mistake. I left the base outside the room where it was vacuuming, and so it couldn’t get home to reboot. Finally, it simply ran out of juice.
Which reminds me of my life some days. The way I zoom around, rushing to do what I vaguely hope is God’s work—but without relying on God’s power. By the time I notice I’m worn out and spinning in circles, it’s hard to find my way back to center.
Jesus told us, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
I’ve always loved this verse, but recently I noticed something new. The promise of rest is contingent on the invitation, “Come to me…”
Lately, I’ve felt too busy to come. I’ve been distracted and anxious, intent on getting ahead of the day before it starts. Clearly, some part of me doesn’t really believe that resting in God is more productive than racing around.
A few weeks ago, I was whining to myself about how busy I was when a strange thought popped into my head: Busy is an attitude. It sounded like something an annoying blogger (like me) would say. Or like something God might whisper in some else’s ear.
It took me a while to see the logic of the idea: Sure, stress is real. And some of us have more pressing tasks than others. But since we’re all allotted the same number of minutes in a day, and none of us can live more than one moment at a time, in a one sense, we’re all equally busy.
It’s when I try to carry around in my head an entire week’s worth of to-dos that I get overwhelmed and have a busy attitude.
Perhaps this is why in recovery we so often remind each other to simply “do the next right thing.” If I try to live ahead of where I am, I teeter under the load.
I also become scattered and discombobulated. Yesterday, I was late for a phone appointment with my new sponsor. A short time later, I spaced out on a lunch date with a dear friend.
Normally, my best excuse would be that I’m busy, busy, busy! I’m doing important things for God, you see. I’m such an important person I can’t help it if I forget little things like appointments with people I love.
ARGH. Clearly, it’s time to take a lesson from my Roomba and return to home base. It’s time to get back to that secret place of stillness and prayer where God restores my soul.
It’s time to hear again God’s gentle invitation . . . and come.
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.