“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.

What Can I Not Say?

Amazing art by Lisa Graham. Click image to visit her on Etsy.
Amazing art by Lisa Graham. Click image to visit her on Etsy.

Good morning, friends. Maybe you’ve noticed it’s been pretty quiet around here lately. Trust me, it’s not because it’s quiet in my brain or boring in my life. Quite the opposite. Hopefully, I can update you soon.

In the meantime, something I read today from Parker Palmer really resonated with me. The book is called, Let Your Life Speak. Which is kind of the opposite of how I tend to communicate truths that resonate with me. My approach is more, Let Your Mouth Spout.

I did that the other day when a depressed friend came by for a visit. She was in that place of internal exhaustion, where you wake up and realize you have nothing to give and you want the world to go away.

I gave her some great advice and shared spiritual tidbits that seemed inspiring to me. I was gratified when she told me, “I wish I had a tape recorder.”

It wasn’t until hours later that I realized I missed the real opportunity—to listen with kindness and care. To give her space and time to arrive at her own wisdom. To help her soften around her pain instead of suggesting it’s wrong to feel this way.

In Let Your Life Speak, Palmer writes about his own struggle with depression. “Twice in my forties I spent endless months in the snake pit of the soul,” he explains. “Hour by hour, day by day, I wrestled with the desire to die . . . I could feel nothing except the burden of my own life and the exhaustion, the apparent futility, of trying to sustain it.

“I understand why some depressed people kill themselves: they need the rest.”

Naturally, lots of people tried to help Palmer. To cheer him up. To remind him how valuable his life was. To suggest ways to break out of his funk. And not surprisingly, none of it helped much.

He writes:

One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels—and our unconscious need is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the sad soul before us.

In an effort to avoid those feelings, I give advice, which sets me, not you, free. If you take my advice, you may get well—and if you don’t get well, I did the best I could. If you fail to take my advice, there is nothing more I can do. Either way, I get relief by distancing myself from you, guilt free.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve done that, how easily I forget that sometimes the only thing more powerful than just the right words is just the right silence. The kind that bears with, not bears advice. The kind that inspires small, powerful acts of love.

“Blessedly,” Palmer writes, “there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a friend named Bill who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by my home every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling—and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race.

Bill rarely spoke a word.”

This seems like a good challenge for me next time I’m with a friend who aches: How can I honor the sacredness of her struggle? What can I do to show that I care? What can I not say?

Let’s hope it’s a lot.

 

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“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.”

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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.

Inside Every Monster

clareElsaesserThis past week, Dave has been out of town on a backpacking trip with his kids, and I have been taking care of business at home—which has included reorganizing my office (Okay the re part is a lie—it never was organized to begin with).

In the process, in the bottom of a drawer, I came across an old handwritten note from Dave. Normally, I wouldn’t share such a thing on my blog—especially since so many women never receive a single such letter in their lives. I’m aware how fortunate I am.

But I have a reason for sharing this one. Here’s the note—minus some goopy stuff.

 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).

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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.

My Hat in My Hands

Art by Bird Brain Studio, click to visit on Etsy
Art by Bird Brain Studio, click to visit on Etsy

I recently ran a post about how mercy should trump judgment when it comes to addicts and alcoholics.Naturally, that same afternoon, I found myself sitting in judgment of a good friend, relishing unkind thoughts about how she’s handling a situation that’s none of my business.

Oh the irony! But the sad truth is, I do this all the time. I’m not sure a day goes by when I don’t indict someone for what seems to me like a poor choice, a backward belief, or a self-created crisis.

Have I always been so arrogant, petty, and heartless? I’m afraid so. But hopefully what has changed is my willingness to admit it. Typically, when I catch myself in the act of judging someone, my first temptation is to scold myself: Who do you think you are?! How dare you judge her! Shame on you!

But you know what? That doesn’t really help, because my ego is never going to feel sorry or try to reform. It just snickers at me and then stores away the negative energy for later use. And guess what? The only thing my ego enjoys more than bashing others is bashing me.

The good news in all of this is we are not our egos, and we are also not our thoughts. I’m convinced our true self is made in God’s image, can’t be diminished by anything we do or say, and only knows how to love.

So these days, when I notice my false-self/ego is gleefully banging its gavel again, I’m learning to do two things. First, I try to practice self-kindness; I look for a way to give myself a truer version of what my ego wants to take away from someone else.

Second, I look for the mercy angle—a shift in perspective that helps me arrive at compassion. I ask questions like: What would it feel like to live in this woman’s skin? What kind of emotional wounds might be driving her? How am I just like her?

The apostle Paul wrote, “Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.”

I think making allowances—giving others and myself plenty of room and space in which to fall short or screw up—is a great definition of mercy. It’s not at all the same as making excuses. You’re not rationalizing away someone’s responsibility; you’re trying to understand what brought her to this place.

Of course, deciding not to judge someone is a lot harder when the person clearly deserves it; when we’re not just annoyed or critical, this person actually hurt us. In this case, mercy is more than a decision not to judge, it’s a gateway to the more difficult task of forgiveness. But never is mercy more precious than now; and should we succeed, it can have a powerful ripple effect.

I experienced this first hand when I took my 9th Step in recovery. As I went about making amends to people I’d hurt, I noticed how the act of humbly going to people, my hat in my hands, asking for forgiveness suddenly made the idea of forgiving people who have hurt me seem remarkably reasonable.

I should hold my hat in my hands more often.

 

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For the Loved Ones

altelierva
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).

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