“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.

Secretly Hoping for Edmund’s Demise

edmundborderWhen I was newly sober, I had a list of possible tragedies which, should they come to pass, I thought would warrant a relapse. Surely, if my husband died or I got terminal cancer, no one would begrudge me a drink, right?

But since part of me hoped for such an excuse, I amended the list to include the more bearable scenario of my dog Edmund’s sudden and tragic passing. 🙂

Which might explain why twice during my early recovery Edmund was almost killed due to negligence on my part. Once a car hit him because I had him off leash. Fortunately, he’s so small he bounced off the front spoiler and rolled away to safety. Another time, while lowering my passenger seat for a nap, I inadvertently pushed Edmund out the rear window and onto the freeway in Denver. Fortunately, traffic was stalled and we noticed he was no longer in the car before we drove off.

If you’re an alcoholic, you understand why I used to think, When’s this little prick gonna die so I can drink?

Today, the idea that I might drink seems unlikely—a fact which, ironically, makes me more vulnerable to relapse. Especially when you consider I never saw it coming when, at six months sober, I drank at Dave in the Minneapolis airport.

So, in the spirit of vigilance, here’s an unscientific list of conditions that may increase our risk of relapse.

  1. We have a history of slipping. The more we relapse, the more relapse starts to feel like an option we can come back from—until we can’t.
  2. We were active in our addiction for many years. It makes sense that the longer we used or drank, the more deeply engrained those patterns of behavior can be, and the harder to break.
  3. We have been in recovery a long time. It’s true. The longer we stay sober, the harder it is to remember our powerlessness, and the easier it is to think we’ve changed enough that we could handle a drink.
  4. We have a lot of YETs. We haven’t yet got a DUI. We haven’t yet lost our job, our kids, or our marriage due to our stupid habit. Yets are good news until they make us wonder if we’re really alcoholics or addicts like the rest of those people we meet in meetings.
  5. We aren’t part of a recovery community. Most of us just can’t do this thing alone. We need the support and accountability that comes from being vulnerable with—and deeply connected to—others on the same journey.
  6. We take prescription meds that can be addictive. For many alcoholics and addicts, this is a slippery slope that takes us right back to our drug of choice.
  7. We keep our recovery secret from friends and family. If the most important people in our lives wouldn’t know or care if we relapsed, we probably don’t have enough at stake in our sobriety.
  8. We live or work in an environment rife with “triggers.” Repeated exposure to situations that weaken our resolve—for example, excessive stress, anxiety and conflict—set us up to seek relief in our bad old ways.
  9. We think we’re beyond danger. There’s a big difference between healthy confidence and the kind of cockiness that results in complacency. The latter is likely to lead us to a drink.
  10. We are unwilling to seek outside help. Many of us get sober only to discover we need to address other mental health issues, which if neglected, can threaten our sobriety.
  11. We fail to take the actions our program suggests. We rely on God to keep us sober, but God relies on us to do our part. Unless we take the steps historically proven to help, our sobriety is likely to be precarious.
  12. We don’t help other alcoholics. We often remind each other in meetings that we keep what we have by giving it away. Assisting newcomers reminds us of the nightmare we’ve been saved from, and helping others gets our attention off of ourselves.

You know what? Reading through this list right now, I realize that at least three of these apply to me today. This doesn’t mean I’m doing anything wrong, it just means that like everyone else in recovery, I need to stay vigilant if I want to stay free.

By the way, don’t worry about Edmund. Let’s face it, he has good reason to believe he’ll live forever.

In the meantime, I no longer secretly hope for his demise.  And if he dies, I promise not to drink at his funeral.

I’d love to hear from you today. What do you think I should add to this list? What else puts us at risk of relapse?

In case you’re interested in this topic, I wrote another post about relapse called No One Will Know if I Eat This Cake: The 12 Lies of Relapse.  

 

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Her Pretty Little Neck

Art by Arsinoes Temple
Art by Arsinoes Temple (Click image to visit her on Etsy)

One recent afternoon, I was sitting at my desk feeling lonely and anxious when I noticed the sun was shining through the blinds in a way that felt perfect on my face.

I shut my eyes and basked in the light. For the next few minutes, I let everything go and invited God to mend the achy places in my heart. 

 Instead, he broke it open further. Which has been happening a lot, I’ve noticed, ever since I started asking God to help me grow in compassion. I should have known his answer would be to allow me to feel other people’s pain in a very real way.

The person on my heart that afternoon was a friend who relapses often and has recently been taken out again by her alcoholism. She’s someone I tried hard to help once and had to let go before I acted on the urge to wring her pretty little neck.

In the past couple of weeks, God’s been prompting me to call her again. And I’ve delayed, telling myself I wasn’t sure I heard clearly.

But sitting there with the sun on my face, I realized the real reason behind my reluctance: I enjoy my cushy life too much.

The thought sort of shocked me, but I knew it was true. I’ve gotten so comfortable in my safe little bubble of recovery that I’ve totally lost touch with the gritty, hard work of loving sick people who can’t love you back.

Sure, I sponsor women. But they’re all my friends, too. They’re perfectly nice, do the work, and make me feel good about myself. Meanwhile, I notice I no longer go out of my way to help the hard cases, invite newbies to lunch, or give my number to the jittery girl who just got out of detox.

It’s a scary realization, since there’s no quicker way to lose your sobriety than to stop giving it away.

So, I called my friend with the pretty little neck and left a message. It’s been a couple days and she hasn’t called back. No great surprise. It takes a lot of hope to pick up the phone, and I’m pretty sure she’s low on that.

She’s been in this cycle for years, you see. Rehab after rehab, relapse after relapse, and in between, promising periods of sobriety that often end in a seedy motel or in the ICU.

When she’s not drinking, she tries to find meetings where no one knows her—which is getting harder and harder. I can’t imagine how humiliated she must feel at times. To be that person, the one everyone knows can’t seem to stay sober. The one everyone knows has left in her wake a trail of people who tried to help and only got worn out.

Today, I’m wondering where she finds the courage to keep coming back.To try one more time. She might be the bravest person I know.

I also keep thinking about something Jesus said,  “What credit is it to you if you only love people who love you?”

And it dawns on me, even as I write this, that maybe God’s not asking me to help my friend, just to love her. Not because I can make a difference, but precisely because I probably can’t.

Maybe this is where compassion begins.

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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.:)