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.



The Promise of Shared Brokenness


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.


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?



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).


This Way is Better (Or, Moms Who Drink Too Much)

shutterstock_114386725One afternoon last week I was working upstairs in my hot, muggy office, trying not to suffocate, when I heard the sound of a can snap open. I yelled from my chair, “Hey, I heard that. Where’s mine?”

My husband Dave was working from home that day. Moments later, he came into my office with an ice-cold can of sparkling water. I thanked him profusely and popped the tab. Snap! “Remember when that was always the sound of a beer?” I asked.

Click here to keep reading.  This week I’m honored to be guest posting over at my friend Gillian Marchenko’s site.

Gillian writes and speaks about parenting kids with Down syndrome, faith, depression, imperfection, and adoption. Her memoir about her daughter Polly’s birth and diagnosis of Down syndrome in the former Soviet Union will be published with T.S. Poetry Press by the end of 2013.

P.S. If you missed my piece here, “On a Scale of Numbness,” it’s on the Huffington Post and could use support. Here’s the link.

How to Drink with a Recovering Drunk

shutterstock_110184851Let’s say that Dave and I are meeting you and a few others for dinner at a restaurant with a great wine list. You know that I’m a recovering alcoholic, but you’re accustomed to having a glass with dinner.

The waiter approaches the table and makes much ado about a new Cabernet on their list. Then he asks, “Can I start you off with something to drink?”

I’m setting up this scenario to think through with you how to be more at ease socially around folks in recovery. I know it can get awkward—not quite like what you feel around a friend who just went through a devastating loss, but close.

So how should you respond?

You could pass on wine and order water for my sake. You could wait and see what Dave does, then follow suit. You could ask if I mind if you drink. Or you could simply order the Cabernet without asking.

Most people I’ve talked to would opt to pass on drinking, or feel bad if they don’t. What about you?

Here’s my take on our dinner together:

If I thought you abstained from drinking to protect me from temptation, I’d appreciate your intention. But I’d also feel needlessly coddled. A lot of my friends in recovery would feel the same way.

Of course, we know that people mean well. Thoughtfulness and sensitivity are never wrong. So when someone is overly cautious around me—apologizing profusely, say, because they mentioned a margarita—I laugh and let them off the hook.

Because you know what? There is no hook.

That said, though, I’ve been thinking lately that some of the awkwardness non-recovery folks experience around us might be traced back to a few understandable but inaccurate assumptions about how recovery actually works.

For example:

People think we stay sober by resisting the temptation to drink. If this was the case, few of us could achieve long-term sobriety. Instead, God eventually lifts from us our obsession to drink. We are given a daily reprieve from cravings and compulsions so long as we tend to our spiritual progress.

People assume we can’t be around those who are drinking socially. While no sober person wants to hang out with a bunch of people who are blotto, most alcoholics are comfortable at social gatherings where others are imbibing responsibly. Some of us discover we have more fun sober at parties than we ever did drinking.

People think we are against alcohol and would love to see it banned. Sure, we hate the damage that drugs and alcohol bring to our world. But we understand that normal drinkers have every right to enjoy alcohol, just as people without an allergy to peanuts have every right to eat them.

The miracle of recovery is that it transforms our relationship with alcohol. Here’s how our literature explains what it feels like to enjoy healthy recovery:

“We are not fighting it [alcohol], neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality—safe and protected. The problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.”

One qualifier: Probably nothing I’ve said here applies to a newly sober alcoholic. I know from personal experience that those early days of learning to do life sober come with unique challenges. If you’re unsure in a social situation where a person is on his or her journey, I say go ahead and risk a brief bout of awkward. Ask as privately as you can what kind of response on your part would be most helpful.

At least the person will know you care.

I do my best to try to alleviate potential elephant-in-the-room moments in advance. Something simple and direct is good: “I won’t be drinking tonight, but I really hope you’ll feel free.” Or, earlier in my sobriety, I might have asked, “Do you mind if we stick to iced tea?”

These days, if Dave and I are meeting up with people who know my story, I text or email in advance: “By the way, I hope you’ll feel free to imbibe tonight. Dave probably will, too—and I really don’t mind.”

I think I speak for most of my friends who have been in recovery for a while when I say we prefer to be at a table where everyone is enjoying themselves.

Just don’t look too surprised when we propose a toast with a glass of fine water.

Should I Say Something?

Drinking, by Carolina Ferrara

I recently got an email from a reader who’d been designated by a group of friends to confront another friend about her excessive drinking. Was such a conversation wise, she asked me, and if so, how should she go about it?

Since I’ve received several similar emails, I want to address her question here. But with a couple caveats: This isn’t a post about how to do a family or professional intervention. And it won’t be an adequate discussion for many who are affected deeply and daily by a loved one’s addiction.

To start, let’s agree that a conversation expressing concern about another person’s behavior is always a risk. It’s a rare person—much less an addict—who responds to that kind of news in a positive way.

Still, there’s a place for it—an important one. I like to think that every expression of genuine concern puts another dent in an addict’s denial that they have a problem. And should tragedy strike, you won’t live with regret that you didn’t speak up.

Here are my tips for how you might best show your concern.

  1. Educate yourself. Before you ever speak a word, know something about the particular addiction this person is facing. If you don’t care enough to explore the issue, you might want to consider whether you care enough to have the conversation.
  2. Assess your motive. Get clarity for yourself about what you’re hoping to achieve, and why. Make sure you’re not just looking for a chance to express your anger or feel morally superior.
  3. Adjust your expectations. It’s easy to walk into the conversation with an idealized vision of what will happen. But the ideal rarely happens. Are you prepared to experience the person’s resistance, denials, accusations, anger, or rejection?
  4. Don’t speak on behalf of others. “I know your mom is worried, too” doesn’t work, even if she is. And speaking as if you represent an unseen majority only makes a person feel ganged up on and ostracized.
  5. Leave diagnosing to the experts. Unless a person uses them first, avoid labels like “alcoholic” or “addicted.” Instead, stick to your own observations about their choices and behavior, and the consequences connected to them. Perhaps wonder aloud if they might be more stuck than they realize.
  6. Resist comparisons to Aunt Betty. Every time my mother said, “I worry that you’re like Grandma Margie,” my resistance only stiffened. It might be okay to point out a possible genetic vulnerability, but it’s rarely helpful to ask the person to identify with a negative example.
  7. Identify with the struggle. If you can’t relate to the specific drug or activity, you might say: “I haven’t struggled with alcohol, but boy have I struggled with ____.” Or if you don’t relate at all, simply admit, “I can’t imagine how hard this kind of thing must be.”
  8. Avoid arguing about details. How often they’re drunk, how much they eat, how many people they slept with isn’t the point.  Let them talk about the issue in their own way, and look for your opportunity to say the one or two things you came to say: “I’m so worried.” Or, “You’re choices scare me.”
  9. Remember that shaming backfires. If this person has embarrassed or betrayed you or themselves, they probably already know it. Focus on the facts rather than on your own value judgments. Most addicts are already so bound up by shame that adding to it only drives them further into self-hatred, which drives them closer to their drug of choice for relief.
  10. Don’t treat a person’s potential addiction as if it’s a sin issue only. If you’re talking to a Christian, chances are they’ve already tried repentance and prayer. Instead of asking them to try harder at something that hasn’t worked, invite them to consider that God might be asking them to seek outside help.
  11. Be prepared with a do-able next step. It only took one phone call to set me into motion away from habitual drunkenness and toward healing. Go prepared with contact information for a local person-in-the-know, professional organizations, or programs that might offer the right kind of help. Or if the person is willing, promise that you will walk with them step-by-step to find it.
  12. Bring closure to the discussion. If you sense the person isn’t ready to deal with your concern, you might agree not to bring this up again. Otherwise, set up a time when you’ll check in. Assure them your talk hasn’t changed how much you like or love them. Avoid the kind of vague ending that will leave you both feeling awkward.
However your friend responds, you’ve done a beautiful thing. Try not to rehash things in your mind too much. If you strongly feel like you blew it—lost your temper or got manipulative, for example—do what recovering addicts do. Make amends…and set about with gratitude to do the next right thing.
I know this was an unusually lengthy post. But if you have anything that could–and should–have made it longer, I’d love to hear from you! 🙂