“Does Daddy Drink Because I’m Bad?”

sadboy“Because Daddy’s sick.”

Throughout my childhood, this was my mother’s explanation to my siblings and me for why our father behaved erratically, why we had to move across the country to get away from him, and why he was no longer part of my life.

On the one hand, I applaud my mother’s wisdom. She was on the right track with “sick.” It described my father’s chronic drug addiction and mental illness in a way that didn’t denigrate him or make us kids feel like we were to blame for his absence.

But at the same time, without further elaboration and discussion, sick left me a bit confused. In my child-mind, sick was what happened when you got the flu. It didn’t change how you behaved, and it didn’t make people want to divorce you.

Never once in my memory did my mother use the word “drug” or “addiction.” An unintended, unfair (to her) consequence is that I grew up furious at her for leaving my poor, sick daddy. “You should have waited for him to get better!” I’d shout.

Of course, today I understand my mom did the best she could with what she knew—and she probably deserves an award. Especially when you consider how back in the 70s, she had few resources at her disposal and there wasn’t near as much awareness around addiction.

It wasn’t until seven years ago, when I got into recovery for my own alcoholism, that I began to grasp the complexities of the disease my mother had been up against. Now I get how hard it must have been for her to understand my father’s chronic relapses and empty promises—much less explain them to four little kids.

Even in our more enlightened age, discussing addiction with a child can sound like an intimidating proposition. Especially since kids are bound to ask painful questions like: Does Daddy drink because I’m bad? or, Why doesn’t my mom love me enough to stop taking pills?

But the importance of educating ourselves and getting comfortable with such conversations can’t be overstated. Kids need to process out loud just like adults do. And the child of an alcoholic or addict probably needs repeated reassurance that their parent’s unloving behavior has nothing to do with their own worth or lovability.

I recently got acquainted with a mother in recovery who stayed sober long enough to finally regain custody of her blonde toddler son. For months, she faithfully brought him to meetings, sitting him on her lap, kissing the back of his head dozens of times in the course of an hour.

A few weeks ago, she showed up without her son in tow. She’d had a bad relapse, and her boy had been returned to foster care. Needless to say, this child has a long road ahead of him. And I can only hope and pray that somewhere along the way a compassionate adult will talk with him in an age-appropriate way about his mother’s alcoholism.

Which brings me to Carolyn Hannan Bell’s books, Daddy’s Disease and Mommy’s Disease: Helping Children Understand Alcoholism. By doing what their subtitle says, both of these books fill an important gap in resources for families affected by substance abuse. They’re written and illustrated for kids—probably older children, since they’re a bit heavy on dialogue.

But honestly, I think these books are just as helpful for adults who don’t know what to say as they are for kids who don’t know what to think. The mom and dad in these two stories gently lead the way and show you what to say. I hope you’ll buy one for yourself or someone who needs this message.

I know I’ve only brushed the surface of a big topic here, so if you have wisdom to add, please comment.

Daddys-Diseasemommy's disease

The Best Thing We Can Do

shutterstock_178261493

Shutterstock

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.

Hope this helps someone today. I love you guys.

P.S. Here’s a link to a related post about how to fall out of hate with yourself. And an addendum:

Because I love this poem so much and I saw it on this other post, I’m going to add it to this one right here, too:

It’s by the poet Hafiz:

Once a young woman said to me, “Hafiz, what

is the sign of someone who knows God?”

I became very quiet, and looked deep into her

eyes, then replied

“My dear, they have dropped the knife. Someone

who knows God has dropped the cruel knife

that most so often use upon their tender self

and others.”

 

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Ready. Set. Go.

photo (4)

I was so happy this wasn’t mine, I took a picture.

It’s only eleven a.m. and already so much has happened.

A friend has cried at my doorstep. Beautiful, honest tears I felt grateful to bear witness to.

Men have shown up to work on a remodeling project down the hall from my office (lots of pounding and drilling).

I have gone for a jog and while running, woke several times from the trance of my thoughts to be where I was and remember God.

I grabbed the last doggy bag from a dispenser at the park and noticed someone had left a small empty bottle of alcohol inside, and I thanked God from my heart it wasn’t me.

I got my feelings hurt by someone who was trying to helpful but was clumsy.

But here’s the most important thing that’s happened today so far. After Dave and I exchanged our usual morning greetings, I surprised myself by saying, “It’s going to be a great day today. For both of us.”

Dave agreed it could happen, but I thought I could see doubt in his eyes. Which gave me an idea. “What if we have a contest? We could attach a big prize for whoever manages to have the best day?”

“Sure honey,” he said. And I knew what he was thinking. It wouldn’t be a fair challenge, since he obviously has a lot more stress, a lot more opportunities for things to go wrong at work than I do here at home with Edmund and a construction crew.

So maybe such a contest would have to take into account the size of the gap between what the person faces—in terms of difficulty—and how they respond, in terms of finding joy.

Which means, I’d have to work really hard at turning a potentially mediocre, ordinary day into a great day. What would that look like? Some ideas that come to mind right off:

  • I’d have to keep close tabs on my thoughts and my ego.
  • I’d try to wake up a lot, and stay in touch with my soul.
  • I’d want to take time to make some other people feel good—even if it’s just a short to text to let them know how much they matter to me.
  • I’d need to practice radical acceptance of every circumstance I encounter, not judging it good or bad.
  • I’d try to stay in a place of deep surrender, letting go of any sense of entitlement or expectation.
  • I would try to hold a posture of gratitude in my heart all day.
  • I would smile a lot for no reason, which is a good way to trick yourself into happiness.
  • I would forgive myself over and over again for failing to doing these things perfectly or even well. Oceans of compassion.
  • I’d spend a lot of time looking at Frye boots online, trying to decide which ones I want Dave to buy me this fall for my sobriety birthday.

I think I’d win, don’t you?  Feel free to join the contest—or let me know what you’d do to win, so I can steal your ideas.

Ready. Set. Go.

“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.”

CLICK TO PRE-ORDER

CLICK TO PRE-ORDER

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.

Good Enough for Grateful

Art by Kate Ladd, click image to visit her on Etsy

Art by Kate Ladd, click image to visit her on Etsy

Hi friends, I hope you’ve all been having a great summer. This morning I felt the urge to check in with you. I have been in a very quiet season where it would appear nothing much is happening. But as you know, sometimes that’s when the most is really going on–in the spaces in between the big events.

I have felt like my main assignment during this season is to just let go. To continue to quit deeper, to let myself be stripped of all ambition or striving or effort. For someone like me, this is a hard thing to do. To let myself be poor in the sense that I am not producing anything I can point to or hold out to the world.

In the meantime, life continues to amaze me and good things happen. I have kept up the jogging, for one thing. No one is more surprised by this than I am. I always swore I’d never be a runner, I hate running, and it’s bad for the knees. But God tricked me into it via a dog I babysat back in March who pulled so hard on her leash during walks that I started jogging by default.

After the dog went home, I kept on going. And gradually, I realized that jogging wasn’t just an easy  (no cost, no classes, no special equipment) way to stay active or get fit—God was inviting me to make a spiritual practice of it. To let the physical nowness of it wake me up, over and over. To let my breathing (or gasping) become a prayer. To let my resistance to the hard work of it become a reason for self-compassion.

It has changed my life not at all and in every possible way. I am continually reminded to be gentle on myself, to take it easy, to do only what I can, and to do it all with great kindness. Which means my hardest days jogging—the ones where I feel slow and clunky and tired—are the days when I get to experience the most compassion. Not just for myself, but for everyone.

Other happenings. Dull, but true. We are finally adding a much-needed bathroom upstairs. Seven years ago, we bought the tile, hired a contractor, and determined to “fix” this house’s obvious problem. Then we forgot to follow through. :)  All these years later, we’re finally on it. Which feels like such a miracle that after we signed the contract with the contractor, we went to dinner to celebrate.

In the meantime, Dave and I both sense that change is coming. You know that feeling when a long, good season of your life feels like it’s coming to a close, but you have no idea what’s next? What’s around the corner? Why does it feel like the plates of the earth are shifting?

But unlike in the past, we don’t spend too much time trying to figure it out. We also no longer imagine that our next season will be radically different from life as we’ve known it for all these years. As we get older, we no longer dream that a different house, car, job, or financial situation will make everything finally come together in a way that feels like an arrival.

One of our favorite things to say to each other these days is this: “It’s not going to happen, is it?”

And the other will smile and say, “No, honey. I don’t think it is.”

We both know what we mean by this. We mean that, no, life isn’t going to at last deliver that elusive something we’ve been waiting for all of our lives. The completing, big event that would finally make life make perfect sense is never going to happen.

Until we die, perhaps. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s even good. Maybe joy is found in accepting that life as it is right now is as good as life’s going to get.

Today, that’s good enough to make me grateful.

P.S. This coming Tuesday, while we’re on a brief vacation in Sedona, I’ll be running an excerpt from my friend’s upcoming memoir about the tragic death of her 12 year old son—and the miracles of grace that followed. I got to work as the developmental editor (a doula of sorts) on this project. Which means, I got to cheer and cry and encourage the author as she gave birth to her beautiful book. Needless to say, I’m awed by her talent and proud of her baby. I hope you enjoy the sneak peek and buy a dozen copies.

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