Days and Slips and Chips

sprayerimageHi Friends,

I’m interrupting my break to post this email and my answer, even though it’s so dang long. If you’re not in recovery, it probably won’t apply to you. If you are, I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Hi Heather, 

I hope you are well. I want to ask you about a situation, if that is ok. 

 I recently had a “slip”. I drank late one night after 120+days, resumed my sobriety the next day. 

My feeling is that, though not continuous, the transformation I have made in my life has been miraculous. I abused myself for years with booze, and though I feel disappointed that I drank, I feel like it is time to stop with the self-castigation. I screwed up…I am trying to learn to be kind to myself.

I don’t want credit for what I have not achieved. At the same time, I don’t want to be discredited for the changes I have made.

I have not found a lot of resources or support for this scenario in the recovery world. It has pretty much all been “you are back at day 1″. Is it only about the “days”?

 Do you have any thoughts on the subject you would be willing to share?


Congratulations on your sobriety and your honesty. This is such a difficult issue and I’ve been tempted to post about it, but haven’t yet. I’ll see if I can try to be helpful.

As your note points out, counting continuous, unbroken days of sobriety and picking up milestone chips is an honored tradition in recovery groups. I think the purpose is threefold: to encourage people to stay sober, to celebrate hard work, and maybe more important, to show newcomers that long-term sobriety really is possible.

That said, this ritual rubs some people the wrong way, and I understand why. Whenever you introduce what looks like a system of reward, by default it can seem to punish, as well. For example, in some groups the chairperson asks at the opening of the meeting if there is anyone here with less than 30 days of continuous sobriety. The idea is to get to know newcomers and hand out “desire” chips. But it can also be used as a device to let the group know if someone has had a relapse. When a person with long-time sobriety raises their hand at this juncture, it can feel like they’re being publicly outed. When I relapsed after 6 months, my sponsor (I didn’t even get one til after the relapse) told me I should raise my hand at every meeting when this question got asked until I had more than 30 days. Regardless of the good intention, it felt humiliating, and almost like punishment. But because humility and rigorous honesty had been so stressed to me, it felt wrong to do any less. In the best of circumstances, this kind of public accountability can be helpful, I suppose. Some people say that the fear of having to tell everyone about a relapse keeps them from relapse. But I question whether that’s sufficient—or even a good—motivation to stay sober. Fear of humiliation only takes us so far.

A couple months after my 6-month relapse, I got in a huge fight with my husband while family was here and wine was out on the counter. On impulse, I grabbed an open bottle, planning to chug—but after one gulp, stopped. Halted by the horrible specter of yet another relapse, I corked the bottle with a sigh of relief. At the time, I was naïve enough—or blatantly in denial enough—to call it a close call, not a relapse. I didn’t tell my brand new sponsor and I forgot about the incident until many years later—actually, I came across the memory while writing my book. When I let my sponsor at the time read it, she felt hurt and deceived. She accused me of harboring a dark secret and insisted I change my sobriety anniversary date by two months (from Sept 2007 to Nov 2007) and tell my home group what happened.

I didn’t have any problem with her suggestion—and did so promptly. But I did object to her thinking the worst of me. Ironically, in retrospect, I’m so glad it wasn’t clear to me then that a gulp of wine is a relapse in the eyes of my program! Had I thought of it as such, especially given my recent relapse in September, I am absolutely positive I would have drank that entire bottle, been furious at myself, and would have decided that since I was back at Day 1 anyway, I might as well get good and drunk. And who knows how long that relapse might have lasted. Instead, my naiveté (or intentional denial—who knows?) sort of saved me.

So what am I saying or suggesting? I’m not sure, but here are some things to consider. The whole thing about chips and counting days can be helpful–or it can be harmful, depending on the person and their experience with reward systems, guilt, and the like. For me, coming from a conservative Christian background, it hinted at the kind of legalism I was trying to escape. It reminded me of how quickly churches or Christians erect all kinds of unwritten rules that have nothing to do with Scripture and everything to do with culture. Or human nature. I think it’s our egos that prompt us to set up systems that help to measure who’s doing it right or wrong, who’s losing and who’s winning, who is the “strong Christian,” or who is working a “strong program.” So we turn suggestions into commandments and value a practice we’ve come up with more than the principle that inspired it.

There’s nothing in the core literature of the most popular 12 Step program that suggests handing out chips and such. Or for that matter, that even talks about sponsors, much less sets them up to be the boss of another person’s sobriety. The role of a sponsor is to help take you through the 12 Steps and acquaint you with the program. Sponsors share their experience, strength, and hope. But given our human natures–both to want to be told what to do and to want to tell others what to do– you’re somehow a better recovery soldier if you have a hard-ass sponsor.

I’m sure you’ve noticed tons of other unwritten “rules” in recovery having to do with a myriad things. Some of these are helpful. And sponsorship, if you ask me, is extremely helpful, too. But we do ourselves and the program a disservice when we become strident about any of these things and let them take precedence over love and grace and yes, live and let live. We encourage folks to take what works and leave the rest—but we forget to warn them we might freak out if they do.

More and more, I find myself shying away from those who want to turn their recovery into a religion. Those who want to believe there’s only one right way to do anything. Given our diversity, we need more grace than that.

So what’s my answer to you about slips and chips and “days?” I know of many folks who simply stopped caring about or taking chips because they don’t want to participate in that aspect. I have a sponsee who hasn’t taken a chip in years because she feels an aversion to it—and since she’s doing marvelously, why would I try to force that on her?

That said, I do take chips. I enjoy celebrating my friends’ and my milestones. But those who love me know that I personally celebrate April 4 as my Miracle Sobriety Birthday—not Nov 24, my official sobriety date that commemorates that dumb gulp in the kitchen. The April date is the day my life changed, the day I walked into a treatment center, shaking in my bones, terrified but made brave by desperation. That’s the day that changed the course of my life and it’s also the time of year I experience all my anniversary feelings.

But out of respect for a program God used to help save my life, I take my birthday chip on Nov 24. And so maybe that’s the key thing here. Pray and ask yourself what action feels right for you today—and how you can honor your choice and the program you attend at the same time. Of course, if you have a sponsor, consider their suggestion. Hopefully it will be a suggestion or wisdom and not a direct command.

Personally, my wisdom is this: If you think publicly announcing a relapse and starting at day 1 will derail your sobriety, then just don’t. Just keep going. Just keep going and don’t take chips and then someday if you decide to change your date, fine. Your date is no one’s business but your own. And the objections of others who might get upset if they knew—those objections are likely based on a certain kind of competitive spirit–No fair!

Love yourself and your recovery enough to be faithful to it first. Check your heart and your conscience. And of course, while it’s fine that you keep your own and your sponsor’s counsel, I don’t recommend you lie. And maybe the most important thing I need to say is that it could be a big mistake not to publicly admit the slip, too—and if you keep relapsing, then it will be clear what you need to do.

In the meantime, if it’s just silly pride about having relapsed, then bite the bullet, bro.

As you know, we all only have one day at a time. I don’t have 61/2 years. I have today.

One last caution: It’s almost always true that every time you relapse it becomes harder to get sober again. I’ve seen it over and over. People get casual about a relapse or think they’ll just have a quick slip and get right back on the wagon–except they can’t. Some seed about the possibility of relapse gets planted and pretty soon they turn into chronic relapsers. And I don’t know of any group of people on the planet more miserable. To enjoy few or none of the benefits of recovery while also not being able to enjoy drinking is to live in a nightmare. Don’t go there, friend. Whatever you do. It might be life or death for you.

I hope some of this helps. Your sister in recovery, Heather

A related post in case you’re interested is here.


On the Verge of Glory

Photo by Karina Hall

Photo by Karina Hall Goldman

Next week I’m going on a short vacation with Dave. But I think I’ll be taking a break from my blog for longer than that. Right now “quit deeper” sounds a lot like “do summer.” Which to me means unhooking from the online world and propping my bare feet on the dash of our pop top camper.

I thought I’d leave you with this beautiful photo taken by a friend of mine last Saturday. When I first saw it on my FB feed, I admired it for a few seconds before I realized I was in it. That’s me in the red polka dot dress. And believe it or not, the exotic looking landscape is Colorado Springs.

That evening, I attended a friend’s wedding reception at a home near this canyon. It was one of those events that could have been ordinary but ended up being magical. I felt relaxed and comfortable in my skin.  A few of my friends and I ate outside and talked and laughed while the sky threatened to rain on us but never did.

After dinner, one of the woman suggested we take a walk down the street a couple blocks. “I want to show you something,” she said.

And did she ever show us. Of course, we were all stunned by the gorgeous view.

But via this photograph, she showed me something more, too. Something so important and precious that I might cry if I try to explain.

So I’ll just say this. Sometimes, you don’t see your life clearly until you step away from it. Sometimes, you don’t see how much you’ve changed until you get some distance from yourself. Sometimes, you don’t understand how profound your humdrum existence really is until you see yourself in a photo standing on the verge of glory.

I hope all of you have a wonderful rest of summer. May you see yourself as God does. Hugs and love, Heather

P.S.  Here’s a post I wrote about camping with Dave in our pop top. It’s one of my favorites.


Atlas Girl

Today I’m excited to introduce you to a friend and fellow blogger, Emily T. Wierenga. Emily is an award-winning journalist, blogger, commissioned artist and columnist, as well as the author of five books including the memoirAtlas Girl: Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look (Baker Books)

Here’s Emily:

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Mum had said to sit close to the bus driver, so I sat as far away as possible.

And now an Ojibway man in a red bandana and stubble cheek was snoring on my shoulder.

He smelled like communion wine, the kind my father served in plastic cups which we slid empty into the pew’s tiny cup holders.

He smelled like beer, like the late August summers when I was entering puberty, cleaning up the Corn Fest fairgrounds in my Sunday dress with my family. The beer cans all clanging like empty songs against each other in their black garbage bags, and it was what good Christians did. Cleaned up after sinners’ parties and marched in pro-life rallies and it was always us, versus them. And all I ever wanted was to be them.

But always, we were taught to be kind to them, and so I let this man sleep on my shoulder in the Greyhound bus headed west while I tucked up my legs and tried to shrink inside my 18-year-old frame.

Tried to close my eyes against the cold of the window but it had been two days since I’d hugged my younger brother, Keith, and my sisters, Allison and Meredith; since Mum—whose name is Yvonne, which means beautiful girl— had held me to her soft clean cotton shirt and her arms had said all of the words she’d never been able to voice.

The Reverend Ernest Dow, or Dad, had loaded my cardboard boxes full of Value Village clothes onto the bus and kissed me on the cheek and smiled in a way that apologized. I was the eldest, and I was the first to leave. But then again, I’d left long before getting on that bus.

I’d slid my guitar, then, beside the cardboard boxes, its black case covered in hippie flower stickers and the address for the Greyhound depot in Edmonton, 40 hours away.

And we still weren’t there yet, and I hoped there would be mountains.

I should know, I thought. I should know whether or not there will be mountains.

My parents had raised us to believe in God, to believe in music, and to believe in travel.

We’d visited Edmonton as children, piled into our blue Plymouth Voyager and we’d driven from Ontario to California, no air conditioning, living off crusty bun sandwiches and tenting every night.

And there was Disneyland and the ocean and me nearly drowning because I was all rib. My body too tired to care. And we’d traveled home through Canada, through Edmonton, but all I remembered was the mall. West Edmonton Mall and how it had hurt me to walk its miles, thin as I was.

I was hospitalized soon after that trip. The submarine sandwiches hadn’t been enough to fill the cracks. But oh, how my parents taught us to love the open road. We caught the bug young, and here I was, and I couldn’t remember where the Rockies began and ended.

I scratched at the night as though it were frost on my window, but all I could see were the bright yellow lines on the highway, like dashes in a sentence, like long pauses that never ended.


This is an excerpt from my new memoir, Atlas Girl: Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look, releasing July 1st through Baker Books.



Our own Heather Kopp says,

“This is the kind of spiritual memoir I love. The story is vulnerable, insightful, and artfully told. You know you’re in the hands of an expert writer–and yet you never feel like style is getting in the way of heart. I thoroughly enjoyed every word and didn’t want it to end.”

~ Heather Kopp, author of the memoir Sober Mercies


From the back cover:

“Disillusioned and yearning for freedom, Emily Wierenga left home at age eighteen with no intention of ever returning. Broken down by organized religion, a childhood battle with anorexia, and her parents’ rigidity, she set out to find God somewhere else–anywhere else. Her travels took her across Canada, Central America, the United States, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. She had no idea that her faith was waiting for her the whole time–in the place she least expected it.

“Poignant and passionate, Atlas Girl is a very personal story of a universal yearning for home and the assurance that we are known, forgiven, and beloved. Readers will find in this memoir a true description of living faith as a two-way pursuit in a world fraught with distraction. Anyone who wrestles with the brokenness we find in the world will love this emotional journey into the arms of the God who heals all wounds.”


I am excited to give away a copy of ATLAS GIRL today. Just leave a comment below to win.


I’m also giving away a FREE e-book to anyone who orders Atlas Girl. Just order HERE, and send a receipt to:, and you’ll receive A House That God Built: 7 Essentials to Writing Inspirational Memoir – an absolutely FREE e-book co-authored by myself and editor/memoir teacher Mick Silva.

Atlas Girl_700x175_2

ALL proceeds from Atlas Girl will go towards my non-profit, The Lulu Tree The Lulu Tree is dedicated to preventing tomorrow’s orphans by equipping today’s mothers. It is a grassroots organization bringing healing and hope to women and children in the slums of Uganda through the arts, community, and the gospel.
Emily T. Wierenga is an award-winning journalist, blogger, commissioned artist and columnist, as well as the author of five books including the memoir, Atlas Girl: Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look (Baker Books). She lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and two sons. For more info, please visit Find her on Twitter or Facebook.

Getting Attention

Art by Angela Marie Art, click to visit her on Etsy

Art by Angela Marie Art, click to visit her on Etsy

This morning I read this and thought I heard God say, “This is better than any blog post you could write today. Post this and go jog instead.”

I harrumphed, and then agreed. Yet another way to quit deeper, right? I hope you get as much from this as I did.

Much of our anxiety and inner turmoil comes from living in a global culture whose values drive us from the essence of what matters. At the heart of this is the conflict between the outer definition of success and the inner value of peace.

Unfortunately, we are encouraged, even trained, to get attention when the renewing secret of life is to give attention. From performing well on tests to positioning ourselves for promotions, we are schooled to believe that to succeed we must get attention and be recognized as special, when the threshold to all that is extraordinary in life opens only when we devote ourselves to giving attention, not getting it. Things come alive for us only when we dare to see and recognize everything as special.

The longer we try to get attention instead of giving it, the deeper our unhappiness. It leads us to move through the world dreaming of greatness, needing to be verified at every turn, when feelings of oneness grace us only when we verify the life around us. It makes us desperate to be loved, when we sorely need the medicine of being loving.

One reason so many of us are lonely in our dream of success is that instead of looking for what is clear and true, we learn to covet what is great and powerful. One reason we live so far from peace is that instead of loving our way into the nameless joy of spirit, we think fame will soothe us. And while we are busy dreaming of being a celebrity, we stifle our need to see and give and love, all of which opens us to the true health of celebration.

It leaves us with these choices: fame or peace, be a celebrity or celebrate being, work all our days to be seen or devote ourselves to seeing, build our identity on the attention we can get or find our place in the beauty of things by the attention we can give–Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

Mark Nepo is a cancer survivor, a poet, and philosopher. He’s not a Christian, nor is he in recovery that I’m aware of. But God speaks to me a lot through his writings.




The Aftermath of Surrender

Art by Wendelin Glatzel, click to visit on Etsy

Art by Wendelin Glatzel, click to visit on Etsy

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.

And it’s his grace that fills the gap.





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