The Key in Our Hand

Art by Amber Mintert, click image to visit her on Etsy

Art by Amber Mintert, click image to visit her on Etsy

Some days, blogging about addiction and recovery gives me so much joy. Other times, it feels impossible. How can I write helpfully about such a baffling subject?

I’m reminded of a line in a Rumi poem:

“One of the marvels of the world
is the sight of a soul sitting in prison
with the key in its hand.”

Isn’t that so true? It’s one of the most crazy-making aspects of addiction—how it seems to us (and others, too), like freedom is clearly within our grasp. Just use the key, quit the addiction, and walk out of jail.

If only it were that simple. Instead, we scream bloody murder for rescue, and then run at the first sign of help.

It’s hard to explain, except to say that addiction seems proof of our split nature. In the grip of compulsions, we become a soul divided—part of us wants to surrender and part of us fights to hold on.

The demoralizing tug-of-war that results is surely one of the main reasons addicts tend to hate themselves so thoroughly. Add to this an endless series of self-inflicted wounds, humiliations, and losses—and you can imagine how shame fuels the engine of addiction.

Unfortunately, prevailing wisdom says the addict must experience ever more painful consequences, tragedies, and heartbreak—until they finally hit rock bottom and become willing to change.

I agree that desperation is necessary for surrender. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve arrived at an incomplete conclusion. If “hitting bottom” alone is the magic bullet, how come so many addicts suffer one devastating blow after another—and still don’t recover?

What happens when all you have left to lose is your life?

After seven years of hearing addicts’ stories, I have a theory of my own. I think most of the time a low point doesn’t become a turning point unless an addict hits bottom and hope at the same time.

Hope looks different for each of us, of course. For me, hope looked like meeting Susan, who happened to be in recovery. Her obvious zest for life gave me reason to believe that sobriety didn’t have to be equal parts deprivation and misery.

For a bunch of women in Amarillo, Texas, hope looks like a place called the Downtown Women’s Center, where I’m speaking today. As I’ve mentioned, they provide long-term help to homeless and addicted women so they can rebuild lives worth staying sober for.

Given my thoughts about bottoms and hope, you can imagine how much I want to see this amazing organization raise a bunch of money.

If you think of it, pray for me today. Part of what I’ll be trying to say is how hitting bottom without hope mostly leads to despair and too often, death. But hitting bottom with hope can lead to surrender.

And that’s when we notice the prison key in our hand.


P.S. By amazing coincidence, today is also the day Sober Mercies releases in paperback. Since an important message of my book is hope, rather than apologize for shameless self-promotion, I encourage you to buy a copy for someone who loves an addict, struggles with a compulsion, or simply adores memoir.

If you want to make a donation to the Downtown Women’s Center, click here.









  1. ImpossibleIsNotAProblem says:

    And I’d like to help you but I need a place to park my saucer. :-)

  2. Marjie Douty says:

    So true and well said. The gift of desperation without a bow of hope is a death warrant. I remember the hope I felt on seeing the people in my first home group living meaningful lives. That gave me the hope that the steps would work.

  3. You continue to write on things that trigger my soul. Thank you. Prayed for you. You spoke on my son’s birthday, so I’m pretty sure you knocked it out of the park! :)

  4. I just read your Mother’s Day post while waiting for a plane…great, make me bawl in a busy airport! I needed that message so badly. Thank you again.

  5. Hi Heather…. just popping in to say Hi. Been away from the blogs for a few months. See you around.


  6. Valerie Vicari says:

    Hope. Such a powerful word. There was a time I felt completely hopeless. 1999, when my husband had started drinking again, etc. (he has 15 years sober again in Nov.) I heard in church that Jesus poured hope right into my heart, and in meetings I heard the message of hope. And here again today. Thanks again for your posts, you are truly used of God. By the way, love your new pic, you are such a doll!!

  7. Heather, you have become an important friend to me…(though we’ve never).. I have a few friends that still struggle with addiction, seems drama is their daily life, so your comment “I think most of the time a low point doesn’t become a turning point unless an addict hits bottom and hope at the same time” make such sense. My friends want to know how I made it out my addiction, lifestyle, hopelessness, and stay out of it still? It rings true, I hit rock bottom after rock bottom, my dad use to say, “Rock bottom? Blake carries dynamite in his pocket, so he’ll keep going deeper till he is no longer with us”, My brother called and said he had cancelled his vacation cause sounds like he will be flying in sometime soon for my funeral (everyone was frustrated with my ups and downs, comments like that didn’t even faze me at all, “so sad”)… So I think you are correct about hope meeting rock bottom at the same time… wasnt until I saw “Hope” that i was able to change…the story goes on and on, just wanted to say.. thanks again, you have a gift of putting feelings and thoughts that I have (assume many others have also) into words..

    • Wow, Blake. This is powerful stuff. I can’t tell you how much I love hearing stories like yours where it took a long time to get it and people thought you’d only find bottom 6 feet under and then–a miracle. I think if you asked most addicts to think back on their turning point with the idea of hope in mind–most would agree that it was part of what happened to them. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  8. That was a message of hope for sure. Thank you for sharing Heather.

  9. This is brilliant.

  10. teetotaltexas says:

    I have full confidence in your talk; God’s given you some incredibly precise words to speak to these people, and he’ll give you the strength and grace, too. Your words themselves are hopeful! And I concur, hope is the key ingredient. Why unlock ourselves with our key if there’s no where to go, no different way to be? Sometimes drink isn’t the only thing keeping us stuck, sometimes the bondage is to something even more overwhelming, and then drink complicates matters, stealing the spotlight when it moves from a simple coping mechanism into full-blown addiction.

    Times when I’ve tackled sobriety have been directly tied to having a glimmer of hope. When I give up it is because things have fallen a little too far on the hopeless side of the fence again, and I might as well go back to drinking. (Fickle, much? But the nature of despair is overwhelming, and I’m horrible at trusting God through the hopeless times.) So I lock myself back in the numbing safety of drink, re-engaging my addiction, bumping my way down, scraping along to ever lower bottoms, but watchful all the while. I don’t want this. When I see hope flicker across my path, I study it hard and decide if it will hold up, if I should try again. (Usually the addiction says “No– too hard” and I stay stuck. But not always.)

    I once heard a woman say that focusing on the problem makes the problem increase, while focusing on the solution makes the solution increase. Something like that. I think this is why hope is necessary. We need something worthwhile to focus on, something to aim for and reach for and grab onto that will breathe life back into us. Without that, all we have is the problem.

    long comment– sorry!

  11. My demoralizing experiences and brushes with death happened years before I got sober. What got me out was the comprehension of powerlessness — I realized that if I had no control over when I started drinking (again) I had no control over where it would stop, and the bad times could return at any time. That’s when I had been on and off the wagon for years, and had been pretty moderate for about 12 years compared to the old days. So I asked God to help me, just sending the thought up from my heart, and began to outgrow the helplessness little by little. I haven’t had a drink in 11 years now.

  12. Once again I am amazed by God’s timing. Last night I sat in a counseling session with the Dr and told my qualifier how hard it is for me to find a balance between the two halves of my one husband. Your blog said it so much more poignantly. Thank you.
    When/if you have time, I have a question: Did you find yourself working very hard to keep everything “normal” around you so you could continue to do what you were doing and convince yourself that it was all okay? I found it pretty amazing that when I left for 2 weeks I came back not to flowers and apologies but to everything exactly the way it was with no desire for discussion or “how do we fix this”.

    • Sam, definitely. The alcoholic or addict is determined to keep the status quo and threatened greatly by any attempt to change the dynamics of a relationship or household. It takes so much energy to manage the drinking or drugging we end up with little left to give those we love. We even lose our ability to do love, even though we mean to love and feel like we love. Does that make sense? Thanks for your question. I’m sorry you are dealing with this issue in your life.

      • Thanks Heather. As soon as this marathon editing session for Randy A is over (3 books at once!??), I intend to re-read your book from cover to cover. I read it at the beginning of this journey (or at least my beginning when I finally woke up and smelled the whiskey) and now that I’ve learned a few more things I’m sure I’ll get even more out of it. I hope you have another book in your head that comes out on paper someday soon. <3

  13. Thank you for this post, Heather. The idea that hitting bottom must be accompanied by hope is very interesting. I guess if we hit bottom and feel utterly hopeLESS it is hard to imagine another way our story could unfold.

    I used to love the Eagles when I was a teen; one of their songs said “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” Maybe the Eagles read Rumi!

    • Jeannie, thanks for this comment! I was saying to another reader how ironic it is that we have to become hopeless to control or manage our addiction before we can find hope to change. And maybe the Eagles did read Rumi! Love that. :)

  14. “Hitting bottom without hope mostly leads to despair and too often, death. But hitting bottom with hope can lead to surrender…And that’s when we notice the prison key in our hand.”

    Wow, another profound post by a great author. Love your book and love your blog!
    It is my belief, that God is always there for us with that key if we choose to take it.
    2 Corinthians 12:9-10: “My grace is sufficient for you, for there is power in weakness.”

  15. I love this post. You so accurately described the duality of the addict unable to let go. “[W]e scream bloody murder for rescue, and then run at the first sign of help.” We know that we can’t go on living the way we have been, but we are scared to death to let go of our tattered, stinky security blankets. And you are so right, that nothing changes unless we can find hope at the bottom. Until we can see the light, regardless of how far off it is, we won’t walk down that tunnel. I thought I was too far gone to ever come back, so recovery was not an option for me. I was ready to bid adieu to this “cruel, cruel world” when I met some folks who were far worse off than I was. It sounds heartless to say it this way, but when I saw how much more difficult their journey back from the edge would be than my own, I saw a tiny spark of light way off in the distance. Yes, it would be a long hard road, but recovery WAS possible. The day I saw that spark of hope was the day I set foot on the road of happy destiny.

    Best of luck to you in Amarillo. I am praying for your strength to deliver the message God has for you and that the ears of these women will be opened to receive His words through you. <3

    • Oh man, this is a great comment. You readers are so full of wisdom. I love this story and especially the line: “It sounds heartless to say it this way, but when I saw how much more difficult their journey back from the edge would be than my own, I saw a tiny spark of light way off in the distance. Yes, it would be a long hard road, but recovery WAS possible. The day I saw that spark of hope was the day I set foot on the road of happy destiny.” Yay!

  16. I love you and I love your story. Praying that God speaks through you today and that your hope shines through! Oh, and I love your new pic! Sassy😘

  17. Praying for you, the organization and the women, May God smile his blessing on all of you.


  18. I remember watching Dr. Phil saying, sometimes rock bottom is six feet under ground. It isn’t about hitting bottom, but as you say, where hope comes in.

  19. Tricia says:

    Celebrating the release of the paperback, your book is an extraordinary gift to our world, and has brought hope to many, Also, seeking some advice about ways to offer hope. Our church provides space for AA and other related meetings seven days a week. Addiction has deeply impacted our faith community as well ( I doubt any family has gone untouched) As a member of the worship committee, we would like to encourage those who meet to feel welcome to join us for worship on sunday, however we don’t want to intrude upon the anonymous nature of the meetings, or given the impression that we are setting out to “cure” anyone. Any thoughts?

    • What a beautiful question. You’re right that most recovery groups are careful about anonymity and might not even respond that well to the invitation. I guess my best advice is to put flyers on the doors where they’ll see them and advertise a special event that is church related but clearly would speak to them. I know, bring me in to speak! :) But really, I wish I had better advice. It seems to me like the most important part you already have–a great attitude of grace and generosity.

  20. Mary in NH says:

    Heather – You may be on to something that is a significant, a life-changing key to understanding the process of addiction recovery. Hit-bottom, but find hope. A few days ago, I attended a ladies small group at my church, just coffee and conversation with devotional time. The young adult daughter of a dear friend of mine was there. This 24 year old has been through so much, in and out of Teen Challenge, back on drugs, had a baby with a long time boyfriend (also using), lost custody of the baby – and now, is seeing some glimmer of hope. She has a job waitressing – someone once again took a chance on her and gave her a job. Not easy to find work when you’ve got an arrest record. As a group of ladies – we all prayed for another woman’s daughter, still struggling, in rehab for the umpteenth time. Will it stick this time? Will she find hope? So many doors have been shut for these young women – colleges don’t want them, student loans aren’t available, employers hesitate to hire them. The only “hope” they find are old boyfriends (still using) who offer them comfort. I am praying for the success of these programs that help women find the hope to recover from the bottom and move up. The Lord has good plans for these ladies – they just have to use His key to unlock the door.

    • This is such a powerful comment and highlights the problem so well. I especially agree with your point that sometimes the only hope a person can see is “false” hope. That boyfriend or some other person who promises to accept or admire or give affection to them. Heartbreaking, really. Thank so much for taking time to post this reply and for praying. H

  21. What an important distinction to make and so true. To hit bottom and hope at the same time. I’ll be sharing this with our staff and men. Praying now for God to speak through you today at the Downtown Women’s Center and trusting He will make all things right as you continually surrender to Him.

    • Debby, thanks for your comment and your prayers. It went well, though I wish I had relied less on my outline and more on the power of speaking from my heart. Next time I’ll do better, but I think the message got through.

  22. SufficientBottomNeeded says:

    T’was Divine Intervention which introduced me to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration and Despair) ‘One Fine Morning’ in March of 1996. We Alcoholics can endure severe beatings and are not afraid to die. Is it Pride or Insanity? Well, God knows… and He has the Power to make us erect the WhiteFlagOfSurrender. :-)


  23. This brought me to tears. Well said. I think your onto a beautiful something here. Stopping now to pray for your talk today, and for all involved with the Downtown Women’s Center.

    • Misty, thanks for your comment. Tears are so good. Lately, I feel so grateful when I cry at all or even come close because it means I’m awake and alive and feeling my feelings and showing up for life. Thanks for your prayer, friend.

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