What are Ash Wednesday and Lent?
Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the Saturday before Easter. The forty days of Lent symbolize the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. Lent is a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Resurrection. It is a time of self-examination and reflection. In the early church, Lent was a time to prepare new converts for baptism. Today, Christians focus on their relationship with God, sometimes choosing to give up something or to volunteer and give of themselves for others.
Sundays in Lent are not counted in the forty days because each Sunday represents a “mini-Easter” and the solemn and reverent spirit of Lent is tempered with joyful anticipation of the Resurrection. The Church adopted the use of ashes to mark the beginning of the season of Lent, when we remember our mortality and mourn for our sins. These ashes are made from last year’s palm branches. By using palms from Palm Sunday, it is a reminder that we must not only rejoice of Jesus’ coming but also acknowledge the fact that our sin made it necessary for him to die.
The season of Lent is about going back home to a gracious and merciful God. But in order to get there, we first have to come to terms with the path that takes us back. That path is the way of repentance – the way of honestly admitting our failures and turning our lives over, completely, to the One who alone has the power to heal us.
Lent is a dedicated time of truth-telling. It is a time when we rally around the truth of our humanity, the truth of our pain, the truth of our sin and the truth of God’s great promise of redemption. In the midst of looking at the pain and humanity, we are often tempted to feel hopeless. But there is actually great hope in admitting our mortality and our brokenness because then we finally lay aside our sin management program long enough to allow God to be God.
Lent isn’t about punishing ourselves for being human. The practice of Lent is about peeling away layers of insulation and anesthesia and numbing and avoidance which keep us from the truth of God’s promises. Lent is about looking at our lives through the lens of the light of Christ.
My Ash Wednesday was one of the worst days of my life. There was death all around. And my Lenten journey back to life was painful and filled with hourly repentance. I wasn’t looking for it, it really didn’t want it. But when I got desperate, God opened my eyes to what was standing in the way of surrender. The intent of the journey of Lent is not simply for us to remember the last days of Jesus, but rather to take us deeper into our own desire to sense of the spirit of Jesus. In my life, Lent – year, after year, after year – teaches me the ways that giving things up allows me to be prepared for the things that are truly important.
The sun came up. And the memories of the previous evening made clear that I had two choices. I could stay in my room and never come out or I could face up to my lies. I tried the first option for a few hours and when that did not seem like a viable long-term solution, I appeared from my room. Before I showed my face, I asked Lucas to take the kids elsewhere. I was a mom to a just turned 5 year-old and a 22 month-old. I wasn’t sure how much they understood, but I knew they knew enough to know something was wrong with mom.
By the time that I walked down the stairs, every drop of alcohol was out of my house. Well, that is the bottles that were where they were supposed to be. Lucas could read the writing on the wall. He knew from the moment he encountered my sobs in the night that drastic changes would have to be made. It would be weeks before I confessed to and disposed of all of the hidden stashes that I held in secret, but on that day Lucas took the first step to protect me from myself.
What next? I did the only thing that a self-professed control freak knows how to do, I staged my own intervention. I called two couples that I trusted and they were at the door. I poured out my heart and mess and fears and admitted that I had no idea what to do next. There in my living room, each with questions and concerns and unknowns, I trusted them to help. I can assure you that room did not have all of the answers, and I’m so thankful that my friends and my husband did not try to fix, and instead listened and asked questions and sought wisdom from professionals.
April 1st, 2007 is a date that I will never forget. I found a bottom that day. In that place there was little hope, much fragility and a clear view of the death that was at hand. When I think about the liturgical calendar, there is nothing that depicts the journey of that day quite like Ash Wednesday. It was a day where I was staring at my own mortality. I could see the ashes of death that were surrounding my life. And on that day, I was given a gift.
It was a gift that was painful to accept and would require the shedding of ego and pride. It was a gift that would require a level of self-examination that I feared. It was a gift that I didn’t even know existed. Much like the Lenten journey to the cross, the path was filled with levels of discovery. In the midst of a bleak and dark road, there was a light. A small flicker of hope was being held for me by those around me. And it was going to be my choice to open my eyes and see it.
The Room of Hope
By the next afternoon, Lucas and I were in the office of a counselor who suggested that I should consider attending a recovery meeting. This was gracious counselor code for you need help. I didn’t know what else to do, so I went. I wore a black MTV Punk’d t-shirt and ratty jeans and sat on the back row.
The meeting started at 5pm and everyone looked so happy. They were smiling and telling jokes and hugging. There was a lot of hugging. I don’t like hugging. As the meeting started, a person at a desk in the front of the room, who I assumed was the president, began talking. There were some readings from people in the room. And then the president said, “Is this anyone’s first time to attend a meeting?”
With a sheepish hand wave, I acknowledged that I was clearly new to this and suddenly the meeting shifted. They all started talking about how they arrived in this room. Many of the stories were not like mine. I had not been to jail. I had not lost a job. I immediately began a mental list of all the reasons that I didn’t fit. Sure, I knew something was really wrong, but I wasn’t THIS bad. All I could think about was that I was nothing like these people. Then I went home.
The next morning, it was 10:30am and I was already losing my mind with worry about how I was going to make it through the day. So, I drove back to the meeting place. And people were there. They gave me this fat blue book and told me to read it. I got a silver token that they called a Desire Chip and with it, I said that I would try this thing called staying sober for 24 hours. But I still didn’t think that I belonged. The wildest part of these meetings was that people claimed that they had been sober for 3 months and 23 years and 1,789 days. This was insane. There is no way that any grown adult does not drink or use mind altering substances for that long, right? Whhyyyyy would you do that?
I left the porch meeting and went home. I made it 5 more hours and I wanted a drink so badly. I was a lunatic. In self-preservation, Lucas asked if I had thought about going to another meeting. Dear, Lord! I must be really sick if I needed to go back AGAIN. This time I went to a different building. The sign said it was a women’s meeting. I was still in the black dirty t-shirt and jeans. I added a black hoodie to try to hide the shaking. I walked in and in front of me stood a room of women that looked like they could have been my mom or sister or Sunday School teacher. One reminded me of my aunt that is as prim and proper as they come.
And the room was full. There were women that were smart and together. There were women that had all the things that I wanted. I’m confident that I displayed sufficient outward clues of my desperation, but they didn’t seem to care. I sat between two of the most together looking ones and I just sank into my chair. The tears started falling and they would not stop.
Everyone that talked told pieces of my story. There were moms and daughters and caregivers. There were wives and friends and so much freaking honesty. I think the topic was surrender, but honestly, I’m not sure. I remember that at some point I felt like I had something to say. At meetings, before you talk, you introduce yourself. I was not ready to admit that I was an alcoholic, so with all the courage I could muster, I said, “Hi, my name is Lacy and I am an addict.” Somehow that seemed more tolerable. Please don’t ask me to explain this. That is where my whacked out thinking had delivered me. I had come to a place that somehow being an addict was more palatable than an alcoholic. That’s the kind of logic that presents itself in active addiction.
I have no idea what all I said out loud in that first meeting. I know that I said I was a mess. I know that I said I could not care for my kids. I know that I was genuinely loved by the women in that room. I didn’t have a clue what was about to happen. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the next 2 hours, much less the next 24. But they promised me that I could do with the help of God and the program. At that point, I had tried it my way. I knew that I was failing. I had everything to lose and everything to gain. I did what they said and showed up the next day. And the next. And the next.
I was given very basic instructions in the early days.
go to meetings
associate with sober people
read the Big Book
For the most part, I could handle the instructions. The last was the hardest. This big blue book that they carried around was a bit much for me. They were quoting it and some pounded on their book in a very Pentecostal preacher kind of way. It freaked me out. The things that I hated about religion were represented by some of the most zealot members of this clan. But in the first week, I found myself lost in my own bad ideas, so I opened the book. And I found this passage on page 8:
“No words can tell of the loneliness and despair I found in that bitter morass of self-pity. Quicksand stretched around me in all directions. I had met my match. I had been overwhelmed. Alcohol was my master.”
It was in that moment that I knew I was in the right place. That was exactly how I felt. So I had but one choice. If I wanted what they had, I had to do what they did.
One day at a time.
The Bravest Thing Lucas Did
There are so many ugly sides to addiction.
The lies. The fears. The hate. The words. The deception. The lies. The financial consequences. The lies.
When it comes to a marriage, small things become huge things because your foundation of trust is gone. I am the first to confess that April of 2007 was a high bottom. Things could have been so much worse. The image of an elevator is a common conversation piece in the program. I got off the ride down on a high floor. I know it could have been so much worse, but as the light of truth began to show in the darkest corners of my secrets, the web of insanity was real.
It was clear from the first morning of my attempts at being truthful, that I was incapable of caring for myself much less another human being. Both my parents and Lucas’s parents stepped in immediately and gave us space to find help. Each taking one of the girls, our parents took the information that we offered and without trying to control us, they took over parenting duties. My job in the initial days was to take care of myself.
I filled my days with counselors and meetings and trying to read and drinking so.much.coffee. I reached out to friends that I could trust to try to make sense of what I was facing. I really didn’t know how to explain everything, as to most, I had it all together. Lucas was balancing work and trying to be present and give me space, all at the same time. It was a strange dance of loving and trying to trust that he was getting the truth.
There were many hard conversations between the two of us in the early days, but before the girls came home, we had the hardest. There was never a doubt in my mind that Lucas would do anything in his power to help me. He offered me every resource. But he was very clear that his job was to love me and protect the girls. With all of the love in his heart, he looked me in the eye and made the expectations very clear. It was my choice – I could have alcohol and pills or I could be a mom. I was heartbroken because I knew that I had failed them. My inability to place their needs above my desire to drink and drug was not going to continue. And should I choose to take a drink or use a pill, he would do whatever it took to protect them.
What I didn’t know then, and had no capacity to see, was that this is not the norm. Survival, excuses and co-dependecy prevent most families from setting these hard boundaries. This was the single best thing that could have happened to me. I didn’t know how to be sober for me. Honestly, I didn’t want to be sober. But the fear of losing the love of my life and my precious girls kept me focused in the early days. I didn’t think my own life was worth saving, but if there was anyway that I could make up for the damage that I had done to my family, I was going to try.
His firm, no exceptions call to sobriety was so brave. If you know him, you know that the last thing Lucas Hilbrich would ever want to do is to give up on me. He loves with the biggest, strongest, fiercest love. He believes the best in people like no one else I know. And to look the mother of his girls in the eye and say those words…I just can’t imagine. He saved my life that night. Eventually, I came to a place that I could see hope. But for days, weeks and even months, the best motivation I had was the look on these faces.
We had this picture taken the month before I got sober. And for years, it was pinned to the driver’s sun shade in my car with a copy of the Serenity Prayer. On days when I could not do it for myself, I did it for these two tiny girls.
The Serenity Prayer
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Are you willing to go to any lengths to get sober?
This seems like a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, but the answer is rarely black and white. With the best of intentions, the desperate state of wanting the consequences of addiction to go away motivates a quick response. And with genuine intent, I wanted to do anything.
Then I was asked to let go of everything. This included my preconceptions, my plan, my playing God and most of all my way of forcing my will in every situation. One of the most difficult of these challenges came at the hands of my ‘mom’ card. Responsibility is a huge thing for me. And while my versions of responsibility were completely warped, I was committed to the intent. I wanted to be a good mom. I wanted to be all things to these girls. I wanted to be at therapy with Ally. I wanted to sit at dance with AJ. I wanted to help with all things at pre-school. I wanted to host the playdates. Well, maybe not the last one.
In the early days of sobriety, my kids were my motivation. It was their smiles that I saw when I wanted to take a drink. It was their eyes I wanted to avoid disappointing. But a strange thing happens when you begin to re-prioritize. As I began to place a high value on their security and safety, I would often fall into periods of grief as I recalled the ways that I had failed them in the past. It was from this place of guilt that I would try to over-parent.
The recovery meetings that I initially found great comfort in met on Tuesday nights and Saturday morning. While I was making meetings daily, the women’s meetings were important in a unique way. Both of these times were in the middle of activities that were on our weekly family schedule prior to my sobriety. I often did an intricate dance of trying to be all the places and present for all the things. What if I just suddenly was not around with the other moms? What would they think? Who would take care of the duties? I remember clearly the night that I tried to make mom excuses for not attending my meetings. A friend in the program looked at me and said, “any lengths. ANY LENGTHS.”
Because here is the truth. I may have been physically present for my kids before, but the quality of my presence was crap. I was too busy trying to figure out how close to the end of a dance class I would have to wait to take my pills and still be able to get the car home safely. Or perhaps it was the plan to have a “much deserved” drink to relax with other moms who surely understand how stressful these days are. These mental gymnastics were a full-time job. And while I thought that I had them under control, control was a false facade.
ANY LENGTHS for me in these days was calling my lies for what they were. ANY LENGTHS was asking for help so that I could be at the meetings that would help me get to a place that I could sit next to parents at my kid’s activities without romancing a drink. ANY LENGTHS was learning enough about my own insides that I could quit judging them by everyone else’s outsides.
And I had a long way to go. So for this season, I planted myself in all the things that people told me could bring about surrender. There was nothing I needed more in this season. Surrender, honesty and willingness would be the cornerstones of this new life.
Depressed or Drunk
Are you sure that you are an alcoholic?
This is a question that was asked of me on more than one occasion as I began to admit what really going on in my life. In retrospect, I think it was a hard concept to grasp because I was wildly secretive about my drinking as an adult and at the same time it caused many of my friends to look at their own drinking.
It was much easier for those in my life to see unhappiness, discontentment and issues with a hot temper. All of these were identifiable traits were often blamed on personal deficiencies and wiring, as well as my history of depression. Harder still was to imagine your youth pastor, friend, family member or drinking buddy as someone whose life was so out of control that they were the taking drastic steps of admitting that at 31 they had let king alcohol rule their life.
Sure there were those that had seen me drunk. Just as any one of my college roommates can testify, they have seen ugly. But that is normal college behavior, right? What happened in my life was the pattern was set from the first drink. There was a physical and mental obsession with oblivion that was sparked at 19. And for the next 12 years, whether I was drinking or not, my mind was consumed by the desire to catch the high.
When I first got to the rooms of recovery, I spent many of the early days coming to terms with the reality of my diagnosis. For 5 years, I had come to embrace mental illness and depression. I was depressed – and one quick side note – alcohol is a horrific attempt at medicating depression. Alcohol in itself is a depressant. For years, I poured fuel on the fire of my pain. In addition to suffering from depression, I was an alcoholic. I fought with that label for years. Even when I got to the program, I tried to find ways to avoid it. And then I started reading and listening. When I read these words, it was like someone wrote them about my drinking. I thank God everyday for the people who went before me on this path and bravely put into writing these words so that I could know I was not alone.
Here are some of the methods we have tried: Drinking beer only, limiting the number of drinks, never drinking alone, never drinking in the morning, drinking only at home, never having it in the house, never drinking during business hours, drinking only at parties, switching from scotch to brandy, drinking only natural wines, agreeing to resign if ever drunk on the job, taking a trip, not taking a trip, swearing off forever (with and without a solemn oath), taking more physical exercise, reading inspirational books, going to health farms and sanitariums, accepting voluntary commitment to asylums – we could increase the list ad infinitum.
We do not like to pronounce any individual as alcoholic, but you can quickly diagnose yourself. Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it. It may be worth a bad case of jitters if you get a full knowledge of your condition.
Though there is no way of proving it, we believe that early in our drinking careers most of us could have stopped drinking. But the difficulty is that few alcoholics have enough desire to stop while there is yet time.
Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous page 32
The Unexpected Voice
When I went to seminary, I found myself listening to new voices. I then came back to Texas and went through a deconstruction of my faith system. As this happened, I woke to more voices. Voices that told stories of hope and truth and framed my faith in new ways. In early recovery, I once again began a path of faith rediscovery.
All through my struggles with God, I could not walk away from the Church. I knew deep in the depth of my know-er that there was a place in the Church for the broken, redeemed, and still struggling band of believers that I now proudly embraced.
Because I didn’t always have safe spiritual places, I often looked back to trusted voices. One of those was a seminary professor named Helen. When I began my search for a seminary, her leadership in the program was one of the reasons that I chose to attend Asbury. She was a nationally recognized guru in student ministry. She was a mother of 3. She was voice of truth. She was approachable and warm and hope filled. She invited us into her home. I admired so much about her. What I didn’t know at the time was that she was in the midst of her own struggle.
I had been sober for a matter of weeks when I contacted this former seminary professor of mine. On a dark and lonely afternoon, I Googled her name and found that she had recently joined the teaching team of a recovery community. A what? Helen? How could that be? With a little basic math, it was clear that she had been in the midst of her addiction and early sobriety when I was in her home.
I wish I still had that email. I would give anything to read those words again. Here are the nuggets of truth that I still carry today. She wasted no time in telling me to take time to heal. She cautioned me about jumping immediately back into ministry and not taking the time to die to my addiction, to bury it well, and to let God really work on me. She implored me to feel the icky, awkward, and very emotionally uncomfortable process of developing a scar. For it was only from a scar, and not a gaping open infected wound, that God would use this story as redemption.
I thank God for this wisdom every day. I didn’t do this anywhere close to perfectly. But somehow in that brief exchange, I was given the clarity and experience to slow down. I was given the courage to do the hard work of wound care. I even held a small hope that one day, maybe one day, this place of darkness would be used for good. I didn’t see it then, but she gave me a small flame of promise that carried me in the days ahead.
Early sobriety. If you have ever been invited into this sacred space, you have seen first hand the vulnerable, broken, heart breaking journey. When you first admit you have a problem, people want you to get better (aka quit acting like an ass) and are happy to hear that you are making changes. This excitement lasts about as long as your best intentions. With each passing day the journey becomes more real. Suddenly, what seemed like a good idea in a moment of fear and desperation becomes a reality that a newly sober person would gladly reconsider. In our family, the kids came home. The initial crisis was over. I was better and life returned to normal rhythms. Sure.
To the outside, that was the case. To the moms in the pre-school pick up line, all was good. To the therapists that were treating Ally, nothing was odd. But to those who were seeing me at meetings, they knew something very different. The only way I know to describe this season is skinless. It felt as if all of the blocks that I previously gained strength and hope from were failing.
On one of these very raw days, I went to a noon meeting that I often attended. I was scared and angry and people kept talking about things like ‘let go and let God.’ It was all I could handle. I’m not sure if I had ever spoken in this meeting before, but they heard my voice that day. Through some colorful language and fierce passion, I explained to them that I knew a thing or two about God. It was clear in my mind that if God could have saved me, I would not have ended up in these damp, dingy rooms with a pounding head and a broken soul.
AND NO ONE EVEN FLINCHED
They let my pain hang in the air and one of my favorite men in the room said in his rough voice, “We’re glad you are here. Keep comin’ back.” That was it. No one tried to fix me. No one told me I was doing anything wrong. They gave me some suggestions about how they made it through days 26-41 and hugged me. I didn’t get shamed. No one said, “Oh, honey, I’ll pray for you…”
They let me be right where I was supposed to be and never left me alone. I called them at all hours of the night. I took them with me when I was scared of my own shadow. These brothers and sisters became my lifeline. I felt that the world outside those rooms had no idea what was going on in my bat-shit crazy mind, but they did. And each day they gave me a little shot of hope that I could go another 24 hours.
There is a reason that it is suggested that you attend 90 meetings in 90 days. It far from scientific. Its knowledge gained from first hand experience. The first 90 days of sobriety are hell. HELL. Your body hurts. Your head is spinning, Your soul feels like someone has drug it behind a car and then you are expected to be better because to the world, you haven’t had a drink or a drug in weeks. Why are you still dazed?
Your protective layer of alcohol and drugs is gone and it feels as if you are walking around with your bones and organs and feelings (oh, the feelings) exposed to the world. I drank and drugged to avoid feeling anything that I perceived as uncomfortable. And there was nothing in my life more uncomfortable than the early days of sobriety. You are doing all of this with no security blanket. No protection. You are dazed because you are skinless.
In June of 2007, I took a group of teenagers to Panama City beach to a youth camp. The trip was planned long before I began my journey in sobriety. By that point, I was a full 74 days sober, so I was well, right? We drove in a rental van. It was 5 days of student ministry adventure. I was good on day 1. I was shaky on day 2. So, I did what I had been taught and I found a meeting in the area.
Going to meetings when you travel is such a great experience. You meet people who have walked a similar road and yet our different places and paths are unique. The meeting I found that day was in a beach hut and most of the people had been sober for 15+ years. I was an adorable newcomer. They were warm and kind and totally understood the path that brought me to this place. It was great. We were strangers and long-lost friends.
I went back to the camp that afternoon and felt strong. Day 3 was good. And then Day 4 came. I was struggling. And the schedule did not allow for me to make a meeting. So I took a walk on the beach for a few minutes and played my music loudly in my ears. As I walked, the tears began to fall. I wanted to be better. I wanted to be whole. I wanted an instant fix to what I knew was not a one day treatment plan.
As I struggled to make sense of this place in my brain and heart, I was looking for shells on the beach. I’m not naturally a sucker for nature, but full shells on the sand of a beautiful beach can get me. I watched the teenagers produce these gorgeous spiral shells from their trips in the water. And as I was walking, they just didn’t seem to make it to the shore. I walked in as far as my shins and still no whole shells. There were beautiful pieces. They were shiny and colorful, but not full. I was feeling brave and desperate and made my way in a little further to see what I could find. Nothing.
With stubborn determination, and a real fear of the ocean water and creatures, I waded to the first sandbar. Bingo. The shells were trapped on the backside of the canal between the shore and the first sandbar. Sandbars are ridges of sand built up in the water along a shore or beach by the motion the of waves or currents. In this season, I felt like I was living on a sandbar created by the waves of alcohol. It was an unknown. It was a fearful new home. And I was living with jello legs praying that the next wave would not knock me to my drowning death.
As I stood on that sandbar, I faced the reality that the sinking sand of my soul would require another surrender when I got home. I had known that things were far from right, but I didn’t have the strength to express what was happening. So with all the feeble strength I could muster, I let the next wave take me under and reached for the shells on the bottom of the ocean floor. When I surfaced, I had shells – whole, beautiful shells. So I did it again. And again.
I came home from Florida with a jar of large Lettered Olive shells. With those shells, I carried the knowledge that I needed legs. Legs that were stronger than jello. Putting bones in my legs would require another level of surrender. And, oh, do I hate surrender.
The Tangled Web
In addition to telling my story, it is my prayer that in the writing of my journey, people who have not struggled with addition can find a base of knowledge and understanding. This is one of the subjects that needs facts, figures and heart knowledge to understand.
The brain is a delicate, intricate and fascinating organ. The National Institute of Drug Abuse gives a great explanation about why our brains become addicted to drugs:
“Our brains are wired to ensure that we will repeat life-sustaining activities by associating those activities with pleasure or reward. Whenever this reward circuit is activated, the brain notes that something important is happening that needs to be remembered, and teaches us to do it again and again without thinking about it. Because drugs of abuse stimulate the same circuit, we learn to abuse drugs in the same way.” Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction
According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 8.2 million adults aged 18 or older or 3.4 percent of all adults, had both a mental illness diagnosis and a substance use disorder in the past year. Just let that sink in. IN ONE YEAR. The not so rare co-occurence of mental illness and addiction is so common. From a personal perspective, more often than not, the people who I meet in recovery are also battling depression, anxiety, OCD and a myriad of other diagnosed mental illnesses. Many times, the first line treatment for these conditions is self-medication.
In late June, I was two and a half months sober. I was going to meetings. I was working the steps with a sponsor. And I was still dying. Without the ability to numb the pain of depression and obsessive thoughts through drugs and alcohol, there was no way to get my brain chemistry to cooperate and play on the team. My depression was back in full force. I was doing all in my power to avoid the psychiatrist, and yet I was spiraling to a dark place.
There was nothing that people could do to help. My inability to deal with life on life’s terms was overwhelming. It was at this point, I reached a new low. I faced the reality that removing alcohol from the situation was only one step. Now I had to deal with the underlying causes of my drinking. Oh, crap.
With great shame and disappointment in my self-will, I confessed that I wanted to numb my life and I was at a place that a drink, drug, pill or going to sleep forever were all on the table. It’s from this space, that Lucas and I once again took direction. We were led to a treatment facility that had a program for dual diagnosis. So for the next 4-5 weeks, I went daily to rooms where doctors, therapist, addiction specialists and family members built a coordinated team approach to care.
I don’t think there has been a time before or a time since that I was so defeated. I knew what I stood to lose. I just wanted to pack this mess of a life away in a box and store it in the attic of our family. Instead, I was once again parading my disaster through the living room with all of my insanity for parents and siblings and friends to see. There is no way to go to treatment with a 5 year-old and 2 year-old and not tell anyone. You cannot sneak off in the night. It requires caregivers and support and rest. It is not like going to a job and coming home after a long day. You spend 8 hours a day in intense therapy and in the process, all the things that you wished to keep buried are stirred into the forefront of your mind and heart. Tired is not the correct word to describe your feelings at the end of the day.
It took the complete team of professionals to develop a plan to launch me back into life. The regimen included more intense therapy, meetings and medication that I did not want to admit I needed. But at the end of the summer, I had my feet on the ground, a plan in place and work to do. I also had a kindergartener and my crash course in being the mom of a school age child ahead. Ready or not, our family was changing.
Do I Really Have To Be On The PTA?
I grew up with my mom at our school. She worked and yet she made time to volunteer on committees, as room mom, in the office and for school programs. As far back as I can remember, my parents were at every event, coached every sport and supported teachers and administration anyway they could. When my first child went to kindergarten, I wanted to do all the things. I felt this was a right of passage. It was one of the things that I dreamed of doing from the first day of motherhood.
The elementary school my girls attended is our neighborhood school. For years, I watched dads and moms fill the parking lot for events and carnivals and class parties. I was genuinely excited that my time to participate had arrived. I remember going to kindergarten orientation. There were familiar faces and new ones, as well. And there were all the things to volunteer for. All. The. Things.
But a strange thing happened as I walked in that school building. The familiar faces were not the people who knew about the last 4 months. To many of them, I was the together, involved, community participant that had served on church committees and community organizations. By all reasonable data points, I was the picture of willing volunteer lady. If they only knew. I was suddenly thrust into my worst possible nightmare. The mom microscope.
Any attempt to blend into the neutral walls of wallflower-ing disappeared the day that I volunteered to be an assistant room mom. From the jumping off point, you are in the mix with all the key players. The ones that plan the activities. The ones that run the fundraiser. The ones that know the teachers. The ones. I wanted so badly to be successful in this world. But there was nothing about my life in that season that provided a popular conversation starter. When asked about available meeting times or your ability to serve on a committee, there is nothing normal or acceptable about giving the answer of, “Oh, I’m sorry, I have to go see my therapist and make a 12-step meeting.”
But I just could not let it go. In hindsight, things would have been so much easier emotionally if I had let myself off the hook and forced myself to take 2 years of school volunteering reprieve. If you are a young momma, and you have interior work to complete, please take this simple advice. Stay out of the momma drama until you have your feet on the ground and your whole self whole. You can do it! No guilt. No pretending. You don’t have to be a room mom to be a great mom. And if you never find yourself ready, let that guilt free flag fly. Be there for your kiddo. That is the greatest gift.
I found myself creating an unreasonable pressure on myself to fit in. I wanted to present the exterior of perfection. I wanted every single person in the halls and playground of the school to think that I was great. Just so great. And other than the shame that I was carrying around, the main motivation for this determined forward march was my girls. What would people think if they knew the truth? Would I ever be allowed to chaperone a field trip? Would my girls ever have playdates? Would there ever be a time that people looked at my family and saw us as normal?
These questions kept my mind trapped on a hamster wheel. Every. Single. Time. I went in the school, I painted and dressed and tried to cover up the chaos. I was sure that if anyone found out my crazy that I would be marked with the scarlet letter of D(runk) and my days of being all the things to all of the volunteer teams would be over.
What I didn’t understand, and could not be told at the time, was that this goal was lame. So lame in fact, that the attempts to fit in and fall inline with the masses was one of the worst decisions I could make. And the continued attempts to present the perfect exterior almost cost me my life…again.
The 12-Steps are a lifeline for those of us that need basic instructions on how to live. If you are not familiar with the steps, I have posted them at the end of this writing. The first time I went into a meeting, I saw this list on the wall and I thought to myself, how lovely! Then I realized that these printed ideas were actually suggested moves toward living a life without resentments. Resentments are one of the greatest threats to my sobriety. When I find myself in a place of expectation or fear or superiority, I am quick to assume that I know better. And then my mind is off to the races. A hallmark of the program is to work the steps with another person (called a sponsor) that has already worked the steps and has qualities of life that you admire.
I began working with a sponsor early on, but it took time to make it to the steps that I had dreaded from day 1:
Step Eight: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step Nine: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Some of you reading this were on that list. This was one of the most pride-leveling experiences of my life. I was taught in working my program that amends were a part of healing. Making amends was the best way to reconnect with the people who have been deeply hurt as a result of your actions. Making amends is about taking a hard look at your past and being able to admit your wrongdoing to others. It’s recognizing when you tell yourself lies about what really happened. It is not about blame or shame or even just apologizing. It is about responsibility, which for most of us is all but impossible.
We are humans, and we feel hurt and grief in broken relationships. Many times I could see things in others that THEY had done wrong much quicker than I could see my part. It was in that head space that I was taught a prayer that I began praying for those on my amends list and this is what it said:
Dear God, I have a resentment towards a person that I want to be free of. So, I am asking you to give this person everything I want for myself. Help me to feel compassionate understanding and love for this person. I pray that they will receive everything they need.
I dare you to try this. I did this as I prepared to make my amends. I knew that many of these relationship required face to face time for me to say these precious words. Often, I had to make amends for things that people knew happened, but I also had to tell them about things that they had no idea about. Things that drove a wedge in our relationship that they could never understand because they didn’t even know it existed.
Making amends is so counter intuitive for many of us. When I would make the initial contact, I often feared – Would they answer the phone? Would they want to talk to me? Could I even gather the words to explain?
In one of the hardest of these conversations, I connected with one of the friends that I most deeply injured in active addiction. I laid my cards on the table and prayed for the words to explain how not just sorry, but absolutely broken-hearted I was by the chasm in our friendship. My friend was gracious. She asked questions – hard ones. I took responsibility for my part, and she took responsibility for her part. We cried. And we made the commitment to walk forward without holding each other hostage with the past.
Making amends is not about instant fixes. It is about first steps. I had no idea how any of these conversations would change my relationships. What I discovered after time and healing, is that with each passing day, things grew. For those that were committed to healing, we trusted each other a little more. And with few exceptions, I can honestly say that the relationships that I share with those on my amends list are bigger, more healthy and more loving than what we shared years ago. It is far more than I could have asked for or imagined. I’m so thankful for all of the steps, but what I dreaded as my least favorites, ended up being some of the best medicine to help cure the ails that my disease creates in my life.
*Amends are not just for those in recovery. If you are interested in learning more about this way of healthy living, drop me a note.
If you are not familiar with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, enjoy:
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
As I grew to love my chair in the rooms of meetings, I often spent time wondering how this place that was so foreign could feel so safe. Some days I sat next to people who looked like me. Somedays I took Snicker’s bars from the older men who appeared to have some experience that I lacked. Somedays I heard stories about adventures that were very different from mine. But, they all talked about turning my will over to the care of God.
There are some similarities to a church service. There is an opening and closing prayer. There is a time that the basket is passed to collect money. There is often talk of spiritual experiences that sound eerily familiar to those that I was trying to avoid. This place that was so unlike my church was in many ways so Church-like. All my life, I believed that church was somewhere you went. It didn’t matter that I sang a song that told me it was the people. I believed that we “went to” church. The rooms of recovery taught me that the Church meets me where I am.
On the back porch.
In the psych ward.
While sharing stories.
While admitting our failures.
While reconciling our brokenness.
Honestly, it did not feel like any kind of church that I had ever known. I falsely believed that the Church was a safe place for me as a newly sober person. One of the hardest church moments in early sobriety was when I was attending worship and the pastor shared about the beauty of all things – which I believe – but the example was given during the sermon of sitting outside and enjoying a wonderful glass of wine with the ones you love. This seems like a simple enough example. And for most people in the service that day, it was.
They immediately related and recognized that imagery of beauty. But for me, the newly sober, stumbling in my faith listener, it hit me sideways and upside-down that day. Here’s why: I was completely ill prepared. I didn’t see it coming. I was in my happy Jesus place and I was minding my own business, and out of no where the desire to be one of the normal people who drank wine and saw beauty startled me out of my worshipping-Jesus dream. It was the craziest thing. Ever.
But in that moment, I became aware, again, that most people in my world don’t understand my disease. I’m grateful for this. And I’m also forced to a place of awareness because of it. It is my job, and not yours to know safe places. And that day, I naively thought that this service on a random Sunday night was a safe place.
But the truth is, there is no safe place in a world that is filled with the common conversation piece of my addiction. No one meant to hurt me that day. But in my delicate and fragile head space, I didn’t have the capacity to see that. I was more convinced than ever that the only safe place for me was a room with the 12-steps on the wall. But guess what? That room has imperfect people just like the church and the PTA and families and even the clergy. The most important work for a newly sober person to do is the hard work of cleaning up my side of the street. The interior work of the steps was one of the greatest gifts of my life and helped me to find truth in the midst of a very scary world filled with humans.