“The grace of God means something like:
Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us.
It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.
Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
One lovely morning about a month ago, I woke up feeling vaguely sick and full of fear. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. The next day? Same thing.
It took me a few days to sort out what was happening. The smells of early summer, the riotous birdsong, the feeling of sun on my face, the verdant grass, and the windows flung open to the delicious warmth trigger me and I harken back to the cold, dark, colorless place I was in a few Junes ago. I just get jangly this time of year. Even when I’m not consciously thinking about it, my body remembers.
On December 15, 1970, I was born. On June 16, 2015, I decided to live.
For those of you counting days, today is day 1095. Three years sober.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, God.
I thank God every day because God and I are tight like that. I believe in God and I love Jesus but more often than not, when I enter a church I head downstairs. I tend to hold my breath upstairs amidst the stained glass and polished pews, but give me a circle of busted up folding chairs in a poorly lit church basement anywhere and I can breathe just fine.
Every morning at 7 a.m. I descend a flight of concrete stairs and both surrender and fight for my life. Recovery is weird like that. I gather with my people. I let myself be seen. I listen. I learn. Everyone in the room – and I mean EVERYONE – is my teacher. The schoolteachers and the scoundrels, the businessmen and the brawlers, the nurses and the naysayers. All are welcome. As Bob Goff says, “Everybody always.”
It’s impossible to get through this day without thinking about how I felt on that beautiful June day, three years ago.
Everything hurt. My hair hurt. The sun was an affront to me. Underneath my makeup, my skin was blotchy. My lips were chapped from dehydration. My eyes were red. My stomach was a mess. I’d not eaten in days. My hands were shaking. I was that special kind of jittery that only comes with your body’s attempt to rid itself of the poison you’ve been eagerly, desperately ingesting. My reaction times were either too slow or lightning fast and over-reaching. I was completely and utterly exhausted.
I wasn’t crying because I was at that place of grief that is somehow beyond tears.
I hate remembering and I can’t afford to forget.
This was me earlier in the weekend of my rock bottom:
I think there’s confusion about what rock bottom looks like. People think you need to lose everything, have every door slammed on you, have every person you love turn away from you. Sometimes it looks like that, but not always. There’s a saying in recovery that rock bottom is simply when you decide to stop digging.
Three years ago today, I sat in a deep, dark hole with a shovel in my hand, terrified to put it down. I am an intelligent, loving woman who knew I was killing myself and hurting everyone I held dear, and my right to continue living that way was a mountain I was seriously considering dying on.
I know. It makes no sense from the outside. We’re clearly miserable and you talk to us about the need to stop doing the thing that’s actively causing our misery. You think you’re offering us a solution but it feels as though you are trying to take one away. You think you’re issuing an invitation, but we hear a threat.
You see us broken and breaking things – which must be awful. It’s also our absolute best at that moment. At rock bottom, disaster is our only offering.
Rob Bell defines despair as the belief that tomorrow will be exactly like today. That is spot on. At rock bottom, I knew I could not do what I’d been doing for one more day. I also absolutely knew I couldn’t not do it. Somehow, someway, the collision of those two desperate, incompatible truths created a crack in me that allowed a tiny sliver of willingness into my heart. The common denominator in every rock bottom story I’ve ever heard was despair. I look back on that day and now, from the vantage point of sobriety, I see it as positively drenched in grace – but, dear God, I couldn’t see it then.
“Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”
I would not wish what I felt that day on anyone – except for this: the wretched, awful truth is that for many of us despair is the gateway to willingness.
The night I went to my first meeting I remember sitting in my car in a church parking lot trying to summon the courage to walk into the building. I was so scared it wouldn’t work for me. The only thing that scared me more was the possibility it would.
Would I ever have fun again?
Would I ever relax again? Dance again? Sleep again? Make love again? How would I handle vacations? Weddings? Parties? Ball games? Funerals? Holidays? Beach days? Snow days? Tuesdays? Any days? All of the days?
Jesus, there are a lot of days.
It seemed impossible.
I remember wondering if the summer night air would ever smell the same to me as it always did after I had that first drink. Would I ever again have one of those moments like after a glass or two of wine when I would look up at the stars and feel connected to everything? Would I ever laugh with girlfriends again the way I did after that first alcohol hit my bloodstream? Would I ever breathe easy again?
Was losing those things something I was willing to risk? It was an actual question.
Willingness. It’s the one thing no one can give you and no one can help you with. It’s the one thing over which you have complete agency. Grace is lavish and unending and ever-present. Willingness… is not. The feeling of willingness is fickle and ephemeral, the decision to be willing is painful and terrifying. And brave. The decision to be willing is a fucking act of bravery.
Will and grace. Did you know the tv show’s title is based on the Jewish philosophy book I and Thou by Martin Buber? In it, Buber posits that we need both the will to seek God’s love and the grace to receive it.
When I hear people say, “there but for the grace of God go I,” I recoil. If God’s grace was enough by itself no one would ever die of this disease. Families wouldn’t be torn apart. Relationships wouldn’t fall victim to it. We have free will, though. Recovery begins at the intersection of grace and willingness. Grace is for everybody. God isn’t cherry-picking some addicts for rescue, leaving others to suffer and die. Grace does not, cannot work like that. No one gets more or less grace than anyone else. Grace needn’t be earned and cannot be lost. God does not love me more than the men and women, the boys and girls I’ve watched drop like flies since I got sober.
I know this as surely as I know anything: God’s grace is the constant, my willingness is the variable.
When I was working in Special Ed we were trained in how to deal with students who were exhibiting what was deemed adverse behavior. We learned what to do to keep everyone safe and help get the students back on track so they could be successful and do their work.
One student, one of my favorites, would have meltdowns every day. He’d throw himself on the ground, scream, cry. He’d bang his head and hit and kick at us.
It was awful – so hard to watch. I adored him and he was in such distress. I wanted to fix it, make it better. End it, somehow.
Once he’d reached a certain point, though, that was not my job.
My job in those moments was to try and keep him safe, try to keep myself and others safe and let it play out so that we could get back to work. Because he was considered non-verbal I had to use as little spoken language as possible, so I’d say the same thing every time, over and over.
“When you are ready, I will help.”
The thing about a behavior spiral like that is once it escalates to a certain point it needs to end in exhaustion. That’s what they teach you. And anything you do to curtail the cycle, anything you do that interrupts the person’s progress toward exhaustion, only prolongs the suffering and forestalls the inevitable. That exhaustion – that despair, if you will – is where willingness is born.
Eventually, and usually for no apparent external reason, he would pop up and shout two of the few words he could say.
And then, we’d get to work.
Three years ago today I was exhausted. A level of tired you simply cannot imagine if you’ve not been there. Down to the bone, tired. Three years ago today, I walked into a church, sat in a circle, and said I was all done. I accepted the grace that had always, always been there for me and I became willing.
Then I did my work.
And then? Well then, everything beautiful came.
Come as you are – all jacked up. Come broken and undone. Come tired and shaky, hungover and dragging your ass. Come drunk if you have to. Come thinking you know everything and stay ’til you unlearn it all. Come for the terrible coffee and the unbelievable mercy. We’re located at the intersection of Grace and Willingness. Come.
We’re saving you a seat.
If you are struggling with addiction please know it can get so much better after surrender. Raise the white flag.
If you need help, ask for it. If you need resources, email me.
Please don’t die of shame.
Have you read my book?
She Wrote it Down: How a Secret-keeper Became a Storyteller
Available on amazon.com!
Love you, sweet. <3
Joanie Madsen says
Laura, wow dear sister that YOU are to SO many of us that you may have never “met” yet I feel as if we have. I can feel your immense gratitude and freedom that you experience each moment in your sobriety and am so delighted for you as I read about where you are finding yourself today. You are a work in progress as we each are and moving out of the shame of addiction and the space that an addiction takes up in one’s life and into a magical freedom of feeling everything without the need to numb it or run from it. You are being curious and asking it “whatever it is” and allowing it just to BE and have its way with you until you’ve felt and learned all that you need for now and can send it on its way.
WOO HOO, Laura, and I know this path well not as the one afflicted with the “ism” of addiction, yet the “ism” of being addicted to the one in those meetings downstairs. I found my meeting room too and Al-Anon saved me and still does to this day. I learned that my addiction to the qualifiers in my life was as potent and damaging as theirs was. I learned everything that I could so that I could understand my role and my relationship in the disease and it was and to this day is humbling and ongoing.
YOU keep writing, sharing and speaking your truth and your heart because it is vital and SO very helpful. I’m listening and being like a sponge and soaking YOU in.
Deepest gratitude and continued illumination on your path into wholeness and well-being.
Thank you, Laura, your words and story reached a deep place in me this morning, … (after waking up feeling disconnected and praying for help). As i read , i was able to connect inside, and cry , releasing pain and some uglies i had been holding onto- disappointment in me, self hate, unworthiness, uncertaintly, criticalness, etc. … Asking for the help to be willing … and , in asking, … also receiving grace and mercy again today to receive God’s love in the places that still so desperately need it. And, choosing to love me again today, right where i am, especcially with the imperfections i see in me, …. asking for grace to not judge these, but to surrender to love instead, … embracing all of me. … … Just wanted to let you know that your heart share, opened space for my heart too. Love, candace
Thank you Laura for sharing your story. In 1984, I was a junior in college and 3 months shy of turning 21. On St Patrick’s day night I hit my bottom, my counselor helped me get to my first AA meeting and I’ve never turned back and have been sober ever since. I met my husband in AA a year later, we married two years later and have 5 beautiful kids. I remember those early days too of the summer air and craving a cold beer and how would I make it through all those “firsts” without alcohol? But I held onto the Lord, went to MANY meetings and we’ve both remained clean ever since. I’m so ever grateful for that. Blessings upon you and this new life and journey you have ahead of you!
Hearon (HD) says
This is a wonderful post and congratulations on the three years! You “beat” me by about 6 weeks. I actually found you today through a retweet of your border comments; what a nice “surprise” to see that you are a fellow traveler in recovery. Anyway, thanks for this. For me, I sat in the church parking lot 3 times before mustering the courage to walk inside. Surrender. I SOBBED the entire meeting. But what a joyful journey it has been since that day. All the best to you!
Patrick Nolan says
I enjoy listening to you, I really enjoy reading you. Well done, friend.
Lenora Rand says
So wonderful to read this. And “Will and Grace” – I didn’t know the origin of that from Buber’s I Thou. So great. And yes yes yes: “Recovery begins at the intersection of grace and willingness.” Thank you for all of this…for your story and for all that you bring alive in the world by your full presence in it. By the way, that Buechner quote is one of my favorites. It was a big part of the inspiration behind the song, Only Grace.
Karen Wiggins says
Nice post tthanks for sharing