How I know I’m saved.

Today, I learned a friend of ours passed way during the week. We also learned he divorced since last we saw him, although we knew he and his wife were having problems, it was a surprise to hear it. What we didn’t know was he died from the results of heavy, long-term alcohol addiction and abuse. He was just a few years older than us.

He died while on the waiting list for the rehab where Ben was able to get well.

Tonight, I lie here in the dark with my husband snoring beside me, and I am grateful. For all of it. All of this. Life is hard and it is beautiful. But it is life. And we have it. I can never take this for granted, what I have. What we are is a miracle.

I did not die of cancer. He did not die of drinking.

People, especially the Christian people we are wont to hang out with, talk a lot about salvation. Some wonder, in their insecurity and their fears, if they are really saved.

I don’t wonder. I know I am.

Love, Jo xxx

Embracing The Shitty and The Shiny – Why You Don’t Need To Be Ashamed Because Your Life Isn’t Perfect

Warning: This post contains mild profanity, as if you didn’t already notice – I don’t think it’ll get any worse than the word used in the title though. I hope. However, I haven’t actually written the post yet, so here’s hoping I don’t forget to come back and change this caveat if I accidentally say fuck.

Ben (my husband) and I have this little saying about people, which bodes us very well. Our little saying generally stops us getting too down the track of being judgey at people, and ourselves for that matter, and also prevents us giving in to the temptation to pretend we are way more fixed-up and together than we actually are. This little phrase has been gleaned from years of getting off our own particularly churchy high-horse (which ended up with a broken leg and had to be shot) and also learning the very, very, very hard way God isn’t actually in control of as much as we sometimes like to think. As it turns out, the humans are in charge of most things we sometimes like to blame God for, and we mess those things up quite a lot. Surprisingly, we also discovered humans are always far more worried about the mess-ups than God is.

“Everyone’s got the shit.”

Whenever we meet someone new who tries to impress us by boasting about all their expensive playthings and how clever they are or otherwise gloat about the apparent perfection and excruciating wonderfulnessof their life,  and how AHH-SUM God is – but only to them – we say to each other “Well, everyone’s got the shit”. We also remember it when we meet someone who is having a particularly hard time of things through no fault of their own, or otherwise. “Everyone’s got the shit” is not a putdown, and we never say it to people’s faces. It’s simply a way to remind ourselves that in all our 50 collective years as adults in society, we’ve never met one person who doesn’t have fears, insecurities, anxieties, emotional baggage, painful memories, shame or consequences of poor choices to deal with. Not one. Ever.

There was a time in our lives when we thought we were the only ones with problems, the only ones who ever fought, failed or fucked up. That was when we were deeply embedded in a collective society who upheld all-fixed-upedness to be the ideal, and also promoted it as attainable. The dummies. We all lauded and celebrated our master-race of leaders, who helped us ignore our actual problems by giving us a new, exciting self-improvment project every Sunday morning to distract us from doing any real inner work. In this way, for years and years and years, we and many others were able to fool ourselves into believing perfection was not only possible, but desirable and sustainable.

It couldn’t last, for us anyway. We were just way too flawed and wounded to make it stick. We were doomed to one day  just DUI on all that repressed shame and insecurity about our problems and our past, get behind the wheel, drive way too fast and careen headlong into the Real World at an intersection.

You see, I got cancer. Then my husband became an alcoholic.

The Real World – where denial about problems, flaws and imperfection cannot exist – and us collided, and all our very carefully held-together pieces and all the messed-up shit which constitutes reality and The Way Things Really Are For Human Beings lay scattered across the road. It were ugly. Our blood and bone all the bits of us got mixed together with the gravel and the tar, and there was no way we could collect it all up again. All those problems we’d been holding onto and hiding were out there in the open for all to see, and all the things we’d worked so hard to achieve, our self-improvements and the things we’d been so proud of were now – to our horror – blended with all the horrible, yucky bits. In public.

Real World, people.

One thing we learned while we were making cancer go away and helping Ben acknowledge his alcoholism was these kinds of problems are not rare or peculiar in the Real World. Crashing into the Real World and dealing with our own shit helped us see just how common Real Problems are. Most people never let others see their shit, until they go DUI on shame and insecurity and lose control as well. We found we couldn’t justify the time and energy it would take for us to separate all those messy bits into perfection/problem piles, so we just decided to keep going, armless, legless if necessary, but definitely less-than-perfect, and honest about it for the very first time.

Everyone, when it comes to problems and imperfection, has the shit. We all do. Even that person you believe is self-actualised beyond your comprehension, unattainably all-fixed-up and just totally-together has nasty, hurtful stuff they’re dealing with – painful, shameful stuff. They may be dealing with it well, they may be dealing with it poorly, but they have it, of that you can be sure. Many people are well-aware of their pain and their vulnerabilities, and they ask for help, and know how to get that help into the parts where it will help the most. But others are so afraid of their own shame, they stuff it into a brown paper bag and take it down into dark, secret places, where they cry and drink up shame, and cry and drink up shame, alone there in the dark for as long as it takes.

It takes forever, just so’s you know. And let’s face it – we just don’t have that kind of time.

Acknowledging your shit, and the reality others have it too, is incredibly liberating, for yourself and for them. Ben and I are learning to embrace our own shit. It was the only way we could get bits of ourselves back together again after our incident with the Real World. We picked up the salvageable pieces – the stuff both we and others felt represented our failures and the worst of us – and we held them closer and closer to the best of us that remained, until they all began to graft to one another again. Its not pretty, but by God, it feels right. The yin and and yang. The shiny and the shitty. And I promise you, in embracing both the shitty and the shiny, you’ll help so many. There’s a whole lot of people out there about to go DUI, honey, and the best paramedics are the ones not afraid to get their hands a bit dirty. 🙂

*****

I love comments! Leave yours below, tell us your own story of the shame, the “shit”, and about your healing journey.

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Something Magnificent

Feb. 18th, 1989 – our wedding day.

I was 20, Ben was 19. Our baby son Beau-Daniel was 8 months old.

It’s been twenty-three years since that day.

Three more children came to stay. And then one more, who didn’t.

There was a cancer diagnosis, and six months of treatment.

There has been mental illness, depression, alcoholism. And there has been redemption and recovery.

There has been financial ruin. Financial restoration.

There were twelve months where we were split up. Divorce papers filled out and ready. Then there was forgiveness and reconciliation.

For better, and for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health.

If this marriage is all I have to show for myself at the end of my life, I can be satisfied I was part of something very, very magnificent.

Happy anniversary Ben. xxx

 

The Four Most Common Myths Christians Tell Themselves About Why They Can’t Become Alcoholics

I don’t get drunk.

Firstly, what makes an alcoholic an alcoholic is not how much they’re prepared to drink in a sitting. There is a common fallacy that alcoholism is the same thing as alcohol abuse, or binge drinking – but it isn’t. Your average person who gets plastered every Friday and Saturday night to the point of unconsciousness won’t necessarily be an alcoholic. Binge drinking is certainly dangerous, and in fact, the physical and social effects of alcohol abuse may be more impacting than those of alcohol addiction. While someone who has had a drinking session may appear obviously drunk, an alcoholic may actually seldom appear intoxicated. This is one of the reasons alcoholism can go undetected for a long time, even by people close to the person involved.

The Holy Spirit/ my conscience always tells me when it’s time to stop drinking.
In my experience, alcoholics can actually stop drinking any time they like. They do so, over and over. The problem isn’t with listening to the internal cue which says “no more after this one.” Alcoholics say they won’t drink again all the time, and they mean it, very sincerely. The problem isn’t with wanting to stop, it’s with being able to stop themselves from starting up again. An alcoholic can have one drink and then not have any more – several times over the course of a single day, even in the space of an an hour. Alcoholics are simply you are after you start failing to realise starting drinking again very frequently is tantamount to an addiction.
For an alcoholic, stopping isn’t the issue – Holy Spirit prompted or otherwise. It’s the ability to recognise that starting again a lot means you actually didn’t ever stop in the first place. This is why alcoholics cannot ever, ever drink. As my husband says, “One’s too many, and a hundred is never enough.”
I’m way too clever to let that happen to me.
You don’t need to be unintelligent to become an alcoholic. All you need is a) access to alcohol b) a reason to drink c) no reason good enough for you to stop. I bet you have all three of those right now. In fact, I bet you have mounds of supporting evidence to justify c) – some of it even from the Bible.
It’s impossible to be both an alcoholic and an effective Christian. I am an effective Christian, therefore, I can’t be an alcoholic.
Is an effective Christian someone who goes to church and participates in church life? Is an effective Christian someone who is able to maintain their capacity to provide for their family, going to work each day without a problem? Is an effective Christian someone who is not given to violence or abuse, is kind, generous and loving? Is an effective Christian someone who follows Christ, who reads their Bible and believes it? Is an effective Christian able to hold down a position in both the church and the community? Is an effective Christian someone who is repentant when they do something they recognise as being a sin? Do you really think these things are impossible for someone addicted to alcohol?
Many people think they couldn’t possibly know any alcoholics, because alcoholics sleep on park benches, slouch around on bars, beat their wives, neglect their jobs, fall down in gutters, abuse their children and run in constantly with the police. They think alcoholics are unkempt and unshaven. They think they’d know one if they saw one, and they think anyone that wouldn’t is a fool.
My experience is – and statistics bear out the fact –  that there are people addicted to drinking alcohol in every community in this country. And if they are in your community, then they are in your church. Not only that, they may be your neighbour, your pastor, your child, your wife or husband, or your mother or father. And you may not even know it, because they may not even know it themselves.
The fact is that being a Christian doesn’t mean you can’t also be an alcoholic. If you are an alcoholic, and you know it, then please also know this post wasn’t meant for you. It was meant for all the Christians who think they would never let themselves become like you. But you and I both know that you never set out to become an alcoholic, and you didn’t just let yourself turn into one either. In fact, many of us wonder why Jesus  – and everyone else we loved and cared about – wasn’t able to stop us when that addiction was being formed in us. But we know it’s just not that simple, don’t we?
If you are a Christian and you think alcohol isn’t a problem for Christians, then please consider one final point. When my husband was in rehab, he met a lot of other guys with alcohol addictions that ruined their lives. Many of them were Bible-believing Christians, family men with jobs, businesses and careers, and really nice guys. They all came from different walks of life, and had different stories to tell, but one thing they all had in common was the final bastion, the last stronghold they had to overcome before the power of alcohol addiction could be broken forever. It wasn’t the physical addiction. It wasn’t an underdeveloped conscience. It wasn’t even whether they were saved, or not. It was actually the thing that told them that despite the fact they were in rehab, someone like them could never be one of these people. It was what told them I’m not like these other guys – I don’t need to be here. They sure have a problem, but not me.

Their pride.

And if you think Christians can’t become alcoholics, chances are you’ve already got that in spades.
(Please visit the Our Story page to read about how alcohol affected our family, and our journey back.)
I recommend and endorse the following organisations:

 

Alcoholics Anonymous – Australia

Al-Anon Australia, for families and friends of alcoholics

Sherwood Cliffs Christian Rehabilitation Centre (for men and married couples, NSW Australia)

Destiny Haven Christian Rehabilitation Centre (for women, NSW Australia)

Sherwood Glen Christian Rehabilitation Centre (for women, NSW Australia)

Salvation Army Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Services in Australia

Lost Unto This World

You will not be able to do anything, whether or not you’ve been called, requested, conscripted, drafted, recruited, employed, compelled or fallen in to it, if your heart has not been moved in understanding what love has to do with it. It can be a dry, stupid, pointless task, but if your heart knows the family you love will eat tonight and sleep in shelter because you do this task, you will do it with passion. It may be uncomfortable, inconvenient, challenging, harder than anything you’ve ever done before or so close to the bone it brings you to tears every time, but if you see love going forward in you and in others because you do this thing, you won’t mind one bit. Your heart will tell you when something is for you, and when it does, you won’t care whether anyone else thinks it’s worth doing. You’ll be more alive than you’ve ever been doing that thing, knowing that the whole world is celebrating your having found what you were born for, and the whole world is better because you’ve been brave enough to do it.

*****

In January this year, Ben and I decided to move to Newcastle, about 400km away from the country town we’d lived in for several years. My greatest concern, over resettling the kids, was the fact I didn’t have a job to go to. I hadn’t actually worked a job for months, and certainly not a full time job for years. My most recent meaningful work experience had been in cancer supportive care, and I’d been facilitating a cancer support group as a volunteer for about a year. I had to start looking for a job – we would not be able to live off one income in Newcastle.

I started scanning job websites. And I started talking to God about it.

I’ll do whatever you want me to do.

Help people.

Okay. I can do that.

No jobs in any of the cancer organisations pending or forthcoming. Dang. I found lots of openings for case managers and support workers in youth, aged care and disabilities. The only drawback was that all required a qualification in social work. And I don’t have one.

I was still wondering what on earth I’d do for a job, when serendipitously I won two tickets on a competition website to see Emmylou Harris in Sydney. Amazing! More so because I’m not the hugest fan she’s ever had – I know she is a music legend but hardly knew any of her songs. But entering the competition was an inspiration – I knew my entry was good (it was one of those 25 words or less deals) but winning was a huge surprise. It felt meant-to-be. Excitedly, in the middle of packing up our house and freaking out because neither Ben nor I had jobs in Newcastle yet, I organised our weekend trip to Sydney to see Emmylou.

I suspected it was a divine arrangement, but I had no idea for what end.

Before we went to collect our tickets at the theatre, Ben and I found a small cafe on a corner a block or so away, directly opposite Sydney Town Hall. As we ordered our dinner and waited for our meal, we country folk watched as the big city happenings went on outside the window of the cafe. I became distracted by a young man begging near a statue of Queen Victoria just a few metres from where we were sitting. He was tall, slim, aged in his early twenties perhaps, and dressed in the ubiquitous army jacket and long, dirty pants. I was most fascinated by his hair; long, wild, curly, unkempt, ginger coloured hair, which, at the back, was flattened into a shiny, greasy dreadlocked panel which hung down his back past his shoulder blades, like a flap of thick, hairy leather. He was begging on the run; he never stopped moving or talking, walking up to people without seeing them, yattering unintelligibly as he approached with hands opened in front of him, veering away if they didn’t offer him anything from their pockets. He had no malice, nor appreciation in his expression. Whatever was going on behind those bright, unseeing eyes was locked inside his own head. He seemed both a child, and at the same time an old man. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. It was like there was no one else in the whole of Sydney that evening, no one but him.

I had to stop myself from visibly weeping. I felt so moved for him. Such a young man – what was his story? Where were his parents right now? He couldn’t be much older than our eighteen year old son. I thought of Levi, and thanked God I knew where he was right now, and that he was okay. I wondered if this boys mother knew he was here. The thought that she might know and could do nothing about it offered me scant comfort, as did the thought perhaps she hadn’t seen him like this, did not have any idea where her boy was right now.

So what was his story? Clearly he was not a well boy, perhaps schizophrenic. He’d also been homeless a while by the look of his clothes and his hair. That was months and months of dreadlocked hair hanging down his back. Was he mentally ill? How long had he been living this way, begging on the streets?

I found it hard to enjoy the meal. I decided I’d try to offer him something when we left, but just before dusk, just before we paid our bill, I glanced out and saw him pick up his backpack from the foot of the statue and make his way down the busy city street. Perhaps to a mens refuge, perhaps to a park to find shelter. We lost sight of him amongst the crowds. I closed my eyes and said a prayer for his safety and salvation. Salvation is a word we Christians over-use, a word few in this self-sufficient society really understand. Seeing this young man helped me remember there are still people who need saving.

We had prime seats at the State Theatre in Sydney, in the stalls just a dozen or so rows from the front. We were both so excited we were almost jumping up and down. When Emmylou appeared, it was like an angel had descended, her near-white hair like a halo. She seemed both small and magnificent to me; I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I needed to savour every delicious, exciting moment of it.

At one point, Ben and I turned to each other to look at each others eyes; I wanted to see if he was crying too, and he was – I could see he was feeling just what I was feeling. This was more than a musical experience – it was a spiritual one. Her songs were so simple and yet so deep, the stories so heartfelt. All undergirded by our awe of her legend. We’d never heard most of the songs before, and yet we felt like we already knew them all, word for word, line by line. Truth is truly universal.

And then I heard a song, one I’d never heard before, which changed me right there and then in my crimson faux velvet chair, forever. The first few lines pulled me forward in my seat, where I sat on the edge of my seat and held my breath for the remainder of the song. And I cried.

The words that captured my soul…..

“I was once some mother’s darlin’
Some daddy’s little girl
More precious than the ruby
More cherished than the pearl
My heart was full of mercy
And my forehead full of curl
Now I am nothing and am lost unto this world
I am lost unto this world…”

And the tears fell down my face.

“They herded me like cattle
Cut me down like corn
Took me from my babies
Before they could be born
You can blame it on the famine
You can blame it on the war
You can blame it on the devil
It don’t matter anymore
I am lost unto this world…

I was tortured in the desert
I was raped out on the plain
I was murdered by the high way
And my cries went up in vain
My blood is on the mountain
My blood is on the sand
My blood runs in the river
That now washes through their hands
I am lost unto this world…
Can I get no witness this unholy tale to tell?
Was God the only one there watching
And weeping as l fell?
O you among the living
Will you remember me at all?
Will you write my name out
With a single finger scrawl?
Across a broken window
In some long forgotten wall
That goes stretching out forever
Where the tears of heaven fall
I am lost unto this world…”

Oh my God. My God, I knew who she was singing about. I’d just seen a mothers son, just a few hours before, one of these children, lost unto the world. I wanted to sob out loud. My heart, my emotions, my mind just swept over with sorrow and anger and compassion. Lord! This is not a song of the past…this is a song of here and now. This is a song about orphans of this world, the lost, the disenfranchised, the ill, the homeless, the divorced, the rejected, the lonely, the alone.

We’d seen and lived with some of them, Ben and I, through the rehab where Ben had been for six months for treatment for alcoholism. Men lost to their families, men lost to their mothers and their fathers, men no longer husbands and sons and daddies because of their pain and their wounds, pain and wounds that dragged them to bars and to brothels, compelled them to spend the money that should have supported their families on booze and cigarettes and drugs. Broken men who broke their wives and broke their children. Empty women, wounded and hurt almost beyond repair, forgiveness a luxury given up for survival. And my husband had been one of those men, and I’d been one of those wives, and my children were some of those orphans. But for God’s grace. And here we sat, saved and restored and healed, remembering the ones we’d seen in the years before, and the one we’d seen moments ago, knowing that this was their song, this was their prayer. Our song. Our prayer.

On the train home, Ben and I could hardly speak for the weariness and joy we felt. “I think we just got us some churchin’.” Ben said, and I agreed.

A few days later, I found a job advertised for a mental health rehabilitation support worker in Newcastle. They wanted, so they said, not someone necessarily with a qualification, but “a certain type of person”. A person with compassion, a people person. I knew I was that person. I applied. And I got the job.

I truly believe that all the busted up stuff in our lives can be the foundation of what God has in mind for us. I now work every day with people whose lives have been railroaded and sometimes wrecked by mental illness, drugs and alcohol, and by the resulting relationships breakdowns and isolation. Sometimes, I leave their homes and drive away smiling, sometimes crying. It’s so hard. But I love it so much. What threatened to break me as a woman, a wife, mother and as a human, has become the platform on which I stand to strengthen and support and speak to others. I was diagnosed with a mental illness ten years ago, and I still don’t know how I have been able to progress through my life to this point with that as part of my life, let alone get through cancer, Ben’s alcoholism and our separation, whilst bringing up four children at the same time. Don’t know. You may say the things you’ve been through are evidence there is no God – people say this to me often – but I look at my life and I know the things I’ve been though would have broken me into a million pieces if not for God. I have no choice now. To deny Him is to deny my past, the miracles, everything I am and I stand for. He may not be understandable, but He is, nonetheless.

When I doubt I’m in the right place doing the thing I’m meant to be doing, I find myself stumbling across Emmylou’s song, and remembering that evening, and that young man. I couldn’t help him – but he helped me. He’ll never know that, and it diminishes the gravity and tragedy of his situation for me to say that’s the reason I saw him that evening. He was not helped, at least not be me, but I was helped to understand that I can make a difference, if I listen, and I obey that prompting. I am not one for just following my feelings everywhere they lead me, but sometimes what they say doesn’t just tell you about you – they tell you about something outside of yourself you need to pay attention to. Sometimes our feelings show us what hurts us, not so we can avoid it, but so we can run to where others hurt for the same reason.

Thanks Emmylou. And to that young man, where ever you may be, I pray you may find….home.

That none should be lost unto this world.

When Your Enemy Really Is “All In Your Mind”

I was talking to God last night. As you do. Well, as I do. So do some of my clients (I’m a mental health support worker) but that’s another story. Actually, it could be the same story. But I digress. Last night, I was talking to God about my anxiety. Come to think of it, some of my clients were probably doing that as well. I’d best get past this part, or we may never get anywhere.

A few years ago, whilst I was preparing a lesson plan for my job one morning, I had this weird feeling come over me. I felt like I’d had about four cups of coffee, and at the same time I wanted to lay down and go into a nice, comfortable coma. Very strange, and scary. I thought maybe I was having a heart attack. I didn’t work that day, and instead went home and got into bed and stayed there all day, only getting out when my husband came home to take me to a doctor. When he came into the bedroom, I tried to explain how I was feeling. “It’s like I’m…I’m….I’m….” Ben looked at me with this terrified, sympathetic expression, and I must have looked pretty bad because he finished my sentence by adding “Broken?”. Broken. That described it exactly.

At the doctors, I was promptly diagnosed with having had an anxiety attack. For no apparent reason. I hadn’t been anxious when it happened – I was using a photocopier. The doctor managed to establish that my anxiety attack may have been a delayed physiological response to a traumatic or anxiety inducing event that may have recently happened. “Oh, well that explains everything.” I said.

Three days prior, my husband and I had finally established that he was, in fact, a chronic alcoholic.

Yep. That’d do it.

Since that time, Ben and I have been to hell and back dealing with not only his alcoholism, but the concentric legacy of it, and my responses to it, felt by us and the whole family. One of those lasting effects has been the intense, physical anxiety attacks, often felt as panic, which I have experienced intermittently since the day I had that first attack. It’s weird, because I’ve always been one of those people who react instinctively in a crisis, responding quickly and decisively to threatening situations and accidents. I still am. The anxiety attacks are not triggered by immediate threats, or by real dangers or by surprises. They are seething, creeping things that advance slowly and without warning, in seemingly benign circumstances. They feel like I believe a tsunami happens; a huge, slow suck back as my energy drains from me, followed by a trickle, a flow, then a surge of adrenalin and energy which then rolls over me in wave after wave, flattening my emotions, my intellect and my physical strength with quivering, chattering, uncontrollable, surging power. Fear. Panic. Flight, without the fight.

Horrible stuff.

They happen most predictably at the cinema. I hate the movies. I want to see the film, but the thought of all those people milling around in the lobby with the unspoken yet universal desire of getting the best possible seats in the same theatre as I want to go to, combined with the unallocated seating, sends me into a panic. Literally. The first time a panic attack hit me at the cinema, my daughter and I had gone to see the new Batman movie a week after it was released, on a Friday night. We arrived, and found the multiplex cinema lobby full of people all queueing to see the same film. I felt like a Christian just been thrown to the lions. By the time Daisy realised I’d run from the place, I was already at the car, gasping and clawing at the door handle. The second time it happened, we had gone to a small theatre to see a movie that had been out for a month, thinking perhaps there would only be a few people there. However, that evening happened to be the night that the president of the local football club decided to shout every player from every age grade a night at the movies. They didn’t tell the cinema they were coming. They all bought their tickets individually – all fifty or so of them – and the cinema only had one cash register, and no EFTPOS. We got there before the club arrived, and lined up behind three innocent looking teenagers, who kept letting their friends in front of us, and by the time the coach, the president and the board of the club arrived, they simply presumed that the swelling group at the front of the queue had some kind of arrangement with the ticket office. After twenty five minutes of waiting for the whole football club to buy their ticket each, plus their popcorn and their coke, all one by one, it looked like we might not get tickets at all, or get to see the movie start on time. It was like my worst nightmare. I was out of my mind, babbling like a maniac, when in a moment of clarity I broke from the line and made a run for the door, Ben and Daisy at my heels. I insisted on driving home just to get some semblance of feeling of control, otherwise by the time we got home I may have already thrown myself from the moving vehicle and into traffic. Naked.

I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post how I almost had to be sedated when we tried to see Avatar with Ben’s sister and brother-in-law and our children on Boxing Day a couple of years ago. We even bought tickets in advance online to help allay my anxiety, but we still had to line up to get them. Doh! We then got separated in the queue from the teenagers when they saw some friends, and is was about then I felt like I needed to breathe with the aid of a brown paper bag. When we got in, after thirty painful minutes of queuing ten deep, the cinema was already three-quarters full, and some of us had to sit two rows away with strangers. I was speaking in tongues under my breath, and I was not praying. I sincerely thought I was having a heart attack. Ridiculous, because if someone there had had an actual heart attack, I would’ve been able to set up a cordon, perform CPR and direct the paramedics to the correct aisle and seat even in the dark via text message, because I’m great in a crisis. Unless it’s my own, and it happens in a movie theatre.

I get anxiety attacks other times too, and they always seem to be related to my children. I think about things happening to them, and I almost freak out. A few weeks ago, when my youngest son had to catch the bus home for the first time (we just moved from a country town to a big city) and I couldn’t reach him on his mobile phone, I thought I was going to physically expire from panic right there at my desk at work, and it was only my second day on the job. My head was spinning, my chest was hurting, my mind was racing with thoughts of some weirdo trying to coerce my boy into his filthy panel van, and I couldn’t breathe. I was hyperventilating, clutching my chest, choking. I wondered how I would explain to my boss how I, their brand new mental health support worker, was having a panic attack at my desk on just my second day at work, and thus would have to go home immediately to make sure my ten year old son hadn’t been abducted, because if I didn’t, I would not be able to work. Or remain conscious. Just then, my phone blipped. “Hi,” texts my son “My phone was in my bag. Whats up?” I had to lay on the floor for spell. It was exhausting.

It still happens from time to time. Even though I know theatres and threats against my kids are my most common triggers, I don’t really understand why they happen. I’m a fairly robust personality, pretty tough, and I know how to stick up for myself. But this is something else. This is like sabotage, like being attacked from the inside. It’s uncomfortable, it’s frightening and it’s uncontrollable. I can be sitting there, telling myself the fear is irrational, telling myself  that I am not in danger, telling myself that everything is okay and I am safe, and while I am doing so my body and my mind are screaming “You are dying. Death is near. You will not be able to survive this. This is the end. This feeling will go on and on forever and then you will be dead, and it will happen soon, and everyone and everything you love will be dead too. And you can’t stop this from happening.”

It’s really, really awful.

I don’t take medication any more, although the first time it happened the doctor gave me some pills that made me feel sad and heavy all the time, so I stopped taking them. Funny, because the people I work with every day seem to feel sad and heavy quite a bit, and I guess I’ve put it down to their illnesses, but perhaps it isn’t after all.

So anyway, I’ve been talking to God about this, and this was His answer to me.

“So, Jo, you know the anxiety is in your mind. That isn’t to say because it’s in your mind it isn’t real. It’s real.

You can be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Your mind is like a vine; a growing, living, moving thing. It’s always putting out new shoots and turning those into branches. Some branches grow fruit, good thoughts, and some don’t. Sometimes, the branches that don’t bear fruit are not much good for anything. They get in the way, and sometimes they make trouble. Sometimes those branches need to go, because they cause the vine too much trouble, and they take resources from the fruiting branches.

When you want a vine to put out new shoots, you prune it back. You take off the branches that are not useful or conducive to the health of the vine. Sometimes you take all the branches away. Sometimes you pinch out the new growth to encourage more growth overall. They key is not to allow unhindered, perpetual growth of any kind, good or bad.

A few years ago you had a trauma which caused you to grow some strategies to cope quickly. They helped you deal with an emergency situation (finding out Ben was an alcoholic) but what you had to grow to cope initially wasn’t healthy growth. It was needed only for the short term, and soon, it began to damage you. And it didn’t get pruned away, pinched off, cut down. It kept growing. And now that part of your mind, that growth, gives you trouble.

I’ll prune this growth over time, and you will heal. However, what you can do is dress the vine of your thoughts and your mind as you journey along. From time to time, make a point of pruning back your thoughts to the very stump. Don’t rely on your branches to help you cope, to teach you, to support you, to nourish you. Rely on your roots instead.”

I share this at the risk of those who read it thinking I am quite insane. I mean, talking to God, for goodness sake, about dressing vines and pruning my mind. But it helps me, I can tell you, and I’m not too proud to admit I need help. From God. He knows what He’s talking about, I find. And He always helps me out when I ask Him for His help.

Love Means Never Having To Say I’m Not The One Who’s The Alcoholic

I don’t drink. Alcohol, that is. I stopped drinking December 2009. Before that, I liked to drink, and did so whenever I liked. No too much, you understand, just a glass of red or two probably five nights a week, and sometimes the whole bottle except for the last half a glass I’d toddle over and tip down the sink swearing not to do it again the next night. I don’t quite know how I ended up with that habit. I think it was medicinal, and probably started around the same time my husbands drinking did. I think I started drinking a lot to cope with the issues which arose from the fact my husband was drinking a lot. And he was drinking a lot. In the end, he had to leave, because his alcoholism was driving me to something resembling it and more besides. He went away to rehab, actually, and to his credit, he sorted it out, with a lot of help. He’s back home now and things are grand.

While he was away at rehab, I used the solace and privacy as an excuse to do a bit of therapeutic drinking. I’m fairly sure this is how I carried on the whole time he was gone. I see now the unfairness and hypocrisy of it, but my excuse was that I was not the alcoholic, he was, and technically, it was true. But if he had a problem with drink, then we had a problem with drink, and not just my drinking or his drinking, but the reasons we thought drinking could help whatever was wrong with us. It was the fact that something was wrong which was the real issue. It wasn’t my husband, it wasn’t even the drinking. There were, as is usually the case in dysfunctional, codependent, enabling relationships, deeper problems we had no capacity to face up to which were the problem. Drinking was just anaesthetic, avoidance, suspension of animation. My husband has no memory of vast sections of the two years when he was drinking heavily; things and events he simply doesn’t recall. Significant events – moving house, holidays, big decisions that were made and conversations that were pivotal. I’d say they were gone from his memory, but I doubt they really ever went in. They came at him and merely rebounded clean off his conciousness like a poorly aimed beer bottle thrown at a bin. We have sections of our married life that he was physically present for, but which he conducted in some kind of mental, emotional and spiritual automatic state; his real self was trapped in a world of pain inside his chest, inside his head. I see I was right when I perceived back then he was not there with me somehow. He was a personality perfectly preserved, pickled for posterity in a brown glass bottle.

The month he came home from rehab, we went to his prospective boss’ Christmas Party. It was a flash do on a charter boat. The bar was open and gratis to all. We talked about it beforehand, and we knew it would be his first real test. But he did great. I’d decided before we went I wouldn’t drink at the party, to show my support, although we hadn’t had a big discussion about the issue of whether I would drink in the future, and if I did, how that was going to work. While we were at the party, my husband bumped into a guy who’d been in the rehab a few months before he had. He was working for the company my husband would be working for, and doing great. He too was finding it hard with the alcohol flowing freely all around us, and no way to get off the boat, but he was holding up manfully. He had his partner with him. She had a beer bottle in one hand, and a glass of wine in the other – both for herself. The pressure on her man to keep up his bargain with God and with himself was his alone to bear. She told me “Well, why not? I’m not the alcoholic, am I?”

It was then I decided I didn’t need to drink any more.

Over the past year, friends have invited me out with them, touting it as my chance to imbibe independent of my ‘dry’ husband, a chance to really enjoy myself, as if going out and not drinking were the equivalent of bathing in public in a vat of cold porridge. I sincerely thank them; I’m not as much offended by the fact they want to sneak me out to drink behind my husbands back as I am disheartened. I guess the fact that we had such a long road to reconcile our marriage just brings this whole element of loyalty to the issue. As hard as it was for me to allow a sneaky, lying drunk back into the house, it must have been just as hard for him to come back to a distrustful, anxiety ridden female. I think my teetotalling is the least I can do to show him 1) I’m not frightened of him anymore and 2) we’re actually doing this whole thing together.

It’s been a year, and it hasn’t been hard for me – the drinking part at least. For my husband, it’s been harder, and it’s an ongoing journey. God’s grace is all we have going for us, and we see it every day extended toward us in ways we could never have imagined, great and small. We are happy and love each other so much; more than we ever have or had the capacity to in the 22 years before now that we’ve been married. It’s been said that he who has been forgiven much loves much, and both my husband and I appreciate how much the other had to forgive for this present happiness to exist. A great gift, precious, and to be treated with respect and deference. He is a drunk redeemed by mercy….I am a shrew redeemed by giving it.

My husband being an alcoholic, and my potential to follow him, is not as big a deal now, but it certainly was when it was with us. I won’t easily forget finding spirit bottles refilled with cold tea and water, seeing him drive up with our son in the car and a beer bottle between his thighs, or stumbling across secret caches of empty beer bottles…..or finding a wine bottle with one glass left in it at the back of the cupboard, months after he’d gone away to rehab….and realising I must have been the one who hid it.

There but for the grace of God.

Read here about the work of Sherwood Cliffs Christian Community Rehabilitation Centre, where my husband Ben completed his program in 2009.

Do you or someone you love have a problem with alcohol? Click here for Alcoholics Anonymous Australia.

Why It’s So Hard To Love Others

I used to think alcoholics lay around on park benches in trench coats with brown paper bags clutched to their wheezing chests. Or that they teetered on bar stools until closing time while their wives, vacantly clutching a cigarette and staring at an empty dining chair, explained to the children daddy is working late again. I saw all this on TV, so it must be true. Alcoholics were not us; they were others. That was until my husband became an alcoholic.

My husband didn’t frequent bars or park benches. My husband did not even think he could have been an alcoholic before he went to an AA meeting. There he met people who were not park bench dwellers or bar stool teeterers. They were secretaries, real estate agents and builders with careers, families and home loans. They were not others. They were just like him.

We would all like to think we are not one of those “others”. But we are all others to someone. We all are good and bad, strangers and friends, aliens and natives. And because we all are others, when we judge others, we judge ourselves.

Jesus told us to love other people in the same way we love ourselves. When we do this, they stop being others, and start being one anothers. This phrase “one another” appears 43 times in the New Testament. One anothers are not the same thing as others. The very word “other” denotes difference. “One another” means simply another one of what ourselves are. If we can see everyone else as we ourselves are, in fact, as God sees us all, then it becomes much harder to judge who is worthy of our preference and regard and who is not.

The problem is not that we don’t know how to love people. It’s that we have this others mentality in the first place. Others has come not to mean other people, it has come to mean other sexual preferences, other religions, other genders, other ways of seeing and being which are different from our own. We look around us and see not one hundred people who need love and regard, but one hundred reasons not to love or regard people.

Why wait until people change to be more like you to love and regard them? Why wait until they put more on or take more away? Why wait until they walk your way or talk your way?

Jesus didn’t say “love others as I loved you”. He said “love one another as I have loved you”. In Jesus eyes, there were no others, only people, just like himself – one anothers.

Who are the others? In fact, we see people as we are, not as they are. When there is a mote in the eye, it makes the seer think the problem is a beam floating out there in space. No wonder the world looks like such a mess.

From Burial to Banqueting Table.

I want to tell those of you who don’t believe a person can be transformed, or that people don’t or can’t change, you need to come and see what God has done at my house.

Point in case; on Tuesday night, we had six adults besides ourselves, two teenagers and four children at our house for dinner, and my husband Ben was there the whole time. You would have to know what life was like before to understand how this is different. We didn’t have folks to our house for dinner before, because Ben would be present with us for about one minute and forty five seconds total. He would be a no show at his own dinner party.

As we were getting ready for bed after Tuesdays dinner, Ben congratulated me on successfully cooking a lamb roast for fourteen people, saying, “Well, that was a success!” I froze. A success? Since when did you consider having a dozen people in the house would constitute success? Who are you? And what have you done with my husband?

You see, Ben once was a master of the duck and weave. He was, as we used to joke, a professional skulker. He was in hiding. God was looking around, calling out to Ben for a long time, just like He did Adam in the Garden, “Where are you?” Ben, like Adam, did not want to be found.

Adam hid because he was ashamed. Shame will drive a sane person underground, and have him behave like a mad recluse. The shameful hide from any situation where they are forced to pretend to be anything better than the filthy, helpless sinner they know themselves to be. The will sabotaged by secret sins, they know their facade will not hold up under the scrutiny of accountability, or friendship. Those filled with shame avoid relationship, for fear they will fail others the way they have failed themselves.

What cured my husbands’ debilitating shame? He stopped hiding and allowed God to find him. I know it was frightening for him. Ben was trained to believe that God is an iron-fisted Father quick to anger and slow to forgive. Ben knew He could not pay the price he believed God would exact for his wrongdoings.

The thing is that Ben is not a bad guy. He never robbed a bank, or killed a man. He has been a faithful husband and gentle father. Ben’s wrongdoings were no worse than any mans; merely springing from an inability to deal with his own weaknesses and shortcomings, and which brought him undone.

When I became ill with cancer, Ben suffered terribly with anxiety and guilt because of what our family went through. He hurt. And he had no way to get God into that hurting part, or draw on God’s strength to get him through it. He believed God was waggling his head, telling him to smarten up and get a backbone. He was ashamed of his own weakness, and he hid. God said “Where are you, Ben?” and Ben couldn’t hear Him, because he was down the back yard with a cigarette and a six pack of beer, medicating his shame.

In rehab, Ben learned to hear God’s voice. He learned to put out a hand and draw on God’s strength when his own failed. He learned to stay in the room, even with the shame, until he was loved enough to know it was okay, God wasn’t going anywhere. When Ben finally peered out from between his fingers he found God waiting for him. Here, Ben, this is some righteousness Jesus organised earlier, I think this will fit you fine.

I have seen my husband rise up from a long sleep of self-hate and humiliation, and sit up to God’s banqueting table. He is making a pig of himself I can tell you. The empathy I see in my husbands’ eyes as he tells me about the people God brings across his path makes me fall back in wonder. How God can take a man who emptied himself out in self-disgust, and fill him with such goodness and compassion is beyond my comprehension.

A pastor once told me, “People change, but not that much.” Sorry, I don’t believe that. Fear and guilt stunt the soul – but mercy draws the withered ones stumbling forth for their healing. The enemy wants us bound in the dark, but God wants us free in the light.

Change is possible. It can happen. A man can come back to life. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Don’t give up hope. I thought Ben was gone forever, but I was wrong. The good thing about this was that I truly let him go to God. I was prepared to be an Abigail before Him. Ben was lost, but was also beyond the reach of my rejection, hurt and demands for restitution. But he came back. He was truly raised from the dead.

Ben doesn’t like it when I brag about him, but I can’t help myself. Those friends and family who saw me last year will understand how what we now call normal around here is such a miracle. I doubt that anyone present for dinner on Tuesday night would have any idea why I was staring at Ben in wonder as he carved the lamb and cracked the jokes. There, thanks to the grace of God, goes my husband.

You can read Ben’s own account of his journey through alcoholism and recovery here.