Today I sit, trying to quiet my soul as the world crashes in like ocean waves onto pristine white sand. Just as the sea begins to look peaceful and calm again, another wave rises deep from within the belly of the ocean with a fierce vengeance. Sometimes, life has a funny way of reminding you of who you are and where you’ve been, even when you want to forget, when your sea has been calm and peaceful for a long, long time.
I am reminded now that I know a lot about pain. I know a lot about struggle and heartache and death and loss. I know a lot about addiction and fear and sadness. All of it has come crashing back into my life this week as the news that someone I know has taken his own life. Although I wasn’t part of his story and I know very few details, the reality is that I know every bit of the story. I know the story because I lived it. I lived through the hell of loving someone who ultimately decided I wasn’t enough to live for. I lived through the hell of knowing that I would never be as important to him as his addiction. I lived through the nightmare of desperately trying to save someone who didn’t want to be saved.
I see so many people posting messages to the family or about the situation, and it strikes me that very, very few have any idea what this family is experiencing. They think that if they’ve seen a pastor on a podium, they must know him. They think that if a pastor has a good ministry, he must be without fault. If he was used as a vehicle to share some of God’s truth, then he must have been or should have been faultless. The truth is, these people are just people. They aren’t any better or worse than anyone else, any more worthy of God’s grace or wisdom than you or me. We are all people with struggles and strengths, faults, fears and flaws. And this world is not easy- nothing can exempt us from that truth.
I also see so many who focus on the suicide, the act itself of violently taking one’s life. I think very few people understand what kind of pain and chaos and sickness has to occur in a person’s life before it gets to this place. This was the final act; there were chapters and chapters of the story that took place before this final act that would lead someone to this place. And one of the crucial elements that can’t be overlooked in putting all of the pieces together is understanding the role of addiction.
I won’t pretend to know the specifics of this story, and I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else, but I’ll share what I experienced with hope that perhaps someone can have a better understanding of the situation. As the child of an alcoholic, I’ve lived in the shadow of addiction my whole life. When I was young, I never knew that it had a name or that it was abnormal. I saw my father fall down flights of stairs, become verbally and physically abusive, scream, cry, threaten suicide and give his last wishes on multiple occasions. Addiction is ugly, so ugly that most of us turn our face away because we can’t bear to look at it straight on. So, we pretend that it’s not really there. We don’t know what to do about it, so we explain it away, hope that it will get better, try to find band-aids for the gaping wounds. That’s what the adults in my life did. As a child, I desperately wished someone could help me, protect me, fix it, but they either didn’t know what to do or lived in denial.
When someone suffers from an addiction, they wreak havoc in the lives of their loved ones. But, what is so confusing is that along with the anger you feel at this person whose decisions bring you so much misery is that you also love this person deeply. My dad was a good man, a really good one. He showed me so much love and affection. He was the man who gave the last dollar in his pocket to the homeless man on the corner. As a policeman, he once saved a girl from drowning, but he mourned for her sister, the one he couldn’t save. He was a good man, and he is the one who taught me what love really is.
People who abuse alcohol aren’t monsters who want to bring everyone along with them into this hell, and actually the guilt of knowing what they’re doing to their loved ones perpetuates the cycle. They abuse alcohol because they have experienced so much pain and fear and guilt that they truly cannot face what they would find if they let themselves really feel. They numb themselves with alcohol because they are afraid to open the floodgates of pain that comes with their sobriety.
Usually the people that are so afraid to face this pain are the types of people who are capable of real, deep love. They love deep and they hurt deep. They drink because they hurt and they hurt others more when they drink so they feel more guilt. They feel powerless to control the damage they are doing to themselves and others. They feel alone because no one who isn’t addicted understands all that it means to fight this battle. So they drink because they see no hope. And on it goes until one day they come to the conclusion that everyone in their lives would be better off without them.
What I wish everyone in the world knew about addiction is this: It certainly is a chemical and physical dependence on a substance, but the hallmark of an addiction is the use of anything, ANYTHING, to numb our emotional pain instead of dealing with the real, deep wounds. The only hope for someone caught in this cycle is for them to open their heart for God to come in and perform the delicate surgery of extracting the death that is overtaking their very existence. You must face the demon that you are so afraid of. And that process might last a lifetime.
For those that ache for the children caught in this misery, I’m right there with you. I ache for the little girl that I once was and for the little ones with whom I have so much in common. They will spend the rest of their lives undoing this collateral damage. Remember, though, that it was not the final act alone that has damaged them. They have been there, immersed in every chapter of addiction, anger, chaos, fear and pain. They don’t know life any differently. They will pay a heavy price for the choices of their parents.
But, I do believe that God is faithful in redeeming that pain. My dad died on December 16th, thirteen years ago. December 16th was also the day that I went into labor when my daughter was born 4 years ago. I truly felt at that moment that it was God’s visible promise to me that although I have been through unimaginable hell, He would redeem the ugliness. Now, I have a family that is full of light and love and peace, all the things that I didn’t have as a child. I’m able to give all of the love to my children that I didn’t get. I’m able to provide the stability and firm foundation for my family that my family of origin couldn’t give me.
Those children have been through hell and they aren’t finished walking through the fire. But, what I pray for them is peace. While the death of their father isn’t the ending anyone would have wanted, it does provide an end to the tumultuous cycle of life with an addict. It isn’t the result we hoped for, but there is still hope. They have the space now to seek the peace that their father was unable to find on this earth. And I do believe that there is beauty that comes from the ashes.
What I pray for everyone involved in this tragedy is that, “He will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the Lord has planted for his own glory” (Isaiah 61:3).
Beauty from the ashes. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday.