Book Excerpt

Wedding Running

                            Same Dress, Different Day: A Spiritual Memoir of Addiction And Redemption

by J. Van Heerden

Chapter 1: Cigarettes and Crayons

~ 2000 ~

“Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.”

Psalm 42:11 (NIV)

Summer scorches Texans every single year. The August of 2000 is no exception. Dripping sweat, waiting for the gas pump to click off at the Chevron station, I’m even scorched on the inside. Driving Jon to rehab isn’t in my plans for this summer. I very much like for life to go as planned.

Glancing into the side mirror I catch a glimpse of him, squatting there next to another car, blasting cigarette smoke from one side of his mouth. During the five years and 363 days of our marriage, he’s never let me see him smoke. Our eyes meet. He shrugs and flicks the butt into the parking lot. I remember the countless times I’d lectured my students about the dangers of smoking. They were first graders – the same age he’d been when he started.

I’m a planner. I guess that’s the teacher in me. At seven, I knew my calling. Mother says I was born with a wristwatch and a clipboard in hand. In third grade, I forced my five-year-old sister, Ami, to listen to me read the entire Little House on the Prairie series. (Night after night, we’d snuggled side by side in my trundle bed along with the characters Laura, Mary, Ma and Pa long after Mom had called, “Lights out little girls.”) I often created checklists for daily hygiene habits and begged my teachers to give me extra workbook pages so that I could “play school” at home. Always a lover of order, structure, and routine, I’d planned my whole life before my age reached double digits. Today, those childhood dreams seem impossibly far away.

Just breathe, I remind myself as he opens the passenger door. Don’t say anything. Don’t think anything. Just drive and breathe. When I breathe, I can smell that lingering smoke. I feel angry. That smell represents betrayal. Although cigarettes aren’t the reason for this trip, they are the birthplace of a long journey leading to this day. No, this trip is about another, much more costly addiction…an addiction that is foiling my plans and destroying the good little life we’ve been making for ourselves.

Why do I feel so angry about that Marlboro, when I’m taking my husband to drug rehab for a cocaine addiction so deadly it could put him in the cemetery at any moment? My own emotions confuse me! Maybe I’m in denial; unable to process a drug addiction I’ve never seen in action and can’t wrap my brain around. Whatever the reason, I’m focused on the cigarette and ignoring the “elephant” in the car with me.

We barely speak as the miles melt beneath my tires. Part of me longs to lecture about how nicotine exacerbates the desire for other drugs, but he’d already growled the “I can only do one thing at a time” warning. As usual, my expectations are too high. I just want to fix everything right now. I want our life back. I want my husband back.

Arriving at Blue Sky, the detox/rehab facility, which did not appear to match its happy summer-camp-sounding name, we are greeted warmly by Dora, an extremely cheerful staff member. I receive information regarding visiting hours, phone calls and my role in my husband’s recovery process. (Leave him alone and let him “work the program.”) With a thick, stapled packet on cocaine addiction in my hands and an odd mixture of hope and despair in my heart, I hug my husband, shut little-too-happy-hab’s door and face the Texas heat. That’s it. I’ll see him in two weeks when I return for supervised visitation.

I’m Juliet – also known as Julie, Jules, JuJu and a number of other variations of the Italian name my mother gave me after seeing Zeffirelli’s 1968 rendering of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. Sometimes I’ve wished I could be someone else, with another name altogether, someone whose life is more comedy than tragedy. The events of the moments I just relived while writing the above paragraphs marked a major turning point in the history of this regular churchgoing girl from Texas. Life never was quite the same after that. I wanted it to be. Tried to force it to be. But it just wasn’t. Ever.

Opening my car door, I tossed the addiction information to the back and wilted into the driver’s seat. With the seat belt’s click, my internal dam burst. Anger and embarrassment poured from my soul as I drove and wept. Frustration and fear mingled with those tears as I howled to my heavenly Father. This was not the first time I’d taken the term “cry out to God” literally, but it was the first time in a long time that I cried with hope that things might improve.

It has to get better, God. Isn’t marriage supposed to bring joy? It’s always been a little tough, but this past year and a half has been horrible! I didn’t know he was using drugs! How could I be so blind? How do I face the people in my life with a truth I can no longer hide and can barely comprehend?

I dreaded explaining to my church school colleagues that I’d be attending the teacher’s convention alone. “No. He won’t be coming with us. I’m sorry Principal Steve, I guess it’s just you and a bunch of females again this year.” I dreaded responding to well-intentioned inquiries about my husband’s absence from church. “Yes, I’ll tell him you missed him again today. Unfortunately we won’t be able to host the Friday evening worship at our home this week.” I feared facing his boss, who served on the School Board which hired me and whose children I’d taught to read. “He pawned your tools to buy drugs? Oh, I’m so sorry. I had no idea that was going on. How can we ever pay you back for your loss?” Trepidation trampled my tiny spark of hope, long after the tears dissolved into deep heaves.

How do I do this, Lord? How will Jon’s sudden 28-day disappearance affect our reputation in this church and this community? What will I say to my sister? You know she’s been really upset lately by Jon’s strange behavior. Now I understand her probing questions. Oh, how am I going to hold my head up and keep it all together?

~School ~

Colorful student workbooks were stacked neatly on my u-shaped teaching table. Small desks in pods of three filled the center of the room, while student activity stations lined the outside walls. I loved organizing and arranging my spacious classroom. I’d taught here for four years. This space felt like home to me. In fact, I think I spent more time within these walls than at our home. The structure. The routines. The little people who brought joy and life to this place and to my very soul; these were the things I could count on. These were just as sure as the familiar contents of my teacher desk, or the absolute of butterflies in tummies the first day of school.

Tearing the “to buy” checklist from my yellow legal pad, I took a quick survey of the room before flicking off the light. Everything is coming together. I want to be ready before teacher’s convention. Just one more trip to Walmart, and I’ll be set.

I love buying school supplies. Love pressing a bunch of super sharp number 2 pencils against my palm, making them all even. Love the little scissors with rounded noses and the tiny flat tips of brand new Crayola crayons. Something about loading up my shopping cart with washable markers and the familiar orange-topped Elmer’s glue bottles makes me happy.

That day, I desperately wanted to be happy. I wanted to forget about the yesterday that had altered my world forever. Longing to get lost for a moment in the “Back to School” aisle, I stopped by Walmart on the way to my empty home, numbing my pain by pawing through bins of glue sticks and pens. On my way to the register I picked up a black and white composition book; you know, the ones with rounded corners and marbled cardboard covers with a line for your name right on the front? Why not? They’re on sale for only a quarter each.

Recently, I rediscovered my stash of journals and composition books. Sifting through them was equally painful and cathartic. The neatly dated entry that fits into this narrative reads like this: Tomorrow is Jon’s and my six-year anniversary. Yesterday I took him to a drug detox and rehabilitation program. This is an incredibly difficult time, but I am hopeful that Jon will be able to submit to the “treatment” and allow himself to be helped. On August three and four he nearly overdosed on cocaine. On the fifth he realized that he could die and by the sixth he was ready to finally admit that he has a problem bigger than he can beat alone.

I feel so angry that he has used more than five thousand, five hundred dollars of our house money (we were in the process of building a new home on some land we’d purchased the summer before) on cocaine! I am shocked and surprised that he is not dead. I feel angry, sad, discouraged and hopeful all at the same time. School starts in one week. I’m not nearly ready. I have so much to do and so many distractions. I am praying for Jon constantly. He has become such an incredible liar – selfish, deceiving, conniving, thieving, angry, sick person.

The house is peaceful without him. I don’t have to worry about him at night or anytime because he can’t be doing bad stuff. Everyone has been so kind. I am thankful to God for Christian friends. Larry and James (Jon’s employers) even promised to take Jon back to work when he gets out.

I’m going to have to be so clear about what I want and need and expect. I don’t even know all of it, except no more drug use, or he is out of the house!

The rest of that sad little journal entry breaks my heart in hindsight. I can see how bad things in my marriage really were and how much I longed for everything to be okay. At the time I didn’t realize that I couldn’t mandate someone who was not okay to be okay. My seven-item checklist penciled into a twenty-five cent composition book from Walmart didn’t mean a “hill of beans” to my drug-addicted husband. I should have considered and questioned some of those items long before he ever became my husband. But we were young then. I was naïve. Isn’t hindsight painfully 20/20?

That night, I just needed the familiar comfort of a checklist.

So I wrote:

  1. No more drug use
  2. No more smoking
  3. Daily talking and prayer time
  4. Meet my emotional, physical, financial needs (I told you I was naïve.)
  5. Everyone made right with and paid back
  6. I get full control of every penny
  7. Honesty in all dealings

I’m sure I slept better, having written my list and said my prayers. I know that God in heaven witnessed my hurting heart. I remember the comforting presence of His sweet Spirit during that dark and lonely time. I wish I had known then, the things I’ve come to learn. I suspect, though, I wouldn’t be the me I am, and I wouldn’t know the things I know, if it weren’t for the catalyst of that dreadful Texas August day when I drove my husband to drug rehab for the first time.

 

 

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Ain’t No Grave

Today I leaned on the shovel that spooned Ukrainian soil over the mound covering what remains of the woman who birthed the boy I call my son. Maybe you need to know that another mama knows how it feels to love a child who did not come from your body and who is unable to love you fully until their buried grief has been resurrected and faced and painted with the hope of heaven.

Looking at him now—standing at the edge of manhood, at the edge of her grave, I feel ashamed. Only today, as I witness four siblings reunite after eight years of separation, do I understand even a sliver of my son’s heartache.

Thoughts collide with long-held emotion as I stand in summer evening sunlight on the edge of a rural cemetery near the village he remembers from childhood. How could I have asked him to allow me to love him as a mother loves her son when all the while he was grieving the loss of this mother who lies under the earth?

I observe love between him and his little sister. She was only six when they said goodbye. They cling to one another as the gravekeeper sets their carefully chosen cast iron fence in concrete-filled holes, shoveling excess earth onto the top of the mound that marks their mother’s resting place.

My Honey stood still when we arrived here, silently watching three brothers and a sister almost frantically rip weeds from the unidentified, unkempt heap on the graveyard’s edge. I read empathy in his eyes and see jaw muscles clench and release as he holds emotions in check. Honey understands what I cannot fathom. He still recalls standing at the edge of his beloved father’s grave when he was only four. A parent’s death is common grief ground he shares with our motherless sons.

I don’t know if I can even find words to describe my thoughts and feelings as I watch four children, separated by death, time, an orphanage and an ocean work together to honor their mother by creating a beautiful memorial in this place. I long to wrap my arms around each of them and just hold them as a mother does. But I only just met the younger two today. They don’t know me. I can’t speak their language. Maybe they see me as the reason their beloved brother lives so far away. I argue with myself and try to catch the eye of the eldest. He stands apart, arms crossed, eyes down. I know him a little. We have a connection, but I don’t have the courage to cross the invisible barrier that keeps his sorrow from spilling onto his cheeks. Instead, I place my hand on My Honey’s shoulder. He stands strong, in his “God’s Plan” t-shirt and his hope of resurrection morning.

Our son is just on the other side of My Honey, arms around his sister, head bowed, face soft. I cannot make eye contact. I am torn between wanting to move toward him and respecting the space he always seems to need from me.

What is my role here? Who am I and why does my heart feel as if it will burst open and bleed out onto this fertile ground? What IS your plan, God? Because I cannot fathom the suffering these children have experienced— and why? For what purpose is all this pain?

Please heal my son’s heart. Relieve him of the guilt he has carried for these six years since his mother’s death. Guilt that gnaws at him because of his childish words, spoken in anger and never made right. Please help him to forgive himself for allowing time to make it too late to say, “I didn’t meant it. Please forgive me.” Give him the hope of heaven and the courage to walk with You until the day this grave bursts open and his mom comes forth in all her beauty. May each of her children choose You, God. May they place their hope in You. What else do we have, if we don’t have this?

For a moment, little sister stands alone.  I move next to her, sensing her openness for a mama hug. She feels small in my arms. We exhale together and share the common language of tears. She receives the unspoken love and compassion seeping through my skin as my arms cradle her for a long little while.

My Honey finds his voice and asks if we can hold a short graveside service. The young people agree. We listen to these words of hope from 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (NIV):

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

We create a circle that spans the grave, spans the language barrier, spans the ocean that will soon separate us once more. Holding hands, we bow our heads. My Honey prays for hearts to heal, for hope to live, and for love to remain for always. I look up from the prayer and smile at my boy-turned-man who will have two mamas in heaven. And I understand his heart as never before.

When we love a child from hard places, it’s easy to ignore or forget the pain that fuels their rage and rejection. It’s easy to make it all about us and to resort to all kinds of human techniques that simply cannot work on trauma-triggered brains. What I know is this: Healing happens in tiny increments over time in safe, loving environments. The best thing we can do as parents is to be safe, loving people. If we have unhealed wounding and our own trauma triggers, they WILL become fuel for a fire that can destroy our families. We must work our own recovery program with Jesus and day by day be the strong, loving people only He can make us be. Only then can we offer a life ring to kids who are drowning in their own pain.

*Image Credit: Julia Starikova

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