Happy Codependent Mother’s Day

“Oh Julie, you have rug burns on your heart.” Eight months after boarding a homebound plane in Ukraine with my Honey and our newly adopted teenagers, I’m crying on the phone to my friend, searching for ways to describe the festering ache in my soul. I wince as her words trigger the memory of oozing rug burns sticking to my pantyhose. I was an athlete thirty years ago, but my knees still carry the scars.

Our high school gymnasium doubled as a multi-purpose building for many student activities, including church services, so the “Lady Tartans” played basketball and volleyball on carpet. Yes, CARPET! Visiting teams eyed our court in disbelief during pre-game warm-ups. I’m certain the Tartans wielded slightly more than a home game advantage. We were used to our unusual turf’s effect on bouncing balls and the teenage knees of scrappy girls who played to win.

Rug burns rake off a person’s protective skin, creating wounds that seep blood or pinkish semi-clear liquid. Time eventually creates a thin crust over each burn’s surface. When my team played two home games in a row, there was no time for our rug burns to heal before we again sacrificed knobby teen knees for rebounds or game points. I learned the hard way what happens when rug burns get layered—yellow white pus forms under the scab and oozes out when pressure is applied to the wound. Double rug burns are painfully slow to heal.

“Yes. Yes, I do have rug burns on my heart,” I reply. My friend understands rug burns. She was a Lady Tartan, too. She’s also lived a life story similar to mine.

After we stop talking, I turn off the bedside lamp and lay awake long into the night. I’m alone. My family is home. I’m traveling—sharing my testimony of redemption and restoration, sowing hope in hearts wounded by addiction.small plane

Do you even believe your own message? I’m stunned by the thought, as it strikes deep in my core.

Of course I do. But, I’m hurting and I don’t know how to fix this, God. How did we get here? What could I have done differently? What do we do now? Why don’t they let me love them anymore?

I toss questions toward heaven with the fervency of a baseball-pitching machine, not expecting Anyone to really answer.

I’m still sore from the sting of the H-word my son spewed just days before I left for this trip. “He doesn’t mean it,” the well-meaning people say. “Don’t take it personally.” Not helpful.

He felt hatred towards me. That’s why he said it. Of course he meant it. He also means it when he says he doesn’t want me to hug him or touch him. When he forbids me to say, “I love you” or to demonstrate any connection or affection at all. He means it. And it’s mean. And it burns my heart raw.

Maybe I could blow it off, recognize that it’s coming from a place of deep pain and trauma-triggered fear. Maybe it wouldn’t fester so bad if that were the only wound. But it’s not. There’s more. There’s my other boy-turned-man-overnight. Trying his wings, testing his limits, telling Honey and me all kinds of things we never wanted to hear. Building a wall a mile high and six feet thick to keep us distanced from his heart.

Here you are, talking on TV about recovery from codependency like you’ve got all the answers, when just yesterday you relapsed into fear-based control and tried to be somebody’s Holy Spirit. Again. Multitude of Counselors

The enemy taunts me with half-truths. Tries to silence me with guilt and shame. I cringe. It’s true. I project my pain from the past onto my kids when their rejection triggers old wounds that still ooze pus and blood. Wounds that stick to my emotional Spanx and rip the skin right off my soul, leaving me tender and vulnerable.

I am not healed yet!

There. I’ve said it. I’m not a perfect pastor’s wife, mother, daughter, friend or person. I’m painfully aware of my shortcomings, especially when pointed out by those who know me best. When I am afraid, I try to control circumstances or people. When angry, I punish with silence. When I am rejected, I tend to withhold affection for fear of further rejection. Sometimes I isolate. Or use guilt to manipulate. When I don’t know what else to do, I work, work, work. I am a mess. I need Jesus. Every moment. Of every day. I cannot do this on my own.

In preparation for taping this televised program, I reviewed the first Step of the Twelve Steps of Codependents Anonymous: “I am powerless over other people.” Once more, I am humbly reminded that I cannot make “minding other people’s business” my way of life, (even if those other people are my own family). I cannot put off my own good by determining to control, advise or guide others. I must surrender my compulsive drive to “fix the unfixable.” I am not anyone’s Jesus. By God’s grace, I will choose (once again) to ask myself two questions before jumping into control or rescue mode:

  1. Did this person ask me for this help?
  2. What does this have to do with God’s will for me?

Father in heaven, I choose to release my sons and the time frame for their emotional healing and spiritual growth to Your care. I choose to focus on my own spiritual progress and maintain healthy boundaries in all my relationships. I will not sacrifice my personal needs to meet the needs of another person, nor will I resort to unhealthy giving or serving from a place of fear or manipulation. I will allow You, God to be God in my life and in the lives of my sons. Thank You for your grace and your mercy, which is beautifully new every morning. Thank you for Your ability to heal the layered rug burns on all of our hearts. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

codependency lovingonpurpose

What about you, dear Friend? Are you expending valuable emotional, financial and physical energy rescuing, enabling or persecuting someone whose life is out of control because of a chemical or other addictive dependency? Are you allowing fear to drive your actions as you try to save a drowning loved one? Have you lost your sense of self by allowing your boundaries to be pushed back or knocked down completely? Do you need to take CODA’s Step 1 and admit that you are powerless over another person and that your life has become unmanageable? If so, it’s not too late to come out of denial. Take that Step. Admit it to yourself. Tell Jesus. Confide in a friend. Begin your journey to wholeness today. You are worth it! You are so totally worth it.

Painkiller Addiction – The Problem I Never Knew I Had

I‘d like to introduce today’s guest blogger, Mel Harbin, to our community. Mel reached out to me via email a few weeks ago and shared her story. I invited her to share it with you. Sometimes it’s easy to point fingers at the “hardcore” addictions and to downplay the ones that affect soccer moms, educators and clergy. If we have a God-shaped void in our lives, it can easily get filled by things that will drag us down. Thank you, Mel, for your vulnerability.

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My name is Mel, and I’m a drug addict. But I don’t fit the picture you’ve probably formed in your mind. I’m one of the silent majority – a perfectly presentable addict with a job, a family, and a house in the leafy suburbs. I work in an office, I get coffee with my friends, I exchange polite small talk with other moms at the school gates – but I’m an addict nonetheless.

I’m a painkiller addict, you see.woman and drugs Society prefers to think of addiction as something which only affects a stereotyped few – addicts, we imagine, are insane, wild-eyed, filthy creatures who live beneath bridges. It couldn’t happen to nice, middle-class people like us, could it? In fact, the majority of drug addicts within this nation are ‘people like us’. Prescription drug abuse is an enormous problem – death by prescription drug overdose kills more people per year than heroin and cocaine combined, yet still society is unwilling to change its very fixed ideas about substance abusers. It’s this which led to my downfall. I simply didn’t think that a mom of two like me could be an addict – I didn’t fit the pattern!

Slippery Slope

My descent into addiction began very simply. I had strained my back during my first pregnancy, and my second pregnancy messed it up for good. This was my own fault. Rather than relaxing while pregnant, I took pride in powering on with my work right up until I went into labor. This is not an uncommon trait within painkiller addicts – often we start taking them in the first place because we’re simply too driven. Rather than slow down when ill, we pop a pill. After my son was born, I was prescribed Vicodin to ease my excruciating back pain. I was given strict dosage instructions, to which I didn’t give a whole amount of thought, if I’m honest. I just kind of assumed that I would stick roughly to the dosage, and all would be well.

Addiction Sets In

Vicodin was great. Not only did it numb my back pain, it seemed to fill something of an existential void. I’d pop a Vicodin and my pain would disappear, taking with it a previously unregistered issue which had been gnawing at the back of my mind. In retrospect I can see that this ‘void’ was a spiritual one – my soul’s yearning for God. At the time I just dismissed it as stress. Without really noticing it, I began to rely on Vicodin for both pain and ‘stress relief’. I was just as driven as ever, determined to overachieve in everything, despite having a lot on my plate. I was trying to be the perfect wife to my husband, trying to care for my two young sons, and trying to advance my career at the same time. Vicodin – for a while – facilitated my unhealthy perfectionism. It masked the stress, masked the pain, masked everything. It wasn’t long before I began to gradually up my dosage  – telling myself that my back was bad today and I needed the extra help, or that I could use a boost to get myself through this or that meeting.

The End And The Beginning

DSC_9489Warning bells should have rung when I began to feel sick after missing Vicodin doses, or when I took to visiting different doctors to supplement my prescription, or when I spent my mornings driving for miles to collect prescriptions at different pharmacies. But it took my youngest son – by then aged three – to reveal the extent of my problem. My husband found him in the process of trying to get the ‘candy’ out of a pot of hidden Vicodin – unsuccessfully (praise be to God).

My husband was already concerned about me. Due entirely to the effects of the Vicodin I was taking, I was suffering from wild mood swings, and behaving increasingly irrationally. I was falling to pieces, and both my family and my career were suffering. Upon seeing our son shaking the Vicodin bottle, things began to add up for my husband. He searched the house, and found that I’d stashed Vicodin in several hiding places. When I got home from work, he confronted me. It was an ugly scene. While he was reasonable and calm, my Vicodin-addicted brain would rather that I broke up with my husband than that I broke up with Vicodin.

So I went into meltdown. I screamed, I cried, I threatened to leave him. “You’re an addict,” my husband responded. “You need help.” I denied it hysterically. But, as the now familiar withdrawal symptoms began to make themselves felt, his words began to sink in.

An Ongoing Process

I am now ‘clean’ of Vicodin, and have been for some years. With the love and support of my husband and sons I’ve been able to ride out the rough times and get my life back on track. To this day I don’t know how much I was taking – I just know that that I’d pop a pill whenever I began to feel even slightly off color. This is not a healthy way to deal with one’s problems.

Finding God was a major help. Learning to rely on the unswerving, unconditional love of God rather than constantly having to prove myself through perfectionism was a huge relief, and caused me to make major changes to my life. I now ‘let go and let God’ when I feel pressured, rather than reaching for a chemical solution. I am happier, and our family is rock solid. I do have some concerns about the future of my boys – they say that addiction runs in the family – but I’m determined to do everything in my power to keep them safe from the scourge that nearly destroyed me.  I will certainly try to ensure that they never experience that same spiritual ‘void’ which proved so influential in my own descent into Vicodin hell.

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The journey to relative wellness has been a long one for Mel Harbin. She’s in long term recovery from a painkiller addiction and taking each day as it comes. She now writes for a living and is concentrating on helping others who have ended up on the same path as she has.

He Knows Them By Heart

I fell off the wagon today. I worked for nine hours at school. It’s Sunday.classroom

Yes, work is often my drug of choice. Some numb with food. Some with drugs, or media. I numb with work. As a teacher, it’s easy to do. The job is never quite finished. I could have stayed longer this evening, but I noticed darkness creeping onto the campus, sending shadows down the long, silent hallway as I hung my sixteen second graders’ writing samples in preparation for Open House on Tuesday.

I didn’t want to come home. It’s too quiet here. I can hear the clock ticking in the other room. I can see the boys’ shoes lined up underneath the sideboard near the front door. Even though they are naughty for leaving them there, I smile. They must have unloaded those when I wasn’t looking and replaced that space in their suitcases with Nerf guns or remote control cars.

Squatting to reach under the antique cabinet, I gather four pairs of well-worn, outdated shoes. Shoes my Summer Boys brought with them from their Ukrainian orphanages to America. Shoes that were too small the day they arrived. Shoes they were supposed to take back so other kids could still get some use from them. We had packed those shoes. I didn’t want them to get in trouble for not returning the things they arrived with. It’s too late now.

Taking the shoes into the tiny bedroom that used to be my office, I line them up against the closet door. I’ve barely been in here since they left last weekend. The room is a disaster. And it smells like teenage boys. But, that’s not what keeps me away.clothing on floorWhat keeps me away is the raw emotion I experience when I think of the two boys who shared this space for two months. What keeps me away is the longing to come in here and say, “Goodnight,” when I know their bunks are empty. What keeps me away is the ache I experience when I sit here, in my office chair, (the one they swiveled around and around, loftily demanding payment from Honey or me if we dared cross unbidden into “their” territory), trying to imagine what they are doing tonight. Only it’s not tonight. It’s tomorrow in Ukraine. It’s Monday – a school day.

God, I just want to talk to them. I want to hear their voices, even if I won’t understand their language. I want to look into their eyes and see if they are really okay, regardless of what their mouths say. I know them by heart. If I can just see them, I will know if they are afraid or alone or upset or content with their circumstances.

But, I can’t speak with them. I can’t see them. I can’t really know anything except that they landed safely and that they are back in their orphanages and back in their schools and back in their normal routines. And that they are (according to the chaperone), “okay.”

Are they really okay, Lord? Or are they “okay” like I was “fine” last week? “Okay…” with a nameless gnawing ache that does not go away, no matter what I’m doing. “Okay…” with the drumbeat of everyone’s busy life moving quickly all around me as I feel like blackstrap molasses in winter, s-l-o-w and dark and heavy with the bitter aftertaste that comes once the sweetness is gone. “Okay…” as I numb the ache with work and avoidance and grumpiness with my Honey who doesn’t understand where all this unusual emotion is erupting from. Are they okay, like me?

I don’t want to relapse into workaholism. But it helped to just be in a sterile space today: organizing and arranging and sorting and grading and planning and hanging student work on the walls. It helped to be away from home where the bananas are turning spotty and brown before my very eyes. This would never happen if the boys were here. Away from home where I know I need to wash their sheets and clean their room. unmade bedBut if I wash everything I might forget the scent of their space in our home. That almost-good smell of Axe body spray and antiperspirant barely masking the unmistakable musty sock stench emanating from underneath the bed. If I clean and tidy every evidence of them away, will they disappear from my memory, too?

I have a friend whose children are in foster care. I also have a friend who fosters children… who come and go and come again into her home. And I have a friend who mourns her choice to abort her unborn baby all those years ago. They each understand this ache, this longing to hold the child who holds your heart; this wondering that cannot be answered, either because of their own choices, or those of a system that controls the destinies of children who cannot control their own lives.

Rarely does a child not mourn the loss of their mother when extraordinary circumstances separate families. Frightened young kids don’t beg to be shuffled from temporary home to temporary home until the powers that be can finally decide what permanent living arrangements are in the child’s best interest. And nobody asks to be removed from their mother’s womb prematurely. Yet these tragedies happen multiple times every minute of every single day on planet Earth.

Refugees, homeless, orphans, aborted babies by the billions – What an ache God must have in His heart as He looks at the planet He created. How He must long to bring His children home. Our Father knows each little one by heart. He knows our scent, our secrets, the very number of hairs on our heads. He says He knew our names before we were born (Jeremiah 1:5). He knows our pasts and our futures. He knows the plans He has for us (Jeremiah 29:11).

He knows these kiddos, too. The ones we long to hold in our arms. The ones we beg to come home. The ones strung out on drugs. The prodigal ones who seem to be running farther and farther from us and from Him. And He knows the names of the ones we wish we could turn back time and resurrect. He knows them all. He loves them all. And He never ever forgets any of them.

When we connect with Him, we connect with them. When we commit them to Him, we can trust that they are in better hands than our own. When we pray over them, we can KNOW that we are heard and that heavenly beings are immediately dispatched to minister to their tender hearts.

Lord God, I’m sorry I worked too much today. I’m sorry I avoided the pain of my reality. I’m sorry I tried to numb the ache with busyness, just like I used to do when my whole life was chaos. Forgive me for turning to my drug of choice instead of turning to You. Help me to deal with my newly empty nest in healthy ways. Help me to trust Your plans for our future. Love on those boys for me today, okay? In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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If you want to pray a powerful prayer over your loved one(s), just plug his/her name into this Psalm wherever it says “me” or “I.”

1You have searched me, Lord,

and you know me.

2You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

3You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

4Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

5You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

too lofty for me to attain.

7Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

8If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

9If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

10even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

11If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me,”

12even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

13For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

15My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.

17How precious to me are your thoughts,a God!

How vast is the sum of them!

18Were I to count them,

they would outnumber the grains of sand—

when I awake, I am still with you.

Psalm 139:1-18 (NIV)