14 Righteousness and justice are the foundations of your throne; * love and truth go before your face. 15 Happy are the people who know the festal shout! * they walk, O LORD, in the… More
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” Isaiah 61:1, 10-11
Today is Gaudete Sunday. Today we light the pink candle on the advent wreath, the candle of JOY.
My kids were in their first Christmas pageant this year, starting this right of passage, as almost every small child does, by singing in the angel choir. It may have been a misstep in parenting, but I also chose to read them “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” at bedtime in lead up to their own participation. I had never read the book as a child and knew nothing about the plot, but it is crazy! I filled their head with all sorts of ways to be disruptive.
For those of you who also have not read it, the story centers around a group of siblings known as the Herdmans. They are dirty kids, four boys and two girls, who live in a garage with a pet that is rumored to be part bobcat. They bully everyone, steal whatever they want, smoke cigars (even the girls) and burn things down for fun. They certainly are not your typical church people, but lured by a rumor of cookies and candy, they find themselves there on the same Sunday that they’re giving out parts for the annual Christmas pageant. Imogene, the oldest girl, decides she wants to be Mary, so they bully their way into the main parts, threatening to plant pussy willows in the ears of anyone else who would try to audition. The Herdmans have never heard the Christmas story, but they find themselves reflected in the Holy Family, living in unsuitable housing, a baby sleeping in a makeshift bed, dirty and without allies. They become protective over the baby, and they bring him a ham, because it’s a better gift than perfume.
The highlight of the story for my kids was Gladys. She plays the angel that came to the shephersa, and is the only one with a line in the whole pageant which is problematic because she’s not angelic. She shouts and snarls, “HEY! Unto you a child is born!” at the shepherds and then chases them to the manger, and they are legit terrified of her. As soon as my kids put on their own wings, they started tearing through the house shouting this line at each other and they’re little brothers. They acted out her part perfectly, with equal parts mischief and glee, but little did they know they had actually latched onto one of the most profound truths of the story.
It was terrifying. It is still. Sometimes good news is that way, because it’s change, and it comes in ways we don’t expect, which overwhelms us. We receive hope, and it sounds amazing, we’re excited. And then we wait, and we feel silly for having been excited. We need peace, and slowly as we grow we become okay with waiting. But then, slap out of nowhere, SHAZAM! Someone comes along to tell us God is here. This very day, and it’s a little bit terrifying. Dare we even go see? Dare we actually stand in the presence of our fulfilled hope? Can we handle that joy?
Gladys wasn’t so different from Isaiah. After bringing and sharing the good news, Isaiah is exploding with it himself. “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD. My whole being shall exult in my God.” He’s overflowing with the power of it, calling on every decent metaphor he can find to exhort and encourage the people. He tells them righteousness and praise will shoot up like sprouts in a garden.
Good news brings rejoicing, but it also brings change. It means being ready to leave the mantle of our faint spirit in favor of the mantle of praise. Paul pushes us into accepting it though, “Rejoice always, Pray without Ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”(1 Thesalonians 5:16-18) it seems like an impossible task! But the good news that we celebrate is threefold. First that Christ came as Jesus and second that he is coming again, but the life changing news for today is that he abides with us here and now, too. We are not alone in anything, and his spirit is a gift to lead and comfort us as we grow. He’s not asking you to be a sunshiny, goofy smiled, person all the time, or to ignore that your life is not perfect, just to acknowledge that when you draw into his presence nothing else will matter. Our whole being will exult. He urges us to press into that truth continually.
I’ve had a hard time adjusting to a new church since we moved. We visited a lot of places and finally settled on one, but I feel out of place. I’ve moved almost 20 times in my life, but we had been at that particular church for seven whole years. It was a record length of time for me to be investing in one community. I miss that. I miss the sense of belonging somewhere, and the security that feeling brings. It’s been hard to sit through sermons occasionally and awkward making conversation afterwards, but my good news has been that none of that matters during worship, because of the overwhelming sense of joy it brings. I know in worship that I’m with God. It hasn’t mattered if I was 40 years younger than everyone else, if the sermon was about dinosaurs instead of the bible, or even if the lady leading worship was playing an out of tune piano and singing three octaves too high. Being in God’s presence is the only renewing source of joy, no matter how dysfunctional the setting.
The encouragement for us mortals in this season of penance is that no matter how bad you’ve messed things up, how beaten up you’ve been, or how stressful your circumstance, you are not alone, and this is not the end. Abiding in that truth will bring you joy. You will rejoice. You will have the good vision to give thanks in all circumstances. Listen to that pushy but excited angel shouting at you, and don’t dare doddle behind because it might seem scary. Go be with God. Receive the gift of joy.
HEY! Unto YOU a child is born.
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance…. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” 2 Peter 3:8-15
Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Today we light the candle of peace.
We need this candle because we suck at waiting. A few days ago, I had to go to the bathroom the same time that one of my kids decided he needed lunch. In my mind, my need was more pressing than his so I asked him to wait, but the entire 3 minutes I was using the loo he sat outside knocking, asking if now could I make him lunch.
Now are you done?
Now can I have lunch?
By the time my hands were washed we were both impatient. Him for food, and me for him to be able to wait, which is such an irony of parenting- being impatient for your kids to learn patience. But really after 4 kids and a decade of parenting, I just want to be able to pee in peace.
We love the idea of hope, but we hate the waiting. When we know something is coming, but we don’t know when, we get all up in God’s business like a five year old knocking at the bathroom door. These stories are as old as the bible, like Abraham sleeping with Hagar when he was waiting for an heir, Jacob scamming his way into a blessing, or the Israelite’s building an idol when they were tired of waiting for Moses.
What a wonderful gift hope is, but as time ticks by, and we long to know when!? Did we hear Him right? Maybe we didn’t understand. Maybe He decided we didn’t really need what He promised after all. Or maybe He wants us to take responsibility, maybe He wants us to do something.
Advent is as much about looking forward to Christ’s second coming as it is remembering His first. Peter was writing to people who were frustrated that Christ had not yet returned. They were tired of waiting, but he was trying to explain that time for God is not how we see it. It was a long time for the world to wait for the first Christmas, and in that we take comfort, that we are not alone in our impatience as we continue to persevere towards the next.
Peter says, “While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace.” A promise is easy to hold and exciting at its beginning and at its fulfillment, but the long, unending middle stretch requires the gift of peace. We need a tender touch to let the promise lead, grow, and fulfill the way it was meant too.
The main thing I learned hiking with a toddler this fall was the importance of peace while waiting. A hike is not so different from a promise, you start with the excitement of a destination, and then a long time wondering if you’ll ever get there, how many more switchbacks, and how much further up the hill, and you’re thrilled when you finally arrive. The hard part is that toddlers don’t actually hike, they wander, and wandering behind them when you’d rather be hiking is maddening. They can go on for a long time in this manner though, and for quite a distance. If I don’t push, my toddler and I might walk 5 miles before the sun sets, but if I grab his hand and try to make him skip over all the amazingness at his eye level we will barely walk one. Maybe two if I have a pocket full of candy to offer up as a bribe.
You can’t force God’s promises to come true. We can’t push our spouses into a role we think they should fill, or rush our kids into His plans for their future. We shouldn’t hustle our way into more money at the expense of our relationships, or give up waiting and entrust our joy to any of the old, regular, earthly idols.
Last week we prayed for hope, but Lord, this week we ask for peace. That we could hold that hope and trust it with our future, our joy, and for the growth of those around us. We pray to receive patience as salvation, and for the peace to hold onto our hope with endurance. Amen.
Happy summer everyone!
This year I am celebrating my first summer without the task of changing diapers in a DECADE!! Which means there is actually a little daylight to sit down and read without stopping to clean up someone’s digested food waste. It’s so beautiful and wonderful, that to revel in the joy (and also because getting boys interested in reading is an uphill battle,) I’m adding a semi-regular feature to the blog, called “What’s in the Library Bag.”
I honestly cannot believe that the library is still a thing. Not only can you go in and borrow books AND movies AND music AND other media for FREE, but on top of that, they’re always giving you stuff just for showing up. Free educational programming for the kids, prizes for summer reading, prizes for winter reading, raffles, coupons, wi-fi, etc. Even in our small town, I’m amazed at the depth of their offerings. And these days, you don’t even have to show up to check out books! You can check them out on the Overdrive app, and download them to Kindle for free. It feels like a scam, like there is some kind of copyright law being violated, but I’ve been assured it’s not.
Libraries are our evidence that man is not entirely selfish and evil, that we still have altruistic tendencies woven into the fabric of society. Since the state of world affairs has been so depressing lately, if you haven’t stopped by your local branch to experience this goodness, I urge you to do so. You will be instantly renewed by the hope of possibility, and by the efforts of the programming to create equal opportunity for all.
Anyways, thanks to a great summer reading program and a load of free time, everyone here has been having such a good time with their books that we thought we’d share. We try to keep all of our books in the the same large reusable shopping bag so they don’t get mixed in with our own collection, and it is now endearingly known as ‘the library bag’. It doesn’t always work, we often misplace or forget something, but I have made peace with our overdue fines by considering it non-dedcutible, charitable giving. For this first edition, the kids and I picked out all our favorites (I’ve referred to each kid by their age,) and this is what we came up with…
Read Aloud Revival: For those who don’t know, this is the practice of reading chapter books, slightly above your own kids reading level, to them out loud. I guess the parenting movement to do this is called a revival because it feels like pre-industrial days, when a family would be lucky to have one book, and would read it aloud together. I usually read this book as the kids are getting into bed, after picture books, potty trips and prayers. I also cheat slightly, if I can, by checking out the audiobook version so we can listen to it in the car and get through the longer stories faster. Reading chapter books aloud has the dual benefit of lulling the littles off to dreamland (either in bed or the car), while getting the bigger boys to expand their literary horizons, and mostly everyone seems to enjoy it.
We stopped to read several books in between, and read a few of these books twice, but after two years on and off, we finally finished the “Chronicles of Narnia!” I feel like it warrants some sort of a party, although since they haven’t read the book of Revelations yet, or know much about end of the world prophecies, most of The Last Battle was extremely confusing for them. Despite the confusion they begged for another chapter every night, and by the end, even the two year old was bringing me the book saying, “Narnia!”
I’m a bit lost as to what to read next, I hate reading books in a series because I get so wrapped up in them, I don’t know what to do with my life once they’re over. We started Old Yeller last year, but put it down because our own dog was dying and it was too sad. Seven asked about it recently though, so we may pick that one up again soon.
Elementary Lit: I’m categorically not fond of the books my older boys pick out. I’m coming around on the “Captain Underpants” series because it interested them not only in reading, but also in writing chapter books and in drawing, and truthfully they are pretty funny. Their second favorite is anything “Goosebumps,” which is painfully awful, but I remember loving R.L. Stine as a kid, so I try not to be judgy about it. If they can’t find one of those they’ll pick “Diary Of a Wimpy Kid.” The series has redeeming moments, but (in my opinion) mostly reads like Calliou going through puberty, “Whine, whine, whine. Funny part, life lesson. More whining. The end.” In book choice, as with so many other boy things, they just think so differently from my female brain. If I push my dismay onto them about how they only want to read scary books, or poopy books, or worse, scary poop books, I will probably only succeed in damaging their will to read. I try to mute my horror by politely asking them to try and pick out one new or random book that looks interesting each month. I don’t force them to read it, I just want it in the bag in the off chance that when they’re really bored, some actual literature might spark their interest. In that pile, they did find a few interesting books this month…
Nine’s pick of the month: Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger. My bigs loved the, “Origami Yoda” series so much, that now both of them always check the ‘A’ section of the library to see what other Angleberger book they’ve acquired. Fuzzy is a futuristic book about a robot that is being integrated into society as a middle school student. This particular robot is a big deal because he’s prototype of a new model that’s able to use Fuzzy Logic, hence his name and the books title. As he befriends a student and creates code to help her, he also becomes mortal enemies with the schools virtual Vice-Principal Barbara, who is something like a cross between Big Brother and HAL. In classic Angleberger style, it appeals because of his ability to empathize with misunderstood kids, and because the plot twists like a rollercoaster. Also my kids are obsessed with all things robot, and most robot lovers will probably enjoy the story. The bonus for grown-ups is that he weaves in references to old futuristic favorites, like I, Robot and 1984, and to great sci-fi themes which question the morality behind progress. Also, as in the “Origami Yoda” series, he continues his commentary on modern education, showing disdain for our constant testing, and standards based learning. As a homeschooler who keeps her kids home mostly for these reasons, I love that he is subtly supporting my argument against public education, but parents with kids in school might not appreciate the questioning of the system quite as much. Regardless, the story has great characters and suspense, and your kids will love it. Nine liked it and quoted it so much the other kids wanted to find out what was happening, so now we’re all reading this one.
Nine did also re-read the entire “Captain Underpants,” saga, again, after watching the movie. His opinion on that is that epic novel #10, The Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers is the highlight of that series. But as the author, Dav Pilkey, often says, ‘Before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this one….’
Seven’s pick of the month: Give Yourself Goosebumps: Little Comic Shop of Horrors I can’t say that this book is anything close to literary masterpiece. It’s R.L. Stine’s version of a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book. He’s completely uninterested in regular ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ but Seven, squirrelly as he is, sat in the chair and read this book for hours. Literally, hours. And Stine should probably get a literary award just for that.
His second, but better pick, was a fantastic picture book called Cowboy and Octopus by John Sciezska. Sciezska is so funny, and when you’re trying to get boys like mine interested in reading, humor is one of the top things I look for in a book. There is no plot to this book, each page is a new interaction between these two polar opposite friends, but I haven’t seen him laugh so hard while reading a book since The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak. Despite the lack of plot, it does have value in promoting a friendship between two characters that have in nothing in common, which is not a lesson you find in the world these days. There’s misunderstanding and cultural difference in every scenario, but still they forgive, make concessions and laugh about everything. If it takes talking about, “things horses drop behind them” for my boys to witness a friendship like this, then I’m completely fine with that. The pictures are engaging, fashioned from cutouts of old fashioned news print and paper dolls, but the real charm for everyone here was the humor.
PreSchool Picture Books: I love reading bedtime stories, especially to my littles. It’s such a healing moment that helps us remember we do love each other, despite acting like ogres during the rest of their bedtime routine. Their stories can get repetitive quickly though, and often they leave you puzzled, like in “Despicable Me,” when Gru, holds up the unicorn book and says, “This is Literature?!?” I’m as grateful that the library demands their books be returned, as I am for their large selection, because without either this bedtime tradition would’ve failed long ago. To keep it fun I ask each kid to pick out at least two or three books for bedtime each week, and then I throw in at least four or five more as a sanity buffer.
Five’s pick: Tugboat Bill and the River Rescue by Calista Brill, illustrated by Tad Carpenter. This is a cute character building story about a kind tugboat (Bill) and barge (Mabel) duo, who help save a drowning kitten when the other big important boats of the NY harbor are too proud to help. In addition to its Good Samaritan plot, it offers introductions to a few basic language arts concepts: rhyming, adjectives, and character description. Things are introduced with a list, either of “or” or “and” statements. For example, the Hudson river is “Smooth or choppy. It is Blue or Gray. It is swift or sluggish, depending on the day,” while the barge is, “Rusty and dusty. She is dented and heapy. She’s loyal and brave and just a bit leaky.” The primary color illustrations are also appealing, and Five spent a lot of time flipping through them even when there was no one to read him the words, although it’s short enough that by the end of the week he had picked up most of the story himself.
Two’s pick: Gus’s Garage by Leo Timmers. This book is best for its bright, adorable illustrations, and will certainly appeal to any two, especially if they love trucks as much as mine. Gus has a large pile of junk at his garage, but he’s very resourceful. So when everybody brings Gus their problem cars and he uses his junk to fix them up with a creativity that makes “Pimp my Ride” seem like a boring old body shop. I read this to Two so much, he had it memorized, and could ‘read’ it back to me. While he liked this book best, the older boys didn’t find it babyish, were also fond of the pictures, and actually enjoyed trying to guess which piece of junk Gus was going to use to solve a problem.
Grown up land: I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, about some pretty depressing things, opioids, addiction, alcoholism, foster care and coal mining. Or anything that will explain why Appalachia is the way it is. It’s gotten to the point where my husband is starting to make fun of me and my ultra depressing book choices, but something about being done with baby stuff has lifted this huge veil for me, like my brain couldn’t handle the stress of societal problems and training toddlers at the same time, probably due to lack of sleep. My favorites have been narrated journalism, Dreamland by Sam Quinones, Drink by Ann Dowsett Johnston, and To The End of June by Cris Beam. All of these are packed with information, but intertwined with interviews and/or memoirs that make them hard to put down. They’re all worth reading, but they’re all incredibly sad. I’ve talked about each on the Apple Mountain Facebook page, so I won’t go into them here. I did finish one fiction book, but it wasn’t very uplifting either…
The Weight of this World by David Joy. This book is classified as Appalachian Noir; it’s a web of chaotic relationships and depressing circumstance coupled with deep loyalty to family and to the landscape itself. I read a recommendation for this author at This Appalachia Life, which claimed Joy was the most important voice in the region right now. In full disclosure, these characters are the kind of people that are shunned even by their own neighbors, and their choices take the plot to some depressing and gory places. In the books defense, it is well written. One lady sees herself as K-Mart classy, which I loved. While the twists the story takes are dark, the characters were real, as was their kinship to the mountains. They weren’t likable, in the way that sometimes you sometimes find yourself rooting for a villain, but he did make you understand the traps they were caught in, and that due to everyone’s circumstances the story really couldn’t end any other way. In the end, I found it way less horrific than Big Little Lies, so if you could read that book without feeling overly disgusted, you might do okay with this one too. I’m supposed to be reading Fall of Marigolds for a book club I’m in, which is pretty much the polar opposite of this book and may balance out my moral compass. It’s not that I’m cheating on you book club, its that one of you still has it checked out right now. HA!
This book has piqued my interest in finding more Appalachian authors. The original recommendation I read said that if you weren’t willing to advocate for the characters in this book, there would be no advocating for Appalachia. I found it to be true as the blogger said, and if you’re truly willing to, “love the least of these,” you can test your ability to do so by staring down these people’s stories without flinching. I was very impressed by the preacher in the end who listened to the main character’s saga without freaking out or devolving into a sermon. Understanding is especially important right now, even if you have no connection to the region, because mountain problems are becoming the center of some big political debates. Between healthcare, opiates, coal and environmental policy, these debates will affect people nationwide, and occasionally globally, even though typical Appalachian people will have almost no say in what happens. The population here certainly helped Trump win the last election, same as they helped win political battles for the Kennedy’s and LBJ, despite being a region that has been mostly caricatured, marginalized or ignored, and probably will be again once the current debates are resolved, or lose popularity, or both. In the meantime, maybe the Appalachians can milk the national spotlight for good and for some lasting change. Maybe, through re-reading their history, and through their literature and the other arts, if we can learn to love or just understand the parts that make us uncomfortable, then maybe it’s issues won’t fade quite so much in the future.
So. That’s what was in our bag this month. Special thanks to our awesome Samuel’s Public Library for helping us fill it up each week! We hope you make it out to your local branch soon so you can also soak up some of the goodness of humanity. And let us know, what’s in YOUR library bag?
This is a ghost bike. If you’re looking, you will see them around cities marking the places where cyclists have died. Car crash fatalities have crosses, piles of flowers, pictures, and ribbons memorializing a life lost on the road, and cyclists have this. It’s simple. Just an old, busted bike, chained up at the scene of an incident, spray painted completely white. They can be found worldwide, wherever cyclists die, and there’s a cycling community in mourning. People say it’s to raise awareness for drivers, to help remember to share the road with bikes, but people who don’t ride often don’t understand, or care, what the bikes are for. For me, they stand as a bleak reminder of how vulnerable cyclists are, that a car doesn’t have to be fast to be deadly, and that friends can easily die tragic, preventable deaths.
This is Austin Horse. He’s a New York City bike messenger, adventuring cyclist, winner of a few world bike messenger championship races, and based on all accounts given by mutual friends, a decent human being.
Once upon a time he had another friend that was named Bill. He was also a New York bike messenger, as wild and scrappy as his long beard, which had helped earn him the nickname Billthy. He had a serious case of bikelust, and was cherished for his presence at the back of the RAGBRAI pack that cycles across Iowa every year. He was a brother, an uncle, a father, a friend to many, and also, by all accounts, a decent human being.
One day, Bill woke up feeling ill. He dealt with it, as most grown ups do, but he didn’t feel any better. At this early point in the story, he could have gone to see a doctor, received some medicine, and been fine. Or maybe had a yearly check up, where the doctor would’ve told him he couldn’t heal without treatment. But he didn’t see a doctor, or have physicals because he couldn’t afford them. He took a risk, and assumed that like whatever maladies he’d experienced before, it would eventually go away. Instead it became worse, and then unbearable. Bill finally went to the hospital, but it was too late. What had started as an ulcer had perforated, then turned into sepsis, commonly known as blood poisoning. At 52 years of age, on February 1, 2015, Bill died. From an ulcer.
If you met Bill you might think he was an uncommon person, but stories like his have become so common to me that it holds no surprise. DC messengers I worked with have also died young from treatable conditions that went untreated, cancers that weren’t detected early enough, or chronic conditions that weren’t properly cared for. These weren’t bad people. Despite whatever personal baggage they may or may not have had, they worked hard and were usually willing to drop what they were doing and run a package. Even if the whole city was under a foot of snow and even the US Postal Service was closed. Typical of bike messengers and other working class people, Bill couldn’t afford preventative care because he was uninsured, even with medicaid expansion, and even with subsidies in the marketplace. For many in this position, survival does not allow sick days, because hourly pay is how food finds its way onto their table. Illnesses come and go, but the need for income remains the same, especially if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, hand to mouth.
Austin thought Bill’s death needed a ghost bike. He was a cyclist, and this was a tragic, preventable death, common to many messengers, and it warranted some public awareness. But where would it be displayed? There was no crash sight, or landmark to place the blame. So Austin decided that in honor of his friend, and to advocate for universal health care that might have saved him, to make Bill’s ghost bike mobile. Instead of a random ghost bike, he would bring Bill’s actual bike which was already white. He would ride it from Bill’s home in Brooklyn, in his hand, by his side, all the way to Washington D.C and up to Capitol Hill. Austin and Bill’s bike rode the stretch all this week, while the senators were debating behind closed doors legislation that would affect the future for millions of Americans like Bill. He took the bike and Bill’s story to the people in congress, hoping to remind them that what they’re creating is not just a bill. It’s a way to change people’s stories. It‘s a chance to give them life.
Austin is an experienced cyclist, but riding a long distance in this way is no small task. Any amount of riding with your hand on someone else’s bike is awkward. I’ve ridden bikes that needed repairs to a shop about a mile from my house. It was unpleasant. It threw off my balance and slowed me down. I’ve also ridden the distances Austin traveled each day. It hurts. Not just in your legs, but in your palms, your wrists, your back, and your butt. Being able to let go of the handlebars to sit up and stretch your wrists and wiggle your back is just about the best thing ever. Being able to have both hands on your own handlebars to adjust your weight or get out of the saddle is probably the only thing that might feel nicer. You can’t do either of those things if you have one hand on someone else’s bike.
It was a noble gift to Bill’s memory, to take a piece of him back out on the road, and to share his story with people who don’t understand what it’s like. Often we make this debate about penalties, taxes and money spent, but we leave out the friends we’ve lost, and how they suffered.
There are definitely problems with the system now. It costs more than a monthly house payment to insure a family like mine, even with my husband’s employer subsidizing it. At different times my husband or I have remained uninsured because we’re healthy, and it was cheaper to pay the penalty and for the occasional doctor’s visit than it was to buy insurance. But through that I’ve watched my husband go to work with chronic back pain for months at a time, and suffer through things like strep throat and the swine flu without antibiotics. Even when we are insured, the polict we had was so crappy it would only pay for something if you were about to die. Even though the bill was created to help people like us, I feel people’s frustration with the Affordable Care Act.
I’m fine with fixing the problems, looking at the legislation again and even repealing the parts that don’t work, but not with forgetting that all people need affordble health care. How many people have to die from small complications before we are willing to negotiate around this issue? I wish I was wise enough to speak into the future and calm everyone’s fears about the possible solutions and how they might work best for our country. I wish I could say, beyond a doubt, what measures we needed to take to ensure that greed and corruption won’t triumph at the expense of the vulnerable and less fortunate.
I know we all have our strong opinions about what should be done, and that there are no perfect answers, but the answer can’t be nothing, nor can it be looking back to the time before the ACA with fondness, when millions more were uninsured. This is not just a bill, it’s people’s stories and so we need people like Austin out there, sharing the ones that people can no longer share for themselves. Because it’s friends and family like Bill who are lost in ferocity of this battle.
It has not been effective for us to yell, argue and growl at one another, while we forget that we are capable of empathy and understanding. We need more stories. So we can understand about the family who’s son was saved from addiction and mental illness because it was an ACA provision to include substance abuse treatment. So we can hear about the family that is already swamped with insurance payments, and dreads a trip to the ER because they have no room in their budget to also pay down the deductible. Tell people this story, or your story, or the story of your own friends. We need them. That’s what the debate should center around, because nobody ever sold the child to save the farm and because we need to find a way to treat something as simple as an ulcer.
Edmund was such a bratty kid the first time I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I loved Lucy, since I was a girl her age, but his relentless effort to embarrass her only made him half villain. What was really repulsive was his ignorance to temptation. He didn’t even try to defend himself against White Witch! How could a person so shamelessly seek after evil, trudging through snow with no coat, just to sell out his siblings for some nasty candy? I understood that he represented me as a sinner, but I couldn’t bear being lumped in with someone so oblivious to an evil plot.
People feel kind of the same way about opioids in the Appalachians. People’s resentment builds as heroin abuse bashes away at the infrastructure of rural life. It’s not that they’re unfamiliar with addiction, or the depression that leads people to it. They’re just tired of the unrelenting pain that heroin brings, and of lacking the resources to fight back. People wonder, why can’t addicts just say ‘no’? They did DARE in school like everyone else, so how could they be so helpless against such an obvious evil? Maybe if addicts just thought about their choices, money wouldn’t be wasted on Narcan, social services and jail. A town in Ohio went as far as suggesting a 3 strike policy for people who overdose, coming to revive them three times, but not the fourth. It’s callous and simplistic, but people are so annoyed that heroin is even an issue.
The applicable moral of that first Narnia book for the fed up population of Appalachia, though, is that every life is precious, no matter how many idiotic mistakes have been made. What was funny to me was that when I read the book to my boys, thirty years after I read it for myself, they saw him as a victim, not as a dimwitted bully. Through their eyes I could see he was just an emotional little boy, frightened by the war and annoyed by his seemingly perfect siblings. He was nursing wounds caused by circumstance, being separated from his parents and scared for their safety. Adding to Edmund’s plight, he’s sacrificing joys he’s been entitled to since birth- sugar, chocolate, tin cans, rubber… even new shoes and socks. He wasn’t wandering Narnia looking for a one up on his siblings, the chance just found him, cold and lonely in the woods with an unsettled heart. All it took was a small promise of some nice treats, and suddenly his greed was insatiable.
The enchanted treats perverted Edmund’s character similar to the way heroin would. The more of the treat he ate, the less remained of his virtue. Reality became distorted to the point he could no longer decipher the good from evil, or truth from lie. His disposition became increasingly combative, even when he was obviously wrong. Of the Turkish Delight, Lewis says, “…anyone who had tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed to, go on eating it until they killed themselves.” His greed for it left Edmund with an empty container, making promises he couldn’t keep, to a woman he couldn’t trust, all to dominate his siblings and live in a fantasy. We scoff at people who fall prey to addiction, the same way we do at Edmund, but truthfully we know more about this scenario than we’d care to admit.
The creation of today’s Heroin crisis is rooted in the same oblivion as Edmund’s. He didn’t know that the Witch’s treats were enchanted. He’d probably eaten Turkish Delight before without feeling the urge to sell his soul, so why would he suspect danger? The Witch may have been exuding evil, but it was just candy. Similarly, the increase in heroin use today is attributed to the mass abuse of OxyContin, which originally no one thought would be habit forming. For a decade doctors were encouraged to prescribe it to anyone with chronic pain, which opioids had never been used for before, and then even for smaller things like tooth extractions. The lie was so pervasive even primary care doctors started prescribing it. Finally, and FDA approved solution for all the pain. Maybe we should have been more wary, but doctors prescribe all kinds of drugs that heal and help, so why should this be different? Even after 1000’s of years of experience with opium and its derivatives, we never stopped to question if these claims were true.
In the time that it has taken OxyContin to rise and level off in popularity, our culture has seen an abundance of fraudulent schemes fail. Our economy imploded as the housing market crashed. Record breaking athletes almost all turned out to be bogus, and our olive oil was fake. We wanted so much, we even ruined kindergarten in our quest to have the smartest kids. Ignoring fraud and then being horrified at the consequences is our national pastime. The American Dream is one of consumption. It sounds decent and non habit forming at its inception, and sure most people handle it well, but what starts as a little piece of land to call your own becomes a desire for a bigger piece of land. After that its a nicer car, and then maybe some fancier clothes, a few dogs, and a pool, too. People who would otherwise be satisfied are suddenly not when they walk in to Target and see how cute the Magnolia line is. The dream is habit forming, and the danger comes when the lack of fulfillment festers so deep, it becomes impossible to maintain a moral code and satiate the desire. In this way we know Edmund and the addicts on the street, universally we suffer from blinding greed.
The story of how we legalized drug dealing reveals this greed as the root of the epidemic, and the drug abuse as a symptom of it. The easiest villains to target in this story are people struggling with addiction, but a pill prescription doesn’t magically appear. As the opioid story unfolds, it reveals layers of villainy, shared between doctors, crooks, marketing departments and a struggling pharmaceutical company.
* * *
The first people to absorb blame are usually doctors, since they introduced many unwitting patients to opioids without any warning about the possibility of addiction. Dr. William Hurwitz was one of the first to be penalized. The star of the documentary “Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer”, has an impressive resume. He was educated at Columbia and Stanford, and then volunteered with the Peace Corp in Brazil. When he came back to the States, he specialized in chronic pain, became an expert in the field, and opened his own clinic in an affluent D.C. suburb. His patients were people whose pain was so crippling they were unable to do basic things, like walk or work. They were grateful for his support, but traditional treatment involved multiple types of surgeries and therapies in addition to some meager medication. It was a long, expensive road, lined with tiresome insurance battles, and no promise of relief. Everyone was desperate for an easier answer to the problem of chronic pain.
In 1996, sales reps from a company called Purdue Pharma showed up in doctor offices across the country, and the problem was solved. They promised their new pill, OxyContin, was the first ever non-addictive opioid, thanks to its fancy new time release capsule. They wooed doctors during special conferences at fancy resorts, and cited a few loosely applied studies to substantiate their claims. At these conferences they promised even a primary care physician could prescribe it safely. It’s so harmless, people could use it after a tooth extraction. Purdue trained its sales team to ingrain the message that the risk of addiction was “less than one percent.” They even made up a term to describe skeptics: ‘opiophobic.’
Hurwitz was enamored with the pill. After years of repeated appointments with little progress, his patients were finally happy, and he was overjoyed. “It’s a miracle from heaven,” they’d tell their friends. They can go back to work, walk without a cane, and play with their grandchildren again. But soon they would become tolerant and ask for a higher dose, and Hurwitz would oblige. He started to ignore signs that his patients were abusing the drug. When a nurse would point out a patient with track marks, or an unclean urine sample, he would argue didn’t an addict also need pain relief? If a patient ran out of pills before their prescription ended ( a sign of pill abuse), Hurwitz would assume the patient was developing more severez pain, and increased their dosage. After two of his patients overdosed and died, the DEA opened an investigation. His abundance of patients taking abnormally large doses led them to shut his practice down. Soon after the medical board revoked his license, and eventually he went to jail.
Even after losing everything, including his marriage and career, he still thinks OxyContin is the answer for chronic pain. When they interviewed his ex-patients, ones who were lucky enough to have recovered from their habit, they all regretted their addiction and understood how the pills had made them suffer more. Hurwitz showed remorse for the people who had died, but was unwilling to assume any blame. He was sad that people had taken the drug incorrectly, mostly because it ruined the chance for others to use it for relief. In his post jail interviews, he still did not feel that large doses, extended use, or increasing tolerance had anything to do with creating epidemic addiction. He shows we can be greedy with excellent motives, and what’s scary is that will blind us all the same.
* * *
Well meaning doctors have absorbed a lot of the initial blame, but once people realized the draw of OxyContin and its generic oxycodone, anyone with a prescription pad had the ability to get rich quick. In fact, you didn’t even have to be a doctor to profit, you just had to employ one. Jeff and Chris George owned and operated the U.S.’s largest chain of pill mills, profiting $40 million in just two and a half years. Twin brothers from Florida, who had no medical experience and had only ever worked as housing contractors, opened shop in 2008. They hired desperate doctors who were bankrupt, literally and/or morally, and told them if they wrote a lot of prescriptions they could make $2 million a year. At this point many people were relying on the black market for pills, but once patients realized how easy it was to obtain drugs without getting arrested, American Pain exploded. People drove down by the van full from as far away as West Virginia and Kentucky. All a patient needed was an MRI (done for $50 in a trailer behind a nearby strip club) and a clean cup of urine (didn’t have to be yours). A visit would require one to act civil in the waiting room, and 15mn with the doctor to make up a story about what hurt, but as long as someone followed the procedure they could go home with a month’s worth of pills.
Since pain is relative and mostly invisible, you can’t prove someone is lying about their pain, making it difficult for the DEA to build a case against pill mills such as American Pain. It wasn’t until the brothers violently threatened people that agents were allowed to wiretap their phones and prove the clinic was a sham. At any point before that, the George’s certainly could have walked away with a fortune, but when recounting the story they said their love for profits and power became insatiable. They wanted to stop, but they couldn’t give up the excitement of large stacks of cash. By the time the clinics were shut down and everyone was arrested, the DEA estimated that 20 million doses of opioids had been prescribed, an average of about 10,000 per day.
In the end, the George brothers regretted what they had done, but from jail they asked the question, why were they the only ones in trouble? The drug distributors all knew what was happening, because the clinics demand for meds was so much higher than the average doctors office, but they all turned a blind eye. And what about the people who made the drug? For every pill the George’s sold, a portion of their profit went to them too, so why weren’t they in trouble?
* * *
That company the George’s were talking about is called Purdue Pharma. In the early 90’s they were still a small company, whose primary product was a painkiller called MS Contin given mainly to dying cancer patients. It was profitable, but the patent was about to expire, and with it’s limited market it wouldn’t be able to compete with its generic versions. The company needed something new to keep them afloat, preferably something with a bigger market so they wouldn’t be in the same position ten years later. OxyContin, was their answer, a new opioid drug that would release its potency slowly into the bloodstream, to prevent the bodies dependence on it. In clinical tests they decided it would be mellow enough for chonic pain, which happened to be a very large, untapped market. Soon enough, its popularity turned them into superstars, and opioids became a billion dollar a year industry in just a few years. Today their reach is global, and the Sackler family, who owns the brand, is the 16th richest in the nation according to Forbes.
It’s unclear what their original intention was other than trying to stay in business. Did they create their product to help people or did they know they had found a way to legalize and profit off of heroin? By 2000, people began to realize that OxyContin actually was addictive, and started filing lawsuits. In 2007 The U.S. Attorney General’s office in Virginia took up the case, against the advice of superiors, and Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal ‘misbranding’, which included mislabeling the drug, fraudulently promoting it, and marketing it for an unapproved use. They paid $635 million dollars in fines to stay out of jail, which was the biggest penalty at the time, but has lost its meaning compared to the $35 billion in revenue that Purdue Pharma earned from OxyContin to date. Several other affected places have successfully filed for damages since, including Kentucky, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Canada. Most recently the town of Everett, Washington has filed a new lawsuit, this time claiming the company purposely fueled the black market in order to increase profits.
Why did it take almost two decades for Purdue to admit their guilt or do anything about it? Could they really not see that their product was destructive? It’s difficult to judge where the distinction between evil intention and ignorance lies. The CEO’s themselves were so caught up in the success of their product, it’s possible they didn’t understand the long term consequences of their actions. Even once the effects became undeniable, the profits were too blinding to ever admit the pill was causing problems. 29 claims for damages were fought off before a single case was settled. With bank accounts growing into the billions, morals became subject to the desires of stockholders. The company’s polluted motives became a classier version of those addicted to the drug they were selling. For some reason though, there aren’t any CEO’s behind bars yet like there are street dealers, pill mill operators, or unscrupulous doctors. Maybe we’re more comfortable with their sin, all they wanted was there company to stay afloat. and then just a little more money after that.
After Purdue Pharma was convicted, their profits and the rates of pill abuse continued to increase for 3 more years. I think the most frightening part of this story is how little we care. Even with the landmark court case, opioids were not a top news story in 2007, or listed in the top 10 headlines for any year before or after. Most headlines were about elections and their related issues, the war on terrorism, sports or celebrity gossip. The housing crisis and the ensuing recession have been a top story almost every year since 2008 because of the mayhem it caused, but opioids have devastated almost as many. It’s estimated that 7 million have struggled with dependency since the release of OxyContin, many cases resulting in death. On the surface this seems about equal to recession unemployment or foreclosures, but the statistic grows exponentially when we realize that addiction is a family problem. For every dependent person counted, there are several more suffering the consequences, like kids in foster care, babies in withdrawal, and/or relatives spending a fortune on their loved ones in rehab.
After such a traumatic experience, you would think we would make an elaborate effort to keep history from repeating. Some progress has been made; OxyContin now has a tamper resistant coating, and databases have been formed to track prescriptions and prevent abuse. Doctors now have strict guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Rates of abuse have leveled off, but at the same time so have profits. Instead of being satisfied with the money that’s been made, there is now a global campaign for OxyContin, using the same misleading and aggressive marketing techniques that proved so successful in the U.S. In a terrifying quote from a promotional video, the company claims, “We’re only just getting started.”
At the end of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, when Peter confesses that he was partially to blame for Edmund’s actions, and Aslan doesn’t deny it. The uniting sin behind every facet of the opioid epidemic is as much in my soul as it is that of addicts, over-prescribing doctors and Purdue Pharma’s. Like Peter, we all have a part in contributing to a culture that values material gain with low tolerance for pain or misfortune. The most terrifying part of raising four little boys is to see how deeply embedded in our human nature greed is, because it feels so impossible to teach them to see others needs before their own, and to be content with what they already have. Everything else, from their friends to our junk mail, teaches them they need more: more activities, brains, ambition, muscles, toys, fun, food, gifts and then also more money…to pay for it all.
In the aftermath of OxyContin we find ourselves like Edmund, standing alone in a frigid wasteland, desperate for hope and lamenting the greed of our actions. Heroin addicts may receive the worst of our scorn, but those that can find recovery are the most blessed, for they’ll have seen their problem clearly enough to be freed from it. Unfortunately, greed pushes us to live in denial. Maybe we suffer the consequences for a while, but in the end we learn nothing. The opioid disaster probably won’t be a catalyst for lasting change. Historically speaking there is not much precedent, since this same exact problem happened when heroin was released by Bayer Pharmaceutical in the early 1900’s. But it might, and we could be louder and more emphatic in our prayers that it will. Celestially there may be hope, but individually, our power against is in choice as individuals to be satisfied, and our ability to teach our kids, friends, and neighbors to do the same. Many of us know the serenity prayer, recited in almost all group recovery meetings. God grant us serenity…courage…wisdom…, but the heart of this prayer is contentment, a plea for peace with and about the world as it is, and freedom from the desire to control or escape it. It is fitting, since contentment is also the antidote to greed. The true fight against addiction epidemics begins with this. I pray above all else that contentment will become our heritage we cherish above all, not chasing illusive, unfulfilling dreams.
When we moved to the Shenandoah, I heard neighbors complaining about heroin, how they were disgusted about finding needles around the playground, and watching drug deals take place in parking lots. I’d heard that heroin was popular again, but I greatly underestimated the extent of the epidemic, especially in Appalachia. My own kids found a few needles in places that were supposed to preserved for their innocence and for community, and I couldn’t get my head around how this had become such a problem. When I was growing up, I was terrified by heroin. Mostly it was the needles, ‘Trainspotting’ and that scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’ that made me never want to go near it; even in my teenage arrogance I respected its deadly power. My stupidity about trying different substances always stopped at heroin because people said it would kill me, and I actually believed them. I couldn’t understand how the generation following me could not see through its thin veneer of bliss to understand these same things, especially to the point where heroin use has become an epidemic.
The book Dreamland:The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones helps people who didn’t personally witness opiate use escalate around our country understand how it happened. What sets this book apart is that in addition to the facts and stories that fed into the epidemic, he also theorizes about the cultural trends that made us susceptible. It’s a pretty depressing read for parents, but these theories offer important insight about what we teach our kids. We may not be able to help directly with helping people fight their addiction, but parents are on the frontline of making cultural changes to prevent it. What has happened makes it’s clear that our part is more than just warning about the dangers of drug use. We have great influence in teaching and modeling to our kids what is valuable and what is not, and maybe in this way we can help reverse the trend.
Be aware of what’s in a pill bottle. Do your research on what a doctor prescribes your child, especially if something is possibly habit forming. Even if big pharma or your doctor tells you an opioid, benzo or amphetamine is not addictive, that it has a special time release formula or some other mechanism to keep people from abusing it, take it with caution and lots of education. Assume that it is still is addictive, because that’s the nature of these drugs.
Shame intensifies the problem. In Portsmouth Ohio, the city that Quinones identifies as ‘ground zero’ of the epidemic, parents didn’t speak out about what was happening because they were embarrassed. They were trying to navigate things they knew nothing about: rehabs, prison systems, probation, but silently, without help. They were too ashamed to ask for it, which was silly, because their friends and neighbors were going through the exact same things, but also silently and no one knew. It took 10 years before a parent in town was able to speak up about it, and form a support group. If one good thing comes from the opiate epidemic, it’s that there’s a light shining into the hidden worlds of middle and upper class addiction. Because it’s heroin, you can’t just send a kid to rehab silently and expect when they return, life will go back to normal. Heroin is not just bad behavior at parties and DUI’s, it’s cops, multiple stints in jail, and ambulances in front of your house. You have to have help to support a person through recovery; knowledge and honesty from a community are essential. And since addicts are overdosing more often than people are dying in car crashes, there is no longer time for any parent to shame or be ashamed.
Kids had their own rooms. Because of our increased affluence and the real estate boom, many kids had their own rooms, which was less common in previous generations. Kids said that their room was the perfect sanctuary to get high in, away from the cops, nosy neighbors, tattling siblings and any other person who could tell their parents what they were doing.
And their own cars. Having a car gave suburban teens easy access to drugs. You call a number, like you’re ordering pizza, you drive somewhere and meet another driver, and exchange money for drugs. Quinones mentions that the cars also had the added benefit of becoming a place to live when the parents wised up, and kicked their kids out of the house.
Sports. I hate to mess with something that has become sacred to so many people. I’m not denying that athletics can be beneficial for children, but that it can be overdone. Quinones noticed that in the middle and upper class communities he was studying youth athletics had been elevated to the point where the problems began outweighing the benefits. After interviewing an addict in one upper-middle class town he said,
“It was a place of gleaming mansions, but he felt no sense that education was of value in providing choices for life, much less a love of learning. These kids’ futures were assured. So sports were what mattered. Dads would brag to friends about their sons’ athletic exploits, then berate their boys for poor play, urging greater sacrifice. From the athletic director down to parents and teachers they heard, ‘you need good grades so you can play…’”(291)
Quinones saw that sports were becoming a gateway to opiate abuse because of the pressure and the injuries. Because of how important sports had become, kids were playing year round starting in early elementary school, and were then more likely to have chronic injuries by the time they reached high school. And because of the pressure to succeed, they were encouraged to play through their injuries and ignore their pain. They were often prescribed painkillers just so they could finish a season and Quinones noticed that the local football star was quietly becoming the face of teenage opioid abuse. Medicating injuries has always been done, but with oxycodone being prescribed for chronic pain, many sports teams, (and football especially since the players are prone to injury) were developing their own addictions.
What are the consequences of isolation? The book is named for the community pool in Portsmouth, Ohio, where generations of kids would hang out all day every day over the summer, surrounded by their neighbors and elders. It closed in the early 90’s because people began installing their own pools, tucked away neatly in their backyards. People stopped meeting their neighbors and letting their kids roam the streets until dinnertime. The lack of neighborhood made it easier to hide a drug addiction, away from the watchful eyes and accountability of the community. Quinones sees this as a metaphor, because it wasn’t just Dreamland that closed, people everywhere started staying in their homes and becoming more isolated. Closed doors made it easier for people to pretend they were perfect, which fueled secrecy and shame about all of their hidden defects.
What happens when we have too much stuff? Maybe not so coincidentally, the peak business years of pill mills coincided with the boom and bust of the housing market. Quinones theorized that our increasing consumerism created a culture that was fertile for an opiate epidemic. Unfortunately, parenting has not been immune to this, and the increase in teenage heroin addiction shows the consequence. In an interview with a man running a rehab clinic, the man explained,
“‘Spoiled rich kid syndrome’ seeped into America’s middle classes. Parents shielded their kids from complications and hardships, and praised them for minor accomplishments-all as they had less time for their kids….’You have a lot of kids who have everything and look good, but they don’t have any self-esteem. And you put an opiate addiction in the middle of that?’” (p.293)
Is it possible that minimalism could be an antidote to rampant drug use? If we wanted less and were satisfied more would we still crave chemicals to fill the gap? Thanks to ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ we can see that spoiling children is detrimental to their behavior, but maybe we don’t understand that the gravity of the consequence goes far beyond the warnings given by the Oompa Loompas.
What do we lose when we stop accepting pain as part of life? Our culture has also become less tolerant of pain, not just chronic pain, but any pain. People started getting oxy prescriptions for things Tylenol would normally take care of. Quinones said,
“In heroin addicts I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain. But man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior.” (p.37)
This idea has also trickled into parenting, because we can’t handle watching our children feel pain, physical or emotional. The man Quinones interviewed from the rehab clinic thought that parents today are making recovery even more difficult than usual. He believed there was a simultaneous epidemic of parents addicted to rescuing their children, and that their kids maturity was stunted because of it. He had seen too many parents enable addictions by rushing to their kids aid with money, food and shelter when they should’ve been capable of providing it for themselves. People do this because its been their habit since birth, every time a child cries from a scraped knee or because someone was mean to them, we jump to their aid. He warned, “I tell parents it’s real important to say no, but say no way back when they’re young.” (p.293)
I think most people have heard this before, but have not thought about it in this context. Whose pain are we really medicating when we come to our children’s rescue, and could the consequences not only lead to irresponsibility, but also to early death? Is it possible to walk the line of being compassionate toward our children without enabling them, starting when they’re still young?
I wish I could offer you a parenting guide, and not just a book review. My kids are still in elementary school and unaware that heroin is even a thing. I have no credentials other than being able to keep four boys from destroying a house, but I know there’s no sure way to keep kids from trying drugs. I also know enough about addiction to know that the blame never lies in one place, or on one parent’s shoulders. The book also reflects that the epidemic has many influences that are far beyond parental control. There are many kids who had their own rooms, drove their own cars, played sports year round, had lots of stuff, and grew up to be healthy adults. Just as there are kids who grew up with none of these privileges that are still battling addiction. The influences above are not ways to place blame on the last generation of parents, only cultural observations that the book brings to light with the hope that history might stop repeating itself.
Although you could never place the blame all on one influence, I do think the epidemic shows that it’s important to have conversations about the long term consequences of parenting trends. What do you think of his warnings? Have you seen these things enable addiction? Will you debate the consequences with your friends? I know it’s not a great conversation starter, but we owe it to the parents who have suffered already- to respect the education they earned, and the pain they have endured.
I was only 19 when I became a bike messenger. I didn’t know anything about what I was doing, or the other people who I worked with, but the lifestyle and the conmunity were fascinating. Everyone was so radically different from each other, but still they were bonded together through the experience of doing such a weird, hard, adrenaline-inducing job. There was a haunting among them though, that I was still too innocent to understand.
In defense of my naivete, I had little experience with the power of addiction. In my suburban middle class life, I know people struggled with it, but never publicly. Occasionally someone’s parents would freak and they would disappear from school. Rumors would be whispered, but the official story would usually be something about boarding school, or visiting an aunt’s house. But being a messenger exposed me to people who were desperately lost in their addiction, who didn’t have the stigma caused by class, and who were to abused by the world to care about what I thought of them.
Working as a messenger was different than an average working class job. Most companies hire you as an independent contractor, meaning you’re free to accept work or not, and you can call out hungover without getting fired. Because you work on a voluntary basis, the job attracts as many drug addicts and alcoholics as it does thrill seekers and cyclists, although for many I knew, these categories overlapped. Instead of hiding the truth or being embarrassed about their drug and alcohol use, it was a safe place to flaunt it. Everyone was just as drunk as you, so a night of bad behavior would be something to laugh at the next morning and not a mirror to reflect the truth about your habits.
What I realized in time was that wherever addicts gather in community, tragedy follows. There was always somebody or something to worry about- a person in jail, an injury that might not heal, or someone living on the street because their girlfriend dumped them. Messengers die all the time, but not from getting hit by cars, or from drug overdose, as my parents assumed. Some die from being poor, having treatable conditions that they can’t afford to get proper care for. But more often they die from the side effects of addiction- usually chronic health conditions like cirrhosis, seizures, and cancer. Sometimes the cause is a tragic, intoxicated accident. The first funeral I remember was for a boy that lost his life in a drunk bar fight, he hit his head funny as he stumbled around, and died in the hospital a few days later. Since then, about a dozen people have passed away, at least one for every year I’ve been sober, making my own sobriety feel bittersweet.
Losing friends makes me angry. While we can always do a better job of educating youth for prevention, many addicts already know that drugs and alcohol are bad. Most sober stories begin with that very sentence, “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but…” People usually know the consequences of their actions, but they do it anyway. Meanwhile those around them, who have been making an effort to act responsibly, are left bitterly carrying the burden. Addiction is a mental illness, but if you haven’t suffered from it, or watched a loved one try to break free, it’s hard to find compassion.
Between the lost productivity, the health care costs, and the criminal justice fees, we spend an estimated $520.5 billion dollars because of people’s addictions (That’s just drugs and alcohol. I won’t even go there about smoking.) Although, the real pain is more than the money wasted; it’s the destruction of our neighborhoods, the broken families, and the trauma it influcts on our children.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and that includes addiction. It’s not a purposeful descent into madness to wreak havoc on the rest of us, even though it can feel that way to outsiders. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains,
“Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to.”
So even if we’re cutting them off financially or emotionally, they still need encouragement to find real help. Currently, out of the 20 million people suffering from addiction, less than 3 million will actually seek treatment, which is pathetic.
Substance abuse has always been a problem in our country, but lately trends show that it’s getting worse, and the consequences have become deadly. It’s not just my friends that are dying. Overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, largely to the opioid epidemic. Overdose is the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing deaths by car accidents, guns and AIDS at its peak.
These statistics are horrifying, but they are only half the story. Like my friends, people die twice as often from the long term damage of substance abuse. According to the CDC, the rate of alcohol related deaths is about about 88,000 people a year, and this article in the Washington Post cites research showing that this rate is at a 35 year high.
The other reason it’s important to talk about substance abuse during Mental Health Month is that many people who are addicts have a dual diagnosis of another mental health issue, like depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. When we’re scratching our head in anger, wondering why someone made the choice to abuse a drug, even though they knew better, this is often why. It’s hard to determine an exact percentage of how many people are self medicating, but according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2014 (p. 32), at least 8 million people have co-occurring disorders. In my experience that’s a low estimate, many addicts don’t even fully realize they’re self-medicating until they’re sober, and others are unable to stay sober because they don’t realize they’re only addressing half their problem.
It’s hard to know where and how a person can fight against it, because what feels like helping an addict is often enabling them, and what’s actually helping they will insist is ruining their life. These are enormous problems, with roots that spread twice as far as the branches and trying to solve them, for even one person, feels like trying to rid your yard of dandelions. It seems like this evil is winning, that we are not powerful enough to fight against it, but we are not that way.
Pray. “...We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”(Ephesians 6:12) This is addiction. It’s undiluted evil, and it’s a spiritual battle for an person to break free. I am stunned about how few people are publicly praying on behalf of addicts, especially when you consider that almost everyone knows and loves someone who is struggling. We can pray for addicts seeking treatment, that they will find the support they need to get clean, and we can pray for the families that are broken and suffering in silent isolation. The people surrounding them need our prayers, too. Churches need resources for outreach; therapists and counselors need wisdom to diagnose; people running treatment centers need strength and patience. Also, the police, the first responders, jails, local leaders, and elected officers who are overseeing community efforts to fight addiction are understaffed and underfunded.
Pray for this evil to be crushed, but also pray about how you can fight against it. As I mentioned in my last post, there are grandparents now raising their grandchildren who need babysitters. There is a nationwide shortage of foster parents. Rehab centers have waiting lists and need beds, money and volunteers. Mentors are needed to teach people in recovery life skills, like how to budget or write a resume. Support a newly sober person by offering them a job or a second chance at friendship. Reach out to someone whose child or spouse is suffering. Sit with them at the hospital and teach them they have nothing to be ashamed ofa. Many families have no idea where to look for help or answers, and they may need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to pray with them.
Educate. I’m amazed at the people who have been caught off guard by the power of addiction and the drugs on the market today. Heroin is a problem today is because people had no idea that oxycodone was almost the same thing in a perscription. And how many people would have avoided their addiction altogether if they had known they were suffering from a mental disorder? The more we know about substance abuse, the stronger our communities will be against its influence. The more we know about the warning signs of what addiction looks like, the less we will enable people to continue in it. If we were an educated community, we would offer more support to the parents and relatives who feel isolated. Substance abuse is all over the news if you look for it. Make an effort to research and read about what’s happening in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and in your own state too. Don’t ignore this problem because you don’t see it happening to you.
Speak. Lawmakers don’t tend to fund research for addiction recovery because it’s not on the lips or the minds of their constituents, so the cause gets shorted compared to other medical research, even though addiction is a major killer. There are no big 10K races or silicone bracelets sold to raise money for research on subtance abuse disorder. But if we speak out, if we make this a major issue, lawmakers will fund more treatment centers. Advancements will be made to understand what addiction does to your brain and how we can counter those effects to help people find effective treatment. Teenagers may be more aware of the risks involved. So share articles you find that are important on social media. Talk to people in your church and community about what can be done for outreach. Speak out and make other people aware of what’s going on around you.
In addition to being a voice for legislation and action, you will also be a voice for people who still need help. One reason the number of people seeking recovery is so small is because of the stigma surrounding it. Every single sober person can help to end that, by coming forward with their own recovery stories. People who have never struggled can help by listening, and not judging those who have been through it. Sadly, stigma doesn’t end with addicts themselves, for the families that surround them are often ashamed to ask for help too. In Portsmouth, Ohio (a town plagued by overdose), it took almost eight years of living with epidemic heroin use before the parents were willing to confess what was happening in their homes and form a support group. Don’t let that be your town. If you’ve recovered or have supported someone who has, tell your story. Hiding it compounds the consequences. People who are struggling are listening whether you realize it or not, and they need encouragement, so speak out.
Faces & Voices of Recovery is an organization dedicated to lobbying on behalf of recovery and ending the stigma, because its not just an issue for vagrants and rock stars. Respected people everywhere- leaders, politicians, businessmen, athletes, etc. are in recovery too. To share your story on social media use #ourstorieshavepower or #recoverymatters or go to their website http://facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/get-involved/ to learn more about joining their movement.
Substance Abuse is a scourge, not just an epidemic, but as a church we don’t treat it this way. When we first moved out here, we visited different churches for a year before I heard someone praying for recovery, or that had a program that was actively pursuing people who needed support. Spirituality, finding the higher power, is the second step to any recovery, but only a small minority of Christians were acknowledging this, usually the ones that had experienced the pain of addiction personally.
People even within our congregations are dying, kids are being raised by grandparents and towns across the country are crumbling under the cost. Spiritually speaking, how can we ignore that? Address it in your churches and with your friends. Pray about it and talk about what’s happening, because evil grows in the presence of our apathy, anger, and resignation. Refuse to believe that the fight against addiction is hopeless, either for yourself, a loved one, or your community. This is your problem, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Everyone is involved somehow, because 1 in 10 people have a problem which means no community is unscathed. So pray, educate, speak and step up to fight the scourge.
Substance abuse is an important issue to me personally, because of my own experiences and those of friends and family, but in my opinion, it should be for everyone. Because as we’ve seen with heroin and crack, a drug problem has the ability to devastate a community rapidly. Also because 1 in 10 Americans struggle with it, which means it’s probably a personal issue for you too.
May is National Foster Care Month and if you don’t care about the problem of substance abuse for any other reason, care about it because of this. Because while not all children are placed in foster care cases are due to an addicted parent, it is often the precipitating factor. The number of children in foster care has been rising over the past 5 years, mainly because of an increase in drug use. (Addiction Epidemic Creates Crisis in Foster Care).
According to a government survey, in 32% of foster cases, drug abuse was the listed reason for removal from the home. Neglect was the number one reason, and caretaker inability to cope and physical abuse were numbers 3 and 4 respectively, (AFCRS report, 2015) but that statistics is misleading because neglect, inability to cope, and physical abuse are often a result of a parent’s addiction. Some statistics estimate closer to 61% for infants (Parental Substance Abuse, p2).
Last winter the Wall Street Journal wrote a horrible but informative article, “The children of the Opioid Crisis.” We can imagine that people who are high won’t be able to properly care for their children, but knowing there are kids living in houses with buckets of vomit everywhere and feces smeared on the wall is unacceptable. It’s also important to remember that substance abuse is a much bigger problem than the current epidemic. This 2014 article, “Substance abuse a top reason children are removed from homes” focused on the influence of Meth on the Kansas foster care system. Before that there were the same horrible stories about crack, and before that it was heroin again. Through all the epidemics, alcohol has always been the substance most commonly abused, and though it is legal, it is equally capable of destroying a family as any hard drug. The fact is, if more people were sober, there wouldn’t be so many kids in foster care. We wouldn’t be worried about a shortage of foster parents, or a generation being raised by their grandparents, or the psychological fallout that these children are suffering from due to abuse and neglect.
If you think you’re community is immune to these problems, you’re wrong. Statistically, Virginia is one of the states that has been least affected by the increase in drug abuse, but even in the beauty of the Shenandoah things have become worse. According to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition the amount of children in Foster care due to parental substance abuse in the Winchester area soared from 5 cases in 2012 to 42 in 2015. (Northern Shenandoah Substance Abuse Statistics). One local foster care agency told me that parents who have been recently trained all have children placed with them already. That it only took a few weeks for her to be desperate for more parents to be trained.
During the month of May, please commit to praying for these children. Focus on the Family has compiled a prayer guide to help people understand the needs and problems of foster care and how to you can pray for them here: Foster Care Prayer Vigil
Pray for the children to feel love and to find homes that will accept them unconditionally. Also for the caregivers who are under stress, and for the birth parents sobriety. But also we can pray for the many people behind the scenes working with and helping these families: those providing respite care, the caseworkers, people recruiting and training foster parents, police officers responding to calls, churches who support these families, counselors, teachers, and the communities leaders and government officials overseeing it all.
But don’t just pray for the people already involved, pray for your part too. It could be as big as opening your home up to a child, or as thoughtful as helping with the cost of clothing, school supplies, or Christmas presents. Many Grandparents that have kinship care are overwhelmed, now trying to raise their grand kids when they were ready for retirement. Offer them help, bring them dinner or babysit for free. Foster children often struggle in school because of the trauma and instability, so if you can tutor, offer your services. Or if you have weekends free, volunteer with the state to provide respite care.
Speak up for this issue in your church and with your friends, because together we can do more to support the families that take kids in. Pray for it as a community, and for how you can support their parents recovery, so that the family can have hope of being reunited. Fight for these children, because these kids need it, and our communities need them.
When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” John 19:26 NKJV
In her book, Operating Instructions, Ann Lamott said that parenting leaves you with a wound. “Before I got pregnant with Sam, I felt there wasn’t anything that could destroy me. Terminal cancer would certainly be a setback, but I actually thought I could get through it…but now I am fucked unto the Lord. Now there is something that could happen that I could not survive: I could lose Sam.” This wound is the root of all frustration, all tempers lost, all misguided attempts to control their futures. We just can’t bear the thought of losing them, or even seeing them suffer the consequences of their actions.
The weird thing for me this Lent was to notice how parallel the Old Testament is to Parenting. If God is the Father, the Israelites are the child that learns every lesson the hard way.
It starts blissfully in the garden, creation abounding with the glee of newborn innocence. In Adam and Eve’s ignorance they were incapable of sin. They rest like babies on a mother’s chest, breathing in sync. I bet they even had that sweet untainted breath, and the delicious newborn smell radiating from their foreheads.
As time passes, curiosity trumps obedience. With curiosity comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes pride. They bit into the apple, and suddenly there were consequences and an independence they weren’t ready for. God could have been angrier, He had warned them it meant death. He could have chosen to smite them on the spot and start over, Adam 2.0, but He loved them. What parent doesn’t choose mercy the first time their child rebels? He set the consequences, but He also promised them they would get through it., that someday He would reconcile it all and everything would be restored.
But the bliss of newborn innocence was forever lost, and as it is with toddlers, lawlessness began to reign supreme. He may be God, omnipotent and loving, but being nice is hard. Too hard. I am thankful that in actual parenting, the flooding of the world and fire-bombing of cities is hardly metaphoric, that less drastic actions are enough to set safe boundaries. In their sin His anger raged, but far above it all his love remained. A Rainbow was given in assurance; a sign of that he would never give up on them completely. And more promises were made. Promises that outnumbered the stars in the sky.
Finally the day came when they were ready for elementary education. Many knew the law already in their heart, that obeying God was right, and ignoring Him was wrong. But they were ready to have it written in stone, elaborated on, something to study. Some days they listened perfectly, and sang beautiful songs of praise. Walls fell down and battles were won. A beautiful king, a man after God’s own heart, led the people to a golden age of trust and obedience. Later a temple was built, unparalleled in grandeur and beauty. Wisdom was not only given, but also received. People came from foreign lands to bare witness to this beautiful relationship- the bounty of blessing between a creator and His chosen people.
If only all the days of this stage were that beautiful, for elementary age children will only be ruled for so long before they want to test their knew knowledge. As they grow, the crimes become bigger, the consequences more serious. The lectures last longer and the punishments grow more severe. No matter what’s said, their hearts are increasingly their own, and they are no longer easily swayed. And so it was with the Israelites, they broke the law as soon as it was written. With their increasing knowledge of the world, they clung more and more to other people’s ways, to Baal and other idols. They didn’t always want to be set apart, because sometimes it was hard. Even if it was the truth, even if it meant blessing and joy. Sometimes they just wanted to be normal; to eat, drink and be merry like their more ordinary neighbors.
After so many prophets and repeated warnings with zero repentance, it was time to for a larger consequence. No more would God protect them from their insolence, and the nation was exiled. Like a grounded a teenager, their city was emptied of treasure and privilege. We understand His anger. How could they be so ungrateful? After everything God had done for them, how could they be so careless with His blessing? How could they still not know who He was, and how much He loved them?? Surely if they knew, they would not continue to behave this way.
It took 70 years, but after the time apart God was willing to rebuild the trust again, surely they learned their lesson this time. He wasn’t expecting them to be perfect, but maybe more faithful. The nation, now in its young adulthood, was also ready. It was time to rebuild and say it was sorry. At first, things were glorious. They started rebuilding the temple, sweet psalms of praise on their lips again. But after a while it was clear this nation was not a penitential child anymore. Something was different now, more self-righteous. They assumed they knew it all, so God stopped telling them otherwise. He was done showing them his anger, letting them feel the wrath of his displeasure about their choices. They had always been stiff-necked and no matter how many times he punished them for it, part of them always would be. His hope to reach them now was by unleashing the fullness of His love. He would crush their enslavement to sin with sacrificial love, and those willing would truly be reunited. But the time was not yet right. He would love them from a distance while they aged, vigilant for the moment to offer them mercy and forgiveness. But, oh! How He loved them, more than any parent could.
It went this way for 400 years when the time had finally come. He knew His truth would largely be rejected; that most people’s hearts would still be too hardened to understand. But he also knew all the hairs on Israel’s head, and he knew that among them were enough pure hearts to carry out his plan. Just one crazy guy to announce it, someone who wandered the wilderness eating bugs. Also a humble virgin, not yet wed, but betrothed to an heir of the great King David and 12 uneducated followers that mostly smelled like fish. He would need others to support the twelve in their moment of desperation, maybe a woman, a harlot. Someone who would be redeemed from so much evil, and therefore able to accept the moment of truth when the others had lost all hope. They were lowly people, sinners, uneducated, and from nasty parts of town. But God knew they were ready.
Our Father foresaw every detail, but His plan was brutal. In order to save one child he would have to sacrifice another, the one that was the Word, that was there in the beginning. ‘All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.’ (John 1:2-5)
* * *
It is hard to fathom as a parent. The story is so understandable up to this point. The anger that stems from rejection, the pain and frustration, the difficulty remaining patient with people who are incapable of accepting the truth. Parenting is a vulnerable endeavor, and that’s terrifying. We try not to live in fear, but their futures are so uncertain. The time will come when they’re young adults too, and our feelings and consequences will no longer sway their heart. They will make a decision to follow God or the world, or maybe they’ll try to do both. There is wisdom, that if you train them in the way they should go they will not depart, but there are no guarantees. If God refused to control the hearts of the Israelites, would we even really want that control over our own offspring?
God asks all of us to trust him with our children and with their stories, that he will at some point reveal himself to them on their path. Even if that path leads them to some very dark and dangerous places. Most days it feels like too much. How could God ask that of parents?
As Jesus hung on the cross, almost all of his followers had fallen away, but of course His mother was still there. A mother wouldn’t be scared by the sacrifice of her home, the loss of her dreams, the denial of the crowd, or the hatred of the entire world. I’m sure she sat there sobbing, how could God do this to her? How could He reward her obedience with so much pain? How could He call Himself merciful? When you kneel next to her at the cross, you seethe with these questions too. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be, her family or yours. We were supposed to have happy endings.
As Jesus hung from the cross, looking down at Mary, He knew the pain behind those tears.
“Woman. Behold your son.”
He knew. It’s an unparalleled experience for a weeping father, in the form of a son, to be looking down on the son’s grieving mother. What can He say to her other than behold?
If that was the end of the story, that would still be more heartbreak than any human parent could endure, but the pain of His story continues throughout the history of humanity. Of people who feel His love, who see His works, acknowledge His presence and continue to walk away. It continues with you and me, knowing His salvation, but choosing something less. It is no wonder that there is more joy in heaven when one sinner returns, than for the 99 who have never gone astray. Because after that much painful heartbreak, who wouldn’t ditch all self respect to display their jubilation over a prodigal son?
Parents, God knows your fear and He knows your heartbreak, too. But today He says it is Good. It’s a Good Friday because He loves us that much. Because He loves being your father still, even after all the times you messed this parenting thing up. Because He loves your children, no matter how they’ve disrespected you or Him, or even themselves. As He looks down at the cross, He says to behold. Because every ounce of fear, frustration and pain was worth it for you, and it was worth it for me.
“If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. John 15:19
It’s not in our nature to endure hatred. Every particle of our soul burns for acceptance, for love. It was the very thing that led us to Jesus in the first place, the promise that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) The world offered us many things, and they were good, though sometimes fickle gifts: admiration, acceptance, respect, belonging, even family, but not that. Not the unshakable love of God. But it’s in His nature to be hated.
“This happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law,” He says. “‘They hated Me without a cause.’” John 15:25
And when we realize that, everything in our being tries to flee. We’ll break the promises we just made, three times over. We’ll keep silent because we love the praise of man more than the praise of God. We’ll testify falsely because we can’t handle the fear.
It’s not always that we don’t believe or that we don’t love him that keeps us from following. It’s sometimes that we can’t bare to be hated. We’re terrified of what the mob will do to us, so we hang back in the safe spaces. We whisper about the injustice to other friends, but only to those who we know will agree. We hide our testimony, because we’re terrified they will make space for our cross too. When He catches our eye from a distance we’re suddenly humiliated by our weakness. We hang our heads and sob, but still, we don’t dare step out of the shadows.
He warns us. He wakes us to pray. He knows we will not endure the condescending looks and snide comments. He knows that standing without him we’ll begin to doubt. Was any of it true? Did we just hear and see what we wanted to? Was he ever really the savior we thought he was?
But he promised that night not to leave us orphaned in our pain.
“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. John 14:16-17 NKJV
Something that would save us from this shame. That would push us out from our hiding places and out of our sanctuaries, able to fight their hatred with the truth.
The Spirit of truth…
His word in our hearts like a burning fire
Shut up in our bones.
We would weary of holding it back,
And we would not. (Jeremiah 20:9 NKJV)
But for now, as the hour of temptation is at hand, we break the bread and drink the cup, remembering our weakness before the cross, when everything we hoped for seems to be ending. We try to remember his promises, his traditions, his mercy. Tonight we rest in the protection of the prayers he says on our behalf, that we should be kept from evil, sanctified, continue his work, and be united (John 17:15-21). Because of this we know, despite the anger and burning resentment in the world around us, despite how awful the predicament seems, we are still loved.