To Fight a Scourge

I was only 19 when I became a bike messenger.  I didn’t anything about what I was doing, or the other people who I worked with, but I the lifestyle and the conmunity was fascinating.  They were all so radically different from each other, but were bonded together through the experience of doing such a weird, hard and exciting job.  There was a haunting among them though, that I was too innocent to understand.

In defense of my naivete, I had little experience with the power of addiction.  In my suburban middle class life, few people suffered from it 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.  Being a messenger exposed me to people who were desperately lost in their addiction, to abused by the world to care about my opinion of them.

Working as a messenger was different. Most companies hire you as an independent contractor, meaning you’re free to accept work or not, and can call out hungover without getting fired. Because you work on a voluntary basis, the job attracts as many drug addicts and alcoholics as id does thrill seekers and cyclists, although for many, these categories overlapped. Instead of hiding the truth or being embarrassed about their drug and alcohol use, many would flaunt it.

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 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. Mist 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. 

0905-2017-08067014994580798Between the lost productivity, the health care costs, and the criminal justice fees, we spend an estimated $520.5 billion dollars (That’s just drugs and alcohol.  I won’t even go there about smoking.)  But of course the real pain is more than the money wasted; it’s the destruction of our neighborhoods, the broken families, and the damage done to 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 the survivors. 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. 

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 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 per year, and this article in the Washington Post cites research showing that this rate is at a 35 year high.

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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, many addicts don’t 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 chance at friendship. Reach out to someone whose child or spouse is suffering. Sit with them at the hospital and teach them they don’t need to be ashamed.  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.  But if we speak out, if we make this a major issue, lawmakers will fund more treatment centers. Advancements will be made to understand and 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 to people who need help.  One reason the number of people seeking recovery is so small is because of the stigma surrounding it. You can help to end that, by coming forward with your iwn recovery story or 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.

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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. People are dying, kids are being raised by grandparents and towns across the country are crumbling under its pressure. How can we ignore that? Address it in your churches and with your friends, 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 seem like it.  Everyone is involved somehow, because 1 in 10 people have a problem. So pray, educate, speak and step up to fight the scourge.

Promising Winter

My children’s only complaint about our old house was the lack of snow. All winter we would read books like The Snowy Day and The Snowman, or sing about a white Christmas, and the children would pine for those experiences. They counted down the days until the winter solstice, and then were angry with me when they woke up to green grass.  I felt sorry for them, being born in Virginia where winter is so unreliable. When I was their age we lived in Colorado and Wisconsin, and the amount of shoveling you would have to do was the deciding factor when choosing a house.  I never dreamed there were places where you would have to refinance the house in order to take the whole family snow tubing, or sign your kids up for the hockey team. Being unable to provide the beloved weather related memories that I had as a child is the suckiest type of mom guilt.

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Last year, the boys weren’t keen on the idea of moving to the mountains. It was far from their friends and our church.  They loved the farmland we lived in the middle of, with all the tractors and cows and flat, empty dirt roads for bike riding. Compounding their grief, I also decided that moving was the perfect excuse to finally take all of their tacky, moldy plastic yard toys to the dump.  So, to make up for their hurt feelings, I promised them  snow.  I reasoned with them that they wouldn’t miss their icky wagon or cracked slide because they would be so busy sledding and having snowball fights. It was irresponsible of me, since our winters are prone to menopausal style hot flashes. In this instance, however, I was lucky and either their prayers were answered or I was punished for my foolish promise. Last winter we had more snow than I have ever had in all my life. We went sledding so much the kids were almost sick of it…and then we had a blizzard that dumped three more feet.

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Snow is the best AND the worst when you live with little kids on a mountain. I despise the 30 minutes it takes to help everyone find and put all their snow clothes on, and the other 30 minutes it takes to get them all off again. Their slushy boots leave tracks all over the house, despite my constant barking to take them off on the door mat. Their playtime always ends in shrill, panicked screams that echo throughout the neighborhood- all because one tiny snow crystal touched somebody’s wrist or ankle.

Despite all of that, the time we all get to play together in the snow is all the best parts of motherhood. Games, adventures, cooperation, and smiles, all occurring with all four children,  simultaneously.   It almost feels like an injustice, that my husband is off hard at work while I’m home sledding down the biggest hill ever, taking turns with my little ones so they don’t crash into a tree.  Even the older boys, who don’t want my help as much anymore, will still invite me to help finish their igloo or create an Olympic bobsled track. I’m allowed to relive the innocence of catching snowflakes on the tongue, and the sweet, thawing relief of a cup of hot cocoa.

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In the backdrop, the beauty of the mountain soothes the stress that has built up from playing the never ending game of “where is my boot/mitten/sock/hat/glove?” Without snow, the Shenandoah forests are menacing in the winter. The leaves disappear and all that’s left is a tangled mess of gray brambles and vines. Somewhere hiding (hopefully) deep within that mess are sleeping bears and snakes. The whole thing is regularly shrouded in a thick fog, (https://myapplemountainlife.wordpress.com/portfolio/misty-mountains/) dampening the air and our moods. But the snow masks the foreboding appearance by covering it in the color of purity and innocence. It reflects sunlight into the shadowy gloom, clearing the air and scaring away thoughts of danger.

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Even though our elevation is only about 2000 feet higher than our friends, our house is usually about five degrees colder. This year we’ve had a freakishly warm winter, but my promise to the kids still keeps. Most of the snow we’ve had this year is ‘special snow’- when our house had snow but the lowlands did not. If you ever wondered why school was cancelled when all it did was rain, it’s probably because of neighborhoods like mine. It hasn’t been much, but enough to justify the purchases of boots and snow pants for everyone. We’ve been savoring it, mostly because it’s so warm and the experience is fleeting.  I’m glad that even with the weather fluctuations, I ended up not being a total liar.  The kids still complain that we haven’t had a white Christmas, but I don’t dare make promises on that one.  Maybe we’ll just road trip to Grandpa’s house, instead.

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Advent 2016

Today is the first day of Advent! Do you celebrate? Do you know what it is?  Advent is one of the things I really miss about traditional church.  How do you feel during the weeks leading up to Christmas? Maybe the overwhelming spirit of materialism makes you sad, or maybe you feel only stress and long for some peace. Maybe you just really want your kids to know they are receiving a gift infinitely bigger than video games or lego sets.

Advent is a 4 week season to remind us that Christmas is about hope, peace, joy and love. It allows us time to realize we are doomed by our sin and lets us prepare our hearts for the arrival of our savior. By Christmas day we are ready to celebrate the savior who keeps his promises, loves abundantly, and will never abandon us.

If you’ve celebrated Advent the same way your whole life, maybe this is the year to do something different. There are many Advent traditions that have evolved over the past 2000 years, some are ancient and some are brand new.  I love how the Holy Spirit continues to push and inspire us to find new ways to relive this familiar story. Sometimes a change in practice allows us to see the story in a new light, or from a different character’s point of view.

If you’ve decided to practice Advent this year, I compiled some resources to help you and/or your family. I have used them myself and with my family. They have given me new ways to think about familiar scriptures, and have led our hearts away from the frenzied consumerism and back toward the earth altering event in Bethlehem.

The Advent wreath has 4 candles on the outside, with a large one in the middle, and it visits a different part of the Christmas story each week. It varies from church to church, but the point is to cover major themes: the prophecies which bring hope, the preparation which (oddly enough) brings peace, the shepherds who receive joy, and the angels who sang of God’s gift as love. Finally, on Christmas day, you light the Christ candle to remember his humble but awesome birth.  Lighting the Advent wreath is my favorite Christmas memory from childhood. Each Saturday night we would gather around the wreath, my parents would trust me to strike matches, and we would light the new candle. We followed the same litany each year, which was a poetic combination of scriptures, prayers, Christmas hymns, and a specific reading for kids to tell what the candle was about.

There are many scripts to use for lighting the candles online if you google Advent wreath scripts, but this one is my favorite for families and young children:

https://mikemilton.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/advent-readings-and-lighting/

Jesse Trees  show us how the Christmas story relates to the rest of the bible with a new ornament and bible story each day.  I usually gather the trimmings from the tree and put them in a vase. Some people buy a small table top tree, or just put the ornaments on their larger family tree. The reading plans go through the major bible stories chronologically and help us trace God’s promise and our need for a savior through history.  When you’re finished with the bible story, hang an ornament relating to the story on the tree. You can buy ornaments, or make them, or just print the ornaments and color them.

Ann Voskamp has perfected the Jesse tree, she has written beautiful books for adults and families. The books take you through the scriptures with devotionals and matching ornaments (which you can print for free or buy.)

annvoskamp.com/thegreatestchristmas/

Holy Heroes also offers an Advent Adventure program, which is a  combination of Advent wreath prayers and Jesse tree ornamets. Each day you get an email with a new video, and links to activity pages, prayers, and kids devotionals. This is a Catholic resource, so I skip the parts about mass and about praying the rosary, but if you’ve never celebrated advent before those parts may help understand the history and the symbolism of advent. The Jesse tree links have their own videos and printables though, and can be used across denominations.  The other awesome part about program is its FREE!

Sign up for your daily email here –holyheroes.com/Holy-Heroes-Advent-Adventure-s/48.htm

A Christmas Craft Calendar is very similar to the Jesse tree, but focuses more on the Christmas story and less on the entire Old Testament.  

A list or crafts and bible stories can be found at  truthinthetinsel.com 

Every day you create an ornament with your kids for the tree, and read the scripture that corresponds. The ornaments are fairly simple, made with common craft supplies. If you think your kids would love it, but 25 days of crafting sounds crazy, don’t fret! There are shorter plans, with ornaments for just 5 or 10 days. There are also backup printable ornaments that only need to be colored if you’re missing the supplies on any given day. I would recommend it for kids between 4 and 10, although I had a lot fun helping my kids last year and I’m 35.

Photo challenge is for visually minded learners, and maybe teens who want nothing to do with things like circle time or coloring pages. A photo challenge has a list of Advent keyword topics relating to the lectionary readings for the day. Snap a photo that embodies the topic and keep it in a gallery to meditate on, or share it on Instagram/facebook/twitter/whatever to minister to your friends and other visually minded people.

rethinkchurch.org/articles/spirituality/2016-advent-photo-a-day-practice

Bible journaling- Have you seen the art people draw in their bibles? Search  #biblejournaling and prepare to be amazed! It’s a beautiful outlet for people who are crafty AND inspired by scripture to put those talents together.  Drawing, writing, painting, or crafting in response to the word challenges creative minds to see familiar Christmas scriptures in entirely new ways.  Scripture Writing is for the person who loves the idea of bible journaling but is about as crafty as a lumberjack. Scripture writing is basically copywork for grownups- copy down the daily scripture, (about 5 verses) word for word.  It can be in beautiful calligraphy with embellishments, or written on a legal pad in pencil. Pray over the passage, and scan it for words and phrases that God is speaking to you. Then highlight these things, or retrace them, while thanking God for his faithfulness.

The benefit of both practices is that you’re engaged with the Word, removing the temptation to space out while reading the parts that you’ve read 100 times. Both practices can be done year round, but there are special resources to help you focus on Advent.

Journaling: seasonsillustrated.com/announcing-advent-illustrated-2016-calendar/

Scripture Writing (starts dec.1) thebusymom.com/scripturewriting

Devotionals Almost everybody puts out an Advent devotional, there are several inspiring ones for free on the YouVersion bible app. The ladies at She Reads Truth also deliver goodness every single day, and they expand their offerings during Advent to minister to kids and hubbies too! Their workbooks are beautiful and worth the price, but you can also follow the readings and devotionals daily for free on their website. shopshereadstruth.com/collections/advent-2016

Daily reading-shereadstruth.com 

I hope you and your family will take the time this next month to celebrate Advent! If none of these resources work for you, I hope you will at least be intrigued by the concept and find your own way to celebrate.