From my front row seat

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Spring Break Gone Way Bad...

Occasionally there were vivid reminders that I was an unconventional single mom, and my daughter was living an unconventional childhood.  Plus, I didn't always make the wisest choices.  For instance, there was the time she and I were coming back from Thanksgiving in Peavine, Georgia, when I discovered a tattoo parlor that was open.  Imagine.  Tattoos on Thanksgiving Day.  I whipped into the parking lot and the two of us went in the door.  At the time I was a full-time artist, selling my work at a highly esteemed gallery in Nashville.  My work was mixed media construction and people were always my subject matter.  I was working on a piece for an upcoming show that had a person with a tattoo and I needed to research some different designs.

So Mary Susan and I took our seats in the seedy, crowded waiting room so I could peruse the catalogues of tattoos.  There seemed to be a guy in charge so I asked him a question but he quickly interrupted me and said, "Lady, I don't know nothing about nothing.  They just pay me to sit here and make sure there ain't no trouble."  Okay, well, if they have to pay someone to do that, perhaps we shouldn't be here.  So we left.  I decided the tattoo parlor was probably not a good idea.

For most of Mary Susan's young life it was just the two of us on our horse farm.  I wore fringe way too much, and for a brief time I seriously considered living in a tee-pee (which I didn't realize at the time had my daughter completely mortified.)  We had a zebra named, Zelvis (Elvis with a "Z"), a couple of llamas, and the Budweiser Clydesdales stayed with us when they traveled through the area.  So yeah, it probably wasn't the most normal childhood.

This was never so apparent, though, as when I came up with an idea for Mary Susan's spring break one year.  I thought it was an excellent educational field trip for a first-grader.  This time I was working on a piece of art about women in a holding cell, and I wanted to see the inside of an actual jail cell to study how it was constructed.

Since my brother was a game warden, he offered to take me to his local county jail.  Great.  I would turn that trip into a spring break outing for Mary Susan and kill two birds with one stone.  Being a small county jail, I made jokes about going to visit the "Mayberry jail" - confident it was perfectly harmless.  

After being shown a small empty cell, I asked the captain if I could see the larger holding cell instead.  "Well, there are some men in there, but if it's okay with you, it's okay with me."

What could possibly go wrong?  After all, Mary Susan and I were with two guys carrying guns.  So sure, let's go see it.

With drawing pad and pencil in hand, we approached the holding cell and there were five men sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall.  I turned to the captain and asked, "So, if you have women in here, are they allowed to keep their jewelry on?"

"Absolutely not.  They aren't allowed to keep anything they can use to hurt themselves or anybody else."  I quickly learned this was wrong.

At that very moment, Guy Number One said, "Hey, aren't you going to do something about this guy?"  He motioned toward Guy Number Two sitting next to him, who had a blanket across his lap and was looking a little pale.  The first guy then reached over and yanked the blanket off his neighbor's lap.  The inmate had slit both wrists and was sitting in a pool of blood.  Holy cow.

Our little trip to the Mayberry jail immediately turned into a nightmarish scene.  The captain rushed us to his office, jerked some towels from a filing cabinet, and ran back to the cell while yelling for someone to call an ambulance.  The place was turned upside down and our spring break field trip was over.  Surprisingly, Mary Susan didn't seem particularly moved by the incident so I was hopeful she wouldn't be scarred for life.  Again - probably wasn't a good idea.

The following Monday, I was concerned whether Mary Susan would share this terrible story with her teacher and classmates.  Asking her not to would just make it seem worse than it already was.  She typically used good judgement even as a small child - she'd know to keep it to herself.

That afternoon when I picked her up, I hurriedly asked, "Did you happen to tell anyone what happened at the jail?"

"Oh, yeah!  And they LOVED it!"

I immediately turned the car around and knew I'd have to somehow explain it to her teacher.  When I found her, I expressed how I really didn't expect anything like that to happen, how I actually thought the trip would be harmless - but I could tell by the look on her face I wasn't ever going to win her over.  She was completely disgusted with me as a mother and I was beginning to agree with her.

"Well, this is the problem.  She didn't just tell us about it.  She explained to the class that if you are serious about killing yourself, you do it like this (and she motioned a cutting motion on her wrist), and not like this."  (She motioned a perpendicular cutting motion.)  And then I remembered that's what the captain had said as he rushed us to the office, so even amidst the chaos Mary Susan had taken it all in.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I replayed all the teacher's critical remarks in my head and suddenly it hit me.  Was she going to call the Department of Children's Services and have my precious child removed?  I went into a complete and total panic.  I realize now that this was probably not even a possibility.  But at the time, it felt like a real one and I can't describe the level of fear I felt.  I immediately imagined a total stranger showing up at my home and taking Mary Susan away to someplace I wouldn't know where.  I imagined the fear she would feel - the trauma it would cause for both of us.  I could go on and on as my imagination ran wide open down that dark trail.  For weeks I feared I would lose my child who meant more to me than anyone on the planet.

Whereas my own experience gave me just a tiny, little glimpse into what our moms must feel, this is something many of our mothers have actually experienced firsthand.  They saw their children pulled from them, they saw the frightened looks on their faces, they felt their fear and uncertainty, and then they lived the lingering, devastating loss as they blamed themselves for all of it.

This is where we cross over into some touchy territory.  Most of our mothers have lost custody of their children because of their own actions.  Their own poor choices.  Maybe it was drug abuse, perhaps even neglect.  So even though many people won't say this out loud, they often wonder, "How could they have done those things if they truly loved their children?"

Well, if there's one thing I've learned over the past fourteen years, it's that you can't measure someone else's love for another.  I can tell you from what I've seen with my own two eyes, these mothers DO love their children.  Addiction makes people do things that many of us can't ever understand.  Sometimes it takes getting clean before the enormity of their actions really hit home.  But that's where Blue Monarch comes in.

I have seen women weep, wail, and appear to be in complete physical pain over the separation from their children.  These mothers go to bed each night wondering how their children are doing.  Are they safe?  Are they happy?  Will they remember me?  Are they ever going to forgive me?  Are they calling someone else "Mommy"?

Have you ever missed someone so badly that your heart literally hurt in your chest?  Has the pain been so extreme that you walk around just looking for a spot that will make you feel better and you can't find one?  Well, that's something we see almost daily here.

Blue Monarch has a reputation for being a place where families are reunited and restored.  That's a tedious and lengthy process but over 250 children have reestablished a relationship with their mothers through our program and God's tremendous grace.  We have seen absolute miracles take place!  I remember one mother who was just inches away from losing her parental rights forever, but we actually left the meeting with her child.  We had totally underestimated God's grace and power because we had to run to Wal-Mart for a car seat.  

But sadly, not all stories like this have a happy ending.  Occasionally we have a mother who does all the right things, jumps through all the same hoops, and is still not reunited with her child.  I can't imagine how difficult that must be to return to Blue Monarch and continue living in community with other moms who did get their children back and have the wonderful privilege of loving on them any time they want.

There's a song playing on the radio right now by Hillary Scott.  The name of it is "Thy Will".  The first time I heard it, I immediately recognized the pain in her voice and lyrics.  I thought, "That's got to be the pain of losing a child."  Sure enough, I later learned that the artist was referring to the loss of a child through miscarriage and was desperately trying to understand God's will in her painful situation, yet continue to pray, "Thy will be done."

We are accustomed to celebrating stories with happy endings around here.  We blast them on Facebook and love to share reunions of mothers and children.  But today I want to lift up the amazing women whose stories don't end like that. And this is why.

I think the bravest prayer of all is, "Thy will be done."  Think about it.  It means that you are willing to accept whatever the outcome is because you trust God to do what's best - even when it's not what you want.  And this is what we see some of our hurting mothers have the courage to do.  Quite frankly, when it comes to my child, I have to wonder if I would have the courage to do the same.  Even in their greatest pain and deepest disappointment, these courageous mothers lift up their hands in praise, and with tears streaming down their faces, they offer their children to God and pray, "Thy will be done."

These are the very mothers who are the easiest to judge.  Despite their best efforts, they are still not able to reunite with their children.  But in many ways, they should be our greatest examples because their ability to turn their children completely over to God shows faith that is beautiful and supernatural.

Lord, I ask you to abundantly bless the mothers who have the courage to pray the bravest prayer of all, "Thy will be done."  Please show them there is light ahead even though it feels so dark at the moment.  I pray that you will bless them for their tremendous faith in the midst of their greatest pain and loss.  Amen 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sorry, but some people need to feed pigs

This was the early Saturday morning routine that began in second grade and continued until I went off to college.

Without knocking, I would enter the front door of my piano teacher's very large, dark, historic Civil War home in downtown Franklin, Tennessee.  Immediately the ammonia smell of over thirty Siamese cats would take my breath away.  Past the massive, somewhat depressing tapestries on the walls and dark oversized furniture, I would make my way to the grand piano in the "pah-luh", take a seat, and begin playing.  Cats would wrap around my legs and sometimes crawl across the keyboard swishing their tails under my nose.

Eventually Miss Mary would appear dressed in a shirtwaist dress, stockings with pumps, typically wearing pearls around her neck with matching ear bobs.  Her snow-white hair was evenly divided into two buns, one over each ear, both carefully contained with white hairnets.  She would also have on a little too much rouge (yes, the real thing) and lipstick that wandered outside the wrinkled lines.

Picture I drew of Miss Mary years ago
Miss Mary would approach the piano clinking a dainty cup and saucer of strong instant coffee, and she would usually have biscuit crumbs in the whiskers on her chin.  Miss Mary had never married and lived alone the entire time I knew her - except for one crazy summer when she rented a room upstairs to a colorful girl who had a constant flow of "gentleman callers", which Miss Mary mistook as the sign of a popular young lady with lots of friends.  Right...

One Saturday morning there was a strange, new sound, much different from the usual meow of a Siamese.  It sounded like a baby crying, but I couldn't imagine anyone asking Miss Mary to babysit.  Finally, I asked her what was making that sound?

"It's my new cat!" she said.  "He wandered into the yard and I'm keeping him in the kitchen until he can adjust to his new home."  I really wanted to see this cat making such a strange sound so she agreed to let me peek through the door as long as I didn't let him escape.  The other thirty-something cats were clearly upset about this new family member and were darting around the house in a sort of fearful, chaotic frenzy.  I soon learned why.

Much to my horror, when I cracked open the door, there in the middle of her linoleum kitchen table stood an enormous wild bobcat!  It arched its back and showed its fangs when it saw me and I couldn't help but notice Miss Mary had somehow put a rhinestone collar on its neck.  The kitchen was completely destroyed as if a wild animal had been turned loose in there.  Oh yeah, that was exactly what had happened. 

Miss Mary's complete household had been turned upside down by her attempt to help this one animal that clearly didn't want help.

 I slammed the door shut.  "Miss Mary, that's a wild bobcat!"

"Oh no, he's just having a hard time adjusting to his new home.  He'll be fine in a few days."  She said this with a curious level of confidence.

All week I wondered how Miss Mary and the wild bobcat were getting along.  And for once I was excited to go to my lesson.

The door was unlocked as usual so I carefully stepped inside and walked to the piano, listening for any sign of the bobcat - or Miss Mary.  Nothing.  The only cats I saw were quietly cowering behind the furniture.  Was it possible the bobcat killed Miss Mary?  For a few minutes, I have to confess, I wondered if perhaps this could mean the end of my Saturday morning lessons?  But then, of course, I immediately felt guilty for even thinking it.

Finally Miss Mary appeared, not from the kitchen as usual, but from her bedroom, which I had never seen and was such a mystery.  She looked like she had been in a terrible wreck.  Her little white buns were hanging from their sockets, her pale thin-skinned arms were covered in deep red gashes, her silk brocade dress looked like she had slept in it, and she even had a black eye.

She reported that her new cat "never did adjust to his new home" and she had to let him go.  She had loved him, cared for him, fed him, showered him with gifts, and in the end, he didn't appreciate any of it.  She seemed completely bewildered.

So how does this story have anything to do with Blue Monarch?

Clearly the bobcat didn't belong in Miss Mary's house anyway, but her reaction to this bobcat is so similar to the many calls we get from folks who are desperately trying to help someone they love, someone who is struggling with addiction and poor life choices.

"Why does she keep doing this?  I pay her bills, I take care of her children, and I gave her a car...I've done everything for her!"  They love this family member so much they are willing to sacrifice whatever it takes - even if it jeopardizes the peace and safety of everyone else in the home.  They allow their homes to turn into complete and total chaos because in their minds, this sacrifice shows how much they love this person.  They insist on keeping the bobcat in the kitchen, despite the fact that the needs of the rest of the family - and probably even their own needs - are greatly suffering.

This is so, so hard to accept - but sometimes the best love one can show is to give that individual the freedom to fall.  Even the prodigal son didn't figure things out until he had lost all support, been on his own, and lived with the consequences of his choices.  When he wanted to leave, his father didn't go running after him or bribe him with gifts.  He let him go.  This son didn't come to his senses until he got so low, he had to feed pigs to survive.  

I realize this sounds terrible - but some people simply need to feed pigs.  It's possible that the longer we protect them from doing so, the more we actually delay their recovery, not help.  After all, if we could just have the courage to trust God, then let go and let them fall, it's quite possible they'll eventually land safely in His arms.  Sometimes reaching this level of despair is what it takes for us to finally turn to Him for help. 

In fact, you know the part of the story where the father runs to meet his prodigal son who has returned with a new heart?  Well, we get to see that happen here!  We see the courageous women we serve, run to our Heavenly Father with renewed spirits and open hearts - and He runs toward them with open arms as if they never left.  And I can tell you - it's a beautiful, beautiful sight that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Psalms 40:1-3

Click here to read an earlier post on this topic:  A Beautiful Place Called Rock Bottom    


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Racist Interrupted

It was my very first day of high school as a 9th grader in Franklin, Tennessee.  And it was the very first day for integration in my county.  The year was 1971.

Neither school was big enough for all the students, so the oddly curious solution was for us to spend half a day at the white school and half a day at the black school.  In the middle of the day we were bused back and forth to switch places.

This plan was insanely inefficient.  For most of us, it meant two lunch periods back to back while this time consuming craziness took place.

After my first lunch, I got on the bus for the black school but unfortunately, all my friends went the first half of the day.  I quickly discovered the students were not evenly divided between black and white.  (Wasn't that the whole point?)  The bus was already packed, standing room only - and I was the only white student on the entire bus.  Wow.

Not knowing what to expect, I found a safe place to stand behind the bus driver who was also black.  I tried to look cool, like I hadn't even noticed my present circumstances.  Truth was, I was pretty scared.  Isn't it interesting how we often fear what's simply unfamiliar?

The only other school I had ever attended had just two black students in the entire school - Georgia, who was in my class, and her brother who was in another, also alone.  As I looked across the mass of unfamiliar black faces on the bus, I couldn't help but imagine that Georgia must have felt the very same way I did in that moment.  No wonder she never said a word and always looked so scared.  As I look back now, I'm ashamed I didn't do more to make her feel comfortable.  She must have been miserable in our all white school.

Gripping the pole behind the driver, I steadied my feet best I could as we began our journey to the part of town I had only heard about.  My blond hair was long and straight and the girls around me were absolutely fascinated with it.  As a matter of fact, I was pretty fascinated with theirs as well.  How did they get it to grow in that perfectly round "fro"?  

All of a sudden, without asking, a group of girls began running their fingers through my hair.  They squealed, "Come feel this!  Feel it!"  Well, I didn't like it one bit.  This had to stop.  (My personal bubble is quite large.)

When I'd had enough, I flipped my head around and immediately felt my hair getting jerked and pulled in all directions.  Oh my word, I'm being attacked!  It turned into quite a ruckus - kids yelling and laughing while my hair was yanked out by the handfuls.  Everything was a complete blur as my head got violently pulled back and forth, back and forth, and I was in a lot of pain.  I screamed for help but couldn't imagine who would even come to my rescue.

Suddenly all the violence stopped but not the laughing.  I grabbed my head and slowly faced my attackers, only to discover no one had even touched me.  What?  Apparently, when I twirled my head around to stop them from feeling my hair, I had actually gotten it stuck in the bus driver's stupid fan!  It had gotten whipped into a massive ball of knots.  Fortunately, one of the nice girls helped untangle my hair from the fan that now seemed to possess a good bit of my hair.  There was an enormous rat's nest in the back of my head.  No wonder everyone was laughing.  I'm sure it was hilarious for everyone on the bus but I was humiliated - and yet relieved at the same time.

As I tried to regain some kind of dignity, which was near impossible under the circumstances, I straightened my short little skirt, pulled up my knee socks, patted down my hair best I could, and marched into the black school for the first time, which I couldn't help but notice was behind a tall, metal fence.  Was this to keep people in or out?  (I later learned it was both.)  

The place was shocking.  I could see right away that the black school wasn't nearly as nice as the white school.  But how did this happen?  Didn't the same people pay for both?  It was filthy and needed lots of repair.  It didn't seem right, that's for sure.

As the year went on, I felt like I was seeing the world for the first time through someone else's eyes, and much of it was painful.  Many things were clearly not fair or equal.  And even though there were uncertain, new experiences during that first year of high school in an integrated school (or schools) it taught me some lessons I will never forget, and quite frankly, some lessons I needed to learn.

I've thought a lot about this experience recently.  And this is why:

As I've reflected over our past year at Blue Monarch, there were so many unexpected blessings and miracles.  After all, we expanded our campus with the construction of four beautiful cottages for our graduates.  This increased our population by 33%.  That's huge!  

But that's not all.

There were many remarkable miracles of transformation for our women and their children - countless, amazing things that you wouldn't think possible!  However, there's one specific thing that quickly rises to the top of the list when I think back on 2016.

Sadly, this is not a unique case, but we had a little boy with us last year whose father was involved in the Aryan Nation.  This man was quite vocal with his racist views and had passed these harmful prejudices along to his impressionable young son.  Even the mother wore Aryan Nation tattoos on her chest and at first, refused to open up to our counselor who is black.  (Thank you, Lord, for our counselor's patience, grace, and professionalism.)

But you know what happened over their time at Blue Monarch?  This little boy learned that we are all equal, that God loves each of us the same, and by the time he walked out our door, this sweet child no longer feared or hated people of color.
(Not the actual child)

And his mother?  Well, she eventually changed her own perspective and to this day, our counselor is the first person she turns to when she needs help.

In this day and time, when it's well beyond 1971 but we're still hearing daily news about racism, there is no way to know how differently this little boy might have turned out if he had not learned this critical lesson at an early age.  He may always be challenged through his ongoing exposure to people who feel otherwise, but I have to it possible that a future hate crime was perhaps stopped in its tracks because a little boy and his mother had the opportunity to come to Blue Monarch?  

We may not be able to fix racism, but I'm grateful we have a chance to chip away at it - one child, one mother at a time. 

But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.  1 John 2:11


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Little did I know...

If you would like to get the background of this story, you may want to read an earlier blog post:
A story too big to tell...

Dear Bob,

I have been composing a letter to you in my head throughout the year and planned to mail it before Christmas.  Little did I know you wouldn't be here to read it.  I can't possibly begin the New Year with this letter unfinished, so here it is.

Someone asked me recently what year stood out above all others for Blue Monarch?  That's easy.  It's 2016.  And that's because of you and Jacque.

I now keep a photograph of your beautiful wife on my desk.  It's not the best one I have of her, but it is a huge reminder that you just never know when an ordinary moment may turn into an extraordinary one. 

You see, this picture of Jacque was taken when she first visited Blue Monarch in 2010.  She came with a group of church folks at the invitation of her bowling buddy, Pat.  On that day, I'm sure I probably told the story of how Blue Monarch got started, described what we do to help mothers and their precious children recover from some pretty deep emotional wounds, and we might have asked one of our residents to share her personal story.  This routine we do quite often.  But something Jacque heard that day must have made quite an impression on her.  Little did I know this moment would dramatically affect our world six years later.

I also didn't realize when I received your unexpected email back in February, that by November we would mark a huge item off my bucket list and open four incredible cottages for our graduates, which would bear the names of your wife and four children - and immediately increase our population by a whopping 33%!

This year has been full of unexpected surprises.  But your passing was not a good surprise and although I thanked you many times, I wish I thanked you more when I had the chance.

Thank you for sharing your wife's passion for Blue Monarch.  I can't describe what it means for others to believe in our mission as we do, enough to invest their treasured resources.  Every gift, no matter how large or how small, means the world to us.  That's one of the reasons I love to get the mail out of the box myself - so I can cherish each one as it arrives.

I never told you this, but I found it amusing that you and Jacque frequently told me the same thing when the other was not around.  She would tell me that although she loved Blue Monarch, it was you who felt most passionately about it.  And then you would tell me the exact same thing about her.  I'm grateful you both cared about our mission so much.

Lynn, Robert, Susan, Bob, Kent and Beth
Even though you and Jacque discussed your tremendous plan before her death, you made it clear that you wanted to involve your four children in this gesture and the gift would actually come from them.  Thank you for passing your passion for Blue Monarch along to "The Sibs".  I am so grateful for their commitment to provide a beautiful place for our graduates to transition into the outside world.  And I also appreciate their vision for our cottages to be so unique they would serve as motivation for our residents to succeed.  The cottages are absolutely amazing, inside and out.  I've always said, "why do something ordinary when it can be extraordinary?"  Thankfully, your children - Kent, Lynn, Robert, and Beth - feel the same way!

Bob, your wife was an exceptional woman - no doubt, you know that.  I can't describe how much it meant for you to trust me with her memorial service we held in June along with the groundbreaking.  As I searched through hundreds of photographs I gradually gained a clearer picture of the remarkable life she lived with you, the strong values she instilled in your children, and why all of you wanted to honor her memory in such a special way.  Yes, she was an extraordinary mother - and now she's allowing others to become one.

There were several times you mentioned you were worried you might not live to see our WINGS Community completed, which always troubled me.  Other than the fact you were turning 89 in July, I didn't really understand your sense of urgency.  However, this was a determining factor as I interviewed potential builders.  If they couldn't begin right away, they were quickly voted off the island.  (Wasn't that one of Jacque's favorite shows?)

I think God dropped the perfect builder right in front of us for a reason.  The project went supernaturally fast!  "What?!  You need paint colors already?"  My word, we got four houses built in three and a half months.  Who does that?

But now we know why this project took on a life of its own.  I believe God wanted you to see the M. Jacqueline Peters WINGS Community finished before he called you home.  And only he knew that you would pass away just eleven days after you came to the Dedication Celebration, where you so tenderly handed keys to the first families moving in.  Little did we know...

What a legacy, Bob.  It's only been a little over a month since our first families moved into the beautiful cottages and already I'm seeing the enormous impact in so many areas of their lives.  Just imagine how that influence will grow in the many years to come.  I hope you're proud and feel the magnitude of a life well lived.

I love this picture of you leaving our Dedication to return to New Hampshire.  You look pleased, as I hope you were - and I love the fact you are still wearing your Blue Monarch name tag.  Yet another ordinary - yet enormously significant - moment that will live on my desk from now on, alongside Jacque's.

Bob, as this incredible year comes to an end, it's tempting to worry that we will never, ever have another year like this one.  After all, it was pretty unbelievable.  Not only did we enjoy this dream-come-true, insanely fun project, but our many supporters enthusiastically rallied around this venture and embraced it with us.  It was truly glorious.

However, you and Jacque have reminded me of something I must never forget:  It's important to treat even the most ordinary moments as if they have the potential to become extraordinary ones.  After all, little do we know...God may be using those commonplace moments and the people around us to do huge and powerful things one day - just like he so beautifully did through the two of you.

With much love and gratitude,

Lord, may we always be grateful for the ordinary moments that weave the tapestry of this extraordinary journey with you.  We ask for your abundant blessings in 2017 so we may best serve the courageous women and precious children who come to us seeking your help.

"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" - 1 Corinthians 2:9

Click here to see the aerial documentation of the construction by Joe Marler of Dynamic Images:

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Why is HEAL a four-letter word?

Have you ever noticed how addiction tends to be a sensitive topic?  It seems everyone has strong convictions about how to fix the problem and many experts believe they are holding the key to the vault.  But the debate for a cure seems to have many still scratching their heads.

I don't claim to be an expert on addiction.  In fact, after nearly fourteen years of dealing with addiction up close and personal on a daily basis, I am still quite puzzled by it.

I've often tried to get in the head of an addict and imagine how it must feel to have absolutely no willpower to resist a temptation of some kind, even when it has devastating consequences.  Honestly, with the exception of eating an entire pan of Christmas fudge until my eyes swelled shut, or justifying every single biscuit until I'd eaten an entire batch in one sitting - I really can't relate to what addiction feels like.  I wasn't willing to choose fudge or biscuits over my child and I never went out purposefully looking for them, either.

So I'm no expert on the subject.  But, I am an expert on what I have personally observed day in and day out as we deal with women struggling with addiction. Through this powerful experience I have established some pretty strong opinions of my own and I'm going to share a few of them with you today.  I realize some folks will adamantly disagree with me, and others will wholeheartedly agree, but hey - this is what I've seen with my own two eyes.

There are so many theories floating around about addiction:  "It's a disease that can never be cured."  "Once you're an addict, you're always an addict."  "Some people are just genetically wired to be addicts and can't help it."

Sometimes people struggling with addiction are told these things for so long, they label themselves as addicts for life.  This not only removes all hope for a cure, but what we've seen at Blue Monarch, is that it sometimes gives them an excuse for their behavior.  "Well, I can't help it.  I'm an addict and that's what addicts do."

We believe there is a difference between sobriety - and freedom.  We can easily provide sobriety.  It's the freedom we're interested in.

We see women who began using drugs for a laundry list of reasons.  Here are only a few:
  • My mother and grandmother taught me to use drugs.
  • My stepfather (or even biological father) sexually abused me and drugs numbed me from the pain.
  • I had surgery and the doctor prescribed me painkillers.  Then I couldn't live without them.
  • I tried drugs one time out of curiosity and I've been chasing that first high ever since.
This list could go on and on.  But see what it tells you?  There isn't a cookie-cutter addict out there.  They begin using drugs for all kinds of reasons.  So how can you treat each one the same?

That's why I'm so grateful for our program and the flexibility it provides as a privately funded non-profit.  When we see that something works, we can implement it that same day.  We can have a good idea at a 10:00 a.m. staff meeting, and by that afternoon, we're doing it.  We're constantly improving what we do to meet the individual needs of each and every woman we serve.

Therefore, we address addiction in a variety of ways because we are treating a cluster of issues.  We look at the core reasons for why she starting using drugs in the first place.  This is discovered through counseling and the recovery curriculum we use that focuses on thinking errors and criminal behavior.  We look at the wounds that possibly led to drugs and then work on forgiveness and self-esteem.  We study relationships and how to avoid unhealthy ones in the future.  When our own family members are not good for our recovery, we work on how to establish healthy boundaries.

But this is what we believe truly brings freedom:  We believe you can be healed from addiction.  Yes, I said it.  Healed. 

I've always thought it made absolutely no sense that God would scratch his head and say, "I can heal all kinds of diseases, but that addiction thing really has me stumped."  In fact, in Matthew 9:35, the Bible tells of how Jesus went all over "healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness."  Can you imagine if Jesus had said, "All you addicts, I'm sorry.  I can't help you.  The rest of you, over here."

Psalms 103:2-5 says:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget none of His benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with loving kindness and compassion;
Who satisfies your years with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle.

Just to be sure, I asked some experts recently if they felt they had truly been healed of their drug addictions.  They just happened to be three incredible women on our amazing staff.

Each one described how she had been healed through her personal relationship with Jesus Christ - and each one described how she no longer had any cravings whatsoever for drugs.  One had even been unexpectedly exposed to her drug of choice, and just the idea of it sickened her.  Wouldn't that be the definition of healing - when the addiction is completely gone?  Not just managed - but gone!  This picture is what true freedom looks like and we want that for every woman we serve.

So is addiction a disease?  Do some people have a defective gene that makes them an addict no matter what?  Truth is, it really doesn't matter.  We can stop people from using drugs in lots and lots of ways.  That's been proven.  But the true cure has been right before our very eyes this whole time... 

"...for I, the Lord, am your healer."  Exodus 15:26

Thank you, Lord, for a place where women discover that's it's possible to heal, not only from emotional wounds and traumas, but even addiction.  Thank you for the true freedom that is only found in you.

Monday, October 31, 2016

"I wouldn't wait in line to be born." Really?

Many years ago when I was between recovering from a bad mistake, and going back to school, I interviewed for a position as road manager for a female country singer.  (Hint...tiny body, big voice, big hair...and it was the late 70's.) 

I remember my initial meeting with the artist's high rolling manager.  He asked me to meet him for lunch at 3:00 in the afternoon after the crowds had died down because he "wouldn't wait in line to be born."

My interview was at the famous singer's Nashville home and went something like this:  "So, if I were to call you in the middle of the night while we're out on the road because I've run out of the color fingernail polish I want, what would you do?"

What would I do?  I had to think carefully about my words because everything that came to mind was not very nice.  So I explained that, not to worry, as a visual artist and fine arts major I would be able to mix any color she wanted.  After a few more vitally important questions she and her husband went into the next room to discuss whether or not I got the job.  After they left the room, I immediately shook the manager's hand, told him I was no longer interested, and left before I heard their decision. 

The biggest thing that stuck out in my mind from that experience all those years ago was not the eccentric (and perhaps a little spoiled?) singer, but her manager.  I've never forgotten his comment, "I wouldn't wait in line to be born."  Really?

I'm no good at waiting either.  In fact, I can't even wait for all the kernels of popcorn to pop.  By contract, my brother is the master of waiting.  The way we married our spouses is a great example of that.  When Doug was fresh out of college and working as a game warden, he was teaching a gun safety class one night when a cute sixteen-year-old girl came in to take the class.  He decided right then and there, "I'm going to marry that girl one day."  So he waited for her to grow up, asked her out when she turned nineteen, and married her four years later.

I, on the other hand, met my husband Clay at our 20th year high school reunion, decided to marry him three months later, then waited one more month because four sounded so much better than three.  (We had a surprise wedding on Thanksgiving Day, with mixed reactions, but that's a whole other story.)

Three weeks ago I decided to take violin lessons.  (And if one more person tells me that's great because it will keep my mind sharp, I will scream.)  When I rented my violin I also picked up a book for beginners because I knew I couldn't wait until my first lesson a whole week later.  However, by then my instructor had to undo some of the incorrect techniques I had already developed trying to teach myself.  And even though it's only two weeks since my first lesson, I'm already frustrated that I'm not an accomplished violinist by now.  I gave myself two weeks to struggle as a beginner and now I think I should sound like the violins on the radio.

We observe a great deal of waiting at Blue Monarch and that's one of the many reasons I so deeply admire the amazing women we serve.  Many arrive without custody of their children.  They have perhaps not seen them for weeks, months, or for some, even years.  The separation, despite the circumstances, is very painful - especially when they are living at Blue Monarch surrounded by children who have been reunited with their mothers.  This separation gets even more excruciating as they become stronger in their recovery, free from the drugs that previously numbed the pain, and begin to process how their choices have hurt their precious children along the way.  Waiting for that pain to heal is hard!

So they wait.  They wait for a chance to speak to their children on the phone - if and when the caregiver allows it.  They wait for a court date to get the lengthy process of custody started.  They wait for all the court dates that follow.  They wait for the scheduled visits so they can have longer and longer time with their children.  They carefully prepare their rooms for their children's arrival - counting the weeks, days, and even hours until the big day finally gets here.

But the waiting isn't over at that point.  Their children often arrive very angry and difficult to handle.  They wait for the time it takes to develop a new, healthier relationship with them.  They patiently wait for their children to trust them again as they prove day after day that Mom will still be here in the morning and again when you get off the bus.  They wait as their children adjust to them as the parent again while they gradually learn new parenting skills they never learned at home.  They wait for those new methods to actually work, which can take lots and lots of frustrating repetition and consistency.

Let's face it.  This journey is so, so hard.

The kind of waiting our residents endure is way beyond having to wait in line at a restaurant or wait to master a musical instrument - or wait until the store opens to get that fingernail polish you can't live without.  Their waiting is so agonizing it often brings them to their knees in floods of tears and brokenness.  

This is what I have learned through the years as I have watched these courageous women go through this process:  These moms eventually discover that turning to God for strength is actually what makes the waiting easier.  It works every single time.

It's no wonder that the Bible refers to waiting 160 times.  After all, it's such a huge part of our walk with the Lord.  But this is what our mothers have shown me:  When we rely upon God for strength and trust His divine timing, the results are much, much sweeter.  But more importantly, it gives us an opportunity to give the glory to God - and that's the part our moms do so beautifully.  

Lord, thank you for showing our moms that no load is too heavy for you, no child is too broken for you, no wound is too deep for you - and the journey is always easier when you are at their side.      

Thursday, September 29, 2016

My three miserable nights in jail

It's as if God said, "You know what?  I think you need to walk in her shoes for a while.  In fact, maybe for the next three nights."

God often speaks to me in my dreams.  Actually, the whole plan for Blue Monarch came to me in a powerful dream about twenty years ago - and just look at how that turned out!  But this dream I could have done without.

When my dream began, I was in jail getting booked for some crime - but for what?  It was a vivid, very realistic dream.  I had just undergone a humiliating body search, which left me feeling extremely embarrassed and violated.  The ink on my fingertips made me feel marked and branded.  I remember looking at my fingerprints and saying to myself, "Well, this is the only thing that proves I'm an individual because now I'm just a number."

I stood for a mug shot, holding my number in front of me while fighting back tears, and I immediately pictured my photo in the local paper where everyone I knew would see it.  I thought I just might throw up.  It even occurred to me that the numbers behind my head would tell the whole world how tall I was.  Not sure why that even mattered, but it felt like one more violation.

The.  Shame.  Was.  Unbearable.

Even though I didn't seem to have any kind of awareness of the crime I had committed, I can't describe the deep, intense humiliation and shame I felt.  Nothing I ever experienced even came close to it.  But this one moment somehow seemed to wipe out anything positive I had ever done in my life.  I saw how the officers looked at me with total indifference and then I realized I had become completely insignificant.  They were joking among themselves about something unrelated to my crisis and it hit me that this was just another day at the office for them while it felt like the end of my life for me.

Then I woke up in a cold sweat, relieved to discover I was at home in my own bed.  I spent the entire day sort of rattled and afraid that maybe my dream was a warning that I was about to get into some kind of trouble.  It was so real!  So I began paying much more attention to the speed limit and vowed to drive more safely - since that was the only thing I could think of that might get me into trouble.  Even speeding wouldn't get you arrested, though, unless you hurt someone so what was about to happen?

Unfortunately, the next night another dream picked up where the last one left off.  I was back in the jail and could smell that stale odor of too many bodies in an enclosed space with still air.  (It's an unpleasant smell that I've noticed lives at every jail I've ever visited while interviewing potential residents for Blue Monarch.  I've always wondered how folks working there avoid bringing it home with them on their clothes.)

They handed me the orange jumpsuit and "whites" that I had to wear and I could only imagine who and how many had worn them before me.  Clothing and creative style had always been important to me so handing my personal jewelry and belongings to someone to store in a paper bag seemed like the last hand-off of who I was.  Little by little, drip-by-drip, I was truly becoming a nobody.  A worthless nobody.

I was then taken to my cell, which I would share with a stranger, and right off the bat I realized there was no such thing as privacy anymore.  The nasty toilet was out in the open for the whole world to see.  At that point I actually wanted to be nobody and simply disappear.  I felt overwhelmingly empty and hopeless, and even crying didn't seem to make it better.  I couldn't get away from my terrible feelings.  I looked around and realized there was no place to go for comfort.

Then I woke up.

The fact I had this sort of dream two nights in a row was really unsettling.  Surely I was about to get arrested for something.  So I continued to watch the speed limit because that's all I knew to do.

Well, you guessed it.  The third night picked up right where the last dream left off.  Except this time the humiliation and shame accelerated to a whole other level.  

A group of us were lined up to go to court.  Our hands and feet were shackled together so even walking was embarrassing because it was impossible to do so with any kind of dignity, taking baby steps and lined up like cattle.

When we walked into court I was devastated and wanted to crawl into a hole.  I was especially embarrassed to be in public without any makeup, and my highlights were beginning to grow out leaving terrible dark roots.  (I know, I feel pretty shallow admitting it...)  The orange jumpsuit I was wearing was soiled - and from what, I was afraid to know.  The long-sleeved white t-shirt underneath was actually more of a dingy grey color, and my scratchy socks had holes in them that were visible in the oversized plastic shoes I was required to wear.

We paraded into the courtroom in single file and as I looked out across the room I immediately recognized people I knew - some were people I just happened to know from the community who looked shocked to see me.  Others were friends and family members who had expressions on their faces that were a complicated combination of disgust, anger, disappointment, hurt, grief, and even their own personal humiliation, which I knew I had caused.

There really aren't any words strong enough for what I felt.  The deep regret, the excruciating heartache, the agonizing shame, the anger toward myself, and the extreme hopelessness were so intense I thought I might pass out.  I cried and then struggled to wipe my eyes, which was hard to do with my hands connected to my feet, so I finally decided to let the tears just run down my face.  What difference did it make anyway?

Thankfully, at this point I woke up.  I sat on the edge of my bed just struggling to understand why I had been taken on this terrible journey over the past three nights.  What could it mean?  Please, Lord, what are you trying to tell me?  And please make it stop.

Truth is, as time passed and I was greatly relieved to see that my dreams were not prophetic, I realized they actually taught me a lot.  I've reflected back on them many times since then.  Some of the lessons were pretty obvious:  
  • God needed me to really feel how impossible it seems when the journey out of hopelessness and despair looks straight up and you're standing at the very bottom.  That road is extremely long and extremely hard. 
  • He needed me to feel the level of shame our women experience so I would know how important it is for them to receive constant encouragement and praise over even the smallest accomplishments.  Words matter. 
  • I needed to feel how tempting it was to become hardened and indifferent in order to avoid appearing weak and vulnerable.  So we must be patient.
But this is the lesson I didn't get until today:

In my dreams I never knew what crime I had committed, which has always been a little puzzling to me.  After all, wouldn't that affect the circumstances and outcome?  So today as I prayed for further understanding of these powerful and graphic dreams, I revisited this question.   Suddenly God pointed something out to me, which I now see is the most valuable lesson of all:

He doesn't care what the crime was!

What is important to God is that we understand we are new creations through Christ and that the old self is gone.  And THAT is what we must never forget to teach the amazing women we serve.  Only then does the shame truly go away.  After all, in God's eyes no one is a nobody.  No one.  Not ever.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;  the old is gone, the new has come!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.                2 Corinthians 4:17-19