Mother’s Day Addendum: What my Mom’s addiction taught me about shame, resilience, and grace

The outpouring of responses to my blog about my Mom’s addiction has made me realize how many families are in this same struggle. As I’ve told some of the people who contacted me to thank me for sharing it: it’s been a long road to this place and I’m still learning and faltering and crying and getting back up every day. But, if my sharing the struggle this vulnerably can help other families struggling with the pain of addiction, it’s worth it.  So this post is dedicated to all of the families out there – daughters and sons and sisters and brothers and husbands and wives and mothers and fathers – who are struggling with a loved one’s addiction. The cultural norms and pressures around Mother’s Day are to keep it all “sweetness and light” – but the truth of relationships in families is almost always a lot messier and sometimes incredibly painful.

Part of the pain of seeing a loved one struggle with addiction is seeing what it does to their bodies and minds. And my Mom was no exception. Her addiction caused multiple forms of cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. She couldn’t keep food down and weighed only about 80 pounds. She had to have all of her teeth removed and rarely bothered to put in her dentures. She fell down frequently, and often had bruises on her face, arms and legs. She attempted suicide multiple times. She struggled to remember things, make decisions, and interact with other people. Her mood shifted wildly from one minute to the next, and she could be incredibly cruel in her words and actions.  And I’ll be honest: there were times when I was deeply embarrassed by her and for her. Times when I didn’t want people to know she was related to me. Times when I wanted nothing to do with her.

She did have two periods of sustained sobriety – lasting about a year each time. One was when I was about 12 or 13 years old. The other was in 1997, when she left her husband (my step-father) for about a year.

Among the collection of letters she wrote to me is one especially poignant and beautiful letter, dated March 22, 1997, during that year when she was clean and sober and healthy. She was the exact same age that year that I am now: 56 years old.

Here’s an excerpt from her letter to me:

“ . . . I look at myself so differently now – in every sense of the word. I’ve really taken charge of my life, but I’m not cocky about it (that’s a seductive trap I must ever guard against). I have no illusions that to go back to drinking “socially” (there’s a deceptive word that’s stricken from my vocabulary!), it would be my own personal destiny with my inner Dr Kevorkian . . . I’m much prettier now than I’ve been in 15-20 years (what an egotistical statement, I know!) – but even in less than a year, the puffiness & blowsiness is gone from drinking. I have CHEEKBONES, good skin tone, my hair’s thicker, I only weigh between 85 & 90, but I’m solid as a rock (work out EVERY AM for 1/2 an hour) – have a 22″ waist, better carriage & everyone asks me what I’ve “done” to myself! I guess I kinda glow with some self-confidence, too . . . Really, Melanie, at LONG last, you CAN be proud of me. And I hope, in time, I can gain back your respect. I KNOW I have your love. You don’t know what a rock that’s been to cling to! I can’t wait to spend some really honest-to-God HONEST quality time with you. We have a lot of ground to cover & a lot of years to make up for. I’m so looking forward to us REALLY discovering each other – not just as mother & daughter (which I honestly don’t know what that’s supposed to be like – bet you don’t either, as NEITHER of us had much to go on by example there) but as friends, and I mean REALLY CLOSE LOVING SHARING friends. I think you’re going to like me a lot. I like me a lot. And I LOVE YOU! Mom.”

And here’s a photo she had taken of herself that year:

Mom_1997 Glamour Shots photo copy_CROPPED.JPG

So, this Mother’s Day, THIS is how I choose to remember her: as a courageous, honest, beautiful, vulnerable, perfectly imperfect human being, created in God’s image, who, in spite of everything, was still worthy of love and belonging in this world.

Here’s my original post:

Mom_ashes_Coeur_dAlene_Tubbs_Hill_2017-04-29 08.55.56.jpgToday would have been my Mom’s 76th birthday. Mom died eight months ago after a 50+ year battle with the grave disease of addiction and, in her later years, significant mental health issues.

When I applied for the Baldwin Fellowship a year ago, planning to spend my Baldwin year delving into the research on childhood trauma, its impacts, and healing and resilience, my goals included exploring the ways that growing up with a mom who struggled with addiction had shaped my life, and the multi-generational effects of addiction in my family (my mother, maternal grandmother, and maternal great-grandmother all had the disease of alcoholism), and to focus on healing those wounds. Little could I have imagined what a gift this year of exploration and healing would turn out to be: exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it.

My Mom had a painful and lonely childhood. Mom was an only child and Grandma was a single mother (Mom’s parents divorced when Mom was five). Due in part to the pain of HER childhood, Grandma wasn’t very good at nurturing or showing love. She, too, struggled with alcohol addiction, and frequently sent my Mom off to stay with relatives while Grandma entertained a string of boyfriends. There are indications that my Mom may have been sexually abused as a young girl by one or more of those boyfriends.

Writing publicly about all of this flies squarely in the face of a central mantra that I grew up with: “Don’t air your dirty laundry.” Not to mention, it feels vulnerable and exposed and scary as hell.

So why am I putting this out there? Well, one of the many things I’ve learned this year is that, as individuals, families, and communities, we NEED to talk about these difficult subjects.

A major reason we DON’T talk about them is shame. Shame researcher Brene Brown says shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment. And research shows that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, bullying, aggression, and a host of other ills.

Mom_ashes_Portland_Pittock Mansion_2017-05-03 18.49.49.jpgBut the good news is that research also shows that the best way to address shame and to build resilience is to bravely bring these difficult subjects out into the light of day, to acknowledge what’s broken in our lives, to name it, talk about it with trusted others who will offer us compassionate listening, empathy, and grace, and to ASK FOR HELP.

We can’t do it alone. (which flies squarely in the face of another core message from my childhood: “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Turns out, there’s no such thing. That whole “your own bootstraps” thing is hogwash. We need each other!)

What I’ve learned from my study over the past year of the brain science behind trauma and resilience has helped me to better understand why my Mom was the way she was, and how her mother’s and her grandmother’s experiences trickled down through three generations of mother-daughter relationships. It has also helped me to better understand myself, and to be deeply grateful for my own daughter and our strong, healthy bond.

I have a collection of hundreds of letters that my Mom wrote to me over a period of 40 years, and I’ve spent a lot of time this year reading through those letters, seeking to understand her life and our tumultuous mother-daughter relationship.

And here’s what I’ve discovered: She loved me the best she could. She DID the best she could, given the pain and trauma of the things she had experienced, and the resources she had available.

Mom was never able to maintain the single marker of “success” that I wanted so desperately for her to reach, that I judged her harshly for NOT achieving, and, truth be told, that I’ve been angry as hell at her about for my entire life: she never got and STAYED clean and sober. (she had two year-long stints of sobriety, but relapsed hard both times…)

But I’m realizing that she DID live a life that had meaning for her. And in spite of her struggles, maybe in part BECAUSE of them, my Mom was a gutsy, funny, tenacious, unconventional, strong-willed, fiercely independent woman. Or, as she always
told me, “Darlin’, I’m tough as grits.” This is the very definition of resilience.

Mom_ashes_Columbia River Gorge_2017-05-05 08.50.28.jpgOne of the things Mom and I shared in common was a great love of traveling to new places. So, I took Mom with me on this three-week trip, sprinkling her ashes in each of the trauma-informed communities I visited. Leaving a little piece of her, and by extension, a little of myself, in communities that have committed themselves to healing, strength, resilience, and grace seemed like a fitting tribute to her life.

In the process, it has helped me to do what one of my heroes, Father Greg Boyle, of Homeboy Industries, suggests as a marker of authentic kinship with other people: to stand in awe at what she had to carry, instead of standing in judgment at how she carried it.

Be at peace, Mom. I loved you the best I could, and I understand now that you did the same.

Mending with Grace

(Here’s the sermon I offered at Grandview United Methodist Church in Lancaster, PA on Sunday, April 2, 2017 on the subject of trauma, shame and healing. There’s an audio recording of it here)

One of my personal heroes, Father Greg Boyle, of Homeboy Industries has said,

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But it occurs to me that to achieve a real sense of KINSHIP with those who are marginalized requires a deep understanding and acceptance of our own imperfections and brokenness or, as one of Father Greg’s “homies,” former gang member Jose, says,

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My work as Director of the RMO, a prisoner reentry initiative, is with people who carry numerous wounds: addiction, mental illness, poverty, violence, the dehumanization and stripping of dignity that goes with incarceration, not to mention the additional wounds of shame, stigma, and being judged, labeled and ostracized by the community as “criminals”, “offenders”, “ex-cons”.

For longer than I’d like to admit, I had been operating under the delusion that to serve them effectively, I needed to be a pillar of strength and model of someone who had things pretty well figured out.

The core messages of my childhood were: 

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and

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Those messages steeped me in what author and shame researcher Brene Brown calls the “myth of self sufficiency.” In her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, Brown writes,

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I finally came to understand that in my work, I was often attaching judgment to “helping” people coming out of prison because I had not come to a full understanding of my own brokenness and my own need for help. And I had to make the painful admission that the reason I had not done so was SHAME.

Some of my shame comes from having grown up with a mother who struggled with addiction and, later, mental health issues, and the pain and trauma that created for me throughout my life. And because I had not done the necessary inner work to transform my pain, I transmitted it to others around me by being judgmental and critical, with a “holier-than-thou” arrogance. I hurt people because I was hurting.

Those childhood messages: “Don’t air your dirty laundry” and “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” meant that, for years, I didn’t recognize or acknowledge, and certainly didn’t talk about, any of this. When I was a kid, our family did go to church regularly on Sunday mornings, all cleaned up and dressed in our finest.  But even at church – in fact, I now think, ESPECIALLY at church – we kept silent about what was going on with my Mom’s addiction behind the closed doors of our home.

This morning, there are many people, many families, in many churches, in many places – even right here in this place – who are sitting in silent shame, over things going on in our lives, how we feel about ourselves and the kind of people we are, about sinful and shameful things we have done that have hurt others or ourselves, about things our loved ones have done. And there are many additional people who feel such deep shame that they feel like they aren’t even worthy to come into a church.

(This is the “squirmy part of this sermon” . . . but that’s okay . . . stay with me here . . . )

Brene Brown says that shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives:

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Her research shows that:

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In other words . . .

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We are afraid to admit or let anyone see the broken places in our lives. We may think, “If others knew this about me, would they still accept and love me?”

But here’s the good news: There IS a way for us to overcome those fears and address our shame, so we can heal and move forward.

The scientific research shows that the best way to address shame is to bravely bring it out into the light of day, to acknowledge what’s broken in our lives, to name it, TALK about it with trusted others who will offer us compassionate listening, empathy, and forgiveness and to ASK FOR HELP.

We can’t do it alone. Here’s the secret: There’s NO SUCH THING as pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. It’s a myth. We need each other.

Interestingly, what the research shows will help us deal with our shame are the same things that our Christian tradition teaches us: the things we know as:

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Pastor Andrea said in the first of her sermons in this series that the CHURCH has a vital role to play in healing shame and creating healthy community, because of the church’s unique offering of GRACE: the central tenet of our faith as Christians and the focus of this morning’s lectionary texts.

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and in the passage from Romans:

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These promises of God’s grace and forgiveness, of God’s abundant love, despite our sinfulness, our brokenness, are what give us HOPE. God’s abundant love is so much stronger than our fear of admitting to the brokenness in our lives.

Another of my personal heroes, Bryan Stevenson, author of the book Just Mercy, writes,

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One of the things I’ve learned through my work with the RMO is that there’s pretty extensive evidence that a majority of the people in our prisons and jails have had a history of trauma in their lives – often when they were children. They’ve experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse, emotional and physical neglect. Many have grown up in households with a parent who had addictions or mental illness. Many have witnessed domestic violence and other forms of violence. Many have lost a parent to death, abandonment, or incarceration.

It isn’t that these experiences excuse what they have done to harm others, and we may struggle to feel compassion for THEIR PAIN, asking what about the pain THEY have caused?

And that’s absolutely a fair question, with, I admit, no simple answers. And yet, our common humanity and our Christian teaching compel us to recognize THEIR SACRED WORTH rather than judging and shaming them; to EMBRACE them; to truly LOVE them as our NEIGHBORS.

I like what the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote:

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Much of what we do with brokenness in our own lives, as well as the lives of people with addictions, mental illness, and those in our criminal justice system, is like using an aspirin and an ice pack for a broken leg. While aspirin and an ice pack might temporarily relieve the pain and reduce the swelling, the TRUTH is that the leg is still broken – and if we never PROPERLY mend what’s broken inside of us, it may continue to “cripple” us.

But I’d like to close this morning by offering a different vision for mending the broken places in all of our lives.

In Japanese culture, beautiful pottery is an important part of everyday life – pottery bowls, plates, cups and vases.

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When a bowl or vase or cup or plate gets chipped, or cracked . . .

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or even completely broken into pieces . . . 

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rather than throw it away, they have a beautiful traditional practice called:

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or as it’s sometimes called, “mending with gold.”

What they do is mix up a lacquer to which they ADD precious metals – usually GOLD DUST –

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Then they take the broken pieces of that bowl or vase or plate, and they carefully and lovingly apply the golden lacquer along the broken edges and join the pieces back together.

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Their philosophy is that when something happens that damages a piece of pottery, it should NOT be tossed aside or thrown away as worthless. Instead it is WORTH taking the time and care to mend what’s broken.

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They treat the breakage and the process of repairing it as simply part of the history of that object, instead of something to be hidden or disguised.

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They believe that chips, cracks, even completely breaking into pieces – these are all just natural parts of life. 

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Not only is there no attempt to hide the cracks and brokenness, but the repair is literally illuminated. 

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And because they have used precious metals (GOLD DUST!) . . .

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to mend the broken places . . .

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. . . the resulting piece is considered even more valuable and beautiful than the original.

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We are not called to be perfect. We ARE called to be light and love to one another. Acknowledging the cracks in our own lives, and letting the light get in, can help us to heal our own brokenness, and give us the capacity to be compassionate, wounded healers in kinship with others.

Slide27Here’s what the research says about what we need to HEAL from the trauma of our own inner brokenness:   We need:

  • Opportunities to share our stories with empathetic listeners
  • Meaningful connection with others
  • Support from trusted others
  • Spiritual connections: a sense of something larger than ourselves
  • Opportunities to participate in social activities
  • Opportunities to be of service to others
  • Healthy, meaningful rituals
  • Opportunities for fun, play, laughter
  • Opportunities for creative endeavors
  • Opportunities to connect with nature

Amazingly, the CHURCH offers EVERY ONE of these things – and all of these things foster the kind of KINSHIP that Father Greg Boyle talks about.

In Jane’s Dutton’s sermon a couple of weeks ago – she highlighted the repetition in New Testament stories of the words: “Us”, “Our” and “We” – this is the language of KINSHIP. And I love that the word “Kintsugi” is so similar to “Kinship.”

Slide28

Grace is like that lacquer mixed with gold dust – God’s grace can mend the broken places in ALL of our lives, making us whole again, even more valuable and beautiful than before.

And through our compassion, love, empathy, and golden offerings of grace to others, we can be instruments of God’s ultimate transformation, to make gentle a bruised and broken world.

SO, I echo Pastor Andrea’s call to all of us in her first sermon in this series: to live into who God created us to be – wholehearted people who make up a grace-filled AND grace-giving body called the CHURCH.

Mending the chipped and cracked and broken places in our own and one another’s lives with God’s golden, and amazing grace.

Slide29

Brokenness, Judgment, Compassion, and Kinship

One of my heroes, Father Greg Boyle, of Homeboy Industries has said, “The true measure of our compassion lies not in our service to people on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.” This requires a deep understanding and acceptance of our own brokenness or, as one of Father Greg’s “homies,” former gang member Jose, says, ““How can I help the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?”

My work as Director of the RMO for Returning Citizens is with people who have been wounded in countless ways, by poverty, addiction, mental illness, incarceration, trauma. They are demonized and marginalized by the rest of society. For longer than I’d like to admit, I’ve been operating under the delusion that to serve them effectively, I need to be a pillar of strength and model of someone who has things pretty well figured out.

The core messages of my childhood were: “What’s done is done. No point rehashing the past. Get over it and move on.” “Don’t air your dirty laundry.” “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”  

These messages have steeped me in what Brene Brown calls the “myth of self sufficiency.” In “The Gifts of Imperfection”, she writes, “It’s as if we’ve divided the world into ‘those who offer help’ and ‘those who need help.’ The truth is that we are both . . . Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”

I’ve finally come to understand that in my work, I often attach judgment to “helping” people coming out of prison because I have NOT come to a full understanding of my own brokenness and my own need for help.

When I first heard Brene Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability and shame, I identified deeply with her admitted perfectionism and belief in self-sufficiency, her desire to plan, control and avoid vulnerability (aka “weakness”). But when she said her research shows that vulnerability is essential to creativity, joy and authentic connection and that being vulnerable is our most accurate measure of courage, it was a sobering wake-up call for me.

So last summer, I applied for, and was blessed and grateful to receive, a Baldwin Fellowship from the Lancaster County Community Foundation. As part of my Baldwin project, since September, I have been delving deeply into childhood trauma and how it affects connection, health, and mental health.

I’m now preparing for the next major phase of my Baldwin project: a trip to Oregon, Washington and Alberta, Canada, to visit several trauma-informed communities to develop a deeper understanding of how a broad-based, cross-sector “Trauma-Informed Community” approach could fundamentally change our schools, healthcare, community-benefit organizations, justice system, and entire community.

I hope the insights from the trauma-informed communities I visit may help us move toward becoming a trauma-informed community here in Lancaster – a place of true compassion and kinship.

As I prepare for this trip, and throughout my travels, I will be posting updates about what I’m learning along the way – about trauma, brokenness, judgment, compassion, and kinship. So, stay tuned…