Who Is My Neighbor?

She was sprawled on the sidewalk, her head flung back and her mouth wide open – a real life rendition of The Scream. I couldn’t hear her cries from inside my car but it was clear she was in great distress. I noticed her as I drove out of the hospital parking lot. It was Sunday morning and I was on my way back to church after visiting a friend.

I said a quick prayer under my breath and continued on my way. It was still early and I figured I could catch the tail end of the sermon. We were in the middle of a series about Neighboring.

That’s when it hit me.

Go back! Your neighbor’s there on the sidewalk. Church is here!

I made a quick U-turn and pulled over. As I approached, I could hear her howling, the sound like an animal stuck in a steel trap.

In front of me was the figure of a woman in obvious agony. My presence barely registered with her. Her creased leathery skin was toasted a deep brown from years spent living out in the California sun. Her long auburn hair was tinged with streaks of gray. With every wail, she brushed the back of her sleeve across her dripping nose and into the tangled mess.

Bending down, I assessed her physical appearance to see if she was injured. She slumped to the side, leaning against a large white plastic bag filled with clothes.

“Are you okay?” She shook her head and wailed even louder.

As I looked closer, I changed my initial opinion of her. Her nails were freshly polished with a deep purple lacquer and there were beautiful silver rings on her fingers. Her brown leather sandals were new. She wore a pretty lavender cardigan that matched her nails and, with the exception of the snot smeared on the sleeves, it was clean.

Her plastic wristband and bright white scrub pants indicated she had just come from the hospital. She was a paradox.

I sat down beside her and touched her gently on the shoulder. “Are you in pain?” She whipped her head up and down in affirmation. “Do you need to go back to the hospital?”

Her swollen, hooded eyelids popped open at that question and she spit out the words. “NO! They kicked me out!” Her mouth contained a line of rotted, stained teeth.

I need to mention at this point – the most distinct thing about her appearance. The smell. She looked clean and bathed but her whole person reeked as if she had been pickled in a vat of whiskey. The alcohol seeped out her pores and the odor emanating from her was palpable. I could taste the alcohol in the air and long after I left, the sensory memory of it burned at the back of my throat.

I plied her with questions and she shared her sad story between gasps and tears. “I have cancer. I’m dying! There’s nothing they can do for me so they kicked me out.” This triggered a fresh round of tears.

During this time, I kept my hand on her shoulder and tried to console her but I finally decided a firmer hand was needed and said, “You have to stop crying now. I want to help you but we can’t talk if you’re sobbing. Take a deep breath and let me help you.”

She hiccuped and breathed deeply. When she regained some composure I asked her name. “Patterann,” she mumbled.

“Pat or Ann?”

“No. Patterann. Ina Baptist preacher.” She spoke as if her mouth was filled with marbles.

“I don’t understand. Is your name Ann?”

She lifted up her head and looked me squarely in the eye. “Ann*. Ann! Angela! My name is Angela and ina Batist preacher! They call me PASTOR ANN!

With every word, the volume and intensity increased until she was spitting out the words like bullets.

“Okay, Ann. It’s okay. My name’s Karen. I’m here to help you.”

At this, she slumped her head forward and lay down in my lap with another flood of tears. Suddenly, something in her clicked and she bolted upright, screaming and ranting and clutching at her necklace. She grappled with the beads, struggling to turn them around. I saw the cross that had been hanging down the back of her neck. She yanked the necklace off and threw it to the ground.

 

rosary crucifix

I didn’t know what to do. She was deeply intoxicated and in such emotional turmoil that I just stroked her back and began to pray. I reminded Ann (and God) that she was His precious child. There was nothing she had done or could do to be separated from that love. I prayed for peace. I prayed for strength.

I ran out of words and just repeated a solitary name.

“Jesus.”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus.”

I chanted that sweet, holy name and prayed that in it she would find some small measure of comfort.

Finally, the tension released in her shoulders. I asked if she wanted me to get someone from the hospital. She did not. I asked where she was going. She said she was homeless and lived in Huntington Beach.

“I just want to go home.”

“To Huntington Beach?”

“Yes. I need to go there.”

“Do you have any family? Any way to get there?”

At this question, she sat up and the faintest shadow of a smile crossed her face.

“Tom. My son. Tommy!”

“Do you want me to call him?”

“Yes!”

She gave me his number and after a few rings, a deep voice answered. “Hello.”

“Hi. My name is Karen and I’m here with your mother. I…”

“Is she conscious or unconscious?”

His words were a blow. The deeper meaning behind them was clear. This was not the first time he received this type of call. He spoke slowly with a heaviness that revealed a weary heart. I choked back the tears as I imagined my own sweet son being placed in this position – the child as the parent, unable to help, yet called on time and time again to do so.

I reassured him that she was okay but in distress – explained where we were and asked if he could come take her home.

“Let me talk to her.”

I passed the phone to Ann. Her words were incomprehensible as she sobbed and whimpered her story to her son. I understood one word that she repeated over and over again – “Mommy”. She referred to herself in the third person – “Mommy is…” and used the endearment as though this word would somehow lessen the impact of what was happening or bring her son a measure of comfort.

She finally passed the phone back to me and Tom, apologizing, told me that he was at work until 4. “There’s really no way I can leave. Are you able to help her?”

I reassured him that I would. My mama’s heart wanted to say something to comfort his fractured spirit but all I could offer was the assurance that I would find a way to get his mama back to Huntington Beach.

As I hung up the phone, I noticed a bus drive by. “Do you take the bus? Do you want to go back home?” She nodded yes.

I grabbed her bag of clothes and helped her as she stumbled to her feet. When we got to the corner, she waved wildly at the bus driving past. The driver pulled over to the side of the road and waited for us to cross the street.

We climbed in and I asked if he was going to the Huntington Beach Pier. Pam’s condition was obvious to the driver and everyone else yet he treated her with respect and spoke with kindness when he said, “No. It doesn’t, but there’s a transfer.”

“I can help her get her transfer,” said a voice a few rows back.

“I’ll make sure the other driver gets her where she needs to go,” reassured the gentleman behind the wheel. “We’ll take care of her ma’am. She’s in good hands now. God bless you.”

I gave him her fare, stepped back out of the bus and looked through the window at Ann’s tear-streaked face. She waved at me and yelled “Thank you!” over and over again as the bus pulled away.

As I walked back to my car, I saw it lying there among the flowers – her necklace – a rosary with a string of black beads and a solid black cross. I picked it up and ran it between my fingers. This will be my reminder to pray, I thought to myself – the first Catholic rosary I’ve ever owned, probably given to Ann the Baptist Preacher by someone else along the way, attempting to bring comfort to her troubled spirit.

That’s it. No happy ending.

I called her son and let him know his mom was heading back home – ‘home’ being a park bench somewhere down by the pier. He thanked me softly and told me he would see her on Monday at the Starbucks where they usually meet.

I drove back home and hugged my own son a little bit tighter than usual.

I recorded this narrative a few months back and have been troubled ever since, with the nagging feeling that I should have done more. What could I do?

Since that day, I’ve begun working with the homeless in my own city and the more I become involved, the more conflicted I become – the more I feel as though it’s not enough or that we’re putting bandaids on gaping wounds.

The rate of homelessness in Orange County is climbing with every passing year. The causes of homelessness are complex and include overpriced housing, insufficient shelters, low wages, drug addiction and mental illness. But it seems to me there’s an even deeper cause that statistics don’t show. A lack of connection and deep-seated loneliness. So, how do we cure that?

I admit, there are moments I wish I could go back to the time before I noticed, before I cared. But now I see it. Now I care. What do I do?

What would you do?

 

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Want to read more about the issues of homelessness in Orange County and beyond?

http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/SOH2016

The Simple Beauty of Uncertainty – Making Room for Mystery and Wonder

I’m right and you’re wrong. Period. End of story. End of discussion.  

 

Whether it’s how to raise children, how to deal with the homeless, whether the toilet roll should go over or under, which candidate is sending us down the road to mayhem and destruction or what the government should do about ISIS – or healthcare, or immigration or… you get the point. I know what’s right and why you’re wrong.

This is the tone that currently dominates all avenues of media.

Those of us in the religious community are particularly susceptible to stating our claims with a stubborn dogmatism.  But this attitude isn’t evident in religious opinions alone.  Every day, as I read and engage with friends on-line, firmly entrenched points of view are presented on every subject imaginable, ranging from the current political climate to health issues and, of course, the raging debates among mommy bloggers about an infinite variety of parenting topics!

There is little room for doubt or uncertainty.  And if you do doubt, we certainly know what that means.

You’re weak or stupid.

Let me admit something to you today.  As I get older, I’m uncertain about most things – judge me how you will.  

The stubborn, entrenched stance that I used to take on EVERY SINGLE ISSUE now happens less and less.  

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a strong-willed person and am not known to shy away from voicing my opinion (just ask my family).  Most of my life, I expressed those opinions with absolute certainty but lately…I just don’t know.

After raising three children, I am bereft of parenting advice. The candidate choices we are left with are…confusing at best and my opinions about how to deal with ISIS, immigration and healthcare are, more often than not, lacking in conviction.

Thirty-five years in and I don’t know what the key is to a lasting marriage.

I have more questions than answers regarding pain and suffering and bigotry and hate and mental illness. I don’t know why these things even exist.  

Here’s the thing. Being uncertain has allowed me to listen with respect to what others are saying and has forced me to dig deeper into the wisdom of God’s Word.  

Certainty doesn’t allow for wonder.  It dismisses mystery.  It denies paradox.  It doesn’t leave room for growth or learning or listening. It traps God in a very small box.  And that box cannot possibly contain Him.  

But, I’m coming to peace with the not-knowing because this is what I DO know.

Wonder encourages empathy. Mystery invites creativity. Paradox stimulates conversation and insight. Doubt forces us to ask bigger questions. And God is big enough to handle that.

What do you think? Does the unknown terrify you? Does being uncertain rock your world?

For I am convinced [and continue to be convinced—beyond any doubt] that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present and threatening, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the [unlimited] love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 AMP

I’m A Rock. I’m A Puddle.

I’m a Rock.

I’m solid and strong.

Reliable.

Calm.

Composed.

I’m not worried.  I’m at peace.

I’m holding it all together remarkably well. Don’t you think?

I’m juggling all the balls – mom, volunteer, breadwinner, friend, grandma, wife, business owner, employee.

 Look at me!  I’m doing a bang-up job!

 

Puddle

 

I’m a Puddle.

I’m a soggy mess.

Blithering.

Exhausted.

Incompetent.

I’m worried and fearful.

I don’t ‘get it’.  I don’t even know what ‘it’ is.

I could cry for a week and sleep for a month.  I feel a sense of panic over the thought that I don’t have time to do either.

Those balls I was juggling yesterday? They have become the weight of the world and they are resting on my shoulders.

My body and my blood pressure are in complete rebellion. The peace that I felt last week is eluding me now.

 

I am Clay.

I’m not solid.  I’m not liquid.  I am moldable, pliable clay.

I’m not as strong as I pretend to be nor as weak as I fear I am.

I’m clay in the hands of my Maker who is forming me daily into a vessel fit for his use.  

He knows where my strengths lie and where my fears hide.  I can’t do this alone.

 

I surrender.

 

“Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  

Isaiah 64:8

How are you feeling today, dear friend? Are you a bit of a puddle, trying to become clay? I pray that this day, you will find peace in surrendering to the One who holds you so tenderly in His hands.

 

 

Summer Days, Blue Jeans and Grand Theft Auto

Have you ever wanted something so desperately that you would do almost anything to possess it?  Was there ever an object you coveted so dearly that you knew you could NOT live without it?  I get it.  I’ve been there.

Years ago, I went to some extreme measures to get what I wanted.  The object of my desire?  A pair of jeans.

The year was 1976.  I was 14 years old.  Our family had recently moved from Toronto, Canada to the California Central Valley. My dad was the new pastor at a church in Modesto. You would think, coming from a bustling metropolis filled with subways and freeways, hippies and high-rises to a small cow-town surrounded by orchards and ranches, that the social advantage would be mine, but you would be oh, so wrong.  In that rare and strange kingdom known as adolescence, I knew I was a fish out of water the moment we arrived. 

For starters, we were Canadian.

Add the fact that my dad was a Pentecostal preacher and you start to get the picture. Conservative, modest, polite – these are a few of the words that would accurately describe my parents.  They weren’t stuffy or strait-laced.  On the contrary.  They were warm, friendly and fun to be around.  But, still…Canadian. 

I had mixed feelings about our move.  On the one hand, I was excited.  The lure of California, palm trees, beaches and celebrities was definitely on my mind.  I had no concept of the miles that stretched between Modesto and Hollywood but, how far could it be?

On the other hand, I was just starting to come into my own with my friends in Toronto and didn’t relish the thought of breaking into a new social group. “Didn’t relish” is my way of saying I was obnoxious and whiny throughout the whole move.

The breed of teenager our family discovered in Modesto was vastly different from any variation of the species we encountered in the past, as though we had stumbled upon some wild, lost tribe.  At the time, I thought this was a reflection of all California teens but, in hindsight, I think this particular group of kids was unique to that place and time.  It wasn’t long before I felt like I belonged – a long-lost feral dog finally reunited with her pack.  But those first few months were awkward, to say the least.

We arrived in town during Easter Break so our first encounter with locals was the youth group at our new church.  My sister, brother and I nervously walked in – the new pastor’s kids.   We dressed as we always had at church back in Canada, with Kathy and I in sweet, modest dresses and Karl in slacks and a button-up shirt. 

When we walked into the youth group, that first Friday night, I looked around and sized up the other kids.  Not a single girl in the room was wearing a dress.  The uniform of choice for male and female alike was t-shirts and jeans or shorts with a few pairs of overalls thrown in here and there.  Sandals, Vans and even a pair of bedroom slippers were the footwear options.

Immediately, I sensed how out of touch we were.  But, in spite of our awkwardness and differences in clothing choices, the group of kids we encountered were unusually friendly. Not Canadian friendly, in that ‘nice to meet you –  let’s shake hands’ kind of way we were accustomed to but in a singularly American way with big smiles, hugs and loud laughter.  It was heartwarming and I felt like we were being greeted by a roomful of over-eager puppies.

That night, after we arrived home from church, Kathy and I laid it on the line with mom and dad.  We would-not, could-not humiliate ourselves by wearing (gasp!) dresses one more time to youth group.  We emphasized the fact that we would “never go back again” if we couldn’t wear jeans like the rest of the kids.  My parents, thank God, shrugged their shoulders, muttered something about “when in Rome…” and gave in to our demands. 

Maybe now you are starting to get the picture of how, in my desperate attempt to fit in, I needed The Jeans.  I discovered them that summer. 

I am not talking about any old run-of-the-mill jeans.  The pair I coveted were the pinnacle of 70’s disco-era attire – Chemin de Fer bell-bottom, lace-up jeans.  These were the jeans that every Farrah Fawcett wanna-be, Studio 54 diva and Cosmo model wore.  In other words, they were as essential as feathered hair and Dittos to any teenage girl in the 70’s. 

This was a non-negotiable issue.  I had to make them mine.

farrah-fawcett-on-skateboard

There was one major hurdle in acquiring these jeans. My mother.  She did not share my sense of urgency regarding this necessary purchase.  When I showed her the must-have pair at the store in McHenry Village, she shook her head and said, “You already have a couple pairs of jeans and I’m not spending $35 on that pair!”

It still boggles my mind, how my mother could have been so callous and neglectful of my most essential needs but, there it is.  I don’t think she meant to be cruel but she clearly didn’t get it. No amount of pleading and begging was going to change her mind.  It was clear that I would have to take matters into my own hands.

The opportunity presented itself a few days later.  Mom and dad were out of town for the night, attending a conference and they left my brother in charge of Kathy and me, which basically meant, we were on our own. I knew I had to act fast.

I discussed the options with my new friend Tam.  The one part of this memory that’s fuzzy is where I procured the necessary funds for my purchase.  I didn’t have a job.  My parents were not overly generous with allowances and I never saved any money I was given.  So how, exactly, I ‘found’ the $35 to buy the coveted jeans is anyone’s guess.  Let’s just leave it at that.

Money in hand, we had to get to the mall.  Now, Modesto isn’t that big and I was used to riding my bike or walking wherever I needed to go but for some reason, on that particular day, I felt that we should be transported to the mall in a car.  Maybe it was the importance of the task at hand.  What to do?

I opened the door to the garage and there it sat.  My parent’s 1972 baby blue Lincoln Continental.  This vehicle was more boat than car.  Not exactly the sporty race car I would have preferred but reliable transportation nonetheless. 

Let me remind you, dear friend, that at 14 years of age I was still a long way away from obtaining a legal driver’s license or even a driver’s permit.  But I was not about to let technicalities get in my way.  After all, how hard could it be?

I had observed my dad for years, as he drove.  I started young, sitting in his lap with my small hands gripping the steering wheel while his big, steady hands guided the vehicle. As I got older, he taught me how to turn the key in the ignition, put the car in gear and had even let me get behind the wheel once or twice and drive from our cottage to the railroad tracks. 

I felt that he had given me all the necessary training and essentially granted me permission to drive whenever I felt I was ready.  I was tall and could easily reach the gas and brake pedals.  I was ready.  What could possibly go wrong?

Tam hopped into the car beside me.  I started the engine, put the car in reverse and slowly backed out of the garage.  Success!  This driving gig was even easier than I had imagined!  I could picture those jeans in my mind’s eye.  I was only a few miles away from making them mine.

Slowly, we made our way through town and eventually arrived at the store without a single hiccup.  I made my purchase, clutched the heavenly denim to my chest and made my way home.

Two blocks away.  Just around the corner.  Almost home.  We pulled up to a stop sign.  To my left was a van.  You know the type.  It had an awesome paint job with a wide pinstripe down the side and a bumper sticker that read, “If This Van’s A Rockin’ Don’t Come A Knockin’!”  This was no mini-van.  I slowly pulled forward to turn right when, out of nowhere, there was a kid on a bike.  I slammed the brakes!  Oops.  That was NOT the brake pedal. 

There he was, lying on the ground looking up at me with abject terror in his eyes.  I had knocked that poor kid right off his bike and onto the ground.  To make matters worse, Tam started wailing.  “Is he dead?!  Oh, dear Jesus!  My mother’s going to kill me!  What if the cops come?!  We are in SO much trouble!” 

“Just.  Shut.  Up!”  I screamed at Tam.  As I assessed the situation and tried to calm my friend and my nerves, the boy hopped back on his bike and pedaled away furiously. 

With my heart pounding in my chest and Tam still freaking out in the seat beside me, I drove the rest of the way home.  Slowly, I pulled into the driveway and eased the car into the garage.  That’s when I heard it – a high pitched “Screee!” as the driver’s side of the car scraped against the garage door frame, leaving a two-foot scratch in that beautiful baby blue exterior.

I had no idea what to do at that point so I did what every other conniving, spineless, lying teenager would do.  I closed the garage door, hid the jeans in the back of my closet and waited. 

I put the entire incident out of my mind when, two days later, I heard my parents in the kitchen. “Anita!” my dad called out.  “You scratched the side of the car getting into the garage.”

I’m not proud of this, but it’s the honest-to-God truth.  I sat in the family room and listened as my sweet, innocent mother protested and my dad blamed her for what I had done.  I sat there, with the flames of hell licking at my feet for surely, anyone who would let their mother take the fall for their sins was heading ‘down there’ on the fast train.

But my seared conscience held firm.  I never said a word. 

My list of transgressions related to those jeans was already long. 

  • Petty theft
  • Grand theft auto
  • Driving without a license
  • Hit and run
  • Destruction of property

I was in deep.

Two weeks later, I pulled those Chemin de Fer’s out of my closet and added to my list of sins when I lied to my parents and told them that my friend had given me the jeans.

Every time I looked at myself in the mirror, with those jeans on, I thought, “I am surely going to hell but, I sure look foxy!”

Over fifteen years later, when I was a mother myself, with my first teenage daughter, I remembered the incident and ‘fessed up to my parents. They sat there looking at me with jaws dropped.  My mom turned to my dad and said, “See, Albert, I told you I didn’t scratch the car!”

I’m still grounded.

****

Fess up! Do you have a favorite summertime memory or a childhood infraction you’ve never owned up to?  I would love to hear it and I promise, I won’t tell a soul. Leave your best behaving-badly story in the comments below. Confession is good for the soul!

Are the Beatitudes For Suckers?

Have you read The Beatitudes lately?

I recently revisited the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 and was struck by how contradictory Jesus’ words are to the voices dominating the present-day North American church. Divisive political rhetoric, an emphasis on a Prosperity gospel and fearful discourse are currently drowning out all other points of view.

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are directly opposed to most of what the modern-day evangelical church has come to represent. It made me wonder. What would The Beatitudes look like if we wrote them today?

Perhaps they would look like this.

Cursed are the poor in spirit, for they lack faith.

Cursed are those who mourn, for they aren’t thinking positive thoughts.

Cursed are the meek, for they will always be failures.

Cursed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be called idealists.

Cursed are the merciful for they are suckers.

Cursed are the pure in heart, for they are naive.

Cursed are the peacemakers, for they will be conquered.

Cursed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for they were not well-armed.

Cursed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Complain and feel sorry for yourself, for you need to maintain your standard of living and nobody has the right to call you names.

Contrast the above with the following. Here’s the setting. Jesus has just returned from his time of testing in the desert. He is traveling around Galilee when he encounters Peter and Andrew, then James and John. He invites them to become religious radicals, taking up arms to defend themselves and overturn the Roman empire.

Scratch that.

He invited them to be ‘fishers of men’. He hung out with the sick, the diseased and the mentally ill and brought healing.  People were drawn to him and large crowds followed him throughout the area.

That’s when he spoke the following words.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

Matthew 5:3-12 NIV

Blessed are the pure in heart

 

 

When you read the true, tender words of Jesus, they ring clear, like a melody, they wash over you in a wave, like a benediction. They also sound radical and revolutionary in a terrifying and beautiful way.

So, how did we get to the point where…

  • we mistake our comfort for our rightful inheritance.
  • we hoard our abundance in disdain of the poor.
  • we let fear dominate our lives and influence our decisions.

Are you tired of the clanging and the noise? Does the constant stream of anger and division wreak havoc on your spirit? I know it does mine.

I invite you to join me – let’s spend more time meditating on the words of Jesus instead of the rants of a political pundit, an angry talking head or a religious spokesman and let the truth of God’s Word bring clarity to our minds and peace to our souls.

Don’t Blink Or You’ll Miss It

“Cherish every moment, because you’ll blink and your kids will be grown up.”

They thought it was a good idea to tell me that while I was dealing with a teenager, a toddler, and a baby. While I was elbow deep in dirty diapers, bad attitude and laundry. When I was sleep-deprived and overwhelmed and at the end of it all.

“They” were lying. I was sure of it. The days were endless and there was no relief in sight.

In 1983 our oldest child, Ashley was born. Reagan was president.

Thirteen years later, we welcomed our daughter Rachel into the world, followed by Sam, two years after that.

For thirty-three years we navigated the joys and perils of childhood and for the past two years, we had only one child left at home. Today marked the very last childhood milestone for all our kids when our youngest boy Sam, graduated from high school.

Did I mention we’ve been doing this for over thirty years?

I’m kind of surprised by the amount of emotion this day has stirred up. It’s the end of a chapter for us but I imagined, after all these years, that I would be relieved and elated. Part of me is but I’m also a bit of a mess and find myself blinking back tears and reliving memories.

BLINK – Like the shutter on a camera, the image is captured.

BLINK – The doctor squeezes the cold, goopy gel onto my distended belly. I clutch Steve’s hand and smile at our girls. We squint at the screen as the shape comes into focus. “I have fathered a manchild!” Steve hollers with abandon.

BLINK – I’m sitting in our wooden rocking chair, in the dead of night. My feet are cold as ice. The rhythmic creaking of the chair breaks the silence of a still, black night. I cradle my son and nurse him and breathe in the sweet smell of him, intoxicated by the scent. I am smitten.

BLINK – He refuses to sleep. Ever. Not at night. Not during the day. This boy requires no sleep to sustain him. For years, this is our battle. The sound of his scream grates on me. He nearly breaks me. We have a love/hate relationship.

 

black and white photo, Sam Rutledge

 

BLINK – It’s my first day as a volunteer in Sam’s kindergarten class so I take my place in the back of the room as a silent observer. There’s a brightly colored rug in the center of the room, with squares in a rainbow of primary colors. One square for each child. They sit in rapt attention as Mr. Hunter reads to them. Except for Sam. He log rolls from one end of the classroom to the other, seeming to ignore the story. But as soon as a question is asked, Sam jumps to his feet like a jack-in-the-box. He knows the answer. He heard every word.

BLINK – Sponge Bob is blaring on the family room TV. Sam has removed all the cushions from the sofa. He lays on the stripped furniture and leans his head back to watch the cartoon upside down. Then he laughs with utter abandon and sheer unadulterated joy. My heart is full and I can’t help but join in.

BLINK – The bile in my throat rises as I pull a dead mouse out of his shoe. Don’t ask.

BLINK – As I describe Sam’s clothing to the security guard in IKEA, I sob uncontrollably. The store is on lockdown for twenty minutes but he is nowhere to be found. Terrifying images fill my head and I struggle to maintain my composure. Finally, my towheaded boy is found and I race to him. His Superman shirt is drenched in sweat and his heart is pounding like a drum. “I turned around and didn’t see you,” he cried.  “So I ran!” I hold him tight and swear I will never let him go.

BLINK – I walk into the principal’s office. Again. I’m so over these weekly phone calls from school. I am so over the nagging, the cajoling, the threatening, the pleading. I fondly remember when I had time to read a book.

BLINK – There’s an odor wafting down the hallway. Something’s died, I’m sure of it. I turn the corner and there it is – a room full of adolescent boys. Bright orange Cheetos crumbs are scattered over the sofa. Pizza boxes and soda bottles litter the counter. I have no strength for this so I go into my room, put on my headphones and escape.

Sam Rutledge

BLINK – Standing in the DMV with harsh fluorescent lights flickering above, I glance to my left. There’s a broad-shouldered man standing next to me, waiting to get his license. It’s my son.

BLINK – It’s graduation day. We survived. I scream and holler and shout as my boy, my son walks across the field with his head held high and his shoulders back.

BLINK – They were right.

Mourn With Those Who Mourn

How do we make sense of madness when there is no logic to be found in the acts of a madman?

 

os-pictures-pulse-nightclub-shooting-orlando-2-033

Once again, the world has been rocked by news of a mass shooting. Images and stories of the terror-filled night in Orlando fill our TV screens.

At times like this, the world seems to be spinning out of control. Hate and fear and death appear to be gaining the upper hand. We can’t make sense of anything and we hardly know what to say, or what to think, or what to do.

May I suggest, that perhaps we can do this.

 

We can stop the gun debate long enough to clean the blood from the ground.

We can quit posturing and arguing long enough for loved ones to plan a funeral.

We can offer condolences and prayers without pointing fingers.

We can put aside our hatred of one another long enough to bury the dead.

We can silence the debate and rhetoric for just one day.

We can pause to honor each life lost with a breath, a prayer, a tear.

We can stand with the LGBTQ community while they mourn.

 

If this was my child whose blood had been shed, if this was your friend whose life was cut short, we could not bear to hear anything other than words of love and comfort at such a time. Anything other than the tenderest of voices would crush our spirit even further.

So, to the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters, the friends and spouses and lovers who have suffered the deepest of losses, we extend our hands in comfort, our hearts in love and our voices in prayer. May you find comfort where none can be found.

Opioids and Me – A Story of Drug Dependence

My eyes popped open from a deep sleep. Drenched with sweat, my body weighted to the bed with fear. The smell of smoke filled my nostrils and my heart drummed in my chest. I lay there, panic-stricken and struggled to get my bearings. A thick fog filled the air.

It suddenly hit me, like a lightning bolt to the chest. “The house is on fire! Wake up!” I screamed and shook Steve in a panic. “We’ve got to get out! Get the kids! The house is on fire!” In spite of, or perhaps because of my fear, I made no attempt to move from the bed.

Steve sat up and rubbed his eyes. He turned and looked at me like I was crazy. “What are you talking about? There’s no fire, Karen. You’re dreaming.”

“Dreaming!? What do you mean? Can’t you smell it?”

Alarm bells pounded in my head and every instinct said run but my body failed to connect with my brain so I sat there frozen, staring at Steve with mounting panic and confusion.  

As the fog in my head cleared, I realized there was no fire. I sniffed the air for the pungent, smoky odor, but it was gone.

I was hallucinating – a side effect of my opioid dependence.

pain-medications, opioid dependence

Last week, the medical examiner’s office revealed the legendary artist Prince died of an accidental overdose of Fentanyl at the age of 57. The dose was self-administered. As I listened to the reports and read the articles that littered the internet, I felt conflicting emotions – grief, at the thought of the pain he must have suffered – indignation, at the assumption he was an addict – anger, that yet another beautiful life was cut short and relief that I didn’t suffer the same fate.

My story started with a twinge.

I worked as a barista in a coffee shop when I first noticed the subtle, nagging pain. It quickly worsened and eventually I received the diagnosis – carpal tunnel syndrome. I endured seemingly endless rounds of doctor’s visits, delay tactics and the deeply rooted incompetence of Worker’s Comp for months on end, as the pain increased. The limits of my disability leave were reached and I lost my job.

Finally, carpal tunnel release surgery was approved. Unfortunately, the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train. The surgery should have provided relief but ended up causing me further harm. I suffered a posterior shoulder dislocation and torn rotator cuff during the procedure and when I came to and the anesthesia wore off, I felt a searing pain unlike anything before.

The injury went undetected and it was over a month before my shoulder was reset. Several doctors gave me cursory examinations during that period and missed the obvious. My complaints didn’t match my earlier carpal tunnel diagnosis so they ignored the excruciating pain in my left shoulder. Instead of getting to the source of my pain and treating it, they increased the levels of pain medication and added antidepressants, hoping that I would eventually stop complaining. The delays in treatment resulted in years of pain, and a battle with CRPS, as I struggled to recover.

I wasn’t addicted. I was ‘dependent’. That’s what they told me. But I can assure you, there is a razor thin difference between the two.

I walked the tightrope of dependence, unaware that the slightest misstep could send me plummeting into a pit of addiction or lead to an overdose.

There is something incredibly powerful about the fear of pain. Avoid pain at any cost – that is the natural human response and the mantra of modern medicine. But the drugs the doctors gave me masked the underlying cause and sidestepped the issue. Only after years of living in a drug-induced stupor did any doctor encourage me to manage my pain without drugs or give me the tools to learn to live with the pain.  

Here’s something they don’t tell you about opioids. After prolonged use, their efficacy decreases and often, as in my case, they cause the pain to increase, through a condition called  opioid-induced hyperalgesia. Completely unaware of this effect at the time, my condition worsened as weeks, then months, went by. Phantom, unrelated pains and neuropathy appeared throughout my body.

At times, I twitched like an addict itching for a fix as I rode the daily roller coaster of opioid dependence. Every single nerve and muscle in my body cramped. I doubled over – shaking and rocking for hours on end – finding it impossible to stay still. The constant movement left me exhausted.

 

drug capsule eat me drink me

At other times, I lay in bed and fell down the rabbit hole, like Alice in Wonderland. My body seemed to expand – bigger and bigger like a human balloon – the pressure so intense, I feared my head would blow right off my body. The bizarre sensation was followed by contraction, as the balloon caved in. I shrank smaller and smaller and prayed I would disappear in a cloud of dust.

I wasn’t an addict. My drug use was under control – or so I told myself.

After all, I received my prescriptions through a physician and always, I mean usually, took only the amount prescribed. I never lied or stole to get my meds. I just asked. My doctor never failed to give me what I needed wanted.

At the beginning, I took Advil and Tylenol. When they were no longer effective, my doctor prescribed high doses of Motrin. When Motrin didn’t cut it, Vicodin did the trick. When Vicodin wasn’t enough, I received Percocet. When the pain became unbearable, OxyContin became my friend. When I couldn’t make it through the day on Oxy alone, my doctor prescribed an amazing miracle drug that would provide relief all day – Fentanyl.

At my lowest point, I wore a daily Fentanyl transdermal patch, with a steady diet of Oxy and a morphine kicker, along with a myriad of antidepressants and other drugs. How on earth I survived and continued to function despite this deadly cocktail is a mystery to me. The fact that I continued to drive is terrifying, to say the least.

Repeatedly, my family expressed their concern at the amount of drugs I consumed. I thought they were overreacting. After all, I trusted my doctor, and any time I questioned the new prescription he provided, he reassured me.

I felt safe in my doctor’s care.

My dependence on opioids dulled the pain in my body for a while but increased the pain in my spirit and created a whole slew of adverse side effects.

Antidepressants were prescribed for the depression that set in, followed by anti-seizure meds for the neuropathy. Anti-nausea medicine was prescribed to combat the constant queasiness and when my bowels rebelled and quit working, they prescribed laxatives and enemas.

I dragged through the days like a freighter in a fog, slow and lumbering, without proper tools of navigation. Sleep eluded me and the little sleep I did get was haunted by nightmares and nameless fears. I existed in a limbo state – not asleep but not fully awake. As my depression deepened, I lost all interest in life, in food, in going outside or being with my children. I had no desire to seek out friends and couldn’t concentrate to read a book. Laying in a stupor, my hand clutched the remote and I channel-surfed my life away.

Modern pain medications provide relief for many who need it. They are essential to the proper and humane management of debilitating and chronic pain. However, we are bombarded with constant messages that pain should be avoided at any cost. Oh, what a cost.

I also believed, at that time, that God wanted me to live a life of abundance and freedom from pain and suffering. But when my faith wasn’t strong enough and my prayers seemed to go unanswered, I was convinced I’d failed God.

In the years since my recovery from opioid dependence and chronic pain, I’ve examined our cultural and religious beliefs about pain, read the Scriptures, and devoured medical information, in an attempt to understand the science behind pain and dependence and why God allows suffering.  I do not have all the answers, but I do know this. 

The presence of pain is not evidence of a lack of faith or unconfessed sin.

It’s presumptuous and unrealistic to expect that we can circumvent the inevitable, as pain most certainly is a part of every life. The lessons taught through times of anguish are deep and have a purpose in molding our character. They provide insight into suffering, faith and the human spirit in a way that can only be understood by those who have “been there”.

Pain altered me permanently. The scars left behind may be invisible to you, but they became my superpower, enabling me to see the scars in others. They instilled a passion for the hurting. They allowed me to draw closer to Jesus.

I wasn’t sure about sharing this post. Not for the reasons you might think. I’m not worried about how you will judge me but I do worry that some of you may feel judged. If you are in a battle with chronic pain, drug dependence or even addiction, I pray you hear my heart. Nobody understands your pain. Even me.

Your journey is unique and solitary and only God sees the depths of your suffering.

The turning point was when I decided I would rather live in pain than numb all my feelings and emotions with chemicals. I enrolled in a pain management program managed by healthcare professionals and slowly regained my life as I weaned off the medications and dealt with my pain – body, mind and spirit. Incredibly, the pain decreased significantly once I was off the meds.

Today I am opioid free. I am not pain free, but I have the tools to manage the pain for now.

Think about these sobering statistics.

“In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills.”

The United States is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose (poisoning) deaths. Since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137%, including a 200% increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids (opioid pain relievers and heroin).

I shudder when I think of the fate that could have been mine, and really don’t know how I avoided addiction, but thank God that I did. If you, or someone you love, is struggling with pain, dependence or addiction, please get help.

Warning!- Do NOT discontinue any meds without medical supervision. Stopping medication abruptly may not only adversely affect your condition, it can be flat out dangerous! Please consult a medical professional first.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18