Compassionate Imperfection

March 10, 2015 by  
Filed under Success Stories

“Spirituality has to do with the reality of the here and now, with living humanly as one is, with the very real, very agonizing, “passions of the soul.” Spirituality involves learning how to live with imperfection.” – Ernest Kurtz

The other night, I called a friend in the program to ask how they were doing. I had been thinking about them for several days, since they told me that they had to put their 8 year old cat down over the weekend. The cat suffered from an enlarged tumor, and they were told by the veterinarian that there was nothing more that could be done for the poor animal.

It was an awkward conversation, at least to start. I asked how they were doing under the circumstances, and they came back with “oh, alright, I guess. Its been a rough couple of days, and I break down and cry when I think about him. I mean, I’ve had that cat longer than my marriage, and it just seems too quick. I really miss him”

At that they started sobbing. I told them that was ok since heart felt grief is so impossibly difficult.

They went on, “You know, its not like I feel like drinking or anything like that, but I can’t get it out of my mind. I keep repeating it over and over. I remember all the good times we had. I remember when I adopted him, and he was in a little cage, by himself just looking for a home. I remember all of his little rituals about feeding, and drinking water out of the sink, and how he’d jump up into my lap whenever I was tired from work. I guess I must be too overly sensitive to be a good pet owner.”

I replied that they were a terrific pet owner – caring, compassionate, concerned, and very loving. I think you can pretty much gauge the quality of a pet owner by how much they grieve when the pet is taken away. It turns out that we talked for over an hour, sharing experiences and insights, but with me just listening for much of the time. When it was time to go, they thanked me for the call and expressed appreciation for thinking of them so much. I explained that in spite of not knowing precisely what to say in such situations, I was still, in some small way, very passionate about reaching out to anyone going through what they were going through. And I actually was quite honored to be there when they cried over their loss. Honest displays of emotion are meant to be honored, no matter how painful and difficult they appear to be on the surface.

Upon hanging up, I thought about our exchange. I realized that we are often confronted with small challenges, Like talking to someone who is hurting, but whatever compassion we enter into it with, far exceeds the imperfection with which we carry it out.

Creating Outreach Programs

September 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Success Stories

“Success” is creating outreach programs

I was talking with a church friend recently about reactivating a ministry I’d developed a few years back and was forced to suspend for a while. It was a Transitional Needs program and, through discussions with a couple others, they thought it might be a good time to look at starting it back up. I gave them a brief history of the project. This project was borne out of our Faith Partners congregational team ministry whose initial efforts were to create substance abuse and addiction awareness, education, and recovery support for our congregational community. These initial activities led to later expanding our efforts to meeting the needs of community members in early recovery who found themselves transitioning out of different forms of recovery residence experiences.

It started out of work that the church was committed in doing with a local indigent recovery program, called The Extension. We had been doing monthly dinners for some time and had gotten to know a number of the residents, some of whom were completing their one year residence and moving back into the local community. I’d always enjoyed the conversations with the residents, almost exclusively from needy circumstances – either out of incarceration or living on the street. Conversations steered toward where they’d lived prior to getting into the treatment program, where they intended to transition to, what they did or didn’t have, and what they thought they might need.

The need was certainly there. The Men’s Residential program had space for between 55 and 60 residents, where the separately located Women’s program had beds for 20 – 22 participants. That meant a completion rate of 4 – 6 per month. At first, the contributions were limited to food items – canned goods, staples like pasta and rice, and cleaning products – three or four large grocery bags worth. A couple of the congregants were discovered to be “extreme couponers” and were more than eager to swap strategies as to how to combine sales, Buy One, Get One Free specials, and double coupon deals to accumulate hefty inventories of items to donate. Over the course of time it became like a competition, to see how much product could be obtained with the least amount of money. And of course, the contributions were more than welcome, as those who were transitioning from residential treatment back into the community were greeted with items to put into their pantries. One of the couponers even held a couple of sessions at The Extension on how to lower their food bills.

Gradually, contributions began to be raised for other necessary items to help with the residents transitions back into the community. Serviceable furniture – beds, frames, drawers, and side tables – and small appliances – toasters, ovens, irons, and such – began to show up and always found homes. About 8 months into the ministry, we connected with a couple other churches in the area that were coordinating similar endeavors. Coordinating among our mutual teams reaped the additional benefit of commonly shared warehouse space.

Inventories of household items grew over a couple of years. We ran into a snag about a year or so ago, when the warehouse space was closed and inventories couldn’t be efficiently relocated. Donations had to be limited, or at least timed so that storage limited until new space could be found. Now, following the discussion with my friend, it appears as though a bit of storage space has been donated allowing the effort to be resurrected.

Those completing the residential treatment program are typically in positions where they have their essential needs met, are gainfully employed, have their transportation needs met, and have a place to live. Starting their lives in recovery with a couple items of furniture, a few appliances, and a variety of groceries is a valuable way of expressing a welcome from our church and invitation to join us in both worship and continued outreach.

Blessings,

Rick Drewien
Sacred Tapestry UMC
Marietta, GA

Asking for Help

July 14, 2014 by  
Filed under Success Stories

“Success” is asking for help

A while ago, I was checking text messages on my cell phone at the end of the evening and came across one that stuck out. I didn’t immediately recall the sender’s number, then remembered it being from someone I crossed paths with several weeks earlier at an event. The terse text message said, “Remind me why using is no fun, please.” My inclination with texting is typically short and abrupt and straining to be clever, like a two word rejoinder or comedic flip remark. But with this one I thought more intentionally about my response.

What was unique about this text was the sender, a young adult that I met a few years back and had great conversations with when our church team was doing dinners at the indigent recovery program in North Atlanta where they participated. They’d left the area for Florida a couple years back and only returned a couple of months  or so ago. I recalled our many discussions about the program, the disease, recovery, spirituality, and all the typical topics. After many conversations – sometimes comedic, sometimes intensely serious – I remembered the time that the topic of supportive networks came up. I was told how difficult it was for somebody new to recovery to “fit in, learn to reach out, to trust, to have a supportive community, and ESPECIALLY to believe that God could really be a part of their sobriety.” I dug a little deeper at those questions and asked if this was their first venture into 12 Step recovery, and they said they’d been mandated by the court a few years earlier. I said that was my experience on the West Coast, years before. After seeing the surprised look, we revealed more. I’d come to discover that the two of us had grown up (at different times, of course) within 2 blocks of each other. And our shared community of origin was a suburb of Los Angeles, nearly 2200 miles from where we currently were residing. With that disclosure, and given their reluctance to appreciate the possibility of divine workings, we formed the beginnings of a bond.

So my response to their text was a bit more direct. It was late but I called nonetheless. It was as though they were waiting because it could not have rung more than twice. In appreciation, I was granted nearly an hour of discussion involving the person’s return to the area, financial setbacks they’d experienced, getting reintegrated into the recovery community, reluctance about reaching out, developing a supportive network, learning how to trust others, what to do with frequent preoccupations with drinking/using, and. of course, the ever present, “where is God in all of this?”

I’m a big believer in the power of listening as people in desperate straights unload. When it was my turn, I gave congratulations, saying “That is a boatload of problems. But I have to give you this. You actually reached out with a text message. That puts you in a distinct minority. In over 30 years of working in the recovery community, I can count but a few who’ve contacted somebody for help BEFORE they relapsed. Its just that way. Shame appears to be a big factor, and that’s what we all seem to be good at. So good for you. You’re more sane than most.”

We talked at length about developing some strategies to tackle some of the most pressing problems. I recommended reconnecting with other close associates to see if more insight. if not solutions, could be derived. I suggested than pursuing answers with the kind of earnestness, candor, honesty, open-mindedness, and determination that was shown in texting somebody out the blue would likely reap surprising results. Lastly, I intimated that seeking answers to the “God question” required nothing less. I suggested that, “Looking for that presence in recovery is often a never ending search. It certainly has been for me. I realize that there are shortcuts that ocassionally work for some people, but others – like me and perhaps you as well – seem to fall into the category of demanding more than easy answers, quick bromides, or simple platitudes. They are forced to draw conclusions about that presence from direct experience…”

“Like finding out that they grew up within two blocks of each other on the other side of the country?”

I chuckled. “Yes, exactly. And you can count that as a successful start.”

Blessings,

Rick Drewien
Sacred Tapestry UMC
Marietta, GA

Seeing Encouraging Signs

June 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Success Stories

“Success” is seeing encouraging signs 

About six years ago I started working among a different group of people as part of my outreach. Our area has a “DUI  Court” program that offers an alternative to jail for driving related offences. My involvement began when someone reached out for a liaison when I signed his attendance chit at a 12 Step meeting. Since I was in long term recovery I was invited to work to familiarize the individual with 12 Step recovery apart from the judicial program.

I learned that the DUI Court approach, while keeping people out of jail, was no cake walk. There were many mandatory stipulations  – weekly check-ins. periodic drug testing, counseling, family groups – all fee based, in addition to job search, community service, and required 12 Step meetings outside of the judicial system. One of the responsibilities I accepted was a weekly call-in to probation officers in order to verify that the court participant was in fact working with someone outside in the recovery community. I didn’t mind, even when an occasional callback was received from a probation officer looking for specific details on an individuals work in the 12 Step program. I politely responded that given the “anonymous’ nature of 12 Step programs, I was prevented from answering questions beyond the fact that we were working together and they kept in touch.

Suffice to say, many opting for DUI Court quickly grew weary of its many demands, high fees, and sanctions – minor infractions like showing up a few minutes late for a group session that could exact a weekend jail sentence. I also grew accustomed to another reality. Most who managed to stay clean and sober while they were in the DUI Court program for a year or so, would invariably relapse once they successfully completed and graduated. The persistence of this phenomenon was astonishing. No more reporting in, or fees, or urinalysis testing, or haggling with the court system, usually meant freedom to go back to living with a certain reckless abandon. Of the few that eventually came back into recovery for another try, I heard of the disastrous consequences of their own relapses.

I started working with one individual about nine months ago who fit the typical “resistance pattern.” Male, fifty something, skilled laborer, who had a DUI some 20 years ago and insisted they had no drinking problem today, let alone could be labeled an alcoholic. Basically angry! Having dealt with so many like this in the past few years, I’d consistently given a similar response: “Look, I don’t know what got you here and its sure not my responsibility to fix your problem. Maybe you have good reason to dislike the program – the court, the counseling, the 12 Step meetings, all of it. Heck, I’ve been known to question a lot of things myself. That said, please don’t try to push back on the specifics that the court demands. I’ve seen people try. You simply will not win. That said, I will make myself available to help you or talk to you in any way I possibly can. You have my number. Pick up the phone and call.”     ‘

My friend rarely called and when he did, he seemed only interested in complaining about the requirements he was being “forced” to adhere to. He hated the counseling. He hated his probation officer. And he hated the 12 Step meetings. I saw a lot of anger, a lot of  resentment, and a lot of resistance. And truth be told, I saw a fellow that might tolerate the process for as long as he had to – “white knuckle” it, as they say – and go back to life as he knew it shortly after graduating. Pretty much par for the course. Destined to be a grim statistic, I suppose.

Last week however was something different. At a meeting we were both at, I made a quick-witted remark that broke the room into laughter. I looked over and saw my friend laughing with a big grin too. I finished what I was saying and looked over at my friend again. He still had that wide grin on his face. After the meeting, I approached him in search of an explanation for all the smiling. “Oh nothing much,” he said. “I just crack up at some of the funny things I hear. And for what its worth, I decided a couple weeks ago that since people in these meetings are always talking about changes in their lives, I would make an earnest effort to work the steps myself. You know, just to see if these people were playing me.”

I chuckled and said, “Funny how that works. I think I remember that pretty much being my motivation starting out. Seems to have worked for me. Well, it takes what it takes. Good for you.”

Seeing that new gleam in his eye, I thought about all those I’d encountered with my involvement in Faith Partners ministry over the years and the unpredictability of recovery. I was struck by the thought that this might be one of those improbable moments of grace. Many make it, but many others don’t. I can never tell with certainty about anyone’s motivation, or whether that motivation will persist. Experience with Faith Partners has taught me though, to see opportunities for recovery, to maintain healthy personal boundaries, to look for signs of progress and work off that to offer encouragement to those navigating the complexities of recovery. When offering ones experience, an authentic compassion and dependence upon a loving God, that kind of success will surely come.

Blessings,

Rick Drewien
Sacred Tapestry UMC
Marietta, GA

Facing the Reality of Relapse

June 19, 2014 by  
Filed under Success Stories

“Success” is facing the reality of relapse

One of the people I’ve been working with in the recovery community, talked to me in great detail about their recent relapse and reentry into recovery. They have about 35 days and, given some of the details of the episode, that itself is a minor miracle. I’ve known P. for about 6 years. They were one of the first regulars at our church plant every Sunday. They attended the AA meeting I started Saturday evenings, and I got to know their story pretty well – middle-class housewife who began to lose it all and continued to get busted for drinking related offenses. After some jail time, their drinking escalated, being compounded by the death of their husband and loneliness began to set in. Her problems began to mount. I also learned of their extraordinarily high tolerance for alcohol. One episode involved a relapse where they chugged a quart of vodka walking home from work, and passed out on a local thoroughfare partly in the roadway ripe to get clipped by a truck. Of course, they were taken promptly to the county jail once it was determined that they’d violated probation here, and in two other local counties. Their blood alcohol level tested at 0.46, which is more than lethal.

In any case I was told of the terrifying last relapse. Apparently, in an attempt to quit on their own they drank up what they had, and stopped for about 2 days. That’s when the dramatic results of self-detox kicked in. Visual and audio hallucinations (the dog was passing out then trying to break down the door…people that couldn’t be see, were talking outside the bedroom window…the phone rang, but didn’t ring…), loss of balance, falling and cracking their forehead. The neighbors heard the commotion and came to their assistance. A ride to the ER was followed by a 2 week stint in the hospital.

I asked what the doctors said, and she replied, “They said I was really sick. But I asked how that could be since I hadn’t been drinking for a couple days. All they could say was ‘Dear, you’re really sick!’”

Startled by her revelations, I interrupted saying, “Of course you’re sick! That’s what alcohol detox is all about! Without that inordinate supply of alcohol, your body was reacting adversely and your brain was going haywire, practically ‘collapsing.’ You bet you’re really sick. We don’t see alcoholism displayed to such an extent very often, but I would suggest that you take this extremely seriously, because you may be crossing over into the realm of irreparable brain damage. It’s one thing to say you have to quit drinking because you got a DUI or had trouble on the job. It’s quite another to say you have to quit because the liquor is causing irreversible brain trauma.”

Shifting gears, and not wanting to be too dramatic, I added,” In the years that I’ve known you, I seen several major relapses, some that put you in jail, and some that put you in the hospital. Let’s be clear. You don’t want to wind up in an asylum – if they even still have those – but that’s where you’re headed. I’ve never tried to soft-peddle sobriety to you or paint a rosy picture of rainbows and butterflies, but I am gravely concerned, and want you to know. There are a lot of people who hold you in their prayers. I do hope you treat this episode differently, because I don’t want to see you become another statistic.”

Perhaps I struck a chord. The tension seemed to leave  her face, replaced by what could be described as a slight ray of hope that beginning another long journey into recovery might be ever so slightly less stressful if shared with another. I thought for sometime after about why ministries of compassion are so important to me.  Given the stark realities we face, responses may take more effort, determination, and time than most are aware or prepared to undertake. Experience with an ongoing Faith Partners team has reinforced some valuable spiritual lessons for me. In spite of my many earnest attempts and continued diligence over the years, I’ve realized that I cannot sometimes save people from themselves. But neither can I give up on them. All I can do at times is to stand firmly in my hopes for them, with compassion.

In this respect, I’ve also come to realize that the character of “success” derived from Faith Partners outreach takes on another quality: that  of a more sustained determination and growing discernment over appropriate courses of response. Effective skills take time to develop. Should attempts at helping fall short, I can live with that kind of success.

Continued prayers,

Rick Drewien
Sacred Tapestry UMC,
Marietta, GA

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