We Must Weave Hope
“Not one day in anyone’s life is an uneventful day, no day without profound meaning, no matter how dull and boring it might seem, no matter whether you are a seamstress or a queen, a shoeshine boy, or a movie star, a renowned philosopher or a Down’s-syndrome child. Because in every day of your life, there are opportunities to perform little kindnesses for others, both by conscious acts of will and unconscious example. Each smallest act of kindness – even just words of hope when they are needed, the remembrance of a birthday, a compliment that engenders a smile – reverberates across great distances and spans of time, affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo, because kindness is passed on and grows each time it’s passed, until a simple courtesy becomes an act of selfless courage years later and far away. Likewise, each small meanness, each thoughtless expression of hatred, each envious and bitter act, regardless of how petty, can inspire others, and is therefore the seed that ultimately produces evil fruit, poisoning people whom you have never met and never will. All human lives are so profoundly and intricately entwined – those dead, those living, those generations yet to come – that the fate of all is the fate of each, and the hope of humanity rests in every heart and in every pair of hands. Therefore, after every failure, we are obliged to strive again for success, and when faced with the end of one thing, we must build something new and better in the ashes, just as from pain and grief, we must weave hope, for each of us is a thread critical to the strength – to the very survival of the human tapestry. Every hour in every life contains such often-unrecognized potential to affect the world that the great days and thrilling possibilities are combined always in this momentous day.” -Dean Koontz
Ever since I can remember, the doorknocker at my paternal grandparents’ house has been engraved with our family motto, “Dum Spiro Spero”, or “while I breathe, I hope”. It’s also inscribed on the crest ring my dad wore on his pinky every day when I was growing up, and I was so upset when the saying wouldn’t fit on my ring because my fingers weren’t big enough. All those years, I don’t think I truly understood the meaning behind that simple saying. I liked the way the Latin words rolled off my tongue, but the English translation left me shaking my head with the obviousness of the idea.
Throughout my involvement with attacK addiction over the past several months, I’ve heard a similar phrase used over and over again. “Where there is breath, there is hope” is a simple reminder to people in the grips of attack addiction (and their loved ones) to never give up.
“Where there is breath, there is hope.”
As crazy as it sounds, even though that phrase is virtually identical to our family motto, I never thought of the two of them together until the other night when I sat down to write this blog.
Sometimes it’s all you have to hold on to.
You see, here’s the thing about addiction: whether you’re the one fighting for your life in the throes of the disease or you’re walking the tightrope with someone you love, holding on to them for dear life and praying it’ll be enough; this disease is powerful, and terrifying, and discouraging, and consuming.
More often than not, you feel hopeless. Your life as you know it is being torn to shreds before your eyes. It would be the easiest thing in the world to throw your hands in the air and cry “uncle”. Some days it feels like the only option you have to save yourself is to admit defeat, to drop your loved one’s hand and walk away, leaving them to fight the battle themselves. If you’re the one in the grips of it, and you have everyone in your life doubting you and waiting for you to fail, questioning your heart until it makes you question yourself, who would blame you for selling the last shred of hope you held dear for one more bag of dope? And then you realize, the only hope you have left in this world is that this one last hit will be enough to kill you.
Here’s the thing you have to remember: there’s always hope.
Where there is breath, there is hope.
Because if you don’t have that, what do you have?
I’ve said before that my sister could bring hope to a downtrodden stranger just by smiling. It’s not that easy for me, as the corners of my mouth turn down into a perpetual frown, but I’ll continue to share her story with the idea that I can bring others some encouragement in the same way her smile did while she was alive.
So far, I think it’s working.
Over the past year, I’ve received more than a few anonymous gifts in the mail from people who have gained some strength from Sarah’s story. The fact that I don’t know who sent them make them all the more special to me. About a month ago, I opened a package to find a key on a necklace. It was made by a company called “The Giving Keys”, which employs people who are transitioning out of homelessness to make jewelry out of old keys. Each key has a word stamped on it, such as “courage” or “dream” or “strength.” The idea is that when you’re given one, you keep it until you find someone who needs it more than you do and you “pay it forward” by giving them your key. You’re then supposed to share your story on their website.
My key said “hope”.
I was blown away by the thought behind the gift, but even more so because I had just been talking to one of the founders of atTAcK addiction about how we needed to make sure there were always a few people in recovery in the support group meetings every month. I wanted to make sure there was a little more light in the midst of all the darkness that was being brought up in that room, and people who are in the process of beating the disease could bring just that.
You see, in those groups, there are people facing all sides of addiction. At any given meeting, you’ll meet people who have a loved one in active addiction, people who have someone in recovery, others who have lost someone to the disease, and still others who are in recovery themselves. Sometimes the room is filled with more terror and desperation and grief than assurance and encouragement and hope.
Sometimes the darkness swallows the light.
It’s not anyone’s fault; it’s not anything we can remedy. It’s simply the hard truth behind the disease of addiction.
The stories I’ve heard in that room are enough to break me 10,000 times over. One night I listened to a 21 year old girl who was 8 months pregnant sit next to her future mother in law and tell us how she had come home from work that day to find out her fiance had sold their bed for heroin.
He sold. Their BED. For dope.
Another night, I listened to a woman tell us how her 21 year old son had been in 7 rehabs in the last 6 months and he had walked out of every single one, and she had come to terms with the fact that she’d be burying him sooner than later. She told us how every time she took his car or his phone away or stopped giving him money, his grandparents would step in and lend him their car or hand him $100 or buy him a new phone. Everyone in the room groaned, sighed, shook their heads in disgust.
And then we realized the woman sitting next to her was her mother, the grandmother who couldn’t stop enabling her grandson because she thought she could love him into getting clean. She looked at us with tears in her eyes and asked us what we wanted her to do, let him die?
Fathers with drawn faces and sleepless eyes, begging us for answers about their daughters who have gone missing, and no one seems to care because they’re addicts. Mothers, shaking uncontrollably and telling us how their sons are due to be released from jail and they’re terrified because they just know they’ll die as soon as they come home. Siblings, angry at the world, demanding answers as to why their brother or sister is more concerned with finding a needle to put in their arm than spending time with them and their families.
Some people can’t even bring themselves to speak.
The week before I received the key in the mail, I sat in that room and I listened to everyone share their stories, and it just happened to be one of those nights where the majority of people had lost someone, or were in the process of coming to terms with the fact that their loved one might not make it to see another day, or month, or year.
The room was filled with people who were talking about how much they’d lost to the disease; there was no one there in the capacity of a living, breathing, beacon of hope. There was no one there to say “I was right where your loved one is right now, and I’m here, and I’m clean, and I’m still fighting. Every day.”
There was no one there to offer a glimpse of what could be if their loved one found a way to scale those moss covered walls. There was no one there to say they found their way out and they’re not looking back.
A woman who was there for the first time said she’d be leaving that room more scared for her son than she’d been when she walked in the door. It broke my heart to hear her say those words, because it was in the walls of that room, among some of the same people who were there that night, that I’d found my saving grace after I lost Sarah. But I understood why she felt that way, because she had just learned of her son’s addiction. There had been no warning signs, no red flags to speak of, no downward spiral to witness and try to stop, no second or minute or hour or day that she could look back on and seize as the moment she lost the son she knew by heart. She couldn’t picture the moment where her world seemed to tilt on its axis and gravity suddenly shifted under her feet.
But it had. At some point.
Let me explain. When you’re first faced with that devastating realization, when you first comprehend that someone you love has become someone you thought you’d never know, when you are forced to question the character and integrity of one of the only true and honest people in your life, when you finally find the strength to say the words out loud that someone you love is an addict, all you want is someone to take your hand in theirs and tell you that everything will be okay. That there’s a simple fix, that they’ll have your boy back to you in no time flat, that your son will beat this as easily as he overcame his fear of first grade.
If I wanted to, I could have given that gift to the woman sitting in front of me begging me with her eyes to tell her all of those things and then some.
If I wanted to, I could lie just to make her feel better.
But I don’t deal in false hope.
The fact of the matter is that there is no set treatment plan, that every piece of advice you get is going to contradict the last, that what worked for someone else’s son might not work for yours. You’ll see obituaries every day, with pictures of kids your son’s age with the same light missing from their eyes that you’ve noticed in his. He’s going to transform into someone you don’t know, and you might just hate him for it. You’re going to lose friends over judgments they’re making about him, and you. You’ll even fight with family members. You’ll lose sleep, you’ll have to remind yourself to breathe, you’ll wake up with tears in your eyes and you won’t even remember why. You’ll probably doubt yourself, you’ll question everything you thought you knew about parenting and the boy you’ve raised.
You’re going to start mourning him while he’s still alive.
And if we’re being as honest as we can, he could die.
Those are just the facts. Those are just the cold, hard facts about the addiction that has taken over your child.
There is hope. As long as he is breathing, there is hope. And before you disregard that notion as ridiculous after reading the paragraph above, know this: I have met countless people in recovery who are living, breathing examples of the same hope you need to hold onto in order to help your son fight. And typically, there is someone in that room to back me up, to offer a ray of light amidst all the darkness in the form of their story of recovery.
That night, there wasn’t. So I tried talking to her, telling her I was sorry to hear her say those words, that I understood her terror. I begged her to keep coming back because if nothing else, she now had a support system of people who had been right where she was at one point. People who “got it” without her having to explain herself, people who could offer advice based on experience instead of what they read in the latest gossip magazine or what they heard on the lips of the nearest corner prophet.
She turned sideways in her chair and refused to look at me.
As much as I wanted to stand up and grab her face and force her to look back at me, I didn’t.
Because sometimes people aren’t ready to face the truth about the disease that has blindsided them.
That night, I went home feeling a little discouraged, and I reached out to the people who started the group about the possibility of asking a few people in recovery to be there each month, to make sure no one would ever feel like that woman again.
The next week I received my key in the mail, and that weekend while I was at work I looked at my phone to find a message from a 24 year old kid whose brother had been found unresponsive after a heroin overdose the night before, and someone had told him to reach out to me. He had looked at my page and read my last post, which was a letter I had written to my sister Sarah on the one year anniversary of her death.
He told me he couldn’t even finish reading it, because all he could do was picture himself in my position and he didn’t know if he’d still be standing. I could literally feel the desperation he was feeling through his words; sheer terror translated into a Facebook message that broke my heart and left me speechless for the 1,000th time since I started on this journey.
Because what do you say to someone who has nothing left to give, who has watched the older brother he once idolized turn in to a mugshot right before his eyes? What do you tell this 24 year old who should be more concerned with what bar he’s going to meet his friends at later that night than what he can do to keep his brother alive? What do you tell this person so filled with dread that he’s reaching out to a complete stranger, begging for some sort of answers to help him sleep at night?
You reach down into the depths of your soul and you search for something, anything, to offer him in the form of a response that will drag him over that mountain of helplessness.
That’s all you can do.
You tell him you’ll be there, even though you’ve never met, even though the only thing you know about him is that you’ve been right where he is, that your heart is breaking all over again just knowing how scared he is in that moment. You tell him that even though you lost your sister you’ll do everything in your power to make sure he doesn’t lose his only sibling, that you’ll hold his hand and help him fight even though you wouldn’t even be able to pick him out of a crowd, that he doesn’t have to feel alone anymore.
You tell him the only truth you know of which you can be absolutely sure. That while there is breath, there is hope.
And then you say a little prayer and wonder if it’ll be enough.
Over the next couple of weeks, we talked daily and every day he seemed a little more positive about his brother’s situation. He called me his angel; I reminded him I hadn’t done anything aside from offer advice I couldn’t even promise would work. He was planning on coming to the next atTAcK addiction meeting with his brother. I was planning on giving him my key.
That night, he let me know he probably wouldn’t make it to the meeting. I walked into the support group and was relieved to see a few familiar faces who I knew were in recovery. The room was standing room only – every week there are more and more people filing into that room, and the feeling is bittersweet. It makes me so sad to know that increasingly more people are being affected by heroin and this disease in general, but to see so many family members and loved ones showing up to find out how they can help makes my heart swell with hope.
Because maybe if I had known about these resources, maybe if I had a room full of people to talk to and to gain support from when my sister was struggling she’d still be here.
That’s what everyone at those meetings needs to remember: that regardless of how helpless you feel walking through those doors, the fact that you’re there and you want to learn how to help your child/spouse/niece/nephew/grandchild/significant other best friend is the first step in their recovery process. They might not know it, but you arming yourself with as much knowledge and support as you can is going to give them the best chance they have in beating this disease.
There were a lot of new faces in the room that night. We went around the room, sharing tidbits of our lives, crying, laughing, shaking our heads, allowing others their anger, holding each other’s strength in our hands and offering words of advice.
And then a woman and her husband told us how they were new here, and to the realm of addiction. Their son was overseas, in a country 10,000 miles away from home. They’d just found out he was an addict the week before because they received a call that he?d been arrested halfway around the world. By the grace of God, he had been released from whatever jail consists of there. The mother said she had spoken to him on the phone the other night, the miles stretching like eons between them, and listened as her son attempted to tell her that it had all been a mistake.
She listened as her little boy told her that the liquid morphine he’d been found with had actually been prescribed to him.
Prescribed to someone healthy enough to travel around the world.
Her husband sat next to her, stifling tears.
The entire room went silent, everyone searching their brains for something to say to these two people who had just started on the journey we all knew so well, stopping and starting and stopping again. Because what do you say to this couple whose son is light years away with a stash of liquid morphine and hiding enough lies and half-truths and manipulations up his sleeve to last a lifetime?
You do the only thing you can do. You offer them hope.
The people in the room who had been right where their son was, for all intents and purposes, gave them advice from their child’s perspective. Those of us who had been where they were offered them our shoulders and told them to keep coming back, that learning as much as they could about the disease would help their son in the long run. That it might feel like they’re sitting around doing nothing, but just being there was enough.
I gave them my key.
I handed that mother my key that was stamped with the word “hope”, and I told her to just hold on, hold on, hold on, and it might just be enough. We hugged, with tears in both of our eyes, and I told her to consider me a part of her support system from that moment on. And then I walked out of that room and took a deep breath and said a little prayer for their family.
I glanced at my phone and saw a message from the kid who had been planning on coming to the meeting with his brother. They had gotten him moved back into his parents’ house. His parents who, as of a couple of weeks ago, had stepped away from his brother to protect themselves. His parents who, after listening to their 24 year old son tell them that his brother needed all the support he could get, had vowed to fight alongside him as a family instead of a divided front. He told me he felt like he was able to breathe again, and that I was the reason why.
“Thank God for people like yourself who continue to fight for everyone. I know how proud your sister is of you for continuing to battle this disease after all you’ve been through. I can honestly say you are one of the bravest, toughest, and most inspiring people I have ever talked to in my entire life. I feel like the day I messaged you, lost, scared and afraid, I sent a direct message to an angel who brought me a little hope when I needed it the most. You deserve a Purple Heart for fighting this war and being so brave.”
Here’s what everyone needs to understand: I’m no braver than anyone else who has seen what addiction can do to someone they love firsthand. I’m no stronger than anyone else, and I’m certainly no one’s hero or angel. I’m just trying to survive, and wade through my grief, and use my sister’s voice to bring others some strength. Messages like these are what give ME the hope to keep fighting and to keep sharing Sarah’s story with the world.
Because sometimes it’s all we can do.
Dum spiro spero.
Where there is breath, there is hope.