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Not Just Another Statistic

– Written by Jane Saffles-Granville, LMSW, Treatment Therapist

As a therapist in alcohol and drug treatment, one of the first things I ask my clients in our initial therapy sessions is a simple question: “Why did you come to treatment?” It has a handful of common answers. “For my children,” “I want to learn how to be sober,” or “I need coping skills.” One of the responses that has always given me pause is “I don’t want to be another statistic.”

When my clients say that, I hear not just “I don’t want to die,” but also “I don’t want to be forgotten.” The statistics of overdose death are harrowing. Most see the headlines, shake their heads, and go about their day. It can be hard to truly internalize the sheer number of deaths, the amount of loss, the number of grieving loved ones left behind.

For the past few months, it has felt like so many more people are dying. COVID has taken so many lives, and I think the full scope of its toll cannot be fully understood until you also look at so-called “deaths of desperation”—drug overdoses and suicide.

I have this seen firsthand in the past few months in a way I haven’t in my near decade of work in social services. The truth is, I’ve been navigating my own grief for too many clients of mine who have died. Women who had been in my outpatient group just days before, and women who had graduated residential treatment years ago, and many more in between. Women I saw cradle their pregnant bellies and cradle their infant children. Women who shared their own grief for loved ones who died of overdoses. Women who cheered on their peers for leaving an abuser, just as they had once done. Women who fought so hard for a way out of a system that was stacked against them. Women who made me laugh and exasperated me at the same time. Women who gave me hope. Women who were so vitally alive when they were sober, it was hard to imagine them in their addiction then and even harder now to imagine them gone.

I don’t know what led to their relapses. I don’t know what their last days were like, or how long they had been sober after the last time I saw them. It can be so easy to focus on the death by overdose, and see it as failure. But when I reflect on this feeling, a line from the poem “Failing and Flying” echoes in my head: “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” When we hear about the mythological Icarus, it is a cautionary tale of hubris and preventable tragedy; but what of the miraculous flight that happened first? His wax and feather wings did not last indefinitely, and yet he did fly. Isn’t that true for people who die from addiction? We struggle to look past the death to see the successes before it, the love before it, the life before it.

And so, I believe “I don’t want to be another statistic” has another meaning: “If my addiction kills me, I don’t want my memory to be reduced to my cause of death.” Sadly, some of those women who told me this have since lost their battle with addiction. They became what they feared: a statistic, one of the many lives lost this year. Overdose is a lonely and tragic way to die, stealing the futures of too many worthy people. On National Overdose Awareness Day, it is our job now to remember their lives, not just their deaths; their names and not just the numbers. They cannot, and will not, merely be a statistic.

Published on August 31, 2020

Monday Meditation: Tending the Soil

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

Are you familiar with Jesus’ parable of the sower?

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 13:3-9)

At first, Jesus’ disciples did not understand the message of his story, so they requested clarification. Jesus explained that the seed represents the message of God’s liberating kingdom, and the soil is the recipient of the message. Sometimes God’s good news cannot take root because the hearer simply cannot comprehend the message. Sometimes the message is initially received eagerly, but the good news fails to take root when trouble arises. Sometimes the recipient hears and understands the message, but the distractions of life choke out the hope of God’s word, resulting in no lasting spiritual fruit. When the good news of God’s kingdom is sown in the life of someone who hears the word, understands the word, and metabolizes the word, then the fertile soil of this life yields a great spiritual harvest.

Perhaps this parable has another layer of meaning that is relevant to our work at The Next Door. Some clients come to us unable to comprehend the good news that healing is possible. Others arrive with eagerness, but as soon as frustrations arise, they give up and walk out. Still others understand that they don’t have to remain in bondage to addiction, and they know that mental illness can be treated. They earn their certificates and return home, but when the distractions of life become unmanageable, they return to old habits and relapse.

But there are success stories – thousands of them – women who hear and understand and metabolize the good news that healing is possible. With our help, they have learned to tend the soil of their lives. They have gained tools that help them to remove the obstacles that hinder recovery and growth, tools that help them to extract the thorns that have choked out the abundant life that God offers them. By the grace of God and with our help, their lives are bearing much fruit.

Let us keep tending the soil of our clients’ lives. Although it may initially appear that our labors are in vain when a client chooses to leave without completing the program, let us trust that incremental change is happening in the soil of their lives. Perhaps one rock was removed, one thorn was extracted. Perhaps one lesson was learned, one glimmer of hope was transmitted.

As we tend to the soil of our clients’ lives, let us also tend to our own gardens. How will you nurture your soil/soul today?

Published on August 24, 2020

How Addiction Hijacks the Brain

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney, Spiritual Wellness Coordinator

In her memoir We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life, Laura McKowen recalls a cellphone conversation with her friend Holly the day after Laura almost attended a party where she knew she would relapse. Laura had reached out in desperation to Holly via text as her train neared her intended destination, torn between her craving to drink and her desire to avert certain disaster.

“Babe, your brain was hijacked.”[i] That’s how Holly summed up Laura’s experience the previous day. Holly explained what happens to the brain of an addict. The flood of dopamine that accompanies drug or alcohol usage short-circuits the brain’s prewired reward system. The hippocampus creates a record of this pleasure shortcut for future reference. The amygdala signals to the brain that less dopamine should be produced. Consequently, over time more and more of one’s drug of choice is required to achieve the desired pleasurable effect. Simply put, addiction hijacks normal brain circuitry.

The Apostle Paul was not addressing addiction when he wrote to the Christians in Rome in the first century, but Paul’s words certainly have a modern application: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). Time and time again, clients at The Next Door lament the sequence of events that led them to seek out treatment for addiction (or led a court to force them to get treatment). No little girl grows up wanting to be an addict. Our clients don’t understand how it got so bad so quickly. They wrestle with self-worth: Am I a bad person because I kept drinking, kept using drugs, regardless of the consequences?

As our clients learn about brain chemistry during treatment at The Next Door, they discover how their brains have been hijacked by alcohol and drug usage. They come to understand the powerful internal forces that have kept them in bondage to addiction. They come to understand the good news that their brains can be rewired over time. They come to understand that they are worthy of love and respect. They come to understand that they can chart a new path of lifetime recovery, one that will require self-discipline, sober support, and spiritual grounding.

Fr. Richard Rohr, author of Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, believes that all human beings are addicts. Rohr writes: “Substance addictions like alcohol and drugs are merely the most visible form of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, and most especially, our patterned way of thinking, or how we process our reality.”[ii]

Rohr prompts those who are not addicted to a substance to consider the ways their brains have been hijacked by “stinking thinking” – a commonly used term in Alcoholics Anonymous. When do you fail to do what you intend to do? When do you do what you hate? How can you break the cycle? Just like those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, we can’t make a change until we admit that we have a problem.

Creator God, creating still, create in us clean hearts, renewed spirits, and restored minds. Amen.

 

[i] McKowen, Laura, We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life (Novato: Callifornia, New World Library, 2020): 44.

[ii] Rohr, Richard, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2011): xxiii.

Published on July 9, 2020

Meditation Monday: Zacchaeus’ Transformation

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney, Spiritual Wellness Coordinator

Last Wednesday night, the clients at The Next Door took a deep dive into the story of Zacchaeus, as recorded in Luke 19:1-10, when they completed their Spiritual Wellness worksheets. Many of us first heard this story as children in church – I was certainly attracted to the idea of climbing a tree to see Jesus!

Rereading Zacchaeus’ story today, we can now see things that we missed as children. As adults, we can more fully imagine the range of emotions that Zacchaeus experienced when Jesus looked up at the tax collector in the tree, called him by name, and invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ home. As a tax collector for the Roman government, Zacchaeus amassed wealth at the expense of his neighbors as he took a cut of the collections for himself. Because tax collectors were often lumped in with “sinners,” he probably didn’t get many dinner invitations from his neighbors.

Zacchaeus likely considered Jesus to be a threat to his way of life, since many people believed that as the Messiah, Jesus would overthrow the Roman government – Zacchaeus’ employer. He climbed the tree not because he desired to follow Christ; he scaled the sycamore tree out of self-interest and curiosity. When Jesus called his name, did this tax collector think he was about to be rebuked or shamed?

What happened around the table in Zacchaeus’ home when these two men sat down together? Luke does not provide us with details about anything Jesus said, but we do hear a declaration from Zacchaeus: “I will give half of my property to the poor. And I will now pay back four times as much to everyone I have ever cheated.” Two thousand years before the 12 Steps were developed, Zacchaeus was ready to practice Step 8: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” Zacchaeus was truly transformed by his encounter with Christ.

In his book Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the 12 Steps, Fr. Richard Rohr explains the old way of viewing inner transformation. Many of us have been taught that the progression looks like this:

  sin —> punishment —> repentance —> transformation

Fr. Rohr argues that God’s love, expressed through Jesus Christ, actually works like this in an individual’s life:

  sin —> unconditional love —> transformation —> repentance

I believe Fr. Rohr is right, and the story of Zacchaeus provides us with a perfect example of the progression. The tax collector had been sinning, doing things that dishonored God and hurt his neighbors. When Jesus offered him unconditional love that day, Zacchaeus was transformed. As a result of this spiritual transformation, Zacchaeus was eager to repent and make amends to those he had harmed.

Love is one of the core values of The Next Door: We demonstrate what love looks like, so our women learn to love others in healthy ways and love themselves. We do not shame our clients for their addictions. We do not rebuke them for how they have been living and demand repentance. Instead, we welcome them into our midst with the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. We set the stage for spiritual, mental, and physical transformation to take place in their lives as we lovingly help them envision a healthier, brighter future and provide them with tools for lifetime recovery.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Loving God, help us to love one another. Amen.

Published on June 15, 2020

Meditation Monday: Running on Fumes

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney, Spiritual Wellness Coordinator

The Parable

In Matthew 25:1-11, Jesus uses a parable about ten bridesmaids to describe the kingdom of heaven. In this story, the ten bridesmaids have gathered to await the bridegroom’s arrival, for they will accompany the groom in a festive procession to the wedding banquet. All ten bridesmaids have come equipped with oil lamps, but only five of them have brought flasks of oil to enable them to refuel their lamps. These five women were wise, for the groom was delayed. When he finally arrived at midnight, the wise bridesmaids were ready to go with fuel to spare. Unfortunately, at this key moment, the lamps of the unprepared bridesmaids flickered out.

You could read Jesus’ parable and view the five prepared bridesmaids in a negative light, since they refuse to share their oil with the other five bridesmaids, but to do so misses a key point: There are some things in life that can’t be borrowed.

The Demonstration

In her memorable sermon on this passage titled “Filling Stations,” Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence describes a scene from one of her seminary classes. A lamp that only had a little oil left in the reservoir was placed on a table in front of the class. The wick was lit, and the students watched with interest as the lamp burned up all the oil and flickered out.

“What just happened?” Dr. Florence asked the class. “The oil ran out, so the light went out,” the students replied. This object lesson was used to convey a vital message: A Christian with no oil can’t be the light of the world for anybody, no matter how much they want to.

The Lesson

There are some things in life that can’t be borrowed. You can’t borrow someone else’s relationship with God. You can’t borrow someone else’s faith. You can’t borrow spiritual maturity. You can’t be light for the world if you lack spiritual fuel.

You likely won’t be able to do a very good job of nurturing others if you aren’t taking care of yourself. You won’t be able to serve God as energetically as you desire if you are physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually burned out. That’s not to say that God can’t use you when your reserves are running low. God certainly can and does do this – I can testify to this reality. However, we would be foolish – like the five unprepared bridesmaids – if we allow ourselves to always run on fumes.

We can’t expect to fill ourselves up spiritually once a week and think that will be sufficient. If we desire to love God with our heart and soul, mind and strength, we need to fill up our spiritual tanks frequently. Some of us feel spiritually energized when we do things with others and for others. Some of us need to be alone, quiet, and still in order to recharge. Perhaps you need a little of both. We can find God both in times of devotion and in times of service.

We need plenty of fuel in order to burn brightly. What will you do today to fill up your spiritual tank?

Life-giving God, fill us up so that we may be the light of the world. Amen.

Published on June 8, 2020

 

Monday Meditation: Disappointment

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney, Spiritual Wellness Coordinator

Disappointed.

This word has been popping up repeatedly over the past few months as a result of the physical distancing necessary to minimize the impact of the pandemic.

  • High school and college students are disappointed that they were not able to celebrate their academic achievements at traditional in-person commencement ceremonies.
  • Brides and grooms are disappointed that their wedding plans have been dramatically altered.
  • Grieving families are disappointed that they have been unable to gather for funeral services to remember loved ones who have passed away.
  • Athletes from children to Olympians are disappointed that they have been unable to compete.
  • Singers and dancers and musicians are disappointed that performances have been cancelled – and their fans are disappointed, too.
  • Parents are disappointed that their children have been unable to attend school.
  • New grandparents – like me – are disappointed that they have not been able to meet their newborn grandchildren.

The list goes on and on. How would you complete this sentence?

I am disappointed that _________________________________.

 

Disappointments are a part of life. At The Next Door, we are disappointed each time a client chooses to leave AMA or ACA. We are disappointed when the difficult decision must be made to ask a client to leave. During this unprecedented period in the history of TND, we are disappointed that some of our team members cannot work alongside us for financial reasons. We are disappointed that volunteers cannot safely join us in our work. We are disappointed by all the disruptions, personally and professionally.

In the Spirituality in Recovery group, clients regularly express three primary levels of disappointment:

  • They are disappointed in themselves.
  • They are disappointed in family members.
  • They are disappointed in God.

God can handle our disappointment. We need not fear being honest with God – after all, God knows what we are going to say before a word is even on our lips. We can express the depth of our disappointment and ask God to help us to make meaning of these troubling circumstances. What does our disappointment reveal about the routines and rituals that are important to us, the people who are important to us, the values that are important to us? In the midst of our disappointment, can we still see God at work?

 

“Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise God again—my Savior and my God!” (Psalm 42:5-6a)

Published on June 1, 2020

A Crisis Response to Compassion Fatigue

– Written by Morgan Coyner and Eleanor Wells, RN, BSN, ACC, CCFP

In February, The Next Door hosted a workshop with Eleanor Wells of Cohort4Care on Compassion Fatigue. It’s a topic that is talked about a lot in behavioral health and other direct care professions. You may have heard it referred to as “burnout.” Compassion Fatigue happens when helpers are unable to rest and refuel. Under the best of circumstances and in the most certain times, Compassion Fatigue is still a threat to our staff. Most of our clients have lived through incredibly difficult things that affect how they react and behave. As you can imagine, getting to the root of an addiction and finding years of repressed trauma is hard. Walking women through this process and hearing their stories day after day can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout, especially if staff don’t prioritize their own mental health.

Two months ago, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, and the world as we knew it shifted right in front of us. We moved from being able to learn about Compassion Fatigue and put plans in place to prevent it to having to find a totally different approach. Eleanor Wells puts it this way:

“If someone were having a heart attack, you wouldn’t walk up to them and start talking to them about healthy eating habits and exercise. You’d start performing CPR. The diet and exercise won’t help if you die. Those things will get addressed in time.”

We’re in a crisis right now, and that warrants a crisis response. But what does that look like? Now isn’t a time when front line workers can take a mental health day or talk to their supervisors about being overwhelmed. Everyone is overwhelmed. If Compassion Fatigue happens when people are unable to rest and a symptom of it is being unable to rest or relax, how are we supposed to refuel so that we can get back to work?

One thing we need to do is redefine “rest.” Rest doesn’t have to mean sleep. It doesn’t have to be an extended period of quiet time. Research shows that taking deep breaths makes a huge difference. The coffee break was born out of the discovery that workers were more productive when they had breaks. Even fifteen minutes makes a difference. A few other simple tips: Don’t eat lunch at your desk. Take a lap or two around your building – the fresh air and Vitamin D helps. Put down your phone.

When you ask someone for technical support with your phone or computer, what’s the first question they ask? Did you try rebooting it? A simple reboot can solve a whole host of problems. Our brains are the same way.

Right now, it’s not about big interventions. Incorporate small things throughout the day. And don’t underplay the importance of connection. We will not get through this on our own. It will take a collective resiliency. Find people who are safe to fall apart in front of. Find people who will help you notice the positives in each day. Be that person for others when you can.

We will get back to a healthier lifestyle. We will get back to a life of routine and putting safeguards in place to create healthy rhythms in our lives. Hold on. This is not the end.

Published on May 20, 2020

When Words Fail

Written by Morgan Coyner, Grant Coordinator, and Cindy Birdsong, Art Therapist

Our residential and partial hospitalization clients have weekly art therapy sessions. Cindy Birdsong, TND’s art therapist, curates a safe, nurturing space for women to open their minds and create.

Observing art therapy is not allowed. Cindy requires everyone to participate. That’s how I found myself in a smock, painting a white canvas turquoise, cutting paper, and gluing it onto the background. I wasn’t sure what I was making, but Cindy kept reminding me, “there’s no mistakes in here.” It surprised me how that simple phrase made me feel like whatever I made would turn out well. It gave me freedom to be patient and see what I needed to express.

As I worked alongside the clients, they talked about their lives outside of treatment. I was with the partial hospitalization group, and they come to treatment five days a week but live at home. As they worked on projects, they shared stories and encouraged each other in their recovery. There was freedom in the air, freedom from judgment or expectations. Each woman was free to be who she was. Her struggles, her flaws, and most importantly, her successes.

Cindy says, “The process of creating art in any form is healing for the heart, soul, and mind.  Clients at The Next Door often share their personal journey with addiction not only verbally but through symbolism in paintings, collages, clay-making, and mixed media activities while they are in treatment.  Each client is encouraged to express themselves without judgement in a non-verbal way that tells a story.  Art Therapy classes allow the clients to be independent thinkers, develop self-esteem and self-worth, and find the person they used to be before their addiction took over. I’ve heard clients say things like this in class: ‘My day has felt meaningless. The opportunity to create something of my own has helped me to process my negative feelings and turn the day around.”

Trauma, the main root cause of addiction for our clients, creates certain neuropathways in the brain that are helpful for survival in that moment, yet these same behaviors end up being harmful when the body is no longer in danger. Art therapy is so effective because it helps a person express feelings that have been so deeply buried that they no longer have words for them. It creates a safe environment to work through pain. As the artist Edward Hopper said, “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.”

Impressions Through The Eyes Of A New Employee

By Morgan Coyner, Grant Coordinator

When I came to The Next Door for my final interview, I was surprised to see clients huddled around the front desk. One needed help making a phone call for a ride upon discharge. Another was waiting for her to go get a snack. A few others asked if they got any mail that day, while even more waited for their group facilitator to begin an afternoon session.

The surprise wore off quickly because this shows the heart of The Next Door. Our clients are at the center of everything we do! Typical desk jobs in a treatment facility like ours can make it easy to create a “we” and “they” attitude. We can easily forget the purpose behind the work we do and distance ourselves from the women who seek treatment within our programs. The Next Door eliminates that possibility by the way staff and clients share this beautiful facility. We eat lunch with clients, ride the elevator with them, and through this, we learn their stories. We see them. We know them. We love them. A simple “how are you” can be met with tears after a tough therapy session or any number of responses ranging from joy to gratitude to acceptance.

I’ve only worked here for two weeks, but I can already see the way God moves through this place. After observing parts of the client treatment schedule in my first week, I had the opportunity to pray with a client that her legal circumstances would change, and they did. I prayed with a client that she would find the strength within her to make a better choice than she had planned, and she did.

I’ve heard stories where women get saved and their addiction disappears immediately. I do believe that God is capable of this. However, Scripture often shows God’s people wrestling through hard things to get closer to Him. This is a more accurate picture of treatment at The Next Door. The Israelites wander for 40 years in the wilderness because God knows if they see the struggles that await them when they first leave Egypt, they’ll be afraid. He knows that He has to teach them how to live in community with Him, how to act, how to trust, before leading them into the Promised Land. They have to learn a new way of life. The Next Door is a little like the wilderness, though we’ve got way better living accommodations and a chef who keeps us well-fed on a variety of meals and not just manna. Here, women gain and practice the skills they will need for their Promised Land, a life at home with their families and children, living in recovery.

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Exodus 2:24-25, which says, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”

It’s one thing to know that God hears us. It’s another to watch Him answer prayers in real time, without delay. This has been one of the joys of the past two weeks for me, watching God show up in circumstances that only He can, changing things and moving things so that it is evident that He is in control. My faith is strengthened daily by seeing God answer prayers at The Next Door. I’m excited to continue my career at this incredible Christ-centered ministry.

Grateful to Serve

by Suzanne Lanier, volunteer at The Next Door

Serving is not what we have to do; it’s what we get to do. My daughter and I look forward to Thanksgiving every year, to come to this treasure of time and place – The Next Door.
A few years ago, I volunteered and served lunch every Monday at The Next Door. I remember the looks on the faces of the new clients…a little scared, sometimes a little disheveled, usually a little pale, looking at their new surroundings in this lunchroom. Unsure. Several different times I saw a client, food from the serving line and salad bar stacked all together, mountainous on her plate, just looking at it in awe. Then she ate – every morsel.  So hungry for this delicious and nourishing food.
Who knows what these women have been through? Who knows why they have the lives they have? Not me. But I know they hunger. They hunger for nutritious food. For visibility. For love. For a chance. For a change.
And so, at The Next Door, they are fed. A wise and loving man once said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
Why do my daughter and I come every year to The Next Door to serve a meal on Thanksgiving Day?  Why do we wear goofy turkey hats, play Motown music, laugh, sometimes dance, serve good food, sweep the floor, and wipe the tables?  Because we GET to!  And, although I cannot explain it, I will tell you that we always leave with more joy than we had when we came.