Category Archives: Recovery

Dear Owl “Drive Thru” – No Future Story?

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“No future story.” That was the message that continued to speak to me during the poverty workshop which I attended this week through my new job. The words gripped me, and my first thought was, “No! That’s not right!” The short sentence popped up on a slide, and was gone in a few seconds from my sight but not from my heart. “No future story” conveys a presumption that is deeply imbedded within generational poverty, which is a perceived inability to project toward and plan for the future. They are so wrapped up in the stressors of the moment, from struggling day to day to meet their immediate needs that they have no future story. There is something inherently wrong this presumption. For many of you reading this piece, you know exactly what I am referring to: We are all part of a larger story, a fairy tale, really, where there is a happy ending. My next thought was how can this larger story best be shared with those who have no hope?  The answer I came up with is relationship. This relationship piece can be as small as it needs to be, or as immense as having a one to one with the creator of the universe.

I began to think about folks in twelve step recovery programs. The leading factors among those that are successful in attaining a break from their addictive, destructive behaviors can be found in the first three of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over (you fill in the blank) – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

These words came directly out of AAs “Big Book.” As a beginner in AA, I quickly saw usefulness in these steps that could be applied to many problems that are suffered by my fellow humans. I felt that everyone could benefit from a twelve step program, no matter the issue. The point is that we all have junk in our trunk that needs to be cleaned out. Dependency is not a bad word if it is used in conjunction with God.

When I sat in this poverty workshop and learned about these perceived truths from the desperately poor, I wondered if the first three steps of AA could be of use.  AA is all about relationship. First, a person must get inside of the “rooms,” then develop a relationship with a person who has shared similar circumstances. What happens next is “larger” relationship: Learning that the world really doesn’t revolve around one’s self, and there is a larger inter-connected relationship with the God of the Universe who loves you. Many of us take pride in our self-sufficiency, but it is never enough. There comes a time in each of our lives, undoubtedly, when we must look outside of ourselves and depend on the God of the universe to carry us through. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, middle class, red, white or blue.

AA does a wonderful job of redirecting one’s vision to their higher power, thus connecting them to their role in the larger story, and it’s free. Generational poverty, I’ve learned, is not as easy to break out of as some might think… but within the constructs of relationship it is possible. Just sayin’.

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Dear Owl “Drive Thru”- A Reflection on Sobriety

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It occurred to me this morning at my weekly AA women’s group meeting that the only thing that prevents me from picking up the next drink is what my head is filled with and what my hands are doing. If I am not careful about doing what the program suggests, my head might be filled with lies and deceit, therefore giving my hand an opportunity to engage in impulsive activities. Last night I had a drinking dream. This was the first in a long time. Some AAs refer to drinking dreams as “freebies;” an opportunity to taste and engage in patterns of our past without the guilt of live participation. In the dream, I had a shot of vodka in my hands, and I lifted it to my lips and took a sip, just enough to wet my lips. I could feel the burn of the clear, fiery spirit in my mouth. I set down the glass, and immediately thought about AA, and my conviction to stay sober.  I wondered if this tasting of the alcohol counted as an incident I would later feel compelled to confess. Did it count as “falling off the wagon?”

I did not recall the dream until I was sitting in the meeting this morning, and the woman next to me recounted an incident last night in a local health-oriented grocery store where she was tempted to drink by a wine-tasting they were offering to all shoppers, complete with cheese and crackers as a chaser. In the end, she didn’t partake, but her story was a strong reminder to me that my sobriety is contingent upon where my head is at and what my hands are doing. It is up to me to continue to make deposits in my sobriety bank account.  Then, when under times of stress or struggling under the burden of resentment, my head might be able to control my hand by cashing in on a deposit of truth that is instilled by the program, and by my God. The absence of alcohol in my life has enabled me to be filled with His truths powered by love, instead of the lies and deceit of the world. My life is growing so enriched because of this.

To those of you who are taking the time to read this, but do not struggle with alcohol, think about this: substitute the alcohol in this story with any struggle you are experiencing, be it food addiction, control issues, pornography, low self-esteem, etc. There are a myriad of struggles which separate us from the person we are designed to be. Where is your head today? Get it out of the world for a moment and fill it with a wonder for the Almighty. “Be still and know that I am God.”

He Shall Comfort Those Who Mourn; 4th and last of a series

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My Mom, Anna Lee

JaneGrace’s foster Grandmother, wearing the silver pendant

Yes, my daughters had been exposed to this trauma without my permission… the least I could do at this point was offer some follow-through. What was I to do? Their grandmother had been at our home. She had just accompanied all of us to JaneGrace’s dance classes. They had walked with her up the stairs, and after a few minutes, heard the commotion, and then seen her sprawled at the bottom of the stairs. They had heard my despondent wailing alternating with anguished commands thrown at them as I cared for my mother while awaiting the ambulance… pull the trunk out of the way to make room for the medics, go outside and wave down the crew, get the dogs and put them outside…

LiLi and JaneGrace needed to see where she was, the outcome of the fall, to try to begin to understand the transition that she was about to encounter, and we were about to suffer. It was an immersion in the study of death, of crossing over, of loss. They were way too young to have to be experiencing this event, but it was out of our control. LiLi, unbeknownst to us at the time, was about to succumb to an exacerbation of post-traumatic stress disorder from yet another exposure to an event from which no soul could have offered protection. This sucked.

We waited in the ER until a bed could be found in the ICU. Mom was transferred to the neuro-surgical ICU where her vital signs would be sustained for as long as my family chose. It was only her shell that was alive. I was certain her spirit was hovering. Her “life” had exited her body. I had taken care of a young woman in this very ER who had survived from the brink of death and had experienced the beckoning “light” that survivors from near-death experiences describe. I was certain that my Mom’s spirit was hovering, even now. My husband talked me into returning home with him and the girls. We made it in through the front door and I collapsed in his arms on the steps where she had fallen. I needed a glass of wine, then felt guilty for having asked my husband to pour it for me. I was upside down. This night had been ripped out from under us. My mother had been taken in the twinkling of an eye. I couldn’t think of anything except to get back to the hospital. We got the girls tucked in, and back to St. Anthony’s I drove.

This was to be the longest night of my life. As I sat at her bedside, sleep eluded me amidst the rhythmic hum of the ventilator and the cycling of the monitoring equipment. I held her lifeless hand and marveled at how much it looked like mine; my hand was stronger and darker, but the proportions and contours were so similar. This time with her was precious. My Mom and I had rarely spent time together without some old conflict arising, but this time had been different. I had felt a deep affection toward her that I had rarely permitted myself to feel. I was always too busy being judgmental or disappointed; to feel anything else would have humanized her to a degree that my comfort zone was not ready to tolerate. It was quite complicated, this particular mother and daughter relationship. And here I was, sitting at her bedside, chosen by fate, and by God too, I suppose, for this watch. Today, before I opened up my word program to finish this piece, I read a prayer journal entry from my husband’s blog (http://beingwritewithgod.blogspot.com/) about wrestling with God. He cited the story of Jacob, who wrestled with God in an “all-nighter” and walked away from that encounter with no resolution and a limp for the rest of his life. I could relate. This night, spent at my Mom’s death-bed, would forever leave me limping. Days and weeks later, I found comfort in the activities we shared: serving communion, wonderful meals, and shopping. Two nights before the accident I had drawn a bubble bath for her, complete with music and candlelight. The day of the accident she had said to me in the car as we left St. Anthony’s hospital grounds following our visit there, “Paula, I just feel so peaceful, why do you think this is so?” My response to her had been that she had been on the receiving end of care, not having to worry about a thing, just sitting back, enjoying, and relaxing. In retrospect, in my gut, I feel like she came to Colorado for her passing. Without a doubt, I feel like it was her time to go, and that my family’s role in her passage was of divine design. I can’t wait to see her again, someday, and talk about this in greater detail.

The first glimmers of sunlight began to peek through the blinds, and I began to count the hours until my sisters, their husbands and my nieces arrived. These hours had been the most agonizing of my life. Clergy and friends drifted in and out, prayed with me, and shook their heads at the twisted turn of events, with some just remaining silent, and sitting with me. Just being there was enough. Mom’s nurse for the day came in and introduced herself. I liked her immediately. She was from Tennessee, our home state, and the geographical love of Mom’s life. She told me to sit back and be Mom’s daughter today, and to forget the nurse’s cap. She was a source of great comfort as she expertly managed Mom’s care, releasing me to the role of loved one.

Shortly after noon, the rest of the family arrived. I greeted them at the front door of the hospital, and led them into the room, while trying to prepare them for what they were going to see, if there is any such thing. We all spent the rest of the afternoon at her bedside, my daughters included as their comfort level permitted, and said our goodbyes through the tears, the grief and disbelief. A music therapist came to the bedside as well, and sang some of Mom’s favorite songs from Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and other old gospel hymns that Mom cherished. We laughed, cried, hugged, held hands, prayed and became closer than we ever imagined during that fateful afternoon. There was never an ill-word, nor an accusation uttered. I was released by my family for any of the blame for this tragedy.
At six o’clock in the evening, the nurse and the respiratory technician “pulled the tube,” thereby disconnecting her from the life-support equipment that had been keeping her alive. Her heart stopped beating six minutes later. She was gone. Her physical presence would be no more. I’ve clung to the memories of the night I spent at her bedside, holding her hand that looked like mine, many, many times.

The next several days were filled with the necessary activities of “making arrangements.” In a way, this is a good thing. It keeps one busy with “tasks” and the mandatory decision making activities that accompany sudden death. It provides a cleverly built-in diversion. We flew to Tennessee for a service and burial, then to Florida for a memorial. Both events were sweet remembrances of the impact my Mom’s simple life had made on those who loved and knew her. She was treasured by many.

I just returned from China on a heritage tour with my daughters and husband. While there, we were so blessed to be reunited with JaneGrace’s foster “Grandmother.” While Mom was with the girls and I the weekend that she passed, we went to the adoption agency that helped us bring our daughters home. They were having a Christmas and holiday bazaar, selling all sorts of trinkets that had been brought back from China. While there, I purchased two necklaces, each one exquisitely designed, sterling silver pendants. One had the Chinese characters of “Mother” and the other had “Grandmother” presented as paper-cuts on a mother of pearl backdrop. I had purchased one for me, and the other for my Mom at the bazaar, intending the “Grandmother” pendant to be her Christmas present that year. I was never able to give it to her. Shortly after her death, I placed both of the pendants on one chain, wearing them often in memory and in honor of my mother.

During this heritage tour to China, with JaneGrace’s permission, I gave the pendants to JaneGrace’s foster “Grandmother.” I didn’t plan in advance to do this, it just occurred spontaneously. The decision was reinforced as we sat in Nai Ying’s apartment, and she pulled out all of the things we had mailed to her before and shortly after JaneGrace’s placement into our family, eleven years ago. This was a woman with great sentimentality, and I was convinced that she would cherish this necklace that represented my Mom, and the last weekend of her life. The chain was a circle, much like the “red thread” tradition in Chinese culture that tied all of us together. The pendants represented the three of us; Mom, Nai Ying and me, as the primary matriarchal presence in JaneGrace’s young life. Who knows, maybe one day this necklace will make its way back to JaneGrace, carrying with it an enriched sense of history, tradition, and closure. I am certain this gesture would have pleased Mom.

Dedicated to the sweet life of Anna Lee Bullen-Breeden: Born September 16, 1924; Passed into eternal life November 7, 2006

postscript: Aurora, Colorado, I grieve with you today.

Show Us Some Mercy–3rd in a series

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The chaplain directed me back to the “Consult Room” where my husband and young daughters were waiting. I knew this place well. The room had an aura about it. It is reserved for families who are in crisis, who have decisions to make, or devastating news to process. It is where families huddle, gather their resources, and call clergy, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. It is a sacred place where the profane must at times be uttered… it is a room of hope, of despair, of grief and disbelief. I had been in this room many times to greet a family, and prepare them for what they were about to encounter. The lighting is subdued, and boxes of tissues are on the tables. There was a telephone book, a phone, a couple of sofas and some chairs. The irony that my family now gathered in this room, and I was now making the most undesirable telephone calls in my life struck me with a bitter blow. Again, the random nature of tragedy makes us all feel vulnerable. Someone, a loving co-worker, came and took LiLi, age 10, and JaneGrace, 6, for snacks. My girls were familiar with this hospital. It was “Mommy’s hospital.” They had been here many times with me… JaneGrace was introduced to the staff a few days after we returned home from China. It was at the nursing station where I took the call from my husband that we had been matched with a beautiful Chinese baby girl. My co-workers had celebrated with me as our family walked through LiLi’s adoption process, and were there for support as her disabilities became more apparent. This staff knew my family and me well, and was just as dumbstruck as I was at this tragic turn of events.
The calls to my sisters went as expected. It was about 8:00 pm mountain- time and both of my sisters lived in the eastern time zone, making it near bedtime in their respective cities. I called my eldest sister first. Her husband answered. I explained to him the sequence of events in my nurse’s voice… this was my place of comfort in a situation such as this. I had made these types of calls to so many folks over the years. I knew how to do it, how to begin the call, how to keep my voice steady and calm, how to pause to give them time to process the information and formulate questions. The questions coming from my brother-in-law were difficult to answer, and I kept my answers brief and succinct. Yes, I was sure. No, there is absolutely nothing we can do, the ventilator is keeping her alive right now, and I’m praying she can make it through the night. Her brain is filled with blood… Yes, I want you here. Yes, please come, we can’t do this by ourselves. He put my sister on the phone and I hope I never have to deliver this kind of news to her again. She collapsed, he had to help her up, she screamed, she screamed again… No, it can’t be… Paula! Are you sure? No, no, no! I am so sorry, I didn’t mean for this to happen, please forgive me-
And the next call to my younger sister went similarly. She had been on the phone with my mom about an hour before the fall. Her husband had been the one to pick Mom up and bring her to Orlando to catch the flight. There were plans for her to spend a few days with them after the return trip home. Our lives had turned upside down. This call was surreal, like someone else was making the call and I was an observer. I learned later that as I spilled out this nightmare to my younger sister’s husband, he began his characteristic pacing of the house while we were on the phone. This behavior did not stir up any concern in my sister, and it gave her husband and I the advantage of being able to keep her in blissful ignorance for a few more agonizing minutes until he could fully grasp what had transpired in my home. Her reaction was much like my elder sister’s, and having to do this twice in the span of twenty minutes or so was depleting my emotional and psychological reserves. As I reflect back on the first few hours that followed Mom’s accident, I am certain that it was God, and only God, that met me face to face and carried me through, enabling me to carry on.
Many phone calls ensued over the next hour or so, back and forth, calls to and from my Mom’s surviving siblings, explaining more about the severity of the injury, that all of her protective reflexes were gone, that she couldn’t feel pain, that it was only the ventilator and now blood pressure support medications that were keeping her alive. My sisters, their husbands, and my elder sister’s two daughters all made arrangements to fly to Colorado first thing the following morning, we all wanted to be with Mom as she passed from this life to the next. Ironically, although she wouldn’t be flying home to Florida on Tuesday, November 7th, 2006, she would be flying home, to her eternal home, to heaven. The front door to our new home where we had lived for only a year became a symbolic place of passage for my mother.
I did make the decision to take my daughters into the trauma room to see Mom. Their exposure to this event began without my permission…it was a terrible twist of fate that placed them in the position of being exposed to an event that would soon rock LiLi’s world. The cogwheels in her brain had already begun to turn backwards. We carried our little JaneGrace into see her Nannie. Now, as a twelve-year-old, she recalls her grandmother looking quite small in the middle of the big white room with all of the tubes attached to her. She took one look, then declared to no one in particular, “Someone get me out…of…here.” Quite intuitive for a six-year-old, she had clearly conveyed what all of us were thinking.

to be continued

Show Us Some Mercy- 2nd in a series

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I knew the route to St. Anthony Central from my house like I know the back of my hand. I had Sixth Avenue memorized; every bump, every exit, every sign. I knew the length of time it took between each exit and could estimate my arrival to the hospital within a minute. This particular ride, while sitting in the front seat of an ambulance screaming down the road with my mom being worked on in the back, took seemingly forever. My mind was racing, yet time stood still. The moments at home before the ambulance arrived were already being replayed in my head, frame by frame, in slow motion. This was a living nightmare. I began to flip through the possible scenarios of different degrees of head injuries, but my gut told me this one was going to be really bad, with a devastating outcome. I was absolutely incredulous at this tragic turn of events. I had been an ER nurse for 13 years at this point in my life. I had seen tragedy, had walked others’ family members through unimaginable outcomes of senseless acts of violence, of catastrophic failure of the human body, and of random acts of nature with devastating consequences. I knew what it was like to be on the caretaker side of these events. I knew nothing about being the victim, or the loved one of a victim. This was brand new territory. It felt surreal. My turn, my family’s turn, had come.
Every few minutes I would glance over my shoulder and watch the medics as they tended to her. There wasn’t a lot for them to do. I wanted her to wake up, to move, to blink an eye, something… For every minute that she lay there lifeless, my prognosis for her became grimmer. Yes, this was a nightmare. Please, somebody, wake me up!
We drew closer to the ER, and I became aware that we would be arriving just before the evening change of shift. Thank God! I desperately wanted my day-shift co-workers to care for my mother. I knew them well. I knew the work of which they were deftly capable. We fought in the trenches daily as nurses, doctors, and ancillary personnel in an inner city level-one trauma center. We had seen and been through it all… I hungered for familiarity, expertise and comfort that I knew they would provide. All of the staff in this department, doctors, nurses, technicians, desk clerks, chaplains, volunteers, specialists, were all like extended family to me, and I knew they would care for my mother like she was one of their own. If there was any relief in these dire circumstances, it was that I knew she would be receiving the best care possible.
After what seemed like forever, the ambulance finally pulled up into the bay. I slid out  of the front seat, and followed the gurney as the crew was directed into a resuscitation room. I saw some of the staff, my friends, glance curiously at me, trying to figure out why I was there in my street clothes, following this crew into Room 2. They went to work quickly, like a well-choreographed act on my mother, and the ER physician immediately called a “Level-One” trauma response. At this point, I nearly collapsed, covered my face with my hands, and backed out of the room sobbing. I couldn’t take it any longer. Someone led me to a chair at the nursing station and sat with me as the trauma team continued their work on Mom.
She required immediate endo-tracheal intubation, which was a breathing tube that would keep her alive. The ER doc treating her was one of my favorites with whom to work. He was a no-nonsense, expertly skilled clinician with whom I could trust my mother’s life. The team collectively stabilized her, and rushed her to the cat-scanner. She remained completely unresponsive, and as I sat at the nursing station my ER doc friend came to me, reluctantly sharing that her pupils were fixed and dilated. I was numb, speechless, unblinking, trying to will myself to another dimension, another string, somewhere, anywhere but here. I had to be dreaming. People were standing around me, my co-workers, my friends; they had their hands on me, patting my back, offering me hugs, holding my hands. I looked into their eyes desperately seeking some sign of hope, and there was none. They had a bewildered look about them, equally clueless as to why something like this could happen. That is the thing about tragedy: It makes us all feel vulnerable. None of us are immune from being the victim of a random act of violence. The staff in this particular ED had seen it over and over and over again… Columbine in 1999, Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis in September 2006 just five weeks earlier, drowned babies, high school girls pulled from twisted metal in their prom dresses… we just shake our heads, do what we are trained to do, and keep moving forward, placing one foot in front of the other. We learn to cope in many different ways… pushing ourselves to the limits in endurance training, immersing ourselves in our families, living life on the edge, turning to alcohol as medicine, and sick humor, just to name a few. And now, here I was, one of their own had fallen victim. We all dreaded the day when someone we knew crossed that line from caretaker to victim. It was easier to disassociate yourself from an event when you weren’t socially or emotionally connected to an involved party. When you were connected, it was harder to let go.
Mom was now out of the cat-scanner and back in Room Two, and the ER doc and consulting neurosurgeon called me over to the radiology image screens in the ED. The images of my mother’s gravely injured skull and brain sent chills down my spine. I now knew what made those breaking sounds that had caused a knot in my gut at the precise time of her fall. Those sounds, combined with the images on the screen, have been the most difficult memories from which to escape on that dreadful day. Bottles of wine, drugs, therapy, nor all the riches in the world could help me escape from that sound and those images. That is something to which I must accommodate, with which I must live, and must practice to surrender every single day of my life. The doctors informed me that the injury was fatal, her brain was filled with blood and the pressure within her skull that was being created was inconsistent with life. There was no fix, and my mom was going to die. Just like that, when you least expect it, the door slams shut; or is flung wide open, depending on which side of heaven you reside. The time had come to make those dreaded calls to my sisters.
To be continued.

Dear Owl

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“Owl” has been the recipient of my journaling for years as I’ve chronicled through all of the ups and down of my life. “OWL” represents “One who listens.” It helped to imagine a wise, grandfatherly old soul to whom I could pour out my heart unabashedly and with a no-holds-barred conviction. Lately, I have been disclosing the challenges through which I’ve traveled as I’ve raised my second daughter, LiLi. This child, seven years old when we brought her home, was my second internationally adopted daughter from China. Raising LiLi has been the hardest, most guilt-ridden challenge of my life. When I was called to adopt a second child from China, I never imagined a journey like the one our family has traveled since 2003. Riddled with heartache and sprinkled with bittersweet joy, there wasn’t much time to dwell in the “Why me” sorrows. It has been revealed to me that the answer to that question is this: LiLi’s arrival into my life was the beginning of a long road toward redemption. I have a plaque in my kitchen that reads “Find a purpose in life so big it will challenge every capacity to be at your best.” LiLi was my slam-dunk. Journey with me as I recall memorable moments in our evolving story.