Closer Than A Brother

“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4

What I anticipated to be an ordinary Sunday morning, would become the day that my life changed forever.

I was five months pregnant. From the front, I was all belly and looked as if I was carrying a basketball under my top but from behind, you couldn’t see a noticeable difference in my appearance.  I swayed to the worship music in the auditorium of The Orchard’s newest church campus, in Northfield, IL, where my husband Adam and I had only recently begun attending to help with church planting. I rubbed my belly as I fought my usual morning nausea, but the words of my favorite song engaged me enough to stay in the moment.  

“You give light

you are love

you bring light to the darkness

you give hope

you restore,

 every heart that is broken.”

We have one main campus pastor who does a sermon series periodically which gets shared across all campuses. That morning was the beginning of a brand-new series called “For All Who Grieve, Light and Hope in Lamentations”. Pastor Collin Smith began sharing (in his Scottish accent that I love listening to) that this was a special series that would address suffering and loss. Then what really caught me by surprise was his emphasis that it was his first time in his FORTY years as a pastor that he would teach a sermon on specifically the book of Lamentations in the Bible. I recall feeling struck with attentiveness. It was as if the Holy Spirit was whispering, “Pay attention” and I did. As we left the service, I told Adam that I felt as though Pastor Collin was speaking directly to me and that this series was going to be very important to me.  I had a gut feeling that I was going to lose someone, and I feared that God was preparing me to have a miscarriage.  

We drove to my in-law’s house after church and spent the afternoon there until going out to dinner. On our drive to Portillo’s, my phone rang. My dad said he received a strange call from my brother’s wife that he had a seizure and it wasn’t looking good. He went on to say that an ambulance and paramedics were at their house and she urged my dad to head over. My brother had many seizures over the course of the last decade, caused by his epilepsy, so this was alarming but not completely out of the blue.  It was the calm in my dad’s voice left me concerned that this was more than a scare.

I think to this day, the most terrified I have ever been was the first time I saw my brother have a seizure. I was twenty-one years old, my brother Don was twenty-five and we took a trip to Colorado together to visit my Dad where he had been living at the time. We were both taking an afternoon nap when I woke up to my brother calling my name and seconds later heard a loud thud as his body hit the ground. He had fallen off the couch and was having his first grand mal seizure. I called 911 while helplessly watching his arms flail, his mouth foam and his eyes roll back into his head. I thought he was going to die that day. Ten years later, these calls still took my breath away and played the tape of that time and others that I saw him have seizures.   

I told me dad to call me as soon as he got to the house and knew more about what was happening. I was concerned and asked if I should head there too but he hesitated and told me to continue with my dinner plans and that he would call me to keep me in the loop.

I sat down to eat my beef and cheese fries (Don’s favorite meal and mine to this day.) I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I began talking with my sister-in-law about the sermon at church and asking what she thought of it. I shared the bad feeling I had that I was being warned about a loss. I had a pit in my stomach, my throat was feeling tight and I started feeling panicked. Just then Adam’s phone rang and he turned to me to say “Your Dad is calling me.” I knew right then what he would say but I couldn’t comprehend it.

Don was 35 years YOUNG and lived a full life. He was so radiant, loving, funny, outgoing, and charismatic. He was Dad to four children, two of whom were teens, one step daughter who he raised since she was 3 years old and his youngest who was in Kindergarten. He was a husband to a wife that he had been friends with since junior high school. He was a loved leader at his job, his Dad’s best friend, his Mom’s heart, and my big brother which I have come to realize was one of the most meaningful relationships I have ever known. Siblings are unique. They share things that only you two could have been through as children, under one roof, with the same family members, experiences and memories. They are the person who loves you more than you realize.  They are the one allowed to tease you and give you a hard time because you know that they would have your back in a heartbeat. They are the person who helps mold your personality and give you character and thick skin. They are the person that knows things no one else ever will and vice versa. It is too hard to comprehend losing a brother so unexpectedly because they are the person you never imagined not being there the rest of your life.

My Dad’s phone call ended with a request for us to meet at my brother’s house where the rest of our immediate family was gathering. When I showed up Pastor Tom Olson was there. Just seeing my pastor gave me the courage to walk through the door. This is the pastor who had been with me when I accepted Jesus as my Savior. The one who baptized me.  The one who walked Adam and I through pre-marital counseling and married us. The one who would end up being there at the wake and funeral to give the eulogy.

Pastor Tom had been out to dinner with his daughter when he received the call from my Dad telling him the news and ironically had been at a restaurant down the street with his daughter for dinner. He lived 30 miles from Crystal Lake where my brother lived yet happened to be at a restaurant minutes away during our family crisis. God’s timing is impeccable.

Don had never seen me pregnant. At the time, I resided in Chicago which was over an hour drive from him. Our schedules were crazy the last couple years with me being a new business owner and him being on the go with his kids. His oldest lived with their mom full time in New Lenox which is a long distance to travel especially co-parenting every other weekend. He spent a lot of his free hours driving to see them for sports events and be involved in their lives as much as possible. Living in the city for that six-year span, I didn’t even own a car which made it inconvenient to see him also.  We had great intentions of meeting up and would text about it many weekends but something always “came up” and our schedules were conflicting which prevented it from happening as often as we liked. I hadn’t been to the house since Christmas. Four months was a long stretch for us to go without seeing each other and that was how long it had been.  I always thought we had next weekend.

I walked in and told the Paramedics I needed to see my brother. I could see the concerned looks on their faces. My family hesitated too. I think everyone was worried because I was pregnant, but I didn’t care what anyone thought or said in that moment. I needed my brother to meet the baby inside my belly. I needed to see him to believe he was dead.

“Tears and Talk.” That was the title of the first sermon in the Grief series. Initially there was a lot of crying before any talking. The first night I was in total shock as I slept in bed next to his wife. We cried and tried to take care of each other and the kids enough to care for our basic needs and then cried some more. I woke up on April 25th with swollen eyes after a full 24 hours of my new reality had passed. I felt lost and hopeless trying to wrap my head around my new reality. I opened my devotional. It was titled “Struggling to Pray”.

I was struggling to pray, and He interceded! He already knew I would be and had a message waiting for me in the devotional. “Do you ever sit down to pray and find yourself struggling to find the words to begin?”… “The good news is that God intervenes for us in the midst of every type of struggle, including our prayer life.” …”He will give you a form of communication words can’t express”. YES. Peace beyond understanding.

He is near to the brokenhearted. He was with me every step of this tremendous and unexpected loss and continues to be today. From the morning on April 23, the day my brother passed away, he was communicating with me through the holy spirit and the holy Word of God in the Bible by planting seeds of comfort to hold on to through the sermon. He sent my pastor to be nearby during the tragedy of watching my brother be taken out of the house on a stretcher. He continued to surround me with love through members of His church. When I had to keep a commitment to hold a sold-out event for work only days after the funeral, my colleagues at LimeLife who I consider sisters were there.  My friend Mary Kay tragically lost her brother during 911 and my friend Kendra lost a best friend, who was like a brother, tragically in a motorcycle accident. These two friends both knew deep grief from losing loved ones unexpectedly and could really be there to talk me through where I was at emotionally. If it weren’t for these women, I don’t know that I would have picked my feet up to keep moving forward as quickly as I did.  They knew how I was feeling and allowed me to be a mess. They held me as I cried and helped me laugh when I didn’t think it would be possible to. Here is the kicker, they both live out of state. Had this event not been planned months in advance, neither of them would have been there and available to comfort me after this loss. God’s timing is impeccable!

               Although I have so many unanswered questions about my brother’s passing, I choose to focus on my faith and believe that he is home in heaven where we will meet again someday. It is easy to miss out on what is truly important in this life with all the distractions. I certainly have a clearer picture of the life I want to lead because of Don. My first awakening after losing him was the importance of family because he believed this to his core. I make time for them today and don’t take them for granted the way I used to because I know now that my family is priceless. My recent awakening has been to make people FEEL how important they are to me. Don made me feel so important and loved. I didn’t know just how much until he was gone, and it is a sorrow that lingers.

I pray that if you are reading this blog you take a moment to really reflect on your relationships with your family and loved ones. Ask yourself if you have taken them for granted, held a grudge, made time for them, told them how much you loved them. Then go do or undo whatever it is you need to take a step closer to healing and pray for the courage to take the right action in love and faith. We are only promised today, and the Lord is with us every step of the way.

For anyone suffering unexpected loss or grieving a loved one and looking for comfort and hope, please feel free to visit https://unlockingthebible.org/series/for-all-who-grieve-light-hope-lamentations/ to hear from Pastor Collin Smith on the series I mentioned in my blog. I can’t say enough about how timely and comforting these words were to hold on to as I navigated that first month of life without my brother.

Progress Not Perfection

“Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Ephesians 4:22-24

When I meditate on this verse, I can see how different my old self, active in addiction, was from who I am today. For starters, I don’t wake up hungover panicked about decisions I had made the night before or wondering how I am going to get through the day until my next drink. I am not constantly consumed with fear and crippling anxiety (Praise God!) and like who I am and feel good about the choices I am making. (At least most of the time.) It still amazes me to reflect on the minutes and hours that my days were consumed thinking about alcohol. Even when I wasn’t drinking.

I wish I could say that the day God’s grace saved me from my obsession with alcohol, that I was free of the obsession of the mind entirely but unfortunately that is not the case. Addiction is not curable but it is treatable and the antidote for me has been spiritual. Although I aspire to be a “positive vibes” only thinker and have a completely renewed mind and heart that is god-centered 24/7, I am not there yet! (Let’s be honest, I may never be.) I am just learning to accept my humanity and have a lot more growing in humility to do before the control subsides. I don’t believe that is just a struggle for addicts but human beings in general. Maybe you can relate? I am certainly a sinner and needed a Savior yet regardless of this relationship I have found with God, I still struggle to rely on him fully. I have learned that, for me, the most important decision that I face every day is: am I going to be in charge or is God? I have tons of evidence proving why God’s way is so much better than mine, but relinquishing that control is not my inclination, even six years into sobriety.

I have recently hit an emotional bottom that I want to share about to help communicate the struggle of an addict mind/battle of the flesh and to share how God has used these struggles to show me that I deserve so much better and can replace the “more” of addiction with more of Him in my life to take care of every need and desire in my heart.

What is mental obsession and when did it manifest in my life? Honestly, before I ever picked up a drink I had this “overthinking” problem accompanied with obsessive compulsive patterns of behavior. It started as early as 3 years of age. I would want to watch the same movie over and over again, Frosty The Snowman and Dirty Dancing are the most memorable that come to mind. In order to calm down when I was dropped off at pre-school I would have to eat bread and butter sitting by myself over the heating vent. Every single day. I know now it was a coping mechanism to feel safe and in control. Even bizarre compulsions I developed such as counting trees/light poles that we would pass while driving in the car. It made me crazy at the time but I didn’t know how to stop doing it. As I got older my thoughts would be so loud and repetitive, mostly fear based. I worried about what people thought of me, if they were mad at me, if they liked me, so on and so forth. By the time I took a drink at the age 13 years old it was mostly to quiet all the noise in my head. That worked for years until there wasn’t enough alcohol to make me feel better and the noise in my head was so amplified without alcohol that I couldn’t stand being in my own body. The negative thoughts were overpowering and shaming, it was unbearable. Getting through that first day without the crutch of alcohol was painful and difficult but I made it through and realized that if I could get through that one day, I could do it again just for a day again. I learned new coping mechanisms such as talking, praying, meditating, reading, writing, running, even yelling and crying. I made a start at navigating my life without numbing my feelings. I began living out of my comfort zone and started growing and developing into a new version of myself as a result.

Whenever we remove a habit in our life, we replace it with another habit. I have replaced with a lot of great habits but over time get sick of discipline and start to think I don’t need the structures in place in my life, reading the Bible for example or reaching out to my support systems. It is so vitally important for me to be conscious of who I surround myself with, what I watch/read/listen to, and how I speak to myself. My mind believes what I tell it and can be easily influenced. Being a believer in Christ also doesn’t make me immune to temptation either or to relapse. Although that hasn’t been a part of my story so far, I am always moving towards a drink or away from one. The further I get from God the closer I am to a drink or just simply bad decision making. I found that out the hard way and it is what led me to my recent bottom.

I found The Orchard Evangelical Free Church (in Barrington, IL) back in 2013 shortly after I got sober and it was the first time I really came to understand who God was and develop a conception that matched the relationship I had already been developing through prayer. Hearing sermons that discussed the Bible and how to apply it to my actual life was a new concept to me. I experienced a major shift in my understanding of myself and life. I joined a life group, started making friendships with believers and starting reading the Word of God, well sometimes I opened the Bible. I guess if I am being 100% honest I would do it when I felt like it. This was my biggest pitfall and where I have discovered is the most vital piece of my mental health because like I said, that obsessive thinking doesn’t just go away. after I quit drinking. I can replace it with negative or positive habits. The negative ones are usually the ones that feel good in the moment and instantly fill a void but long term become destructive or painful just like drinking did.

My first void filler: people pleasing. I completely began consuming my thoughts with other people’s problems. I really believed that I was being caring and generous by worrying about other people when in reality I was trying to replace God in other people’s lives. I was judgmental and my ego (or Satan) had me believing that I knew what was best for others and it turned out that the more opinions I gave about how others should live their lives, the further I pushed them away, the less in control I felt, and the more angry and miserable I began to feel. The more I tried to help solve others problems, the more I was enabling them from experiencing breakthroughs that they needed to discover to change. God taught me that people pleasing is really selfish and that my focus belonged on Him. So, naturally I put my focus on Him, right? No.

My focus moved from the things I learned I couldn’t control to things I could. I decided to become a business owner. The ultimate way to take control of my future and finances. I threw myself so far into work that I had no life. I worked 24/7. I prioritized work above my relationships with friends and family. I sacrificed my self care, time, and marriage to chase an endless cycle of never ending checkboxes. When my brother unexpectedly passed away in April 2017, my entire life came crashing down. I realized how fragile life was, that I would never get back the time I lost working and that the most important aspect of my life truly was my relationships, including my relationship with God. So, naturally now I put God first, right? No.

Then I became a mom, in August 0f 2017 and it was the first time I ever had to slow down in my life. I had 3 months of maternity to rest, reflect, and just simply be. I was not content. I wanted to be doing. I missed working and traveling and couldn’t wait to get out of the house and regain “control” of my life. As time went on I believed I was some sort of super human that could work 80 hours a week, be present at all times when with my son, continue to travel for work while breastfeeding, see friends and family, maintain intimacy in my marriage and all on a couple hours of sleep a night. I had these expectations of myself, LOADS of them, that no one gave me, but myself. I thought I could overcome this all while grieving the loss of my brother and finding a new norm as mom, business owner, and wife. The more out of control I felt the more I would find myself with a need to do more. Clean the house, double my income, buy my dream home and all of this should happen in the snap of a finger. It was unreasonable and completely unmanageable. All this perfection chasing left me feeling worse than ever emotionally.

Thankfully, Jesus is a healer, comforter, and Savior who has already won this battle for me and only asks for my repentance and faith in Him to put off this old self. Sanctification is the process in which we become more like Christ and it is a lifelong process. These changes don’t always happen overnight. Although it did with my craving for alcohol, my thinking is a battle that I face daily. God’s word is giving me the strength to overcome negative thoughts and encouraging me to trust His promises and accept my humanity. His kindness and goodness is so incredible. When I was finally willing to surrender control in these areas and ask Him for help, He was there waiting to. He sent me messages every corner I turned. It started through a devotional that was spontaneously sent in the mail by a church member I hadn’t seen in over a year. God is wild like that! The Armor of God study has helped me prioritize God and teach me about the deception of perfection. I was finally able to take an honest look at how I was living my life -in total exhaustion- and see the bottomless pit of idolatry I had been caught up in. There I was again trying to fill a void that only God was capable of satisfying. It was no different than being consumed by alcohol. My thoughts were consumed with doing more and being more. What was worse as I saw the truth, was that I had the pain crushing realization that I have been doing a disservice to God by exemplifying someone who needed to be perfect which is the opposite of my belief and the truth of the gospel! I was able to see how trying to please God was rejecting the gift He gave me by dying on the cross. God also spoke through people in my life whom were believers that I didn’t even know, some of whom I had just met for the first time! A married couple began counseling me on a phone call about trusting and depending on God instead of trying to solve my own problems - they were financial advisors that I had never previously spoke to. My business coach who I had only just begun to work with began preaching to me about my energy being consumed and burnt up by social media and working instead of pursuing God’s plan through my writing and public speaking. It seemed as though everywhere I turned, He was answering my prayer by providing me answers of truth through love and his people.

I am happy to report that I have received the memo! God didn’t create me to be a slave to alcohol, work, people pleasing, “doing”. He created me in His image to enjoy all that he is and all that he’s done. So naturally, I am going to put God first now, right?

One day at a time. He is renewing my mind, spirit and creating me into His image.

The Gift of Sobriety

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways submit to him, and he will makes your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6

Six years ago today, I was completely broken, hopeless, and chained to my addiction. I lived life in constant fear and anxiety from as early as I can remember. When I discovered alcohol at the age of twelve years old, it was like taking an exhale for the first time in my life. It felt as though all the cares in the world no longer mattered. This feeling was one that I pursued as often as possible from that moment on.

Alcohol was not a part of my daily home life growing up. There was drinking on weekends at family parties, weddings, and holidays though, which I was always attracted to because the adults were happy and having fun. I knew my grandpa died of alcoholism when I was young but I had no idea what that meant or that it was something that ran in the family. My relationship with alcohol began as a means for a solution to the chaos I had been enduring for the years leading up to that first drink. I am the youngest of three, my two older brothers being five and seven years older. All of us have struggled with alcoholism/addiction. My oldest brother’s drug addiction started in his high school years. During this season there were jail visits, yelling, fighting, holes in the walls, threats, silence, kicking him out, letting him back in, and ultimately broken relationships. Our family dynamic was falling apart. My mom was depressed, my dad was angry, and I was a lost, scared, and alone. We were all powerless to the destruction taking place in our family. The impact it was having on me emotionally was to escape. If I could be out of the way and stay under the radar it would prevent conflict. I would clean the house before my parents got home from work to try to take burdens off of them. I practically lived at my friends houses so I didn’t have to be home. I looked for validation from people and thought I found my worth in making everyone else happy but really I was angry on the inside. Suppressing the anger reared it's head in many self destructive ways. It started with escaping to alcohol then led to more self destructive behaviors like smoking cigarettes, marijuana and later looking for escape through relationships with men. Nothing filled the void. It only temporarily relieved me from the deep hurt that continued to grow and go unaddressed. As time went on, my life got more difficult to navigate. I started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks regularly at the age of seventeen. I was having flashbacks of early sexual experiences and was faced with not only years of suppressing my emotions, but memories of childhood rape and sexual abuse that had taken place. I started seeing a therapist while continuing to self medicate with alcohol. This not only prevented any real healing from taking place, but increased my emotional turmoil, and belief that I was worthless.

For years alcohol allowed me to temporarily feel comfortable in my skin and gave me a false sense of identity. When I drank I felt confident, spontaneous and fun. I believed I fit in and it became my next solution to self worth. Hitting rock bottom wasn't just a night of blacking out, waking up in my own vomit, and being hungover. That was a regular occurrence by the time I was in my early twenties! The rock bottom was feeling this emptiness inside of me, realizing that I didn’t have control over alcohol and that it was in control of me and dictating my thinking and behavior.

My last night of drinking at twenty six years old came after my boyfriend (now husband) was sick of hearing me say “just one more drink” at the bar. He left me to fend for myself for the first time. I remember the bartender walking me to my apartment while I was cursing at people and staggering down the street. He threatened to buzz every apartment in the building if I didn’t go in… because I still wanted more to drink. When I woke the first time, it was to my neighbors stepping over me in the stairway. The second time was on my bathroom floor hugging the toilet. When I finally came to, I stared in the mirror and hated the person I had become and even worse I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t want to live a life with alcohol anymore but I didn't know how to live without it. Getting on my knees and making this connection with a personal god for the first time was the beginning of my new life. I simply asked, “God do you exist” I heard Him say yes and responded with “Help me”. I meant it with every fiber of my being and gratefully have been sober ever since.

I am not cured of alcoholism. I have a daily reprieve from drinking that with repetitive actions have created daily habits that safeguard me from picking up that first drink. There is no cure for alcoholism but there is recovery and tools to build a life without on a new foundation. I don't think about or crave alcohol regularly anymore which is a miracle in itself. I have redirected all my mental energy from negativity to positivity, purpose, and passion. I always had a vision of who I wanted to be and finally have had the tools and direction to become ME. I am a mom, a business owner, empowerment coach and writer. With twelve step recovery, therapy, church and a community of inspiring women I have all the support systems in place to keep me moving forward. Even when life gets messy which it still is. I have faced many tragic and unexpected losses in these last few years and two of them have been due to this disease which is why I am so passionate about sharing a message of hope and being an example of recovery. I have been able to walk through anything life has thrown my direction in sobriety because of my relationship with God.

The first model I had of a sober woman came into my life as a client during my rock bottom season and because of that I discovered that there were young women who could live free of addiction. I want to be a stand for teens and young women to have healthy relationships with themselves and others. I have become someone who has confidence, freedom of self expression, and most importantly peace from anxiety! Most of the time that is. When I am walking in the love and light of the Lord and living the design He created for me, not the other way around. For years I have compromised my worth to fit in and bought the lies that told me I am not enough. Today I am conquering that shame and guilt by following Jesus and believing His truth. I am allowing the Holy Spirit to guide me in hopes to share who I truly am and help others evolve their personal struggles into strengths too. The only way I know to do it is by allowing God to change my heart. I am not the model to follow, He is. He is the only one to have ever lived a sinless life and because I know that today I am able to forgive myself for past mistakes and forgive all those who have harmed me too. Freedom from anger, control, addiction, perfectionism, and every other idol that will inevitably rear it's ugly head throughout my life can be conquered through the one who has overcome the world.