Friday, August 9, 2013

mountain climbing: the beautiful and the brutal

"before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth
 and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God." ~ psalm 90:2

this week, my siblings and i climbed a mountain together.

mt. rainier is 14,411 feet high at peak elevation. i know this because i have a 10 year old who tells me these things. he was also quick to remind me that rainier is not only a mountain, but a volcano, as well. he did not find the fact that it hasn't erupted in 150 years reassuring -- instead, he  wondered about it being a bit overdue.

i assure you though, mountain or volcano, our climbing goal was never 14,000 plus feet -- that lack of ambition probably had something to do with the seven young children we brought along on our sibling adventure.

"it's so big, mom!"
"it's huuuge."
"can we climb all the way to the top?"
"aunt jody, why is there snow up there?"
"do we have to keep climbing?"
"mama, i'm tired."

and the all-time-parent-favorite: "are we there yet?"

these were just some of the comments from the under ten crowd.

"keep going," we encouraged. "you can do it," we repeated. "we're almost there!" we promised. each one of us took turns carrying backpacks and water bottles and the smaller children. we stopped to study wildflowers and eat fruit snacks. we stopped to scratch the dirt with sticks and turn over rocks. we stopped to look up and look down. we stopped. a lot.

at one point i looked back to find the three 5-year-old cousins, bella, colt and pearl, sitting criss-cross on the path playing with their stuffed puppies and purses. bella was in her glory this week paling around with her twin cousins of the same age. i have a new appreciation for the power of five year olds when they come in threes.

our plan wasn't to scale up to the very top, but still, i wondered how we'd get even to the waterfall -- our lunch spot -- with all these little legs. i suppose our adventure might seem crazy to some, but none of us were particularly worried. we knew it wasn't going to be a sprint, but a journey. not every adult would have been game for this kind of trek, but my four siblings and i were completely content with our four cameras and the breathtaking views. every time the little ones stopped to pick a flower (a no-no, by the way) or put up a fuss or pull out a water bottle, we stopped to click.

mountain climbing with seven young children isn't for the individual in a hurry.

it's a slow process. it's a one-step-forward-and-three-steps-back kind of thing.

it's a lot like life.

and as we were climbing, it occurred to me, this was not the first time our family has climbed slowly up a mountain together.

it wasn't the first time we've had to face something so large ... something so formidable ... something which seemed impossible.

let me tell you about my brother, doug.

not only was he crazy enough to think vacationing in a national park with his three younger sisters and their seven young children a good idea, but he was also completely on board and just as excited as the five year olds to climb this great mountain. and that day out on the mountain, as i watched him climbing up ahead, i couldn't help but think about the continual climb he's been on in his own life ...

you see, every sunday, at three o'clock, you'll find my brother, doug, at the detox center in akron, ohio.

he's there because of the mountain he's faced for almost three decades ---


doug took his first drink at the age of 14. i was two years behind him in high school and remember watching him drink with his buddies at the weekend parties -- the popular crowd. and i wasn't there just watching, i was there taking my first sips of beer as well. even at our christian high school, it was what everyone did.

i don't know when my brother moved from being a teenager who had a few weekend beers to a full-time alcoholic. that's a line rarely clear for most people. during these years i was busy with my own life: away at college, getting married, having babies, raising kids. my sisters and i were not only wrapped up in our separate lives, but we also had all moved out of state and away from home -- three different directions we scattered -- west, east and south. we grew farther apart from my brother and his issues and his growing illness. it was harder for any of us to know what was really going on in his life. we sensed things deteriorating, but still ... we'd sweep into town for a brief visit and then jump back into our cars or onto a plane and return to the preoccupation and commotion of our own homes.

we worried about him and, on occasion, we even talked to each other about our worry, but always felt helpless and unsure about what we could do. we tried talking, even tried a family intervention ... but my brother was a smooth talker and always steered us away. he talked us down from the cliffs of our concern. "i'm fine. don't worry about me. you're imagining things ..." and the truth is, we hoped deep inside, we were imagining things. we didn't want to believe our brother was an alcoholic any more than he wanted to believe it. my charming brother always had an answer or an excuse or a good explanation. alcohol makes exceptional liars. because alcoholism mingles well with deceit.

this went on for years. decades, really.

but then came a cold january day in 2010 and a phone call from my brother. "i'm desperate, jody. i don't know what to do. i'm at the end. i can't go on like this any longer. help me." he was on the cliff's edge and his desperate words were the final thin threads holding. the high school homecoming king ... the star basketball player ... the boy with the charming personality, the winsome smile and a million friends ... was holding on by nothing more than a thin thread.

it was time to do something drastic.

phone calls and connections were made. there's no quick way to explain how God orchestrated the details. He just did. He directed our steps to the right people, the right place. we were able to find my brother a spot in a christian treatment center in georgia. he had only to get himself on a greyhound bus and come south.

at this point my brother couldn't fly any longer. he had lost his license because of too many DUI's. lost his insurance. he was drinking a fifth of vodka every day. he couldn't go longer than four hours without a drink or he'd be violently sick. he had to drink first thing in the morning to get his body moving. his eyes were glassy. his hands shaky. his spirit destructive. he was lying to everybody about everything. losing money. losing his family. losing his mind. alienating people and partying hard with his inner demons. the doctors had told him, his body wouldn't continue much longer like this. he was killing himself slowly.

in another blog, i wrote about the january day he arrived in atlanta on a greyhound bus ... 3 1/2 years ago:
the arrival door opened and people began to drag in. as i searched through the muddle of tired passengers, my eyes paused at the haggard man hanging back from the group. everyone exiting the bus looked exhausted from a long night of travel, but this man looked exhausted from a long life ... or a slow death. he was grey and shaking, unshaven, hunched over, broken like one homeless --   
he was my brother.  
my stomach dropped -- this shuffling body moving in my direction, almost unrecognizable. our eyes met. mine welling with tears, his bloodshot and distant. and immediately i knew, as hard as it was for me to watch my oldest sibling come to me this way, it had to be a million times harder for him to be met by his younger, healthier, seemingly-whole sister. but he had come for help. we embraced, we clung, we knew what the weekend ahead held. this was not a favorite uncle coming for a quick visit with his nephews and nieces, this was a broken brother limping into town for help. 
he was coming to our house this weekend to detox and prepare to enter a six week treatment center here in the south.
later that night, he told me he had passed the 16 hour trip from cleveland to atlanta counting the white slash marks on the road. a man can only count so many white slash marks before having to come face to face with the slash marks in his own life. on his own soul. the slash marks he has left on those he loves. doug had 16 solitary hours on a greyhound bus to take count of them all.  
alcohol has been my brother's buddy for a couple of decades. it has been his culture. his comfort. his best friend. his mistress. one doesn't walk easily away from those relationships -- from those holds. their tongues have lured him into a seductive dance, while their unrelenting claws have clutched and snared and gripped .... leaving marks. leaving wounds. leaving blood. taking life. 
while he was at my house this weekend he told me the story of another detox attempt earlier in the year:
just days after leaving that last treatment center the engagement began again. the comforting words of his cunning friend quickly convinced him he could pick up a six pack and have just one, no more than two. he was told by the wooing voices of his head, he "could handle it. he was stronger now." 
he took his purchase to the basement when he arrived home. he was called for dinner, his children at the table. the food ready. his place set. yet he sat in that dim basement and drank all six beers on the cold cement floor. he sat alone. his family was only a floor above -- they might as well have been a world away. his one beer turned into six. 
because this is the story of alcoholism: broken man or beaten woman. alone in a cold and filthy basement. desperately clutching their betrayal. their family at the dinner table with warm food waiting, but the drink winning. the demons wild. the dark things rejoicing.                                  
      ~ january 14, 2010 "the eaten years"
doug went into a treatment program that winter. it didn't heal him completely. but he came out with new tools and a new determination. mostly though, he came out with a renewed faith in God. and for a while he was good. he was great. but even after all that renewal and all that time spent in treatment, he stumbled again. it's one thing when the mountain looms up ahead, it's another thing when you've made progress and then begin sliding back down into the darkness ...

and though there have been times when doug felt like he would never conquer the mountain of alcoholism, he has learned, in the past few years, to climb more slowly, more carefully. more like a child who sometimes needs to be carried. like our own mt. rainier adventure this past week -- one step forward, three steps back. he has learned to respect the size and scale and the seductive power of what he faces. he has learned it's not a sprint, but a journey. he has mostly learned to surrender himself.

my brother has not had a drink in 18 months.

maybe that doesn't seem like much to you, but to our family, it's huge. it's a miracle. we are all incredibly proud of him. and this weekend, my sisters and i had a chance to tell him.

my brother, today, is a different man. he is still up on the mountain climbing, but he is no longer on the edge.

he would tell you that at any time he could slide back again, because there's no slope more slippery than addiction. but through his surrender he is learning how to do battle with something so large. doug is at every AA meeting he can attend, he facilitates them and regularly shares his story. he spends time in the trenches mentoring other men and women. he talks with teens and goes every sunday afternoon to the detox center at st. thomas to meet with the most broken. he knows their pain well. and he knows the importance in his own life of remembering that pain.

working with those in the evil clutches of alcoholism is necessary for doug. it is now his mission and it will always be his medication. because it is easy to slide back down a mountain when we forget about the dark places below.

mostly though, doug has learned that he isn't alone. Jesus is climbing with him.

early wednesday morning, while everyone else was still asleep in our cabin, doug and i sat out on the deck. and under the shadow of mt. rainier, he shared more with me about the mountain of alcoholism. my brother, who at age 46, has been through detox four times and failed, knows the cost of this climb. in alcoholism you will never stand at the peak and declare you've conquered your disease completely. it is a continual climb, an every day decision. there is no pinnacle of perfect success. you just keep doing what you know how to do. doug told me that at AA they have a saying about recovery,"it is simple, but it's not easy."

mountain climbing is fundamentally pretty simple. it's about one foot in front of the other. it's not looking too far ahead, and not dwelling too much on where we just came from. it's about one step at a time ... one day at a time. it's about sometimes stopping to scratch in the dirt with a friend or sit for a while and rest, but then it's about getting back up and continuing to climb.

this sibling get-a-way wasn't about my brother or about any one of us. but while there, i think each of us discovered it was about all of us in some way. we've each had our share of mountain climbing in the past couple of years. and though this trip wasn't planned to be symbolic -- it was.

there was a day when the last place my brother would have wanted to be was on a mountain with his three bossy, know-it-all-sisters, but he bought a plane ticket and got himself there and, together, we climbed a mountain.

when i asked doug's permission to share this on my blog, he answered, "those people that know me, know my story. those who don't, might be encouraged to hear it."

friend, i don't know what mountain you are facing right now -- but i know you probably have one. we all do. my prayer in sharing doug's story is that you are encouraged by his struggle ... and inspired by his surrender. he would want you to know whatever your problems and however large they loom, there is hope when you stop sprinting up the mountain in your own strength and learn to journey with Jesus in His strength.

"the mountains melt like wax before the Lord, 
before the Lord of all the earth." ~ psalm 97:5

"if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 
‘move from here to there,’ and it will move. 
nothing will be impossible for you.” ~ matthew 17:20

"in His hand are the depths of the earth; 
the heights of the mountains are His also." ~ psalm 95:4


Laura said...

Let your brother know how inspired I am by his story. I am going to ask my son to read your post becaise he too is dealing with addiction. It is a nasty disease that impacts so many families. I do not wish this "living hell" on anyone. Tell your brother I will pray for his continued sobriety as well as for his family. God has us here for a reason so his purpose may be to share his story to give hope to others who are dealing with addiction issues.

Nicole said...

Thanks Jody. I'm tearful taking in the truth in this metaphor. Love you all.

Christine said...

Jody, As usual you have beautifully put into words a real life story about trial, surrender, and redemption (Gods story:) ! Love your blogs, life lessons for all, and your complete and utter geniune love for others. You continue to bless others everywhere you go.....even those you have left behind;) Thank you for sharing, and I LOVE all your beautiful photography!!! Felt like I was able to hike with yall:)

Blind Devotion (Sharlene Prinsen) said...

Jody... This was beautiful, and of course it rang so true for me given my husband's journey. I love how you describe the disease of alcoholism as if it has a personality... It truly does become like another member of the family --albeit, a destructive one -- playing its role perfectly with devastating results. Please congratulate your brother on his hard work and thank him for all that he does to share his story and his faith to help others find their way out of the darkness. Thank you for sharing this with me! God Bless!

jodymcnatt said...

thank you for your comment laura! i will let my brother know. since posting this piece we've had many people reach out to us ... addiction issues are everywhere. there's no discriminating ... i would be honored to pray for your son as well. and you're so right, we are supposed to share our struggles -- we certainly all have them! blessings.

jodymcnatt said...

i know you get it nicole. love you!

jodymcnatt said...

i had such a great time taking those pictures -- you know i did! it's pure pleasure ... though my family might call it obsession. =) i am not sure i used the word "redemption" in this blog -- but THAT'S EXACTLY IT. and we are all in need of some big time redeeming. thank you Jesus ... it's not about what we can do, but what He has already done with us...for us us.

jodymcnatt said...

so glad you were able to read sharlene! i will make sure my brother sees your comment. best wishes as you continue to share the message God has given you to pass along. people are in need of real words, real stories and real encouragement.

Aus said...

Good morning Jody - great stuff here...

Doug - you could be my big brother Bill - and were it not for him (and guy's like you) - well, it could be about me...

I'm proud of him, I'm proud of you!

There's an old climbing instruction (I've spent some time in the mountains - and this metaphor fits "You'll never fall if you keep three points of contact - 2 hands and a foot - 2 feet and a hand - but don't be stupid...rope in anyway"...

Stay roped in brother, stay roped in.

And based on the pictures - looks like you made it to the falls - there's a metaphor in that too...

hugs - prayers for all you guys!

aus and co.

Rebecca said...

All of this is just beautiful. Thank you for posting!

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Sharing this with my best friend who is in detox right now, after 20 years of alcoholism and several stints in rehab.