I've learned something about addiction recovery: It's rarely a fairytale and it's almost never linear.
Ten years ago I embarked on a difficult journey involving forgiving my crack-addict sister, Jenny. She made life growing up for me and my family sheer hell. And it took something, and someone (mainly God), outside of myself to do it. But that's not where the story ends. I thought it did at the time. I thought my sister and I were only going to improve on the relationship we rekindled back then. For a while that happened. But the truth is, some of the worst was yet to come, and I would need to constantly remind myself of the commitment I made to forgive her.
I can still remember my mom crying about the decision. She was so torn up, so heartbroken. And while it had to be done, it's a decision no parent should ever have to make. And a decision that now that I'm a parent gives me anxiety just thinking about.
That decision? Turn your own daughter in to the police in hopes of saving her life.
See, during the height of my sister's cocaine addiction she would do anything to pay for dope. That included selling herself and also dancing at a local strip club. She had stolen things, too. One day, she took my parents' checkbook and began writing bad checks.
When my mom figured it out, it was devastating. That's when the decision came: Turn her in, have her face a felony, but end the destructive cycle, or let her off the hook, keep her out of jail, but let her keep killing herself.
That's when the decision came: Turn her in, have her face a felony, but end the destructive cycle, or let her off the hook, keep her out of jail, but let her keep killing herself.
Mom chose to turn her in.
That's the end, right? In the movie version, Jenny gets a wake-up call and realizes she can't keep going. She has two kids and while initially she can't believe her own mother turned her in to the police, she thanks her once she sobers up.
The judge in Jenny's case went light on her. (And if you've watched the Netflix series "Making a Murderer" you know how surprising that is, considering my family is from that same town and Jenny faced both judges that "star" in the documentary.) She got a differed sentence and probation: If she could stay out of trouble and away from drugs for a certain amount of time, the felony check charge would go away.
She stayed out of trouble for a bit. But eventually, she fell right back into the habits that were tearing her and us apart. I think it was my brother who called and told me the news. I'm not sure how soon it was after her probation, but it wasn't too long.
"Well, Jenny's in jail."
"What?" I said.
She had violated her probation. Not long after that, I returned home for a visit. I took Jenny's two kids to the jail with my parents so she could see them. It's exactly like the movies: A long line of stools, zero privacy, bullet proof glass, and inmates in orange jumpsuites. But what the movies can't capture is the oppressive depression and gloom that hangs over both sides of the glass. It's thick. I can still transport myself there and feel it. There were kids, so many kids, running through the visiting room. But their laughter and voices did the opposite of bring joy. Instead, it added a sense of sadness; it was a reminder of what the inmates were missing.
Conversations through a jail phone are like no other conversations I've ever experienced. The person is a foot away from you, but yet you're miles apart.
Conversations through a jail phone are like no other conversations I've ever experienced. The person is a foot away from you, but yet you're miles apart. The interaction is cold and stale because everyone has an elephant in the room they can't talk about. See, because the conversations are recorded, no one really talks about why they're in there. No one can be honest or vulnerable. No one talks about their mistakes, because doing so is an admission of guilt. Everything is sterile, surface-level, and fake.
The enduring image that sticks in my mind still breaks my heart: At the end of the visit, Jenny told her daughter, Emily, that she loved her through the oversized phone hanging by Emily's ear. Jenny then pushed her palm up against the reinforced glass, fingers spread apart. Emily knew the drill. She mimicked the motion and left her hand there for a little bit: "Love you, too, Mom."
It was in and out of jail for Jenny. Small stints, numerous chances, more promises. Until the judge finally had enough.
During a traffic stop, the police found prescription pain killers. She was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. It was the last straw. Her felony charge was reinstated and she was sentenced.
One year in prison. Forever a felon.
When I got the news a lot of the emotions from years prior — the unforgiveness, the anger, the hate, the disappointment — began creeping back in. She had promised it wouldn't happen. She made a commitment to her kids, to us. She even tattooed the name of her young son on her wrist so that every time she lifted the crack pipe she would be reminded of why she had to stay clean. It didn't work.
After a year behind bars bartering for toiletries and fending off advances from other inmates, she got out. Again, this is where in the movie version she walks out as the sun sets, embraces her kids, picks up the pieces, and starts a new life with some Brad Pitt character that loves her for who she is not what she's done, and who has always dreamed about being a dad to now three kids by three different guys.
That was about seven years ago, and it hasn't played out at all like the movies.
The reality is, it's been hard for her to get job interviews and even harder for her to stay put once she lands a job. She's restless. Anxious. Depressed. She gravitates to men who treat her like a rusted used car. And the accommodations she had in prison are probably better than the apartments she bounces between far too frequently. She's no longer a crack addict, but she hasn't become much more than that.
And it tears me up to watch from afar.
And that's where I find myself today. Torn. My relationship with Jenny is better than it was back when I refused to even acknowledge her existence. But if I were being honest, I'd say it's hard for me to be around her. She still has the ability to go from zero to what-the-hell in about two seconds. She's unfulfilled. There are people she lets into her life that have no right being there. Family get-togethers with her puts everyone on edge. It's not because of what she's done or that we haven't forgiven her, it's that she still hasn't discovered how to pursue more. But I love her. I want more for her. I care about her.
Jordan Rogers' film on addiction has forced me (uncomfortably, if I'm honest) to think about all this again. And one of the things that I keep asking myself is, "Why?"
Why can't she do better?
Why can't she do more?
Why doesn't she see she can be something different?
I'm not going to pretend to have all the answers. And I don't think it's as simple to find them as people think. But here's where I keep landing: Not only is recovery not linear, but I truly believe that you can't just run from something and think it will be better — you also have to run to something. To someone. To God.
I think what Jenny hasn't quite realized is that life can never just be about "not doing drugs." It can't even be about "not doing drugs for my kids." That becomes real lonely really quickly. It has to be about more. There has to be a replacement for that longing. Jordan Rogers found it. Jenny's still looking for it. Still searching. I want desperately for her to find it.
I still get disappointed. I still get angry and frustrated. I even tense up from time to time. But I love her. I care about her. I want more for her. And when and until she finds what I know she needs, I'll still be here.
Maybe there's a fairytale in there after all.
To see how another former addict was able to find reconciliation, watch Jordan's story:
(Photo source: Pexels)