Tuesday morning, nine o’clock. I sat in my old clunker in the parking lot of First Presbyterian Church, nervously smoking a cigarette and watching a parade of well-dressed women disappear behind the doors, on their way to a Bible class I had told my sister, Donna , I will take. Their makeup, their hair, their skirts and their heels, everything about them seemed perfect. I looked at myself in the rear view mirror. Without makeup. Messy ponytail. I had worn my everyday clothes, jeans and a T-shirt.
I wanted to start the car and drive straight home. Not just because I looked so different from them. It was more because if these women knew how I had lived my life – knew who I really was – they would most likely bar the door.
Joining a Bible study was not something I had given much thought to before. It was my father’s department. He taught Bible history, and the Bible was his textbook. We went to church as a family, but we didn’t really talk about God otherwise. To me, the Bible was just another book. And I was not a big reader, nor a student. Not since eighth grade, anyway.
That year, I was friends with a group of girls who seemed nice at first. Then one day, at lunch, a girl asked me to empty her tray. “Take mine too,” said another. “And mine,” said another. The next thing I knew was that I staggered over to the trash can, trying not to drop the half dozen trays stacked in my arms.
I emptied the trash cans and returned to our table. The girls were gone. They had completely dumped me! I felt like such a rejection.
A terrible void opened up in me, a feeling of total desolation, as if I were alone in the world.
I had always felt different from the other girls, and their rejection confirmed it. I started hanging out with a new audience who accepted me for who I was.
“Here, try this,” one of them said, passing me a joint. I smoked it to feel even more connected to them, to feel like I belonged. Pretty soon, I was getting stoned or drunk (or both) every day with my new friends. Alcohol, weed, then high school, crack and smack. My parents didn’t know what to do.
I stopped caring about anything but getting high and escaping the feeling of abandonment that locked me up.
I managed to graduate from high school, but after that I got lost in a downward spiral of addiction. At some point, I got clean and sober for a few years. I was diagnosed with depression and took medication. About two weeks after I started taking it, someone smoked a joint in front of me. “Can I have a shot?” I asked. And just like that, I relapsed.
I begged God for help and got clean for a few days only to be tempted to use again. The cycle lasted for years. Sober. Relapse. Sober. Relapse.
I shudder to think of what might have happened to me if I hadn’t been high and wrecked my car one day in 2003. Thank God I didn’t hit anyone. Somehow I wasn’t hurt, but I was put in jail for a few weeks.
One night, sitting in that cold, lonely cell, I felt rather than heard something say to me, I am here. Or was it someone? Was God trying to get my attention? Lord help me out I prayed. Help me stay clean for good. I knew that if I went to rehab after my release, it would increase my chances of staying out of prison…and, maybe, maybe it would work.
So that’s where I went—a six-month treatment center. This is where anger against God erupted in me. I couldn’t count how many times I had asked for his help in potty training. Why had he let me suffer from this disease and remain a miserable failure all these years? Why had he let me down?
“Very well, do as you wish!” I screamed one day. “I am yours. All yours. Do what you want with me.
I didn’t understand it then, but it was the first time that I had truly entrusted my life to God’s care. And in that moment of surrender, the seed of my sobriety was planted.
I left rehab committed to my recovery like I had never been before. I found a 12-step meeting and came back to it day after day, month after month. I grew closer to my mom and sister (I was so thankful that my addiction didn’t destroy our relationship). I just wished my dad had lived to see me like this.
It was partly in his memory that I started going to church. I even took the Bible. But I couldn’t understand the scriptures and didn’t make much progress.
Overall, however, my life was pretty much on track after three years of sobriety. So why was depression still haunting me? It wasn’t the utter desolation I’d felt in eighth grade, rejected by my so-called friends. Antidepressant drugs helped. But some days I felt so tired and hollow that it took everything I had to get out of bed and drag myself to my 12-step meeting.
I didn’t want to unload my problems on my sister – she was tired of raising two small children on her own after her divorce. But lately, I had noticed that she seemed less stressed. Happier. Optimistic. One day, while we were talking on the phone, I opened the door. “It’s like I’m in a deep black hole and I can’t get out,” I said.
“When I feel overwhelmed, I recite Bible verses,” Donna said. “They remind me of the promises God makes to us.”
So that’s what helps him, I thought. I had never gone very far in my reading of the Bible, certainly not enough to know verses by heart. “You mean you memorize verses and repeat them? I asked, wanting to know more.
Donna lived an hour away, but the BSF was held in many places, so she said we could attend different places and then talk about the week’s lesson over the phone.
“Okay, I’ll try,” I said.
Now there I was, sitting in my car outside First Presbyterian Church, paralyzed with anxiety. What if I didn’t belong here? I was not a big reader. . What if it doesn’t work for me, even line by line? What if those ladies studying the Bible turned on me like those mean girls in the cafeteria in eighth grade? I stubbed out my cigarette and closed my eyes, trying to block out those horrible memories.
At that moment, a 12-step saying came to mind: Do the next right thing. Alright, I could handle that. I got out of the car. Walked to church. I opened the heavy wooden doors and entered the sanctuary. The women were on the pews and in the aisle, talking and laughing. One of them caught my attention.
I broke down, thinking, I probably have “loser” written all over me.
But she said hello and gave a friendly nod. So I nodded.
Do the next right thing.
I sat down on a bench. After a few minutes, we left the sanctuary and gathered in a classroom. “Welcome to BSF,” announced the woman up front. “I am Paula.” She separated us into small groups where we introduced ourselves.
Here we are, I thought. No turning back now. “My name is Denise and I can’t wait to learn more about the word of God.”
Paula explained how the class worked: We started by singing a few hymns. Then we formed our small groups to discuss a specific passage. To conclude, she would give a short lecture accompanied by notes. This year’s lesson was on Moses. We would start with Exodus and go through Deuteronomy. I listened carefully and took lots of notes, but didn’t say much.
The next morning, the depression lay over me like a thick, heavy blanket. I didn’t want to get up, but it was like God knew how much I needed to study his word and made me get up. I grabbed my notes and my Bible. I wanted to turn to Exodus but I opened Joshua 1. Verse nine practically skipped off the page: “Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid and do not be afraid, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
A shiver ran down my spine. God had been with me when the girls in the cafeteria rejected me? When I crashed my car? When people called me a hopeless addict? I may have been a pathetic rejection in everyone’s eyes, even my own. But never with God. This is what he had tried to tell me that night in prison: I’m here with you. Still.
I found a nice green newspaper on my bedside table and copied the verse. I took the newspaper with me wherever I went. When I felt like getting high or hiding from the world, I used my verse as a shield, whispering the words until I pushed those destructive thoughts away. Talking to Donna from class also helped.
At the BSF the following Tuesday, I silently recited the verse. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. God is with you, I said to myself. Yet it took me a month to listen to the other women in our small group talk about their lives before I finally opened up. “I had a serious drug problem,” I said. “I’m blessed to be alive and sitting here with all of you.”
The group fell silent. Oh no, did I overshare?
A classmate spoke up. “Thanks for saying that, Denise. It’s good to know we can talk about anything. At the end of the course, several women opened up about their loved ones struggling with addiction.
Another time, after a lesson, I said to Paula, “I’m so grateful for this lesson. I write certain verses in my journal and recite them when I feel down or down.
“I was also depressed,” she says. “You don’t have to believe the bad things you feel. Call me when you want.”
Gradually my depression faded. It wasn’t just the verses, it was those “perfect” women I had a lot in common with. They’re more than Tuesday morning classmates, they’re full-time friends. They even chose me (yes, me!) to encourage others to join our group by telling them my story.
Now I have eight years clean and sober. Like everyone else, I have days off, only they don’t keep me long, thanks to a little green journal filled with God’s promises and a Bible study filled with good friends.
This story first appeared in the February 2013 issue of Signposts magazine.