My family has a history of addiction—my father was an alcoholic and my brother died two years ago from complications of heroin use. Growing up in a housing project in Vancouver, Washington, I experimented with drugs as a young teenager, but I was always able to stop.
My husband, Allen, and I met in high school and we got married when I was 18. During the first few years of our marriage, drinking with friends was a favorite pastime. But when I was 30, I started attending Faith Center Church in Vancouver, not far from where I grew up. Allen joined me six months later, and gradually, the partying stopped.
Over the next few years, I got more involved with the church. I was hired as an assistant to the pastor, Glen Johnson, and managed fundraisers and other events. In 2000, I went to Rhema Bible Training College, and then got a job as an assistant pastor at Faith Center.
When our sons Seth, who is 37 now, and Travis, who's 34, were born, I wanted to make sure that we broke this generational curse of drug addiction. Allen and I were very involved with our sons' lives. We were at every sports event. I was the classroom mom. And we kept an eye on any medication that doctors prescribed them. We never allowed them to take painkillers.
When I started working at the church full time in 1989, Travis was seven and I put him in daycare. We found out about four years ago that he was abused there. Looking back, it's awful to think that's where I left him every day. Sometimes I think, why did God not warn me? Travis's crisis when he was seven really changed the way he perceived the world. It set him on the path toward self-medicating and addiction.
A Death Close to Home
On May 26, 2011, Gabe Washburn, a young man in our church and a close childhood friend of Travis's, overdosed on heroin. We knew that he and Travis used drugs together. Several of us from the church, including Travis, were in the hospital room when Gabe took his last breath five days later. Travis was sobbing in the back of the room. I went up to hug him, but he pushed me away.
I thought that Gabe's death would be the end of Travis's drug use. He did stop for a few weeks, but I think the survivor's guilt was too much. About a month later, I heard noises coming from our bathroom and I could tell Travis wasn't okay in there. He had locked himself in, and he was hunched over blocking the door. I had to knock the door down with my body to get to him. It isn't as hard as you'd think when you're afraid for your son's life. Travis had taken sleeping medication in addition to using heroin. My emotions were so raw after Gabe's death that I was crying and slapping Travis to try to revive him. Thankfully, by the time the paramedics arrived, he was breathing normally again. In my role as a chaplain, I've been on calls where I've had to deal with overdoses, but when it's your son it's different. That was one of my lowest moments.
After Gabe's death, the church family realized that we needed to take action to get a handle on the heroin epidemic that was tearing our community apart. Pastor Glen declared that our church would be a vessel for change. I met with Tim Leavitt, the mayor of Vancouver, and some other local leaders. Someone mentioned a couple, Bill and Vicky Smith, who ran an addiction recovery program in town. They were looking to change locations, so Pastor Glen and I went and talked to them. Three months later, we joined forces and started the XChange Recovery church service on Saturday nights at Faith Center Church. It will be four years in November since we merged, and attendance has grown from 50 people to 350 people. We also have a Friday night recovery service at the church's Kelso, WA, campus, which has 120 attendees and growing.
The recovery church service welcomes anyone who is struggling with addiction. The recovery pastor gets up and asks, 'Who has one week clean?' People will stand up and everyone will applaud. They'll go up to five years clean. The message is not one of condemnation or guilt. It's more that God loves you right where you are and he wants to help you. And the congregation and community are here to help you no matter what you've done in the past. It's very loving.
A lot of addicts have been burned by religion. The very people who are supposed to love them have beaten them down. So they don't even want to set foot in a church. When they come here, we try to make them feel like they're accepted. We don't care who you are, what you look like, what your past is. We say come and hear the word and let God change you.
Being a Mother and a Pastor
It's hard to be both a pastor serving the addict community and the mother of an addict. But in a way I think God has used this situation with Travis to help me in my work. I know what it's like to watch him go through withdrawals. I've had to hold him down because he was shaking so bad. For someone who hasn't experienced that, it can be scary. But I can do it because I've been there.
Like Travis, the people we minister to weren't born to be drug addicts. Each one is somebody's sister or brother, someone's son or daughter. Things happen in their lives and it takes them away from who they were supposed to be. Everybody has a purpose. Everybody has something great inside them that they were created to do and it wasn't just to stand on the street corner holding a sign, waiting for another fix.
For me, the hard part about our Saturday night service is that I see people getting better and Travis is still struggling. I do my job as a pastor. I help run the service, and I act as a mentor to other addicts and families. But as the mom of an addict, it can be really hard to be there. As a pastor, I'm telling people what God can do for them. But I'm sure there are people who look at me like yeah, well, what about your son?
When we learned about Travis's abuse and how bad his situation had gotten, I realized that I have a choice. I can either allow the addiction to destroy our family and everything my husband and I have fought for, or I can stand strong. And I choose to stand. We choose to love him through it. We realized that it's the disease of addiction, not our son, that we're fighting. Still, there are times when I feel angry, hurt, and helpless, and all I can do is pray and cry because he's not better. He's not where he should be, but I believe he'll get there. So even now, I'm standing.
There is so much more to Travis and our story that it would take a book to tell. But my heart's desire is that if you are suffering from addiction or have a loved one who is struggling, that you will never give up. Don't stop searching for the right program. Take it from me: Love never fails.
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