The Blog: On Second Thought

(Photo source: Nathan Anderson via

(Photo source: Nathan Anderson via

When I finished schooling in Boston, my head was full of ideas. I wanted to do something to help fatherless kids. Fatherlessness was crushing my close friends and my generation. LeBron James just tweeted four times about how he cries when watching Will Smith rant about his dad in Fresh Prince.

A lot of people cry over it. Me too.

I wanted to do something.

Something. I researched statistics, obscure studies, and learned mentor strategies. I read every book and article, attended seminars, roundtables, and spoke at conferences. People listened and nodded.

I had the ideas, and not only ideas; I had burning passion and drive. I wanted to do something. Something.

So I started in Los Angeles and worked on it for a year.

Things were starting to happen.

One day, Kari, now my wife, asked me, “Who are you mentoring?”

I had mentored before. I was a youth pastor in a former life. I’d mentored kids in Chicago. Hung out with another group who called themselves Misfits. But I was not mentoring anyone when she asked. Kari secretly prayed I would be.

Shortly after, a single mom in our church approached me and asked me to mentor her son.

Before that moment, I was standing on the outside. In anthropology, there are two types of field research: Etic and EmicEtic researchers make their observations from outside the culture. Emic researchers get up-close to local customs, traditions, and beliefs.

Our temptation is to stay on the outside.

To be Etic but not Emic. To attend endless conferences, read endless books, buy endless t-shirts. To dump cold water on our heads, take a selfie and hashtag it. To be about the latest ideas, like those on Mars Hill, to be waiting to see something new, like the newest post or picture online.

The people I see changing the world are doing it quietly.

Ideas, when used this way, can be very self-indulgent. All the while, we remain outside the issue, and quite possibly, outside of our own story. But the great ideas – love, justice, intimacy, reconciliation – require something of us.

The people I see changing the world are doing it quietly.

They have tenacity.

They have the courage to move to the middle: A mentor-hero named Jill. Brothers Jed and Jacob. A policeman named Cube who serves inner-city youth. Tim and Tyler, who took a burned out, horror-filled building and turned it into a place of healing. Three girls who gave up everything to love and mentor orphans in South Africa.

None are celebrities. They don’t have many social media followers. They don’t brag about it. 

None are celebrities. They don’t have many social media followers. They don’t brag about it.

They simply live in the risk of the middle.

As Donald Miller writes in Scary Close:

“When the story of earth is told, all that will be remembered is the truth we exchanged. The vulnerable moments. The terrifying risk of love and the care we took to cultivate it.”

Love requires us to take that terrifying risk. To take that first dangerous step into the frigid waters. To move from head to heart and hands. To move from the outside to the inside, from Etic to Emic.

Love requires us to stand in the middle.

This blog post originally appeared on Storyline and was republished with permission. 

(Photo source:

(Photo source:

I recently overheard two women discussing their fantasy boyfriends over coffee. They were chatting about their favorite “celebs”: analyzing their “hotness”, what they love about them, why they would make amazing boyfriends, and how amazing it would be to meet them face to face…or better yet…

A while back on the news, I listened to reporters praise a pubescent teenager for asking his Sports Illustrated supermodel crush (probably his mom’s age…) to come with him to prom. How brave and courageous of him, they said. What an honorable thing to do in stepping out of his comfort zone and taking risks to engage his fantasies, they said.

To top it off, just last week I noticed the room of one of my friends’ teenage children – plastered with posters of dreamy celebrities and attractive musicians staring at her each night as she dozed off to sleep.

It’s amazing how fixated we are on fantasy.  So much so, that it’s almost become the norm.

We live in a society in which I’ve actually heard people claim they have literally fallen “in love” with celebrities, movie stars, porn-stars and supermodels.  But the problem is that they are falling in love…from a distance.

Somehow, keeping people at a distance makes us want them even more. 

There is something safe about keeping people at a distance.  There is something appealing about the unknown that makes it attractive; something about the invisible that is seductive. Whether it’s the supermodel on the cover of a magazine, or that guy at work that you’ve never actually talked to.

Somehow, keeping people at a distance makes us want them even more.

Because keeping people at a distance is never messy. Loving them from far away, is never hard.  It isn’t mixed with the reality of pain, vulnerability and selflessness; nor does it know the sacrifices of forgiveness, and grace. But to really love, as C.S. Lewis says, is to be vulnerable.

So many men and women today are falling in love with a dream; falling in love with someone or something that doesn’t really exist, by taking the character of someone they don’t really know and adding the story that they find themselves living in the world of fantasy.

Falling in love with a dream, falling in love with an idea, but ultimately- falling in love with a lie.

And this isn’t just about crushing on Hollywood celebs, because fantasy can permeate so many other parts of our life. The bottom line is this…

Fantasy is living in what could be, rather than living in the reality of what actually is.

From pornography, to affairs, to toxic relationships.  The list could go on and on, but in each of these you will find men and women, imprisoned within the confines of a dream.  Stuck in a life they make up with people who don’t actually exist. We’ve succumbed to a life fueled by fantasy rather than by reality.

There is something provocative about living in a dream, but there is something even more paralyzing about it. 

The married man who glances at the beautiful office secretary, mentally engaging in a relationship with her- forgetting her flaws, neglecting her deficits.

The single woman, analyzing and obsessing over a man she’s hardly talked to. Imagining what life could be if, and when…only to have her heart broken by his lack of interest. 

The housewife, trapped in the fantasy and excitement of her romance novels, leaving her own reality behind instead of dealing with it. 

The young woman stuck in an abusive marriage, making excuses and living for the dream of who he could be rather than acknowledging who he actually is and taking steps toward safety. 

The lonely young man, spending hours every evening trapped by the pornographic images on his computer screen, growing numb to the beauty of the real woman…and of real life. 

There is something provocative about living in a dream, but there is something even more paralyzing about it.

When we live in a dream, we lose sight of what’s real. We exchange our realities for something that can never actually exist.  We live for what could be, and end up missing what really is.  And in the end we are led into disappointment, disillusionment, and destruction.

We set ourselves up for failure by seeking to find this thing that doesn’t actually exist, setting expectations that cannot be met by ourselves, much less anyone else.

When we live in a dream, we stop really living.

Though they might not be as easy as Hollywood romance, real life and real relationships are well worth the investment.  With the help of God’s grace, forgiveness, and selflessness they can flourish into far greater than a simple dream, because they can become your glorious reality.

When we live in a dream, we stop really living.

Close your eyes to the temptation of fantasy, and instead, open your eyes to the reality of life here and now.  And if reality isn’t what you’d hoped for it to be, than make a change. Challenge yourself to learn and to grow; to forgive and mature. Deal with things in your past, face the things in your present, and become the person you want to be. Don’t live a passive life, but instead create a reality that you can be proud of.

Because only then are you able to truly live.

This blog post originally appeared on True Love Dates and was republished with permission. 

Debra Fileta is a licensed professional counselor, speaker, and author of the book True Love Dates: Your Indispensable Guide to Finding the Love of Your Life. You may also recognize her voice from over 150 articles at Relevant Magazine or Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

For another story about being trapped in  fantasy, watch Jason Castro’s new White Chair Film:



If it weren’t for Professor Xavier, the X-Men would be a bunch of dysfunctional deadbeats living in fear and isolation. It wasn’t until Professor X sought them out, looked each of them in the eye, and convinced them that the very characteristics they hated about themselves actually had the potential to save the world, that they began to step into their true identities as super-humans.

What draws our souls to superhero narratives like X-Men? I believe it’s because they all carry a common theme : that the more adversity someone faces, the more they are able to positively influence their environment for good.

I believe this theme transcends fiction.

There are countless real-life examples of this playing out in individuals and communities everywhere. Brokenness will always be a willing canvas for beauty. Yet for some reason, it’s still easier for us to believe in a less wondrous outcome, one that takes our negative circumstances and simply neutralizes them.

. . . the more adversity someone faces, the more they are able to positively influence their environment for good.

We’d rather hope the gang member just end his life of crime than dare to imagine him becoming a devoted father or running for city counsel.

It’s simply safer not to get our hopes up.

Instead, we focus on what we can control.

We focus our energy on placing a band aid on the scar with the expectation that the body will heal (bringing a negative situation back to neutral). What the superhero narrative declares about life, however, is that the scar itself actually makes the body stronger (the negative creates a positive).

Our own stories reflect this truth. Often, we see our failures as liabilities, things to be forgotten, edited or removed all together. If it were up to us, we’d tear out every page in our story that represented the negative parts of our life. In short, our shame makes us terribly boring authors.

What if we decided to step boldly into the reality that our weaknesses give us an unfair advantage?

What if we decided to step boldly into the reality that our weaknesses give us an unfair advantage? Have you struggled with sobriety? You have a unique opportunity to connect deeply with others who also struggle. Ever felt abandoned? You’re probably better at creating community because you know exactly what people need.

I know this is easier said than done.

It’s a constant fight I have but thankfully others have come alongside me to remind me of what’s true. They’ve been voices of clarity and wisdom when the villains are running rampant.

So allow me to be your Professor Xavier for a minute. Your story is your gift that you bring to the world. Please don’t censor it. Instead, bring it with boldness to the people that need to experience it most.

The most powerful words we can say to each other is “me too.”

This blog post originally appeared on Storyline and was republished with permission.

(Photo source: Felix Russell-Saw via

(Photo source: Felix Russell-Saw via

It was our eldest son’s 21st birthday, and our family had gathered for a celebration. Before dinner, we were sitting in the living room when Hunter pulled up his sleeve, proudly displaying a motorcycle tattoo on his forearm, a gift from his roommate (who I plan to give a pony!)

In a not-so-great moment of fatherhood, I blurted out, “Please tell me that is a henna tattoo.” It was not.

My displeasure was not well concealed.

But I attempted to be positive. “That certainly is a tattoo,” I tried. Nita, his mother who birthed him with clean, beautiful arms, didn’t do much better.

He explained, “I got it to remind me of my year in Uganda, riding to the school everyday on my motorcycle.”

And I thought, There are a lot of other things in Uganda you could get tattooed on your arm – an itsy, bitsy Ugandan flag, an image of a miniature Ugandan hummingbird, or a tiny letter “u ” for instance.

I’ll admit it.

I’m old school and don’t get the tattoo thing.

I know it’s quite popular. But all I can do is fast forward to old people with sagging skin, a once vibrant motorcycle now looking like it was hit by a semi, its tires having melted in the ensuing fireball!

“I got it to remind me of my year in Uganda, riding to the school everyday on my motorcycle.”

Fast forward to a month later when our family went to a movie during the holidays. When we returned home, Hunter went upstairs while we began to make dinner.

Soon afterwards, he called for me.

I went up to his room where he sat on the floor, looking down, tears streaming down his face.

“I can’t take it.”

“What do you mean son?”

“I spent a year in Uganda with kids in a school who had very little, but they were thankful and happy. And the Ugandan people were grateful, satisfied with what they had, not entitled to what they lacked. While they had few possessions and experienced hardships, they lived with gratitude.”

He continued to explain.

“And then a couple of hours ago, I was standing in line with people who were complaining that the line was too long and the popcorn was too expensive! It’s crazy! Dad, it’s been so hard to be back here. I miss Uganda.”

We talked for a long while – about what he’d experienced, what he’d seen, and what he now knows. And about the ache that comes with transitions.

Later that night, I thought about the motorcycle on his arm, and how he looks at it every day. It reminds him of one of the most pivotal years of his life, of hopeful children, of dusty roads and the farm he planted, of grandmothers in villages and friends who worked alongside him.

It finally hit me.

The tattoo was his journal, a story etched on his arm. And when Hunter sees it, he remembers those days when he was changed, and when love was rich and deep.

I get it now.

People tell their story in different ways, but rarely with words.

Sometimes it’s how they carry themselves or the way they wear their hair. And sometimes it’s the scar on their wrist or a frown or a smile on their face.

It’s up to you and me to be attentive to the story they wear, and to invite them to tell it.

The evidence is there.

It’s up to you and me to be attentive to the story they wear, and to invite them to tell it. It means being willing to watch for a story to emerge from unexpected places.

As for me, I probably won’t be getting a tattoo anytime soon. I’m too close to that age when tattoos get distorted and droopy. But I’m going to spring for Hunter’s next one. I want him to keep telling stories the way he wants to.

Of course, if he chose to use a leather-bound book and a nice pen instead, I would not object.

This blog post originally appeared on Storyline and was republished with permission. 

(Photo source:

(Photo source:

My addiction isn’t the kind that comes with name-recognition or support groups or help. It isn’t understood in a way that allows people to nod their heads, purse their lips and offer empathy. I’m not addicted to drugs or alcohol or sex or any of those other things that, while stigmatized and harmful, have treatment options and can be dealt with.

To deal with my addiction, I don’t have to abstain from being around a substance, and it’s not really the kind of thing I can tell others to watch out for. Because my addiction is private, practiced in secret, the kind of thing I can hide from anybody and everybody for months at a time.

It’s the kind of addiction that can slowly destroy me from the inside out without anyone knowing.

My addiction is a razor blade, the dull edge of a pair of sewing scissors, a shard of a broken mirror, a safety pin (if I’m desperate enough).

My addiction is the sight of blood on my arms, the scars marring my skin, the release of emotional pressure that I experience when I cause myself physical harm.

I don’t know why it works that way — I don’t know why hurting myself physically makes me feel less emotional pain. I just know that when my brain feels like it’s going to explode because of how loud I’m screaming at myself; that when my body is wracked with sobs to the point that I can’t breathe and I lose my voice; that when my soul is screaming out in agony; I think that the only way to make it stop is to take a blade to my skin and cut.

But it’s an insidious addiction, like they all are, because instead of actually helping me, it just makes it worse. Because I feel shame at every cut, shame so vitriolic it makes me throw up. Because there’s never a time when hurting yourself more is the answer to pain. Because giving in is not the way to overcome.

Because giving in is not the way to overcome.

According to the all-knowing web, an addiction is the ingestion of a substance or engagement in an activity that leads to momentary pleasure but, in the long run, causes harm. Is there any other way to describe cutting?

In the moment, I feel pleasure. I like the sight of blood on my arms; I feel emotional release and the pressure of pain is lessened; I now have a visible way of telling people that I’m hurting. For all those reasons, I continuously fall back into the trap of thinking that cutting is a good idea.

Yet in the long run, it does more harm than good. I’m literally, physically harming myself, leaving scars that will last for years if not longer. And it never works the way I expect it to.

 I struggle to find the way to vocalize my hurt when I’m going through a depressive episode.

I tell people — counselors, doctors, concerned friends, etc — that half the reason I cut is because I’m crying out for help. Despite the fact that my business is words, I struggle to find the way to vocalize my hurt when I’m going through a depressive episode. I don’t know how to call someone up and say, “I’m going through a hard time, can you walk with me/pray for me/help?”

Instead, I suffer in silence and wear my cuts on my sleeve (literally), waiting for someone to notice and ask about it so I can try and explain.

Which is a totally flawed system, because people aren’t going to come right out and ask why there are marks on my arms; it’s an awkward conversation and one not many people want to have.

I think my best friend and college roommate is a lifesaver, because she wasn’t scared to confront me when, barely two months into our college career, she noticed scratches on my shoulder. She’s the one who took me to the counselor to get help. And even though I haven’t been able to quit, I always know I can turn to her when something goes wrong.

I think my best friend and college roommate is a life saver, because she wasn’t scared to confront me . . .

Half of the reason I cut is because I’m depressed.

But here’s why I call my cutting an addiction: because the other half of the reason I do is simply that I want to. I know it’s harmful and pointless in the end, but I’ve got a taste for it.

I won’t pretend to have all the answers. Even when I make public promises to stop, I keep falling back into the trap. But I know that right now, in this moment, I don’t want to ever cut again; the last time I did, I felt so sick that I physically threw up and then curled into a ball and sobbed.

That wasn’t a pleasant feeling, the knowledge that I’d regressed, broken a promise and hurt myself. I’m gonna remember that feeling in the future, and I’m going to use it to keep from going back yet again.

Because what I’ve finally figured out is that this addiction is harmful; to me, to the people who love me, to anyone who might be going through the same thing and tempted to react similarly.

Cutting isn’t the answer, I know that much. I know it’s not healthy and, instead, actively harmful, and I don’t want to do it anymore. Not even a little.

Can I ask you to seek help?

I don’t want anyone else to do it, either, but I know that cutting comes from a place of intense pain and if you’re going through that, I’m so, so sorry. I wish I could help. If you’re struggling with an addiction to cutting or even just the temptation, can I ask you something?

Can I ask you to seek help? Talk to a friend, a family member, or call a helpline. Recognize that cutting is a symptom of a deeper problem. You can stay anonymous and get help. It’s so important.

I don’t want you to hurt.

Karis is a grad student at NYU in New York City. Her writing has appeared online with Seventeen as well as Good Housekeeping. She blogs at To stay informed about all her writing, sign up here.

If you’re struggling with thoughts of self-harm, there is hope. You can call 1-800-273-TALK to chat with someone about it. For a list of other resources, visit the website of To Write Love on Her Arms here.


(Photo source: I Am Second)

(Photo source: I Am Second)

It started off as a clear and cloudless day in New York City. The alarm clock announced a new day. I grabbed a quick shower and rushed to put on my suit in preparation for a string of important meetings. I said goodbye to my pregnant wife, Mary, as we promised to meet up for lunch where we both worked, the World Trade Center.

But that would never happen.

That same day, terror struck. My office, on the 81st floor of the north tower, was decimated at 8:46 a.m. by American Flight 11. Just 18 minutes later, United Flight 175 struck the south tower where Mary had her office on the 71st floor. While we both survived, too many others didn’t. It looked like evil had won.
September 11 changed my perspective on so many things. After seeing death up close, I was forced to recognize an important truth: When life ends, you take nothing with you. All of the successes and wealth you created are left behind. Empty you came and empty you leave. And that led to another realization: Life is best lived taking risks and trying to leave a mark.

It’s those two truths that led me to India in 2010.

I found myself in New Delhi in the red light district, looking for ways to help heal the brokenness there. As I watched the darkness and pain masked by fake smiles and bright lights, I began to feel a connection with the women. I was trapped in a building on 9/11 and thought there was no way out. In an even bigger way, the women I was seeing were trapped, sometimes for years, with no hope for tomorrow. It was slavery.

The second lesson from 9/11 kept playing over and over: leave a mark.

That’s when YouCanFree.Us was born.

Just like the first responders that raced into those towers 15 years ago to rescue people like me, we’re trying to go into some of the darkest places and pull out women on the brink.

Right now, we’re operating in India and Poland in order to end one of the biggest crises of our time. Currently, there are almost 46 million people living as modern day slaves because of the evil of human trafficking.

It’s time to end it. We can’t let evil win.

As we reflect on the horrors of September 11 this year and remember all those who died, let’s let the gravity of that tragedy motivate us to stop another.

I still remember the cries for help of those around me in the World Trade Center. I’m not going to sit idly by as as so many women scream out to be rescued — even if those screams can’t always be heard.

Sujo John is a speaker and the founder of YouCanFree.Us, a national non-profit. To see how you can help fight human trafficking, visit the organization’s website.

For more on Sujo’s story, watch his film below:

(Photo source:

(Photo source:

The walls came crashing down one morning after an evening that I shouldn’t necessarily be alive to share about. What started out as a normal, casual evening celebrating a friends engagement turned into a nightmare. I was triggered by an emotion, (more like 10,000 emotions), that led me to consuming a dangerous amount of alcohol and prescription medications – plural. There was no conscious decision to do so, I didn’t set out to be reckless that night. Nevertheless, my emotions led me to a near-death place. God kept me around for some reason, maybe for this very reason. It was my rock bottom. And it felt like the most excruciatingly painful day — the darkest day — that I’d ever have.

Funny how God works though; He’s full of paradoxes. That very dark day turned out to be the very brightest and best day. Coming to the end of your rope is excruciatingly painful, but oh so beautiful. That’s what happens right before God’s about to do big things. And that rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I began to rebuild my life on.

There was no tap-dancing around it anymore, no more facade to uphold. My addiction was as clear as day, and roaring louder than ever before. For so long, I had been a little fragile porcelain doll set up on a very high shelf, just waiting to crash. And crash, I did. I knew at that moment, it was time to ask for help.

I felt such a sweet sense of relief. But I wasn’t the only one who felt relief, my loved ones did as well. For so long, none of us were able to put a finger on what exactly was going on inside of me, and now we were able to identify this ugly thing as addiction. I didn’t know what I was in for, I didn’t even know what recovery was, all I knew is that it was an end to silently struggling. I could speak now, I could breathe. And the love that poured in from my family and friends became the little lifeboat that carried me into recovery.

We all have a team in life, whether we’re aware of it or not. I call my closest loved ones ‘Team Caroline,’ and I trust my team when I don’t trust myself. I was at a place in life where I needed someone to tell me what to do. I was ready and willing, but I needed someone to make the decision for me. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.

The decision was clear, I needed to go to treatment. Treatment, rehab, whatever you prefer to call it. I used to insist on calling it treatment, because, to me, rehab had all this shameful stigma and God forbid anyone knew I went to rehab. I thank God every day that He’s changed my heart on such matters: I cannot afford to care about such details, about what people will think of me in life. What freedom there is in that.

It was as if God was waiting for me to finally give up, raise my open hands, and say “I cannot do this on my own anymore and I’m all out of ideas, I don’t know what to do; Can you please do this for me?” Once I did that, God started making moves, and fast. At that time, my sister worked for a recovery organization, and she had resources upon resources for my fearful and confused family. She was able to make a few phone calls, and before we knew it, we had a list of top treatment centers that had an open bed for me.

It was as if God was waiting for was for me to finally give up, raise my open hands, and say “I cannot do this on my own anymore… Can you please do this for me?”

But first, I had to submit an application to the treatment centers and then be interviewed, which I found kind of funny. Do I need to be a certain level of screwed up to be admitted? Were they going to evaluate whether or not I was desperate enough? Would they deem me a 7 on a scale of 10 of messed up and in trouble?

Nonetheless, I was accepted. And getting accepted into rehab brought me to tears like no other acceptance letter I could have ever received. I remember where I was when the call came. My sister, boyfriend, and I were grabbing a late brunch at one of my favorite Austin diners. After a lengthy wait, we were seated. As we sat there perusing over the menu, quietly skipping over the bottomless brunch drinks, my phone rang. I looked at my sister and boyfriend, and all of our eyes got big, listening to the phone ring for a second as if time had stopped, followed by a hurried, “Answer it! Answer it!”

I stepped outside. They told me that I was accepted, that help was on the way. I ran inside with teary eyes and the two sprung out of their seats and hugged me, jumping up and down, tears in their eyes, making a partial scene in the diner. But I didn’t care. In that moment I knew that everything was going to be alright.

After brunch, my sister took me shopping. Apparently there’s a dress code at some rehab centers, and no way was my sister going to let me go away for six weeks without being properly prepared. We laughed and called the look, “rehab chic,” a mix of leggings, casual tees and cozy sweaters.

The evening before I went to rehab, we had a celebratory dinner. That may sound strange, given the circumstances. And it was a little bit strange. But as a family, we chose to rejoice over the fact that I was at the end of my rope, and it was an end to an era. I still have the pictures that were taken that evening, and despite our fears and confusion at the time, the joy we had was evident.

Twenty-four hours later, I was on a plane accompanied by my Dad off to North Carolina where I would spend the next six weeks receiving intensive treatment for my addiction.

I was so full of mixed emotions that day, with absolutely no idea what to expect. I was so hopeful, but so unbelievably fearful, too. So what did I do? I headed straight for the airport wine bar where I managed to drink two glasses of wine ever so casually in my rehab-chic outfit, talking on the phone with a friend, as if I didn’t have a care in the world. Underneath the rehab chic, I was scared out of my mind, and I couldn’t even imagine getting on the plane without being slightly tipsy.

During the full day of traveling, I consumed a lot of wine, and I was sneaky about most of it. I was in the business of numbing the fears and doubts I had about this new stage I was entering into. I even managed to get in a cab from our hotel at 1:00am in Charlotte to head over to the only corner store open to buy a bottle of wine, because even after eight glasses, I couldn’t fall asleep. But no matter how much I drank, the loneliness and fear still wouldn’t go away. I ended up with my head in the toilet, tears streaming down my face as my little body nearly convulsed as it tried to get every ounce of alcohol out of my system.

I managed to get a little sleep that night, and we woke up the next morning and drove out to the beautiful mountains of North Carolina where the rehab center was tucked away quietly. I hugged my Dad around the neck and said goodbye, feeling like a child all over again, wishing he could do the work for me. But I knew it was me time, go time.


Despite three whirlwind days of being humbled beyond belief, I still managed to have my pride partially in tact. So, when they sent me to the detox unit on my first day in rehab, I looked at them with a face of confusion – Who? Me? I’m not an alcoholic. You fools don’t know what you’re talking about. I just drink wine, the classy shit. Reason number 1,203,325 that I wasn’t an alcoholic or addict: I didn’t have shakes. I didn’t have withdrawals. I never drank in the morning or afternoon. I never drank on the job. I never fell over at bars. Never got a DWI. Never touched a hard drug in my life. And I didn’t experience cravings.

But shakes or not, it was my first night in eight years that I had slept without a chemical in my body. I slept peacefully and hard for the next six weeks. It felt so out of this world good to finally start treating my body with the care that it deserved. It was as if my body was making up for all of the lost time, and I reveled at the sweetness of being able to remember what I read the night before when I woke up in the morning. However, It was still not easy getting up; my body was so out of whack coming off of sleeping medication that my mornings were colored with grogginess, dizziness, and sometimes even a minor fainting spell. But I was grateful. Anything beat what it felt like before.

While in treatment, I worked hard. I cried a lot. I prayed a lot. I slept a lot. I got hugged a lot. And I learned more about myself than ever in my life before. We drudged up the past and we waded knee deep in it, only to find healing. I say ‘we’ because I did not do this alone, and people lovingly and gently walked with me through it. Struggling silently and alone was no longer an option in recovery. I learned the way of acceptance and forgiveness — self-acceptance and self-forgiveness being of first order. And I learned that if I ever wanted a shot at a full, rich life, it was going to have to happen without alcohol and Ambien.

That’s a no brainer, right? But that thought did not come easy to me. I still have to accept it on a daily basis.

When I returned to the real world, to be quite honest with you, I didn’t know what the hell to do with myself. I suddenly felt the heavy weight and stigma of the badge I carried on me – so unbearably misunderstood. How will I explain myself to the world? To my friends? Everything felt different, and in a way, everything was different, because I was different. It was now clear to me that my addiction affected every single part of my life, and my recovery and sobriety affected every aspect of my life, too. I was still defrosting from all the time I had numbed emotions and not dealt with them. I was starting to feel some things for the first time, just without a glass of wine to take the edge off, which makes the defrosting very painful.

Everything around me became a trigger to drink. Every song on the radio, every commercial, every grocery store, every vacation, every weekend, every engagement, every brunch, every movie theater, every restaurant, every football game, every wedding ALL made me feel the sting that I no longer could partake and drink like the rest of the people around me.

Relapse is a part of my story, but it doesn’t have to be a part of yours.

When I came back from treatment, I thought I had recovered. No doubt I was stronger, but I had to learn the hard way that I will never be invincible when it comes to that first drink, and I will always be recovering. They say addiction is a progressive disease, that it only gets worse. A couple of times in the past year, I have put that theory to the test. The theory passed in flying colors: Every time I picked up a drink again, it only got worse, darker, more hopeless and the consequences and hurts deeper. I picked up my shovel and dug to an even deeper rock bottom. Relapse is a part of my story, but it doesn’t have to be a part of yours.

After falling though, I got back up. And I’m told that even if you fall, if you get back up, then it’s not failure. All of that said, I got through it one day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time. I lived off of the love and peace I found in the rooms of AA, where I found acceptance and felt acceptance. Although the people in the rooms were once strangers to me, worlds apart, they became my family. And they loved me when I couldn’t love myself, and they spoke truth to me and reminded me daily: It gets better. I wouldn’t believe them if I hadn’t seen it for myself in the rooms of AA: the blind restored to sight, and the lame picking up their mats and walking again.

Yes. It gets better. And it is getting better. I cling to this, because today it is still hard. I still miss drinking, I still long for my old social life. I still can’t imagine forever without it. But here’s the thing: I don’t have to. All I have to do is get through today, one day at a time. Sometimes it feels like a long 24 hours, but if I’m able to abandon myself entirely to God, I can get through it. And I believe with every fiber of my being that the life ahead of me is so very good.

My words and how I’ve chosen to communicate myself may sound smooth and pretty, but this journey has been anything but that. My addiction hurt, and it nearly killed me. But it’s important for me to say that I was not the only one hurt by it. The ones that loved me hardest through it all are also the ones that have been hurt by it the most. The effects of addiction reach far beyond the addict. And I’m eternally grateful to those who have traveled this uphill road with me, in particular, my mom, dad and sister.

Today, instead of walking around with the stigma of addiction sewn on like a scarlet letter, I proudly wear my badge of recovery with honor, knowing that I’ve chosen a courageous and narrow path – the path that saved my life.

Today, instead of walking around with the stigma of addiction sewn on like a scarlet letter, I proudly wear my badge of recovery with honor, knowing that I’ve chosen a courageous and narrow path – the path that saved my life. I still have to watch diligently for shame creeping in, because I know when it does, I’m game over. I gratefully sit in the rooms of AA on Friday and Saturday nights, and manage to do so without throwing a massive, raging pity party. Why? Because I am one of the luckiest.

I am gratefully sober today. I laugh more purely. I connect with people and the world around me in a deeper and more meaningful way. I have a level of compassion and empathy I never thought possible. I fall asleep without chemicals and I wake up without hangovers (!!!). I am at ease in my own skin and I like who I see in the mirror. Life is still life – unpredictable and often not fair – it is not particularly rose-colored now that I’m in recovery, I just now know how to accept life on life’s terms. By relying on God, He enables me to match calamity with serenity.

I tried to think of a clever, compelling way to end my story, but then I remember how I started out my story. I declared that there was no lovely bow to tie around it at the end, because I’m still in the middle, and I am still learning.

I once heard that we all need to write the story that we need to read. Well, I’m writing mine. And please, please, don’t be afraid to write yours, too.

This is the fourth and final installment of a series. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

We were never meant to walk this road alone. If you have questions about Caroline’s journey to recovery or your own, please comment below. She would love to hear from you.  



(Source: Pexels)

(Source: Pexels)

This is part two of a two-part series. To read part one, click here.

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.”

Jenny and her oldest daughter, Emily. (Source: Jonathon M. Seidl)

Jenny and her oldest daughter, Emily. (Source: Jonathon M. Seidl)


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.

Me and Jenny about a year ago. (Source: Jonathon M. Seidl)

Me and Jenny about a year ago. (Source: Jonathon M. Seidl)

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.

Jonathon M. Seidl is the editor-in-chief of I Am Second.  You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@jonseidl) and like him on Facebook.

To see how another former addict was able to find reconciliation, watch Jordan’s story: 

(Photo source:

(Photo source:

In high school, my guidance counselor/health teacher/Bible teacher (it was a small school, OK?) told me that in middle school, you discover who you are.

That’s when I had a major/minor freakout because, as a ninth grader, I had less than no clue who I was. You see, I spent all of middle school acting like a sponge, or a mirror, or some other form of non-personality-having inanimate object. I picked up on what I thought others wanted to see and gave that to them. And when I reached high school I realized I was nothing…empty.

My teacher’s words truck fear into my heart. I felt like I had missed my window, my last shot. I knew already what I wanted to do with my life (be a writer), but as for what my identity was, the core of my being… Nope, not a clue.

Things changed over the course of high school. I figured out a bit of who I was — I figured out I was an extrovert, a writer, and a depressed girl. I figured out I was loyal and willing to fight someone who betrayed me or my friends. I realized I did have a personality, after all. I figured out that as much as I loved my life in Europe, I missed America always, and I couldn’t wait to live in the suburbs and drive a car and have a white picket fence and children and marry a doctor.

And just as I was figuring myself out, I went to college, and over the course of four years, everything changed.

And just as I was figuring myself out, I went to college, and over the course of four years, everything changed. Some things just developed — like my understanding of myself as a funny person, the fact that I am more of an extrovert every day, the fact that I am severely and chronically depressed, the fact that I’m loyal to an actual fault.

Other things changed completely. Living in a Kentucky town of about 6,000 people showed me that I’m not meant for the suburbs; a school trip to New York City showed me that I am meant for an intensely urban lifestyle. I realized that I have little desire to give birth to children, that I’d rather live in an apartment than have a lawn, that I’m more independent than tied to my mother’s apron strings and, at 19 (the age at which I’d always though I wanted to marry), I was by no means ready for a relationship, much less a marriage.

I graduated a much different person than I began; not just physically (though I did gain about 70 pounds over the four years), but emotionally and mentally. In some ways I was much stronger, better able to withstand hardship. In others I’d been broken and reformed in a different way.

And all of this showed me that, contrary to my guidance counselor’s belief, identity isn’t a fixed thing we discover in childhood. Rather, it’s flexible, mutable, something that grows and changes as much as we do.

And all of this showed me that, contrary to my guidance counselor’s belief, identity isn’t a fixed thing we discover in childhood.

I’m just over a year out from graduation, five days away from my one-year anniversary with New York City, and I have nowhere near the identity I thought I would have when I began this grad school, urban adventure.

Then, I thought I would embark upon August 2016 a mere semester from receiving my master’s degree, with two journalism internships under my belt and another one before me, ready to start a third. I thought I would face the future as a reporter, that I would already have written a book worthy of publication, that I would be past the need for a “day job” and would, instead, be a full-time writer doing only what I was passionate about.

That’s not really how things turned out. I’m going to take a semester off and then spread my final three classes over two semesters, thus finishing my degree a full year later than I was supposed to. In addition, I have completed zero journalism internship and at this point I’m not sure if I want to be a reporter or simply a writer. My books are in various states of dishevelment and not ready for publication, although I’m actively working on getting them there, and I have the epitome of a day job: a stint as a pizza girl.

That’s right. I spend my days on my feet behind a counter, selling slices of pizza to sometimes rude, sometimes generous, always hungry customers. I have a collection of burns on my hands and forearms from the oven I heat up the slices with, my feet are constantly throbbing, and I’ve come to crave tips like a zombie craves brains.

I’m not where I thought I would be.

I’m realizing that who I am is not always who I thought I would be; that as we grow, our perception of ourselves and the reality of us grows as well; and most importantly, that that is OK.

But my job as a pizza slinger allows me to stay in this city and is fodder for so many stories that will make you roll on the floor laughing, and the time off from school will allow me to focus on my mental health and my novel pursuits.

I’m realizing that who I am is not always who I thought I would be; that as we grow, our perception of ourselves and the reality of us grows as well; and most importantly, that that is OK.

Because here’s the thing: who I am is not determined by my circumstances; it’s not even determined by my personality, which has a tendency of changing as I grow and mature (and sometimes immature). I’ve found that who I am is determined by who God says I am.

My primary identity is found in Him. Everything else is just extra, just icing on the cake, just a way to make a living and leave a legacy. As long as I remember that I am, first and foremost, God’s, it makes everything that changes around me more bearable.

It’s OK if I’m not where I thought I’d be. If I’m not with who I thought I’d be with. I’ve found comfort — true, lasting comfort — in trusting that I’m exactly where He wants me to be. And if you haven’t found Him yet, I don’t expect you to completely understand that. But I hope some day you will.

For more on discovering yourself, check out Kirsten’s short film: 

Miss America 2008, Kirsten Haglund, opens up about relapsing and her new I Am Second film. (Photo Source: I Am Second)

Miss America 2008, Kirsten Haglund, opens up about relapsing and her new I Am Second film. (Photo Source: I Am Second)

In 2008, Kirsten Haglund became one of the most recognizable figures in the country when she won the Miss America pageant in only her third pageant ever. Instantly, she became the embodiment of perfection. But as she traveled the country she began telling a different story.

Years before being crowned, she was in a dark place. As a young ballet dancer, she began chasing perfection and turned on her own body: She became anorexic.

The rules she created for herself controlled her. And it all came crashing down one day on a treadmill where she realized she was meant for so much more.

But while that started her down a road to recovery, the path wasn’t always straight. There were hiccups, detours, and relapses. In a wide-ranging interview with I Am Second, she delivered a message to those who struggle with addiction and eating disorders that have found, and may find, themselves relapsing.

“It’s very normal. It’s very common. Don’t beat yourself up about it,” she implored during a video interview from her New York City apartment.

“It’s not ideal, but it is OK. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t get up, brush yourself off, and make the next right choice. … One mistake does not have to mean the end of your recovery. It’s common, It happens. It happened to me.”

“It’s not a death sentence,” she added.

What happens if a slip-up turns into something more? Reach out and get help, she said. Recovery isn’t a perfect process, and there are those who understand that and can help.

“Perfection doesn’t exist!”

Watch the full interview below, in which she also talks about the craziest story during her time as Miss America, the parts of the film that made her tear up, and even a message for all the Gabby Douglas haters. (The relapse part starts at the 27:45 mark.)

And be sure to check out Haglund’s full I Am Second film: