Bracy Sams: A Purpose-Driven Life

Bracy Sams: A Purpose-Driven Life

Bracy Sams is the first person many new clients see when they arrive here to CORE.  He is our men’s intake specialist in Branson.  He also manages Hawk House, a residence for new clients.  Bracy has been with us for more than seven years.  

He originally hails from rural Arkansas, Carroll County to be exact, but you’d never know it looking at him.  Judging by his appearance, Bracy looks like he should be on the back of a Harley Davidson, or even standing watch on a 19th century sailing frigate.  He has a kind, polite disposition and a quiet strength about him.  He’s the kind of man who lets you have your say before he tells you what you need to hear.  Bracy clearly is passionate about recovery, too.  Letting weary and hurting people know there’s a “way out” is among the best parts of his job:

It’s hearing the hope in parents’ voices when I call and tell them, yes, he’s accepted.  And talking to him, who’s so broken that he’s crying, and to let him know that, hey, there’s a way out.  Just get here.  I’ll prove it to you.  It’s being part of getting people out of the dark, out of the misery.  

We met Bracy in CORE’s church sanctuary.  It’s really a giant multipurpose room, and on the day of our interview all the lights are off.  The room appears dark and cavernous except for a single overhead light illuminating our spot.  Talking about his past couldn’t have been easy, but Bracy knows the drill.  Reliving the hell of addiction is the sacrifice we make when giving testimony.  Our hope is that someone listening will connect, see that there is a path forward, and ultimately find recovery through a personal relationship with God.  

With the simplest of prompts, Bracy begins his story, taking us back to a time when Ronald Reagan was president, the space shuttle Columbia already made its first flight, and Indiana Jones had become a household name:

I was twelve.  I got to that age where my parents let me stay overnight with friends.  One friend had two older brothers who were drinking and having fun, smoking weed.  The first time was when his brother had passed out in his room.  We snuck in there and took his bottle and his weed.  We went out to a tree house and laughed and carried on.  We did that a couple of times until the third weekend.  I asked his brother for it because now I really wanted it.  He said, no, but I’ll sell you some.  That’s how it all started.

At the tender age of twelve, young Bracy Sams already was hooked.  He’d buy bags of marijuana and bring them home to his parent’s farm to find a secluded place.  By the time he was in high school Bracy was a regular user.  Even getting caught at school didn’t phase him.  “I just started being smarter, more careful,” he explains.  Once he began driving himself to school, Bracy was getting high every day, and the worst was yet to come.

In the year that he graduated from high school, Bracy tried methamphetamines for the first time.  “That was a game changer,” he remembers, “that’s all I wanted to do.”  Bracy’s ambition became having fun.  He says, “It stopped me from being responsible and growing up.  I was always running around and getting high.  Girls.  Parties.  That was my only goal in life, for several years.”  

Other things happened too.  By the age of 25, Bracy married and had children.  He went into the trucking business with his father.  Normal pursuits did not captivate him, however.  Nothing could compete with his drug life.  It was only a matter of time before things would unravel.  As much as one might try, no addict can keep his problem a secret forever.  He says:

She [i.e., his wife] certainly knew what I was doing.  It finally came to a head, and one day she left. My dad came to me and said, are you going to go apologize to her?  Leave the dope alone? Leave the women alone?  Now, I never admitted anything; I always denied it.  I said, so you’re taking her side?  When he said, yes, I was like, I’m done.

Bracy’s slide into the abyss hastened.  He abandoned his business pursuits and filed for bankruptcy.  His wife of seven years “filed for a divorce, and it was over, just like that.”  Bitterness set into Bracy’s heart.  His thinking was that, if everybody thought he was doing dope, then he’d show them doing dope  Without home, wife and children, and his share in the family business, Bracy’s ship was unmoored without a rudder.  He walked headlong into the seedy world of methamphetamines.  He both manufactured and sold: 

I almost got higher making it than using it.  It gave me power.  Of the devil for sure.  I was blind, thinking that I controlled it, and controlled other people, when it was controlling me.  It’s a deceiver, meth.  It’s not knocking you down like heroin, but it still takes everything from you.  

At various points during his drug career, Bracy did consider quitting, but he was firmly locked into the cycle of addiction.  He held only fanciful notions of just quitting and never doing drugs again:

I’d be locked up in the county jail, and I always thought, man, this is exactly what I need, to be away from it, and I’m not going to use again.  I knew without a doubt when they released me that I wasn’t getting high.  Thirty minutes is as long as I ever lasted, depending on who picked me up from jail.  . . .The obsession would kick in.  I didn’t know what it was then – the obsession.  I was looking for ease and comfort because I was so uncomfortable and hated my own skin.  I hated myself. 

He couldn’t keep it together.  Bracy had lost nearly all contact with the people he loved the most.  When he did see them, Bracy saw only disappointment in their faces or heard dismay in their voices.  He remembers one year having Christmas with his children in February, saying “that’s the quickest I could make it to them.”  The children would call and ask, “Hey dad, can you come to my game? Can you come to this school event?  Can you come to the church thing?”  Although Bracy always promised he would be there, he’d become so messed up that it didn’t happen.  “Two days later, I’d be like, I’m a piece of @#$%, I forgot.  How could I forget?”  After awhile they stopped even calling.  As for his family, Bracy hadn’t talked his siblings in over a decade.  His father asked him not to come around anymore saying, “it’s too hard for your mom to even look at you.”  Bracy had worn out everyone and everything around him.  He reached a point where he just wanted life to be over.

Bracy actually found himself in the same place as several of us who later recovered.  Like us, serendipity arrived once he was hopeless.  Bracy candidly admits that he himself took no action to find CORE or apply to the program.  He says, “I really don’t know how I even got here.  I didn’t fill out an application or call.  They called and said, hey, you’re approved to come in.”  Today he speculates that maybe it was a friend of somebody letting him crash on a sofa who did the leg work.  Whoever that person was, Bracy feels a debt of gratitude.

Sometimes new clients initially feel resistance to working the program.  It might be pride, or unwillingness to admit they are powerless.  In Bracy’s case, he was mad at God.  “I was like, why would God let me be a drug addict?  Why would he let me lose my family?  How did he let all this stuff happen?”  His attitude softened as people at CORE showed they cared.  They didn’t judge him and weren’t about to write him off.  Then Bracy heard about the cycle of addiction at our recovery classes.  It “really grabbed hold of me, and that’s when I started paying attention in class,” he remembers.  Our classes run for five weeks, at which time Bracy was ready to write his 4th Step.  “When I sat down to write it,” he says, “I said, enough’s enough, and wrote it out.”  

As he worked the steps, Bracy felt a weight lifting from him.  He was on a life changing journey.  Where once he blamed God for his addiction, he now considered his former misery as something he needed to turn toward God.  “It was like God asking me, have you figured out what to do yet?  Do you want to ask me?” he says.  Bracy began finding contentment in not running his own show but rather in doing God’s will.  A chance encounter with an addict outside the program opened Bracy’s eyes to this.  The paraphernalia and drugs were “right in front of me,” he remembers, and then “God showed up.”  Bracy explained to the man where he’d come from, where it had taken him, and how God had relieved him of his addiction.  As the two parted ways, he also let the man know, “If you ever get tired of this, you call CORE.”

Bracy was energized by the encounter.  He asked God to put people in his path who were addicts in need of help, and God obliged.  It happened everywhere – at work, at the store, and on the street.  Bracy began to meet suffering and hurting people, and he freely shared the solution.  In time, he was made a CORE house manager, and he also began working for us.  Bracy also reunited with his family.  In fact, Bracy spent a fair amount of time telling us about his children and what each were doing.  They see each other regularly now, anytime they want, and Bracy cherishes his time with them.  He’s also made amends to his parents and siblings and enjoys seeing them, too, both here and back home in Carroll County.  

Today, Bracy Sams is a man on a mission.  Whether at Hawk House, or at the recovery center, he has a daily goal, “that maybe I can help convince even one person not to continue down the same road that I did, and to help them get past whatever might stop them from getting recovery.”  As to why he works for CORE, Bracy pauses for a moment, looks at the light above us, and begins:

Let me tell you what CORE is about, we care about people.  We love on them and introduce them to God.  To get out of their miserable, self-loathing state, they have to find God.  I see them when they get here and see them after.  Once they buy into it, when they’re working the steps, they start having a relationship with God, and they’re two different people – 

At that, his answer is interrupted by an important telephone call.  It’s client related and Bracy must attend to it.  The interview is over – Bracy’s back at it, what he’s all about.  His work isn’t finished and, somehow, we suspect it won’t ever be.  Bracy Sams is living a purpose-driven life.

Egocentric Fear

Drugs and Alcohol, A Crutch for Egocentric Fear

 Some may recognize the name Diogenes of Sinope. He was a Greek, cynic philosopher who lived a long time ago – in the third century, B.C. – during the time of Alexander the Great. A surprising number of writers today are about talking about Diogenes. They draw very different conclusions about him depending on the facts they choose to present. 

On the one hand, some authors cite him as an ancient icon of rugged individualism. Diogenes is portrayed as self-reliant and independent, the kind of man America really needs in our namby-pamby, politically correct culture. One writer says, “Diogenes is everything I am not. He is quick witted, brash, shameless, mentally and physically tough and above all… he is free.”1 Another assures us that Diogenes epitomizes “living a life in which you make decisions . . . You trust yourself. You’re true to yourself.”2 A Psychology Today article claims Diogenes is the author’s hero.3 They talk about Diogenes like he’s the main character in a John Wayne movie. 

According to them, Diogenes lived a self-directed and autonomous life. He prioritized independence and uniqueness. Diogenes shrugged off all social expectations and even laughed at wealth and power. They like to relate an account about the philosopher meeting the great Alexander himself. As the story goes, Diogenes was sunning himself on a city street, and he “raised himself up a little when he saw so many people coming towards him, and fixed his eyes upon Alexander. And when that monarch addressed him with greetings, and asked if he wanted anything, ‘Yes,’ said Diogenes, ‘stand a little out of my sun.’” 

The foregoing sounds great in it’s own way, but every coin has two sides. It’s hard to take these authors seriously when we know all the facts. We’ve included a picture of John Waterhouse’s painting of Diogenes for reference. That’s a good historical rendition of Diogenes on canvas. 

In fact, Diogenes’ lived in a big, clay wine jar on a city street. He was homeless, begged for his food, and ate with his hands. Ancient chroniclers describe him as dirty, unkempt, and smelling like filth. Diogenes lived like a dog and called himself one. He explained that “I fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth in rascals.” The Greek word for cynic, kynikos, actually derives from the word for dog. Diogenes had abandoned the most basic notions of decency. He not only urinated and spit on those who disagreed with him, but he also made a spectacle out of himself by publicly defecating and masturbating. When asked about his especially mortifying acts of masturbation, Diogenes said, “If only it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly.” 

Diogenes spent his days lying about like a dog refusing to work, and nobody ever dared give him any responsibility. He also held in contempt the ideas of family, property rights, and all social and political organization. Above all, Diogenes was prideful – he considered himself better than everybody else. In his arrogance he ridiculed all those around him. He bragged that he and he alone had found happiness. 

We see this second, more complete description of Diogenes as much different, and altogether more telling. We don’t see someone whose self-reliance proved to be fulfilling. The real Diogenes looks more like the proverbial boy who, when the game isn’t going exactly his way, decides to take his ball and go home. Unable to cope with his defeats, his fear of failure led him to quit. Sadly, the game that Diogenes walked out on was his own life. 

History doesn’t give us the particulars, but it’s easy to see how this happened. We’ll grant that Diogenes had some intelligence and talent, but his ego was working on overdrive. Being a legend in his own mind, Diogenes merited fame, fortune and power. What he got was less. Before he even moved into his clay jar, Diogenes couldn’t keep up with the Jones – either socially or economically. The results of his life’s efforts must have seemed like crushing disappointments. He was terrified to admit that he was like everybody else, and he probably lived in constant anxiety that he was ordinary, wasn’t good enough, or would be found out. Diogenes’ ego told him he was better than that. Much better. Why didn’t they grant him the accolades and perks he deserved? It must have seemed like an abomination how they repaid his genius. He was living like a commoner. Couldn’t they see he was different? Didn’t they know he was special? 

The fear of never getting his reward, of never amounting to anything, must have been immense. Diogenes eventually reached a turning point in his life, a mid-life crisis where he just snapped. He boomeranged. He was better than those plebeians, he reasoned. They could have their beautiful homes, their loving wives and children, and their important jobs and social standing. He didn’t need all that – he didn’t need anything. He’d rather live like a dog than run in their rat race. He’d show them who’s best. He and he alone would be best – at having nothing! He would rub their noses in it by flaunting a deliriously happy appearance, for good measure. 

The historical record does not expressly show that Diogenes was an alcoholic. For us at CORE who are recovered alcoholics and addicts, all we have to do is imagine the scent of distilled spirits on Diogenes’ breath, and he really starts to remind us of somebody. Somebody whose existence we knew all too well. Before we recovered, we were afraid to face our own lives too, and we also quit the game. Thus, rather than being an idol for self-reliance and independence, we think that Diogenes preferably illustrates a puffed up ego overreacting to crippling fear. He would make a better poster child for the alcoholic or addict trapped in the cycle of addiction. 

The Big Book describes just such a person: 

We asked ourselves why we had them [i.e., fears]. Wasn’t it because self-reliance failed us? Self-reliance was good as far as it went, but it didn’t go far enough. Some of us once had great self-confidence, but it didn’t fully solve the fear problem, or any other. When it made us cocky, it was worse. 

Big Book, at 68. In our active addictions, and probably before, we subsisted in the fear of not getting what we deserve out of life. Our egos were out of control. We made our demands upon ourselves and those around us so onerous that we unwittingly trapped ourselves in an untenable situation. Thus, if we didn’t get exactly what we wanted, or if somebody failed to reciprocate our feelings exactly as we demanded, then we assumed the worst. We considered ourselves losers or thought that we were being rejected. It was an unwinnable game that brought only frustration. The ego’s fear of failure jumped up and down in protest, shouting that we didn’t do anything wrong or that they didn’t deserve us. It assured us that we were justified indulging in fear’s ultimate expression – quitting. We quit a hundred times, thousands of times, into the ease and comfort afforded by the first drink or drug. Like Diogenes, we took our ball and went home. 

We were driven, as the Big Book says, “by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity.” Id., at 62. It’s no accident that fear shows up in each and every 4th Step inventory example offered by the Big Book: 

This short word somehow touches about every aspect of our lives. It was an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it

Id., at 67. Our fear typically was the result of an overinflated ego seemingly under constant attack. We were “self-centered–ego-centric.” Id., at 61. 

If we were to live, to recover, this conceited absorption in ourselves, the insanely self-centered attitude, had to be dealt with. The main problem of the alcoholic or addict “centers in his mind, rather than his body.” Id., at 22. This is why humility is an overarching theme in the Big Book. The “leveling of our pride” is required for successful consummation of the 12 Step process. Id., at 25. Each step in some way presents an opportunity to deflate a pathologically, out-of-control and thoroughly self-centered ego.4 Moreover, even while our troubles were basically of our own making, we were powerless to help ourselves. Divine help was needed to restore us to sanity: 

God makes that possible. And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid. . . .Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help. 

Id., at 62. We went to the One who has all power – a power greater than ourselves. We found Him in the surrender and house-cleaning program of the 12 Steps. 

Now that we have recovered, one might ask, how do we respond to everyday challenges of life? Like normal people, we think. Every day we affirm in prayer our intent to undertake God’s will, without self-centeredness or pride. Our egos are no longer thin-skinned, easily wounded, and demanding of quick and utter victory in every undertaking. We live in gratitude with helpful, patient, and forgiving spirits. We pause when agitated or doubtful and ask for the right thought or action. Id., at 87. Fears do not paralyze us, however. If they arise, we ask God to remove them and direct our attention to what He would have us be. Id., at 68. 

Something wonderful happened when we began to live without fear: 

As we felt new power flow in, as we enjoyed peace of mind, as we discovered we could face life successfully, as we became conscious of His presence, we began to lose our fear of today, tomorrow or the hereafter. We were reborn. 

Id., at 63. We became people of courage. It is our privilege and honor each day to let God demonstrate through us what he can do. 


1. https://medium.com/@philosotramp/why-diogenes-of-sinope-28885ec6cc86

2. https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/finding-true-north-guide-self-reliance/

3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201203/my-hero-diogenes-the-cynic

4. We will present one for each step here.  A full account would take another essay:
Step One: “Until he so humbles himself, his sobriety–if any–will be precarious.”  12&12, at 21.
Step Two: “There had been a humble willingness to have Him with me.”  Big Book, at 12.
Step Three: “This was only a beginning, though if honestly and humbly made, an effect, sometimes a very great one, was felt at once.”  Id., at 63.
Step Four: “to the extent that we do as we think He would have us, and humbly rely on Him, does He enable us to match calamity with serenity.”  Id., at 68.
Step Five: “But they had not learned enough of humility, fearlessness and honesty, in the sense we find it necessary, until they told someone else all their life story.”  Id., at 73.
Step Six: “As they are humbled by the terrific beating administered by alcohol, the grace of God can enter them and expel their obsession.”  12&12, at 64.
Step Seven: “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”  Big Book, at 59.
Step Eight: “It had been embarrassing enough when in confidence we had admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being.  But the prospect of actually visiting or even writing the people concerned now overwhelmed us . . .”  12&12, at 79.
Step Nine: “We should be sensible, tactful, considerate and humble . . .”  Big Book, at 83.
Step Ten: “When prideful, angry, jealous, anxious, or fearful, we acted accordingly, and that was that.”  12&12, at 94.
Step Eleven: “We constantly remind ourselves we are no longer running the show, humbly saying to ourselves many times each day ‘Thy will be done.'”  Big Book, at 87-88.
Step Twelve: “Tell him exactly what happened to you.”  Id., at 93.

A Chat with Sam Krause

A Chat with Sam Krause

This month we had a chance to speak with Sam Krause, Women’s Admissions Coordinator for our Branson Recovery Center.  We found Sam in her well-organized and thoughtfully appointed office.  The walls are decorated with modern, monochromatic abstract art.  Before the coronavirus pandemic her office would have been as busy as Grand Central Station, with house managers and clients constantly coming and going.  On the day of our visit, however, we are undisturbed by visitors and everything looks neat and clean.  Only a single, physical vestige is left of once great activity: a miniature Pacman arcade sitting on the client side of her desk.  The control stick is completely worn out; it appears to have been broken off and reattached so many times that it now stands askew.  One has to tilt their gaze just to make it appear vertical.

The pandemic doesn’t prevent people from finding Sam, mind you.  Our hour-long interview was abbreviated by multiple phone calls.  She proved to be a worthy multitasker – retrieving, reviewing, and discussing files while keeping a phone balanced at her ear.  We would excuse ourselves for these calls.  When we returned she would pick right back up with her answer to our previous question almost as if we’d never left.  We got the definite impression that Sam is still in high demand even though the pandemic has required CORE to temporarily restrict general foot traffic by clients and the public in that location. 

Sam’s job with CORE requires her to wear many hats.  For potential clients she provides information about CORE, answers questions, assists in the completion of required paperwork, and admits people to the program.  It’s a full time job by itself, but her responsibilities aren’t limited to this.  She also has oversight responsibilities with house managers and clients, making sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing in the program.  “Pretty much, my job requires me to do whatever I’m asked to do, really,” she laughs.  

Sam is a light-hearted soul who has a knack for finding humor in just about anything.  When asked about life before recovery, she enthusiastically launches into what sounds like the plot of a William Faulkner novel.  The plot is heavy with absurdity and sarcasm as she goes from one calamity to the next.  Each mishap becomes progressively more preposterous (and funny).  The irony is not lost on us.  Anyone who’s been through the wringer will appreciate her testimony.  Her willingness to talk about it reflects the fact that she is recovered.  As the Big Book says, we don’t regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.  She sees where her personal story might benefit others, and she gives her testimony while teaching our Common Solution Recovery (CSR) classes.

When she approaches the end of her story, however, Sam becomes noticeably more thoughtful.  By now her personal pronoun has switched from “me” to “we,” because she had started running with Buddy Krause during her addiction.  Today she and Buddy are married, and Buddy is the valued on-site manager at our Springfield location.  Once their paths converged, she can’t tell her story without him.  Her tone becomes more serious as she reflects upon just how far down the scale they actually had gone in their addictions.  Her speech and cadence are careful, even deliberate; she wants to share every important detail.  

To summarize, she and Buddy had been on a years-long spree with opiates, couch hopping and living at various places.  Some AA sponsors rented them a place to live but eventually told them they had to leave.  “We were just going through the motions.  We’d show up to meetings but were never clean.  We were still using something.”  They tried detoxes and treatment centers.  They eventually burned every bridge they crossed.  Out of options, they would soon be living in a car.  Sam was done, ready for it all to be over:

I felt that the hole was so big that I’d dug that there was no getting out of it.  Like it seemed way too difficult to do.  I’d never been that far down.  I was at rock bottom.  I felt hopeless.  …I really felt like it would be better if I were dead.  Every shot I’d get, I hoped that it would kill me, that I just wouldn’t wake up.  Because trying to stay well was too hard.  When it gets to the point you have to steal stuff, you start lying to the people who love you, then, I’m out.  

A last ditch call to CORE’s Kevin Hunt was the turning point.  It probably saved their lives.  

And a good thing, too, as Sam’s demeanor noticeably perks up.  She returns to the happy, playful individual who greeted us earlier in the hour and relates a humorous account about how they arrived to the bus stop only to find that there was no Branson bus to catch.  

At CORE Sam worked the 12 Step program and started living in the solution.  She attributes that to taking personal responsibility.  Before that, “I was a spoiled little brat,” she laughs, “I’m the youngest of four and never wanted for anything.”  Sam is particularly grateful to her parents for their persistence in impressing upon her the importance of setting personal standards and living by those standards.  Once she held herself accountable for figuring out her own life, Sam became willing to do what was necessary to work the program.  “I got my life in order,” she says, while describing various facets of personal growth during her first year as proof of her statement. 

Her relationship with God really took off during her second year in the program as a house manager.  Before that, “spiritually, I’m not yet where I wanted to be,” she says.  Being thrust into house leadership with nine other women opened her eyes to the importance of relying on God.  The women under Sam’s direction care didn’t share her background or necessarily think the same way that she did.  An authoritarian approach was not going to work, so Sam turned to God for help.  “Once I started relying on God to help me run this house and to help these girls then things started happening.”  That was seven years ago.  Sam has worked for CORE in some capacity ever since. 

Sam also is an original member of our Second Mile group, comprised of persons who have commenced CORE’s year-long recovery program.  They are a benevolent group committed to charitable works and to promoting personal growth, accountability and spirituality.  Sam is thankful for the Second Mile for helping her “get out of self” and become the person she wanted and needed to become.  The Second Mile also helped Sam and Buddy in their financial recovery efforts.  They married on July 1, 2014, and eventually bought a house that they completely remodeled and turned into a home.  They’ve done a beautiful job with it and enjoy welcoming family to stay with them for extended periods.  Friends visit too, and Sam also hosts a women’s Bible study for a group comprised of current and former CORE house managers. 

Sam is thankful for the many blessings in her life today.  One of her greatest joys is seeing her women in CORE work the 12 Steps:

It’s an awesome thing to witness the transformations at commencement, to see these women who came in here broken, thinking they were never going to see their children again, and a year later the kids are at their commencement – just seeing those relationships with their families that they’re rebuilding. 

Sam considers herself a miracle.  She found deliverance from a hopeless condition by taking refuge in the safety of God’s arms.  Today, she is a joyful person, reflecting the presence of God in her heart. She attributes every good thing to Him.  “I’m a totally different person,” she says, “I know it’s all through God.

CORE is thankful for Sam’s dedicated service and looks forward to our continued association with her for many years to come!

Why We Serve

Why We Serve

The incident was so disturbing that a rumor spread about clocks stopping at the time of death.  Of all the senseless and cruel tragedies to cut down another human being, this had to take the cake.  The natural impulse was to wish it away, because literally nothing could be done about it now.  Some pretended that it never happened.  Others went the opposite direction – they flew into a cold rage.  They wanted to punch a wall and scream.  Still others just cried, or sobbed, or held their head in their hands.  There also were a few who, like in the movies, looked up toward heaven and asked why.  The reactions were all there on social media for everyone to see.

In December 2016, something bad happened in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

To an outsider the city might well be just another Anytown, USA.  It’s a bit bigger than Branson and situated on the west side of the Alleghenies along the banks of Stonycreek River – about fifty miles from Pittsburgh.  They hold an annual 4th of July fireworks display there, and the residents vote mostly conservative.  During autumn the neighborhood trees turn pretty yellows, oranges, and reds.1  It used to be a steel town until the mines and mills closed; that happened about thirty years ago.  The city’s history includes several notable floods, the largest of which has a museum dedicated to its remembrance.  The city had seen its share of hardships and calamities.  Nothing in its experience ever prepared them for this.  

It all revolved around a young couple who moved to Johnstown only seven months earlier.  Their names were Jason Chambers and Chelsea Cardaro.  They were in love but unmarried, and Chelsea was very pregnant.  In a touching Facebook post she described her man as the “one and only love of my life.”  They arrived to town without fanfare, found a two-story duplex in an area of town called Kernville, and began to set up house.  Being personable people they made friends quickly.  Everyone spoke of Jason and Chelsea as good people who were happy to help.2  Two months later Chelsea gave birth to a little girl, Summer.  It appeared to be a defining moment for the young couple, who determined to do everything in their power to give the baby the best life possible and to be the best mom and dad too.  Chelsea posted online pictures of Summer wearing pastel pink and blue outfits embroidered with cartoon animals and messages of endearment.  Now that Summer was here, the proverbial couple-next-door had a new baby in addition to a new home.

Despite their youth Chelsea and Jason were not partiers – they never were – but they did have a dark side that they tried to hide from others.  They used heroin.  Almost nothing is published about their drug histories, but as heroin users they weren’t looking for thrills.  Compared to other drugs taken for recreational and social reasons, heroin is more commonly employed in the unfortunate undertaking of avoiding or numbing pain, usually emotional pain.  Heroin produces a rush of chemical changes in the brain that creates euphoria, sensations of warmth and safety.  The rush becomes very important to those who don’t feel good in the first place.  It appeals to people with depression or anxiety, who’ve suffered unhappy circumstances, or who lived through an abusive childhood.  Heroin users exemplify people who self-medicate.

The record is vague about Jason and Chelsea’s own personal circumstances, but nobody wants to become a heroin addict.  If they would have known what horrors awaited, they would have run like hell and never started in the first place.  Unfortunately, the point at which one crosses the line into addiction is so hard to identify that nobody even notices until it’s too late.  Voluntary use eventually becomes compulsive.  The user becomes fixated on the drug and worries more about getting their next dose than anything else.  They become so desperate that they will do anything to get it, no matter how questionable the conduct.  After the couple’s death some allegations in fact did surface about them engaging in such conduct while living in Johnstown.  While the police never confirmed anything, and no arrests were ever made, the allegations are sufficiently suggestive that Jason and Chelsea probably had become full-blown addicts.

They departed life at mid-December while the city’s holiday festivities were in full swing.  The couple had made definite plans to leave for a long visit back home to show off their baby to relatives and friends.  In the immediate moment, however, Jason and Chelsea had a different idea.  They just wanted to get high.  Jason took his shot of dope downstairs in the living room while Chelsea carried Summer upstairs and laid her down in the bassinet in her room.  Although Chelsea didn’t realize it, this would be the last time she ever saw her beloved daughter again.  She wouldn’t be seeing Summer get her first tooth, or learn how to walk, or go to kindergarten, or any other childhood milestone.  From Summer’s room she went next door to the bathroom, took a shot, and hit the floor like a brick.

This wasn’t a typical heroin overdose.  The victim usually takes a large amount of the drug and experiences drowsiness, mental confusion, and eventually loss of consciousness.  The pupils narrow to a pinpoint and blood pressure drops as the heart beats more and more slowly.  The victim’s breathing becomes slower, more shallow, and more erratic until it simply stops.  A heroin overdose so affects the part of the brain that controls respiration that the victim simply quits breathing.  Jason and Chelsea didn’t take a large amount of heroin, however.  Unbeknown to them, they took heroin laced with fentanyl. 

The fentanyl problem had been going on in the United States even before 2016, and it continues to happen today.  Users are buying a variation of heroin that they’re not even aware of, a combination of heroin mixed with fentanyl, which can be up to fifty times stronger.  Manufacturers cut heroin with fentanyl because the latter is cheaper to obtain.  It maximizes profits in a black market that avoids regulation and never places content labels on anything.  In fact, most deaths from “heroin” overdoses today happen because fentanyl is cut into the product.  Since it’s hard to know when heroin has been mixed with fentanyl, the user is a sitting duck.  Sometimes one can tell by color but, whether Jason and Chelsea were aware, we’ll never know.

The distinguishing feature of a fentanyl overdose is the rapidity of onset.  It would have occurred within seconds.  They probably noticed it as soon as they made the injection; they barely had enough time to pull the needle out before they hit the floor.  Their lips turned blue, their bodies stiffened, and the classic symptoms of overdose were upon them.  They never stood a chance.  Jason was downstairs, Chelsea had gone upstairs with Summer; neither were with the other, and each had been incapacitated almost immediately.  Their overdose symptoms culminated in choking and gurgling sounds – the death rattle – the harbinger of imminent death. 

With the expiration of her parents, five month-old Summer was left all alone in the house.  Afterwards friends said that Chelsea and Jason were imperfect people who nevertheless loved their daughter.  Yet there they lay dead.  Summer’s parents became victims of an opioid epidemic that had killed thousands before them.

Now it was her turn.  Let the reader understand – nobody realized the family was even at home.  Neighbors and friends assumed they had left on vacation.  No one was going to stop by and check to see how everything was going.  Not a neighbor, or a friend, or the police, or other civil authority was coming to rescue the baby.  When Chelsea placed Summer in the bassinet, that would be the last human comfort or touch that the baby would ever know.  She wouldn’t be changed or be fed.  Summer was on her own, and it was only a matter of time.  But, unlike her parents whose deaths could be clocked in minutes, Summer’s demise would take days.  The chief of police gave a press interview following the grisly discovery.  He lost his train of thought, wondering out loud how long the baby lie screaming for attention before finally succumbing to dehydration.

It isn’t easy finding candid information about death by dehydration.  Some commentators exclaim that it’s unbearable while others assure us that it’s painless and the most natural way to die.  The issue is complicated these days by the politics surrounding so-called terminal dehydration.  The right-to-die debate has really heated up since Jack Kevorkian first drove his suicide machine to Oregon three decades ago.  Proponents today claim that such a death is comfortable, even gentle, because it releases endorphins into the brain.  Opponents describe a dramatically different experience.  One of the more neutral voices in the debate, the Patients Rights Council, provides the following description of the process: 

As a person dies from dehydration, his or her mouth dries out and becomes caked or coated with thick material; lips become parched and cracked; the tongue swells and could crack; eyes recede back into their orbits; cheeks become hollow; lining of the nose might crack and cause the nose to bleed; skin begins to hang loose on the body and becomes dry and scaly; urine would become highly concentrated, leading to burning of the bladder; lining of the stomach dries out, likely causing the person to experience dry heaves and vomiting; body temperature can become very high; brain cells dry out, causing convulsions; respiratory tract also dries out causing thick secretions that could plug the lungs and cause death. At some point the person’s major organs, including the lungs, heart, and brain give out and death occurs.3

We assume that at least some of this happened to Summer.  Moreover, the coroner’s report later informed the police chief roughly how long the process took.  The estimate was four to five days.  

The Chambers’ story revolted even the most hardened sensibilities.  It’s a lot to process.  It’s easy to become angry and look for someone to blame, beginning with Jason and Chelsea.4  Nevertheless, even as we think about them we must remember that their’s is only one story and not an isolated case.  More than a thousand children in the United States die every year under similar circumstances of neglect.  Many, many thousands of addicts and alcoholics die too.  Drugs and alcohol kill in a myriad of ways.  For each death there is a similarly tragic and personal story.

Importantly, there are two features about addiction that we particularly wish to impress upon the reader:  

First, addicts who put needles into their arms essentially have no more choice in this than someone who jumps out of a burning building.  They’ll do it regardless of the potential consequences to themselves or others.  Addiction impairs free will and decision-making abilities.  Some may have difficulty wrapping their minds around that idea, but Jason and Chelsea’s conduct typifies what the 12 Steps refer to as being powerless.  We’ve written about this before, and the concept is well-recognized by medical researchers and recovery centers worldwide.  We at CORE who have suffered the misfortunes of being powerless can assure the reader that it is a real and grave condition.

Second, addicts who find and pursue the 12 Step solution to address their powerless condition in fact do recover.  Even better than that, a marvelous and miraculous metamorphosis occurs.  Not only do they become the substance-free person they always wanted yet never thought they could be, but they also move forward toward becoming the best version of themselves.  Their focus turns from within to without, and they become motivated by a genuine concern for the well-being of others.  They start making a positive impact on the world.  We easily can imagine that, had Jason and Chelsea timely availed themselves of the solution, the Chambers family today would be among the finest that the city of Johnstown has the privilege of knowing.  This isn’t wishful thinking.  We are informed by personal experience and the experience of others.  It happens for everyone who works the program. 

God has blessed each of us at CORE with a gift that is more valuable than anything else on earth.  Each of us found ourselves knocking on death’s door when we hit rock bottom.  Recovery granted us a second chance with renewed minds and changed hearts.  The Apostle John says, “We love because He first loved us.5  It is our experience with God’s saving grace that explains our desire to be of service to those in similar need.  God saved us from a terrible fate. We don’t want what happened to Jason, Chelsea, and Summer to happen to anyone else.  The misery created by addiction is incalculable.  We know the solution and are motivated to share it with everybody who wants it.  

For this reason, our work here at CORE seems like the best job one could ever hope for.  We have the ability to make a difference and help prevent future tragedies from happening.  Each day coming to work we ask ourselves how we can be of service to our clients.  This pushes us to provide them the best possible recovery environment, to keep them safe, and to provide thoughtful guidance while they work the program.  The 12 Steps are the basic building blocks for forming a powerful relationship with God.  That’s where the miracle happens; it can’t be found anywhere else.  We are grateful to work with an organization that advocates a spiritual life and has a real impact on promoting a safer, better society. 

We live in a big world with lots of problems, and there are people in dire need for many reasons.  It’s so overwhelming to think about that many simply don’t.  When it comes to the suffering alcoholic or addict, who is at risk of being overlooked amidst all these issues, we at CORE take note.  They are not forgotten.  When they are ready for recovery, we are right here, always prepared to help.

Recovery’s Best Kept Secret: God

Recovery’s Best Kept Secret: God

If you live in Branson for any length of time, at some point a tourist may ask about the city’s best kept secret.  It might happen at a local retail store or restaurant, but more likely it will take place at the filling station.  The typical encounter begins when you spy from the corner of your eye a car with out-of-state plates rolling up to the gas pump next to you.  The occupant emerges and you both say hello.  Pleasantries are exchanged about the weather or recent big game.  You ask when they got here and how long they plan to stay, and the topic of conversation naturally steers to Branson’s best restaurants and highlights.  You hear the familiar questions: “What’s the best show?” “Where’s the best place to eat?” and of course “What’s Branson’s best kept secret?” 

These are common questions for travel destinations, for obvious reasons.  If we are traveling, once we arrive to our destination, we don’t want to miss out on what’s important.  After all, we might not be back for a long time, or ever again.  These aren’t trivial questions either even though some might mistake them so.  Moreover, any Bransoner worth their salt has a ready answer to them.  Our intuition tells us the tourist is looking for something grand, even compelling.  They want something real and extraordinary.  After all, by definition a best kept secret is some significant fact that isn’t appreciated by everybody.  The tourist is asking because we live here.  They trust our opinion.  If anybody knows, it’s us.  We at CORE who live in Branson have been asked these very questions by tourists.

CORE is about recovery from substance abuse.  That’s what we do.  It weighs on our minds and our hearts practically every hour of every day.  Our program is twenty-five years old.  We’ve helped thousands of people.  If anybody should know about recovery issues, it’s us.  Not surprisingly, in a variety of contexts, people often ask us the same sorts of questions that tourists ask – except – instead of asking about the best show, they ask about recovery from drugs and alcohol.  They might be asking for themselves, or a friend or relative.  It may be at one of our centers or at a social or business event.  But we naturally anticipate these familiar questions like “What’s the key to recovery?” “How do I quit alcohol?”  “What’s the secret to getting off pills?”  

As it turns out, there indeed is a “best kept secret” about recovery, and we are happy to share it.  In today’s $42 billion per year addiction industry, it has been often glossed over, warped, and sometimes denied for a variety of political, economic, and social reasons that really have nothing to do with recovery itself.  The best kept secret about recovery, to which every suffering addict and alcoholic should take heed, is God.

Too often we hear of certain 12 Step programs, run by the very individuals who should be guardians of the Big Book, claiming that God is optional.  Yet even a cursory review of the book reveals the opposite.  It was written by Bill Wilson, who was convinced of the “necessity of belief in and dependence upon God.1  

Bill himself was first approached by an alcoholic friend who previously had been pronounced incurable.  “His human will had failed,” Bill writes, but “my friend sat before me, and he made the pointblank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself.2  His friend seemingly had been raised from the dead.  Bill took note because he personally knew this man.  He saw the hopeless extent of his friend’s condition and knew the power to recover could not have originated within him.3  Moreover, Bill also wrote about his most desperate moment, when he finally followed his friend’s wise advice:

I humbly offered myself to God, as I then I understood Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction.4

He further adds, “I have not had a drink since” to punctuate the significance of the event.

The central theme of the Big Book’s 12 Steps, six of which reference God, is summarized in a single prefacing sentence, “There is One who has all power–that One is God.  May you find Him now!5  

The Big Book itself flatly says that God is what it “is about.6  “Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater that yourself which will solve your problem.  That means . . . that we are going to talk about God.7  And indeed, one of its most pertinent ideas is that “probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism,” but that “God could and would if he were sought.8  

The foregoing seems clear enough to us, but people wanting to minimize God’s role in recovery point to Big Book phrases such as “Higher Power”9 and “Power greater than ourselves.”10  These don’t ignore God at all.  They simply acknowledge the fact that if we ask a hundred people who God is, we invariably get a hundred different answers.  The 12 Steps don’t try to force anybody’s particular conception of God on members.  AA has never been affiliated with any organized religion or tried to enforce rigid conceptions about God upon its members.  The Big Book is careful to note that our relationship is properly with God as we – not somebody else – understand Him.  

Unfortunately, some have taken these “higher power” references to the extreme and run with them causing all sorts of mischief.  They even tell addicts and alcoholics who are new to recovery that one’s higher power can be virtually anything – a door knob, the group, or even a ham sandwich.  Even some of the general service’s approved literature published after the Big Book appears to acquiesce to some of these ideas. 

We can’t take them seriously.  Who really believes that a ham sandwich is the Spirit of the Universe who keeps them clean and sober?11  Who wants to turn their will and their life over to the care of a doorknob?12  Who seeks to improve conscious contact with their home group by praying to it?13  There are inherent limitations on how far the idea of a higher power can be stretched and still do the 12 Steps.  There’s really no justification for warping it any further than to what the Big Book plainly refers: God as we understand him.14 

Our intent here is to be perfectly honest with the reader. Our clients come to us for real answers and help.  They’ve been to therapists, counselors and support groups before.  They’ve tried things like cognitive behavioral therapy, prescription drugs, physical exercise, finding new social groups, and many other recovery strategies offered by America’s billion dollar industry.  If any of these things had been sufficient to overcome their addiction and alcoholism, they would have recovered long before finding us.  Notwithstanding, they come to us because they are beyond human aid, powerless.  Their options are whittled down to one.  They are “100% hopeless, apart from divine help.15

It is for addicts and alcoholics that the value of the 12 Steps really shines.  This is as true today as it was eighty-years ago when the Big Book was first published.  We have seen this proven over and over again.  God never fails.

The Big Book’s promises always materialize for people who work the program.  We know freedom, happiness, and peace.  Feelings of uselessness and self-pity disappear.  We lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in others. Self-seeking slips away. We no longer regret the past but rather see how our experience can benefit others.  Our whole attitude and outlook upon life changes, too.  Fear of people and of economic insecurity leave us.  We intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 

In short, we realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.16  This is the miracle of the 12 Steps.  Our recovery comes from God.

A Conversation with Heidi Butler

A Conversation With Heidi Butler

Heidi Butler’s testimony is so moving that we cannot help but recognize her transformation as a miracle of God.  She exudes life, love, and laughter, and she is a joy to all who have the pleasure of meeting her.  

Heidi talked to us at the Branson Re-Store, which she manages for CORE.  She also was instrumental last December in putting together our holiday give-away at the Hollister School District.  “My heart was all there,” she says, thinking of her own humble beginnings.  As a child she had been blessed by the kindness of others: 

It was such a healing thing for me to be part of something that I had been on the receiving end before.  I was the kid that the churches brought gifts to.  So to be able to be part of this, where parents came in and picked out things their kids wanted and took them home and wrapped them, it was healing.  It was so rewarding for me to be able to be part of that.

Heidi’s done a marvelous job with the thrift store too.  The decor surrounding us is eclectic, with mixed patterns and textures that resist traditional sensibilities.  Yet the arrangements unmistakably reflect her personality, suggesting home and love.  The unique collection of items is a fitting backdrop for her story, which she began with memories of a bohemian father who could never manage to stay in one place for very long.

I lived in a school bus when living in one wasn’t ‘cool.’  Who does that?  Who lives in the woods in deer cabins when you don’t even know who owns them?  My father.  With four children.  We’d make homes wherever we were.”  

Heidi’s alcoholic mother abandoned the family when Heidi was in the second grade, essentially leaving her in charge.  “I’ve been a mother ever since,” she says.  So Heidi cooked and cleaned, dragging a chair to the kitchen counter to do kitchen work and dishes.  She remembers making spaghetti with barbeque sauce once because that’s all the family had to eat.  

Although the family was poor, Heidi took special interest in making good appearances.  In particular, she made up her mind that nobody would make fun of them because of the way they looked.  “I got up early and fixed [my sisters’] hair.  I always was scrounging around for clothes.  We always looked good.”  Local churches stepped in from time to time, like on holidays, to help.  But for the most part the family was on its own.  In the ninth grade Heidi took a job to help them make ends meet – all in addition to school and family responsibilities.

But for an accident of circumstances, Heidi may never have been introduced to drugs.  After high school, she worked for a telephone company in Arkansas and soon enough became a telecommunications engineer.  She married and had two children.  By the time she turned thirty-something, Heidi was living the life of a typical, suburban soccer mom, a long way off from her common roots.  She never cared for alcohol, and she knew nothing about illicit substances.  Unfortunately, her world was about to be turned upside-down.

Her second pregnancy had complications, resulting in multiple surgeries.  Heidi was prescribed pain pills.  Within a short time she was hooked.  “One day I realized it had been six weeks and thought, I don’t need these.  Then the next day I felt really bad.”  Her first thought was, “I’m not healed,” but a trip to the doctor revealed something else.     

Her physician advised her to go cold-turkey and get off the medication.  It was easier said than done.  “I tried it, and that did not work.  It was amazing,” she said.  Then the obsession kicked in. “I lay there in bed thinking, I can’t do this, I’ve got to have something.  Then I remembered, my friend just had surgery, I bet she has some.” 

What followed was a five-year nightmare in search of pills.  Driven by obsession, Heidi applied all her instincts in pursuit of her addiction, “a whole nasty web of deception, lies, and manipulation.”  Heidi eventually entered a thirty-day treatment program.  Upon completing it she was confronted with two, new crises.  Her husband wanted a divorce, and her employer was shipping her job off to India.  

At this point Heidi clearly was headed for disaster, although she did not realize it at the time.  She left for Nebraska for a fresh start but became disillusioned, homesick, and desperately missing her children.  A chance meeting on Facebook with an old highschool sweetheart seemed to offer hope.  She returned home to Arkansas, and they married shortly thereafter.  The marriage was not the answer.  

The new spouse had a drinking problem.  He also used methamphetamines, which soon became a problem for Heidi.  Within two months Heidi was full blown into an addiction to meth.  Her life was spiraling out of control.  

Significantly, Heidi was almost completely isolated by this time.  She had nobody to talk to about the “thoughts that went on in my mind when I put drugs into my body,” and those thoughts were dark.  Her relationship with her husband became more toxic as he became more abusive.  She wasn’t working, had no social contacts, and had been cut off from her children.  With her entire world imploding, Heidi decided that it would be best for everybody if she just ended it all.  It somehow sounded polite to her, and she didn’t know what else to do.  Her only guidance was her own meth-corrupted thinking:  

I didn’t want my kids when asked, how’s your mom doing, to have to make up some story, like she’s off working somewhere or whatever.  It would be better off them being young saying, my mom died.  I knew I was going to be locked up.  Instead of them saying she was in a mental ward, they could just say, she died.”  

There was an old shotgun in the house.  Enough was enough.  With calm resolve, she picked up the loaded gun and walked out onto the patio so as not to make a mess.  Pointing it at her face, she pulled the trigger.  Click.

In that instant things looked undeniably bleak for her. But, as she came to understand later, Heidi Butler has an awesome God.  He’s always on time, never late.  God arrived for her in the moment she hit rock bottom, the only point she could be reached – when inside of herself she had given up and abandoned reliance upon herself and upon all things human.  

The gun didn’t fire, either.  Overwrought, she fled her home and ended up in Hollister.  Finding a church, Heidi sat in the back of the sanctuary sobbing.  “I know it was God who pushed me,” she says.  A woman seeing her distress went to her: 

She came in the back and handed me a napkin and said, you look like you could use a hug. That’s the first hug I’d had in – I can’t tell you.  I cried like a baby.  So she took me out to the lobby and said, I know you have a story.  I poured it out to her, I didn’t leave anything out.”  

Even better, the woman had a helpful idea for what Heidi should do.  As the two had lunch together later, she told Heidi there was a place for her to go that was close, right down the road.  It was a year-long addiction recovery program called CORE.

At CORE Heidi blossomed into the woman of God she was meant to be.  She arrived to find like-minded people with whom she had a connection, who had been there before.  She was impressed by the simple gestures of kindness shown upon her arrival, such as her house manager offering her a meal.  “I’ll never forget that, ever,” she says.  Heidi initially made a personal commitment to stay for four months, which enabled her “to start doing the things they told me to do.”  That entailed doing the Twelve Steps, which saved her life.  When the four months were up, she says, “I couldn’t believe the changes.  And I wasn’t ready to leave.”  

Heidi discovered that the Steps weren’t simply about healing from addiction but were a program for life.  She found balance and learned how to take care of herself.  She also reached out to her children, and she became an important part of their lives again.  She grew in her love for the Lord and eventually was asked to become a house manager.  Heidi ended up running three separate houses, and she acted as a mentor in CORE’s EDGE program for young adults.  And then one day CORE’s Program Director Kevin Hunt called with a job proposal:

He said, would you be interested in working at the [Branson] thrift store?  I was like, wow, I’ve never done anything like that before.  I said yes.  I just knew it was the right thing to do.  I started working for CORE in August 2019.

Still later, Heidi began running the Branson store when CORE opened our new Hollister location.  She could have gone back to her old career, but she decided to stay here.  “I’m here because I’m happy,” she smiles, “I have joy in my life.  It’s fulfilling and important.  I get to mentor these women and give back what was given to me.  I always want to give back to the newcomer who comes in.  I’m able to give back, and still have contact with clients.”  

Perhaps best of all, Heidi’s children now live locally because their father relocated to Hollister.  “If they had stayed in Arkansas, I don’t know what God’s plan would have been for me.  But I was here, right where I needed to be.”  So by happy circumstance, her children are now here too, and she is able to be with them all the time.  She concludes, “God just had his hand in all this – my story.

CORE and Hollister School District’s Holiday Store Spreads Christmas Cheer

CORE and Hollister School District’s Holiday Store Spreads Christmas Cheer

In December CORE and Hollister School District shared the joy of Christmas by holding a holiday giveaway for families in need.  Hundreds of people had the opportunity to shop – for no charge – in a “Holiday Store” specially created at the school district and stocked with thousands of retail goods supplied by CORE.  The week-long event was an unmatched success.  Participants described their experiences with glowing superlatives.  The Holiday Store was the brainchild of CORE’s CEO Cary McKee.

The driving force of innovation is need.  In mid-October McKee found himself looking out the window of his office at CORE’s headquarters pondering a problem created by the pandemic.  It wasn’t related to money or clients – McKee already had made moves earlier in the year that assured the welfare of both program and clients.  Rather, McKee had a warehouse full of retail goods waiting to be distributed to people in need.  The year had been full of trauma and turmoil for the community, and many were becoming desperate.  As related by McKee, “So much hope has been robbed from us this year.  Families may struggle with being able to afford gifts for their children.  Because of the pandemic, through no fault of their own, now they’re struggling to make ends meet let alone worry about gifts.  What can we do to bless them and bring them a little bit of hope?”  He knew that they could be greatly helped by the items in CORE’s warehouse, but the pandemic severely limited the methods for getting them into the proper hands.

Throughout the year CORE had been making pickups of donated items from area retailers under an agreement with Good360.  They included items of all types – automotive, bed and bath, clothing, electronics, hardware, home appliance and furnishings, kitchen, lawn and garden, living room, and toys – nearly anything one might find at a big box retailer.  McKee originally intended for periodic giveaways to happen throughout the year, but the pandemic put a stop to his plans.  Bans on public gatherings and social distancing made such events impossible.  McKee had been mulling over ideas, but nothing appeared ideal.  He then asked himself, “What programs are already in place where we can maximize our giving to the community?”  The question quickly led to Hollister School District.

McKee’s own children attended the school district, and he knew that the district held an annual holiday event whereby families were “adopted” and blessed with Christmas presents.  The district would surely have identified hundreds of people who would benefit from what CORE already had in stock.  McKee thus envisioned a much larger, perhaps even improbable, event whereby the resources of CORE and the Hollister School District would combine synergistically.  The plan was huge, but families in need would be blessed beyond anybody’s imagination if they could pull it off.  With this in mind he called Superintendent Dr. Brian Wilson, and scheduled a meeting at CORE’s warehouse.

As the two toured the facility going room to room, Dr. Wilson saw a genuine opportunity.  He’d heard people come up with ideas over the years and learned to moderate his expectations.  But what he saw at CORE’s facility was the real thing.  Commenting on his visit, Dr. Wilson said, “I saw that, and I was moved.  I saw what it could do for our families and our community.  I’ve known Cary for many years and we’ve partnered on things before, but this was just overwhelming.”  A new partnership was made, and the two principals called in their lieutenants to help make it happen.

On CORE’s side, McKee called upon Gary Osborn, whom he describes as a mastermind in logistics, to coordinate the monumental task of moving the inventory and reorganizing it at the school district.  Dozens of CORE staff and volunteers would be enlisted to accomplish this over a period of weeks using CORE’s vehicles.  Of their contribution, volunteer Bret Taylor, who also is a Hollister police officer regularly assigned to the school district, said, “They were phenomenal.  They came over here and worked, stacking and organizing, making sure things were clean and that everything was presentable.  It looked like a store.  We helped and directed, but it was definitely CORE.

For the school district’s part, significant space would be needed to create the Holiday Store.  For this they set aside rooms in the Early Childhood Learning Center.  More particularly, two parallel rooms, each the size of a school cafeteria.  Dr. Wilson also called upon his counseling staff led by counselor Sandra Brown to coordinate an entirely new kind of holiday event.  In past years, hundreds of people receiving assistance would come and go at their own convenience.  This year, each of the individuals and families would be scheduled to arrive at specific dates and times.  They not only would pick up the customary assistance, but also they would be invited to shop in the Holiday Store for whatever they needed.  School district personnel would be needed to help organize the store, coordinate appointments, and be on hand while people shopped.

In addition to CORE and the school district, several other organizations volunteered time too, such as the teacher’s union (MSTA), Rotary Club of Hollister, and The Connell Insurance Group.  

In a mere six weeks, the Holiday Store was ready.  Even as the first families arrived, it was apparent that the event would be successful. Everyone was touched by an outpouring of gratitude and joy.  As Sandy Brown observed, “What’s Christmas about?  It’s about giving hope.  It’s been a rough year, so the hope coming from this is huge.  Just seeing the families come in and being excited about taking home things they never could afford.”  Fellow counselor Ben Miller agreed, adding, “In previous years there were times where families sought support and there weren’t enough resources.  This year’s different.  We’re just over the moon to have the support this year because of the families who really need it.” 

In addition to hundreds of persons receiving support, all who helped make this happen felt equally blessed.  They were reminded that some of the most important Christmas gifts can’t be wrapped – like the giving of our time and helping fill someone’s heart with joy.  As McKee remarked, when CORE’s clients recover and become sober in mind and spirit, they are filled with gratitude and just want to serve and to give of themselves:  “What we teach here is a God-centered life that naturally leads a person to give of themselves without us even pushing them.  It’s a beautiful thing.  They found joy in it!”  School district staff agreed that Christmas indeed is the season of giving.  Dr. Watkins said “Our ultimate goal is to bless people.  Covid-19 has robbed us of things we normally do and take for granted.  This event has allowed us to make a difference in another’s life by being able to bless them.”  Counselor Jennifer Miller further added, “It’s been a blessing not only for the families but for all of the people working on it!”  

Everybody commenting on the Holiday Store expressed genuine interest in seeing it continue in the future.  Officer Taylor summed up everyone’s feelings when he said, “If CORE’s got inventory, we’ve definitely got the people who need it and the space to give it out!”  McKee further expressed his personal thanks to all of the CORE staff and volunteers who gave of themselves to help make Christmas a little brighter for the community during this event.

A Purposeful Life

A Purposeful Life

People have been making New Year’s resolutions for thousands of years.  The practice is older than our Julian calendar.  These days, so many resolutions concern mundane matters, like losing weight or washing one’s hands every time one goes to the bathroom.  The more ambitious ones involve a self-improvement project, maybe learning a new skill, or kicking a bad habit.  There is a sliding scale of New Year’s resolutions, after all.  As we get to the higher end of the scale, the goals become grander and progressively more difficult and unsure.  At the highest end we find what many consider to be the singular apex and mother of all New Year’s resolutions: discovering their purpose in life.  It’s the one aspiration worthy to claim the title of New Year’s Resolutions par excellence.  Only those with courage have their sights set on it.  Yet, at some point, many will find the drive within themselves to at least try.  Factually, success is uncertain, but it’s widely considered the ultimate, crème de la crème of undertakings – a truly commendable commitment. 

As we might anticipate, there is an entire industry of life purpose gurus out there waiting to help.  They hold so-called spiritual retreats and journeys that promise to show seekers how to “align role and soul,” “find purpose and reset your mind,” and even experience “shamanic life purpose rebirth.” A simple internet search yields dozens upon dozens of offerings like this.  They’re located pretty much everywhere on earth but tend to be clustered around scenic locations.  One can attend retreats nestled among Sedona’s monoliths and spires, Spain’s snow-capped mountains, or Peru’s Andean slopes, for example.  Each location boasts otherworldly touches in keeping with the gravity of the mission.  Sedona, we are told, has balanced energy vortices.  In Spain the journey happens among the Basque people whose language and origins are forgotten by time.  And in Peru there are the mysterious Nazca Lines and adorable alpacas.  The whole idea here is that both the geographic and cultural settings must be in keeping with the importance of the lofty undertaking.  When one is searching for their raison d’etre, a Motel 6 conference room won’t do.  Moreover, for those who need extra help, most of these retreats promise “psychedelic plants” to facilitate the pilgrims’ spiritual journeys.  All of these getaways basically share two things in common: big promises, and big price tags.  You want to spend 5 days with the alpacas searching for the ultimate meaning of life?  $8,000 reserves your place.

We at CORE sympathize with everyone wanting to find meaning and purpose.  The longing appears to be universal and not caused by an addiction or other misfortune.  We initially came from all walks of life and nearly every economic strata imaginable.  At one time many of us bragged about spouses, children, and lucrative careers and businesses.  Even with all of that, there still seemed a hole in our lives that couldn’t be filled.  Something vital was missing.  Importantly, things dramatically changed once we recovered.  We enjoyed peace of mind and discovered we could face life serenely, successfully, and purposefully.  It’s no exaggeration to say that every recovered alcoholic and addict knows their true purpose in life.  Therefore, we believe here that we can offer practical direction about this topic.  

As the reader may surmise, we have difficulty taking the spiritual retreats seriously.  Many of us at CORE, before arriving here, actually went on our own retreats involving psychedelic plants, among other things.  Our retreats, minus incarcerations and hospitalizations, often lasted years.  We didn’t find what we were looking for until we worked the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and found God.

Too many people today sink into what philosophers and mental health experts call existential crisis.  They think that finding purpose in life means always moving towards some significant goal that aligns with their personal values and passions.  Their efforts may be rewarded with victories.  Yet the sweetness of these victories isn’t what they hoped for and doesn’t last long.  In quieter moments, they wonder what all the fuss was about and, over time, they begin asking themselves, is this all there is?  This line of thinking inevitably leads them to question what life is about.  They may even ask if life has any real purpose and wonder why they’re even here.  Such existential moments happen even though they adore their families and outwardly appear successful to everybody around them (remember – it takes a lot of money to go on a pilgrimage to Peru.)

Such persons find themselves wrestling with the same dilemma as King Solomon while writing the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Been there, seen that, done that – that was Solomon.  He had the moxie and the means to accomplish all of life’s dreams and become wildly successful.  He saw and did, in his own words, “all things that are done under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 1:4.  From education to entertainment, romance, and successful business ventures, Solomon had it all.  Living almost three millennia ago, Solomon checked off all of the categories and achieved everything that people today pursue in search of meaning and purpose.  

Despite success after success Solomon was stricken with the same recurrent thought.  “Meaningless, meaningless,” he said, “everything is meaningless.”  Ecclesiastes 1:2.  We believe that Solomon’s conclusion is the natural collision course awaiting everybody who hasn’t accepted God.  The English philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said, “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.”  On this matter, Russell may well be right. 

The alternative to God is a random universe without purpose, with our lives running solely on self-will.  When this is our paradigm, it doesn’t matter how many successes we achieve or how much property we acquire.  Even the significance we may derive from our families, careers, or diversions may become overshadowed if we think that ultimately, in some cosmic sense, existence isn’t really about anything.  The fact that something might be personally important to us in the moment doesn’t sustain us.  If the universe really is random, and if nothing in our transitory existence matters, then it’s easy to see how one might question and ask what’s the point of it all anyway.  There may be some who claim that living in a pointless universe is comforting, or even liberating, but we think they are few in number.

The Big Book teaches a simple prayer: “How can I best serve Thee – Thy will (not mine) be done.” Id., at 85.  All manner of ills are settled by the singular change in focus brought about when we acknowledge God and dedicate ourselves to live in accordance with His will.  We remember the old days, the disarray brought upon by trying to find purpose in our own self-will.  We had chosen “to believe that our human intelligence was the last word, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all.”  Big Book, at 49.  Where did that leave us?  More often than not pursuing vague plans that lacked true focus, passion, and fulfillment.  We often were paralyzed by doubtfulness and indecision.  The universe rarely lined up with our intentions.  All of that changed in Step Three when we asked God to be our Director.

As the Big Book relates:

Here are thousands of men and women [who] flatly declare that since they have come to believe in a Power greater than themselves, to take a certain attitude toward that Power, and to do certain simple things, there has been a revolutionary change in their way of living and thinking. …[T]hey found that a new power, peace, happiness, and sense of direction flowed into them. …Once confused and baffled by the seeming futility of existence, they show the underlying reasons why they were making heavy going of life.

Id., at 50-51.

The search for the purpose of life has challenged people for thousands of years. Too often we begin at the wrong starting point – ourselves.  We ask self-centered questions like, what do I want it to be?  What are my goals, my ambitions, my dreams for my future?  By focusing on ourselves we never reach our life’s purpose which, as Solomon concludes, is to “fear God and obey his commands, for this is the duty of all mankind.”  Ecclesiastes 12:13.  Practically speaking, every purposeful life carries the “vision of God’s will into all of our activities.” Big Book, at 85.

We say these things because this is our experience and our perspective looking at the world and people around us.  We do not want to be seen as fire and brimstone preachers pounding the pulpit.  At CORE, we are a testament to the fact that consciousness of the presence of God is today the most important fact of our lives.  It is in God that we find happiness and freedom, empowerment and self-worth, and the heart-felt desire to be of service to others.  Our hope and fervent prayer is that everyone will find the One whom we have so happily discovered: God – our true purpose in life!

Why Resentments are the Number One Offender

Why Resentments are the Number One Offender

American history is chock full of stories about famous resentments.  The most notable, well-publicized ones involve mutual dislike between people.  People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, and Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr – to name only a few.  Newspapers and magazines had a field day publishing features about their resentments and the resulting fallout.  The stories that have most captured America’s imagination, however, may be those about the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.  It all started over a stolen pig.  Over the course of a decade, thirteen people were murdered, a home was burned to the ground, and various civil and criminal cases were prosecuted against members of both families.  Their stories are more than just a perverse American pastime.  They powerfully illustrate for readers how resentments can and do get really ugly.

Everybody probably has a basic understanding of what a resentment is.  That is, if you’ve ever been:  dumped by a girlfriend, fired from a job, passed over for a promotion, back-stabbed, made the object of gossip, lied to, ripped off, treated unfairly, embarrassed, bullied, unfairly blamed, verbally abused, or emotionally or physically abused, you probably held a resentment.  We’re human.  Our natural reaction if one of these things happens to us is entirely foreseeable: we become indignant; we resent it.

At the same time, we equally have a strong sense that holding resentments is somehow bad, even wrong.  While it’s true that resentments, because they are retaliatory in nature, imbue us with a sense of righteousness and control, they are more often likened to weeds that can multiply and ultimately take over a whole garden.  We suffer when we are filled with anger that has no place to go.  Lingering resentments can cause physical and emotional problems.  They can make us anxious and unable to focus on anything else.  They even keep us from sleeping.  Not surprisingly, the Lord himself commands that we love our enemies1 and turn the other cheek.2  Whatever sense of power that such resentments give us, all too often it comes at a terrible price. We become victims, playing the blame game to shield ourselves from responsibility, anxiety, and guilt.  Resentments rarely change the person whom we resent, either.  They almost never resolve conflicts. 

The Big Book definitely has a lot to say about this topic.  It says that the business of resentment is infinitely grave.3  It identifies the “greatest enemies” of alcoholics and addicts as “resentment, jealousy, envy, frustration, and fear.”4  Nevertheless, of these we are told that “Resentment is the number one offender.  It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.”5  This is a bold claim – one worth pausing to consider.  Why isn’t any other of the greatest enemies the number one offender, for example?  Why isn’t the obsession to use drugs and alcohol?  Or the physical allergy?  Or genetics?  Or neurobiology?  Or our psychological and social histories?   

Good questions.  The importance of resentments to the alcoholic/addict lies in the dead seriousness that the Big Book assigns to selfishness/self-centeredness.  Indeed, our own self-centeredness is identified as the ultimate root of our troubles.6  Unless this singular point about the addict’s selfishness is clearly understood, we can never appreciate why resentment is the number one offender.  Broadly speaking, there are three reasons for this.

First, in our self-centeredness we operate under the persistent, delusional, and dogged insistence that the world and everyone in it must conform to our desires.  We are, as the Big Book observes, extreme examples of self-will run riot.7  Time after time our self-centered delusion is powerfully refuted, yet we refuse to accept it.  Moreover, we refuse to accept it even while our lives are falling apart because our substance abuse impairs our ability to meet our responsibilities and protect our interests.  We become overwhelmed, angry and indignant, and turn ourselves into victims; and we blame others, refuse to take responsibility, and wallow in self-pity and fear – all of which are hallmarks of resentment.  Our emotional reaction, predictably, is restlessness, irritability and discontent – three bad hombres.  As substance abusers trapped in the cycle of addiction, we’ve only one way to deal with these.

Further, our resentments while we’re using are especially insidious because they loop back on themselves.  They create bitterness.  With our minds warped by substance abuse, we don’t just hold resentments, we become resentful people.  We invariably cloak ourselves with simplistic, black/white views of the world and everybody in it.  Our capacity to see things maturely in nuanced, complex ways is just not there.  Everybody gets lumped into opposing camps: good/bad, right/wrong.  Anybody who’s not for us is against us; but there’s nothing going our way anyway, so we may not see anybody on our side.  We still want justification, to see ourselves as good, and we need our anger to make us feel powerful.  With everything else in our lives out of control, our resentments are the only thing we have left to shield ourselves from the awful truth.  So we let our anger flow with abandon.  Our resentments become overblown and disproportionate to any wrongs we actually suffer.  We end up wanting to punish others not only for a present harm but also for every harm (or series of harms) that preceded it.  We even hold imagined resentments – freebies that give us all the rush of indignation without any actual harm at all.  In sum, when our resentments become our only sense of control, it’s no wonder that we can’t control our resentments, or all of the evils that accompany them.  

Finally, resentments shut us off from the “sunlight of the spirit.”8  They are a luxury that we simply can’t afford.  The very notion of a self-centered, recovered addict is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  Only God’s power allows us to rid ourselves of the selfishness responsible for the parade of horrors and resentments described above.  We can’t remove it by moral convictions or by wishing it away.  “We had to have God’s help.”9  It’s nonnegotiable.  Resentment is a recipe for powerlessness preventing us from acting in anyone’s best interests including our own.  We’re living in self and blocked off from God.  We’ve reneged on our 3rd Step vow to hand over the reigns of our lives and stop playing God.  Instead, we put ourselves back in God’s judgment seat.  Our resentments turn our focus inward and we again become spiritually sick.  Our attention returns to our own plans and designs.  We’re of no service at all to our fellows.  Instead, we’re propelled by selfish ambition, valuing ourselves above others.  We become easy targets – restless, irritable, and discontented – sitting ducks for wanting to experience again the sense of ease and comfort which comes by taking that next drink or drug.10

The Big Book well notes that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.  The insanity of our addiction returns and we use again.  “And with us, to drink [or drug] is to die.11  If you haven’t worked your steps, you will have the opportunity to more closely examine your resentments when you complete your Step 4 Resentment Inventory while identifying your character defects.  Step 4 is infamously considered “the scary one.”  Because of the extreme importance of the work you will be doing, your efforts will be crucial to a lasting recovery.

Jeff Sage: A Prodigal Son Come Home

Jeff Sage: A Prodigal Son Come Home

Seeing Jeff Sage today, you’d never suspect he ever struggled with alcohol or drugs.  One of our CORE staff members recently interviewed Jeff, a man brimming with optimism who seems to inspire confidence in everyone around him.  Since coming to CORE three years ago, Jeff has become a born-again Christian, worked the 12 Steps, and commenced our recovery program.  In addition to holding down a full-time career, he also acts as a CORE house manager and is an advocate for our EDGE program for younger clients.  During our interview Jeff freely discussed the stark contrasts between his former life of addiction and his new life as a man of God.

Jeff enjoyed a typical American childhood growing up and played sports well into his high school years.  He showed an aptitude for billiards too.  There was no traumatic event that sparked his using, but he definitely had a rebel streak.  While a freshman at Kickapoo High School in Springfield, a friend introduced him to marijuana.  After high school, Jeff crisscrossed the country hustling pool and playing in tournaments from Chicago all the way down to Texas and Florida, and all the states in between.  During his travels he discovered that he liked to party: 

I liked the bar scene. A lot of gambling, a lot of playing pool, and drinking.  I was like, I like this.  It’s legal, and it’s fun, lot’s of fun back then.  My base was pretty much pot, and then alcohol.  They and other things just came and went. 

He eventually returned to Springfield and discovered his aptitude for sales.  Jeff hopped from selling fitness memberships, to cars, to interests in real estate.  Each transfer led to him making and spending more money than he’d ever dreamed possible, but his alcohol and drug use were starting to get out of control.  Even being blessed with a wife and child couldn’t reign him in.  In June 2009, he went out on a bender, wrecked his 4Rrunner, and went missing for several days while in the hospital.  Jeff’s relentless trek up the ladder of success came to a screeching halt.  He landed in rehab completely mystified by his inability to moderate his substance use:

So I’m full of shame and guilt. Things happened. How’d I let it get to this? Sharp guy [that I was]. I almost couldn’t get in because my blood pressure was so high I was so stressed out. How did I arrive to this point?

From rehab Jeff came to CORE for his first, albeit brief, stay.  His friends, family, and employer were supportive.  He still had his job.  All was not lost.  Yet Jeff wasn’t ready to do what was needed to recover.  He thought he knew more than the people who’d been there before and were trying to help him.  He recalls “I was going through the motions, telling them what they wanted to hear. I’d removed drugs and alcohol for sure, but hadn’t done any steps. Didn’t believe it.  I was different. I was smarter. I was successful. It didn’t apply to me.”  Jeff left CORE after only four months.  Things fell apart “pretty quickly” after that.  

Jeff eventually lost everything that mattered, his wife, home, and career, and he became almost a complete stranger to his parents and son.  A long string of lost jobs, wrecked cars, other rehabs, and another brief stay at CORE followed.  His life had become unmanageable.  “Sooner, worse each time, more miserable, and then on a spree,” Jeff tells us, “and the fun’s over.  Now, I’m full of anger, full of resentment. I hate myself. I’m drinking and using to survive.  And with all plans of quitting, getting a job, and starting over.  It never panned out.” 

To make matters worse, Jeff lost his dad in December 2016.  “He died, and we’d been close.  It messed me up really good.  And I used it selfishly to self-medicate.”  The next eight months are a blur in his memory, after which he found himself in a dark, bad place, both mentally and emotionally.  The man who once had everything had been reduced to “a broken person, empty, and scared.”  He had no plan to end his life, but he really didn’t care if he died, either.  That was the bottom for him.  After seven years of chaos, Jeff felt tired of hurting everybody, tired of not being able to look in the mirror, and tired of hating himself.  In his own words, Jeff was “completely beat down,” adding “I was done.  Really done this time.  I did not want to hurt anymore.”  Jeff prayed to God for help, and walked from a friend’s house to CORE’s recovery center in Springfield. 

Jeff made good on his plans this time.  He was baptized into Christ and dedicated his life in service to God.  He stuck with CORE’s program for the entire year and completed it.  Much of his year was spent in the company and under the tutelage of some men who already completed our program.  In them he saw a quality of genuineness and complete lack of motive to get anything from him.  “There was just something about them,” Jeff says, “it was the Holy Spirit in them.  There was a light about them.”  He wanted what they had and was willing to do what was necessary to get it.  They helped Jeff by showing him how to do the 12 Steps, do them right, and not question every little issue.  He distinctly remembers that, after doing his 4th and 5th Steps, he finally was able to sleep at night and get rest, saying “That stuff wasn’t eating my lunch anymore.”  By the grace of God and the 12 Steps, Jeff had recovered. 

As Jeff completed his year in the program, he was overwhelmed by what God had done for him:

“I’m getting paid spiritually. Maybe that’s weird to say, but I have a peace about me.  I know God’s real.  I know what he delivered me from to where I’m at now.  The relationships that I have with my son, with my mom, it’s nothing short of a miracle.  And I don’t have any resentments, I don’t have any jealousy, I don’t have any anger.  I’m grateful for the time I have with my son, being able to be part of his life.  God continues to show up and show off in my life.” 

Today, Jeff is confident in his transformation and knows that his mind has been renewed.  The Big Book Promises are happening, too.  His mother and son, whom he describes as his biggest fans, have come back into his life.  He’s grateful for the renewed friendship of his ex-wife, who hung in there with him during the years of his addiction.  Jeff also has embarked on a new career.  Further, having commenced our program, he wasn’t done at CORE, either. It was time to give back.  Thus, for the last two years, Jeff has served as a House Manager and worked part-time for CORE’s EDGE program, both of which offer mentoring and Big Book guidance to clients.  In transitioning into a leadership role at CORE, Jeff sees a golden opportunity to pay it forward:

I saw this as an opportunity to strengthen my foundation, get me out of my comfort zone, and work with these guys. Occasionally you work with somebody, and it will click. Then they’ll go out and work with somebody. It’s that ripple effect. It’s the most beautiful thing, so that now it’s just putting all this good stuff out there. The ripple effect reaches all these other people.

We at CORE foresee good things for Jeff and are pleased to have played a part in his recovery.  We look forward to more years of his friendship and help.  Jeff’s message to everybody in recovery: “God’s got a plan. We don’t always know what it is. You gotta have faith.”