An Excerpt from Downstairs Church: Finding Hope in the Grit of Addiction and Trauma Recovery,
by Caroline Beidler, MSW
(Published here with permission.)
One of the many things I love about recovery is that for many, helping others is about sharing our experience, strength, and hope. It’s not advice. It’s not condescension or lecturing. It’s about understanding. Listening. Being genuine. Telling our stories. No sugar-coating or sound-bite versions. No TikTok or Reels or tweets. The truth. “Nothing is such balm for a broken soul as this—to know you are not alone.”
Alex was one young woman who allowed me the honor of listening to her share her life. I met her at an outpatient behavioral health clinic called Connections Counseling, where I started mentoring young people in recovery after I moved back home from Michigan. I was still going to church, or church-hopping (like I used to bar-hop), but still having trouble connecting. Even though I didn’t wear my shame-stained coat anymore, it was still there, all stank, in a heap on the backseat.
I met an older woman at my newest church who encouraged me to get involved with a recovery community.
“Doesn’t this go against Christianity?” I asked her, sort of appalled she thought that I was missing something. I was in my twenties and thought I knew everything—or if I didn’t, at least I could look it up on the internet.
“I have a friend who has been going to meetings for years and gets a lot out of them. Connection. Community.”
I was at a breaking point again (I’ll get to that in a minute, his name was Beau) and decided to give it a try. After attending a couple of different recovery meetings, I ended up going to outpatient groups and volunteering my time to work with other women in recovery. They said being of service would help me stay outside of my head and stay sober. So, like getting baptized, I gave it a try.
This behavioral health clinic is where I met Tanya, my best friend Ell, and so many other young people in addiction and mental health recovery.
Despite her own traumas, over time Alex began opening her heart to me. She told me about her parent’s marriage, the way some of her family members drank to excess, and how she was jealous of her sister. She asked me questions that I could not answer, like how was wine so different from heroin? She shared her excitement that bubbled up now that she was sober, her disbelief that she would finally be able to study abroad before she got her undergraduate degree in criminal justice. She couldn’t wait to help other people not as privileged as her, people who didn’t grow up in the suburbs, people caught up in a system of punishment and isolation and addiction that they could not escape.
Alex had questions about God, too.
She grew up going to church with her family, but couldn’t reconcile the God she learned about with the way she saw the world. She asked me about my faith in her gentle way. A part of me had to laugh when she asked me these questions. Why was she asking me? Why did she think I had anything at all to say about God and faith? If she only knew me at fifteen when I was snorting cocaine between classes in a bathroom stall. Hanging out with dealers in low-light parking lots, hoping the cops wouldn’t show up as the other car pulled away slowly with its lights off. Stumbling from the bar and getting behind the wheel and never getting caught. Didn’t she know how my life was one of those afterschool specials they made us watch in elementary school in the early 1990s that did absolutely no good (at least for me)? Who was I to show her the truth behind the little silver cross I wore and the gritty, real-life reasons I wore it?
I wasn’t the only person who lived through trauma, used substances to cope with the aftermath and questioned a god that could stand by as the shrapnel fell. Alex, in her own quiet way, helped me to see that I was not alone in my experience—or my doubts. God was there with me through it all, as I had felt so completely during that church service before I started my journey into recovery with community. And I could share that experience with her.
Until I got the call and shut myself in the bathroom and sobbed. In my mind’s eye, I saw her red hair and devastating eyes. Tiny details circled in my mind: chipped green nail polish, the way her lips moved around her lip ring when she spoke; a raspy voice and obsession with all things Harry Potter; black lace-up boots. The way she walked with her gaze downward as if her secret sorrows could pierce the core of the Earth. I knew she was hiding things. She hid her eyes from the world because she didn’t want anyone to see her. To really see her. I knew she was hiding because I recognized myself in her. Me, too, we whispered back and forth without words as I drove her to recovery meetings and we talked and smoked cigarettes and she’d ask me what recovery was like and I would tell her, usually without words, that it was amazing.
Alex was twenty-three years old when she died from a heroin overdose in her childhood bedroom. Her mother found her in the morning. Her body was draped across the floor, half in her open closet. Next to her was a red plaid slipper and a needle.
I was in shock. I kept repeating to myself and to anyone who would listen: such a waste. SUCH A WASTE! NO! I wanted to scream loud enough for the world to hear. For all of the people struggling with addiction and their family members and the police officers taking them to jail instead of treatment and the parole officers and the social workers and the women she was supposed to help with her criminal justice degree and to the women like her and like me and maybe like you who have lived through things we shouldn’t have.
Such a waste of precious life and possibility and hope.
Since Alex died, I have been to more funerals than I can count for people killed by addiction. I got a special conservative black dress for the occasion. My funeral dress. My addiction funeral dress. If it wasn’t someone I knew well, I saw the obituary posted on Facebook or IG first, scroll through the comments of shock, and horror, then check their page to make sure. I always go to the last thing they posted before they died and think to myself how haunting this last post must be for family and friends. Sometimes it is sadly a premonition or sometimes it is some random meme or video. If it was someone I knew well, I’d get that call that starts with muffled tears and the three words that preface what I instantly wish I could un-hear: “Have you heard?”
I hate saying that someone has “lost their life to” addiction. It sounds too passive—like they just succumbed and couldn’t find it—their life—anymore. I don’t like to say this because it’s not what happens. Addiction steals lives. It thrives on the blood of the innocent and struggling. Addiction devours and destroys families and homes. Addiction leaves an empty seat at the table. Addiction takes away so much from so many. It is more than heartbreaking. Words fall short and break against the pavement like the glass beer bottles I used to throw at stop signs on country roads. If you ask a mother or father who has lost a child to addiction, rarely will they say “They lost their life to addiction.” More times than not, there is nothing but gaping sadness and hollow disbelief if you have the courage and compassion to ask what happened.
After Alex’s death, once the grief ebbed like the tide inching back to sea, something new started to grow inside me. And it was not death, but a new life: a desire to live for her and for women like her. Alex reminded me of my own brush with death years before, how it could have and should have been me. Why did I live through it when she died because of addiction and the darkness that surrounds it?
“Why do bad things happen? Why does God allow it?”
Caroline Beidler, MSW is an author, recovery advocate, and founder of the storytelling platform Circle of Chairs. Her new book Downstairs Church: Finding Hope in the Grit of Addiction and Trauma Recovery is available anywhere you buy books. With almost 20 years in leadership within social work and ministry, she is currently the Membership and Outreach Manager for the Association of Recovery in Higher Education. She is also a team writer for the Grit and Grace Project and blogger at the global recovery platform In the Rooms, along with founder and visionary of the annual International Women’s Day Global Recovery Event presented by the SHE RECOVERS Foundation. Caroline lives in Tennessee with her husband and twins where she enjoys hiking in the mountains and building up her community’s local recovery ministry.