By NANCY FLOWERS
Denise Marston once trusted in alcohol for comfort. An independent woman, born and raised in Ireland by a strong family, her freedom from addiction came only through hard work and a constant dependence on the Lord. Twenty years sober, she is now a licensed therapist who spends her life helping women imprisoned by their addictions. Her experiences give her a deep and knowing compassion with which to help her patients. “As therapists, we cannot bring someone further than we’ve come ourselves.”
While shepherding others on the path to sobriety, Denise has wrestled with her own personal and powerful grief. She lost her father to cancer, and then lost a baby. Her husband of 20 years, Richard, passed away in 2000, after a two-and-a-half year battle with cancer. Then, in 2003, never expecting to love again, she met Neil McCoy.
“He was the man of my dreams,” she smiles, “a real soul mate.” The pair had been dating for three years when Neil learned he had leukemia. “I couldn’t understand it,” says Denise. “How could God let this happen again?” She had shared with Neil her vision of a house where women could learn how to live sober after receiving treatment for addiction. In November 2007, she told him of a house she’d learned was for sale and took him to see it. The house, built in the 1950s, was dilapidated, filled with junk, and infested with bats. The house’s four acres were untended and overgrown. Denise, undaunted by the dilapidation, unlocked the front door and led Neil through the house. After the tour, he asked her if she’d like a silent partner, but she reminded him he was never silent about anything, and just said, “We’ll talk about it later.” In February 2008, as he lay dying, Neil whispered to her, “I think you need to go ahead with the house.” She nodded and said she would name it the McCoy House.
Against the advice of well-meaning friends, Denise took money from her IRA, purchased the house, and set to work renovating it. Her vision was for a beautiful home with elegant furnishings, comfortable double beds, and a big family kitchen, a retreat where newly-sober women could live in community until they were strong enough to go back home and face their issues.
“People turn to substances because they are lost and hurting,” she says. “Once they are sober, the issues are still there. We work at helping them manage their lives, which gives them strength to deal with the issues.”
The McCoy House for Sober Living has five bedrooms and four bathrooms, and Denise typically accepts six women at a time. The women come from various backgrounds and locations, most from out of state to avoid the temptation to resume unhealthy relationships, and an average stay ranges from three to nine months. Many of the women are young adults who have grown up in privileged homes where society has become more important than values, outside appearances more important than relationships.
“There is a lack of bonding because parents are focused on their own activities, and these young women are growing up with abandonment issues,” she says. “I hate to say it, but the relationship with their parents is what’s missing, and without it they latch onto anything.”
Some of the younger women have turned to addictions such as eating disorders, pornography, spending, and gaming as comfort in the loss of these key family relationships. Living at the McCoy House teaches them how to share life with others in a positive way, and the feeling of community helps them to accept one another and to bond like a family in spite of each one’s imperfections.
Learning to live sober means accountability. Each woman is expected to fill out a daily schedule so Denise will know where she is and what she is doing from 8:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. Each is required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where she must obtain the signature of the meeting’s leader. Each is required to volunteer, to work, or to be in school. Catholic Charities, in partnership with the McCoy House, opened a thrift store, All Things New, earlier this year, which helps meet needs in the community while giving the McCoy House women a place to work.
Accountability also includes household chores. “We keep it clean,” Denise says of the 4000-square-foot house. “If we live in hovels, it reflects on the outside of us.” Food is provided every Friday from Gleaners, fresh produce, frozen meats, and other staples, and each woman has a pantry shelf assigned to her, where she may keep any extra foods she purchases on her own. A chore chart posted in the kitchen delegates the shared cooking and cleaning duties; each woman is responsible for doing her own laundry.
“Boundaries are very important,” Denise notes. “Most of these women are used to hearing their parents speak of boundaries, but no one follows through. We want them to learn how to live with others in healthy relationships, and that means healthy boundaries.”
The rambling house offers space for families to visit, a nook for working puzzles, a table in a sunny room off the kitchen for arts and crafts, and quiet spaces outside for rest and reflection. The sitting room has TV and a computer with limited Internet access, where the women can apply for jobs. Denise’s friend Darryl Hobson, owner of Next Generation Fitness in Madison, provides free memberships to McCoy House residents. Denise wants them to fill their lives with activities that promote healthy thinking rather than “mindless video games and texting.”
She encourages women to challenge their core beliefs, and to trust Jesus instead of self-destructive behaviors to find comfort, meaning, and purpose. She strengthens her own spiritual life by starting each morning with devotional readings, a gratitude list, which sometimes includes as many as 50 items, and a list of affirmations to remind her who she is in Christ. And she prays.
“I get on my knees every day and ask God to guard my thoughts and my motives,” she says. “When the selfishness comes back, and it does, I need God to help me.”
The house’s large backyard, though still unrenovated, has plenty of room to create beautiful spaces for rest and reflection. Denise has plans to install some outdoor flower, herb, and vegetable gardens, as well as a stand-alone chapel for prayer and multi-denominational services. But her plans have been radically enlarged in recent weeks. The house directly behind the McCoy House went up for sale a year ago, and she knew then, by faith, that they would buy it. With no money to purchase it, she asked if owner financing on the property was possible and the owner agreed to finance $85,000 of the $285,000 asking price. Raising $200,000 seemed impossible, so Denise prayed about it. God had done the impossible for her before.
About two weeks after Denise’s conversation with the owner, she received a call from Sister Paulinus Oakes, a mercy nun and chaplain at St. Dominic Behavioral Health Services. The Sister asked her to lunch, and, in the conversation, Denise shared her vision to purchase the house to use for spiritual retreats for women struggling with addiction. She also admitted her lack of funds with which to do it. Sister Paulinus just smiled.
“I can help you,” she said.
Denise, sitting stunned and speechless, learned that fifteen years ago, Sister Paulinus wrote a book, Angels of Mercy, which made roughly $40,000 that the Sister had invested well. She’d made a call to her bank before meeting Denise for lunch, and the amount in the account was $200,000. She wanted it all to all to go to the McCoy House.
“I couldn’t believe it!” Denise laughs. “I was educated in Ireland by the sisters of mercy, so this really meant so much to me.”
Though the Lord had provided this staggering sum, there was still the matter of the other $85,000. Denise learned that the owner had lowered the price, and with generous gifts from some local businessmen and one of her friends, they had the $65,000 needed to tender a cash offer on the home. The offer was accepted. The Lord had proved His faithfulness again.
Learning to live sober isn’t easy. But Denise is committed to seeing her “girls” free from addiction, free from the pain they have suffered, and free to live for the glory of God.
“My goal for the McCoy House,” she says, “has always been to build a sanctuary for women where they can heal from the wounds of the past, live in the present, and plan for the future.”
For more information about the McCoy House for Sober Living, or to make a tax-deductible donation, visit www.themccoyhouse.com.