By Adrian Hickmon, PhD
The Best Christmas Gift Ever
This is a story about a Christmas gift that was the “best ever” for three different families. All with loving, Christian parents—accomplished, happy, and committed to family. They chose to face life-threatening trials, endured seemingly never-ending hardships and, in the end, prevailed.
Notice I didn’t say that they chose to HAVE life-threatening trials or ENJOYED FACING life-threatening trials. These situations hit them in the face like a well-planned ambush—subtle, secretive and deceptive at first, then aggressive and unmerciful.
Each family relied on scripture for guidance, encouragement, and sometimes just enough hope to make it through a day. Their go-to-verse, Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” As their journeys unfolded, this scripture took on a different and deeper meaning.
The Spiral Downward
Bill and Nancy’s son Johnny, their oldest at 17, began to change in ways they didn’t expect; dropping grades, disinterest in his extracurricular activities, apathy about almost everything and isolation from the family. They thought it was a growing phase of adolescence.
When Johnny got a DUI on Halloween night, he told his parents that it was the first time he had driven intoxicated. Bill accepted this explanation and encouraged his son to make better choices next time. Nancy felt like the problem was deeper than simply poor choices.
After doing some research and learning that the average person getting their first DUI has driven intoxicated hundreds of times, she asked Johnny to take a drug test. He replied, “Okay, I will anytime, but I will be positive for pot because of second-hand pot smoke. Almost everybody smokes pot and when I am in a group I breathe it like everybody else.” So they decided not to test him.
A month later, Johnny was caught at school with a small bag of pot and some rolling papers. He said it was a friend’s but after the K-9 unit found several bags in Johnny’s car plus some OxyContin and Hydrocodone divided into separate bags, Johnny’s story didn’t hold up.
For a few weeks it seemed that Johnny was turning it around. But then at a “parent-supervised” New Year’s Eve party, Johnny mixed pain pills with alcohol and had a seizure. The emergency room staff was able to save Johnny’s life with a defibrillator.
Bill and Nancy had been diligently working, even fighting, to stop behaviors that were damaging to Johnny, not to mention the rest of the family. Like any two loving, smart, and faithful Christian parents, they had given their best efforts to help Johnny stop addictive behaviors. They had even worked under the guidance of some respected professionals. But this time they had a stark realization.
Monica and Samuel had the same spiraling downward experience with their 26-year-old son, David. Same story, but with a different set of symptoms: high-risk sexual behaviors including pornography, multiple sexual partners, sexting, and online hookups.
Joann, a single mom, fought fiercely and lovingly to help her 22-year-old daughter, Olivia, who struggled with severe bouts of depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.
For both families, each round of trying to stop their child’s unhealthy behavior resulted in only temporary gains that were followed by a continued downward spiral into a deeper hole of shame, isolation, apathy, and anger.
They felt like they were playing a game of Whack-a-Mole. Every time a behavior popped up, they fought it and it went away—only to pop up in a different behavior. Like plugging a volcano with a giant rock only to see it erupt in another place.
Doing Something Different
Each set of parents came to the conclusion that in order to stop the spiral, they had to try something different and find a way to look deeper. They each chose the same program for their child and family.
They found that Johnny, David, and Olivia each had some hurts that underpinned their need for escape and pain relief. Each child felt deep shame about their hurts, and even though they were not to blame for them, they didn’t want their parents to know.
At some level, each child was so afraid that if he or she tried to be whole, healthy, and successful, it would end in failure—so the way to prevent failing, was to not try. After working with the professionals that specialized in families with young adults and adolescents, each individual and family began their work on healing the core issues and building stronger relationships.
These three families spent their Christmas holidays in crisis trying to figure out what to do. Then, they spent the next Christmas with their children in a treatment program that included their involvement in family therapy and ongoing personal therapy. This program is where we all met.
Stories were shared with each other and they discovered what they needed to do differently, for their child’s health as well as their own. Their children graduated and continued their work in aftercare along with their families.
The Root of the Problem
All of these parents had done a really good job of setting boundaries that ended the symptomatic behaviors, at least temporarily, until another “mole” popped up. None lacked in their love, good intentions and diligent efforts. These wonderful young people demonstrated outside behaviors that indicated inside struggles. The outside behaviors were about stopping the inside pain.
They needed help to “retrace the vine to the roots” and determine what was underneath. The core had to be discovered and addressed in order for the outside problems to stop. Most of the time, this core was not known or understood.
The roots that were discovered included being bullied, sexual abuse, early exposure to pornography, multiple moves, divorce (even when the split was necessary), a struggling marriage, school problems that were labeled ADHD, and the death of a loved one. In all of those situations there was pain, fear, shame, and loneliness.
A Promising Future
The next Christmas, these three families spent their Christmas at home with just family and all came to a bit of an “aha” moment. They were each having Christmas as families that were healthy, happy, healed, and whole—more so than before the challenging times they had endured.
Their suffering had truly led to a deep joy! Joann texted Monica and Nancy to comment on the joy she and Olivia were experiencing. Monica texted back that her family’s relationships had never been so deep.
She asked, “Do you remember us talking about Jeremiah 29:11 where God talks about His plans to prosper us and give us hope and a future?” Both responded yes. “Well, this last two years has really changed how I see that verse and my life, because I realized I had focused so hard on ‘His plans to bless us’ that I missed verse 10.”
She continued, “Right before the promise of His good plans it says, ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.’ The Israelites spent 70 years in captivity before the Lord fulfilled the plans He had for them. I never read that before! When I was in my darkest hours over the past two years, this verse helped me put our “captivity” in perspective. It gave me hope and helped me to persevere.”
Nancy chimed in, “That’s amazing! The mysterious ways of God actually blessed us with this journey.
“My new hope-verse is Genesis 50:20 where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers by saying, ‘YOU MEANT THIS FOR EVIL, BUT GOD USED IT FOR GOOD,’ Joann texted in all caps.
Monica summed it up with, “Oh my! This journey—it truly is the best Christmas gift ever!” And all agreed!
As these families realized, the best gift we can give to those we love is to discover the pain that lies beneath, face it together, and persevere until we are whole, healed, and healthy.
For information, visit capstonetreatmentcenter.com, call 866.729.4479 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Adrian Hickmon is a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor. Dr. Hickmon developed the Core Model of therapy, which focuses on chemical and process addictions and compulsions, trauma, attachment, relationship intimacy within the family and their core underlying issues.