The following is an excerpt from Rev. Jen Crow’s book, Take What You Need: Life Lessons After Losing Everything. Jen Crow’s memoir begins with a house fire, from which she and her wife and two children escaped with just the clothes on their backs. As she tells her story, she considers other losses and hard times, and the love that saw her through.
When I went to my first recovery meeting, I was thirteen. I was a responsible kid on the whole— super responsible, to be exact. I ran my own baking business, volunteered at church, made dinner most nights, and did my best to keep my family from going too far off the rails. Nobody knew I was drinking and getting high every day, too. I didn’t drink like the other kids my age; that had been clear for some time. One middle school sleepover with my childhood girlfriends proved that fact beyond the shadow of a doubt.
My first trip to a recovery meeting had a relatively mild beginning. I had been caught getting high at a babysitting job, and the mom of the family insisted that we sit down with my father to talk about it. This mom cared about me, and she paid attention. Sure, she was the mother of my boyfriend, who was serving time at the juvenile detention center. And sure, she got high with her teenage kids on the regular when they were home on passes, but for whatever reason she looked at me differently. She paid attention to what I was up to, taking me out for ice cream after our Saturday visits to see her son. Even though she had long ago given up on the possibility that her kids might succeed in some sort of traditional way, she held out hope for me. After telling my father the truth about my drinking and drug use, I was grounded—and recovery meetings, school, and church were my only outs. So off I went.
At thirteen, it was hard to see how a program that suggested not drinking could apply to me. Hard to imagine myself as anything like the old men seated around the table, hard to comprehend how I could or would work this program of recovery when I had zero interest in giving up drinking and drugs. They were tools critical to my survival. I soon learned I could walk in one door of a meeting while my father watched and walk right out the back door and get high, coming back through an hour later on the dot for my ride home.
Sometimes I’d show up at a meeting or two by choice, searching for a shot at a life I could live. But the double life of external success and internal suffering was taking its toll. So by the time I made my way back to recovery at the age of twenty-two, I was ready. I knew the drill: Go to a meeting every day. Don’t drink. Read the recovery literature. Talk to people. Get a sponsor and work the steps.
The double life of external success and internal suffering was taking its toll.
I also knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t do most of these things, so I turned my attention to the first two. I stopped drinking, and I went to a meeting every day. Already, I knew to take what I needed and leave the rest.
I knew enough to join a meeting where I wouldn’t know anyone. Somewhere I could let my guard down as best I could. The Polish Catholic church in town had a 7:00 a.m. group that met every morning. I didn’t know it then, but I learned later that there is something about morning for me, something about showing up before I have a chance to armor up for the day, that made all the difference.
There in the basement of the church, more than fifty people would show up each morning and seat themselves in concentric circles, drinking bad coffee and watching the ants crawl by on the ancient carpet. Around us were pictures of a very white, very blond, long-haired, Gregg Allman–style Jesus on the walls and cross-stitch sayings like “One Day at a Time” and “First Things First.”
Each morning that I showed up and sat down without running from the room counted as a win. It took me about a week to notice that wherever I sat in that meeting, two older women would sit right behind me. One of them looked like my grandmother, her long white hair wrapped tightly on the top of her head in a bun. The two of them were in their seventies, and they were kind and funny. Why don’t you sit up front, they’d say, so that when the time to talk moves around the circle, you can join in? How many days have you gone without a drink now, they’d ask? Why don’t you pick up a coin this morning?
I’d hate their suggestions, but they were always there, and they’d disarm me with their kindness. They’d show me pictures of their cats or draw me into a conversation about what they had been watching on TV the night before, which was always WWF—the World Wrestling Federation. When I told them how much trouble I was having sleeping and how hot it was in my un-air-conditioned apartment, they pooled their money and brought me a fan at the next meeting. When they suggested I start doing some reading about recovery and I said I couldn’t afford the books, the books showed up on my seat the next day.
They were always there, and they’d disarm me with their kindness.
Three years and a whole lot of sober days later, I moved away from that town, starting seminary in another state. The morning I left, I drove the U-Haul truck to the meeting. I wanted one last dose of the love that would not let me go before I hit the road. Out there in the parking lot, the vet who had survived two tours as a Marine in Vietnam slipped a note into my hand. Put this in your wallet, he said, and don’t lose it. I read it later: Never be ashamed to lean on God, he wrote. People of faith have courage and you can, too. We’re with you. Love, Kenny.
The old ladies took down my address, later sending me notes of encouragement sealed up with stamps I knew took a tiny bit of their fixed income every month. For the next ten years, like clockwork, I’d get a call or a note from them on the anniversary of my sobriety. They circled me in their love all the way until they moved out into the great beyond.
Thurman often said that a person had to first feel at home somewhere before they could feel at home anywhere.
Among the books I would soon be reading at seminary was the theologian Howard Thurman’s writing about this kind of healing, unconditional, potential-filled love. Thurman often said that a person had to first feel at home somewhere before they could feel at home anywhere. The folks at that 7:00 a.m. meeting gave me a place to call home, and from there, I could venture out surrounded by their love to make a home anywhere.
As a Christian, Thurman’s understanding of this kind of healing love centers around Jesus, and the image he uses has Jesus holding a crown of goodness and righteousness above the heads of his people, urging them to grow tall enough to wear that crown. Now, I’m pretty sure this activist for Black liberation was not envisioning the long-haired white hippie Jesus of the paintings in the basement of that Polish Catholic church when he talked about Jesus holding a crown for us to grow tall enough to wear. And still, those people were there, the hands of God holding the crown taking shape in the gentle old ladies who carried pictures of their cats in their pockets and the men who arrived early to make gallons of terrible coffee. All of us, holding up the crown of possibility, believing each other into the fulfillment of our possibilities, offering each other unconditional, healing love.
Not everyone who came into those basement doors stayed sober. We lost a lot of us. Love was not enough to heal us all. Life happened. Relapse happened. New folks arrived to either stay or go. The people in the circle shift and change, but the circle stays the same whatever city I land in—animated by a fierce, gentle, protective love—held by hands of every gender and color and history—all of us holding up a crown of hope and possibility for ourselves and each other.
Love cannot fix everything, but it can keep us company. It can help us imagine ourselves through the perspective of others, the ones who won’t give up on us.