My eyes caught a glimpse of her in the doorway and it took my heart a moment to register her presence in that place. Kind of like that moment when someone you’ve waited a long time to see finally walks down the terminal of the airport balancing the heaviness of their carry-on bag and a sweater, their face revealing the exhaustion of a long journey and a cramped flight. You don’t care what baggage they've brought with them. You are just so glad at the sight of them.
The last time I saw her was in the free world. The one where she was not a ward of the state. The one where she wore a white hoodie instead of a blue button-up shirt made of polyester. Where we sat at the coffee house and talked about her dreams for the future over lattes and sandwiches.
But she wasn’t free even then. A car accident and a prescription that turned into a habit led her into a vicious cycle of relapses, each failure driving her deeper into shame and self-loathing. Each time confirming the lie her past told her, that she was unworthy of love. That she would possibly never amount to anything more than addiction and the shallow places it had taken her.
I tried to help in every way I knew how, talking her away from the ledge more times than I could count. Praying with her and for her. Rising before the sun to drive with her to rehab facilities she would later check out of. And then I realized that she had to want it for herself more than I wanted it for her. That my wanting it for her would never be enough. That even God would not override her will. So I did the difficult thing and tied my own hands, releasing her to the path of her own choosing.
And I assure you that when she went down that path, she did not go alone. She took God's whole heart and a piece of mine too. The part that you give away when you walk with someone through tears and the hardest of times. When you see the best and choose to believe for more in spite of statistics and against all the odds. When you are street smart but are careful not to become jaded.
I thought about her many times since that last time I saw her.
So when my eyes fell on her in the doorway of that chapel, when she signed up for the program my husband and I lead inside the prison she was now confined in, her presence was a startling and welcomed sight. A flight bringing someone back home after they’ve been gone a long time.
She sank next to me in the chair to my left and silence hung in the air for a moment before I broke it.
“I am so glad you’re still here, in this life,” I told her, both of us with tears clouding our vision.
Even if in the confines of a state prison. At least she had another chance at a life fully lived. At sobriety and being the mom she never had and running marathons and music and all the things she loves most.
She was a welcomed sight to this heart very prone to compassion fatigue and burnout. An unwanted side effect of walking with people in the trenches of healing and through layers of pain and unwanted behavior. A good reason why rest and self-care and seeking the Father to realign my fickle heart is necessary and a critical part of continuing on this walk.
I promise you that no one wakes up one day and decides "I think I'm going to ruin my life." At least not consciously. I know sometimes it seems the contrary. I know the race is long and the temptation is to give up. I know that sometimes the healthy boundary is to walk away. To tie your own hands. To release into the unknown what you never had control over anyway.
But if and when a person returns, may our heart be one that embraces like the Father. May it get weepy and joyful and tearful at the sight of their return. "I'm so glad you're still here, in this life." In my life. I believe in you, even if it's the second, third, or fifteenth time.
As long as there is breath, there is hope for change. And hope is a force to be reckoned with.