From Hell to Hero

Last night’s drive home to Austin was a road trip from hell. Driving alone down the I-35,  I was fighting to stay ahead of the impending winter storm that all the people in Oklahoma were talking about. 

This stretch of highway may kill me one day. The construction has been going on for twenty years. Concrete walls stand where open, grassy shoulders should be and semi-trucks overfilling their lane blaze past with only inches to spare. 

I couldn’t let go of the wheel to find any good music on the radio but the truth is I couldn’t listen anyway. The knot in my stomach hadn’t melted from what I had just done.  I didn’t want to hear music.

A couple hundred miles back, I had dropped off a beloved family member at a rehab center. She’s been sober for a decade but addiction is part of a complex mental illness that still confounds and tortures. 

She bravely agreed to go with me and as I drove, we played word games to keep her mind off of where we were headed. The “destination from hell” as it’s been described. The center is really a refuge of hope and expertise but the reality of the work that happens there is hellish. We trust they will help her  build a network of excellent doctors for a plan to begin the healing and lead to a thriving happy life at home soon.

It was dark and cold when we arrived. We stood in the parking lot for a quiet five minutes before entering with her bags. Once we were inside, I realized I wasn’t allowed to go in any further. The nurse met us and began to take her to the small room where the strip search would begin. 

I wasn’t prepared for this good-bye to be so quick.I hugged her unlike I’ve ever hugged anyone before. I wanted to imprint my love on her through her army green winter coat with the fur-lined hood, so I pressed into her as hard and deep and long as I could.  I was then led away to leave her there alone to wrestle with the demons within and find a way back home.  

As we drove there, she started sharing more about her experiences of the past decades. Then she reflected quietly as she looked out her window, “There is one trait that addicts share.” 

A lot of ideas of what she would say next passed through my mind. And then she surprised with her answer.  She simply said:


I wasn’t expecting her to say that word. We use it all the time at Acton but not so much in the rest of my life.  Her words reminded me of a conversation I had with an Acton parent: “You know, Laura, I was wondering what we were paying for by choosing Acton. It’s really not all the learning. You know what we pay for? We pay for our child to gain the identity of a hero. And that’s the most valuable thing.” 

The identity of  “hero.” What is that? It’s the opposite of victimhood. Victims blame the world. Find excuses. Quit when it gets hard. A hero takes responsibility, solves problem and keeps going when it gets hard. I fully understand that mental illness including addiction are not about choosing a mentality. But her words struck me as profound in terms of the recovery process she experienced and is now able to call out on herself.

The hard work of molding an identity is that no one can do it for you. It’s usually in the struggle of conflict or failure or loss that we begin the process. But by going down that often dark, cold and tightly bound road where frightening things speed pass, we do find our ultimate home, the place in the heart where we know exactly who we were meant to be.

I saw the kitchen light on when I pulled in the driveway. Jeff had waited up for me. He tucked me in and we fell asleep holding hands. I made it home.