She sinks into the couch across from me and is quickly enveloped in its comfy folds. She is petite, but despite her size, looks fit. Strong. I study her as she begins to speak. Her posture is open and relaxed, yet her eyes reveal more to me than what her positioning suggests. They contain the fire of one who has seen both terrible and wonderful things in this life. Through them shine the persistent light of a survivor...
Meet Lisa Doyle. She turned 40 today, though you would never know it to look at her. She is a teacher, a writer, and mother of two vibrant boys. She radiates a young, energetic spirit into the room, yet speaks with a quiet strength.
Lisa grew up in a large family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in a conservative, middle-to-upper class community. Her father was a businessman and her mother stayed at home with her and her younger sister. From the time she was a baby and until she turned nine years old, life was stable. Normal. But one day, that all changed.
"It seemed like my Dad just decided to leave my Mom. As in, packed his bags and moved out. He went to North Carolina, bought a house on the Outer Banks, and within six months of the divorce, he remarried a woman named Dinah. It came as a massive shock to our family. We saw him every other weekend for the first six months or maybe a year; but then, as he got busier with work and his new wife, he seemed to go completely missing...other than the occasional phone call", she explains.
"I was devastated. That's when the self-esteem issues began. I began to realize that I was different than the other kids because my Dad didn't live with us. My friends and I were really interested in guys at that time...'boy crazy' if that's what you want to call it. I was already gravitating toward the 'bad boys'."
Lisa began using alcohol and smoking marijuana when she was a freshman in high school. What began as a party here and there with friends, inevitably ended with one of them having to carry her home intoxicated. "Once I started, I just couldn't control how much I used. I was always the one they had to drag back to the car. I was the girl people were embarrassed for, but I couldn't stop", she remembers.
Although they were also using drugs and alcohol, a lot of the other kids did not seem to have the same problem controlling the amount they used. Lisa was ashamed, as one would expect of any preteen, but it remained true that the very act which elicited the shame was the same coping mechanism that helped her to dull the pain of her family life. She continued to party, and throughout high school, began to experiment with much stronger substances such as LSD, cocaine, nitrous oxide, and mushrooms.
Lisa and her family had always been involved in church from as early as she could remember. Following the divorce, her mother threw herself into church life and pushed the girls into every activity that was offered. As a child, Lisa interpreted her behavior as "weak". Her mom seemed to be running toward church as if it was a relief from the poor family that they were becoming; that she was happy to spend more time with her religious friends than at home. A part of her understood how desperate her Mom was for help back then, but as an adult, she now realizes that it was her mother's survival.
Despite being resentful of the church, she recalls, "I never questioned whether or not God existed. I knew He did, even though I wasn't sure about Jesus. I just didn't understand that I could have a real relationship with Him. It's not true that people who are using drugs don't think about God. They (salvation and drug use) aren't always two separate things. Some of the most real conversations I have had about Him have been with people that the church would see as being 'sinful'."
The drinking, drug use, and sex continued to escalate. At the school she attended, it was not uncommon for her and her cheerleading friends to smoke pot before football games and cheerleading practices when they could afford it. Marijuana was a part of life at this point and her boyfriend at the time supplied any substance she requested.
During her junior year, her parents finally intervened after Lisa got into some pretty big trouble with her school for sneaking out of class with her boyfriend. She was sent to the mountains of western Maryland for two weeks to participate in an Outward Bound trip. It was a defining moment for her.
As a child, her mom would often drive her and her sister out into the Middle Creek Game Reserve to drink hot cocoa and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They couldn't afford much, but a tank of gas and some sandwiches were enough to bring them together. At 17, she felt the same peace returning to the woods and recalled her best memory.
"One day I was the one in charge of the map and had to lead the entire group to our next campsite. We walked a mile going completely in the wrong direction. I was embarrassed when I realized what I had done, but finally got up the guts to admit it. It wasn't a surprise to the leaders. They knew we were on the wrong path, but let me make the mistake anyway. Not a single person complained as we changed course. It was the first time I had been able to be wrong and not beat myself up with guilt. I had been covering everything up with sex and drugs. It was one of the first times I had the courage to take responsibility for a decision I had made."
Outward bound was the beginning. Lisa enrolled in college for creative writing. She also got married and eventually, had her first son. Though she would have liked her fresh start to have been the end of her reliance on substances, it unfortunately wasn't. She stopped taking the most potent drugs, but spent the next ten years cycling on and off alcohol, marijuana, and over-the-counter stimulants depending on their availability. She had been able to stop for her first pregnancy but sobriety seemed impossible as the baby cried and her marriage faced serious challenges.
There were some very scary moments as well. Most notably, was the day she feared she could die. She had overdosed on "speed" and, as her heart pounded out of her chest, prayed with everything in her that it wouldn't stop beating. She was spared that day.
She desperately strived to abstain from pills and alcohol in her own strength. This was especially true the time her husband gave her an ultimatum regarding their son. It was alcohol or the baby. While Lisa was at work, he had searched the house thoroughly and discovered every hidden liquor bottle she had consumed. As she walked through the front door, her heart sank as she laid eyes on each and every bottle lined up on the countertop. She locked eyes with him. He knew.
That confrontation resulted in the very thing that brought her face-to-face with Jesus: Alcoholics Anonymous. It was terrifying. The teacher that took care of their very own kids in that small community...what would they think of her? Would they assume she went to school drunk every day? What if she got fired?
She went anyway. She went scared.
"I got there and had a complete epiphany. They spoke my language. God used each and every person at the meeting that night to speak directly into my heart. One by one, with their own voices, they told my story. They shattered my belief that nobody else understood what I was going through. They looked normal. Some of them were dressed as if they had money. Some of them looked rough. Most of them didn't look like alcoholics at all. Regardless of appearance, God sent those people to change my life."
The journey that began that night in Telluride, Colorado resulted in Lisa's walk into the brilliant truth of God's love and purpose for her. It was a long and painful, yet freeing experience. As of this year, she remains nine-years sober. Lisa has two beautiful boys whom she has the privilege of raising to be men of God.
Most importantly, her story proves that Jesus saves real, messed-up, broken people.
People with problems. People with secrets.
God promises this: "The threshing floors will be full of grain, and the vats will overflow with new wine and oil. Then I will make up to you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten...you will have plenty to eat and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God who has dealt wondrously with you; Then My people will never be put to shame." Joel 2:24-26
God truly is restoring the years of addiction and pain that Lisa has experienced. She now teaches middle schoolers at an urban junior high school and was honored last year as the Middle School Teacher of the Year in her city. She leads a women's bible study and also ministers to others struggling to overcome addiction just as she has.
Jesus met Lisa in the moments she dared to be brave. He is the radical Savior to all of us, regardless of the decisions of our past. Only He can soften these hearts of stone by sending His people to us in service, people with messages of love. If He can change Lisa, what could He do in you should you allow Him?
M.S. in Marriage and Family Therapy. Earns Crossfit participation trophies. Disaster cook. Enthusiastic wife. #Boymom. Clutches her faith, not her pearls.