I grew up in an Italian family in Philadelphia, PA. We were nominally Catholic. Some would call us “Chreasters” because we went to church only on Christmas and Easter. My family was a hard working, blue collar family in a city full of vice. We didn’t have much, but my sister, mom, dad and I had each other.
When I was 12 everything changed. My older sister, Tammy, found a needle in the bathroom. We brought it to my dad and mom. And then the bomb dropped. My dad confessed that the needle belonged to him. He used it to shoot up drugs. He confessed that he had battled a heroin addiction since he was 17. The rug of my security was pulled out from under me. My dad was no longer my hero; he was a junkie.
But I still had my mom. My mom was the glue. But, a year after I found out about my dad’s addiction, she came unglued. She had what she called a nervous breakdown and began using drugs with my dad. She preferred to shoot up Cocaine. I was probably more crushed by my mom’s addiction than my dad’s. It’s a real shocker when the same hands that bake you cupcakes, fold your clothes, and rub your head, put a needle in her arm to get high.
Well, you know what happens when two people start using hardcore street drugs. Every discretionary dollar we had went to the drug dealer. Now that my mom was no longer holding my dad somewhat accountable, since she was using with him, he went hog wild with his addiction. We were about to hit the rock bottom we thought we already hit.
My parents lost their jobs. We went on welfare. I remember my mom still trying to be a mom, so she packed my lunch for school. She made me a welfare cheese sandwich. You could tell it’s welfare cheese because it comes in a block and you have to carve off pieces. I remember going to school hoping none of my friends recognized my sandwich as a welfare cheese sandwich. Well, they did. “Lenny’s eating welfare cheese…Lenny’s eating welfare cheese.” I was humiliated. Shame would become my middle name through my high school years.
In order to feed their addiction my once loving, unselfish parents who would do anything for me and my sister began to steal from us. I worked as a bus boy at a restaurant. I would get some tip money every night. A few times my parents found it and stole it to support their habit. I got better at hiding my cash. One time I put about $60, a good night’s pay, up in one of my neck ties. I thought, “they’ll never find it here.” They found it and took it. They hocked my guitar and Atari video game system. Drugs transformed my parents so that they were almost unrecognizable to me.
Within a year after my parents lost their jobs, we lost the car and the house, not to mention our dignity and hope. When we lost the house, we lost each other. My mom went to live with her parents, my dad with his mother, my sister with an aunt and uncle on my mom’s side, and me with an aunt and uncle on my dad’s side. All four of us were living in separate homes as I was going into high school.
I would still see my parents in the hood from time to time, pretty strung out. On one occasion my mom, in front of some of my buddies, chased me down the street begging me to give her money so she could get high. What happened to my mom? Who stole my mom? Where did my loving mom go?
When I lost my parents, and our house, and our dignity and each other, I also lost myself. This one took a little longer. In order to escape my shame and pain, I self-medicated. I started getting drunk with friends when I was 13. By the time I was 17, I was getting drunk 3-4 nights a week. I dropped out of high school in my junior year since it was getting in the way of my lifestyle. While my friends were thinking about college or career, I was concluding that my life would never amount to much at all. I was a high school drop-out alcoholic son of two drug-addicted parents. That was my lot in life.
I wouldn’t say I was suicidal, but I had a bit of a death-wish. I did some crazy things when emboldened by beer. And my death-wish was almost granted. I was drunk and initiated a fight with someone for no other reason but the color of his skin. I threw a punch that landed. He started to run down the middle of the street. I chased him while my friends laughed. The guy stopped in the middle of the street and put his hands up. I put my hands up and threw a punch. I never saw the knife. He stabbed me. The blade plunged 4 inches into my body and punctured my lung. Blood was everywhere. I couldn’t breathe. My friends came to my rescue and got me to the hospital quickly.
My rock bottom arrived while my parents were coming off the bottom. I was falling apart in Philly when my parents were both in Syracuse, NY recovering in rehab. My dad was recovering at a Christian rehab called Teen Challenge. He was doing well, even taking on some leadership at the rehab. My mom was caught shoplifting. They gave her the option of jail or rehab. She chose rehab and ended up going into a Christian rehab for women in Syracuse. My strung out parents were sobering up in the savior’s love.
My parents were accessing the grace of God in the context of Christian community. They were being healed. They were being liberated from addiction. I never thought I would see the day when my parents were clean. Even my unconverted cynical eyes could see that this was a miracle. Shortly after I was stabbed, my parents talked me into rehab at the Syracuse Teen Challenge. I had some gambling debts hanging over my head and no money to pay. To escape the debt, I said yes and went into rehab.
It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Jesus. I had lost myself in a sea of shame and sin between the ages of 13-18. Now, God began to restore his image in me. “He broke the bars of my yoke and caused me to walk with my head held high” in the dignity of discipleship. All of a sudden I was able to envision a life that was worth living.
If you would have seen us when I was about 16, you would have thought “this family doesn’t have a chance.” I know you would have thought that because everyone around us, including us, felt that way. Three years later, when I was 19, we were living life to the full together in a box of an apartment. We were like the demon possessed madman in Mark 5. He was running around in the nude, cutting himself and yelling out vulgarity. Then he meets Jesus. All of a sudden, he is clothed and sitting in his right mind. Jesus had exorcised our demons, a legion, and we were sitting together in our right mind, clothed in his love.
We were passive participants in a miracle of grace God was bent on doing.
The miracle we experienced had a lasting positive impact on our relationships with each other and with God. My mom has, sadly, passed on but my dad is one of my best friends.
If this were a fairy tale, there would be no scars. But in real life there are scars. Jesus has healed my deepest wounds but the scars still remain, at least this side of heaven. Here are some of the scars that keep me perpetually and humbly dependent on God’s grace:
My mom died at age 54, nine years ago. You know how Italian sons are with their moms. I was so emotionally crushed by my mom’s addiction, that I shut down my emotions toward her. It was hard for me to get those back. I forgave her for the pain she caused me during my teenage years, but I’m not sure I communicated grace as fully as I could have done. I wish she was here so I could love her in a manner that did more to lift her shame. I live with that scar of regret.
There are some demons from my past that still haunt me from time to time. I bear the scars of inferiority and insecurity. Through most of my formative years, I was labelled by myself and others as a “loser, high risk, destined for failure, alcoholic high school drop-out, son of junkies.” So, on my worst days, the demon whispers in my ear when I stand up to preach or teach “you’re a loser, a nobody, what could someone like you offer to people like this, you’ve got nothing.” I’m usually able to tweek him off my shoulder. But not always. Sometimes I will walk into a room full of capable people and catch myself thinking, “I am the person in the room with the least to offer.” I have doctoral degree, have been fruitful in ministry, have written a couple of books, and receive invitations to preach and teach all over the world. Yet, I still bear the scars of insecurity and inferiority. I few years ago I wrote in my prayer journal, “Lord, I still feel like there’s a 13 year old boy trapped inside of me who needs to get healed and get out.”
Another scar is my trust issue. When the people you trust most, your mom and dad, disappoint you in big ways, it obviously impacts your overall trust capacity. When my parents came undone and unreliable, I made a subconscious choice to never put myself in a position to trust or need another person again. People are not trustworthy. So don’t trust them. I have forced myself over the years to trust people, even though I risk being disappointed or let down. I do this because I see a direct connection between the level of my capacity to trust others and the level of my capacity to trust God. In other words, learning to trust others helps me to trust God more.
Well, that’s my story. I have been miraculously healed by Jesus, but scars remain. The scars that remain, though, are also redemptive. They keep me leaning on the everlasting arms of a God who is able “break the bars of my sin and shame, and cause me to walk with my head held high.”