- Click here to read Lynda Lee Schab's review.
The best memoirs are well-written stories with some relevance to the reader’s life, even if the reader and the writer don’t traverse parallel paths. And that’s what Heather Kopp has given us: a good, insightful, hopeful narrative.
A ‘born again” Christian since high school, Kopp knew the Christian lingo --- even worked in the Christian marketplace --- but somewhere on the road, in her 30s, she started supplementing a little wine at dinnertime with the libations she had secretly bought and hidden around the house --- in closets, in compartments of her oversized purse, in her tall leather boots. Heaven forbid that her husband discover that she was a desperate sneak. Her scenario reminded me of a yard sale purchase 25 years ago; at home when I unfolded a used white bedsheet, I found a thin bottle of peppermint schnapps.
"The best memoirs are well-written stories with some relevance to the reader’s life, even if the reader and the writer don’t traverse parallel paths. And that’s what Heather Kopp has given us: a good, insightful, hopeful narrative."
Eventually --- now an empty-nester --- Kopp would wake up mornings with no memory of the previous evening. Increasingly desperate, she prayed and prayed for a miracle. “I was supposed to have victory in Jesus…
“But the miracle never came.
“Until one day…it did. Only it didn’t arrive like I had hoped it would, in the form of a dramatic rescue. It came in the form of utter, agonizing defeat” as if she were throwing herself at God’s feet, wailing in grief and despair, admitting her helplessness.
By page 30 of this 200-page book, Kopp is on her way to a treatment center. Much of the narrative recounts her first year of recovery --- group dynamics in the residential facility (is she really one of them?); spousal dynamics back home, including an early relapse (maybe this will punish him); the poisonous pull of addiction; the 12-step world, its meetings, its characters, its elemental plan that helps her face her base self; a new level of spiritual, emotional and physical reliance on God’s staying power and grace --- strength for today.
Intergenerational themes underlie the book. Kopp is oh-so-aware of her natal father’s addiction and suicide and her formerly volatile relationship with her stepfather. A parallel plot tracks her young adult son’s journey through alcoholism.
Toward the end of the book, Kopp writes about courage: “One of the bravest acts of recovery is to stay in the here and now of our most mundane days and try to find God there. To look reality in the eye and open our arms wide to it when what we want to do is run.” But it’s not all about willpower. It’s about surrender and sober mercies. This reflects a spiritual maturity that is far removed from the Heather Kopp portrayed in earlier scenes. Kopp is a writer I think you’ll like, even if you’ve never been drunk. And especially if you’re a sneak and swallowing your shame.
Heather Kopp is a Christian. She’s a wife and a mother. She even writes and edits Christian books and articles for a living. But, shhhh. Heather is also an alcoholic.
Heather kept her secret for a full 12 years before finally realizing --- no, admitting --- that alcohol was consuming her life. More than that, it had become her life.
Chapter two of Heather Kopp’s memoir, SOBER MERCIES, begins like this: "Once upon a time, I assumed my Christian faith would make me immune to the kind of gross moral lapse I considered alcoholism to be. The way I saw it, if you were a sincere believer, you would rarely, if ever, drink. And if you did drink, you would be careful not to drink too much. And if you never drank too much, you couldn't become an alcoholic."
Yes, well, Heather soon realized the depth of this faulty thinking, and her “Once upon a time” turned into anything but a fairy tale. Unless you consider a fairy tale to be hiding wine bottles in your boots, sneaking through the aisles of K-Mart to pick up a six-pack, guzzling alcohol in the restaurant restroom, and lying to your husband and children.
"SOBER MERCIES is the most refreshingly honest memoir I’ve read to date. Heather doesn’t minimize the serious nature of her dependence on alcohol, but she has a sharp wit and her style of writing contains much self-deprecating humor."
Once she admitted her addiction to herself, the first step was to confess to her husband Dave just how much booze she actually consumed on a daily basis. While they would share a bottle of wine or have a couple of beers every evening when he got home from work, Dave was shocked to learn that it was common for Heather to have downed three times that amount before he had even walked through the door. And yes, the fact that his wife was stumbling around more lately and sometimes didn’t remember everything from the evening before --- including whether or not they had been intimate --- was an indication that she may have had a problem. But Dave had no idea just how massive that problem was.
Fortunately for Heather, Dave could not have been more supportive or understanding as she checked herself into a program and attended her AA meetings. Even when she told him she didn’t mind if he had a glass of wine when they went out to dinner with their friends and then got mad when he did. Even when she relapsed and blamed it on him.
The first two parts of Heather’s memoir take us through the events of her alcoholism and her subsequent relapse. Part three digs deeper into her past. We learn about her parents’ divorce, her father’s mental illness, issues with her stepfather, the failure of Heather’s first marriage, and her son’s alcohol and drug problem. She makes no excuses for her behavior but shares the psychological reasons that contributed to her harmful addiction. The third part also explores more profound issues, like faith, and where that fits into the secret life she found herself living.
SOBER MERCIES is the most refreshingly honest memoir I’ve read to date. Heather doesn’t minimize the serious nature of her dependence on alcohol, but she has a sharp wit and her style of writing contains much self-deprecating humor. One particular incident she shares is when she tries to kill herself by taking a bottle of her mother’s pills. Obviously, suicide is far from funny, but the way she describes the scene offers a laugh-out-loud account of the episode.
While this book focuses specifically on alcohol dependency, it can pertain to any type of addiction: drugs, porn, food, or toxic relationships. As Heather says in the final chapter, “During the years of my private hell, I wish someone would have sat me down and given me the good news: ‘You’re not a uniquely horrible person, Heather. You’re mentally, spiritually, and physically sick. And while there is no cure, there is a solution.”
And that’s the ultimate message SOBER MERCIES delivers. Battling addiction does not mean you’re hopeless. It means it’s time to turn it over to the only one who can offer the hope you’re truly seeking.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence and Lynda Lee Schab on June 14, 2013