Alone in the dark, Alan Hall sobs.
He’s in hell, one of his own making. His vomiting and migraines and hallucinations and tremors finally passed a few days ago, just like the doctor said. They were necessary to expel the poisons that put him here, though. His body had turned itself inside out while fighting to live. But that isn’t what hurts Alan the most.
He knows Racheal and Ethan are crying too, safe and far away from him on the other side of the wall. He was in custody the last time he saw them, handcuffed by hard men who, like his girlfriend and son, had finally tired of his sins. It will be months before he sees either of them again. Years, if the prosecutor has his way.
Alan grinds the heels of his hands into his eyes to stop the tears. No pressure will ever crush the vision of Racheal’s eventual abandonment, the new life she needs to build now that your sorry butt is behind bars where it belongs. She’s gonna find a better man, Alan. Shouldn’t be too hard. Every man is better than you, Alan. That new man’s gonna raise your boy, Alan. Ethan won’t remember you, Alan, won’t even care as you wither and wail among the filth.
He wraps the sandpaper sheet of county-issued wool blanket around his shoulders and over his head, trying to hide from the legion of guilty men caged along with him. He doesn’t want to sleep because the dreams that await are only of Racheal and Ethan and all the ways they’ll run from the convicted fool they used to love.
He prays for a very particular miracle, then tries to hold himself awake against the coming nightmares but fails at even that simple task, bloodshot eyes closing against his will as exhaustion twists him silent.
His next thoughts aren't of Racheal and Ethan.
They’re of water rushing up his back.
Of a man pushing him down.
And finally, death.
Alan Hall wasn’t supposed to become a monster.
He didn’t grow up like one. Although his parents divorced when he was very young, the emotional fallout of their split was absorbed by the love of his grandparents, who practically raised him as their own son.
He spent countless days on their farm, bent low for good work under the impossible blue of the Indiana sky, under his grandfather’s quiet guidance, under his grandmother’s patient protection.
Every Sunday was perfect, praising God at his grandparent’s little country church in the morning, feasting and resting in the afternoon.
High school was easy, and Alan was popular. He dated the head cheerleader, sang like a rock star at weekend parties, and kept everybody in stitches. He had the huge laugh and the quick joke. And he loved the attention. He loved making people happy. In the end, that’s all he ever wanted to do - smiles for everyone, no exceptions, no one left out. That’s why what happens next is all the more tragic.
The ink was barely dry on Alan’s high school diploma when his friends passed him the joint for the first time, in a scene straight out of a bad after-school special. C’mon Alan, they implored. It’s just one, bro. You’re an adult now. Let’s party, man. Blaze it up. Live a little.
Does Alan know this is wrong? Yes. Does Alan hear the voice of every teacher, parent, relative, TV commercial, school assembly, cop, and Christian from the last 18 years imploring him to just say no? Of course.
But those well-intentioned messages and posters and public service announcements can’t compete with the defining pressure of this moment, when those whom Alan enjoys offers him something that will make him enjoy his time with them even more.
They’ve invited him to feel better, to feel better with them, to feel better about them, to feel better about himself. They’re offering him their understanding of joy. What could be wrong with exploring what they’d already discovered? More to the point, who was he, really, to say no? Any rejection would be a tacit assertion of the fundamental superiority of his choices, morality, and lifestyle.
Was he really so sure that his way was better than theirs? Was his Sunday morning Church-ianity version of joy better than theirs? Alan’s reflexive and socially acceptable answers are full of someone else’s words and bound by someone else’s convictions. No wonder that, when asked in this moment to support a choice between safety and pleasure, they crumble under the strain.
So Alan says yes because he’s convinced the worst that could happen isn’t the worst that will happen.
And Alan is right, for a while. With each hit, he finds acceptance and a brotherhood with the other users who share his new tastes. In the smoke, everything is more, funnier, deeper, better, easier. That effortlessness draws Alan in fast and hard; when he’s high, he doesn’t have to try to win acceptance and attention. He merely has to enjoy it. That unfettered joy is song and sermon, more exquisite than anything else he’s ever experienced.
This is what he has always wanted to feel and be: free and happy, no pressure or fear. He doesn’t have to work at becoming the good person he and others have told him he should be. That version of Alan is here and now, worshipped by his new friends while he worships them in return. Nothing good is beyond him. Everything bad is behind him. He can’t possibly imagine feeling better.
Until the party ends, that is. Sobriety destroys him on those dim mornings when the smoke clears and all that remains of last night’s heaven are slippery memories, ashes, and broken glass.
His friends, shattered like him, conspire to push the world away as soon as possible with as much weed, booze, meth, and coke as possible. C’mon Alan. Pitch in and let’s party. Don’t worry, you can make it to work in a few hours. Don’t say no, man. Don’t let us down. Just a few bucks is all we need. That’s right, buddy. It’ll all be ok.
No. It won’t.
Years pass and pleasure congeals into pattern. Alan sleeps and works and gets stoned and drunk and tweaked and high. He flits between sobriety, decadence, and responsibility. He thinks he’s serving and managing all three, but the highs are shorter and the hangovers longer. It’s harder to feel good for any length of time anymore. Maybe a change of scenery will break the cycle. Gotta be an even more impossibly blue sky out there somewhere.
So he moves to Florida and starts a woodworking business. He has always been good with his hands, and he loves finding the beauty and life hidden in and among every log and board in the shop.
But there are other, more mysterious things in and among these seemingly lifeless hunks of wood: words, phrases, ornate letters, all pressed deep into the knotted, swirling surfaces. He’s the only one who can see them, though. They’re only visible for a moment and out of the corner of his eye, disappearing so fast as to seem like a remnant from his last high.
He ignores these visions because business is good. So is the money. So are the drugs.
He finds love with a soon-to-be nurse named Racheal. Foregoing marriage, they move in together instead and soon welcome their first son Ethan into the world. Racheal knows about Alan’s festering addictions, hates every last one of them, yet loves him down to his core, no matter how many nights he stumbles through the front door after another fabulously impaired and inexplicably miraculous drive home.
So frequent are those nights, then days, then weekends, then mornings - and the fights that bookend them - that Racheal and Alan decide to move back to Indiana to start over again…again. He convinces Racheal that Indiana is the best place for them because he’ll be closer to his family and loved ones. Having them close, his reasoning goes, will help him become the man he needs to be.
Racheal and Alan’s definitions of “family” and “loved ones” mean two tragically different things, though. To Racheal, they mean Alan’s parents, grandparents, stepdad, brother, and a handful of his party-averse friends.
But to Alan, his family and loved ones are the late-night and weekend party crew. They’ve been wondering when Alan is gonna get his butt outta the sand and get himself back where he belongs because this town hasn’t been the same since he left and these Indy lightweights need to know how really party. Can’t wait to have you back, man! GONNA BE EPIC!
Over the next two years, Alan conjures every reason and excuse to hang out with the friends, resume his hard-partying lifestyle, and flee from anything resembling responsibility, anywhere.
Addiction eviscerates his work, sleep, food, finances, everything in between. Alan’s every waking moment is dedicated to clawing his way to his next high and staying in it as long as he can until he passes out and starts all over again. He’s not even trying to maintain any semblance of a relationship with Racheal or Ethan anymore, going on week-long benders that vaporize what little money they have left. His car disappears. Alan’s business - another wood shop - dies.
Most days, Racheal and Ethan have no idea where their next meal is coming from. Most nights, they cry themselves to sleep, mourning the life they could’ve had and the man who used to love them.
Racheal finally has enough, tells Alan he is no longer welcome in their home. Get help, Alan. Go away, Alan.
He has the last part down cold, leaving his family in the rear-view, desperate for his next hit. The only place he has left is with his parents. So monumental is his guilt and shame, though, that he refuses to step foot in their home, choosing instead to spend his days and nights on an ancient couch in a dusty corner of their garage.
He works odd jobs for friends, for strangers, for anyone with a few dollars he can cajole out of them. But not to feed Racheal and Ethan, though. Not to find a place of his own. Not to find a job or buy anything to get him to and from it. No. He spends it all, and more, on drugs. He has become the junkie, villain, liar, and monster he never thought he would be.
The law finally catches up with Alan. He’s arrested three times in 12 months, all for drug possession. The first two get him probation. The third time, it’s for shoplifting a pair of shoes while possessing meth, two felony probation violations that hurl Alan behind bars with no bail.
He’s trapped, detoxing, utterly alone, and dreaming of death.
Which brings us to you.
You probably hate Alan Hall right now. You’re in good company because he hates himself at this point, too.
Some part of you stalks the courtroom of your mind, brimming with varying degrees of rage and disappointment and disgust and pity, preparing your opening argument for why Alan deserves jail and everything worse.
Natural reactions, all. They’re the brick and mortar of the wall we build to protect good from evil. Your inner dialogue of better-than-him justifications are comforting thunder to anger’s righteous lightning:
"What a weak and foolish man, throwing away all his blessings like that. I would, of course, say no. I would, of course, know how to sidestep the tripwires and landmines of peer pressure. I would, of course, tell these so-called friends where they can stick their burning stump of contraband. I would, of course, would immediately flee from this illegal temptation and bury my nose in my Bible and not that God-forsaken mary-wanna because I am fundamentally better than Alan Hall, aren’t I?"
Are not you?
Before you answer, consider:
Addiction isn’t Alan’s goal. Addiction isn’t the goal of any addict. Addiction is barely a choice. Addiction is a symptom of a wound so raw and exposed and mysterious that it has to be drowned or numbed because it can’t be felt or understood anymore.
The weed and booze and meth and coke are easier to understand when you realize Alan isn’t buying any of them because he likes them. He likes what he can and can't feel while in their grip.
When you buy a drill, you’re not buying the tool, but the hole that tool makes. The same concept applies. He’s buying the sensation, not the substance.
So are we all.
We're all alchemists and addicts, alternately surviving and evading the world’s dull weight with our own private concoction of sensations. Granted, most of ours don’t result in class C felonies, but just because your slavish and badly concealed worship of money and fame and comfort and beauty and sex and self hasn’t thrown you in jail doesn’t mean you aren’t in one already.
The tragic center of Alan’s story is this - in the end, all he wants to do is to make people feel good, and to feel good in return. Alan is willing to break himself into any shape necessary to make others feel better, even if that meant his comfort and happiness were both annihilated.
So Alan consumes what he shouldn’t so he can fit in with a crowd he shouldn’t know, to feel a pleasure that isn’t real.
He isn’t all that different from us, selling ourselves off one piece at a time to make peace with strangers while we become strangers to ourselves.
Everyone but you, of course. You don’t make those mistakes. You’re not like everyone else. You are clean, sober, upstanding. Your record and conscience are both clean. You are the exception in this narrative interlude, which is why you can summon your inner prosecutor for the closing argument:
This appeal for sympathy is touching, Your Honor, but shouldn’t Alan be punished for what he’s done, for the lives he’s destroyed, for the pain he’s caused? Isn’t he guilty?
Yes and yes, the judge agrees. He declares Alan Hall convicted and condemned.
You congratulate yourself on your skill to defend the good and convict the bad, the hard-won wisdom you’ve applied, the smart choices you’ve made, your fundamental goodness, the #blessed life you hurl into the palms of scrolling strangers for them to worship and like and share and affirm.
Then the judge rises from the bench, levels his gavel at you, and thunders:
SO ARE YOU.
The guards grab you and shackle you. Your confusion explodes into rage as you’re dragged from the courtroom in chains. You scream at the judge for mercy, leniency, decency, but the judge doesn’t listen. You deserved this a long time ago. You thought yourself worthy enough to stand in the judge's presence, argue for another’s destruction, then rejoice when it’s decreed. You thought that homeless carpenter’s Biblical fable about planks and specks was for the weak and stupid two millennia ago, bound for mediocrity by their silly addictions and small lives and bad choices.
So focused were you on Alan’s condemnation that you confused the judge’s patience with your many crimes with his consent. You couldn’t see that you were on trial all along, the courtroom the lure your self-righteousness couldn’t resist.
The jail is your new home now. You share Alan’s cell and all you can hear is Alan, grieving under a blanket as visions of water and death consume him.
But he won’t be the same person after this night.
When Alan wakes, he only moves his eyes. Sunlight pours in from the narrow plexiglas-covered gash that barely qualifies as a window, confirmation that he survived another night in jail. He scans the interior of his cell. Nothing has changed. Same as it ever was.
But he isn’t, because of what he begged God for last night: to give him something - anything - about which he could genuinely smile, if only for a moment. His worship of the cheap god he could guzzle and buy and sell and snort had left Alan without even a scintilla of joy for over two years, a tragic prodigal stumbling around addiction’s desert with barely a chance to find his way home again, desperate for only a drop of living water.
God answered in a most unexpected way.
In a dream, God lets Alan relive his baptism, the best day of their lives.
Alan was just a God-fearing Indiana teenager then, bright and whole before the drugs and temptation crushed him. Every detail is there, pure as ever: the golden sun high above, the playful lilt of the piano as his grandmother’s talent gives it life, the pond’s chill as Alan strides into it, the pastor’s warm hands covering Alan’s chest and back, his reminder of baptism’s symbolic representation of Jesus Christ’s death and burial and resurrection to his congregation gathered at the water’s edge, his reassuring prayer for Alan’s soul and salvation before plunging Alan down into the watery dark and then back up into the light, the crowd’s celebratory roar, a flood of living water washing away who Alan was, mixing with the tears of the child reborn under the impossible blue, those same tears now in the eyes of the man broken and reborn once more, spilling into the first smile of Alan’s new life.
That grin rarely leaves his face for the rest of his 39-day incarceration. He is determined to hold onto his memory of his baptism for all it’s worth because it’s the only thing that’s real now, the last good day he lived before he became the nightmare. He’s released to 6 months of house arrest, outpatient rehab, community service, and fines. He throws himself into all of them, hungry for sobriety for the first time, eager to pay back his debts, desperate to bury his old life once and for all.
And where does he spend his house arrest? At Racheal’s place. Not because they’re back together again. Not yet, at least. It’s safe to blow that reveal because Racheal was living every word of the marriage vows they’d finally exchange in 2018.
She does it because everyone else had written him off. He had lied, cheated, and stolen from everyone he’d known, claimed to have known, or shared some branch of a family tree for the better part of 17 years. They’d suffered enough because of him and none of them, not even his parents, wanted him using their house as his prison cell.
But the person he did the worst things to - his angel, his Racheal, his love, his life - is the only one brave enough to let him back in because that’s what love does. Her heart never left his, even when the darkness owned him. With his sobriety more real than ever, she wants Alan to have a relationship with their son. She wants to see him healed. But she doesn’t just want him to make more right choices than wrong. That thin gruel of feel-good moralism is just another drug on which he’ll binge and die. She wants infinitely more for him.
She wants him to know the Jesus she’s known since she was a child, the same Jesus who rejoiced when Alan got baptized, the same Jesus who wept with him in jail, the same Jesus who gave him back the memories of his new birth, the same Jesus pulling Alan’s heart toward the fellowship of the simple suburban church down the road. This Jesus bears and endures everything, even and especially the agony and shame of crucifixion on a wooden cross upon which He wrote his love and killed our sin.
Alan meets that Jesus during his house arrest. He’s in the exception from Alan's probation officer allows him to attend Plainfield Christian Church every weekend with Racheal and Ethan. He’s in the message of the preacher, the voices of the choir, the smile of his son as he shows off his latest Sunday School project, the touch of Racheal’s hand as they bow their heads in prayer. He’s in the accountability, tears, and growth of Alan’s outpatient treatment classes. He’s the other half of the dozens of quiet conversations Alan starts everyday with his Savior and Friend, who explains that He never wanted to condemn Alan but to save him. He’s in the gift of every new morning Alan gets to experience. That Jesus is in the beats and lyrics of Blake Whiteley, the Christian hip-hop artist that Alan can’t get enough of. He’s in the finality and hope of rock bottom, the only foundation strong enough to support new life.
Standing at the front of the room, Alan Hall beams.
He’s returned to Plainfield to speak to recovering addicts at Advantage Counseling, the same outpatient rehab facility that put him on the path of sobriety 5 years ago. He does this a couple times a year when he and Racheal leave their home in upstate New York to visit family and friends in central Indiana. His time with the group is an essential step of his rehabilitation, and theirs.
His simple message - one day at a time, trust the process, keep coming back - cracks with the authority and authenticity of a deeply flawed man who knows every inch of the pit out of which they’re climbing. He calls out their excuses, celebrates their progress, and gives them the ammunition and hope necessary to ward off the constant threat of relapse.
His language cycles between gentle, loving, and tough, punctuated with weapons-grade profanity that may seem out of step with his “Jesus ’Til I Die!” hat. His words, though, are the same as theirs: blue notes becoming banner and bond, a defiant chorus against their shared disease. Sobriety is war, and temptation deserves condemnation, rough and awkward as it can sound.
The two dozen in attendance are transfixed by him. He is living, breathing, laughing proof of every positive recovery affirmation taped and tacked on nearly every square inch of wall space and white board. They applaud enthusiastically as he brings his 30-minute talk to a close. He slips into the cramped corridor outside the meeting room, only to collide with a pair of massive bro-hugs of goodbye from two heavily muscled men.
Don, the taller of the two, runs Advantage and Tim serves as one of their most experienced facilitators. Tim and Don greeted Alan with the same warmth and intensity when he walked in for the first time over 1,800 days ago, fragile and terrified, too scared of living with his addiction, infinitely more of the prospect of recovering from it. Don and Tim showed him the how and why of no-not-today, helped him trace and carve and walk his narrow path he guards with serenity, courage, and wisdom and marked by the massive plaque Alan clutches like a proud father.
“This was the first one I ever made,” he gushes. The slab of knotted hardwood spans nearly the width of the hallway, the overhead flourescents gleaming along its expertly sanded and lacquered edges. “I saw these words in this wood, and I knew I had to bring them to life. This plaque was my gift to Advantage for everything they did for me. It took me a while to make it, but it was worth it. Everything was right there, in this one piece of wood. It was perfect, you know? It’s like it was waiting for me.”
Words and wood have become his ministry now. He is surrounded by both. He manages yet another woodshop, a family-owned enterprise nestled in the sprawling bulk of an Amish barn hewn over a century ago from the surrounding upstate New York forest.
On spare nights and weekends, he selects the perfect piece, traces words of power and life he alone can see among the lines curving along the face of the board, carves them free, then gives the finished pieces away for free as cherished gifts from the bottom of his grateful heart to the people who keep his full and true.
These plaques are his mission, extensions and explanations of a life he knows he doesn’t deserve. Like these blocks at their start, he too is unwieldy and incomplete, a senseless tangle of hard knots and splintered edges, prone to rot and fail and die.
But in the pierced hands of a Jewish carpenter who died and rose again, Alan will be shaped by Someone greater for something greater.
In those hands, Alan is perfect.
In those hands, Alan is redeemed.
In those hands, Alan is forgiven.
So are you.
One of Alan’s plaques hangs in my office. He gave it to me in the spring of 2018 during a visit to my home, the first time we’d met face-to-face.
It’s a gift, he says, for saving his life, a miracle about which I’d never known until that day.
The three hand-carved words he’d crafted for me, and the improbable story behind them, would become the inspiration for this entire website.
He and I aren’t alone. Two other characters vital to Alan’s narrative are here also.
He’s star-struck and nervous around the first. Alan never expected to meet him in person, especially not in the middle of my living room, and wastes no time gushing about how this man’s music has brought Alan so much joy.
The man is Blake Whiteley.
I have my arm around the second. She's the one who arranged Alan’s visit and Blake’s surprise cameo, and we’re both grinning like kids at Christmas at the reunion unfolding in front of us.
I know her as Karla Janning, my wife of nearly 20 years.
Alan knew her by another name a lifetime ago in high school, the head cheerleader with a heart for Jesus.
Alan turns to Blake. “Not bad for a couple guys from Danville, Indiana, huh?” Blake laughs in agreement, still amazed by how God brought their curved and splintered paths together for His glory.
Alan turns to Karla. “Bet you never thought this would happen when we dated in high school, huh?” Karla and I laugh in agreement, still amazed by this chapter of shared history we know was never a coincidence.
Blake stops in mid-chuckle, gapes at all of us in amazement, and stammers, “Wait…what?!”
But that’s a story for another time.