Jess’ Story: Celebrating Recovery…And Leading Others to Recover
Jessica Libby has a remarkable story about recovering from a lifetime of emotional pain and addiction. Her childhood sweetheart, Rob, who is now her husband, is the pastor of New Beginnings Christian Church in Sanford, Maine. The church’s mission statement is “Broken people building God’s kingdom.” This story is an update to an earlier version that was published in my second book, Grace Revealed: Finding God’s Strength in Any Crisis. God has worked many miracles in Jess and Rob’s lives in the past two years.
My name is Jess. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. Heroin brought me to Celebrate Recovery, a Christian 12-step recovery program, and life keeps me coming back every week.
Trying to Cope in a Severely Dysfunctional Home
I spent most of my childhood living in Maine. I grew up with an alcoholic abusive father, a workaholic mother and two half-sisters. Our home was dysfunctional, to say the least. At the age of three, I witnessed my dad choking my mother. That was when my path of addiction began. I started using food for comfort. I would eat off-the-wall concoctions, such as butter dipped in sugar, I liked that it got my mother’s attention. The fear of my father developed, and my everyday goal was to try to make him happy.
Both my sisters were older than me. The older of the two lived with her mom and would visit on weekends every now and again. My middle sister was three and a half years older than me. Having experienced rejection from her own father, as well as poor treatment from my father, she became very jealous of me. She was mentally, physically and even sexually abusive on a few occasions. Home was a place I didn’t want to be, and I found more and more ways of coping.
At the age of six, I experimented with cigarettes. By the age of eight, I was struggling with anorexia and smoking on a daily basis. That same year, I made two friends: Rob, who had my heart, and Amanda, who had my side. The three of us managed to remain close friends, all through school. At the age of nine, I was drinking alcohol to get drunk and experimenting with marijuana.
When I was 11 years old, my middle sister was removed from our home. She had said my dad had been abusive to her. I was grateful to be relieved from her abuse but found myself completely alone. My dad was also removed from the home, and he was the only parent who was ever around. My parents fought in court for two years before charges were dropped and my sister was put in permanent state custody. In those two years, I started drinking more and using marijuana and speed on a regular basis. By the age of 14, I had been raped, and sex was added to my list of addictions.
A String of Abusive Relationships and My Baby’s Death
My parents moved to Florida when I was a freshman in high school. Amanda would come to visit once a year. I found a guy who I thought would save me. By 15, I was pregnant by him, and he was an abusive, controlling alcoholic. I moved out of my parents’ home and had my first child at 16. Just before my son’s second birthday, he witnessed his dad kicking me from head to toe with steel-toed boots. I moved out the next day, and soon after, headed back to Maine.
Then I found myself in another controlling, abusive relationship, only this time I married him. Amanda was there to try to talk sense into me, but I didn’t listen. I began a new addiction: diet pills. After three and a half years of back and forth with him, I finally left him for good. We were divorced shortly after. I then met up with another guy. He was my age and decent. That’s when I started using something new: cocaine. We dated for two months before my son and I moved in with him. A few months later, I was pregnant. I thought I was finally going to have the family I dreamed of. At three months, I miscarried. We tried again, but I miscarried again and again. I was diagnosed with a balanced translocation, which is a chromosome disorder. The doctors said the chance of a pregnancy surviving with the effects of the chromosome disorder was only 40 percent, and the chance of a pregnancy unaffected by the disorder was only 10 percent.
I found myself pregnant again. Amniocentesis was performed. My baby’s chance of survival was only 40 percent. Gracey was born at 36 weeks on March 4, 2004. She had a cleft lip, a cleft palate and a severely deformed heart. Plus, her windpipe was one-third the size it was supposed to be. When she was six days old, heart surgery had to be performed. There were complications, and the 8.5 hours of open-heart surgery was too much for her little body.
The pain was too great for me. I wanted to escape the image of her lying lifeless in my arms. I wanted the smell of her sweet soap to leave my nose. Amanda drove me to the cemetery to lay my daughter to her final rest. I looked to cocaine as the answer. I became obsessed with becoming pregnant. I suffered 13 more miscarriages. Doctors told me that another pregnancy would kill me. My marriage fell apart, and I found myself alone again. It was at this time that my opioid use began.
At my pre-op for a tubal ligation, I learned that I was pregnant. Given my pregnancy history, I begged the doctor to keep the surgery scheduled. She said that would be unethical, but if I miscarried, she would be happy to reschedule the surgery immediately. I figured I would miscarry anyway, so I continued with my drug and alcohol use.
Fear of Losing Another Daughter Fuels My Addiction
On September 16, 2008, I gave birth to a beautiful, perfectly healthy baby girl. My bestie, Amanda, was right there to support me.
But the fear of my baby dying drove me further into addiction. I continued using prescription pain meds and anything I could get my hands on.
I also found myself in another abusive relationship. I knew it was wrong, but he had my drug of choice, and that was what mattered to me. Then I was diagnosed with cervical cancer, which I allowed to knock me further down. I had surgery to remove the cancer, and not long after that, the man I was dating threw me on a bed with his elbow driven into my windpipe. I fought for my life. Thankfully, I managed to crawl away that night.
When the pills no longer drowned out the pain, I found my only other option to be heroin. It wasn’t long before I was at a two-to three-bag-a-day habit. Every dime I made went to buying heroin. I spent every day, all day, just trying to get high. It became all I knew. I tried to stop on my own, but without it, I had no one to lean on.
Reunited with Rob
Then one day something changed.
Rob, my childhood love, came to town for a visit. He looked past my mess. He looked past my mistakes. He gave me his time. He gave me his ear. He did not judge me. He did not tell me I was wrong. He did not tell me to change or he would leave. He did not look down on me. He loved me just as I was. He treated me as an equal. That is what started my road to recovery. On January 27, 2014, I used heroin and prescription pain meds for the last time. I detoxed at home for two and a half weeks. Yes, it was pure hell, and for that I am now grateful. It is that hell I suffered through that keeps me from going back.
I Find Jesus and Healing in the Celebrate Recovery Program
When I was well enough to leave the house, a Celebrate Recovery (CR) meeting was my first stop. In 1990, John Baker, a pastor at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., founded the program to help people overcome “hurts, habits and hang-ups.” More than one million people in 35,000 U.S. churches have completed the program successfully since then.
My uncle was a pastor at church half an hour away. He had started Celebrate Recovery there a few years prior. I had tried it a few times but felt too alone. This time was different; this time Rob was there to walk with me. I listened to all the ladies share about the amazing work Christ was doing in their lives, and by the time closing prayer came, I wanted what they had. I wanted that same power in me. I asked Christ into my heart.
The following morning, I awoke before sunrise, ready for the day. It was obvious that I was being made new. I continued to attend CR “open share” for nine months, slowly overcoming the need to get high and confessing my many wrongs. I then joined the first step of a step study program.
It was in the step study and working through the steps that I was able to walk through the pain of losing my daughter. I was able to overcome the guilt. I let go and heard God’s truth. Gracey was now safe in the arms of Jesus and relieved of her pain. I was reminded that this is temporary, and I will hold my baby again. I was able to make amends to my ex-husband and his wife for the damage I had done as a result of my drug use. I was then able to make a new commitment to Rob, and my childhood sweetheart became my husband. Working through the steps gave me the strength to make amends to my kids for all the harm and neglect had I caused them as a result of my poor choices.
At the end of the step study, I completed my testimony and was able to share at the church’s annual CR event. I once said I would never write a testimony, never mind share it. But I did!
Through other step studies, I was able to work through hurts of my childhood. In revisiting that moment when I was three and began my path of destruction, I was able to see that God had been there all along. He used me to save my mother’s life that night. By working the steps and visiting those dark places, I was able to see truth. As a result, I was also able to have a long-overdue conversation with my mother that brought healing. I have received complete healing from rape and have been able to completely forgive the person who raped me.
Through Celebrate Recovery, I have made real friends who have supported me through all the experiences I have shared. It was their love and prayers that helped carry me through dark moments.
My recovery walk hasn’t always been easy; I have had many, many losses. My uncle, who introduced me to Celebrate Recovery, passed away suddenly in the church parking lot. At that time, CR helped me work through my grief. My pain lessened as I worked the steps. With my uncle’s passing, my husband was called to take his place as ministry leader. As difficult as it was, we stayed the course. There were many ups and downs, to say the least.
In June, tragedy struck our community. Five fatal overdoses took place in one week’s time. One was my baby cousin, another was a childhood friend’s daughter, and the third was a very close friend’s brother, and Rob and I were called to deliver the sad news to her. Our CR commitment grew much stronger in an effort to bring hope to our community and to carry on my uncle’s legacy. It was here that God connected me with the local newspaper, and my testimony was shared on the front page.
God Rebuilds Rob
Donations received in memory of my uncle helped Rob and me get to our first East Coast Summit. Full of worship, workshops, teaching and team building, it was an experience we will never forget. As we were checking in, a CR leader approached Rob, asking if he would be interested in becoming a state representative for CR. We were thrown off initially, but throughout the week, our hearts were opened, and Rob began the application process. We left the summit motivated and ready to do everything related to CR. That same fall, we kicked off The Landing, Celebration Place and the Journey Continues. Go big or go home!
From the outside, all looked well. But at home, it was a different story. Many people knew my husband’s story. He is a retired Marine who served four tours in Iraq and medically retired after receiving back injuries from a roadside bomb. What most people don’t know is that he also suffered a brain injury, and I am his caregiver. The same week my uncle passed, Rob lost three other very close friends. It forced him to return to places he had been running from. Home became hell. To overcome hurt, God will bring us back to a situation and walk us through it, this time with His understanding rather than our own. At the time, I couldn’t see that God was answering my prayers and rebuilding my husband. I became fearful of what He would do to me.
I reached out to the church leadership for help, explaining our situation. The lead pastor responded and asked to meet and learn more. I didn’t hear anything else for six months. I arranged VA counseling on my own, and Rob worked through the grief as well as the trauma. Rob was made a Celebrate Recovery state rep for Maine, and we were asked to meet with church leadership.
Rob and I were asked to step away from all leadership in the church because of his brain injury. The church leadership felt that because of Rob’s injuries, he was not capable of leading, and they said he lacked leadership skills. We were devastated. That same night, a new Celebrate Recovery program opened just down the street. God had connected us with the group several months prior to help them launch. We didn’t know exactly what God had planned, but we did know He wouldn’t leave us. We were in the middle of a step study and felt we needed to complete it. We continued as attendees. Rob also completed the degree program at Antioch.
While working on our recovery, we had also been trying to buy a home. We wanted to live in the same town as the church. We had searched for a house for two and a half years, but nothing seemed to work out. We were under contract to buy a home just a few miles from the church. We didn’t understand why at that point.
We closed on the house in April. I found myself on my knees daily, praying for our community. I had lost three more friends to addiction. I was put in contact with Channel 8, whose news team asked me to be featured on an episode of their program, State of Addiction. At the same time, I was working with Mr. Fred Sievert, the author of Grace Revealed: Finding God’s Strength in Any Crisis to have my story included in the book. I was in awe, I was just a recovering addict, yet God was using me in such mighty ways. He picked me!
Rob and I continued to go to church at the same location. Every week, I would ask the same question: “Do we have to?” And every week, Rob gave the same response: “Yes. I don’t feel that God has asked us to move.” I found myself arguing with God weekly, begging Him to open a new church door, but He was silent.
Rob Is Asked to Pastor a Church
Rob had a fourth back surgery. While Rob was still home healing, I received a message from a friend, asking if Rob would be interested in pastoring a church. I asked Rob, and we both laughed and said a big “No!” I let her know Rob would meet with the pastor responsible for the church to discuss CR, and that was all. Rob met with him later that week and said he wasn’t interested in pastoring, but that if he wanted to start a CR at his church, to reach out. The pastor reassured him he had others interested in taking over this church, one with 30 years of experience.
Two weeks later, that same pastor called Rob again. He had prayed and really felt Rob and I were the ones for this church. I found myself irritated with my husband as a result. I felt he wasn’t clear enough. I thought, “I am just a recovering addict. What business do I have being a pastor’s wife?” Rob and I continued to pray and talk it out.
What if God really did want us to open a church? What would that even look like? We had no idea where to begin. And then it hit me: if a retired U.S. Marine and a recovering addict could open a church, anyone could feel welcome to come to church! We met with the pastor, and piece by piece, it started to make sense. Rob and I agreed: if this is what God wants, it will work out. The building was a mess, full of junk and falling apart. We had nothing to hold a church service with and a pastor who never wrote a sermon — and barely talked. I sent out a prayer request asking for chairs to be provided, and in less than an hour, someone offered to purchase 100 chairs for us. This was confirmation God was in control.
We headed out for our second East Coast Summit. I had been praying for CR to shed more light on the opioid epidemic, and there it was: John Eklund, who is the National Director – East for Celebrate Recovery, did an amazing presentation speaking of the rise in deaths due to overdose. I heard the most powerful testimony ever, from Jeff Stultz, a recovered addict who now served as a CR Co-Leader at Temple Church in Selma, North Carolina. I began to see my worth and just how much power my own testimony holds. I stepped out of my comfort zone and started a conversation with John before leaving. He said he wanted me to serve on the panel to work on overcoming the opioid epidemic. I was blown away! And by the end of the trip, Rob had written his first sermon.
We returned home, and then Mr. Sievert sent me the publishing contract. Publishing time had come. But I politely declined because I did not agree with the contract. The author advised that I pray about it, and he stated that my story was one that needed to be shared. While praying about this, I was also praying about funds to do the needed renovations on the church. Mr. Sievert sent me a message stating that he would make a substantial donation to any nonprofit I chose. I requested the church. When he asked for an amount, I had two figures in my head and chose to leave it in God’s hands. The church received the financial gift of both figures combined. All renovations were completed, with money left over!
My Best Friend’s Death Leads to a New Ministry
New Beginnings Christian Church opened on August 6, 2017. My best friend, Amanda, finally joined me on the recovery road and spent six weeks with me righting her wrongs and taking the steps in the CR program. Unfortunately, life happened again. On September 5th, she overdosed for the last time. Being with the church, Rob and I were able to handle every detail and provide the services. I was blessed to bring honor to my best friend in her final days. With her passing, I was taught a new type of pain…and there were now more people I could relate to. This opened a new door: a new ministry called ALT (After Losing Them). This initiative gives me the opportunity to help others who have lost loved ones to addiction and to help addicts find treatment. Though losing Amanda was hard, at this stage of my walk, I know I can use the pain to achieve good.
Over the past year, Rob and I have done many outreach events, and we have opened Celebrate Recovery, The Landing and Celebration Place. We have hosted several community events and offered a safe place for people in our community on every holiday. I was able to work closely with John Eklund and bring a piece to the table in fighting the opioid epidemic. This past July, the latest CR initiative was announced: Opioid Crisis Response initiative. We can all play a part in fighting this fight.
I am able to keep my recovery by repeating steps 10–12 daily. I am able to continue to be more like Christ and be a better me by repeating steps 1–12 yearly. Recovery is hard work, but the rewards are endless.
These two verses from the book of Psalms are among the Scriptures that remind me to put my hope in Him when I do not feel strong:
Jess says the “serenity prayer” has been her life saver during her darkest hours. She said it a minimum of ten times a day in the beginning of her journey:
My Take on Jess’ Story
Jess endured unspeakable loss, sorrow, and pain her entire lifefrom seeing her father assault her mother at age three to suffering many miscarriages to holding her infant daughter as she died to surviving her own bout with cancer. After trying to quit her drug addiction for decades, God finally gave her the strength and will to quit. Now she and Rob are changing the lives of many others who have suffered from significant pain and loss during their lives. God is the only one who can deliver us from the ravages of addiction and other crises.
Time for Personal Reflection
1. Jess’ childhood sweetheart and now husband, Rob, came back into her life at the exact moment when she needed him. Has God ever placed someone or something phenomenal in your path right when you were about to give up? If so, did you realize it was part of God’s plan, or did you think it was a coincidence? Now, after reading Jess’ story, what do you think?
2. Jess’ contentment and happiness after enduring so many painful hardships are a testament to the power of God’s loving grace. Do you know someone who has gone through what seems like more than his or share of crises in life, or have you? To what extent does Jess’ story give you hope?