Bill Westlund sets his guitar back on its stand. “It grounds me,” he says. “God uses it to teach me patience and remind me that I’m still teachable.” He hands me a five-page copy of his testimony, ink still warm. “Writing helps me process. It makes my emotions physical. You can read them, say them out loud, process them. Now, when I write, my teacher has to make me take a break,” he laughs. Bill has become a lifelong learner later in life, and he’s quick to tell me that he wasn’t always teachable, and the printed pages are full of painful memories he once tried to bury.
For his whole life, Bill steered clear of anything he thought he couldn’t do successfully on a first attempt. “If I failed at something I believed it was a reflection of who I was,” he says. Bill recalls that most of his early life was bound by this fear of failure. “Life was about finding work, getting married, and keeping up with the Joneses,” he says.
He found work, got married, and for twenty years, succeeded at keeping up appearances. But after a botched hernia operation left him with severe nerve damage that several surgeries could not fix, his doctors relegated him to morphine and narcotics to help manage the pain. His wife became increasingly frightened by their situation, struggled with the change in circumstances, and they eventually divorced. Bill was shaken, physical and emotional pain forcing him deeper into depression.
After another failed surgery, he ended up at a post-surgical rehabilitation center in California, where he met his future wife. “I was not looking for love,” he admits, “I didn’t think I was capable of feeling love again, but God showed me there was a lot of love left in me.” Bill and his new wife Vicky were both Christians in recovery. “We started going to church and strengthening our faith,” Bill recalls. “She would leave scriptures all over the house – it was a joy every day to see what God was doing in her life. Every day, our marriage got better and better – in love, in commitment, in truth. We were following the example of Christ.”
One Sunday morning, after eleven years of marriage, Bill turned to wake his wife up to get ready for church, and she wouldn’t move. A former fireman, Bill started CPR and called 9-1-1. “That was the hardest day of my life,” he says, “watching my wife being put into a body bag and having to call her parents to let them know.”Unable to confront his grief, Bill turned to alcohol to help him forget the pain. For 15 years this became his new pattern of life. He felt alone and knew the only way he could heal was through recapturing the faith he had shared with Vicky.
He joined the New Life Fellowship recovery program through the recommendation of a friend. But even in the program, Bill still struggled with his grief. “I couldn’t let go,” he says. “I kept looking at her death –the ugliness of separation. I was angry at God for taking her – angry at myself for not being able to save her.”
It was in the NLF program that he eventually began to confront his past. “We looked at the unresolved issues in our lives that led us to the point where we thought we needed to drink or use,” he says. “I finally started not to focus only on her death, but on how loving and successful our marriage was. That’s when God started to heal me. Now when I think about my wife I can laugh and thank God for the time he gave me with her.”
The fear of failure that once limited Bill also began to dissolve. “When I asked God to take the fear away He opened doors to knew things,” he says. “Now I feel creative and know it’s okay not to be perfect. Each day I’m learning a little bit more, and all I can do is be a little bit better than I was yesterday, pick up my cross, and try to be more and more like Jesus. That is what I’m striving for now. It’s not always easy, but every day I can wake up and look forward to what God is going to teach me. Every day can be a new adventure.”
“I’m grateful for what God is teaching me about myself and how to go about life in the proper way. I don’t have to drink away my fears. I just have to see them in a different perspective – through the eyes of Christ.” He picks up another guitar from his collection and begins to strum out a few chords. “What a wonderful gift God has given us,” he says. “Every note can be beautiful.”