A Thanksgiving to remember: one couple’s journey to restoration

Shawn & Bonnie McCown

“All I ever wanted to be was a dad.” That was one of his last thoughts before making a decision that could end it all.

Shawn and Bonnie McCown’s story began innocently enough. But theirs would prove to be a roller-coaster journey of love, pain, addiction, and heartache.

It was 1994 when Bonnie first caught his eye at their workplace. “I showed up every day at her office just to talk to her,” he recalled.

But Bonnie wasn’t feeling it. “I had just gotten divorced and had three young girls, so I wasn’t really interested.” After all, Shawn was seven years younger, and Bonnie came with plenty of baggage.

Shawn was not deterred, however. If anything he felt challenged and made the daily choice to keep coming back. That’s a phrase that would hold special meaning years later.

Because of his persistence and charm, Bonnie eventually said yes to a date. Their courtship would span three years, on again then off again. On a hot summer day in 1997, the couple made it official.

The birth of twins came 18 months later. It was a joyous occasion, but the luster of their new relationship had already started to dull.

The two would experience their issues, as all couples do. And like most, those struggles had deep roots in the family.

Shawn explained, “I was an alcoholic, but I never really considered myself an alcoholic. I came from a major alcoholic family.” As a young adult he justified his drinking as a ‘social thing’ but now understands that he had a problem.

At first Bonnie didn’t see the alcohol as an issue, perhaps because she had her own long-standing issues with trust. “I probably wasn’t as affectionate and close to him as I should have been,” she admits.

In the middle of it all, they bought a bigger house, Bonnie took a second job, and Shawn found himself home alone with the kids in the evenings. That’s when she started worrying about something happening to one of the kids when he was drinking and home alone with them.

The couple’s differing faith backgrounds didn’t exactly provide the kind of security, stability, and support they needed. Bonnie was a Christian who had grown up going to the Catholic church with her mom. But Shawn didn’t come from a church-going family.

“Any idea I had of church was just for the kids,” he said. “I had a lot of doubts.” And Shawn didn’t really have any safe adults to talk to or spend time with. “I’m a real good isolater.”

Four or five years into the marriage, Shawn’s high school sports career began catching up to him in the form of gout. That little four-letter word would open the door to some of his darkest days.

“That’s when everything changed,” he explained. “I became really dependent on the pain medication they were giving me. It was the most important thing in the world to me. It absolutely took over.”

Bonnie said that her attempts to reason with her addicted husband were futile. Nothing and no one mattered to him as much as those pills.

“He would steal from the kids’ money jars. He’d take money from me and actually blame the kids.” One time Bonnie remembers him actually swapping some pills that were prescribed to her following a dental procedure.

Shawn remembers how out of control he was. “It was the only thing that mattered. When I woke up in the morning, I didn’t worry about going to the bathroom or taking a shower. As soon as my eyes opened, the pills were the only thing on my mind.”

The resulting downward spiral was plain to see. Shawn had been demoted three times, going from a position of significant responsibility to the lowest position in the company.

And his best efforts to quit the pills were hollow. “I’d tell people I was trying to quit, but the longest I ever made it was 12 hours.”

Bonnie said that one of the biggest issues was the ease with which he could find meds.

As Shawn’s ability to contribute to the family began to decrease, Bonnie’s responsibilities became almost unmanageable.

“I finally got to that breaking point,” she said. “That’s when I decided, ‘I’m done.’ I felt like I was raising my kids by myself. It was the alcohol, then it was the pills. You know, I felt like I pretty much had to take care of everything – the bills, the kids, the house.”

In the face of mounting pressure, the couple divorced in 2004, although they continued to keep in close contact, largely because of the kids. Looking back, Bonnie sees some of her behavior as that of a classic codependent.

As Shawn puts it, he came back into the picture sporadically over the next 15 years, but his inability to get his act together eventually pushed Bonnie to her limit.

One morning it all became too much. Bonnie had had enough. With one phone call, Shawn’s world began crashing down as if watching in slow motion.

“By that time I had lost her.” In fact, plagued by a plethora of problems, the couple had now been divorced longer than they’d been married. “But when she told me that the kids never wanted to talk to me, never wanted to see me, and never wanted to have anything to do with me ever again, that was it.”

As much as Shawn loved Bonnie – and as much history as they now shared – it was the fear of losing the kids that drove him to the depth of despair. “I grew up without a dad, so that’s what I always wanted to be,” he explained. “As a kid, when teachers would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d tell them ‘a dad.’ When I got older, people started laughing at me for saying that, so I stopped. But in the back of my mind, that’s still what I really wanted.”

Shawn continued to process the seriousness of his emotional conversation with Bonnie as he drove the half hour to work on that chilly November morning.

“That whole drive, it was just sinking in, sinking in, sinking in. That was my rock bottom,” he said. “I was just sobbing over the thought of losing my children.”

When he exited the highway to go to his office, instead he turned into the parking lot of Academy Sports and stopped on the very back perimeter.

“I had a ton of pain pills on me – a bunch,” he said. “I had taken about 10 that morning. When I pulled into that parking lot, I had decided to end the pain once and for all.”

As the sun appeared over the horizon, Shawn knew that was probably the last sunrise he’d ever see. With that, he took the remaining 39 pain pills – ‘roxies,’ as they’re known on the street. Serious meds.

At that moment Shawn prayed for what he describes as “the first time meaningfully.”

I told God, “Hey, you either take me or save me.”

Nearly an hour passed, and Shawn felt nothing. He was dumbfounded to still be conscious. Recognizing what he believed to be the hand of God on his life, Shawn said, “Let’s do this” and began searching the internet for recovery centers. “The first one that came up on my phone, I called them and told them I was on my way.”

The 37 days Shawn spent in rehab gave his mind a chance to clear up.

“I’m a guy who really wants to understand why. When I was in rehab, it was very rudimentary. They explained how addiction affected the brain, and that was my aha moment.”

Shawn insists that the program worked for him “because I worked it.”

“I did every piece of homework they asked me to do. I went to every meeting they asked me to go to. I did whatever I had to do.”

As part of his rehab, Shawn began attending AA and NA meetings. “We’d have people come in and share their stories, and to be really honest with you, I couldn’t stand that.” Shawn said that after about two weeks, halfway into one of the testimonies, he interrupted with a question.

“Why don’t you share what you’re doing to keep you sober rather than what you were doing as an addict?”

To him, it was crystal clear: “I knew what God had just done for me – literally saved my life. I couldn’t wait to get out of that rehab, because I knew there was something else for me.”

Shawn describes the pattern as “she’d kick me out, and then I’d ease my way back in.”

But after rehab Shawn had a real sense of himself as a believer. “I look at it as God giving me a second chance,” he said.

A few days after being discharged from rehab, Shawn attended a local NA meeting and couldn’t stand it. That’s when Bonnie told him about a recovery meeting at her church, First Assembly in North Little Rock. It was something called Celebrate Recovery. She took him to the church and dropped him off to check it out.

It was a turning point for Shawn. “That was the start of my recovery journey and my faith journey. That’s when I was really introduced to Jesus and began learning. I was really able to soak it in through CR.”

Over time, Bonnie began to see that there was something different about Shawn. “It was obvious he had a real relationship with Christ.”

Like most family members of addicts, Bonnie had built some pretty heavy-duty walls to protect herself from the years of hurt and heartache. But as Shawn continued to grow in his faith and recovery, those walls began to naturally go down.

Of course, the walls didn’t come down as quickly as Shawn would have liked. But his sponsor helped him understand that Bonnie would be ready when she was ready.

“I really had to learn patience,” Shawn said, “and to just do the next right thing.”

After about nine months, Bonnie began attending CR as well.

Bonnie and Shawn continued to be involved in CR. He participated in step studies and surrounded himself with people who would help him keep on the right path.

Then out of nowhere, a new challenge emerged.

On a cool Saturday morning in October 2018, Shawn experienced some chest pain. But he didn’t get too alarmed about it. Three days later, more pain landed him in the hospital where the medical staff determined he had suffered a heart attack. In fact, he had another heart attack while there.

“I was diagnosed with hereditary heart disease,” he said. “My heart looked like that of a 70-year-old chain smoker, and I’d never smoked a day in my life.”

Shawn ended up having a quadruple bypass. And Bonnie was by his side the whole time.

She said the heart attack was a real wake-up call.

“The heart attack helped bring us back together,” she said. “We knew we loved each other, but it helped us understand that life is precious.”

Shawn says he really hasn’t craved drugs since he got clean and sober. But he also doesn’t take any chances. Even in the hospital, Shawn surprised the doctor by refusing pain meds.

“I had to tell my doctor that I was a recovering opiate addict of four years, and he respected my decision.”

In the weeks following Shawn’s surgery, he and Bonnie continued to spend more and more time together.

“We started talking about us,” he said. “Then we started having the marriage conversation. We both wanted to get remarried.”

Despite all they had been through – and all the positive changes that had taken place in Shawn’s life – this wasn’t an easy thing for Bonnie to process.

“I talked to God about getting married,” she said, “and God told me it was McCown. I argued with Him about it, because I didn’t want to have to forgive Shawn again.”

But Shawn was already thinking about popping the question. He even called the church to check for available dates. Shawn acknowledges that he’s more pragmatic than romantic.

Bonnie laughed and recalled the absurdity of how it all went down. “I was cutting coupons. That’s when he proposed. He had the ring and knew one of the kids was getting ready to come over, so he rushed it.”

Shawn told her, “I’ve been carrying this ring around for a little while now, and I’ve been waiting for the right time.”

“And this is it?” she thought to herself. Once Bonnie realized he was serious, she said yes.

Shawn said, “It was our moment. It fits our lifestyle the way it happened.”

The two were married in an evening ceremony on May 17, 2019. It was a joyous celebration that was attended by many of their CR ‘forever family.’ And the couple’s kids were the ones who gave their mother away. In typical CR fashion, the couple exited the altar to the upbeat tune of “Celebrate Good Times” by Kool and the Gang.

The couple honeymooned in Florida. But even there, they were faithful to attend CR meetings.

Reflecting on the influence of CR in his life, Shawn acknowledges that at first his attendance was just ‘blind faith.’

“I just showed up,” he said. “I quickly realized that I needed to do something to keep me showing up, so I decided to serve – setting up chairs, serving as a greeter. That taught me about responsibility because I didn’t really have a base for that.”

For those out there who are considering getting serious about their recovery – in whatever area of life it’s needed – Shawn has some pointed advice.

“If you just show up to CR, you won’t make it. But if you work CR, you’ll make it.”

One of CR’s mantras is ‘keep coming back.’ And Shawn is glad he did just that. He insists that the key to recovery lies in getting involved and being willing to do whatever is asked – to step in and serve.

“You’ve actually got to go to a step study. It keeps you focused first and foremost on God. Then it helps you focus on those character defects that keep you separated from God.”

Shawn says that CR has helped teach him what it means to have character and integrity.

“I’ve proven you can’t do it without God,” he says. “All of that started with CR. That’s why I keep showing up, because I want to give that to somebody else.”

Shawn credits CR for giving him a life-changing relationship with Jesus. “Serving at CR was a catalyst for me serving at the church.” He currently serves as the assimilation coach for CR at Brockington Road Church of the Nazarene in Sherwood, AR.

The McCowns acknowledge that their story is unique. And they admit that it hasn’t all been easy. But it has been worth it.

This Thanksgiving they’ll celebrate around the table as a family, now six months into a marriage that is brand new because both husband and wife are very different people than the first time around.

Celebrate Recovery has more than 30,000 groups that meet all over the world. Find a CR ministry near you.

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