Being Broken by Addiction

My dog Comet is being groomed for the first time today and as I was dropping him off I glanced over at the magazines. I was drawn like a bee to pollen by the cover of  Brava Magazine.  It had an article about the secret addictions of women in Wisconsin, aptly titled The Silent Treatment.

While I am not quiet about my alcoholism here on my blog and person to person I will freely tell you my story, I have never talked about it publicly — as I think that I am ashamed. 

No-one talks about addiction in my circles. And here is what I imagine others are thinking.  Perhaps they perceive that addiction is simply a weakness or a character flaw.  And in some Christian circles a place where you haven’t allowed God victory or healing or aren’t trusting.   How in the world did she “allow herself” to get addicted?  What a mess she must be.  Addicts are just bad people trying to be good.

That’s all bullshit. (Forgive me, but it is.)

And in my clearer moments I remind myself that I am broken like every other person in the world.  We all have some “thing” or more than one, that we have trouble overcoming. Most people’s “thing” can be a secret–food addiction, money problems, compulsive shopping, secret cutting, or pornography.   I won’t pretend to know what your “thing” is.

This article talked about how so many women in Wisconsin have a problem with alcohol addiction.   More importantly, that addiction to alcohol is in some part NOT a “thing” to struggle with, but an illness to work against.  I can tell you gratefully that I am “in remission.”

“[There is a] stigma that surrounds substance abuse in a culture that loves the sound of clinking glasses.” (Brava)

One of my favorite people is Henri Nouwen. 

I would have loved to have known him and even been his friend, as we share a common lifelong struggle with melancholy and depression and need for affirmation and community.  He wrote this:

Jesus was broken on the cross.  He lived his suffering and death not as an evil to avoid at all costs, but as a mission to embrace.   We too are broken.  We live with  broken bodies, broken hearts, broken minds or broken spirits.  We suffer from broken relationships.  How can we live our brokenness?  Jesus invites us to embrace our brokenness as he embraced the cross and live it as part of our mission.  He asks us not to reject our brokenness as a curse from God that reminds us of our sinfulness but to accept it and put it under God’s blessing for our purification and sanctification.  Thus our brokenness can become a gateway to new life.

Few understand that addiction is an illness like cancer.

There is a perception that somehow addicts cause their illness.  It is both an illness and an opportunity for self-control and inner strengthening.  As we grow in our understanding of our broken hearts and lives, we can become stronger.  How can we embrace our brokenness of addiction when the Church and (some) Christians make one feel as if you are cursed with a mental illness or lack self-control.

Yes, my alcoholism reminds me (almost daily) that I am a broken person.  The days and weeks when I try to avoid thinking about it, and (almost) pretend that I’ve got it all together, those are the times when I feel the farthest away from who I really am. I become lost in the idea of wellness that denies that I am and will be until the day I die an alcoholic in remission.

For whatever reason, I am an addict.

My deeply thoughtful thirteen year old daughter asked me recently why I can’t just drink socially?  We had been to party where there was a lot of drinking and I was having a hard time having fun.  I have been completely honest with her about my addiction and so I value her questions.  I believe she needs to understand my alcoholism, because it is a family illness and because one in four children of alcoholics become one themselves.

So why can’t I now drink socially?  “There is something in my brain that switches off after the first drink,” I told her.  “After that point, I have no ability to stop.”  I learned from my D&A counselor that every time I drank, my brain sends the signal to have more.  The well-worn pathway in my brain needed more, each time, to have the same impact as the last time I drank. I’m three years sober July 17th, 2011 and if I had a drink to celebrate I would need the same amount of alcohol as my last drink — about two bottles of wine, if I remember correctly — to feel any high.

As a Christ follower, it is even more complicated.

Or perhaps more simple depending on how you look at it. My addiction humbles me daily.  Drives me to my knees.  I go to church in a bar and I laugh, joyfully with the irony!  I don’t mind the reminders of my addiction because then I am drawn to the truth that my life is so improved — clearer, better, more meaningful sober. 

But three years of sobriety brings me to a place of acknowledging that I am still full of pride.  I have not been willing to help others who struggle with this addiction.  I have not been willing to speak out locally.  I have hidden my secrets and tried to live in a drinking world as a secret alcoholic.

The article in Brava was a challenge to me.

No, I am not at risk to drink, because I have created enough awareness of those around me of my illness, that the accountability keeps me sober.

But why am I so silent, so secretly ashamed? More importantly what can I do to give back?  I want others to know that this is not a shameful secret in my life, it is a disease of addiction that has harmful effects on people, families and communities and that recovery is possible with support.  It is not only possible but it is transformational!

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