Addiction and Recovery
It is said that the modern genre of Autobiography began in the late Roman Empire, when St. Augustine penned his book “Confessions”. He begins his reflections with the arresting phrase, “I have become a problem unto myself”. It is the first example we have of someone sharing their inner thoughts with the world on the presumption that others might identify with.
He begins with a characteristic Christian insight, one that will shape the values of Western thought for the next couple millennia. It was broken when we got here. There is something wrong with us that ancient writers could never quite pin down but humans seem to be incapable of moral perfection.
It was apparently a Christian who first woke up, looked at himself in the mirror, reflecting on the mess that his life has become, who first uttered the phrase, “I have met the enemy and the enemy is myself.”
The New Testament simply presumes that we are all in need of redemption. We are cracked and our only spiritual quest is to patch that crack as best as we can in this life. When you think about it, this must have been the profound life experience of so many of our ancestors. You read about the experience of people who live in South Sudan or the Congo or so many of the villages in the Middle East today. In a short amount of time, all of the adults or practically all of the adults were killed, like what happened in Rwanda a decade ago.
In earlier eras, all those children who managed to escape by hiding in the jungle, eventually came back together and had to raise themselves in what undoubtedly was a living hell. I presume that this is how most of our social and familial dysfunction proliferated. It was a regular enough recurrence that it inflicted permanent social scars.
There is a line in the bible that says, ‘The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’. It is an observation of moral fact that our actions have consequences that radiate not simply laterally, affecting those around us, but also down the generations indirectly by creating complexes have consequences on the generation yet unborn.
And then we have things like addictions that plague us and prevent us from achieving our potential. There is an old Japanese proverb that says, “First I take a drink; then the drink takes a drink; then the drink takes me.”
There comes a point where you are actually aware that you are no longer in control of your life and it is a frightening and disturbing moment.
I attended my first AA meeting at 17. The sexton at our church in Connecticut was on vacation and I was asked to fill in for him. I was cleaning up as an AA speaker was telling his story, so riveting I just stopped and listened. He was the Chief Operating Officer at one of our top television stations. Big job, presumably lot of stress.
A scotch drinker, he explained that he drank a quart of scotch a night. I’m like, how is that possible? How can you actually do that night after night after night? It was astonishing.
Like the time I was called to calm a drunk guy in the ER when I was a chaplain at 22. The guy’s blood alcohol came back at .51. I’d never heard of anyone blowing a .51. The ER resident explained to me that it was a toxic level, meaning that 50% of the people that we have ever recorded with a blood alcohol level that high were dead.
I asked the resident how much you had to drink to get a blood alcohol level to .51 and he said, ‘you can’t do it all at once. This takes commitment. You have to drink a quart/quart and a half of vodka a day for 30-60 days and build up a tolerance.
When you are an ER chaplain, you are astonished by the incredible fragility of life. And on the other hand, you meet enough people like this that you think humans are like rats, they can weather an unimaginable amount of poison and still carry on somehow.
This media Executive got my attention because I knew of him and his family. They had a big house, beautiful palatial place. Educated family, really achieved the American dream.
And he is telling this story that contains incredibly risky behavior, one after another. Giving big speeches in public that he couldn’t remember giving, risking his career.
Operating a boat with his family nearly killing them… With each new bottom, he cared less and less and less.
One night, he was out drinking with the guys on the street in Battery Park, on the park bench. He actually used to go down there with some regularity to drink with the homeless guys. Wearing a bow tie in the day and hanging out with the bowery guys at night who were mostly slugging down Mad Dog 20/20.
And one night, he decided he would rather spend the night on the park bench with the people that understood him, rather than call a limo to take him back to Fairfield County, Connecticut. Looking back, he said he realized that he had more in common with the guys on the street (at that point in his life) than he did with his own family or his peers at work.
“One martini is just right; two martini’s are too many; three martini’s are never enough” so the saying goes.
We would not say today that drinking is a sin but the Romans weren’t far off referring to addictions as a kind of demonic possession. Romans were big believers in demons and we no longer worry much about demons as such. But the root meaning of ‘daemonia’ is ‘to be controlled from outside’. And there comes this point with substance abuse where you know you have passed over and you are no longer in control of your own ship. It feels more like you are being driven than you are driving.
That is why we sponsor AA meetings every day of the week, a couple times a day. We do this because at any given time, about 5-6% of our congregation suffers from an alcohol disorder. We almost never see people from our congregation at our own meetings but they are at meetings somewhere and we do our part to keep the wider network available everyone who needs it.
AA is not perfect. It came into being before we had done studies on addiction and our scientific understanding of addiction now is in its infancy stages, one of the maddening things you discover when you need to help formulate a treatment plan for a loved one or a relative.
But, like the writers of the Bible, the founders of AA stumbled upon a couple of insights anecdotally that will probably turn out to be keepers in the longer term treatment of addiction when we do have a better understanding of how it works and how best to treat it.
The first one does not come from the 12 steps themselves. It is the peer to peer accountability and support that they provide. We may need experts to help us understand the psycho-dynamics of our childhood but actually changing our behaviors, our habits, requires something peers that are going through this with us, willing to live differently together.
I saw a piece on our veterans, so many of them have struggled with alcohol or opioid abuse once they return home. So many guys from this one unit had run into problems re-integrating into society after being in Iraq and they were isolated, floundering, bored and flat on the inside.
Like all these cases, it is hard to know where PTSD leaves off and drugs begin. But the upshot is that these guys were failing one at a time, despite the fact that they had exhibited incredible leadership and heroism in Iraq. They had been through drug treatment programs, whatever the VA was offering and it was helpful but nothing much was working.
One of the guys decided to put the unit back together and they met for a weekend of hiking and camping. They had pictures of these guys hiking together, eating around a campfire, tired but alive… with something they had been missing when they were apart- purpose.
There wasn’t any magic, no great words of wisdom exactly. It is something about being around people that actually understand what you are going through. These guys can inspire each other to rise to their higher self in a way that- well, no one else can actually do that in the same way.
So much of what our veterans need- and sometimes I wonder if more substance abusers need it than they know- is that simplicity and clarity of purpose that comes from being a band of brother warriors.
AA figured out early on that you have to change your social life around. You need new friends, sober friends, friends that will hold you accountable. This is the buddy system and everyone needs a sponsor. We aren’t to be trusted on our own. We aren’t strong enough.
And more than that, it is not just about staying sober. It is also about healing yourself because the chances are very good that you have spiritually atrophied in some basic ways from the addiction itself and/or that atrophy you sought to compensate for with drugs and alcohol. Personal reflection and interpersonal communication are usually pretty weak and only start to heal when we are able to be honest with ourselves and people around us who understand and support us as we present, knowing how we need to heal.
And those relationships can actually be the most profound relationships we humans are given to knowing. What strikes me is that the ideal of what the Church is supposed to be, when St. Paul talks about the church on its good days, it is a lot like this. Holding each other accountable, helping us to become authentic and responsible people, healing each other because real love accepts each other where we are as ‘forgiven’ people trying to find our way back home.
I was fortunate to be part of a group like that when I was younger. They were all guys in recovery, not officially sponsored by AA or NA but they all were involved in various ways. But they were either Doctors or lawyers.
They met regularly, shared what they were going through in recovery and sobriety, held their conversations in confidence. But to watch the way that they held each other accountable, to see the way that they could confront one another over their tricks and sophisticated evasiveness. It was a level of intimacy and real sharing that I have rarely seen among men. And they were remarkably effective at keeping one another on the straight and narrow. This is what the life of redemption actually looks like and it is a more profound level of living than most of us will ever be privileged to participate in.
It is your real church and I hope we can approximate something of it in the institutional church. More than that I wish for you that you will surround yourself with some sturdy people that are willing to be introspective and open to change in the future.
This piece of AA will probably be proved to be important by the scientific research in the future. They will discover what the Church has always known. Humans are socially imbedded people. Our social groups like our families cause us dysfunction to be sure. But the solidarity of healing together is how we are most likely to be redeemed.
And the other insight is that confession probably really is good for the soul. Step Four of the 12 steps of AA says, “I will make a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself” and step 5 says “we admit to God, to ourselves, and to one other person the exact nature of our wrongs”. So every hour of every day across our country, speakers tell their stories about their particular abuse of alcohol over many years, the ways that they deceived their loved ones in order to hide their drinking and the way that they deceived themselves until they finally ‘hit bottom’ and turned their life around.
And that is the moment at which they became open to a spiritual conversion in their lives. They became aware that they were being so driven in their lives by their addiction that they were, so to speak, powerless to change their behavior. So they turn their lives over to God, just by asking God to take control where they could not control themselves and to heal them, come what may, because nothing short of that is working.
Conversion is not really a one time thing. In Lent, we remember that we are all on a path of “continuous conversion” away from our b.s. and towards authenticity. We are not called to be perfect people. But we are called to become forgiven people.
We have to admit to ourselves, to God, and to our peers how we are broken, what we need to work on, and what we are committing ourselves to doing to make ourselves better.
For reasons that we cannot entirely yet explain, it really does work and the people that open themselves to the possibility of spiritual change in their lives are more likely to actually be able to stay sober than those that aren’t.
We don’t know why but the early researchers are following up on the most likely lead. We humans are an embedded species. We change based on people that we are with. We humans are meaning creators. We tell ourselves, we tell each other, stories about our lives because these stories give us the particular meaning and purpose that we need at this moment in time. The meaning of our lives is in the stories that we tell about ourselves.
When AA speakers tell their story at meetings, we suspect that they are materially etching a new meaning into their psyches, reformulating neural pathways that have been damaged by alcohol abuse. We are literally, indirectly perhaps, but literally healing ourselves spiritually with a new meaning, a new purpose that comes from picking up the broken pieces of our lives and figuring out a new way to live, with a renewed purpose, a different life goal.
To a certain extent, we have the power to reconfigure our brains, our psyches, or as Christians of old used to say, our souls. It can be profound, as many AA people have witnessed over the years, when you watch someone who has made a wreck of their life inspire people they are mentoring to become better people.
And over a period of time, you see people that have been sober and how much they have changed. When I think of how much better people some of you have become, when I watch the positive influence that you have on your kids and your grandchildren, on people that you mentor, it is very moving… I’m grateful for what you do, for who you’ve become. You are a lot more interesting now. You’ve become a deeper person.
I remember the first time I heard an AA speaker explain that they finally got to a point where they thanked God that they were born an alcoholic, that they were grateful that they had ruined their lives, their careers, even their families of origin and all of the other bad stuff that happened because of their ruinous relationship with drugs or alcohol.
I am grateful because I never would have become the person I am today had I not taken all of my failures and short comings and had the courage to see myself for who I really was, and with God’s help, made a change.
And that is really the point, spiritually speaking, not just of Lent, but of our spiritual lives. You do not have to become someone else, you just have to be open and honest enough to live with yourself, to share your life with those around you, help them become better people and with your team of healers, to become a better version of you.
That kind of ‘born again’ I can use and so can you. May you find yourself. May you find your people. And together, may you stumble onto God, who will lead you back home. Amen.