Addiction & the Church
Adventures in Brokenness and Hope
by Dana Bowman | July 9, 2018
As an alcoholic in recovery, I occasionally have to deal with painful reminders of my past. It’s part of the deal. You go into recovery, and it’s really hard, and sometimes you have to pay your dues.
Once, after a full afternoon of deep cleaning our basement, I found a box of half-full bottles of scotch. I stared at the bottles, and they stared right back at me. They had been hidden behind a dusty row of old paint cans by my husband who had been desperate to keep me away from alcohol. I had to smile. I was just so amazed that he actually forgot about that box. If it had been me, it would have become my own boozy and ticking telltale heart. But, I’m the alcoholic here, not him.
I dusted off my hands, donated the box and its contents to my neighbor, and called it a day. I mentioned it later to my husband and his eyebrows went up. “I totally forgot about those!” I reminded him that that’s because he is not an alcoholic. I also suggested that if he wanted a scotch he would have to go next door. The moment passed, we both laughed a little, and my basement was finally clean. I didn’t much think about it again.
But there is a photograph from my past that I think about a lot. And it was taken, of all things, at a church pancake breakfast.
This picture haunts me. It does so in a very literal sense because it is a part of my Facebook memories, where it shows up every once in a while on my timeline and slaps me upside the head.
The photograph is of my family and me sitting down to Swedish pancakes on New Year’s Day. My boys have poured so much syrup that it’s difficult to see their actual breakfasts. My husband is downing coffee and chatting away with another table-mate. And I am sitting very still, staring down at my plate. It seems fine.
But I had just relapsed days before. And here I was, hours sober. And I was so very, very sad.
It’s the church that surrounds me in this picture. They are my friends—talking, laughing, layering their plates with butter and syrup and pastries. This pancake supper is a long-held tradition at our church, and there was no way we were going to miss it. And, for the past three years, this New Year’s Day celebration held an extra effervescence for me, because I had been rocking my sobriety. People in recovery kind of love New Year’s Day. We also really enjoy the day after St. Patrick’s Day. That one’s a hoot. Basically, we love any other occasion where we can enjoy other people’s hangovers. It’s not vindictive, exactly. It’s just the side effects of being awesome.
But on this New Year’s Day? I was not awesome, not anymore. I was ashamed and sick.
The relapse was a short one, thank God. It had lasted a week, and it was insanity. New Year’s morning found me back in my church, safe. My church is always a safe place. I thank God for that. But yet, there was also something else I was discovering about my relationship with my church that morning.
I felt like I could not speak.
That morning I didn’t engage in conversation much, except to nod and turn my mouth up into a smile. I never once looked at my husband. I just sat very, very still and hoped it would all be over soon so I could go home.
When I first got sober, my church was a place to sit quietly and thank God that, hour by hour, I was gaining on my sobriety. That place is packed full of people who love Jesus. So as time passed and I found myself more brave, I was able to tell others about my recovery. The conversation was halted and sometimes weird, but it was there. I scheduled a meeting with my pastors and went into Pastor Jeff’s office, gripping onto both my husband and a jumbo box of tissues. And I spilled my guts.
I told them about the way I was, what happened, and the way I was now. And, it wasn’t terrible. I didn’t die. Both pastors prayed for me, and I left feeling lightened.
I felt like it was the best thing to do, to talk to my spiritual advisers about my alcoholism. I don’t know how to explain it. I just needed them to know.
It makes sense. My faith is the most important thing in my life. And recovery is the most important thing in my life (I don’t know how that works out, but it just does). So I had to have them working together, everyone in concert and fully abreast of the situation.
My faith is the most important thing in my life. And recovery is the most important thing in my life. So I had to have them working together.
But now? I was not going to talk about any of this. Nope. Not at all. Now was the time for secrecy. Because that works.
Sitting at my table, wiping doggedly at sticky surfaces and sticky children, I felt like one of those kids who takes over in a group project. I am exhausted but determined. I am just going to take this one home and do it all by myself.
It’s not the church’s fault. My church is the best church in the history of churches. Martin Luther looks down on our sermons and takes notes. If there was an award ceremony for churches, mine would win an Emmy and an Oscar.
But churches can only handle being referred to in the collective for so long before somebody breaks ranks. Churches are made up of all these individual humans, after all. Humans who are so human. I can wax on and on about how my entire church had me at hello, but I could not figure out how to talk to any single one of them about
Let’s face it. The first time around, I was Dana, the heroic girl in recovery. Brave and honest and willing to leap tall buildings while stone-cold sober. But now, the sequel has happened, and much like Jaws 2, it’s just kind of awful. I’m just a woman who was dumb enough to get herself in this mess—again.
The first time I was Dana, the heroic girl in recovery. But now the sequel has happened, and much like Jaws 2, it’s just kind of awful.
The relapse felt like it crossed a line. This time I had messed up too much to tell anybody. They simply would not understand. And that’s where the human-ness of the church, and my own human-ness, left me staring at my congealed pancakes with growing dread.
It’s true, I had a bit of Special Snowflake Syndrome going on that morning. I was in pain and I was afraid, and both of those things seem to make me focus on myself with hypersensitivity and self-absorption. I special snowflaked myself into a corner, where it was very cold and lonely. I feared no one would understand. And truthfully? They might not. But then again, neither did I.
I was a walking misery. That’s relapse for you. It is painful and agonizing and thank God for that, because that misery is a very potent reminder. After my relapse I was hunkered down in some serious pain and learning (which so often seem to go hand in hand), and while I thought I would die if anyone found out, I also yearned to spill the whole sordid mess to my church. I longed to walk in one Sunday, bereft and needy, and lay the past week in their laps, all soggy with tears, and say, “Now, you take it. And fix it.” But, in a way, I was too late.
When my husband and I had moved into our first house, I had decided that all the walls needed new paint. My living room ceilings are extremely high, but I was not worried. I could do this. I had never painted anything in my life, but surely this couldn’t be too tough. I’ve seen people paint things on Home Depot commercials, and they always looked happy about it. How hard could it be? I picked out a dramatic red, and decided to just work it out, all by myself.
To this day, there are smears of lipstick red on the ceiling and molding. I didn’t know how to use an edger. I didn’t understand the whole blue tape seriousness. And I have a very badly painted living room to show for it. All I should have done was crawl down from my wobbly ladder and speak those dreaded words: “I have made a total mess and I need help right now.”
When I first talked to my church about getting sober, my drinking days were my past. I knew the church would offer compassion. I had messed up, but I had stopped messing up. The church would welcome me back to the fold. But what about when I was right in the middle of relapse, all outside the fold—and outside of their understanding? If I asked for help then, how would the church react?
That’s right when I needed to speak. Right when it was most scary. Right when I was teetering, messy, and really kind of mad about all of it. That’s exactly when I did need to say something. But it’s much easier to say I was a mess than I am one right now. And so, I clammed up.
The rate of addiction in the United States has tripled in the past ten years. More than twenty-two million men and women are struggling with addictive substances. That’s one person in ten. And the numbers keep increasing. We addicts? We are here. We are in the pews of the church. And we are not going away anytime soon. Yes, we are all special snowflakes, but really there’s so many of us that the snowflakes are forming a blizzard.
The church doesn’t need to fix us. That would be like asking a cancer patient to set up his chemotherapy treatment plan with his pastor. But maybe the church could just listen and talk, and the conversations could start right in the thick of it. It would be organic and scary, but maybe scary is just what we need. Faith is scary too.
When I first came out of my alcoholic closet, I think I was a bit of a novelty to my church. And then I wrote a book about it, and everyone was all, “Here’s Dana! We’re so proud of her! She’s our token alcoholic.” But that is where the conversation pretty much ended. I understand. There is stigma and weirdness. But with addiction there is always more to the story. Relapse. Other addictive behaviors. Depression. Meetings. Rehab. We can’t ever un-alcoholic ourselves. I would have to say that I’m the conversation that never ends, and this is from a woman who is so introverted that silent nodding is my love language.
A few weeks ago I had the utmost pleasure of filling out numerous questionnaires for a life insurance policy. My husband and I are getting to the age when we have to think about such things. And, as I am an alcoholic, I had to be rigorously honest on these questionnaires, because that is how recovery is done. But as I kept gritting my teeth and checking boxes I started to notice a rather disconcerting cluelessness about this company’s take on my alcoholism. “When did you become an alcoholic?” asked Big Insurance Company. I pictured it sitting there, tapping its pencil, poised for the response, when all I could do was blink.
“I dunno…in the womb? How does that work?”
Big Insurance Company does not like humor. I found this out the hard way. But we continued.
“Did you ever experience blackouts? If so, describe.”
“I can’t. That’s why they’re called blackouts.”
And so on. Needless to say, my life insurance policy is still “pending” and I have a rather gloomy feeling that my life will not be worth much to them. But in all honesty, I kind of understood Big Insurance Company. I mean, we are sketchy folk, we addicts. We can relapse at any time, all willy-nilly.
But those questions kind of made me think of my church. It’s hard for them to understand alcoholism, or recovery, and all the journeying in between. I know they love me and they mean well, but they don’t even know what questions to ask. They might be thinking of my alcoholism as an event instead of as my whole life.
Is it their job to know? I think it might be part of that whole “feed my lambs” command, and since there are one in ten of us, that’s a whole lot of lambs. Honestly, I know my church will do right by me in a much more gratifying way than any big coverage company. They also do life insurance.
By the way, I never actually told my church about my relapse. This article will hit the presses, probably paired with a huge picture of me, and then I will consider moving to Costa Rica. But eventually I will show up on Sunday, sit in a pew, and carry on. It’s a tiny bit possible that members of my church don’t keep my life and all of its twisty-ness at the top of their news feed these days. But, as a special snowflake, I have a hard time believing that.
A few church members will comment on the article, and their kindness and grace will probably make me cry, which is okay, because we are family. This will totally confuse my children and husband because I will tell them the tears are due to my serenity. But, again, this is family, and they have come to accept the striving, the struggle, and the endless conversation that is me.