My church thought I was the good mom who had it all together. What would they do if they knew I was an alcoholic?
By Dana Bowman
Sunday morning. I am sitting with my husband awaiting communion. My two boys are at children’s church, happily coloring pictures of sheep, and I wish for one of their squirming bodies on my lap. I would then have a distraction from the grape juice tray that terrifies me as it travels down my pew. The purple liquid in those tiny cups is leaning so dangerously. I sit very still and stare at the small cup of sacrifice in my hands. We are a grape juice church; we don’t serve fragrant wine in the tippy glasses. All I hope is that no one sees my hands shaking.
“I Surrender All” starts on the piano, and I close my eyes, leaning into the same prayer I have uttered for months now. “Lord. I love you. I know what you’re going to ask. Please. I just can’t. Don’t make me stop the drinking. I think…I think I need it.” And then I eat my bread and drain my cup. As the music stops, I gather my things and head out to get my children. Overhead, a smiling stained glass picture of Jesus beckons to me. I walk past him to the car with the firm knowledge that I am in hell.
Alcoholism is a funny disease. It told me, “Don’t worry. I am not out to swindle you. You’re smarter than that. I am not afraid of a few drinks after dinner, are you? Why don’t you join me?”
I did. I swore I could quit anytime, or just drink a polite amount, even though addiction and alcoholism are firmly a part of my family tree from roots to leaves. I thought I was too smart for the wine to catch me.
Until I had children.
I managed to abstain completely while pregnant, but in between pregnancies the desire to drink circled back, even stronger. After my second son was born, my polite amount mixed in with some berserk hormones and postpartum depression. Alcoholism declared it had waited long enough and unleashed all of its lies and pain. The Great Deceiver had waited long enough too. I was caught. I drank. And drank some more. The statistics proved true, and I proved myself a drunken fool, addicted and confounded.
Every morning, I would wake with a pounding headache, and a resolve to stop. But by three o’clock in the afternoon, that conviction had crumbled under two babies eighteen months apart and my inability to process this world without anxiety or shame. “Give up and have a drink,” my inner liar said. “You can quit tomorrow. You deserve this.” Once I succumbed, the voice mocked, “You are worthless. Drink more. There is no other way.” And so, I did. Drinking slowly circled me, netting me with shame and need.
But, also, I loved Jesus. How could a believer be an alcoholic? Here’s what I know now. Believers know chains. Some of them are so painful and heavy we can’t understand how Jesus loves us, at all.
In the slough of my despondency, Jesus showed me grace through two people. I gathered the courage to talk to a close friend about my addiction. “I can’t stop,” I told her, as we watched our boys jump and shout with glee at the splash park. “I just can’t stop. But I think I have to.”
She stared straight ahead for a moment and then said quietly, “Well, you know what you have to do now, Dana. You have to go to meetings.” I dropped my head. It was not what I wanted to hear. But also my heart felt a small unfolding of hope. I had told.
And then I told my husband. He was already well aware of my problem, but had learned the hard way that I had to want the help. Too many times he had tentatively voiced concern, or asked that we not drink over the weekend, or that we cut back for the month, and I always agreed, while my insides would clench in panic. Within a day, I would be sneaking bottles into the house, like contraband into a prison cell.
One afternoon as I stared blearily at the glass of white wine I had just poured, I knew. Somehow, I knew that Jesus, right there with me, was going to help me pour out the glass and call my husband. I had had enough. Through a blur of tears I dialed Brian’s number. “Please come home,” I whispered. “I can’t do this anymore.” He didn’t have to ask. When he arrived, he found me sobbing on the back porch steps, and his face unfolded with love and concern. He knew we were starting down a very long road together.
I found the dreaded recovery meeting. The next morning, I was standing in the living room clutching my keys and a small yellow Post-it with the directions to a place where people drank bad coffee and talked about addiction.
Jesus showed me what repentance meant. Jesus walked me out to the car and cried with me before, during, and after that first meeting. He drove with me to three, sometimes four meetings a week, and he helped me to speak up when I only wanted to be left alone. And he mourned with me, for the loss of my beloved, numbing wine, and for my dead heart.
And then, he brought me back to life.
Recovery at the beginning was so grueling that I felt I deserved a Purple Heart just for making it out of bed in the mornings. But time passed, and the slogan was true: it did get easier.
I had been attending meetings for about six months when I finally felt it. Peace. I was walking into a meeting, and the air was cold and still. It had snowed. I realized I was looking forward to seeing my friends, and talking and laughing and sharing horrible coffee. It was a Friday night, and I was going to spend it in a church multi-purpose room with bad lighting and some packaged cookies, and my heart felt at home. “This is my life, now,” I thought, as I walked up to the doors of the church. I caught my reflection in the glass. “And this is me.”
All that peace and good will prompted me, of course, to gush to God about gratitude. And God said, “Well, then, go tell the church.”
Wait, you want me to tell my church?
God’s response did not come by burning bush or thunderbolt or even a still, small voice. It came by way of an article I had written about depression for a Christian publication. I was filing some of my old articles and when I found it I realized, “Dana, you have only told half the story.”
At first, I balked. That didn’t go well. Telling Jesus no just made me feel like I did back when I was swimming in alcohol. Being in recovery meant trying to be honest and forthright in all my affairs. I had to do it God’s way.
Still, I was terrified. My church thought I was the good mom, the one with a terrific chicken and noodle recipe for sick families. And deep down, where the really hidden scared thoughts simmer, I believed that my church would not have room for me if I told them the truth.
I had a vision of me standing in front of my congregation, in a spotlight, tearfully begging forgiveness. It seemed operatic and maudlin, and there was no way I’d survive it.
As is usually the case, God had a much simpler plan in mind. My first step was to tightly grip my husband’s hand as I asked my two pastors to meet with us. Six months sober, I sat, staring at my lap, and told them about the way I was, what happened, and the way I am now. I looked up. Both men were smiling gently. They were Jesus for me, writing silently in the sand, and then they helped me to stand up. Pastor Darrel said, “You are brave.” No, I wanted to say, I am afraid. God is in control now. It’s rather terrifying and wonderful, you know? I was too soggy from tears and gratitude to speak.
After my meeting with the pastors, I was asked to speak at a local Christian moms group. Poor ladies, they had no idea what they were in for. I tried for diversion by praying, “God, what on earth could I talk about? Perhaps a presentation about knitting, or maybe some kale casseroles—mom groups love kale!”
Of course, I ended up talking about recovery. It’s my thing, I guess. And I think it went well. I don’t remember because I was terrified, but my friends tell me I did just fine.
I began to write about the paradox of recovery—the pricks of shame paired with thankful prayers. The weight and the freedom. I feel joy now, in tiny fluttering bits, like when you catch a snowflake on your tongue. So far, I have not had to stand at the front of the church and cry and wallow. We don’t even own a spotlight. I did enough wallowing three years ago. I think my church just wants me to stand and walk.
A book offer has come my way to share, yet again, about my thing: a Christian mom in recovery. I glean a hearty, “Hey, you’re famous!” from my pastor. “Great,” I smirk, always sarcastic. “I am famous for being rather rotten.”
But, it’s not rotten, you see. It’s redeemable. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And his invitation to sit with him at table is real.
It is grace, after all. It is all grace.
About the Author
Dana Bowman is an adjunct professor and writer, and a member of the Lindsborg (Kansas) Evangelical Covenant Church. She is also a mom in recovery. To her great chagrin, she cannot seem to make a church potluck casserole that’s palatable. Her forthcoming book, Bottled: A Mom’s Guide through Early Recover with Kids, will be published in September.