When my grandmother died in the summer of 2013, my family gathered in Nashua, New Hampshire, to celebrate her life and lay her to rest. On the first evening we all arrived in town, I sat at my grandparents’ kitchen table late that night with my dad. The lights were out in the house, including the kitchen, and we discussed the importance of spirituality. My dad shook his head, and remarked that he didn’t know how non-believers managed life when tragedy struck. His mom had just died, and he was leaning hard on his faith that she was with God in Heaven, and that the rest of us would mourn and remember and love and keep moving forward.
I was moved by how well encapsulated the power of spirituality was at that moment. It was clearly a potent experience, just me, my dad and God sitting there in the dark, because I’ve written about it multiple times in the past. Here’s the part of that story that I’ve never before shared.
I had only a slight buzz that night. I’d recently had an extremely embarrassing incident that drew the attention of my parents. I don’t honestly recall which one it was. I have a tendency to compartmentalize my flaming alcoholic disasters. Let’s assume I got raging drunk, argued well into the middle of the night with my wife, and in a fit of desperation, she called my parents for support and help. That happened a couple of times, so let’s assume that’s what happened prior to my grandmother’s death. The only thing I remember for sure is that my parents were watching me closely, and I was, therefore, very mindful of my alcohol consumption. So, as I said, I only had a slight buzz going – maybe three or four beers all evening – as I talked to my dad and God that night.
Do you ever wonder if things happen the way they do for a reason? Do you think I had any idea when I was drinking my face off a few weeks prior, that I would need to be relatively sober on that night at the kitchen table or I was going to miss something big? No way. I had no idea as I kept my wife up hurling angry, drunken insults, that it would lead to a moment of spiritual connection that would stay with me for the rest of my life. I’m not going to go so far as to say God got me belligerent drunk that night so that a couple of weeks later I’d be sober enough to feel his presence, but he was definitely at work in that story somewhere. Maybe everywhere.
Here’s the continuation of that story that I’ve also never before shared. Two years later, my grandfather died, and the family made the same trek back to Nashua. My drinking was off the leash on this second trip. I had not recently embarrassed myself in front of family, so I must have subconsciously thought I was due. It all started innocently enough. I had a layover in Washington D.C. on the way to New Hampshire. I found the little pizza place in the airport that my cousin owned, and I bought some beers, you know, to support a beloved family business. My next stop was in Newark where I got involved in a lively conversation with a bartender and a few traveling drinkers. My flight got delayed, and the resulting frustration mixed nicely with my budding inebriation to encourage me to pound beers in disgust. I don’t remember the flight at all. The next thing I remember is flickering glimpses from the car ride home from the airport. My parents, my sister and her husband picked me up. I remember realizing how very drunk I was and trying to hold it together on the way home.
The three days continued on that same trajectory. I drank too much, and I cried too easily at dinner one night. You know – weepy, intoxicated, overly-emotional blubbering. My cousins and I drank shots from all of the ancient bottles of exotic booze in my grandfather’s basement. On the way back to the airport, I had an emotional disagreement with my father, and I started drinking as soon as the bar opened at 9am in Logan Airport. I was a hot mess for the three days with my family.
There were no intensely spiritual moments on this second trip to bury a grandparent. No dark, quiet kitchen table moments with my dad. Nothing profound or moving happened. Does that mean God wasn’t there? Does that mean He didn’t care about me anymore?
Or were there no intensely spiritual moments because I was the one who was missing? I was there in body, but not in mind and certainly not in spirit. Maybe I was a little too busy worshiping the contents of those bottles – looking for relief from the pain of loss, and searching for liquid joy from the time shared with family.
I’ve been pretty tight with God my whole life. Except for my college years when I never got up before noon on Sunday, I’ve gone to church my whole life. And I’ve not just attended. I’ve participated in youth group, I’ve done mission work, I’ve taught Sunday school, I’ve delivered sermons, and I’ve gotten involved in just about any other way I was needed and I felt moved to serve. Last week I was an extra in a film-school movie our church custodian shot in our church basement because he asked nicely and I love to help a brother out when I can. Guess who else was in the basement with us. God. He’s always there.
He was there when I was a little kid and my parents dragged me to church to learn the Bible stories. He there when I kissed a girl from another church on a youth group mission trip. He was there when I prayed my way through college, and He was there when I took pastor-ordered premarital counseling. He was even there when my wife and I were the co-treasurers of our little church in Chicago. We’d sit in the office loft behind the sanctuary on Sunday afternoons and argue about how to get through another week with no money in the account and collection letters from vendors. Our timing was bad, because we needed some more churching-up after those frustrating shouting matches, and we had to wait a whole week for the next service.
He was there. He was with me the day I was jump-starting my car battery with my wife’s car. While I waited for the battery to charge, I asked God why my life was such a mess. I was depressed, I had scary spikes of anxiety, I was hanging on to my marriage by my fingernails and nothing seemed to feel quite right. I asked God what to do, and in one of those rare and magical moments of clarity, I heard Him. He told me I already knew the answer. And He was right. In that spiritually explosive moment, my thoughts jerked from my problems to my love/hate relationship with alcohol. I had a lot to do. God had big plans for me. Alcohol was just in the way. Always in the way.
Now, I know how monumentally complex quitting drinking really is. But in that moment, it was amazingly simple. Remember, I was a faithful guy. As a kid I believed. I believed as a teen experimenting with alcohol, and as a 20-something realigning my life to serve the bottle. I held tight to my faith as I got married and had kids. They became so important to me, but they weren’t as important as booze. And then, as I stood their charging my battery and asking God to save me, He told me I already knew what to do. I had known all along. If you know the Bible even a little bit, is there any question about how God feels about us worshiping other false gods? My priorities were all screwed-up. I put my love of the drink before my wife, before my precious children who depended on me for their survival, in front of the family that God entrusted to me.
I didn’t need a spiritual awakening to get sober. I needed to do what my spirituality had led me to do all along. I needed to get my priorities straightened out. While I waited for the charge from one battery to pass to the other, I didn’t suddenly feel recharged myself. I didn’t see the lightbulb go on above my head and I didn’t feel Holy electricity flow through my body. That moment felt nothing like the moment at the kitchen table with God and my dad. I felt stupid. “Duh,” said God. “Do what you’ve always known to do.” God had plans for me. I didn’t know what they where, and He certainly wasn’t about to tell me. The only thing I knew for sure was the thing I’d known for a very long time. Alcohol was in the way. And I felt stupid for making God repeat the painfully obvious.
I didn’t stop drinking at that moment, but the end of my drinking career was drawing near. I could no longer ignore the obvious. I was going to have to deal with it. But how? I was already a spiritually connected person. When God told me what He wanted, I’d known it all along. God gives us the ability, the knowledge and the spiritual support, but that doesn’t mean there’s not lots of work for us to do. And the idea that the work I should pursue to cure my addiction to alcohol was spiritual work just didn’t make sense to me. It still doesn’t. I don’t believe alcoholism is a spiritual problem. Don’t get me wrong, I believe spirituality, faith, being a believer – those are huge assets to us as humans as we muddle through our time on this rotating orb. But I don’t think alcoholism is a sign of a spiritual deficiency. I think alcoholism is a sign that our brains are reacting as designed to one of the world’s most highly addictive substances.
If you’re not a God person, you probably stopped reading seven or eight paragraphs ago (if you’re still here, way to go having an open mind to differing opinions). If you recover through the twelve steps, you were probably still with me until that last paragraph. I’ll make my point quickly before you shut me down as ignorant or arrogant, and start calling me a “dry drunk” and suggesting I’m going to kill people if I keep talking like this.
There’s more than one way to find permanent sobriety from alcoholism. What works for one person, is often ineffective for others. It doesn’t always work if you work it. The solutions for addiction are as varied as the reasons people contract the affliction in the first place. I believe alcoholism is a brain disease. I’ve learned about our neurotransmitters like dopamine being hijacked by alcohol, and the power of our subconscious mind once we’ve convinced our brains to associate alcohol with survival. I believe our brains are trying to reach homeostasis, and I believe depression and anxiety are unavoidable collateral damage from ingesting a poison regularly and in large quantities. I believe the un-manageability of our alcoholic lives is because poisoning our brains has a massive down side – both by overworking our organs charged with detoxification and because when we suffocate our brains we say and do stupid things. I believe that once we start drinking we can’t stop, and I believe in God.
I also believe God wants me to solve my own problems. I think that’s kind of the point, really. He gives me this brain and this body, a set of rules to follow and other people with whom to interact. From there, He wants to see if I can figure it out. The Bible is full of stories of God’s people being tested and challenged. Why shouldn’t I see my alcoholism as a challenge from God to see if I can overcome? I think He’s rooting for me. I think He’s had to pick me up and brush me off on more than a few occasions when I acted, well, weak and human. But I’ve got to keep trying. I can’t be ready for the plan He has in store when I let things like alcohol get in the way.
So how did I get sober? I read. A lot. I read the stories of the alcoholics who came before me and found salvation in sobriety. I read clinical books to learn the damaging effects of alcohol on the brain and body. The reading gave me a sense of connection to others, and it gave me knowledge to understand things like: I can never learn to be a moderate drinker, and because of the progressive nature of the disease, no amount of abstinence will ever “fix” me. When I tell AA people that reading was the first and most foundational component of my permanent sobriety, they are unimpressed. The nice ones have a look of pity on their faces, and the crass ones call me a “dry drunk.” My favorite are the passive aggressive ones. They ensure me AA will still be here for me when I relapse.
But why? Why can’t there be different cures for different people.
In addition to bibliotherapy, I learned to eat a diet rich in the amino acids that regenerate our badly depleted neurotransmitters. I taught my friends and family what I learned. Rather than making amends, I helped them know what I know. I helped them see alcoholism as my societally predestined inevitability from the time I started taking sips from my dad’s beers as a kids and making the connection between alcohol and successful adulthood. I don’t believe my affliction is my fault any more than people can be blamed for contracting cancer or diabetes. Through education and open communication, my friends and family believe it, too.
Lastly, but ultimately, most importantly, I scream from the rooftops about my alcoholism. I own my alcoholic label because by doing so, I suck the power out of the stigma. What are you going to do, tease me about being an alcoholic when I just called myself an alcoholic? Speaking my truth for all to hear has given others the strength to recover, and it has locked-down my commitment to sobriety in a way nothing else possibly could.
My sobriety is not a spiritual practice, although spirituality is very important to me. It always has been. I believed in God before I took my first drink, and I thank him everyday for the challenges he puts before me and the strength he’s blessed me with to overcome. I still don’t know his plan for me, but there’s not much getting in the way of me trying to do what He wants even when I have no idea what I’m doing.
If spirituality is the answer for you, I think that’s great. But for those of us for whom something else is needed to get us over the hump, I think that’s OK, too. I don’t believe that if I’m right, that means twelve steppers are wrong. It’s not mutually exclusive. I believe if we make loving, authentic, genuine room for each other, we can make the world a better place. I’m rooting hard for my friends in AA. I believe that they are rooting for me, too.
If you’d like to learn more about my path to permanent sobriety, or you’d like to support my mission from God, please check out our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery from alcoholism. It is designed around science and connection, and you are welcome no matter where you fall on the spectrum of spirituality. SHOUT Sobriety is a donation-based program, and we ask our participants for a $25 per month recurring donation to keep us going well into the future. To learn more, to make a donation or to enroll in the program, please click the button below.