Fighting to Surrender

December 31, 2015 at 7:45 am

addictionFor years my resolution was to quit drinking. My first fifteen attempts went horribly awry. The last three years have proven that not all stories end badly.

I was at Steve Visco’s house when I had my first sip of beer. I still remember the beads of sweat forming on the outside of the can as we sat on his back porch during a warm night in New Hampshire. I remember now that it was cheap beer, though I can only remember that in hindsight, as I had nothing else to compare it to at the time. It was cold, and it was bitter. We had taken it from his stepfather’s stock in the refrigerator and I remember that his stepfather cared very little. I took two sips, perhaps three and set it down near the leg of my chair and hoped that none of the other boys noticed that it was still full at the end of the night. I was in my early teens and the moment lingers in my mind only because it was the first. You always remember your first.

Several years later I drank another beer with many of the same young men who were with me that first night. I had no thirst for it, but I finished the can that evening. I faked a buzz and laughed a little louder. I remember leaving thinking that all the stories and warnings I had heard about alcohol seemed a tad exaggerated. And I had heard plenty.

Truth be told, I grew up in the house of an alcoholic stepfather, and one would have thought that scenes of rehab visits, Al-Anon meetings, family counseling, DUI’s and arrests would have been enough to drive me away from the strange brew for a lifetime. But I was 13 when my stepfather died and a single-mom is a poor substitute for a father, so I looked to my peers to fill my deep need for affirmation and sense of masculinity, while they looked to me for the same. I suppose that when we caught wind of the fruitlessness of our searches we started looking for things to fill the void between us, and within us.

I don’t remember the first time I was ever drunk, but I do know that once I caught wind of emotional numbness, I craved it for the next 15 years. There were a handful of breaks and seasons of sobriety driven by fear, shame, guilt or mixture of the three, but the craving for escape never subsided. Never.

I have been sober now for three years with the help of counselors like Kirk and Linda, a strong wife, necessary ultimatums, the face of my three boys, and the Spirit of God pouring hope and love into my veins. I still crave escape, but my cravings for life are greater.  

I closed out 2015 with two books on addiction; Brennan Manning’s memoir All is Grace and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. One was written by an old man nearing death, and the other by a boy who was in his twenties when the book was first penned. One writer was a well-known Christian leader, the other an atheist searching for anything but a higher power. Both stories offered small glimpses of redemption shrouded in absolute tragedy. Both made me weep inside and both made me reflect much on my own seasons of addiction, loss, regret and waste.

I would love to share some quotes with you from Frey’s work but his love affair with the “F” word made finding a suitable phrase largely impossible. And while Manning’s work was far more PG, the sheer tragedy of his confessions are more lament than inspiration. Both men battled hard against personal demons that stripped them of freedom and love. With every page, I could feel the sharp pangs of regret welling up in my own soul. So much time wasted, figuratively as well as literally.

As another year rounds the corner I suspect that there will be countless men and women who take a stab at slaying their own private dragons; be it sex, food, drink or drugs. Statistically, the majority will fail in their attempts. It is a harsh reality, but naïve to suggest otherwise. We are creatures of habits, and it is truly ironic that the most difficult patterns to break often prove to be the most self-destructive. Nothing I have ever read has helped me to understand that paradox save the doctrine of “original sin”; we live in a world enslaved to the desire of bringing death instead of life, to deconstruct rather than create.

Of all my years spent in ministry, counseling others and myself through addiction, I have come to embrace a handful of truths necessary to recognize before any “disordered love” (St. Augustine) can ever be dethroned:

  1. Addicts are liars

No matter what an addict tells you about their “struggle,” it is always worse. Addicts rely on manipulation and mirage in order to keep the beast fed. The greatest lies they tell, and the ones that keep them in bondage the longest, are the ones they tell themselves. Without honesty, towards themselves and others, the fight is fruitless.

  1. Addicts are hiding

Most addictions are sins of isolation. Even if an addict partakes of a vice in the presence of company, that company is typically partaking of it with them. Addictions are fed by the desire to escape from negative feelings, and cutting off from community only exacerbates the feelings of shame, loneliness and despair that foster a desire to hide again. Addiction cannot be conquered alone.

  1. Addicts are selfish

Addicts stay chained to their vices because they simply want them more than anything else. They will sacrifice jobs, relationships, reputations and freedom for another hit (or click, or sip, or doughnut) until they eventually want something else more. They might not claim to crave the hangovers, conflicts, or regrets, but they want them more than whatever it is they are running from. One of quotes I have used more often than any other in my ministry comes from (believe it or not) the motivational speaker and infomercial guru Tony Robbins:

My own freedom came by way of a simple question from a counselor: “Are you getting what you want most in life, and is alcohol helping you achieve it?” Our desires are not immoral; the key is changing the object we long for most.  

  1. Addicts need hope

It was St. Augustine who once rightly declared, “our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” I know few hearts more restless than the heart of an addict. I have never met an addict who wanted to be one, but I have known plenty who have quietly resolved to remain one because they failed to see any prospect of freedom. Unfortunately, they are often surrounded by people who believe the same thing about them. Every addict needs a consistent dose of truth and grace in order to heal a heart perpetually turned inward. I was fortunate enough to have a community around me willing to be that voice, and it was their collective hope in a God who was able to raise the dead, even someone as dead as me, that finally broke the chains. Tim Keller has famously explained the gospel this way,

“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared to believe, and at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

It is the only prescription I have ever found to be successful at the task of setting prisoners ultimately and eternally free. If you resolve anything this year, resolve to fight until there is surrender.