Getting Them Before They Get Us
Addictions can kill you. I know. I almost died. It was not until a mid-life event happened to me that I finally began to grasp the fact that I was raised in an alcoholic family. It was as if a jack-in-the-box had suddenly popped up and said: “Surprise!”
“Surprise!” You’ve been living in denial. “Surprise!” You can’t hide from the shadow, because the shadow knows. “Surprise!” You’re hurting and you don’t even know it. “Surprise!” You’re not relating well to your wife and kids. “Surprise!” You’re continuing a dysfunctional family pattern going back generations and in doing so you are guaranteeing its perpetuation into the future.
There was one particular event that focused me on this reality. A serendipitous, life-altering event.
I had returned home late at night from a much-too-long board meeting. My wife and kids were already asleep. To unwind, I turned on the television merely as background noise, and then went to the refrigerator. Nosing around in there, I was not paying much attention to what was on the tube, other than to note that it was a talk show. But then, in the middle of deciding whether it was going to be beer and chips, or beer and brownies, I heard the phrase “dry drunk” coming from the television and my interest was aroused.
I don’t remember the name of the person talking about Adult Children of Alcoholics, but I do know that what he said applied to me: that even though I thought I was not an alcoholic, the fact that I was raised in a family where alcohol was a problem meant that my behavior was affected by it. I was one of those “dry drunks.”
At that point, I accepted the reality that my life was in a shambles, both professionally and personally; that my physical and mental health was in a downward spiral. And I began to wonder if maybe growing up in an alcoholic family had something to do with all this.
Well, even without the beer that I chugged that night, I would have cried. And cry I did! Torrents!
This began the process of my wanting to know more about this addiction called “alcoholism” and its effect on me. Within a few days I attended my first Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting, and continued in that program for nearly 5 years, missing only a few weekly sessions. This lead to further efforts to understand myself that included studying in various Clinical Pastoral Education situations with supervising therapists and attending various group sessions.
In her book When Society Becomes an Addict Anne Wilson Schaef makes the point that an addiction is “any process over which we are powerless. It takes control of us, causing us to do and think things that are inconsistent with our personal values and leading us to become progressively more compulsive and obsessive.”
Schaef’s major point is that addiction is not merely an individual’s tragic dilemma or the problem of those who associate with the addict, but also is society’s tragic flaw. Furthermore, as she and others point out, our problem is indicative of a deeper, systemic tragedy: of a society seeking purpose and meaning. Being addictive is a state of existence that proclaims a feeling of powerlessness.
The horror is that addictive substances give the user/abuser the illusion of being powerful, sometimes brazenly so, whereas, in reality, the substance is merely a poor substitute for real power. The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous indicates this when it tells us: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol; that our lives had become unmanageable.”
And according to AA, until one turns to the “Higher Power” as one might understand the concept, then one is not on the road to recovery. Or, if one is Humanist and a member of Rational Recovery, until one accepts the power within one’s self and in relationship to others and the universe, one is controlled by this false sense of being in charge which alcohol gives.
A similar process and realization can occur for those who are suffering from addictions other than alcoholism.
So when an addict starts to realize that s/he has reached an unmanageable stage and needs help toward recovery, the denial process begins to break down. “Denial” is a nice way of saying that the addict has been a liar. Others also are trapped in this denial syndrome because of loyalty, pity, or love toward the addict; or because of confusion due to the addict’s erratic behavior; or out of a desire to help.
This denial breakthrough is a powerful thing. It is powerful in the real sense of power, not the false power that comes through substance abuse. But the power that comes with truth. Tears flow freely then. Anger flashes. Pain hurts. But there is release and consequently joy. But it can be scary, too. Being renewed in life can do that. And the fear that one might return to addiction again is there as well. Still, it helps to be with others who have been in the darkness and who are fighting the demons.
And yet, more often than any of us really want to believe, addictions get us before we can get them.
Let me share a story with you when I served as a hospital chaplain. Josh (that was not his real name) was in his mid-forties and was recovering from the recent death of his wife and his own near-death due to liver failure. I met him shortly after his liver transplant.
At our first meeting I could see that he was eager to talk. Wide eyes, quick movements, rapid speech pattern. A man with many questions and many comments about his physical condition, about life in general, about the meaning of it all. He was not someone who would be content with a mere pastoral nod of understanding. To him everything was new and exciting.
Sadly, this new way of being: of being a recovering alcoholic, came too late in his disease to save his body. But at least it came before he died! And even if his body was decaying moment by moment, his human spirit kept getting stronger and stronger. He opened himself to the fullness of life like he had never done before: delving into his psychic pain and learning where he needed to get better. And he knew he had to do this fast. His spirituality grew in relationship to other people. He had a constant stream of recovering alcoholics coming to his hospital room day and night, much to the dismay of some of the hospital staff who believed that the healing of the body, mind and spirit were not linked. I never agree with them.
Day by day more and more physical complications occurred. Josh endured procedure after procedure, including brain and heart surgery. Sometimes he joked about it, sometimes he raged at the heavens. In other words, Josh was very real. Very authentic.
I shall always wonder what Josh would have been like had he gone to an AA meeting earlier than he had; or if through respect for himself or through the love of others, he would have faced his illness earlier than he did and pushed through the denial part to a place of healing.
Nevertheless, Josh was inspirational to so many! Including me! Five hundred people came to his funeral. I can only presume that a number of them were addicts of one kind or another. It was a very long religious service with many, including myself, telling of our relationship with this guru of recovering addicts. It was a bittersweet celebration of a life. Perhaps, in a way, his addiction got him before he got it, but in the larger scheme of things, he was the final victor. He learned what it meant to be alive as a loving, compassionate person, and to give love and compassion back to others.
My hope is that all who suffer addiction in any form, and those who love them, will remember Josh, and do what they can to be healed and to heal others.
NOTE: Don Beaudreau is a member of the Ajijic Writers Group, and has published 10 books, including Playbook for the 21st Century (A Guide to Practical Spirituality for Free Thinkers), from which this article has been adapted.
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