This is part two of a series about addiction and the church. You can read part 1 here.
When I first got sober, my life seemed to tilt on its axis. It seemed to slip to the side and slide, and all I could do was hold on, helpless, as gravity pulled at me. I hung on and then watched as all the detritus—all the useless bits and pieces from my life that have been hurting me—fell away.
And then it was me. Just me, on my ledge, holding on for dear life.
When all of your life is poured into one thing, for months and even years, and then you take that one thing away? Everything tilts. There is no level ground, and there are no footholds, and it is very, very lonely. That’s why sobriety can feel impossible. And that’s why there are so many addicts out there.
Nearly 30 percent of the adult population in the United States have participated in binge drinking or suffer from symptoms of alcoholism. Some of those 30 percent are showing up at church, just like I was. I am. I attended church regularly through my most dreadfully addicted days, often with a hangover. Yes. It’s hard to admit, but many a Sunday I found myself in the pew wondering if anyone could smell the alcohol on me, if anyone could tell from my ragged appearance how tired I was of being me.
When all of your life is poured into one thing, for months and even years, and then you take that one thing away? Everything tilts.
So I quit drinking, and I quit going to church. For nearly a month, I stayed at home and stuck my head under the covers and said, “No. No, I can’t go today. Please.”
And my husband, who is a staunch we-go-to-church-every-Sunday-no-matter-what kind of guy, took one look at me and said, “Okay.” He would load up our two squirrely boys and leave the house and all would be silent, and I would fall back asleep, or cry, or pray, or go find a meeting. Anything but go to church.
The one time I did attend, seated in my wooden pew, singing the hymns and trying to keep it together, I felt more alone than ever. I had not expected that. In fact, I had never expected not to be drinking, so I really had no expectations at all for sober living. I just knew that I couldn’t be around people in large numbers who all loved Jesus. It terrified me. I felt like I might have some sort of blinking light attached to me that would sound a siren and a voice, like that robot from Lost in Space, every time I approached anyone: “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! Alcoholic approaching!”
It’s possible that’s a small exaggeration. Alcoholics tend to do that. The drama thing. Or, more likely, it’s just me who does the drama thing. I can’t speak for the other million or so of us out there.
Here’s the main problem. It wasn’t shame that kept me away from church. It was longing.
For the past month since beginning recovery, I’d been stripped. I had nothing left to help me ease into my emotions or my fears. And then, of course, Jesus came in. That’s what he does, after all. He took hold of me and let me cling right back. And we really, really got to know each other in those first days. I had been a believer for nearly thirteen years before I admitted my addiction and entered recovery, but these days were different. Sobriety meant my relationship with Jesus had totally changed. Deepened. All wonderful things, yes. But all rather terrifying too.
And I couldn’t really explain that to anyone. And I longed to.
When Christ shows you, in Technicolor detail, how life is now, and you finally get it, you want to tell the whole world. You want to share it. In fact, you feel as if you must—because he bubbles forth that way. He’s effervescent.
Sobriety meant my relationship with Jesus had totally changed. Deepened. All wonderful things, yes. But all rather terrifying too.
I couldn’t tell anyone, though, because it would be kinda like coming up to someone and saying, “Hey, can you hold this for me?” and handing them a tiny infant and four chainsaws and some firecrackers (just for fun), while attempting to talk about how meaningful all these things are to you.
It’s a silly analogy, but really, those chainsaws? They really do symbolize drinking in my life at that point. Lots of noise and mess and destruction and rubble. That sort of thing.
After about a month of chainsaw avoidance, I finally returned to church. And, still, I kept quiet. I smiled and chatted and kept my head down and avoided the coffee line and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. I’m sure my pastors kept an eye on me. My husband and I kept meeting with Pastor Darrell occasionally, and I kept walking forward.
And then, after a few months, when my church attendance had become more regular and less terrified, my pastor, as he does, shook things up a bit. He told me, gently and kindly, “I think you need to tell our small group.”
He was right.
I suddenly felt like I couldn’t not tell the truth to my church. They were my family, after all.
The thing is, I had not told the truth for such a long time. And then my life turned over, and I started telling the truth—on everything. I suddenly felt like I couldn’t not tell the truth to my church. They were my family, after all. They had walked with me through postpartum depression and early marriage and so much more. The tension between carrying this new sobriety as just another secret didn’t sit well with me. But at the same time, it was not like I needed to head up to the front of the sanctuary with mascara-laden tears and confess to the whole congregation.
Although, I have to admit, with my flair for drama? The crying and the mascara thing kinda speaks to me.
Anyhow. I started small. I started with my small group.
Read more here, where I’ll describe what it felt like to be a mom and be sober and how I blabbed first to my small group.