Sunday, December 3, 2017

Hope In A Time of Addiction

My mother died young, quite suddenly, at the age of 73. My father who loved her very much was quite lost. He had come to live near our home in Maryland, a ramshackle little house that we were all in the midst of renovating.  I would check on me from time to time to see how he was. I noticed he was looking gaunt and was losing weight. Then one day I came to the house and I found him barely conscious on the couch. I got him up and drove him to hospital. The ER did a blood test and admitted him immediately, his white blood cell count was rising and he was anemic. The doctors spent the next several hours trying to figure out what was wrong. The primary doctor, a good friend and a member of our congregation, pulled me aside to tell me that he was very sick and that he might not make it.  I knew this phenomenon especially among men, that when their spouse died, grief and a lack of self-care often led the surviving spouse to follow in death within months. Now I knew how scary and painful that could be. Then the doctor asked me “Are you sure your father doesn’t drink?” “What?!” I replied, “Who told you that?” “He did” she replied. “Are you kidding me?” I said “He drinks like a fish”. In fact, both my father and mother were what we would now call functional alcoholics, downing three or four double scotches each night before a gigantic meal with wine at 10 pm.  “Well that explains it” she said, “He is dying of alcohol poisoning”. It turned that my father, in his grief, was drinking close to a quart of scotch a day and living on wonder bread and grape jelly sandwiches, that coupled with flu was bringing him to death’s door.

 After the doctor went back in to see him and to order new procedures to reverse the effect, I followed. It was one of the most difficult and powerful conversations of my life, not as his minister but as his son. “Dad” I said “I know you are heartbroken after losing mom. We are all carrying around these broken hearts. But you have choice here Dad: you can choose to leave your body and be with her again, or you can keep on living. You can keep on living for me and my brother, for your daughter in laws and your beautiful granddaughters. You can keep living for walks in the woods with the dogs, for the warmth of the sun on your face, you can keep on living to do the work of justice, to write, to agitate, and to laugh. It will hurt for a while dad, but the pain will subside and, while there will always be a hole in your heart where mom lived, your grief, our grief, will bring a depth and richness to life such as you have never known. I know this is true dad, because I have seen it happen over and over again. You can choose but you have to stop drinking and start living. I want you to choose life.”

There was a foreboding silence as he contemplated what I said, and the shame he now felt at being found out as an addict and as a proud man. He said “OK. But I never want to see that doctor again.”  “That’s fine Dad, that’s fine. I will find you another doctor.”

I tell you this story, because I know that almost everyone in this room has been touched by addiction.  As Gerald May in his book Addiction and Grace wrote, “We all suffer from addictions: addiction to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods like depression, shyness, cynicism, people can become addicted to an illness, success, control and fantasies.” (From Addiction and Grace) And any number of substances and behaviors that mask the pain and stress of living: food, sex, alcohol, drugs, gambling, the list is long. So I believe that all of us have addictive natures, by virtue of having to both cope with life and to the power of substance and behavior to mask the pain. All of us are addicted, yet some become more so, for reasons that have as much to do with chemistry in our brains as behaviors in our life.  Addictions become a problem when they interfere with our lives which leads to a ruin of life and it is then we need the most help. 

Hope in a Time of Addiction, not only because of the opioid crisis, but for the addiction to media that made this election possible, the tweets, the 24 hour news cycle, fake news, and our addiction to it. We try to convince ourselves that this craziness is not normal but what if this addiction to it is normal. Yes, our addiction to it: How many of you have MSNBC on almost all the time? Waiting for the next and latest outrage and our primarily liberal response to it. How many of you beloveds, think Rachel Maddow is a saint? 


Gerald May writes that ‘Spiritual, addiction is a deep seated form of idolatry. The objects of our addictions become our false gods. These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love. Addiction displaces and supplants God’s love as the source and object of our deepest true desire. It contravenes the first commandment, you shall have no other gods before me, the god of love….it is in effect a counterfeit spiritual presence. As it is written in Ecclesiastes “I denied my eyes nothing that they desired, refused my heart no pleasure…What futility it all was, what chasing after the wind.” The Grace of one another is our hope, the only power that can vanquish addiction’s destructive power.’ (Adapted May)

 My father recovered from his illness and stopped drinking cold turkey. He never attended a 12 step program. And he went on to live a rich and full life. He married again, he wrote, he protested, he laughed, he danced. And he had one glass of wine on his 80th birthday.

With Grace and Grit, John