When I arrived at the hospital, I found out this man, who I'll call "Alan" was addicted to methamphetamine. This meant he was going through withdrawal and detoxification from a highly addictive substance at the same time that he was recovering from heart surgery. "Agitated" was putting it mildly. The nurses were worried because Alan couldn't sleep, which you need to do to recover from any major surgery, plus his heart rate and blood pressure were very high.
So I went in to see him, asking my own Higher Power for guidance. Alan was indeed very agitated and confused. My instincts said to take him on a guided meditation - so I asked him to imagine himself in a place where he felt calm, relaxed, happy, and free. I asked him to breathe deeply and tell me what he saw, heard, and felt around him in that quiet place. Alan was able to find that safe place, and as he pictured himself there and began to breathe deeply, his heart rate slowed, and his blood pressure dropped. Periodically Alan would lose his hold on that place, and his numbers would jump back up, but as soon as I took him back there, they'd go down again.
Eventually, I showed Alan how to take himself to that safe place, and I taught him a simple, calming prayer by the mystic Julian of Norwich - "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well." I suggested that Alan repeat this prayer over and over until he could sleep. When he seemed calm and stable, I went back home.
The next day, as I made my rounds on the unit, the nurses told me Alan really wanted to see me. I went into his room and found a man transformed. He had come up with his own prayer after I left, which he had repeated until, in the middle of the night, he had a deep and profound religious experience.
Alan had encountered his Higher Power, to use the word used by so many people in recovery. He had resolved to turn his life over to that Power. He told me he'd decided to work doing drug education in schools. I said I could not think of a better thing to do, when life hands you an addiction, than to take what you've learned from it and use that to help others.
Since that night I have encountered many other people whose lives have been scarred by addictions of one kind or another - at the homeless shelter where I volunteered as a chaplain during seminary and, more recently, in my work as a hospital chaplain. Here’s a poem I wrote about a woman I met at the shelter -
China Cup by Tess Baumberger
Her face is like a china cup
made for drinking delicate things.
I think you could see through it
if you held her to a sunny window.
It’s hard to admit not remembering her.
She reminds me that she asked me
for the name of a church she could attend,
where they’d welcome a homeless person.
She sings for me in teapot soprano,
a herald of things brimming
with sorrow and steeped in regret.
She listens with her blossom eyes,
that have, too often, opened onto misery,
searching my green tea irises
as though they speak more clearly
than anything I could ever say.
She has such a sweet expression,
as if innocence, once written there,
was not inclined to leave
and became kilned into her features.
To look at her you wouldn’t believe
she’s a recovering heroin addict.
I’ve heard that well-made china
can withstand enormous pressure
I witnessed a young man in the same situation whose fiance and family were fractured by their grief, preferring to fight with one another rather than feel their deep sadness and fear. I saw many people who were lucky enough to survive overdosing. Some of whom went through detox in the hospital and on to rehab, others left against medical advice in order to carry on using.
My own life has been affected by addiction. Both of my grandfathers were alcoholics and even though my parents weren’t (sometimes it skips generations), the patterns in my family were similar. In a recent worship service I asked members of the congregation to raise their hands if they or someone they loved struggled with addiction - nearly every hand went up. We are in this together and I pray for us all to have courage and strength.
We know how people die from addiction - but how do we, can we, live with it? A member of the congregation I serve asked me to address that question and this is my response. In it I draw heavily from Dr. Gerald G. May's excellent book Addiction and Grace:Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions, Dr. May is a psychiatrist and spiritual counselor who says that in some sense, we’re all addicted to something - maybe a substance like caffeine or maybe a behavior or thought pattern such as worry, overwork or perfectionism..
He goes into some detail about how addiction works in our behavior and thought patterns, as well as on a cellular level. If you’re curious about all that please read his book. It’s excellent. Another good book I can recommend is Holy Hunger: One Woman’s Journey from Food Addiction to Spiritual Fulfillment by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, now an Episcopal priest. Memoirs and good books on living with addiction abound.
Twelve step groups also have excellent resources. For many people, the “god” language of those programs can be a stumbling block. One way around define your higher power for yourself. For one person it might be the group itself, for another their higher power might be the sea. There are also groups like “SMART Recovery” that take a more practical and less religious approach that includes life planning and role-playing. Whatever works, works - and there are groups like AlAnon or Nar-Anon for those who love someone with an active addiction.
For my purposes here, I want to focus on its spiritual aspects of addiction. Spiritually speaking, why do we become addicted? Gerald May says that our deepest longing, our real hunger is for God, love wholeness, completion, fulfillment or enlightenment– for something that has more meaning. He says this yearning is the essence of our human spirit. Alongside that yearning we human beings have a great need for freedom.
We long for the Sacred but confuse that longing for a longing for a substance or a behavior. We try again and again to fill that void with that substance or behavior but of course it doesn’t work. It becomes an idol, a false and flimsy substitute for the Sacred, for love, completeness, wholeness, fulfillment. Our addiction to the flimsy substitute limits our freedom to find that for which we most deeply long. Addiction is the opposite of freedom and makes love, wholeness, completion, and fulfillment impossible.
He told me about a dream he had, that he was walking along the train line and at one point it went underground. He kept following it and found a shop that sold sunflower seeds. He picked up a couple packs and went to the counter to pay for them but no-one was there. He called out again and again but no-one showed up, so he decided to walk off with the sunflower seeds, effectively stealing them. Just as he stepped out the door the police showed up to arrest him.
So much was clear from his dream. Trains have no choice but to go along the same tracks over and over again. They have no freedom, except in children’s stories. He didn’t want freedom of choice, he said. It’s easier to be bad than good. He wished we didn’t have that freedom. He was not a train - he could have stepped off the tracks and gone any other way.
He was not free, did not see himself as free, perhaps did not feel he ever could be free. It strikes me now that this African American man may have symbolically been walking the “underground railroad” to escape his enslavement to the addiction. But it seemed there was no hope for him. He was not in touch with the part of himself that still had a choice, and would choose freedom.
So what hope is there, spiritually speaking, for those of us who are living with addiction, suffering its unfreedom? May says understanding addiction and how it works may help but it is not enough. From his perspective as a liberal Christian, he says Grace is our hope - it is the most powerful force in the universe. Grace is that gift which stands on the side of freedom and love, wholeness and fulfillment.
He says we can find the concept of grace in all religions and that may be so. He says all of the world’s religions teach 1. that we are here, in the deepest and widest sense, for love and freedom, 2. that addictions or attachments of various kinds hinder us finding that love and freedom, and 3. that some sort of grace is necessary to to help us find love and freedom.
Grace can a gift found in a book or a work of art, a piece of music, a bird singing, your pet - anything that gives you the inspiration and strength to begin to free yourself from any addictions and begin to look for love, wholeness, fulfillment in the right places. It speaks to that part of you, however diminished by addiction, that can choose freedom and love.
Going back to my story about Alan - he had a moment where grace broke through. He caught a glimpse of what he truly longed for, that no substance could give him. He had a moment where he saw that he had some freedom of choice. He also had a vision of how he could use that choice to help free others. Whether or not he was able to hold onto his freedom and live out his vision, I do not know. But I think Grace was working in some way for Alan that night.
So yes, I think Grace is important in living with addiction - however we define it or whatever its source for us. Of course it takes more than a moment of grace to change a life. The other important component is persistence and practice in choosing freedom and love over the falsity of addiction, every day, one day at a time. This is true both for addicts and their loved ones, who often find themselves feeling trapped and unfree. Whether or not the addict stops using, there are ways to find freedom for yourself. There are ways to free yourself from the thought and behavior patterns that may once have served you but that now hinder your life.
It is not easy to turn a moment of grace into sustained freedom. We will experience grief at the loss of the familiar chains that once bound us. We slip up and return to our old behaviors, or thoughts. Freeing ourselves from addiction requires spiritual growth - spiritual practice - turning away from unfreedom towards God, love, wholeness, fulfillment on a regular and disciplined basis. May says, “every liberation requires continued attention, every healing demands continued care, every deliverance demands follow-up and every conversion requires faithful deepening.”
Ongoing and diligent spiritual work will bring about a fundamental transformation in us. This transformation brings with it the spiritual gifts of discernment and honesty, a sense of dignity and responsibility, an appreciation of simplicity, and love for that true longing for connection within each of us. I hear several of our Unitarian Universalist principles in this.
May says we all the tenacity or stubbornness to do the spiritual work required for this transformation. Furthermore, he believes that communities of faith can be a great aid in living with, and recovering from addiction. He writes,
"At intersections of paths through space that only God can chart, we are drawn together in systems of shared histories, we form covenants, and we become traditions, churches, communities of faith. Here our energies coalesce, and grace pours through the spaciousness of our communal solitude, through our intimacy and interdependence, and, with exponential brilliance, through the sacramental gatherings of true community."
May we help one another to hold to the truest and the best in ourselves and in one another. May we help one another not only to live with addiction, but to live through and past it into greater freedom. May we help one another to keep our eyes on the prize, and our feet on the path, to freedom from addiction.