Before we get started, I want to acknowledge that both the words “alcoholism” and “Christian” are able to conjure strong feelings of what it means to be either. What do I mean? Well, if the words stubborn, difficult, and unloving come to mind — are they in relation to an alcoholic or a Christian or both?
If we have a relationship with either an alcoholic or Christian (of a certain variety) we may describe these relationships as draining, hypocritical, and something we’d rather do without. It is important to me that you know that I know that. I know, OK? For Heaven’s sake, I’m both — I know.
Now that that’s settled, let’s set aside everything we think we know for an open mind and a new experience so we can see the truth about these strange human creatures we crawl along this earth with, k?
I don’t believe in telling long-drawn-out “war” stories — stories that describe what my drinking was like. But it is important to qualify me as sick with the disease of addiction so you don’t think that I was just an immature 20-year old that just needed direction and some common sense in her life.
My drinking started in my late teens and was fairly unremarkable. I was a moderate drinker. At parties, I could drink two drinks and be on my way. There was no need to get blackout drunk, nor any desire to. But as I entered my twenties and general anxieties about the world around me began to surface, I looked forward to weekend parties and finding relief in shots of whiskey. Then I realized I could just buy the whiskey and drink it before the party. After the party. Why go to the party at all? Soon, I stopped being invited to parties, anyway.
As the drinking escalated, so did the social problems. My bad reputation quickly grew and any friends I’d had meaningful relationships with began to fall away from me. Soon, I found a new group of friends who didn’t care how much vodka I put away because they were all smoking meth anyway. It was a party where none of us had fun but we liked to pretend we did and encouraged each other to play along, too.
Then I got my first DUI. No big deal, everyone I hung around with at this time also had a DUI. Then came my second DUI. No big deal, I was just going to ignore it and hoped it went away. Years of blackout drinking and toxic relationships made it easy to forget. I totaled five cars from the age of 23–27. All the consequences I experienced from drinking soon became the reasons I kept drinking.
Finally, I moved to San Diego to get away from everything. But it’s weird had alcoholism doesn’t stay in place. It followed me like everyone told me it would. And there I was, in a beautiful city in a bad relationship with a heroin addict, drinking at work as a property manager, driving from a downtown property to a coastal property, stashing mini-boxes of wine under my seat and stressing everyone out.
At one point, I did want to control my drinking but that was when I found I couldn’t stop. Once I started, I lost control of how much I drank and soon blacked out anytime I picked up. Whatever I had imagined the night to be like would turn into nights and weeks of drinking, lying, and missed responsibility.
If I managed to get a day or two sober, I became obsessed with the thought of a drink or at least to be able to drink like a normal person. My emotional and mental states were erratic and distracted. Every day I fluctuated between irritability and anxiety. Underneath it all was a devastating depression I couldn’t articulate to anyone or even myself.
Whatever consequences I had because of drinking, the insanity of the obsession to replace my raw-skin-sobriety discomfort would lead me to drink again — I did the most insane thing I would ever do and I was stone cold sober. Because I realized, even if I drank like a normal person or even if I was sober, I was miserable. Not even the hard work in counseling and psychiatry appointments or specific perfectionism that earned the promotions, the raises, the boyfriends, the new car could add any meaning to the empty sober life I had willed for myself.
I was raised Catholic and as a child I really liked the idea of God. It was a comforting thought however, I couldn’t grasp a real concept of what that meant for my life. My household was chaotic, there were traumas, and in 2008 my family lost the home I grew up in and my fairly normal middle-class parents were homeless. (My sister was living with her boyfriend and I was living in an apartment as part of a property management job.) Everywhere I looked, people worshipped money and status. The world seemed superficial and meaningless and I had no desire to be part of it. Throw in my bout with depression and anxiety, and seething resentments for how my life had turned out (it wasn’t even that bad honestly, but my life was ruled by emotions and you couldn’t tell me any differently.) Where was God in all that?
In 2013 I began to date a guy I met online. Later, I would find out he was a heroin addict in recovery. He told me about a church he thought I’d like. I told him thanks but no thanks. But then I was curious and began to stream the years of archives through the church website. Something in the way the pastor, Miles McPherson, described a personal relationship with Jesus made me think it was something I could have, too. The way Pastor Miles described this loving and present God gave me a strange rush of familiarity — I began to see all the times God really had shown up in my life but I had been too sick with resentment to see.
One morning, incredibly hungover, I finally gave in. On the dirty wood floors of my tiny studio apartment, my knees hit the floor and I surrendered. God, help me because I can’t help me. Jesus, save me because I can’t save me. Except I also said the dumb sinners prayer which I found dumb for so long but I hated the word sin and I didn’t want to admit I was imperfect in ways that challenged me to change.
Something happened that day. A little bit of hope crept in. My heart began a shy expansion and I took in the world around me — this life was about more than just me, wasn’t it?
The 3rd DUI
Shortly after my studio apartment soul-saving, I packed everything up and moved to San Diego to be closer to this church. I had to be involved and I wanted to be closer to the boyfriend. The relationship with the boyfriend became increasingly codependent, toxic, and abusive over the course of two short years. At one point, we went to church after drinking the entire night before and I showed up, sat down, threw up, and passed out. When I came to, all the lights were back on and my boyfriend grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me out reminding me the entire time what an embarrassment I was. Then handed me the bottle we’d been drinking before church and shoved me in the drivers seat as I cussed him out and I drove us home.
This was around when I tried to really stop drinking forever. This was around when I realized I could not stop. Being in this type of fear and desperation is something I couldn’t wish on anyone. There are feelings of being unworthy, of being petrified, of being ashamed. Any time I asked someone for help, I got lectured and told to just control my drinking better. I felt talked down to, like my troubles were pebbles and everyone else had boulders, condescension is a tone I still bristle at to this day and work very hard to never imitate.
My mental health deteriorated as I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. I never told anyone how hard it actually was, I didn’t want to appear weak. So I’d admit I was bipolar but not alcoholic. But people close to me knew. The lies I constructed were pitched in sand and with every wave of truth that knocked them down, I’d frantically construct more lies to cover up the old ones. It was exhausting and futile and nobody but me cared what it all “looked” like.
Then I got my third DUI. I was threatened with the automatic six-month jail sentence that is standard in the county for third DUI’s. I fought it. I wasn’t “technically” driving, I was parked. My filthy beat up Beetle was parked perpendicular in a no parking zone in ritzy La Jolla — but damn it, I wasn’t driving so let me free! Entitled, delusional, selfish… go on. I know, you know, we know.
For whatever reason, I won with a guilty plea, avoided jail, and was granted house arrest instead. Great! I thought. Then I unscrewed the alcohol monitoring bracelet I was forced to wear while I fought my case and visited my (then active in heroin addiction) boyfriend. He brought my favorite Blue Moon beers and a jug of Carlo Rossi wine to celebrate. I finished it all and wanted more. Something happened. It’s all a blur now but in snapshots I care barely recognize of who I was, I spit in his face, I got shoved against a wall — then cop cars. Then jail. Then deep delusional depression. Woe is me, the world is after me, can’t everyone see I’m just trying to get along?
This time when I went to court to fight the case, there was no fight. I was remanded into custody for an unknown period of time as I now fought a domestic violence case that the boyfriend had filed against me. Nobody was pleased. Especially not the judge or prosecutor who had so graciously given me house arrest just five days prior. Not my family. Not my employer. Not my boyfriend. Not his parents. Not my roommates. Not my landlord.
Jail was everything I needed. In jail, I was stripped of everything familiar. There was no make up or hair dye to hide behind. All my shallow nakedness was on display and at the mercy of women. We are stripped naked emotionally and literally and reminded that we are no longer in control. That first afternoon in my jail cell, after my bunkie (cell mate) helped me make my bed, my body flat on the laughable bed mat I gave up. Everything in my body gave up. I would’ve stopped breathing if I had the power to but I realized I had no power to do anything. So I was just going to ride this wave. And I did. My ears and my heart and my eyes looked outward and I saw beautiful women in hard situations. They had been cast out by society as addicts and alcoholics, thieves and con artists. But I played Scrabble with them and laughed over made-up words and blushed as the deputy let us play a movie in the community room — 50 Shades of Grey.
We cried when a woman lost custody of her child. We cried when a young woman found out her drug addict father overdosed and died. We cried when a woman’s daughter called her to tell her she was going into treatment.
That’s when I think it began to sink in — addiction is not a choice, it is not a moral failing. These women wanted to do better, I wanted to do better so desperately, but I could not do it with all the help at my disposal.
My domestic violence case got dropped from a felony to a misdemeanor. I was sentenced to finish my DUI jail term then released to residential treatment, self-help meetings, and educational programs for my DUI and domestic violence charges. There were also thousands of dollars of fines.
When my 30th birthday arrived in jail, my name was called out followed by the sweet words: Roll up!
Do you know what that means? That means roll up your mat, stand on your feet, you’re being released. I was released to a treatment center of 100 women where the stories of addiction and desperation voiced by women filled the rooms. These same women I would’ve looked down on before now became the women I looked up to for the strength they endured, for the work they put in, the for the naked humility they showed me because they knew it would save their life.
My name is Vanessa, I’m a recovered alcoholic.
After treatment, I went to a sober living house. Nobody forced me to, it wasn’t required, but now I knew. This alcoholism was a real thing and I needed to be around people who understood me. Part of the requirements to live in this house was to attend meetings but not just Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. These meetings were hardcore bootcamp style meetings where only people who have had an “experience” with the “work” could share their message of strength, experience, and hope.
These meetings were unlike anything I had ever experienced. We started with five minutes of meditation. People introduced themselves as “recovered.” They spoke briefly of what their lives were like in various addictions but focused on maintaining recovery. They stressed the part of the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous which states:
We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities. “How can I best serve Thee — Thy will (not mine) be done.” pg 55, Alcoholics Anonymous
All the ickiness I felt sober was because of my lack of connection, brought on by selfishness and fears, it was a disconnect with a God that I had previously surrendered to. Every day I had to bring this surrender into my life so I could be useful for others. This is how I would find meaning in my sobriety. This recovery from a hopeless state of body and mind was something I began to chase and always caught. Everyday I had to do this to stay sober and carry this into all areas of my life — not just where alcohol was involved. Work, family, friendships, boyfriends, etc. This wasn’t about me anymore, this was about me having a purpose greater than waking up with vomit in my hair for the third afternoon in a row. This was my chance to feel whole.
And it started by doing work, up to four hours a week of it, to find out that I needed God’s help. Alcoholics are not in denial, we are in delusion. For so many years, I thought my life was the only normal one. Now, I can see the unmanageability of my life — drunk or sober — and my need to rely upon God in all areas in my life and to extend grace to people that hurt me either on purpose or because they’re running on their own self-will.
This world is run on fear. Everyone has experienced making a poor decisions on limited facts and giant fears. Many times, the boogey man isn’t underneath the bear. Many times, we are the boogey man making up our own chaos and destruction. When I go through the work and take other women through the work that changed my life, I get to see how my fears run my life. All the selfish thinking behind those fears. And how that selfish thinking motivates these crazy beliefs about myself and the world around me. Those crazy beliefs are just fuel for the fire that burns through the core motivations of every hurtful thought and action I’ve had and acted out on.
There were amends to be made and I made them. I was set free and so were they. Have you ever had to call a boyfriend from 12 years ago and admit you made up a pregnancy and miscarriage and how on earth can you ever do anything to set that right? Have you ever had to sit on the phone and hear him cry and hear about how your lie ruined his relationship with women for five years and he hasn’t been able to trust a woman since? Have you ever been brought down to your knees in waves of humility as you heard him say with all sincerity, “I forgive you. I know you were sick, I can feel you are changed. I forgive you.” And believed him? Have you ever had this experience week after week, month after month, as you set out to clear the decades worth of wreckage of your past with a determination you never knew could exist? Have you ever felt so free when you were finally done with amending 56 burnt bridges? I did, I know what heaven on earth feels like and I cannot deny the existence of God on this earth and the beauty of Him in every soul I cross paths with.
I continue to be watchful of my motives now and practice prayer and meditation every morning. This isn’t just to indulge my need for quiet time in the morning before talking to people in the morning can still be hard. Rather, this is a practice to set the intention that I focus on the path directed to act on what God would have me do and how he would have me show up. That intention makes all the difference when I’m dealing with an angry tenant pounding on my door because she locked herself out. It also makes all the difference when a friend calls me because she relapsed after a long time in sobriety. When I can zoom out of my presence to see the worthiest and most important role I play as a representative of God (I’m no longer playing Him, I wasn’t very good at it) I become purpose-driven and motivated by love instead of fear.
My relationship with people has changed. I can look others in the eye, I can tell the truth when its difficult, I can admit my faults. This isn’t because I’m a big bad spiritual guru — quite the opposite. We already established that on my own power I could not manifest these new thoughts and behaviors (oh yeah, and sobriety — a nice little side effect of living a spiritual life.) It is really only possible because I’m willing to be open to someone else all knowing and powerful to direct my life. The results have been better than anything I could’ve ever dreamed of.
I remember hating the idea of the twelve steps, of the Big stupid Book, of “God” running my life. I remember meeting my sponsor at a church in the evening. Rushing to drive there without a license because if I was late, she would reschedule. How she sat me down and line by line took me through the book. She promised me I could be recovered if I was willing to go to any length. As we read the last line of the Doctor’s Opinion, while her dog snuggled against my leg, I stared at the children’s Sunday school drawings pinned up on the walls — colored with crayons and hope. I remember the shame of how I had destroyed my life, how I really wanted a drink after this. That I couldn’t imagine that any book was going to remove the desire to drink, that I would never be recovered.
Over three years later, I take women through the work now. When reading the last line of the Doctor’s Opinion, it never fails to hit me — though I came to scoff, I’m glad I remained to pray.