Sunday, June 12, 2016

Addictions, Truth-telling, and Spirituality

4 Pentecost, June 12, 2016 1 Kings 21: 1-21a
Christ Church, Needham Galatians 2: 15-21
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Luke 7: 36-8:3

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

According to an article in the LA Times, “There’s a lot more going on at colleges these days than just studying. On any given day, 1.2 million students are drinking alcohol and more than 703,000 are using marijuana.” David Dean, a behavioral research scientist, who specializes in adolescent and young adult health, reports that “There's still a great deal of neurophysiological development that's going on in the early 20s. What we know is that using substances like alcohol, marijuana and illicit drugs can affect both short-term and long-term health and behavior.” (end quote)

Boston and its suburbs are known for many things, not least being a hub for education and health care. It’s also a hotspot for the opiate epidemic. In our diocese, I’ve repeatedly heard this question, “What can we do about this crisis in our state? Too many of our young people are dying.”

The Massachusetts Council of Churches has been offering a workshop called “Spirituality and Addiction” which your rector, Nick, and I attended a few weeks ago. Nick felt a certain responsibility to educate himself in order to help you. As a priest who serves in this diocese in many capacities, I wanted to be there as well. You see “spirituality and addiction” is one of the spokes in my wheelhouse. It is one of the colors of my mosaic ministries. It is one of the scars from my own crucifixion. And praise God, it is one of the resurrection stories that I’ve lived to tell.

My husband, Paul, is in long-term recovery (26 years to be exact) for the disease of alcoholism. With permission, I tell parts of his story. His Dad was an orthopedic surgeon and his Mom was a nurse. Like most parents, they had high hopes for their 1st born child. Unfortunately, Paul had a learning disability and ADHD that interfered with his school work at an early age. Back in the day, teaching methods weren’t as developed as they are now. Let’s just say that everyone who tried to help actually caused greater damage.

I met Paul my junior year of college when I was on exchange from an all women’s college. I was attracted to him for many reasons, one of which was his compelling childhood story. Here he was, at a highly-regarded New England liberal arts school, part of the football team, a member of a fraternity, and he had a wonderful family who lived close by. Drinking was part of the fun at college. Smoking weed was too. There were many pills that were popped; and yet we were all clueless about the dangers and the underbelly of all these drugs.

Paul and I got married right after we graduated from our respective colleges. Frankly, we married for the wrong reasons. His parents loved my academic credentials, even if I couldn’t bake cookies. I was afraid to “set off” on my own and Paul presented a great package of adventure and family support. He thought he was marrying Cinderella and the fairy tale would last forever. So did I.

At this workshop on “spirituality and addiction” Nick and I learned that there are signs, symptoms, family roles, and certain behaviors that are universal.  “Don’t talk, don’t feel, and don’t trust. What happens in the family stays in the family.” Denial, labels, and fear can get in the way of asking for help. Who wants to self-identify as an alcoholic or a drug addict? What parent wants to admit that their child may becoming one? What spouse or parent endures bad behaviors for too long, because they want to keep the family together, or believe it’s just a phase, or a temporary release from stress, or something that I did wrong, or that everyone else is doing? Addiction is a cunning, baffling, and pernicious disease that still carries a lot of baggage and shame, and so we avoid facing the truth.

Addictions are slick. We’re not sure if it’s an addiction or just typical adolescent behavior. We’re confused by the excuses we hear, and the stories they tell. We can easily deny the truth, because quite frankly, we all understand. We all have pain in one form or another. We all self-medicate. We just choose what we use, how much we use, and how often we use it.  However, for some people, there comes a tipping point, a trigger sets off in the brain, and keeps saying “Give me more.” Rather than using labels, one counselor suggests, “If it’s causing problems in your life, then it’s a problem.”

Our choices are important; they can lead the way to full and abundant life or they can pave the road to destruction. They can build up relationships or break them down. Although we are clear that chemical dependency is a brain disease, there are still some moral responsibilities that we all share. We can tell the truth. We can choose to face our problems, take responsibility for them, and seek solutions together. We can let go and let God.

I knew that Paul had a problem with his drinking pretty soon into our marriage. But we kept moving, we kept partying as young adults, and working our ways up into the world. When we finally settled in Connecticut almost 10 years into our marriage, we joined a church and found some great friends; at that time we had two children under the age of three. Unfortunately, the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction is progressive. The elevator is going down, and the bottom floor is really ugly; it can even be fatal. Fortunately, there are also ways to get off and to get help.

A frequent refrain today is that no one cared about the opiate epidemic until white people started dying. The truth is, people with privileges and resources can hide their fear, their shame, and their illnesses for longer periods of time. We can hide behind our white picket fences, which keep us protected from the truth and isolated from others. This is called the golden ghetto.

King Ahab lived in a golden ghetto. As king of the people of Israel he was powerful, petulant, and privileged. He worked hard, played hard, and took what he wanted. After all he was entitled to it as the king. And when he couldn’t get what he wanted, he was resentful and pouted. Queen Jezebel enabled him. She affirmed his entitlement, used deception, and manipulated others which eventually led to the murder of Naboth. Telling lies, keeping secrets, manipulation, and public posturing are part of the way our human families operate, but they are especially prevalent in the disease of addictions.

Drug and alcohol experimentation begins at an early age and is getting earlier. Addiction can come harmlessly enough and can be sustained easily enough through family, friends, and medical professionals who are uneducated, in denial, and unwilling to speak the truth. We swim in an addictive culture.

Paul began his journey at age 12 when he helped himself to some pills in his parents’ medicine cabinet. And then as a sophomore in high school, while on vacation in Germany, his parents offered him a beer. To this day, he remembers how he felt. His world suddenly became manageable and free from anxiety. Then in college, it was “game on.” Later in his life, alcohol became his drug of choice to help ease the stress of business, his fear of failure, the difficulties of marriage and parenthood, and the pain of memories.

There are new drugs available to treat overdoses and to help people with their physical cravings. Antidotes also include truth-telling. Elijah confronted king Ahab in Naboth’s vineyard, when he asked him, “Have you killed and also taken possession?” Jesus confronted the Pharisees by stating the truth about how he had been treated. “I entered your house, and you gave me no water. You gave me no kiss. You did not anoint my head with oil.”

Now the truth is, we all make mistakes. We are all sinners, guilty for what we have done and for what we have left undone; and so confession and repentance are part of our salvation journey. It's also called the 4th and 5th steps. When we change our behavior, it’s called making amends. This is what the woman was doing at the feet of Jesus. And so there is an antidote readily available to all of us through truth-telling, prayer, making amends, and acts of service.

My husband Paul likes to tell people that the addict or alcoholic is like a grenade, and there are 34 million of them in our country. But Paul reminds people that family members receive the shrapnel, and that there are 120 million of us,  who are equally wounded by this disease. To be clear, addiction is a disease that is physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. And the disease of addiction is as toxic to the soul as it is to the liver and the brain.” We all need help getting out of the ghetto.

No ditch is too low for God. Fortunately, God’s reach and power is far greater than ours. Each of us is made in the good image of our Creator, and Jesus has forgiven our sins. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, we are saved by grace, and this amazing grace is freely given and undeserved. We have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer we who live, but it is Christ who lives within us. Happy are they whose transgressions have been forgiven.

It’s been 42 years of marriage for Paul and me, living one day at a time and one step at a time. If you, a family member, or a friend are struggling with this deadly disease, please ask for help. It’s always a good first step.