Our friend Heather Kopp did an amazing job responding to your questions for "Ask a Recovering Alcoholic..."
Heather is an author, editor, and blogger at HeatherKopp.com. She’s published more than two-dozen non-fiction books. Her recovery memoir, Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk (Hachette/Jericho) releases TODAY, May 7.
As a long-time Christian, Heather never expected to become an out-of-control alcoholic who kept private stashes of booze all over the place—tucked behind books in her study, zipped into a special compartment in her oversized purse, at the back of her closet stuffed inside her boots.
In Sober Mercies, Heather shares her journey into darkness…and back to the light again. Her story reveals the unique challenges and spiritual conundrums Christians face when they become ensnared in an addiction, and the redemption that’s possible when we finally reach the end of ourselves.
I had the pleasure of reading an advance review copy of Heather's book, and absolutely loved it. I was surprised by how little I knew about alcoholism, particularly how hard it can be for recovering alcoholics to be surrounded by social drinkers who aren't always sensitive to the challenges their friends in recovery face. I found Heather's chapters about her twelve-step group inspiring and challenging, a little picture of what the church is meant to be. Heather's story--honestly and beautifully told--invites us all to the table, baggage in tow, to confront our shared brokenness, our shared hopes, and our shared need for community, forgiveness, and grace.
I hope you learn as much from Heather's responses as I did!
From Paula: What is that you wish pastors knew about alcoholism? What can the church community do to walk along side those struggling with addiction?
I wish more pastors didn’t still view addiction in primarily moral terms. Yes, addictive behaviors often begin with a moral failing like selfishness or overindulgence. But full-blown addiction involves physiological and psychological components that go beyond sin or even choice. Trying harder, reading the Bible more, or praying more are rarely the solution.
I don’t think the answer is for churches to get more involved in diagnoses or administering recovery. But I do think they could do more to bring awareness to the issue, help people feel safe enough to admit to addictions, and help them connect with professional help or recovery groups. Thankfully, many already do this.
I know from personal experience that pastors can communicate shame or reinforcement of stigma without ever uttering the word “addict” from the pulpit. This is especially true when a church puts a strong emphasis on people being delivered from any bondage or weakness through repentance alone. When a pastor declares that “Jesus is the answer” to all our problems, he is implying that reaching for outside help is a show of weakness or lack of faith. We’re over that when it comes to appendicitis—alcoholism, not so much.
I spent more than twelve years trying to overcome alcoholism through prayer, repentance, doubling down on devotions, and begging God for miraculous deliverance. It didn’t get me sober. What it did, though, was make me doubt my own faith, doubt the Bible, doubt God’s love for me. An active alcoholic—that was me—who wants to get sober but can’t, and who is coming to believe that every good thing she once thought about God is a lie, is in a scary place.
I think we do people a huge disservice when our message is: If you’re truly a Christian, you should be able to pray and repent your way out of this! Or worse: If you can’t pray and repent your way out of your addiction, you’re probably not a Christian.
One concrete way many churches support recovery is to make their buildings available for meetings—even for recovery groups that aren’t exclusively Christian. Lots of churches and hospitals already do this and I’m grateful every single week.
Plus, simply listing in the bulletin that such a meeting takes place on the premises speaks volumes to the congregation about a church’s stance toward alcoholics and addicts and their families. What’s a few cigarette butts in the parking lot when you’re taking a stand as the community of Jesus on one of the great plagues of our time?
From Brenda: Could you talk a little about the work you do to maintain sobriety? In the media we hear about people going to rehab, but we don't hear as much about the work they continue to do 1, 5, 10 years down the road. I'm curious to know about the mix of practical and spiritual resources you use now.
Thanks to celebrities, we hear a lot in the media about in rehab—and about relapse. I guess we don’t hear much about the success stories because, well, there’s no headline there!
The reality is that few if any addicts will stay sober without a follow up program of recovery. I personally am part of a 12-step community, so I work these steps with a sponsor and I apply the principles on a regular basis. I sponsor other women who are newer to recovery than me. To stay spiritual fit, I observe a regular morning time of prayer, meditation, and reflection. I’ve found that sitting still is important, too—if for no other reason than to be intentional about feeling my feelings.
But this is just what I do. I’m a fan of any recovery program that works long term. A clean and sober person who is living fully is a miracle, however he or she got there. I wrote about two of the most well known approaches to getting and saying sober here.
Probably the most important thing for my continued sobriety is attending meetings. (I usually attend three or four hour long meetings a week—scant compared to the time I used to spend drinking!) I know that this behavior mystifies some folks, so I’ll share a few reasons most recovering alcoholics and addicts continue to attend support groups long after we’re “recovered”:
1. Recovery is the solution to alcoholism, but there is no cure. For example, once you become an active alcoholic, you’ll never become a “normal” drinker. People who can eventually resume drinking in a controlled way are by definition not alcoholic—or they’ve been miraculously healed. I’m told it happens, but I’ve never seen it.
The rest of us have to stay on our guard for that sneaky little voice that tells us, “Oh c’mon! Jeez. Look how you’ve changed! You could handle a drink or two.” This lie has killed untold thousands, if not millions. And the fact is, the longer we’re sober, the more likely we are to forget the truth. Meetings—and hearing the stories of newcomers—help us remember.
2. Meetings are part of our spiritual practice. They also help us stay healthy in our relationships with others and in our thinking. For me, they don’t replace church. But in the same way that I wouldn’t decide to quit church because I’ve been a Christian a long time, I wouldn’t quit my program of recovery, either. Besides, my closest friends are in my recovery community and can’t imagine how empty my life would be without it.
3. If everyone who got sober quit coming to meetings, there’d be no one there to help the newcomer. Part of how we stay sober and less self-centered is by giving away to others what we’ve so freely received. It’s a joy, not a burden, and most of us get so much more back than we ever give.
From Eric: In terms of helping an alcoholic to recover, how important do you think it is to call alcoholism a disease versus calling it a sin?
I’ve written about this important topic a couple times. I’d say that the number one reason I stayed stuck in my secret alcoholism for twelve nightmarish years is that I was convinced alcoholism indicated moral failure or a lack of will-power. Which didn’t make sense to me, since I was one of the most ambitious, “strong” people I knew.
I’d been taught in church that calling any addiction a disease is just a means to excuse the behavior. But now I think the opposite is more often true. An alcoholic who understands that she has a physiological condition that she can’t fix or control or manage on her own is way more likely to consider recovery.
When I first went to treatment, I too objected to the disease model. I asked a counselor, “How can you call something a disease if it could have been avoided had you not participated in a certain behavior?”
He calmly explained that alcoholism, like lung cancer caused by cigarettes or diabetes brought on by obesity, is a legitimate disease, even if it arises from an avoidable indulgence.
“And like other diseases,” he added, “alcoholism is progressive. It gets worse over time, never better. Left untreated, it often results in death.”
I had to admit his answer made sense. Things clicked into place for me even more when I learned that an alcoholic doesn’t process the enzymes in alcohol the way a normal drinker does. We have an abnormal, allergic-like reaction. A normal person thirsty for alcohol has a drink or two and is satiated. But the alcoholic has a drink or two and is exponentially more thirsty for alcohol than before. It would be like a person who gets hungrier the more he eats. This powerful reaction is commonly referred as “the phenomenon of craving.”
Today, I think alcoholism is not a matter of sin or sickness, but both. Honestly, though, I don’t care what you call it so long as people understand that it is a complex condition that isn’t about will power or being a good person. Arguing over labels may seem pointless, but unfortunately how we label a problem often influences how and when we’ll reach for help—or not. I wrote more about this here.
From Bethany: What can social drinkers do to help friends who struggle with alcoholism?
So glad you asked that. Someone new to recovery is likely to still feel fragile around alcohol and vulnerable to temptation. At that stage, I did. But they probably also don’t want their recovery to be an elephant in the room. The safest thing to do is ask, “Is it okay with you if I have a glass of wine?”
Contrary to popular belief, most alcoholics don’t stay sober by continually resisting the temptation to drink. Very few of us would make it that way long term. Instead, at some point God relieves us of the obsession to drink. We become “neutral” concerning alcohol. It’s like it no longer exists for us. When Dave and I go to a restaurant, he often has a glass of wine or a martini and I don’t mind at all. I wrote about this issue here.
From Teresa: In the church, there is often so much pressure to appear godly, and hide all our secrets, addictions, and sins because we are ashamed of them. What ways do you think the Christian community can encourage openness and honesty so people feel comfortable sharing these things with each other? And what was the catalyst for you personally that got you to open up and talk about your personal struggles with alcoholism?
Shame played a huge role in my alcoholism. I bought the lie that told me that if I let my secret be exposed, my pride would be so crushed and the humiliation so great that I’d want to die. Really. But the opposite was true. The relief I felt once I exposed the truth was a stunning and wonderful surprise that I want to tell the world about.
The catalyst for me was a combination of things: I was exhausted from all the work it took to live a lie; I sensed that my ability to stay in control of my secret was lessening and I was getting sloppy; my life had become unmanageable. Thankfully, I had a moment of complete surrender that led to a huge spiritual breakthrough. I didn’t see it coming, but I broke through to a willingness to reach for help, which in turn required me to come clean.
It’s natural to want to hide the parts of ourselves that feel broken or ugly or sinful. We’d all rather show the world our shiny parts—and our egos make sure of this. Which is why one of the most important things we can do to help each other is to be honest ourselves. If I’m vulnerable with you, you sense that I am a safe person to share with in turn.
I honestly never dreamed I’d be so vocal about my recovery. But the longer I was in recovery the more I realized how helpful it was--not just to others, but to me--to be public about it. To the same extent that I found it hellish to live in secrecy and lies during my active addiction, I now find it liberating to live my recovery in plain sight.
Plus, just imagine how hard it would be for me now to try to convince anyone that I’m not really an alcoholic?! That feels like wonderful insurance to me, even as I live out my sobriety openly, one step and one day at a time.
I think one reason we struggle to get honest in church settings is that we all feel like we have to somehow protect God’s reputation. To admit to an addiction can feel like a betrayal of Christ’s work on the cross. (Why don’t I have victory in Jesus?) I wonder if we don’t value being “right” more than being “real.” We choose to bond over shared beliefs rather than over shared brokenness.
I know many small groups in churches work hard to create communities of intimacy, connection, and safety. What a gift that kind of true fellowship can be! My experience with that, though, was that I mostly focused on proving to others that I was a good Christian. I needed to become vulnerable, but unfortunately, I was determined to perform.
In our experience with addiction (not alcohol addiction) we've found a group of people who believe addiction can be overcome completely and victoriously without the need for a lifetime of recovery, and another group who see it is a lifetime process. Is there a way to reconcile those beliefs and live somewhere in the middle--as a person who no longer is enslaved to the addiction but is still a recovering addict?
Fabulous question! As a Christian, I think it’s possible for people to be delivered from an addiction “at the foot of the cross.” But that kind of deliverance doesn’t happen for most of us. Christians commonly believe it’s not healthy to continue to think of yourself as alcoholic or an addict for the rest of your life. To them, it seems like a victim mentality or like you’re not declaring your freedom and owning your healing.
This perception is furthered by confusion around why people in 12 Step groups continue to introduce ourselves as alcoholics in meetings long after we get sober. I so get it. I understand some people aren’t comfortable with such a declaration. But here are a few reasons why I (and many others) do this:
- For me, saying I’m an alcoholic over and over again has helped remove the stigma attached to my addiction.
- Introducing myself as an alcoholic in meetings reminds me that I am still an alcoholic—a truth my inner addict desperately wants to forget.
- Recovery begins with, and hinges on, our willingness to admit the problem. Imagine how much easier it is for a newbie to finally say those hard words--“I’m Wendy and I’m an alcoholic”--when everyone else in the room is admitting the same thing.
- Introducing ourselves in meetings this way doesn’t mean that we only see ourselves as addicts or alcoholics, or that it has become our main identity. That’s just silly. To the contrary, this practice is more like a declaration of freedom. We are no longer in denial, no longer ashamed, no longer afraid to say that we are mentally and physically different when it comes to alcohol.
From Adam: As you were (are) getting sober, do you find your addiction moving elsewhere? Is it an addiction to alcohol specifically for you, or is it an addictive personality that now shows up in other ways?
I think some of us are more prone than others to participate in “numbing behaviors” of some kind. Addiction is the extreme on the spectrum. But I think biology has more to do with serious addiction than personality.
Cross-addictions are common. A lot of alcoholics realize they have secondary love or sex or food addictions that have been hiding. Others develop new compulsions as a way to fill the empty space left behind when they got sober. This is one reason an ongoing recovery program is so helpful—we can continue to grow and change as more is revealed. We learn to embrace our feelings—even emptiness—and allow ourselves to experience them as a capacity for grace and Spirit instead of stuffing them with a substitute. And this is at the heart of what life in recovery is all about.
You can check out every installment of our interview series—which includes “Ask an atheist,” “Ask a nun,” “Ask a pacifist,” “Ask a Calvinist,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a gay Christian,” “Ask a Pentecostal” “Ask an environmentalist,” “Ask a funeral director,” "Ask a Liberation Theologian," "Ask Shane Claiborne," "Ask Jennifer Knapp," and many mor— here.