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Discover Your Story
Is this book for you? Psychiatrist Gerald May says, "We are all addicts in every sense of the word." But you may reply, "Not me, Don." Remember, denial is the first symptom of addiction. If we are all addicts-not only those who are alcoholics, druggies, and bingers-what do we mean by "addiction"?
We have all experienced a desire for substances (like coffee, sugar, alcohol, street drugs, prescription medications, food) or processes (like exercise, gambling, sex, work) or relationships (like parents, children, spouses, friends), and we feel we can't live without them. We use them to alter our moods, lift our depression and free us to be more ourselves. We medicate the emptiness, loneliness and pain in our lives through them. We use them to find our self-worth, justify our lives and validate what we do and even who we are. They become functional idols-the real objects of our worship. We end up powerless over them.
Unlike the ancients, we don't run off to the temples of Aphrodite or Apollo for sexual arousal, we simply hit the magazine stands, watch late-night cable TV or surf the Internet. We thumb through women's magazines for tips on how to accomplish the next seduction or keep our partner happy and excited in bed. Ah, you say, good Christians don't do this. Are you sure? Jimmy Bakker, former TV evangelist, reports that 80 percent of all the men he talks to in Pentecostal churches struggle with pornography. If sex isn't your issue, what about overeating? Why is it that so many churchgoers are clearly overweight? Why is it that as they use food, food "uses" them, and they are either on a constant cycle of bingeing and dieting or have just given up? And what about our obsessions with people? Churches are filled with gossip, dysfunctional relationships, power struggles, cliques, pecking orders-and this brokenness is fed by our addictions to each other. May writes, "To be human is to be addicted and to be addicted is to be in need of grace."
Once we get out of denial, we realize that our addictions have power over us. We are in bondage, and sheer moral will cannot set us free. But is this biblical? You bet. Paul wrote:
I don't understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can't. I do what I don't want to-what I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience proves that I agree with these laws I am breaking. But I can't help myself.... No matter which way I turn I can't make myself do right. I want to but I can't (Rom. 7:15-18, TLB).
Sound familiar? It does if you have ever said, "I'll never lie again." "This is my last drink." "I'll never have another cigarette." "I am going to get my weight down and keep it down." "I'm through with gossip." "I'll quit tomorrow."
If you are with me thus far, then we are ready to take the first step with Jesus. That step is to remember our story-where we come from, what our life experiences are and how we have arrived at this place in our lives.
Why Our Story?
David Ackles sings that everybody has a story to tell. True. And, according to my friend Dr. Robbie Greaves, people go to professional counselors because they want at least one person to know their story. We are made for relationships; we long to be known.
Our lives are an unfolding story. As the least instinctive of God's creatures, we are dependent, growing and learning throughout our childhood, teen-aged and adult years. Apart from crying and sucking for food to end our hunger pangs, we learn almost everything. Our years to adulthood are filled with relationships and experiences that mold our sense of self. In our vulnerability, we also are subject to hurt, pain, loss and abuse.
Since we live in a fallen world, parents or others who raise us are subject to its effects. All our families are dysfunctional to some extent. Perfectionism, performance for acceptance, love withheld, random punishments, name-calling, outbursts of uncontrolled anger, shaming and broken promises leave us broken inside. Words can be devastating. "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names can never hurt me" is a lie. Names do hurt: "wimp," "shorty," "geek," "bimbo," "nerd," "dummy" (and even "carrots" if the movie Anne of Green Gables is to be believed). Fear of failure or fear itself can leave us immobilized. Rejection can scar us for a lifetime. Abuse by older children or adults warps our sense of self. If we are born into alcoholic families, we may learn to cope with stress by drinking, just as our parents did. All of this can set us up for addictions. So remember your story. Reflect on your story. Learn to tell your story. Let me model this by telling you mine.
Discovering My Story
I was first exposed to hard-core addiction on the streets of Hollywood in the late 1960s. As pastor to students at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, I spent my time on college campuses with sorority and fraternity types. Suddenly everything changed. Race riots in Watts (a section of Los Angeles); anti-Vietnam War protests; student strikes closing campuses; and sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll sent hordes of counterculture flower children to our community. I was forced to face this revolution. On our church campus we opened a coffeehouse called the Salt Company, and we hit the streets and beaches with the gospel. Here in Los Angeles I found addicts of all kinds. When we started our first "crash pads," they came to live with us.
One of my friends, Mark, used 14 barbiturates, or "reds," each day just to maintain his habit. When he wanted to really party, he took as many as 16 a day. He also had lumps in his arms from missing his veins during heroin injections. After he became a Christian, we took him to a cabin in the mountains so that he could experience withdrawal from his chemical dependency. In our ignorance, we threw him in harm's way. Stopping cold turkey caused a seizure. I found myself on the floor as he stopped breathing. His face turned blue. With panic and prayer, I dug my finger through his clenched jaw and pulled with all my might. His teeth cut me to the bone (the scar is still there), but he gasped in air-one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. Quickly, we got him to the Los Angeles County Hospital Psychiatric Ward where he was medically detoxed. (Years later he graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Psychology.) This was my raw introduction to addiction.
Back then, I saw addiction through a narrow lens. I thought it only had to do with alcohol or street drugs. This experience put me in touch with the law, probation officers, rehabilitation centers and hospital emergency units. It was all very scary, challenging and, in a not-so-odd way, invigorating and exciting. I never knew what the next day would hold, but I did know that some crisis would be waiting. This was a chance to grow in my faith; Jesus was the answer to all the destruction around me. It also was a door for me to feel significant, alive and even addicted to my own crisis ministry. I loved the adrenaline surges as I went into action. Those were heady days!
Years later, my wife, Kathryn, and I found ourselves living in La Jolla, a wealthy seaside community in the southernmost part of California. I had inherited a little Presbyterian church, and with time on my hands, I got to know kids in our area. A friend of mine introduced me to her brother, Mark, a new Christian. He was a brilliant, disheveled, rock 'n' roll musician, like the musicians I had known before in Hollywood. He had been addicted to heroin for years, surfed, played in bands, lived in New York and Hollywood, and now was radically converted to Christ. His healing had come during one night of prayer with his sister. He had suffered no withdrawals from heroin-a real miracle. Mark now had a local band, Jonny Kat. Through him I met his band mates and a horde of kids who followed them from gig to gig. As I became involved in their lives, I found the same chemical addictions that I had encountered on the streets of Hollywood years before. Here I was, 20 years later, in the same crises. Illegal drugs look for money, and kids in La Jolla have a lot of it.
During that time, I attended a leaders' camp for Young Life (the teenaged evangelical movement through which I had been converted years before). On Saturday afternoon, I found myself talking with a successful developer in La Jolla and a leader in his church. He casually remarked that his daughter was a sex and drug addict. Her pain had sent him and his wife to Al-Anon (recovery support for families of chemically dependent people). There he learned that he too was an addict. Unlike his daughter, he was addicted to work. In his job, as he put projects together, he would go through the planning and negotiating buildup. When he consummated the deal, that was his fix, his high. He would come down and then build up again for the next big deal. His addiction to work was no surprise, but he continued. His father also had been an addict-to the church. As a Baptist pastor, he had started congregations throughout the West, was never home and always obsessed about his mission. My friend concluded that his family had generations of addicts, only the objects of the addictions differed.
This sent my mind reeling. As I looked at La Jolla, I realized that I lived in a community of 28,000 addicts (the population at the time). Like their parents, a high percentage of kids were addicted to drugs, sex or power. I knew many fathers who got on planes and flew around the country each week, making deals, sitting on boards of corporations and returning on the weekends with the money to keep their lifestyle afloat. No wonder their wives felt abandoned and their children were lost. No wonder they used drugs, people and all kinds of other things to fill the emptiness inside.
When my thinking got this far, I was forced to ask the next question: If I live among a whole horde of addicts, am I the only one who has escaped? Am I the happy, healthy, free exception to the rule? Finally, I was forced to face my own addictions. I was forced to look back at my own story.
Revisiting the Past
I was born in 1937. I still remember my parents turning on the radio as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They knew that life would never be the same again. And it wasn't. Because of the War, my dad left when I was four and returned when I was nine. How does a four-year-old boy process this? Consciously, he doesn't. It was a serious blow. Looking back, I felt abandoned. I missed my dad during crucial growing-up years. He wasn't there to throw the football, teach me how to stand up to bullies or help me mold my sense of self. Years later I realized that because of my dad's absence, I had concluded that there would be no one to meet my needs. Besides, my mom taught me that my job was to meet other people's needs. I became good at it. Afraid of abandonment, I would do almost anything to keep people liking me. Having little self-validation, I found it in other people's approval. I became a good performer by using others to feel good about myself. Again and again, I became addicted to people, their opinions, their views of me and their acceptance. Psychologists call this codependency. As an alcoholic is addicted to alcohol, a codependent is addicted to people. For me, losing friends (especially girlfriends) was a death experience. I felt there was nothing left inside of me.
I became a Christian when I was a sophomore in high school. My father, an engineer, taught me, "A place for everything and everything in its place." He was busy ordering his world. My mother taught me, "Leave the world a little better than you found it." She was busy improving her world. I was supposed to order my world and improve it at the same time-quite a task! Then Jesus came into my life. I had a real, lasting born-again experience. I knew from that day forward that He was and is real. While He changed my heart, He didn't really change my inherited perception of reality. I still saw the world as an ordered place-needing a bit of tweaking. It was later, on the chaotic streets of Hollywood, that Jesus began to break up this assumption. As drugs rolled in, as addicts died, as civil unrest (virtually civil war, at times) exploded, my ordered world began to collapse. It had swung out of control, and I was along for the ride. But what about improving the world? As I looked substance abuse in the face, I saw the depths of evil and bondage. At people's deepest pain, there was no way I could leave them or their world "a little better than I found it." The old answers just didn't work anymore.
At the same time, the crisis of the '60s opened new opportunities for my self-validation. People were dying from drug overdoses, the sexual genie (the Pill) was out of the bottle and the lid of middle-class respectability was blown off. Not only did this fuel my addiction to people, but it also powered my addiction to work-in this case, ministry. I found my moment of fame and relished it, trying to fill the void inside.
Along with my addiction to people and ministry, I became addicted to crisis. It elevated my mood. It gave me a purpose larger than myself. It threw me into action (or, perhaps, reaction). I could problem solve, reach out to people and, again, receive the validation I so desperately needed. Under amazing stress, I lost sleep, had a hard time keeping physically fit and, still single, neglected myself for the sake of the cause. At the point of a nervous breakdown-my heartbeat irregular-my doctor ordered me out of town for a complete rest. Certainly I was addicted to my adrenaline. I was also addicted to caffeine and sugar. My drugs of choice were legal stimulants that kept me going.
Amid all of this, God used me (and began to break me). We were thrown into the Jesus movement and saw thousands come to Christ. We experienced the massive cultural changes that the Church had to address. We learned the power of the "simple" gospel again and again. Through our coffeehouse, we helped pioneer the changes in Christian music, which still affect the Church today. We learned in the raw the indispensable necessity of real Christian community. We also saw a large, established evangelical church rise to the occasion and not miss the moment as so many others did. God also changed me as my old assumptions no longer worked. This eventually opened the door to a whole new adventure with Christ and the power of His Spirit.
At the same time-and this is my point here-unresolved childhood issues caught up with me. I had used my position and people to meet my needs for validation and to build status. I had used the crisis to manage the loneliness, insecurity and fear of abandonment that lived inside of me.
Excerpted from 12 Steps with Jesus by Don Williams Copyright © 2004 by Don Williams. Excerpted by permission.
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