As Sharon Hersh writes, “We all suffer from the same condition.” In The Last Addiction, she explores why we are prone to addiction–to make one thing in our lives more central than it should be–and how we can break free of our compulsions.
This is not a book of “self-help” answers or “how-to” steps. It is a book about falling down and getting up again, about realizing that we need more than ourselves to be saved. The truth is, we’re not as bad as we think we are–and we are worse than we ever dreamed. When we live between those two realities, we are ready to let go of the last idol: the belief that we can save ourselves.
The Last Addiction invites you to see your own story more clearly as you better understand your longing for intimacy. It invites you to love boldly and receive love in return. It invites you to the freedom of redemption.
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Introduction: The Gifts of Addiction
“Without suffering, happiness cannot be understood. The ideal passes through suffering like gold through fire.”
–FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY, The Brothers Karamazov
We are living in a time when the books about people’s private lives are flying off the shelves, stories of unthinkable shame and pain as well as stories of exhilarating overcoming. We thirst for memoirs that tell us that, even though our own lives might not be as crazy as the ones we are reading about, we can find our way out of the mixed-up mazes we are lost in. We gulp down stories of men and women who have overcome difficult childhoods and lonely journeys through private hells–sometimes of their own making and sometimes of the making of others–in hope that we too will be overcomers. We are drunk with stories about alcoholics, drug addicts, overeaters, sex addicts, gamblers, bulimics, and people who love too much.
And we are hung over. Sometimes our heads hurt from the aftermath of reading stories that turn out to be untrue. More often, our thinking is blurred by stories that don’t parallel our own closely enough to sustain our hope. And many stories leave our throats parched, thirsty for more, even when they are true and close to home, because we can’t find the key to open our own door to join the overcomers.
This is a book about addiction, which is both the motivation and the cause of our quest. Every addiction confines and crushes the human spirit with cruel and unusual punishment. I know. My own drinking began as a prescription from a doctor for anxiety and ended in some unthinkable places that deeply hurt me and those I love. I will tell you more about my own experience with addiction throughout this book. But this is not a book only for alcoholics or drug addicts, or those who love them.
I hope to stretch your thinking about addiction. The truth is that no one escapes the reality of compulsion. Everyone loves something too much. Everyone struggles with passion gone awry. That’s why we’re all buying all those books. If you believe you don’t struggle with addiction, you’re probably more addicted than I am. In his wonderful book Addiction and Grace, Gerald May wrote, “It is as if these severely addicted people have played out, on an extreme scale, a drama that all human beings experience more subtly and more covertly.”
We all suffer from the same condition. We all seek a resting place from striving and suffering, and we often cling to what promises to be a haven, only to find out that we have created our own hell. I hope this book will deepen your compassion and commitment to yourself and to others, all those who are in bondage to something that initially promised to make everything better, until it made everything worse.
This book looks at the hard realities and possible redemption within substance abuse, but addiction reaches much further:
• the good church woman whose eyes are lined with fatigue and whose heart is filled with frenzy, but still she cannot say no
• the man who spends hours a day on the Internet, jeopardizing job and family life
• the person who has no sense of individual self and is consumed by striving to become who, what, and where everyone else needs him to be
• the woman with the flawless makeup and wardrobe who does not know how to face her obsession with appearance or where to confess the toll that it is taking on her own soul
• the man or woman who longs for a real relationship, yet spends every night and weekend in front of the television, watching unreal stories
• the man who cannot keep up financially because he has gambled away everything he makes–and more–on Internet gambling sites
• the woman who ingests thirty-two laxatives a day and engages in the unspeakable ritual of binging and purging to maintain her weight
• the man or woman who strays from marriage in serial affairs, whether they are physical or emotional in nature
Part I begins by uncovering the lies we tell about addiction. We will look unflinchingly at the evidence, the energy, and the experience of addiction. I hope this book will help you tell your own story. Telling our own stories requires that we recognize addiction for what it is. As we see more clearly our own hearts and our longings for intimacy, we will be able to put words to the lengths we will go to kill, satisfy, control, or find substitutes for those longings.
Part II tells some true stories about addiction. But I warn you, not every story concludes with the happy ending that is common in popular memoirs. Writing something that will sell often produces a highly edited version of oneself, or the subtly embellished version. In truth, we learn most about ourselves and the true meaning of redemption in reading of strugglers who fall down, get back up again, and fall down again.
Yes, this book is about redemption, in every chapter–what it looks like, how it is experienced, and by whom. In Part III we will consider what redemption looks like, not only for people who know that they are addicts, but also for family members who watch in anger and agony as their loved ones relapse time and time again. This is not a self-help book. I am deliberately not using the words recovery or overcoming, because these words can get us into more trouble. That’s the last addiction, the idea that I can save myself with myself. We know–I mean deep down we know–that it is futile to try to save ourselves with the very selves that got us into trouble in the first place.
In the final chapters of this book we will examine the healing path and what it means to live–really live–in newness of life, free from self-defeating, self-enslaving patterns of behavior. I think that’s what we all want–a fresh start, a way to begin again, a new chance. This book does not conclude with a list of things to do to get that fresh start. Instead, it closes in an encounter with a Person who asks the question: What if–what if–we are in a dance of intimacy with ourselves, others, and God, a dance that heightens and unfolds through all the phases and seasons of our lives, even in the dark days of addiction, and this dance is the journey of redemption? That would mean that intimacy, connection, and belonging are not just the destination of the healing path, but that relationships themselves are the path.
To see relationships as the healing path may seem unlikely when we have been hurt, abandoned, and betrayed by relationships, but they can be redeemed. To redeem means to “buy back.” I believe Love is waiting to buy back all that has been lost, abandoned, or violated, and to give us a certain fullness in this life. Relationships with self, others, and God are intended to be our resting place, our balm for suffering, our place of confession, our tastes of heaven here on earth. We get in trouble with addiction when we find substitutes for healthy relationships and require them to be our all, right here, right now. Redemption comes at the point of no return (which is why it most often happens in addiction), because we have nothing to return to. Our substitutes for healthy relationships have betrayed us. We’ve sold our souls to something or someone false. But what if there is another character in this story, a Love that redeems us? What if Love becomes the one Reward of our hearts and lives, allowing us to give and receive more fully in all our relationships?
How can I write, “Love redeems us”? Those who have experienced addiction personally or within their families know that love is shot to pieces by addiction. In my own life and the lives of countless people I have seen in my counseling office, I have witnessed the sobering reality that addiction is stronger than human love. Powerful natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes do not compel fathers and mothers to abandon their children.
But addiction does. How many times have I heard from anguished and confused family members, “Why couldn’t he wait until after my birthday to get drunk?” Or, “How could she go back to the same thing after all the money we’ve spent on treatment?” I have heard, and said myself, the self loathing words of the addict, “Why do I do the same thing over and over again?” Or, “What is wrong with me?”
In his compelling autobiography, Broken, William Cope Moyers described the excruciating reality of self-contempt for addicts and their families: My father was sitting in the front passenger seat. Turning around to look at me, he saw a thirty-five-year-old crack addict who hadn’t shaved, showered, or eaten in four days. A man who walked out on his wife and two young children and ditched his promising career at CNN. A broken shell of a man, a pale shadow of the human being he had raised to be honest, loving, responsible. His firstborn son…“There’s nothing more I can do,” he said. “I’m finished.”
All these years later, he tells me that’s where the conversation ended. But whether I imagined it or not, I heard him say something else.
“I hate you.”
And I remember looking in his eyes and speaking my deepest truth. “I hate me, too.”
Just last month I heard a similar story of hopeless self-defeat. I sat in my office across from a thirty-eight-year-old man who wanted to quit drinking. He smelled of the beer he’d drunk just before coming to see me. His hands were shaking from his attempt to withdraw from his twenty-four-beer-a-night habit. Tears streamed down his face as he described the train wreck of his life. He’d lost his job, his hobbies, and his relationships. He couldn’t get into an inpatient treatment facility for at least five days. He’d been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the urging of his mother, but he needed to drink just to sit through a meeting.
I imagined his mother sitting in her home in Texas, willing the telephone to ring with the news that he had made it to the treatment facility. She was willing to pay the nearly thirty thousand dollars that the treatment would cost. She needed to believe that it would “work.”
I was slow to make any promises to this man. First of all, I knew that his brain was pretty hazy with alcohol and he couldn’t hear much that I had to say. Secondly, I have watched many family members and clients climb on the roller coaster of treatment. I myself have been in detox, inpatient and outpatient treatment, ninety Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in ninety days, and deliverance prayer meetings. I have taken antidepressants, Antabuse (a preventative medication that makes you physically ill if you ingest any alcohol), and vitamins.
I even endured ten days of IV drip treatment intended to “rebalance” my brain with nutrients and amino acids. All of these treatments have been part of the redemptive process in my life. None of them has been the single answer.
I decided to wait, to not tell this man yet about Love’s redemption in the midst of addiction. I knew that he had a ways to go before he would even care about redemption. Right now, he just wanted to stop feeling like he was crawling out of his skin.
The truth is that he never called me back. I don’t know whether he ever made it to treatment or not. I still think about his mother. But I will not join those who say in disgust, “Addicts! There’s just no hope. They are like a dog that goes back to his vomit.” Instead, I pray for my one-visit client to stay in the journey of addiction and redemption, even though it often looks like taking one step forward and two steps back. I know that if he hangs in there, he will experience the gifts of addiction.
You read that right. I am convinced that the experience of addiction and redemption can include many gifts. This book considers the gift of getting caught, because this is when we have the chance to experience being known, loved, and still wanted. We will find the gift of wisdom in telling the truth about addiction and its place in our lives. We will examine the gift of humiliation that leads to the gift of surrender–the ability to exchange my way and will for another Way and Another’s will. We will look at the unlikely gift of woundedness, because wounds, no matter how painful or unsightly, are where Love gets in, with the healing gifts of mercy and forgiveness. And all along the way we will be looking for the gift of hope. Hope is what pulls the soul forward, and if you are mired down in an addiction or love someone who is addicted, you know that hope can become a scarce commodity.
Finally, we will define the gift of freedom, that newness of life that doesn’t mean the ability to do whatever we want, but that releases in us a longing to want the One in whom we were created to live and move and have our very being.
It doesn’t take too many years of doing the two-steps-forward, three-steps-back dance of addiction to know that we can’t give all of these gifts to ourselves. The great gift of addiction is that sooner or later it proves to us that we are not gods.4 There we come face to face with the last addiction.
We realize we are our own worst enemies. We’re enslaved by the last addiction– our own determination to repress our destructive desires, our own ability to keep the rules or do the steps, our own religious zeal to rein ourselves in, and our own decisions to chart a different course. In our last stand, we are addicted to our own will, our own self, our own ability, our own pursuit of control.
This great, unspeakable gift of addiction has been to teach me that I cannot set myself free. I must be set free. This book, however, does not advocate a complete abdication of human choice and effort. Nor does it advocate a passive spirituality. Learning what I am responsible for and what God is responsible for is key in the journey of addiction and redemption. The question of responsibility raises the question of who God really is. God is Love, the most powerful force in the universe. Love alone can free the human heart. Love is where our hope lies. Throughout this book, I will share my own meager understanding of Love through story–my own stories and the stories of others. Even so, an intellectual understanding of Love will not deliver us from addiction. We need more. The New Testament describes the power of Love: “It is the only way to shut down [the] debilitating self…” This same book of Scripture equates God and Love and reassures us that “God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more
about us than we do ourselves.”
In other words, Love is the opposite of fear. Beneath every addiction, in the addict or the addict’s family, there is a deep reservoir of fear–fear of relapse, judgment, consequences, the inability to change, stigma, misunderstanding, and defeat. When you are afraid, you can’t experience Love.
The apostle John wrote, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NIV). Love is our way out of fear, and our Source of redemption. Most of us have tried many things in our search for Love, desperate to find something that outlasts our bad choices and that undoes human failings. I want to tell you that for all your life, Love has been looking for you. I hope, through the stories of other addicts and their family members in this book, you will open your own heart to Love. If you do, you will begin to hear, not in human words, but in spirit, “No matter what you have done or others have done to you, I love you for your own sake.”
I suspect that reading this book will bring up many emotions for you: fear, cynicism, anger, sadness, and hope. I know that when we have been hurt or hurt others, opening ourselves up to Love is the most frightening thing there is. But paradoxically, when we open ourselves up to Love, fear begins to be dismantled. Before reading further, consider saying out loud or to yourself, “I am willing to want Love.”
Centuries ago, the mystic Julian of Norwich wrote about her own experience of opening herself up to Love: I have learned to not be afraid of my instability. For I do not know in what way I shall fall. I would have liked to have known that– with due fear, of course. But I got no answer. Both when we fall and when we get up again we are kept in the same precious love.
If this approach seems a bit esoteric or suspect to you, I encourage you to take a chance and read on. The process of acknowledging the lies we tell about addiction, considering the true stories of addiction, and beginning to see the truth about redemption can open us further to Love.
Perhaps this openness to something Other than ourselves is the greatest gift of addiction. Our self-will might be able to force us to change for a time, but when we realize our need for redemption in addiction, we have to acknowledge that self-will is not enough. Only Love can move us to change every day, one day at a time. Whenever I hear stories about self-will run riot and self-effort falling flat on its face, I have an opportunity to consider what (or who) plucked me from that fate. I do reverence to Love every day.