I have always been a “type-A overachiever,” which is just psycho-business babble to describe, in me at least, a pretty severe case of control freakery.
For as long as I can remember, my default approach to tackling life has been to work on projects and to deal with problems by myself. A theology professor of mine once called me “the child who was always playing by himself in his own tree house.”
So in my late twenties, when I began to begin to own up to the truth that I had developed a complicated relationship with alcohol, my predominant thought was “I’ll sort this out on my own.” And for a few years I tried all kinds of solitary solutions for self-mastery: personal improvement books, combative mantras, prayer and journaling, cleansing diets, intense exercise, a self-styled replacement therapy of cigarettes instead of cocktails, and incessant resolutions to swear off, followed by periods of abstinence that would sometimes last the entire week, or month, or even the whole season of Lent (okay, once) — but not usually.
Since none of those solutions ultimately worked for me, in my early thirties I checked out a community-based program of recovery that helped me eventually get sober and stay sober, but with my raging case of control freakery, at first I tried to do the program without the community-based part. That is, I tried to do it by myself.
Veterans in recovery advised me to take it day by day, and step by step, and to seek a sponsor to guide me through the challenging exercises of discovery and transformation that are crucial not only for stopping drinking but for staying stopped, and for staying stopped with a sense of freedom and serenity instead of a “dry drunk” paralysis that is alcohol-free but anxiety-intense. I let them know that I would be fine to take care of everything myself. “Thanks for the information, though. It’s really awesome. Y’all have been so helpful.”
I took some of their recovery literature home and decided that I would set aside a whole weekend to work through the exercises, understand how it all worked, and sort out my alcohol problem. I figured an intense two-day silent retreat would do it. And so with very good intentions, first thing one Saturday morning, I started working through the book at a fast pace, underlining key concepts, making notes, and feeling in control. By the end of the morning, I was somewhat distracted, but I willed myself to carry on. By early afternoon I was fatigued and not a little overwhelmed. I decided that maybe I needed a little help after all. So I cracked open a bottle of gin, you know, to accompany my self-exploration.
I wish I could say that I wised up after that weekend, but I ended up repeating the pattern a few more times. Ironically, the idea that I could heal myself was the very thing that was preventing me from being healed.
Asking for Help
Lucky for me, a guy who I’d exchanged emails with at one of the first recovery meetings I attended reached out to let me know that if I ever wanted to talk, he was open to it. Meeting up with him was the beginning of the end of my independent study of sobriety. He quickly became my sponsor — a sort of combination teacher, guide, confessor, and fellow journeyer who interpreted the information for me, shared his own experience of alcoholism and recovery, and asked me questions that cracked me right open.
All these years later, one of the foundational things that recovery from alcoholism continues to teach me about life in general is that any truly transforming practice or discipline requires asking for help from other people. A set intention, an inspirational moment, even a divine mountaintop experience will rarely be sufficient for long-term change if there’s not a community of other people to help model, support, and integrate the change. Without a community base, any change will likely remain at only a superficial level. To learn anything well — or to unlearn anything well — requires other people, both teachers and fellow journeyers. And better yet if they are one in the same: if the teachers are fellow journeyers, if they themselves have undergone and are still undergoing the thing they purport to teach. This is true not just for long-term sobriety from addictions, but for most, if not all, life-giving disciplines, from yoga to crossfit, piano to painting, distance running to driving safely on the left side of the road in a foreign country, to prayer. The first followers of Jesus couldn’t figure out by themselves how to pray; they had to ask Jesus to teach them. It’s not that they were stupid. It just seems that for anything worth doing, help is required.
Don’t Go It Alone
Tomorrow, many Christians will observe the beginning of Lent, a 40-day season of intense self-examination, fasting, and prayer, all with the goal of aligning more closely with God. I know from personal experience and others’ testimonies that Lent often devolves into just another season of solitary solutions for self-mastery.
What if, instead of going it alone, we sought out help from others and offered help to others who share our common problem? What if we found or formed mutual communities of recovery? You don’t have to observe Lent or be a Christian or an alcoholic to try this out, because the truth is, as Richard Rohr puts it, we’re all addicted to something. Our addictions, our control freakery, and our other freakeries “out” in different ways, but perhaps a common solution is to tell the truth about ourselves to other safe, trustworthy people who get it because they have the same “problem,” and to ask for help.
In my experience, this solution works in part because it moves the problem from the territory of secret shame — and the subsequent mentality of “if I can’t tell anybody about it, I’d better fix it myself or just repress it” — into the territory of honesty, which provides access to buried levels of the human heart, soul, and mind and therefore significantly increases the potential of true change and deep freedom.
Beyond “White Knuckling”
Perhaps because only a small percentage of people are alcoholics, there are lots of stereotypes about alcoholics, even alcoholics in recovery. For example, even though I’m now in my early forties and have been sober for some time, non-alcoholics often worry about having a drink in front of me. I let them know that it’s totally fine and they should go ahead and order the wine at dinner or the pint at the pub. “But I wouldn’t want you to be tempted,” they respond, which is super compassionate but reflective of a misunderstanding of long-term sobriety. “I don’t know how you do it,” they say, because they think that recovery is about increasing self-power to be able to repeatedly face off against the temptation to drink, and to win the battle at every restaurant, bar, wedding toast, or convenience store for the rest of your life. In recovery speak, that’s called “white knuckling” — depending on your own strength to resist temptation. Which, if you have a strong will, may work for a while — a week, a month, maybe even the entire season of Lent — but if you’re like most other human beings, the odds are that your willpower will break down from time to time. You can’t do it by yourself.
For deeper-than-superficial change, something else is needed. Increased personal focus and a new set of coping skills to resist your addiction are helpful, particularly at the beginning of recovery, but to move beyond the constriction of white knuckling, only an existential shift will do: something else (or Someone Else) to actually remove the compulsion to use. I can tell my friends that it’s fine to drink in front of me because I no longer crave alcohol. Our complicated relationship is over; it’s no longer a temptation; I don’t desire it anymore. I don’t technically understand why that is or how my compulsion to drink was lifted, especially given my obsession in previous seasons of life, but there we are. I don’t understand a lot of things. The only thing I do understand is that I didn’t do it. If I participated at all in my own healing, primarily it was that I finally realized that I couldn’t heal myself and asked for help.
Only the Beginning
Now before you think I’m trying to prove that I’m some sort of spiritual giant, let me confess that my being healed of the desire to drink has uncovered all kinds of other subterranean addictions that I hadn’t realized were there before: addictions to work, to body image, to what other people might be thinking about me, to abject lust for attention and success, to judgmentalism. The program of recovery that I follow says wisely that alcoholic drinking is but a symptom of a deeper, underlying condition. It turns out that what I’ve been healed of so far is just the tip of the iceberg, just the first symptom of a whopping case of control freakery. But the good news is that I’m not alone in my lifetime supply of things to let go of: there are others who share my predicament, others who I can ask for help, others who I can offer help — a community of people who share the truth in every sense of the phrase. There is more on offer than I could ever imagine.
Maybe you’re starting Lent tomorrow or maybe you’re not but you’re still longing for wholeness, for honesty, for recovery, for internal freedom and joy. Here’s a suggestion for the beginning of a different rhythm than “do-it-yourself,” even than “super spiritual do-it-yourself”:
- Take some time to admit to yourself what your “problem” is. Remember what Rohr says: we’re all addicted to something. Is your addiction a substance addiction — to alcohol, Tylenol PM, tobacco, prescription drugs, food, porn? Or is it a process addiction — to work, working out, judging other people, sex, gambling? Maybe you have more than one addiction; maybe you have a whole troupe of addictions. Don’t fret. Welcome to being human. Just begin to write them down. Be gentle with yourself. It takes compassion and humility to begin being honest.
- Take some time to find a group of people who share your problem, who are in it as fellow control freaks (or fellow doormats) and fellow journeyers, who will be with you and for you, and will ask you to be with them and for them, as you live into a new way of being. (There are many different ways to seek recovery, but you can start your journey by checking out this list of groups).
- If you’d like to read more on addiction and spirituality, I recommend Richard Rohr’s Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps.
Remember: there is more on offer than you could ever imagine.