‘My name is Janet and I’m a recovering addict.’ I have made that statement to many people over the last ten years in many different circumstances. I have received quite a few reactions when I speak those words but none so dramatic as when I make that confession in front of a group of ladies gathered for a Ladies Day inside the building of a church of Christ. There are usually audible gasps. Sometimes, I can see visible looks of anguish and concern. On a few occasions, I’ve seen the eyes of an addict looking back at me acknowledging the shame before quickly looking away trying not to be noticed. Those are the ladies that I try to move to action whenever I give witness to my story.
My story is just like any other addict’s story. For reasons known only to ourselves and God, we abandon our senses, hurt our family and friends and turned our backs on our Creator for a drug of our own choosing. Many believe addiction is a disease. That may be true. I believe that we have a choice in life. My parents taught me that there are choices that we make and that those choices have consequences. I wish I had heeded that lesson.
I grew up listening to my father preaching the gospel from the pulpit every Sunday morning. I married a young minister and we had three beautiful children. I had no experience with addiction or alcoholism. No one I knew in the church had those problems. I knew my grandfather died from complications of alcoholism but I remember him as a warm loving man. When I started drinking in secret and eventually taking drugs, I didn’t know what to do to stop. I was too ashamed to tell anyone. I didn’t know anyone in my circle of friends and family who could help me. I was the minister’s wife. I taught Sunday school. I gave talks on faith and love. People looked up to me. I was dying inside and no one could help me.
For over 15 years, I drank in secret and had a long relationship with speed. I eventually weighed only 87 pounds. In time, I used any means necessary to obtain and continue to use my drug of choice. I don’t remember holidays and birthdays. I have very little memory of my daughter’s wedding.
With the grace of God and a push from my sister, I went to rehab and began my new life as a recovering addict. I returned to worship services and connected to God in a deeply satisfying way. But, there was a problem. I was an addict needing to talk about my struggles as an addict. I wanted to connect to anyone who had my experiences.
I remember the first time I mentioned my addictive past in a Sunday morning adult class. I spoke about how the grace of God profoundly changed me and that I truly knew what forgiveness felt like. After I stopped speaking, there was a prolonged silence. The teacher, bless his heart, didn’t know what to say. I could almost feel the shock in the air. They all knew me as ‘Janet, the minister’s daughter.’ Finally, someone said something and the class continued. I was dismayed. I was also a little bewildered. That was the moment I decided to make it my ministry to seek out women in the church who were like me. I needed them as much as they needed me. Alcoholics Anonymous is a much needed organization and I have spent many hours inside those meetings. But, I needed more. I needed to connect with other women with similar beliefs and values who would listen to me and nod their heads and say, ‘I know.’
So, I started speaking at women’s groups and Ladies’ Days. I started speaking about addiction and forgiveness. I asked recovering addicts to be brave and tell their stories. I begged active users to come talk to me and I would do all I could to help them. But, I was only one person. We need more.
In every congregation there is at least one person deeply involved in an addiction in one form or another. They need to be reached. I’m afraid to say that it will take more than a pat on the arm and an ‘I’m praying for you.’ It will take Christian women actively speaking out about their recovery. We know what to say. We’ve been there. We know how to take the shame that grips our hearts and turn that shame into recovery. But, it takes courage.
I believe that women in the church who have struggled with addictions and have overcome those addictions MUST come out of the shadows and speak out in order to help those who are still struggling. I believe that there are women who are suffering in silence because the fear of discovery is more comfortable than the idea of recovery. I believe that unless more women step forward and bravely talk about their sobriety and how God has saved them from a life of addiction, more women will leave the church or die before they can be reached.
Years ago, after a talk I gave on addiction and the toll it took on my life, a woman approached me while I was waiting for lunch to be served. She gently pulled me aside and spoke to me in a whisper. She told me about her son. He was living on the streets in San Francisco. He was a drug addict. He was dying of AIDS. As she spoke, we both began to cry. She wanted me to tell her what to do. I asked her how long her son had been an addict. She told me that he started using as a teenager and that he was 25 years old. Then she told me that she had never told anyone in the church about him. She was ashamed and didn’t think anyone would understand how she felt.
I believe that there are countless more women like her. They need help. They need to listen and they need to talk.
May God open the hearts of women everywhere who have a story to tell. May they tell their stories and help others who are waiting to listen.