"I decided to check in for treatment, like you suggested," my friend Diane told me over the phone, her voice noticeably tired. "I'm all packed, but I still don't understand why I can't take perfume with me." I pictured Diane's flawlessly made-up face and stylish haircut, signs of a woman who appeared to have it all together, not a serious alcohol addiction. She had two children who sang in the children's choir at church and a husband who chaired the missions committee. I knew my response to Diane's comment would painfully highlight that she wasn't packing her bags for a ladies' retreat.
Gently I explained to my friend, "The treatment center doesn't allow perfume because it contains alcohol."
Diane sighed, then whispered with aching uncertainty, "I guess I'll see you when I return next month."
I'VE HEARD this anguish many times before in my counseling practice. As the women who come to see me wrestle with their addictions, they ask: "How did this happen to me?" "What will my friends think?" "What will my church think?" "Am I as alone as I feel?"
When I too was caught in the destructive throes of alcoholism years ago, I asked these same questions. On my first visit to a counselor, I sat on a brown leather couch across from a man in a purple shirt, hoping for help and caught in a trap: I was desperate to drink, yet desperate to stop. How could I tell this stranger a secret so intimate no one but my husband knew? A collage of incongruous images flashed through my mind: trash cans crammed with vodka bottles, canned foods packed for the elderly; lubricated arguments laced with hateful words, Sunday school lessons articulately delivered. I saw a life splashed with alcoholand immersed in the church.
The man in purple sensed my anxiety and said helpfully, "I think I know why you're here." Relief flooded over me. "Your husband has a drinking problem," he guessed, only increasing my shame. I almost left his office. I'm glad I didn't, because he offered significant help in the months ahead. Yet his well-meaning statement seemed to confirm what most Christian women who struggle with addictions fear: No one can understand or help.
In fact, an article on Christian women and addiction may disturb a congregation denying the realities of the church. But there are women in the pews who are neither shocked nor amazed. They know about the desperate addictions seldom described, much less acknowledged, during the ladies' fellowship meeting.
Alcohol Health & Research World, a study of women who attend church, indicates that for every ten women at the fall ladies' retreat, one is or will become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Out of the eight women who form the committee to plan the annual church dinner, two have an abusive relationship with food. Most Christian women who struggle with addiction suffer silently while the church fails to believe that chocolate chip cookies and dry white wine can turn into instruments of pain.