"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.
A SINGLE professional woman came to see me for help with her eating addiction. Foodnot Godwas her faithful friend in a life filled with loneliness and stress. She explained that because she looked fine and performed well at her job, no one guessed her secret. Most days she functioned well outwardly while inwardly obsessing about foodBurger King, malted milk balls, and cinnamon rolls. Her eating binges often were followed by purging or a few days of a starvation diet.
Simply put, addiction is idolatrygiving yourself to a person, idea, or substance that displaces God as central. Alcohol, drugs, and potato chips are just a few possible objects of "worship" for Christian women. The prophet Isaiah's description of God's people in his day fits the church today as well: "Their land is full of idols" (Isa. 2:8). And idolatry, as God says in Galatians 5:19-20, is sin.
Sometimes addiction springs out of anger toward God. A dear Christian woman I know recently confided her struggle with prescription pain pills. She'd prayed for years for her unbelieving husband to become a Christian. He didn't, so she found solace in drugs. She reasoned, The pills work much better than God. Addiction isn't only a source of relief from the emptiness and loneliness of life; it's also a way to shake our fist at God for asking us to live and love in a world that harms and disappoints.
We who struggle with addiction need to acknowledge our underlying pain and sorrow. Often it's our agony that prompts us to seek help. But acknowledging that our addiction is sin is also vitally important; it compels us to seek God's forgiveness. For true freedom from addiction to occur, both are necessary.
PERHAPS THE MOST difficult part of this process is admitting you're addicted. And acknowledging the hopelessness of idolatry comes when you face it squarely: What does my behavior look like in its darkest moments? How much time does it steal? How far has it taken my heart from my family, friends, and God? If your present behaviorwhether it be eating, drinking, sexual activity, or perfectionismkeeps you from a healthy relationship with God or others, it's time to admit itand to seek help.
I don't believe the power of an addiction can be broken without the eyes and voices of others. I began the hard work of breaking my alcoholism when I called a counselor. He immediately suggested a support group for my husband and me and eventually guided us through the process of asking a few friends for support and prayer. Without a doubt, contacting a pastor, counselor, support group, or friend and whispering those life-changing words, "I need help," is the beginning of change.
Because addiction falsely persuades that the past cannot be overcome, the present must be escaped, and the future can be postponed, breaking the bondage of addiction re-quires what the apostle Paul describes as the foundation for Christian living: faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13).
View the past through the lens of faith. As I faced some painful experiences in my past and recognized my determination to overcome a disappointing world with perfection and performance, I began to understand the roots of my own addiction. I began to understand the feelings I tried to numb with alcohol and the forgiveness available to me in the face of my sinful response. Ultimately the past is redeemed when you can say with the apostle Paul, "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to Godthrough Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 7:24-25). I'm grateful for what my bout with alcoholism has taught me about God's grace, love, and forgiveness.
View the present in the light of God's love. The more we're able to accept the unfailing reality of God's forgiveness and unconditional love, the more the allure of addiction lessens. Stemming out of God's unconditional love for us is his call to love others as we love ourself (Rom. 13:9). And part of loving ourself is paying attention to physical health. I encourage women recovering from an addiction to pay attention to proper nutrition and drink healthy amounts of water and juice. I can't over-emphasize the importance of physical exercise. Addiction works against the body's ability to produce and disperse endorphins (the body's natural chemicals that produce a feeling of well-being). Over time, regular exercise helps restore the process.
View the future in a context of hope. Women caught in addiction are trying to experience a level of perfection and joy that can be found only in heaven. Understanding that these longings will be met only in eternity with God helps us wait with a fresh hope. And having confidence in this future hope frees us to dream and plan for our days on earth.
I recommend a three-part plan I call "AIM"--which I developed during my own struggle to break addictionto help women increase hope. Eventually, these exercises become a natural part of our daily routine, replacing the deadening addictive behaviors with life-giving ones:
- Art. Reading good literature and poetry, listening to uplifting music, looking at paintings or photographs are a few ways to begin to nurture yourself.
- Imagination. Arrange flowers, sew, prepare beautiful foods, learn how to sculpt, write poetrythe possibilities are endless. Creativity enables the heart to begin to hope again.
- Memory. I encourage women to journal daily about their unique path to freedom. Their struggles and victories become a memorial to God's faithfulness even in the midst of difficult days.
I remind the women I work with that the Enemy has a specific strategy for their destructionand their addiction plays a key role. They must strategize as well. One woman I know who struggles with an eating addiction plans her week in detailincluding time for her counselor, her support group, and friends. She sets aside time for AIM projects on her calendar, as well as prayer concerns and Scripture on which to meditate. She explained to me, "I just decided I need to be better organized than Satan in this whole process."
The complexity of addiction may require inpatient treatment, as in Diane's case. After completing this treatment, she got involved in individual counseling and a support group, then started reaching out to others through an inner-city ministry for runaways. Diane is using the healing from her own struggle with addiction to offer hope to others in need.
Although I'm greatly saddened about my own poor choices that resulted in an addiction, I'm thankful for the incredible opportunity to offer hope and healing to other women. The apostle Paul describes the process in his letter to a church full of former idol-worshipers: "We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess. 1:3).
When you allow God to penetrate your heart, the bonds of addiction are broken and freedom is yours at last.
SHARON HERSH is a Christian counselor who lives with her family in Colorado.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.