A LIFE OUT OF CONTROL
“Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope.”
Romans 7:23-24 (The Message)
“You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.”
St. Augustine, Confessions.
Everyone has had the experience of waking up too early, looking over at the bedroom windows, and noticing the first feeble light of dawn beginning to creep through. You haven’t slept well enough or long enough. With a muffled sigh you realize the day is about to begin. You haven’t had the restful sleep that you wanted, but you heave yourself out of bed and get going.
Now imagine that same scenario, but instead of a resigned sigh, you feel a depression so dark that you regret having woken up at all. In fact, you dread the dawn, for what you really wanted was not the rest that eludes you night after endless night. What you really want is to never wake up again.
It’s a terrible thing to greet the dawn with a curse, but that’s where I was during an active addiction to alcohol so severe that I wanted most of all to go to sleep at night and not wake up, ever. This book is about a prayer that saved my life and set me on a new road that I could never have imagined or really even wanted. My journey from the darkness of despair to the light of hope and joy began in a treatment center for addiction.
Little by Little, and All at Once
In rehab, everyone has bad days. No one arrives at a treatment center on a winning streak, but you’d be surprised how many are still convinced treatment is a massive overreaction. We’ll quit on our own or make changes or find a different doctor. The walls of denial are thick and breaking them down is going to mean some hard days. One of my worst came in week four of my ninety-day inpatient treatment for alcoholism.
Thinking of yourself as unique is not a recipe for recovery from alcoholism. If you consider your problems unsolvable, your intellect too profound, your past nefarious, your virtues unassailable then you may begin to assume that treatment and counseling won’t work for you. You’re a special case! It’s a common obstacle to recovery.
Having said that, I’ll venture that my profile as an alcoholic entering treatment was unusual to say the least. I was a Baptist minister for over three decades. I’d served six churches as pastor over those years, all of them in the Deep South. A Southern Baptist by birth, I was in church the second Sunday of my life and seldom missed a Sunday morning, Sunday evening, or Wednesday night thereafter.
That was the rhythm in our family tradition. I learned Bible stories from caring teachers with flannel boards on Sunday mornings, heard good sermons in worship, then returned in the afternoon for another round of discipleship, choirs, and evening worship. Wednesday nights meant supper in the fellowship hall and mission studies when I was a child and youth group as a teen.
The Ellis generations were deeply rooted in the soil of that vigorous denomination, and I felt right at home. In my family, before I knew much of anything else, I learned about a good, loving, and smiling God. The phrase “smiling God” is something I picked up from a sermon from St. Augustine who described God that way. I liked it and realized that was what my parents and my extended family modeled for me, even though they had never studied Augustine. Everyone gets their first theology from their parents. It’s inescapable, for good or bad. Mine was good.
Mamaw, who often spent her Sunday afternoons engaged in “visitation” (in her finest dress with white gloves), gave me a book of Bible facts and quizzed me when I was about 12 or so. Even though I loved God and loved the church, a Bible study book is about the last thing most 12-year-olds want to read. A confession here: I lost that book fairly soon after Mamaw gave it to me. It was not intentional on my part. I still don’t know what happened to it. I’ll swear that to this day on a stack of Bibles. Interestingly, Mamaw’s memory had begun to fade already, but she never neglected to ask me if I had read that book. Her zeal to make sure no grandchild went to hell on her watch was unwavering, and she carried with her to the grave a deep commitment to making sure we could pass any quiz at the gates. We were a faith-filled family. It was the Ellis way, and I rarely rebelled against those good family traditions and intentions.
When I walked the aisle of Porter Memorial Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky in 1967, it was to say yes to God, not out of a fear of hell, but because it felt right and good and familiar. A lot of good people had told me that God cared for me. It made sense to get closer to that kind of God. That simple, childlike trust was based on some pretty solid theology.
Helping people was an extension of our faith, and it had always given me a special warmth even in my childhood. I think I was in 4th grade when my teacher asked me to help a classmate named Bobby who had failed a test on math facts. I coached and quizzed him on the multiplication tables. In my mind, I can still see his smile and his surprise at getting a good grade on the retest. I was hooked.
It was a natural fit when, a handful of years later, I felt a calling to become a minister as a nineteen year old. My calling to ministry was one of those “hold onto that” moments, when I knew that God had reached out to me in a special way and whispered His will to my soul. I thought literally, “this is why I have been born.” I was destined to be a minister. I’ve never doubted that since that late August evening in 1977. God wanted me to learn the Scripture, share its insights, encourage people, and help as many as I could.
Following my graduation from the University of Kentucky with a degree in psychology, I went to seminary in New Orleans and felt right at home. I vividly remember sitting in my first theology class and thinking, “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
I remember with equal clarity picking up my first Greek New Testament in the campus bookstore and thinking without a shade of doubt, “I will read this.” I fell in love with that beautiful language. Layer upon layer of nuance and meaning unfolded for me in my studies. The Greek tenses became something like musical notes. The language and imagery of the Scripture was akin to a theological symphony. I’d found the truth that echoes through all of creation. I eventually earned a Master of Divinity (the most grandiose degree title conceivable) in Biblical Studies and a doctorate in Greek New Testament.
I taught New Testament and Greek while a graduate student, pastored a small Mississippi country church on the weekends, and generally felt all was right with the world. That rhythm of study, writing, teaching, preaching, and serving worked well for me for the next 30 years or so. I led churches and for a long period of time was on television and radio weekly. I wrote more commentaries on biblical books, articles on biblical ideas, and Sunday School lessons than I can recall. It was a busy and generally fulfilling career.
As I look back on it now, I realize that I operated on a pretty basic equation that worked well for me. A kind of A + B = C. A and B are what I control, the choices surrounding the events, engagements, and commitments of my life. If the A and B are solid, then the outcome should be fairly agreeable. I had invested my life in very solid ideas, and, for the most part, avoided a lot of the destructive ideas and actions that make life more difficult than necessary. Life’s hard enough without our adding to it, and that insight, wherever it came from, worked well for me.
In one particularly relevant area, this meant that I did not drink alcohol. Now part of this was certainly an expression of religious conviction. Southern Baptists, by and large, are not drinkers. I know as well as anyone that many, and more today, of them do, but I didn’t. And I didn’t for years and years. I heard the early warnings, and combined with the well-established teetotalling Ellis history, I didn’t drink mainly because it just didn’t make sense to do something that could be potentially so harmful. It simply was not on my radar.
In the interest of total transparency, I did have three occasions in the first 50 years of my life when I tasted alcohol. The first was when I was about 13. I was with half a dozen guys passing around a green bottle of beer. I took an obligatory taste and thought it must be spoiled. I literally wondered how anyone could voluntarily drink that. I had a similar experience around age 18 or 19 with some vodka and orange juice. I thought the vodka ruined the orange juice. Some 20 years later I tasted beer after a day of skiing with some friends and remember saying, “I just don’t get it.” They handed me the keys, and I ordered a Coke.
I share this not to establish my religious credentials, but to simply relate the facts of the matter. In the first 50 years of my life, the amount of alcohol I drank would not fill a Dixie cup. Alcohol was not a part of my A + B. Consequently, my sober “C” was fairly positive and productive.
That began to change around age 50. Some disappointments and hard blows started adding up. No one is immune, yet we all act surprised and stunned when trouble comes our way. Churches can be difficult and complicated, just like families. I had challenges in both arenas but nothing particularly dramatic until that phone call.
In the World You Will Have Trauma
You know how you can remember exactly where you were when you got some bit of really bad news? My parents’ generation could recall with precision where they were when they heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. JFK’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s, the space shuttle explosion, and 9/11 all leave the same mark.
One of those moments for me was when I was traveling on Goodwood just west of its intersection with Airline Highway in Baton Rouge. Woman’s Hospital was on my right, an Assembly of God Church on my left. The phone was in my right hand. My good friend Leon was driving us to a Rotary meeting. My sister Carol called, and through her sobs I thought I heard her say, “Ken is dead!” I stammered something along the lines of “Carol, I need you to calm down a little so I can understand you. Did you say something happened to Ken?” “Yes. He’s dead. He was shot and killed.”
Those words were like a jolt to my mind and heart, kind of like a mental tectonic shift when the landscape changes dramatically and aftershocks continue to rattle around for God only knows how long. He had been murdered in his home. Two young men, aged 19 or so, believing Ken wasn’t home, knocked on the door thinking to make an easy grab of some valuables. When he answered, they shot him twice.
Ken was eight years older than me, and just about everything a big brother should be. One of his children asked him one time if he ever picked on me, and he replied “Endlessly.” Honestly, I don’t remember him like that at all. The age difference was too great for us to be buddies, but Ken filled an important void in my life. Dad came down with multiple sclerosis when I was four and simply was not able to run and throw and wrestle with a young son the way he would have wanted to. Ken did all those things.
He taught me to throw every kind of ball. How to tackle without breaking my nose. How to bat, field, run bases, wrestle, bowl, shoot a gun and a bow and arrow, and how to be tough. He was a good big brother.
We grew apart as adults, though not due to any particular friction. Whenever we talked, he was always pleased I called, expressed pride in me and appreciation for my taking care of our aging parents, but the effort to stay in touch was always one way. Ken was hardly a constant presence in my life but now he would never again show up for holidays or answer my calls. Maybe that’s why I underestimated the impact of his senseless death.
I’d been in treatment for alcoholism for about three weeks before I mentioned Ken’s death to my small group. “Wait, is this the first time we’re hearing about this?” Phillip, my lead therapist, asked. “Well, I suppose so,” I replied. We processed this huge bit of news for a few minutes and Phillip asked when I had started drinking. It was about month after Ken’s death. I had never drawn the connection.
We all tend to underestimate the amount of stress we’re under and its impact. I certainly had in a number of ways. Ken’s death was simply one of a string of blows life landed on me. Therapists talk a great deal about trauma. “Small t trauma” is the paper cuts and minor abrasions of life, everything from a fight with your spouse to a fender bender.
More serious trauma is call “big T trauma.” These get the headlines in our autobiographies. They are divorces, major accidents, cancer, the death of a loved one, losing a job, and, yes, addiction. Addiction is unique in many ways, and one of them is that it both causes a huge amount of trauma and is the result of trauma. It gashes the life and soul of the addict, and it inflicts perhaps even more damage on the people around the addict, and that damage can be generational.
Look closely into the life of the addict you know or perhaps love, and you’ll find trauma. Don’t assume “they should just get over it.” It’s not that simple. The human capacity to deal with trauma varies among individuals and even oscillates within a single life. Some people handle certain trauma well, yet another challenge proves their undoing. Survey your life honestly, whether you’ve faced addiction or not, and you’ll find that to be true. Sometimes we do well and serve as stalwart and inspirational examples to family and friends. Other times the trauma results in an inner collapse and possibly a lashing out that harms the people we love. Resist the temptation to compare your trauma or your response to trauma to someone else’s experience. Trauma is a fact of life for us all, and none of us is so immutable that we can avoid it or its prolonged impact.
Responses to trauma reflect the heart of human striving. Here we find the tension between life as we want it and life as it is. When the difference between these two is too great or unexpected, the potential for very bad outcomes increases dramatically. These responses are the key to understanding the spiritual component of addiction.