Saturday, November 19, 2016

Bearing the Full Weight of Reality: My Battle Through Alcohol to Freedom

I was 16 years old and a sophomore in high school when I got drunk for the first time. You might think that vomiting repeatedly, blacking out, and spending the next day nursing a hangover (without even knowing what a hangover was) would have been enough to deter me from binge drinking again. Unfortunately, it wasn't. Instead, that night started me down a dark road of pain, confusion, and sin, which severely hindered and delayed my ability to develop into a complete person capable of authentic and loving relationships. I traveled down that road for about 6 years, and it wasn’t until June of last year that I finally allowed God to deliver me out of my slavery to alcohol and into the freedom of sobriety. My intention in telling the story of my liberation and in reflecting on the dangers of alcohol is not to demonize alcohol, nor to condemn anyone who chooses to partake of it. Rather, I simply want to share with others the story of how God has worked a miracle in my life by doing for me what I never could have done for myself. It is gratitude and sincere concern that compel me, not guilt or a desire to judge others. That being said, if you or anyone you know struggles with alcohol or other substance abuse, please be open to what God may be asking you to do. He desires only your ultimate good, happiness, and freedom.

False Power and Freedom

For many people, alcohol is treated more as a tool than a beverage. Specifically, it is used as a catalyst in social situations to produce an environment with less tension, awkwardness, and inhibitions. This is why alcohol is affectionately referred to by some as “liquid courage”. Because alcohol is a depressant, it is indeed very effective at creating a relaxed and care-free atmosphere, one that is more conducive to fun, pleasure, and ease of interaction between people, especially strangers. This feature of alcohol makes it particularly attractive to young people, who are burdened with the two-fold task of understanding their own identity and learning how to successfully relate to others. I was personally enthralled when I discovered the “super powers” alcohol seemed to grant me. Being an introverted and overly self-conscious guy, I found the opportunity to transform into a confident, charismatic, and spontaneous person at will to be both exhilarating and addicting.
            Within a couple of months of my first taste of this new found glory, I was hooked. From that point on, my primary social concern was obtaining alcohol and consuming it with my friends. At first, we encountered the problem of having no place to drink, since none of our parents were okay with the idea of teenage boys binge drinking (oppressive, I know). Our solution to this problem was to exercise our other newly acquired freedom: driving. Apparently, the statistics we were told in driver’s education class and stories from motivational speakers about how they had barely survived drunk driving accidents had not been enough to convince our teenage minds that we were anything less than invincible. We would drink and drive around on back country roads with a 30 pack of beer in the trunk and our music blaring, stopping frequently to retrieve more cans and to “water” the ditch alongside the road. Eventually though, we were able to upgrade to drinking at an older friend’s college apartment or at the house of a friend whose parents were away. I would let nothing stand in the way of me having a good time with my friends. I would lie to my parents about where I was and who I was with; I would steal bottles of liquor from stores; my friends and I went so far as to sneak cases of beer into the movie theater. Alcohol had to be part of the equation whenever possible, and we found social events without it to be painfully boring. Ironically, it was really ourselves that we were bored with.
            So what exactly was it about this shallow, unhealthy, and reckless lifestyle that attracted me and the majority of my high school classmates? What did we at least perceive to be good and worthwhile in drinking alcohol, especially in light of the potential legal consequences and obvious risks involved? Certainly the care-free and light-hearted atmosphere that intoxication produces attracted us, as I mentioned before. However, my ongoing reflection on this puzzling question has led me to suspect that the appeal of alcohol stems from much deeper issues in human beings. Most of these issues are distortions of perfectly legitimate and even noble desires that we all share, such as our desire for intimacy with others, both the intimacy of friendship and romantic intimacy. Other issues arise in response to struggles such as existential frustration and anxiety about our lives and identity.

Hacking Intimacy

All human beings desire intimacy. This desire, as with any other natural desire, is expressed in a variety of ways, depending on the person and the relationship or situation. There is the obvious yet profound example of intimacy between a man and a woman in love. But other examples of intimacy abound; there is intimacy between parents and their children, between close friends, between counselors and their patients, between spiritual directors and their directees, and even between teachers and their students. All of these can be healthy expressions of human intimacy. As Christians, we believe that our need and desire for intimacy comes from our being created imago Dei (in the image of God), Who is a Trinity of persons sharing perfect intimacy through an eternal exchange of love. As human beings, however, our finite and fallen nature creates obstacles to intimacy, such as pride, lust, and envy. That is why when Adam and Eve first sinned, their intimate relationship with God was broken and they hid from God, which prompted God to ask, "Where are you?" (Gen 3:9). God was not asking for Adam's physical whereabouts (He already knew that); God was asking Adam where he was in relation to Himself. When we encounter obstacles to intimacy in our own lives, we are forced to either work to overcome them and experience the intimacy we need and desire, or else give up on this enterprise and resign ourselves to a lonely existence devoid of interpersonal depth. 
            However, there is a third option, and that is to try to “hack” intimacy by bypassing the obstacles to it. This is the method that so often enlists the help of alcohol. When we choose to become intoxicated with others as a means of achieving intimacy with them, several things inevitably happen as a result. First, alcohol does not only thin your blood, it also thins your personality. Alcohol is not a selective depressant, it depresses (and as a result, suppresses) everything about your personality that makes you unique. This includes negative features, such as awkwardness, uptightness, anxiety, fear, hesitation, and excessive self-consciousness. It also suppresses positive features, such as prudence, self-control, vigilance, emotional depth, clarity of thought, and self-awareness. By diluting these features, alcohol mitigates the characteristics of human beings that can often make interaction, conversation, and relationships intimidating and challenging. The downside of this is that it also ensures that your interactions, conversations, and relationships will be shallower. By minimizing the uniqueness and individuality of each human person, alcohol often prevents us from presenting our true selves to the other, and from learning to see and appreciate what is intrinsically lovable in the other. In a sense, it eliminates some of the messiness involved when different personalities come together in favor of a kind of “lowest common denominator”, in which each person’s "edges" are rounded off. It levels the playing field by bringing everyone down to a mediocre level.
            When people become incapable of relating to others and enjoying their company, unless alcohol is part of the equation, what does that reveal about them? Implicitly, the person who has reached this point is saying by their actions, “If people knew me, the real me, they would either not understand me, not accept me, or not really love me. Therefore, I need to subdue my real self in order to become acceptable to others.” An inability or unwillingness to relate to others without alcohol may also reveal that the person does not see others, in their deepest selves, as worth getting to actually know. If experiencing the full reality of a person inspires our interest, appreciation, and love, then alcohol cannot enhance this experience. In fact, it can only diminish it, because it conceals the fullness of human personality. When alcohol is introduced into human interactions and relationships, it produces a false sense of intimacy and mutual understanding. This is why “drinking buddies” are rarely close friends who really know each other in an authentic way. It is also why some one seeking to use another person for selfish pleasure, as in the case of a "one-night stand", is far more likely to buy that person a drink than to enter into a personal and meaningful conversation. That action effectively says, "I'm not interested in you. I'm interested in getting you out of the way so that I can have access to your body." This is the basic mentality underlying the hook-up culture today, and frankly, it is pathetic. Animals are supposed to "hook up"; men and women are supposed to love each other.


"The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion. And yet it is the greatest of our miseries. For it is that above all which prevents us thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibly to destruction." –– Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Alcohol can also contribute to the epidemic of diversion that plagues our world today. When I speak of diversion, I’m referring to the tendency of people to occupy themselves with endless stimuli, entertainment, and distractions in an effort, conscious or unconscious, to avoid facing questions of ultimate meaning and responsibility. In hindsight, I realize that this sort of diversion was an essential feature of my problem with alcohol. When fundamental questions about the meaning of my life arose, especially the question of whether or not there even was a meaning, I was too afraid to grapple with them, and so I simply tried to ignore them. Of course, one cannot avoid facing reality forever. Therefore, since I couldn’t resolve my own uncertainties, nor could I ignore them indefinitely, I chose to disengage from reality in various ways––music, movies, video games, and alcohol being among my most trusted methods. I was like a child who, upon realizing he is no good at a game, simply refuses to play it. I thought that I was no good at life––with growing up, making friends, and handling social situations––and so I refused to participate. How sadly ironic it is when people refer to their constant need to escape reality as “living life to the full,” when more often than not, such people are living a life of mediocrity and dissatisfaction. How reassuring then is Christ’s response to this delusion: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).

A Freely Chosen Slavery

A final negative consequence of alcohol abuse is its effects on the will, both immediate and long term. The immediate effect of alcohol on the will is well known and obvious. Alcohol directly impairs the human faculty of free will, which is a gift from God that separates us from animals, allowing us to make moral judgments, and making it possible for us to love. That is why choosing to become intoxicated or otherwise impairing your free will is a serious sin. Drunkenness makes us highly susceptible to other sins, distorts our identity as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, and destroys our freedom as His children. Unfortunately, many people enjoy drinking for the very reason that it weakens their will. This is usually done in an effort to absolve themselves of their moral responsibility. However, the excuse, “I was drunk” is invalid if you deliberately got drunk in order to overcome the resistance of your conscience. In Catholic moral theology, full consent of the will is required for an action to be mortally (i.e., seriously) sinful. However, while a person may not have full consent of the will while intoxicated, their freely made decision to surrender their freedom is itself a serious sin. That is why Saint Paul wrote that drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:10). Sometimes we minimize passages such as this to justify our behavior, but you couldn’t ask for a more straightforward teaching.
            The long term effect of alcohol on the human will is a direct consequence of the immediate or short-term effect. This is the weakening of the will against temptation and sin. Over time, the repeated decision to forfeit one’s free will begins to numb the conscience. The more often you choose to temporarily dispense with morality for the sake of pleasure, the more morality itself will begin to seem dispensable. If you decide to make exceptions to your moral duties and obligations––say, on Friday and Saturday nights for example––then you will soon find yourself treating morality as relative or merely provisional. You will start seeing morality as elective, something that is chosen, instead of something objective and foundational to reality. This is a deadly trap, one that our current pope, following the teaching of his last two predecessors, has warned against with profound seriousness. To avoid this trap of moral laxity and indifference, let’s heed the advice of our first pope, Saint Peter, who wrote: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour" (1 Pet 5:8).

Completely Under the Mercy

By the time I entered seminary nearly three years ago now, I believed my alcohol consumption to be totally under control, and my problems with it to be a thing of the past. At the beginning of summer last year, I discovered that I was presumptuous and mistaken. During my first couple of weeks living at a parish rectory, I found myself somewhat depressed and avoiding most social situations, opting instead to spend my nights reading or watching movies and drinking alcohol by myself at the rectory. To my surprise, I found myself incapable of stopping at just one or two drinks, and I drank far too much on multiple occasions, even after telling myself I would dial back the amount I drank. I was greatly disappointed in myself, but wasn’t fully aware of the gravity of my situation until I received what I am convinced was a powerful grace from God, which gave me insight into my weakness and my desperate need for Him in this matter. I was in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, and was praying as sincerely as I’ve ever prayed. I asked God to show me what I needed to do to be free from what had by that time clearly become a serious problem. Suddenly, I had a moment of extreme clarity, during which I saw myself as having only two options: 1) to live the rest of my life struggling with alcohol and trying, unsuccessfully, to negotiate and compromise with this destructive force in my life, or 2) to abandon alcohol completely. God was not offering me a third way. Until that moment, I had been clinging to alcohol as a vestige of my former self, something other than God that I could occasionally return to as a momentary escape and take refuge in if I felt the need. However, I finally realized that in trying to escape my problems using alcohol, I had really been avoiding God and His invitation to trust Him with everything, even this thing, this shameful and embarrassing part of my life. After hovering between the two choices for a moment in hesitation, I finally surrendered myself, and in doing so received a peace that I had never known, a “peace which passes all understanding” (Php 4:7).
            In that moment, I became perfectly content to finally let go of my past life, to “put off the old nature with its practices” and “put on the new nature” (Col 3:9-10). Since that day, June 7th, 2015, I have by the grace of God remained completely sober. What’s most astonishing to me is that I have never even experienced a serious temptation to drink again, despite my past attempts to temporarily quit drinking being short-lived and full of strong temptations. I now live with a new and profound sense of freedom, knowing that I don’t have to constantly worry about alcohol and the damage it could have inflicted, not only on myself, but also on all the people around me, including those whom I will (God willing) serve someday in the future as a priest. Instead of trying to manipulate or dilute my personality in order to meet what I perceive to be the expectations of others, I am now content to let God form me into the man He created me to be, which far exceeds anything I could ever imagine or aspire to on my own. I am committed to placing myself, my whole self, under the mercy of God, because therein lies my only hope.

Choose Freedom, Choose God

Let us all choose the freedom that belongs to us as children of God, and in doing so, embrace the full weight of reality that He wants us to experience, as a means of growing closer to others, and above all, closer to Himself. What this choice of freedom entails will be different for each person. I am certainly not suggesting that everyone needs to avoid alcohol altogether simply because I discovered this to be necessary for me. However, I am suggesting that all of us be honest enough with ourselves and with God to identify whatever obstacles stand in the way of our freedom. If one of those obstacles is alcohol or another drug, then of course, we need to take courage and bring that before the Lord, preferably beginning with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God wants all of us to experience true intimacy with others, and ultimately, with Himself. Why should we delay the pursuit of this any longer?
. . . you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Rom 13:11-14).
Thank you for reading this rather long post! May God bless you and guide you into a greater freedom, and as a result, into a deeper intimacy with others and Himself.

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer