The end of my drinking career wasn’t pretty. In the same way that it gets darkest just before the dawn, I got drunkest just before I was done.
It was November 2006 when my husband Dave and I moved from Oregon to Colorado. That winter, as one blizzard after another buried our town in snow, my alcoholism took me to new lows. I fell down a lot. I embarrassed myself in restaurants, and I drank to blackout almost every night. Often, I jotted notes while drinking so that in the morning they could help me pretend to Dave that I remembered some of what I’d done or said the previous evening. But my plan didn’t always work. I would wake up in the guest room with no idea how I got there. Obviously, my husband and I must have had another “dumb drunk Heather fight,” as Dave had come to call them.
I would stumble into the bathroom and look in the mirror at my puffy face, swollen eyes, and smashed hair—and my heart would fill with hate. Until the end, I held onto the hope that I could hate myself into changing.
In the meantime—this boggles me now—I continued to write and edit Christian books. By day, I wrote about topics like parenting and prayer. By night, I drank myself blotto from a secret stash in my closet.
On the one hand, I knew I was a phony, a sneak, and a liar. But on the other hand, I knew I’d experienced a genuine conversion to Christ in my teens. So where do you turn for hope when you already have the answer, but the answer isn’t working?
Where do you turn for hope when you already have the answer, but the answer isn’t working?
Once upon a time, I assumed my Christian faith would keep me from the kind of gross moral lapse I considered alcoholism to be. The way I saw it, if you were a sincere believer, you would rarely, if ever, drink. And if this was the case, you couldn’t become an alcoholic. It was sound logic, and my experience in my 20s seemed to bear that out. My first husband and I hardly ever imbibed, and many of our Christian friends never did.
But then, after 12 years of marriage, I went through a divorce. The fallout rattled my convictions and distanced me from church. At the same time, I discovered that wine coolers helped to ease the pain of a failed marriage. What possible harm could a Seagram’s Peach Fuzzy Navel do? In retrospect, it was a perfect spiritual storm: a growing cynicism about my faith, guilt about my divorce, and a new affinity for alcohol.
When I began to date Dave, he didn’t say anything about my habit, though I’m sure he was aware of it. And when he finally did begin to express disapproval about how much I drank, I brushed him off, annoyed and embarrassed. Or I accused him of being an uptight missionary kid.
I knew the Bible says, “Do not get drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). So with “do not get drunk” as my standard, I aimed not to drink to excess. When I did, I asked God to forgive me and to help me not do it again.
Having been taught that alcoholism was strictly a moral issue—the sin of drunkenness repeated over and over again—I didn’t consider physiological factors or genetic predisposition. I didn’t understand that my body’s response to alcohol—the more I drank, the thirstier I got—was abnormal. As my tolerance steadily increased, I could consume an astonishing amount without appearing tipsy. To meet the growing demand, I began to hide extra bottles in my closet, telling myself it was Dave’s fault. He just didn’t get how much I could drink without getting drunk, and I preferred not to be judged by the glass.
In no time at all, a cycle of over-drinking, sincere repentance, trying harder, and over-drinking again became a pattern. Angry and ashamed, I often despaired. Didn’t I love God enough to drink less or to stop altogether? Why wasn’t God giving me “victory in Jesus”?
To admit that I had become addicted felt like a betrayal of Christ’s work on the cross.
It wasn’t until I couldn’t go a single day without drinking that I knew I was an alcoholic—whatever that meant. Still, I never seriously entertained the idea of getting outside help. To even admit that I had become addicted felt like a betrayal of Christ’s work on the cross.
Plus, I was pretty sure I’d die of shame if my secret ever got out.
At some point, I gave up repenting and began to beg God to miraculously deliver me from my obvious bondage. I wanted Him to zap me from heaven and declare in a booming voice, “Your faith has made you well, Heather! Go your way and drink no more.”
Joking aside, I do believe God can and does deliver some people from addictions that way—instantaneously and completely. They’re likely to say, “I was healed of alcoholism at the foot of the cross.” How desperately I wanted that to be me! But it wasn’t. My miracle never arrived. At least not the way I hoped.
Something else happened, though. One March morning in 2007, I woke up as usual—meaning that I couldn’t remember much about the previous evening. Exhausted, sick at heart, and overcome by despair, I found myself on my knees by my bed, sobbing. I don’t remember what I prayed, or if it even involved words. I know I wailed incoherently, as if one of my children had died. I begged God for help in a way that made all my past attempts at surrender seem false and halfhearted.
Eventually, I got up off my knees. I felt strangely calm. I walked the dog. I drank my coffee. I knew that something big had happened. I was pretty sure that God had finally, miraculously delivered me.
Later that same afternoon, I was devastated when I downed a couple glasses of Chardonnay. Clearly, I had not been given instantaneous freedom from my awful obsession. But by the time Dave got home that evening, I understood what I’d been given instead. I’d been given the willingness to let go of my pride, tell him the truth, and ask for help, which in retrospect was a miracle.
Two weeks later, I entered treatment. There, I learned that when we battle compulsions and obsessions, we make choices that are fair to call sin. But when these behaviors progress to the point of addiction, it gets more complicated. Now we’re dealing with very real physical and psychological components in addition to spiritual ones.
While there is no cure for alcoholism, there is a solution. After treatment, I joined a 12-step group and embarked on a program of recovery. Basking in the care of a loving community, I learned new tools to help me stay sober one day at a time—hopefully, for the rest of my life.
I also made a surprising discovery. The shame I thought would kill me if people knew the truth? Turns out, the shame is attached to the secret itself, not to being exposed. Almost as soon as I walked into the light, what I felt wasn’t mortification but enormous relief. At last I had nothing to hide. Before long, I couldn’t quit talking—to friends, family, and even strangers—about the miracle of being an alcoholic in recovery.
Today, I see a little of myself in the woman from the gospel story, who’d been bleeding for 12 years. (See Luke 8:43-48.) She’s sure that if she can just reach out and touch Jesus’ garment, she’ll be healed, and no one will know. But Jesus does. He turns around and asks, “Who touched Me?”
His disciples give Him a funny look. “Uh, wow. We’re, uh, walking through a crowd?”
But Jesus persists. “I was aware that power had gone out of Me.”
Trembling with fear, the woman steps forward to confess that she’s the one who reached for Him. I’m pretty sure Jesus already knew this. And I wonder if He didn’t also know that naming her need in public was somehow a necessary part of her healing.
I was sober for a couple years before I understood that God’s power to heal and help me had been there all along. I simply couldn’t receive the miracle because I wanted it on my own terms—in a way that would spare my pride. And what if God had chosen to deliver me my way? It would have been wonderful. I could have returned to my old life, relieved and grateful. Whew! That ‘being a drunk’ thing was awful! So glad I’m past that now!
But God wouldn’t have received the credit. And I would never have gotten into recovery, or written about it, or fallen in love with the wonderful sober friends I’ve found in meetings and online. I would never have come to understand how good it is to have to depend on God’s power so utterly every single day.
Today, the miracle is still going on. I experience it every time I grasp for the dusting of grace that lies heavy on God’s cloak.
Every morning, I hear Jesus ask, “Who touched Me?”
And every morning, I get to answer, “Me, Lord. I’m the one who reached out for You.”
Heather Kopp is the author of Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up With a Christian Drunk.