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FRONTLINES

ADDICTION—THERE IS A WAY OUT

When it comes to habit-forming behaviour—from substance abuse to craving that morning cup of coffee—"just coping" can give place to clear-cut and decisive healing.

From the October 2004 issue of The Christian Science Journal


At two in the morning on the night of her sister's wedding, 13-year-old Susan Sherwood found herself wandering drunkenly around her family's barn in a bridesmaid dress and high heels. Later, her sister's new husband would find her there, sick to her stomach from all the alcohol she'd consumed. But the night, at least as Susan would remember it, rated as a success. She'd been witty and fun—quite unlike the shy teenager she normally was. The alcohol had removed her inhibitions.

Over time, a dependency developed. Initially, alcohol functioned as a crutch in social situations. After a few drinks, a reserved and tongue-tied Susan would transform into the animated life of the party her friends loved. But less than a decade later, alcohol's grip had tightened considerably, and by her early 20s, Susan was drinking regularly during her lunch hour at work, just so she could make it through the day.

It could have gone on like this indefinitely. And it nearly did. But then, almost 20 years after Susan had her first drink, three things happened that forced her to step back and take a good look at what was going on. The first was an argument with her husband that occurred while Susan was intoxicated. The second, a fight with her sister under the same circumstances. And the third, harsh words with her best friend after Susan had consumed one too many drinks. Though all three individuals forgave her, the incidents left Susan rattled, and she began to search for answers. Why was this happening? she wondered. What am I doing here? What's my purpose anyway?

Susan wasn't alone on her quest for answers. More than ten million Americans grapple with serious drug addictions, and statistics don't begin to tabulate the number of people in the US and around the world who are wrestling with other habit-forming behaviors—from compulsive shopping to overeating to the seemingly innocuous need for a caffeine fix.

What's heartening is that statistics also don't begin to document the millions who have found a way out of addiction. Their methods of extricating themselves from addiction vary widely. Most find a coping mechanism—a stint in detox, a support group, prescription medication, a 12-step program. Through treatment and/ or behavior modification, these individuals recover—recovery being defined as the management of an addiction so that the addict avoids relapse. But growing numbers of people are discovering something even beyond recovery: transformation, regeneration, healing. They're finding that, through prayer, addiction can be more than coped with. It can be cured.

For Rob, Because AA has a tradition of personal anonymity, which helps to ensure that no one individual speaks for the AA experience as a whole, the Journal has respected Rob's request to withhold his last name. For the purpose of consistency, we've also used other interviewees' first names on second reference throughout this article. an Australian poet and writer, behavior modification was the first step on the road to recovery from nearly a decade and a half of alcohol abuse. After joining Alcoholics Anonymous, Rob maintained his sobriety by filling his time with activities—trying to put his life back together, at least on the outside. He started running long distances. He contributed to his community by coaching football and joining committees.

Amazingly, Rob says, the busyness, in combination with regular attendance at AA meetings, kept him sober for about 17 years. On the inside, though, Rob was growing more depressed, and suffering, still, under the weight of fear and resentment—two of the emotions that initially fed his alcoholism.

It wasn't until divorce caused him to hit rock bottom that he woke up to what was missing.

"Even though AA encourages spiritual growth," Rob says, "what often happens is that most of us try to get well physically, financially, and relationshipwise, and spirituality falls by the wayside.

"It did in my case," he adds with a rueful laugh. "But when my wife ended our marriage, I reached for God like a lifeline. I think that's when my sobriety really started."

In the first three months after the divorce, Rob spent hours praying. The God of his childhood wasn't one he'd ever come to know very well—even though, Rob admits, He'd never been far from his thoughts. And now, as Rob searched his own heart and prayed for answers, he discovered that God was closer than he'd ever imagined.

"I had one night when I thought to myself, "This is how you feel before you go insane,"' Rob remembers. "But right at that moment I heard a voice, as close as my thoughts, clearer than it's ever been. And it said, 'Don't worry, Rob, I'm here with you.' In that instant, I knew God loved me. Loved me unconditionally. And I've never looked back."

When the dark night gave place to day both literally and figuratively, Rob found that the fear and resentment that had driven his alcohol habit were already receding. That he was ready to walk in a new direction—away from the world's model of success and toward a broader horizon. Rob was moving, for the first time, to a place where he wouldn't be measuring himself according to the world's standards. He was growing into a self-worth determined by God, and God alone.

For those who struggled with addiction, finding a "whole new me" had to do with identifying themselves differently, seeing themselves as the image and likeness of Love—and feeling that connection.

Research shows that Rob's experience is not unique. Although some contend that the strongest component of 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous is social support, a large number of 12-step participants swear by this approach for another reason. Like Rob, many have found that it's the spiritual nature of these programs that makes them an effective way of coping with a problem for which modern medicine has no cure.

Alcoholics Anonymous devotes an entire appendix in its basic text, the Big Book, to an explanation of this spiritual experience. It notes that many alcoholics have "concluded that in order to recover they must acquire an immediate and overwhelming 'God-consciousness' followed at once by a vast change in feeling and outlook." www.aa.org/bigbookonline . The Big Book makes it clear that each individual's experience will be just that—individual. The common denominator: a willingness and humility to reach beyond oneself for help, and to trust that a greater Power is there, ready to offer that help.

Help was what Susan needed. And it was a greater Power that saved her, as she continued to look for answers. One day, out on her bike, Susan looked up to what she imagined was heaven and said, "If there is a God, show yourself to me. Because there must be something better to life than what I'm experiencing."

God spoke to Moses out of a burning bush. For Susan, the sign was less dramatic and yet similarly unexpected; it came in the form of a dinner invitation. And a book that changed her life forever. Because it was at that dinner that a friend's son gave her a copy of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy.

Though Susan had never considered herself religious, she took the book anyway—intrigued by what her friend's son had told her. That night, she read the first chapter, "Prayer," before going to bed. A couple of hours later, she awoke and sat bolt upright in bed. She felt, she says, as though her heart had been restored.

Susan wanted to find out more, and before long, she'd made her way to a nearby Church of Christ, Scientist, where good things started to happen. Through new relationships with church members—and her continued reading of Science and Health—she began to find what she'd been looking for: answers.

"In Science and Health, I discovered ideas that resonated," Susan remembers. "The book showed me that God was the source of my self-worth and self-esteem, not some beverage. I was longing to identify myself differently, looking for a sense of goodness and holiness to counteract the way I felt. Through my reading, which also came to include the Bible again, that's what I was finding. A whole new me."

That "whole new me" was based on a radically different view of God. Because for Susan, the "guy with a beard and notepad" version of God was giving place to an understanding of God as Life, Truth, and Love, as Father-Mother, a God of Spirit. "All of a sudden, I saw that God wasn't sitting upstairs taking notes on me," Susan says. "He was actually expressing Himself as me. I realized: Wow, I'm the very image and likeness of Love. And I felt that connection."

Connectedness was also key for Tony Lobl, a Londoner who began gambling compulsively shortly after he graduated from university. Interestingly, the beginnings of Tony's gambling addiction coincided with his own first-time read of Science and Health. But for a while, although he was having other healings—from physical troubles to relationship problems—the gambling, which seemed another thing entirely, continued.

"I guess you could say that I had a nagging feeling that the gambling wasn't right," Tony says. "Of course, I could always tell when I'd crossed a line—when I'd gone from playing just for fun to being completely out of control. But this other feeling I link to my reading of Science and Health, which was changing my view of just about everything."

Tony attributes his new perspective to a deepening sense of his connection to God and a more tangible feeling of God's presence in his life. "What happened," he relates, "is that I became more and more engaged in actively living God, living Love. In seeing God's love embracing everyone, including me. So while I still struggled, at times, with the draw of gambling, this other thing—spirituality, my relationship with God—was so much more interesting, exciting even. And I saw how much more satisfying it was when I went along with it."

The feeling, Tony says, can be likened to using two faders on a sound mixer. "It was as though God was fading up the spiritual track, and that automatically faded down the material track," he explains. "Eventually, that material track, with all its empty claims of satisfaction and happiness, just faded out entirely. What I was left with was a desire to discover my spiritual identity."

In sum, Tony's healing of compulsive gambling came down both to feeling God in his life and to cultivating a new view of himself—and living it. "Taking the ideas I was finding in Science and Health and putting them into practice is what saved me," Tony affirms. "Because practice is what takes those concepts out of the realm of the abstract and shows you how real and true and provable they are."

Back in Australia, Rob found that putting the ideas in Science and Health into practice could move him beyond a world shadowed by potential relapses to clear-cut healing, too. He came into contact with the book shortly after his realization that God loved him unconditionally. And Science and Health, he says, has continued to change his life.

"After I became sober, I started smoking like crazy," Rob remembers. "I felt like there was a void in my life, and cigarettes seemed to be the only way to fill it. Later, even when the void was gone, every time those feelings of fear or resentment would crop up, I'd reach for a smoke."

Then one day after he'd been reading Science and Health for a while, Rob realized that God would never turn him to cigarettes. "God keeps me feeling good," Rob says, "and He tells me there's good going on in those moments of fear or frustration."

The result of this realization? Healing. Rob hasn't smoked since.

For Brian Clendenen, a Christian Science practitioner who treats people through prayer, Susan's, Rob's, and Tony's experiences are the types of healings he's come to expect in his practice. "It's just so natural that they'd be healed of addiction by developing their relationship with God," says Brian, speaking from his home in Minnetonka, Minnesota. "I'm always asking myself: What is God? Who am I? What's the relationship? The answers to those questions are a compass."

Brian says he's found throughout years of praying for himself and for others that correct identifications is key in healing. "The moment you start identifying with a difficulty or addiction is the moment you get off course," he explains, "because you can't get to God through the problem. He's not there."

Though treatment is individual, Brian explains, starting with one, infinite God and each individual made in His perfect likeness is foundational. "If you want to see why you could never be vulnerable, never be under the control of any power but God, then you can't possibly start with feelings of vulnerability," he says. "That would be like trying to drive forward while looking over your shoulder."

Instead, keeping one's sight fixed on God makes God's creation—and God—become more real, more compelling. "Each of us is the loved of Love!" Brian exclaims, the delight in his voice indicating that he's experienced the meaning of the statement firsthand. "Even just a glimpse of that is enough, because when you see you couldn't be anything less, you find your freedom."

In the end, complete healing for Susan also came in one of these momentary glimpses. "It was a line in Mrs. Eddy's Miscellaneous Writings that changed me forever," Susan remembers. "She makes a statement about alcohol, that 'its slightest use is abuse.' Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896, p. 289 . When I read that, I thought, 'I don't want anything to do with abuse!' The desire, the craving, for alcohol or drugs left me at that moment. Permanently."

Freedom came in another way, too—the freedom to look outward instead of inward. "I used to be so self-centered, always thinking about the next party," Susan says. "Now, happiness for me, and real satisfaction, involves expressing God, Love. I've started volunteering and really caring about other people in a way I hadn't before."

That's something common to Rob's, Susan's, and Tony's experiences: When healing happened, it brought more than just freedom from the particular addiction; each individual's nature was changed. Lives were redeemed when perspectives shifted "from self to Self," as Brian puts it. To a focus on God.

At least in Susan's case, it all boils down to a statement Mrs. Eddy once made, that "the heart that beats mostly for self is seldom alight with love." The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 160.

"Today, what I want more than anything," says Susan, "is to have my heart beating for others. Because what I see now is that real freedom means being aflame and alight with love."

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