‘My name is Janet, and I’m a recovering addict.”
Usually, when I say those words, I’m in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. But when I say them to a group of Christian women gathered for a Ladies Day, there are usually audible gasps.
Sometimes, I can see looks of anguish and concern. On a few occasions, I’ve seen the eyes of an addict looking back at me acknowledging the shame before quickly looking away trying not to be noticed. Those are the ladies that I try to move to action whenever I give witness to my story.
On April 19, I went to the local AA noon meeting and received my 10-year sobriety chip. Most of the people attending the meeting clapped enthusiastically. One of them asked me how I did it. I smiled and said, “By the grace of God and the love of my friends and family.”
It’s very painful to talk about what I have done to myself and my loved ones during my life as an addict. It’s painful to remember those years that I separated myself from God. It’s especially painful after I stopped using and faced the reality that lives were changed because of the choices I made.
I grew up in a normal, loving home. My father is a retired Church of Christ minister. My mother taught school and was a wonderful minister’s wife. I was raised with strong Christian values.
As a teenager, I didn’t smoke, drink or try drugs. While attending Harding University, I met and married a wonderful man who also was a minister.
I can give all kinds of reasons why I started drinking. I believe that, at some point, I stopped looking toward the cross and lost my way. By the time our third child was born, I was secretly drinking a bottle of tequila every night. Nine years later, I was twice-divorced and addicted to speed and cocaine.
I did all the right things as a minister’s wife. I taught class on Sunday morning. I gave talks on faith and hope. People looked up to me. But as I sank deeper and deeper into an abyss of my own making I didn’t know how to ask for help. I was too ashamed. So I drank more and got better at pretending.
Finally, I told the elders that I couldn’t take it anymore and left my husband. I told them it was temporary, but I knew that was a lie. For the next several years, I drifted in and out of jobs, lost contact with most of my family, degraded myself daily to get my next fix and completely cut off any connection to God. I weighed 87 pounds and felt like I was going to die. I barely existed.
It was at my daughter’s wedding that my sister reached out to me one more time. In an unguarded moment, she started to cry and told me that she wanted her sister back. My heart broke, and five months later, I was in Oklahoma at a rehab facility.
For me, quitting drugs was the easy part. Facing the pain I had caused and the damage I had inflicted on my loved ones was almost more than I could handle. Fortunately, I was blessed with friends and family who supported me and kept me focused. I returned to worship services and connected to God in a way that I had never experienced.
For the first time in my life, I knew the true meaning of forgiveness.
But there was a problem. I was a recovering addict who needed to talk about my struggles as an addict. I wanted to connect to anyone who had my experiences.
I remember the first time I mentioned my addictive past in a Sunday morning adult class. I spoke about how the grace of God profoundly changed me and how I truly knew what forgiveness felt like. After I stopped speaking, there was a prolonged silence. The teacher, bless his heart, didn’t know what to say. I could almost feel the shock in the air. They all knew me as Janet, the minister’s daughter. Finally, someone said something and the class continued.
I was dismayed. I also was a little bewildered. That was the moment I decided to make it my ministry to seek out women in the church who were like me. I needed them as much as they needed me. AA is a much-needed organization, and I have spent many hours inside those meetings.
But I needed more. I needed to connect with other women with similar beliefs and values who would listen to me and nod their heads and say, “I know.”
So I started speaking at women’s groups and Ladies’ Days. I started speaking about addiction and forgiveness. I asked recovering addicts to be brave and tell their stories. I begged active users to come talk
to me and I would do all I could to help them. But I was — I am — only one person. We need more.
In most every congregation, there is at least one person deeply involved in addiction of one form or another. These people need to be reached.
It will take more than a pat on the arm and a “I’m praying for you.” It will take Christian women actively speaking out about their recovery.
We know what to say. We’ve been there. We know how to take the shame that grips our hearts and turn that shame into recovery. But it takes courage.
I believe that women in the church who have struggled with addictions and have overcome those addictions must come out of the shadows and speak out in order to help those still struggling.
I believe that women suffer in silence because the fear of discovery is more comfortable than the idea of recovery.
Unless more women step forward and talk bravely about their sobriety and how God has saved them from a life of addiction, more women will leave the church — or die — before they can be reached. JANET NEY is a member of the Ukiah Church of Christ in California and a grandmother of five. She contributes to the website www.learningtobecontent.com. Contact her at [email protected].