“I had no idea?”
The statement above is one I have heard many times since I began the sobriety journey. It is usually said with a varied senses of amazement, pity, and sorrow. One friend in particular said, “I was with you every week for a year; and I had no clue.” It was not a surprise to me that he said it. We were in a clergy covenant group. We met to discuss the issues of our ministries and lives. We were supposed to be there to tell the truth. We usually did. The problem was that the weekly meeting only allowed so much time for discussion. One or two people at most got to bring something forward to the group. I found it very easy not to say anything about my addiction.
Addicts lie. It’s that simple. The situation of the friend, co-worker, relative, and employer who claim they didn’t know proves that the lies of the addict worked. When someone says to me, “I didn’t know.” The answer is simple. “You friend were not supposed to know or ever find out.” I knew I had a problem. I intended to control it until I died with it.
Alcoholics and addicts who enter treatment must learn to admit they are suffering from a problem they cannot control. To put it another way, alcoholics and addicts have to stop lying. I had to stop lying to myself, my family, and others. Once having done this, then putting away the booze or drugs is done.
I was indeed aided and abetted in my lying. The really monstrous lie were the ones I forced other people, especially my children, to tell. I abused my position of being their father to make them cover for me. I hope one day they will forgive me for it. The others who helped were those people of the community who usually do not care to hear someone else’s problems. This is not merely a clergy issue. But clergy members find themselves in the double bind situation of hiding their problems while everyone else wants assurance that this person will be strong enough to be available for their needs. Clergy members are expected when called upon to provide a sense of emotional security to the people they serve. I know most people never consider this issue. I once had a lay person say to me that the congregation(s) usually “minimize” the deaths and illnesses in the family of clergy people. And if the lay members of the congregation will do that, they will also minimize the more “trivial” needs of the pastors (the need for time off, renewal, recreation, rest, and even the continued training required in the profession). Why are clergy in these untenable positions? Because everyone else is or at least has been.
Consider the co-worker who you learn self-harms or commits suicide. The usual response on learning about it is to say, “I didn’t know.” There are reasons for that. The same hiding, lying, self-deception, and cover-up is happening. It is hard to accept the following statement. People do not care to know. It is easier to condemn than to understand. It is easier to disregard than to be concerned. It makes demands on a person’s time to care. And everyone is too busy playing the game of “Don’t worry about me I am okay.”
We believe the lies the alcoholic, addict, and suicidal person tell us. The US military has been plagued with suicides in recent years and is a good indicator of the lack of care for its members. It surprises many people when I say that all illness is stigmatized in some way. If a chain smoker develops lung cancer, what is the usual often unspoken response? It is a judgmental one. When HIV/AIDS became known the people infected were often from already stigmatized people including addicts. Mental health is stigmatized the same way by ascribing moral problems to those who suffer with it. How many people that you know who battle with a mental illness do you consider worthy of trust? People with untreated mental illnesses are the ones that cannot be trusted. Those people who seek treatment are usually worthy of trust. It is because of the stigma that many go untreated. The simple unavailability of mental health treatment is another very important issue.
The only way to overcome the stigmatization of mental illness, alcoholism and addiction, and other ailments is to build a culture of care. C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General of the United States once said that what is missing most in healthcare is “the care.” He was right. We believe that is a near impossibility to develop a community of caring for other people. And we are correct to think so. But it is not impossible. Cultures of care existed and continue to exist as subsets of communities. The Bruderhof immediately come to mind. Early Mormonism does too. The Book of Acts describes the lives of the early disciples as reflecting what ancient philosophers like Epicurus considered the good society. A people who decide to care for other people will never get it completely right. All of the ones I describe here failed to be perfect. It is the plight of human beings to be imperfect. It is though the privilege of human beings to try for perfection. To care means to believe and to act. Care and charity are from the same Latin derivation. We can believe and act in ways that show more care.
What do we have to lose? If it doesn’t work out, we can always go back to being our worst selves.