Freedom Isn’t Free

Another glimpse into our Food & Drink Issue. This essay is written by Connor Gwin.  […]

Mockingbird / 4.5.17

Another glimpse into our Food & Drink Issue. This essay is written by Connor Gwin. 

It is a funny thing, getting sober in seminary. I spent years discerning my call to ordained ministry and answering questions from committee after committee, only to find myself in front of the mirror in my seminary dorm room. It was the morning after a blur of a day spent drinking to celebrate St. Patrick. The celebration ended in a blackout, as they seemed to more and more, and there I stood in front of my bathroom mirror. I gazed into my own eyes and spoke the truth that was deep in my bones: I am an alcoholic.

I come by it honestly. My father and grandfather were alcoholics before me. My grandfather owned the only department store in town and would finish most days with an iced tea glass full of scotch as he read the day’s paper. My father was a college professor who would find ways to hide airline bottles of vodka in his desk and closet at home. Both men, my forebears, died as a result of the way they lived. Both men were killed by their addictions.

The first time I drank, I got drunk and blacked out. The next morning I awoke, sick and disoriented, but my primary thought was that I could not wait to do that again. When I got to college, it was off to the races. The only goal when drinking was to get drunk, and once I was drunk I would not stop drinking until I blacked out. In college, I found the pinnacle of human freedom. I was over a thousand miles away from my parents at a large school in a new state. I could be anyone I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do. In my second semester of college, I was arrested for underage possession of alcohol and being drunk in public. I woke up in the hospital, where the police had taken me after checking my blood alcohol level. My clothes were in a plastic bag at the foot of the bed and there was a court summons resting on my chest.

This did not deter my drinking.

The week after my arrest, I suffered sudden cardiac arrest while jogging at the on-campus gym. I was placed in a medically induced coma. Eventually, I was diagnosed with a genetic heart condition and implanted with a defibrillator. The doctors told me to limit my physical activity and to refrain from drinking alcohol or partaking in recreational drugs.

This did not deter my drinking.

I continued drinking and eventually began increasing my consumption. In my last two years of college I achieved the dream: a one-bedroom apartment where I lived alone. I kept a 1.75 liter bottle of liquor on standby and would often end the night by playing computer games and drinking alone until I fell asleep.

While I rode this self-destructive elevator down, passing each floor on my way to the bottom, I began the discernment process to become an Episcopal priest.

In the Gospels, we read countless stories of Jesus overturning the social and religious norms. He did not come preaching behavior modification. He did not partake in the social shaming and religious scorekeeping of the day. Instead, “the Son of Man came both eating and drinking…” Jesus preached that the grace of God transcends and infuses all things.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s grace has been declared victorious over death and sin. “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” Paul tells us in the letter to the Galatians. Put simply, we have victory over sin through the power of Jesus. What then do we make of alcoholism?

There has long been some confusion about the true nature of alcoholism. Once seen as a moral failing or character flaw, modern science holds that alcoholism, and addictions more broadly, are medical conditions—both chronic and progressive.

In simple terms, alcoholism is “self-will run riot.” It stems from a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and ever-present desire for more. Alcohol (like drugs, gambling, shopping, etc.) is seen, through the lens of addiction, as the miracle cure. The addicted believes, “Everything that I am lacking, my drug of choice will provide.”

Many churches play host to various 12-step meetings, but many churchgoers have a distorted view of the addicted. Most are not homeless men gathered around a burning trashcan. Most are average folks, men and women, who have spent their lives keeping up appearances while the truth of addiction has been gnawing away at their souls. Many are mothers and fathers. Many are young people. They are not moral failures but people who have literally lost control. Addiction is a modern analog to demon possession in the New Testament. People are stripped of their free will and are taken over by a force external to their soul.

1 Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Replace “the devil” with “your addiction” and you stand at the beginning of an understanding of addiction.

The only consistent treatment for alcoholism and addiction was discovered in 1935 when two alcoholics began to have conversations about their unquenchable desire to drink. It was only in admitting their powerlessness and abandoning themselves to the fellowship of other alcoholics that they found relief.

The first 12-step meeting that I attended was held in a meeting space on the other side of town from where I lived and attended seminary. I certainly did not want to run into anyone I knew. I arrived early and sat in the parking lot, watching as people filed into the building. The meeting start time came and went as I debated whether or not to go in. Was I making this whole thing up? Was I just a weak-willed person? Surely I could control my drinking if I really tried.

The problem, of course, was that I had tried to control my drinking before. The oft-attempted Lenten alcohol fast that failed before the second Sunday. The promise to only drink on weekends or at bars. The assurance that I would only drink beer and not liquor. The guarantee that I would not drink alone. This list was never ending and never successful.

So there I sat, in the car with the lights off, working up the courage to step inside. I finally called up the strength to get out of my car and head towards the meeting room, and my fears were realized when I stepped inside. The people did not look like me. The smell of cigarette smoke was strong as people found their seats on the couches and armchairs arranged in a loose circle. I do not remember anything that was said at that meeting. Instead, I spent the entire hour coming up with reasons that I was not like those people. When the meeting finished, I made a beeline for my car.

Of course, if you are convinced that you will not fit in somewhere, more times than not you will be correct. I had a clear picture in my mind of what a recovering alcoholic was, and it was obvious to me that I did not belong.

By the grace of God, I decided to try another meeting. This time I went in with an open mind, trusting that my urge to seek out a 12-step meeting was justified. In the desire to stop drinking that had grown within me, perhaps, God was doing for me what I could not do for myself. What I found in this second meeting, held in a church basement, was an array of types. Young and old, businesswomen and homeless folks, gregarious types and quiet souls. I found hope in that meeting as I heard stories from people who didn’t look like me but who felt like me and lived lives like mine. People who had also lost control and admitted their powerlessness.

On that day, over three years ago, I decided to admit my powerlessness and give up alcohol for good. There would be no ‘controlled drinking.’ It was all or nothing. If I wanted to hold on to the things that I loved, like my fiancé and any hope of a future family, I had to confront the reality that I cannot drink like other people. I cannot have just one drink; I will always want more.

Which brings me back to Jesus.

“For freedom, Christ has set us free.” Yet, for some, unbridled freedom is sure destruction. Which is why Paul continues in the same verse, saying, “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Liberty, taken to the extreme, is slavery. This may explain why some church gatherings look more like college parties than get-togethers of the faithful: the understanding of liberty as freedom from moderation or restraint (which many mainline Protestants flaunt in the face of the stricter branches of our Christian family) leads to a cultural fusion that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the liberty granted through Christ. Our liberty comes through our admission of powerlessness, not through control. It comes from staring down the temptations of our addictions, our culture, and our fallen world with the knowledge that Christ claimed the ultimate victory in his life, death, and resurrection. We believe, contrary to popular opinion, that we are not in control, but that we are free because we trust Jesus, the author of our salvation.

Christ has set me free from the bonds of sin, but not from all limits. My liberty is expressed in my abstention. I have been freed from my addiction to alcohol, which means that I can never drink alcohol again. The freedom granted to me does not mean that I have been magically cured, but that I have been given new eyes to see that alcohol is a stumbling block between me and the person that God has called me to be. My freedom is not total license; instead, it comes in handing the keys over to Jesus and following him.

When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he told him he could have it all, anything he ever wanted. In many ways, our culture tells us the same. We can consume as much of whatever we want without consequence. Of course, there are consequences: obesity at epidemic levels, almost guaranteed climate destruction, and a pervasive loneliness that is creeping into every aspect of our common lives. We have been given everything we’ve ever wanted and it is not enough.

This is not the freedom Christ offers, though. Pat permissiveness will not save anyone. This is never more clear to me than in the Eucharist. Each Sunday, I pour wine into a chalice and pray, with the words of Jesus, that it would become the blood of salvation. Each Sunday, I take that which killed my father and grandfather and sought to kill me and see it transformed into the blood of life. I lift the cup that holds both my destruction and my salvation and see Jesus.

Christian liberty is not free reign, just as the peace of God is no peace. Instead, Christian liberty is the freedom that comes with the yoke of Christ; the freedom that comes with being who God has called you to be. For me, that has meant putting down the drink in order to take up my calling as a priest and a husband. The world is starving for this freedom. People are longing for a Way that offers an alternative to the ways of this world: the narrow road that leads to eternal life.

I once heard an older church member say that God will meet us where we are, but God loves us too much to leave us there. God’s grace charged the air of my seminary dorm room as I sought out a 12-step meeting, and God’s grace was like static in the cab of my car as I contemplated stepping out to walk into that meeting. To this day, as I sit in the flickering fluorescence of church basements and repeat my name and status as an alcoholic, God’s grace still animates my life. I am free from my addiction and free to never drink again. I will always be an alcoholic, but God has done more than I could do for myself.

My name is Connor. I am an alcoholic, and I am free.

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7 responses to “Freedom Isn’t Free”

  1. Brian says:

    This is a very good explanation of Christian freedom. Seeing our own powerlessness as an aspect of freedom…not too many people get this nuance when talking about freedom. Thanks for your honesty and for sharing.

  2. Paula S says:

    What a powerful article.
    God is Good!
    “The All Powerful One!”
    Your name is Connor. You are free.

  3. Jill Brooks says:

    Kudos Connor. Not an easy road, but then it shouldn’t be. I was in your place 23 years ago after I found out the price of abusing freedom. And I too found my way home by the grace of God. Love from St. Anne’s 🙂 Jill

  4. Jim says:

    Thanks for sharing Connor AA is a beautiful collection of broken souls seeking progress not perfection. Thankful for the fellowship and steps that have enabled myself and so many to recover and experience a grace filled sobriety.

  5. Maria says:

    Thank you so much for your brave honesty. This is such a gift to me, Connor!

  6. Ali says:

    Connor – thank you. I too found AA about 10 years ago. Wonder if you’d be willing to engage in an off-line discussion on the following….being a Christian in AA. Many would say “um, what about it?”. I wish there were no tension for me. But ever since entering AA (after begging God for relief while on my knees, in my bible studies, in therapists office, etc…) I have been in an ongoing struggle with the two. Hard to find folks who understand. Anyway, this is all I will say as I feel rather vulnerable discussing this online as it invites input…crosstalk if you will : ) Thank you Connor. Regardless of future communication, I really appreciated your article.

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