Designed for Dependence

By Ginger Stephens

As I look back today, I’m not sure when I crossed the line. I think it was there, but it was so faint, the changes so subtle. Or maybe there really wasn’t a line at all. Perhaps the symptoms of my disease were there from my very first drink; I just didn’t know what to look for. That’s the thing about dependence—you usually can’t see it until it’s too late.

My “too late” came on April 8, 2011, when I found myself at Covenant Hills Treatment Center for my addiction to alcohol. I’d love to tell you it was my decision and my choice to go to treatment, but I’d be lying. I knew I had multiple problems, but in my mind, alcohol was the least of them. The thought of never having another drink of alcohol made me physically ill. It can still knock the wind out of me. Alcohol was my companion for so long that it’s difficult to imagine my life without it…forever.

Many friends have told me I didn’t look or act like an alcoholic. That’s because most of the early symptoms of dependence are hidden away inside your mind, where only your thoughts betray you. The behaviors that you know might give you away become secretive. My friends and family only saw what I wanted them to see. I wore a mask every day that told the world that I had it all together while I was a mess on the inside.

Honestly, I was an alcoholic just waiting to happen from a young age. I wrestled with insecurity, the need for approval, and fear of failure. For as long as I can remember, I was uncomfortable in my own skin. Although I was a Christian from a young age—I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t—I always felt like I constantly struggled to live up to that title. I felt trapped in my rules, standards, and expectations. I lived without the knowledge of grace. Throw in a genetic family history of addiction, and you have a disastrous combination.

But this story isn’t about me. My story isn’t extraordinary or tragic; it’s common. I’ve never been mistreated or abused. I can’t blame my childhood—I came from a strong Christian family that had me in the church from the first Sunday of my life. I can’t blame my environment. There was never a drop of alcohol in my family home, and I had a solid group of friends who didn’t drink. I graduated from high school having had one sip of beer in my life. From the outside looking in, I’m sure my life looked normal.

This story really isn’t about alcohol either. The substance isn’t the problem. Oh, I can educate you on the long-term, neurological effects of alcohol and drugs on your brain and the disease model of addiction, but honestly, you can fill the empty spaces of your life with just about anything. Drugs and alcohol are simply the most visible and most physically destructive.

My drug of choice was alcohol. Yours might be food, money, power, exercise, pornography, control, or even something that looks good for you, like your family. Addiction, dependence, attachment— no matter what you call it, the bottom line is that it all begins innocently when we seek out something other than God (or a higher power for some) to meet our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

In his book Breathing Under Water, author Richard Rohr writes, “Addiction is a spiritual disease, a disease of the soul, an illness resulting from longing, frustrated desire, and deep dissatisfaction, which is ironically the necessary beginning of any spiritual path….addicts are souls searching for love in the wrong places, but still searching for love.”

The longing or sense that something just isn’t right in our life. The deep restlessness that moves us to grasp for more and more of things that never satisfy. This instinctual pull, I believe, was placed in our hearts by God for intimacy and a relationship with Him. The always present call to return to the One who created each of us in love and for love.

The journey into addiction is about unfulfilled needs and the yearning for something more, but I believe it begins with simple choices to turn to or away from God. I know exactly when I made my first choice to take a step down that path. I was 22 years old, married, working, and going to college full-time. Life wasn’t living up to my expectations, and I was slowly growing more discontent and dissatisfied. I was sitting at a social event trying to make small talk with people I hardly knew. I felt out of place, uncomfortable, and just different. I looked around, and everyone else seemed to be having fun. They were dancing, talking, laughing. I remember my thoughts well… “I’m the only person in this room not having a good time.” I stood up, walked to the bar, and got a beer. Never in my imagination could I have dreamed where that one choice would lead.

So you see, alcohol was the solution to my problem long before it became the problem. In alcohol, I found an answer to all those negative feelings. I found confidence, courage, relaxation, laughter, and freedom from the opinion of others and self-criticism that I had never experienced before.

In those early years of my marriage without kids and responsibilities, turning to alcohol for relief seemed innocent enough. But over the years, the symptoms of my physical and spiritual disease began to grow—the never-ending attempts to “just have one;” the broken promises I made myself to slow down or stop; the need for more and more alcohol to keep the nagging thoughts of discontentment at bay. What I couldn’t numb with alcohol, I filled with activities and busyness. In the last few years of my disease, I experienced “blackouts” where I would not remember periods of time while I was drinking. People would tell me things we did or what I said, but the memories simply weren’t there. I never knew this wasn’t normal, and, of course, I never admitted to anyone that these blackouts were occurring. What began as a choice to free me from fear and insecurity eventually stole my freedom and enslaved me.

Over time, this struggle changed me. Addiction hijacks our deepest desires and motivations for seeking God first for all our needs and sends us searching for lesser gods to complete us. My desperate search for security, acceptance, and, ultimately, love led me to places I never thought I could go. There’s no way I can put into words all the chaos, pain, and hurt I caused my husband, family, friends, and myself. In the end, I simply wanted to disappear. The week before I went to Covenant Hills, I was so very destructive that I had no other choices to make. Those choices were made for me.

Thank God this story doesn’t end there. God wastes nothing. When I began this journey, I did not see the beauty that would come from the struggle. I could not. My journey into addiction brought me to a place of surrender to my God that I do not believe I could have found any other way. There were pieces of my life that I could have never turned loose had they not been stripped from my grip.

From my struggle, I learned the truth of what it means to be truly dependent upon God alone. I learned the depths of God’s mercy and grace. Addiction taught me about acceptance, humility, and gratitude. I learned the value of brutal honesty with yourself, confession to others, and making amends to those you have hurt.

God designed us for dependence. His plan for dependence is echoed in the two most important commands that He gave to us. “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30 NLT). From all I have learned about the neurological nature of the disease of addiction, I am entirely convinced that our bodies are biologically, psychologically, and spiritually created with the sole purpose of fulfilling these two commandments and drawing us toward the Author of life and Divine Creator.

Unfortunately, I believe our human instincts, motivation, and desires were forever corrupted by the choices of Adam and Eve. Our natural instincts for nourishment, sexual intimacy, and safety, along with our desires for accomplishment, relationship, and love, were shifted away from fulfillment through God and onto ourselves. We now strive for self-sufficiency and independence.

God uses our most private weaknesses and addictions to draw us to Him. When our choice to live independently fails, only God’s grace and mercy can fill the gap where we fall short and bring healing. The Apostle Paul wrote, “My grace is all you need; my power finds its full strength in weakness. So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses so that the power of Christ can work through me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Although I deeply regret the pain, I put my family through and the friendships I destroyed, I am not ashamed to say I am an alcoholic today. I would not erase the journey if even if I was given the chance. For it was my greatest weakness and failure that taught me to seek after God alone for my strength, my peace, and my contentment.

“You will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)