Summer heat and sun conjure images of laidback, outdoor fun enveloped in a carefree, capricious atmosphere, and it is not uncommon to envision or expect alcohol to be a central (or at the very least, peripheral) aspect of our annual summer fun.
While alcohol in and of itself is not evil, of course, it is prudent for us to examine our use of it. I say this, because alcohol (and now marijuana in some states) is considered a legal substance in our American culture; therefore, most of us believe this means it is also a safe substance. The truth is both alcohol and marijuana are classified as drugs, so they must be approached with caution and propriety.
Moderation may be a goal for some of us as we enjoy our gin and tonics or an ice-cold beer at a cookout, but for others of us, moderation is an abstract and futile goal, especially those of us who have a predisposition to alcoholism or addictions in general. We can know this by being familiar with the disease itself: its neurological and biological origins and manifestations, the psychological aspect of compulsion, and also by acknowledging the pattern of substance abuse in our families of origin. Finally, we need to be very self-aware and honest with ourselves if we have a tendency toward any sort of addiction, be it an illicit or legal substance or a compulsive behavior.
I have often heard my non-Catholic friends remark that their only experience with Catholicism is the hypocrisy that one can imbibe excessively on a Friday evening with the intention of confessing the sin of drunkenness on Saturday so that s/he can still receive Communion on Sunday morning with the majority of the congregation. My heart is instantly immersed in a deep sorrow that this is the perception we offer to our modern culture.
While it’s true that, as Catholics, most of us have justified our own – or someone else’s – excessive indulgence in food or drink at least occasionally, it’s only perpetuating the fallacy that we can engage in sinful behavior as long as we ease our guilty consciences with the misuse of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Confession must be approached with a sincere and authentic spirit of contrition and with the intent to change. That is what the rest of the world does not witness when we do not exemplify one who is actively engaged in ongoing, personal transformation.
Approaching substance abuse with an open and humble heart extends beyond our personal understanding to how we respond to other people who suffer from various addictions. As I was browsing my Facebook feed recently, I noticed a video posted by a friend; curious, I began to watch it, and I quickly realized it was an exploitation of a young woman who clearly suffered from substance abuse. Most of the comments displayed were made in jest or a mockery of her obvious addiction.
That’s the temptation most of us face, isn’t it? We may witness the embarrassment of someone whose speech is slurred from drunkenness or, even worse, a person who has developed substance-induced psychosis due to prolonged abuse of drugs and alcohol. We find that laughter and jokes are the cover, the façade, we carry in an attempt to conceal our discomfort or perhaps even to justify our own sins. We tell ourselves that we are nothing like these people who are sloppy in speech and social graces, unkempt in appearance and humiliated as a direct consequence of a lifestyle choice; we put ourselves at least one tier above them, rationalizing that we, at least, have a good grip on our lives and would never lose control like that.
All of my life I have been surrounded by drugs and alcohol. That is not to say I grew up in a sketchy neighborhood that was unsafe and riddled with overt addiction. On the contrary, my childhood was filled with warmth, love, and security. I grew up in a middle class family with both parents who loved my brother and me and each other.
Even so, somehow I have known, loved, and lost several people in my life to drugs and alcohol. From family members to close friends, I have witnessed the demise and decay of good people’s bodies, hearts and souls because of substance abuse. As a child, this (rightfully) frightened me and served as a powerful witness that I carried with me throughout high school and college. I vowed silently and secretly to never, ever touch drugs and to be extremely cautious with alcohol.
But it wasn’t until more recently that I recognized the pain behind the addict and alcoholic. The fear and trepidation of my childhood was replaced with empathy and a deep, deep sorrow. I believe it is because I finally realized that substance abuse is a disease, and it can afflict virtually any of us. It does not discriminate among socioeconomic status, age, race, or gender. The stereotypes of addicts and alcoholics I subconsciously adopted for so many years – the dirty, homeless, toothless, jobless slobs talking to themselves on the street corners – vanished slowly and steadily over time. I realized that good people with good hearts can develop this disease; I realized that I could fit the demographic of a potential alcoholic, especially since it is pandemic in my family of origin.
God unveiled my intense aversion to the addicts and alcoholics with whom I came in contact so that, in an unprecedented humility, I saw for the first time the person, the soul behind the disease. I was able to separate the sickness from the dignity of the person, something I was incapable of achieving without Divine Grace. What’s more is that I noticed that I had reacted to the addicts and alcoholics with misplaced fear.
I have come to believe that we fear what we do not understand. The only way we will change our perception about those who suffer from addictions of various types is to respond to them with love instead of fear. “Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). This, I believe, is the key to self-mastery and to humility: the grace we receive by opening our hearts to truth in charity, in our awareness of self and others, and in embracing the reality that we can enjoy life with or without alcohol!