Bottom of the Bottle

Part of 4 of in
BY PETER HUANG*
Illustrations by LIANA BAK
Mar 01, 2015 | min read
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Anyone can struggle with addiction ... even leaders in church.

You’re drinking too much, more than anyone knows, and it’s enough to worry and sometimes scare you. 

Your weeks are filled with buying alcohol in a casual fashion, carefully keeping enough around, and discreetly recycling empties. At work, church, and family gatherings, your main thought is, “When can I get home to drink?” 

The bottle has become your best friend, your reward, your solace, and your main way of getting through life. With the bottle, you can face people, conflicts, and tasks. Good or bad days, busy or calm days, every day is better with drinking. It is liquid courage, calm, and consolation, all just an arm’s reach away.

You’ve bent and broken all your rules about when, where, and how much. You don’t want to go on like this, but you also don’t want to change. You can’t imagine life without the bottle. Maybe you’ve cut back from time to time, but never long enough. Someday, you’ll get a handle on this — but not today. 

Before you know it, years have gone by and now you’re drinking more than ever. How long can this go on?

This is my story. Is it yours too?

With the bottle, you can face people, conflicts, and tasks. This is my story. Is it yours too?

I couldn’t live without drinking. I knew full well that anything with so much hiding, compulsion, and physical risk was thoroughly wrong, idolatrous, sinful, and something that clearly should not have such tremendous control over me. This was the kind of thing Jesus was talking about when he advised losing an eye, hand, or foot. Meanwhile, I continued to serve at church, sometimes in leadership positions. The cognitive dissonance was killing me. I prayed over and over for God to save me from myself.

I was thankful that old, legalistic positions against drinking were passé in my circles. When alcohol came up in conversation, I tried to casually join in with a joke. I feared that anyone might ask me directly about my drinking and force me to lie outright — I had already lied outright in a clinic and on a form.

I carefully read and re-read the relevant Wikipedia articles: Addiction, Alcoholism, Cirrhosis, Winston Churchill (“I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”), and so forth. I noticed magazine articles on alcoholism and movie characters who drank heavily. News of celebrities in rehab or actually dying from alcohol and drug use caught my attention. But I wasn’t a celebrity, so what did that have to do with me?

I noticed magazine articles on alcoholism and movie characters who drank heavily.  But I wasn’t a celebrity, so what did that have to do with me?

I read stories like the one you’re reading right now, parsing them carefully for any escape clause. I was desperately trying to figure this out, still thinking I had a choice, sure that some combination of knowledge, timing, willpower, and circumstances would rescue me in time.

All along God put people in my life I could have turned to, people who would have listened and withheld judgment, people who would not have made me their project, some who had even shared about their own addictions. I didn’t turn to them because I knew if I did, the gig would be up, and one way or another, my drinking days would be coming to an end.

Bottom of the Bottle

But addiction is ultimately unmanageable. So one day the dam broke and I spilled the secret. It was such a burden lifted, like waking up from a nightmare. There were hugs, prayers, and hopes the worst was over. Quickly I imagined how this would fit into an inspiring testimony of God’s power and grace.

I dried out, experienced shakes and sweats, and contemplated a life of abstinence. Unfortunately, I didn’t change anything else in my life very much. The emotions and responsibilities I had used to justify my drinking were still there — even freshly amplified by sobriety. Soon the inevitable happened: I relapsed first with controlled drinking, then quickly right back to my old ways.

Too many people cared about me to allow this to continue for very long. I found myself receiving full-strength tough love. In a million years I would have never imagined coming so close to losing the most precious things to me, so close to being cast adrift into unknown waters away from all I knew and loved. I had reached the bottom of the bottle. And the insanity was that some part of me was still debating the matter, still trying to work an angle! 

Too many people cared about me to allow this to continue for very long.

In desperation I found myself daily visiting local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. I had no idea there were so many gatherings, located at numerous times and in various places. I sat next to people who didn’t look like me (rarely another Asian) and heard their stories of chaotic families and wild youth that I had been raised to stay far away from. 

Outwardly, I had nothing in common with these folks. But as they shared, I heard my own story — the desperation and guilt, the demoralization and broken resolutions, and the hopeless search for a manageable way to drink, the progressive obsession. These were PTA parents, lawyers, musicians, businesspeople, homemakers, construction workers, students, retirees, and unemployed people. They were young and old, rich and poor, married and single, men and women. Some were formerly or presently homeless. And gradually I realized these were my people, my tribe.

But as they shared, I heard my own story — the desperation and guilt, the demoralization and broken resolutions, and the hopeless search for a manageable way to drink, the progressive obsession.

Refreshingly, at AA meetings, planning (such as I saw at church meetings) seemed not to matter. There were frequently old folding chairs, awkward rooms that were too big or too small, bad lighting, and minimal signage. But these things did not matter. Everything was run by volunteers and it often showed. There were no dues or fees. The same exact reading of “How it Works”, including the 12 Steps, opened every meeting. And yet there was magic in those rooms. 

The sharing was electric, whether in gripping tragedy and struggle, or hilarious intoxicated pratfalls, or profound insights on daily life. The honesty, vulnerability, and trust were routinely phenomenal. The language was often salty. People didn’t try to fix each other; they just listened. Unfortunately, I met far more ex-churched people than practicing Christians. But these were clearly some of the bravest and most beautiful people I had ever met.

People didn’t try to fix each other; they just listened.

The life change I heard about and saw was dramatic and undeniable. Newcomers arrived with hollow eyes, trembling hands, and sallow skin. Over time they visibly changed to a picture of health and good spirits. I heard stories of amends made for years of wrongs, debts paid, families reconciled, unbelievable self-destruction turned around, and whole new ways of life centered on responsibility, integrity, gratitude, and service to others. 

It’s a simple program: go to meetings, work the 12 Steps with a “sponsor” (someone you recruit to help you through the Steps), and find some way of serving other alcoholics. The Steps are explicitly spiritual and quite Christian-compatible, though AA works hard to not require any particular beliefs about God. Probably the only real problem AA has given me as a Christian is that I am inwardly shamed by non-believers who seek and find more help from a vague Higher Power than I often seem to seek from Jesus.

The only real problem AA has given me as a Christian is that I am inwardly shamed by non-believers who seek and find more help from a vague Higher Power than I often seem to seek from Jesus.

No, it doesn’t work for everyone. People come and go, and news gets shared of relapses or tragic alcoholic deaths. But it worked for me and still continues to do so almost five years later, one day at a time.

That’s my story. While I’m sorry I need to be anonymous to you, I’m grateful to be safely open with my church. I’m thankful I never abused prescription drugs or used street drugs, but now I don’t judge those who have. And I have come to notice addiction all around me: the early choices, the escalating behavior, the buildup of tolerance, and the loss of spiritual and physical health and freedom. I worry about friends who seem hooked on Candy Crush, Facebook, shopping, gambling, food, or even some religious behaviors. Or porn, of course. I see how Confucian duty and self-control are not the answer to addiction. Yet I also feel the need for Asian American adaptations of typical recovery settings and approaches. 

To my great surprise, I’ve come to embrace as a very great gift the desperation I’ve experienced. I’ve become vastly less judgmental and more compassionate toward others and myself. I’m vastly more comfortable around unbelievers than I ever was before. Sin and grace now truly feel like matters of life and death to me. I’m taking better care of my health than ever before. I straddle the worlds of church and AA, not really knowing how to bridge the two, but being fully thankful for both.

I’ve come to embrace the desperation I've experienced as a very great gift

“It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell”(Matt 5:30 NIV).

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:13-14 NIV).

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*Not the author’s real name

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