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    white orchids against a wooden wall

    Surrender and Serenity

    God’s Presence in the Rock Bottom of Addiction

    Isabel Rae McKenzie

    June 24, 2020
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    • Yahia Lababidi

      Reading with tears in my eyes.. How fortunate we are to be shown such Mercy. Stay blessed, Isabel.

    • Christina

      So beautiful. Thank you for this brave essay from the heart of a brave young woman. She is in God’s hands and will be okay now, no matter what.

    • Tracie A Long

      Beautiful!

    • Lawrence

      I felt a warmth and gratitude as I read.

    • Bernadette

      Thank you for your Witness. Your testimony! An authentic God-met-you-where-you-were-to-take-you - to-where-you-are-to-lead-you-to-the-places-people-and-purposes-God-has prepared first you. I needed to read and breathe in your miracle today. Thank you!

    And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

    —Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

    “Please God, don’t let me die tonight. If I live until the morning, I’ll stop.”

    As an alcoholic-addict, this was the only prayer I knew. It’s a pitiful, desperate foxhole bargain, one I was guilty of making every night toward the end of my drug and alcohol use, that dark tunnel of time when it seemed more likely I’d die than recover. I hit rock bottom last year, at barely twenty-two: I’d annihilated my relationship with my family; I was broke and unable to hold down a job; I was experiencing paranoid psychosis; I had liver and nerve damage; and I was hallucinating after twenty-four hours without alcohol. If asked at the time about faith, I would’ve claimed atheism, but at night, alone with my splitting heart pain, I hoped I was wrong.

     “Addiction” comes from the Latin addicere, meaning “to devote, consecrate, sacrifice.” To worship. All my life, I wavered apathetically between agnosticism and atheism. I only attended church very briefly during childhood, so most of my exposure to religiosity has been through Alcoholics Anonymous. The program is a far cry from Christian orthodoxy but was always enough to make me squeamish. I’d never been able to complete the Twelve Steps because I couldn’t get past Step Three: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” By extension, I was never able to stay sober through the program.

    I couldn’t keep using, but I couldn’t stop using on my own.

    On October 24, 2019, I finally surrendered. Following a failed family intervention, I had spent the entire summer and early fall trying to get sober but ultimately getting blackout drunk and high in my childhood bedroom every day. That night, my mother and I got into a fight. She had barged into my room while I was downing an eleven-dollar pint of gas-station vodka. I was delirious, belligerent; I raised my fist and snarled in a harsh voice not my own, “I’ll hit you. I’ll hit you. Get out!” She said nothing. She fled into her room, climbed into bed, and wailed like a wounded animal. It was the most hopeless cry I’ve ever heard. At that moment she realized there was nothing she could do. I was beyond help.

    I had arrived at the inevitable crossroads of addiction: I couldn’t keep using, but I couldn’t stop using on my own. So I decided I would kill myself. I poured onto my bedside table every pill I could find. I finished the pint. And then instead of the pills, I picked up the phone and checked myself into rehab for thirty days.

    Despite how long I’d struggled with abusing alcohol and drugs, and despite the insistence of my family, I had always refused to go to rehab. I wanted, more than anything, to be able to stop drinking and drugging on my own – why couldn’t I rationalize myself out of these self-destructive behaviors? I was always a top student, I was successful in most things I attempted, and I had earned nearly a full ride to a private college.

    Just a few months prior, when I could still, barely, be considered a “high-functioning” alcoholic, I had graduated cum laude with a highly awarded thesis. I wanted to defeat my addiction through intellect. But addiction is a beast that defies logic, only prey to an act of Providence. AA holds that it is “an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer,” and thus the alcoholic must choose “to be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis.”

    On the night I checked myself into rehab, sobbing and slurring my words, I received the gift of desperation. I completely and totally surrendered my ego. I realized that I needed God to exist, for there to be a force greater than myself that could relieve the lethal burden I was carrying. AA’s Big Book describes the path so many in my shoes have followed: “Faced with alcoholic destruction, we soon became as open-minded on spiritual matters as we had tried to be on other questions. In this respect, alcohol was the great persuader. It finally beat us into a state of reasonableness.”

    white orchids against a wooden wall

    Image courtesy of Berlian Khatulistiwa

    In rehab, I prayed. I woke at 5:30 a.m. each day – with a discipline I had long since thought myself incapable of – and I asked God to relieve me of my alcoholic obsession. “Thy will be done, not mine.” There were nights when I experienced cravings so intense I thought bugs were crawling under my skin, bubbling up on my arms. So I asked God for relief – even when I felt as though I were praying to a brick wall. If my life was an unruly sea, prayer suddenly became my way of throwing down an anchor. It stabilized; it clarified.

    Prayer brought a “sense of belonging,” as another AA text, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, puts it, echoing my experience: “We no longer live in a completely hostile world. We are no longer lost and frightened and purposeless. The moment we catch even a glimpse of God’s will, the moment we begin to see truth, justice, and love as the real and eternal things in life, we are no longer deeply disturbed by all the seeming evidence to the contrary that surrounds us in purely human affairs.”

    I received the gift of desperation.

    The more I prayed, the less I thought about substances. The promise of AA delivered – rather, God delivered: I was, to my utter disbelief, granted release from my obsession. I began to feel free, despite still living within the white walls of the rehab facility. I began to imagine a future for myself, assess my dreams and goals – which I’d abandoned during active addiction due to the belief that I’d die before my next birthday. This change could only be a miracle. When my mother visited me toward the end of my stay, I was, by her account, a different person – not even my old pre-addiction self, but a new self through faith-based recovery.

    When I arrived home from rehab and walked into the house, I found, lying on the floor, a card with the prayer of Saint Francis:

    Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is doubt, faith;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    Where there is darkness, light;
    Where there is sadness, joy.

    O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
    To be consoled as to console,
    To be understood as to understand,
    To be loved as to love.
    For it is in giving that we receive,
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
    And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

    There was no explanation for how it came to be there; my mom didn’t even know she owned it. It now sits on my bedside table. Nearby, I’ve hung a corkboard covered in quotes about sobriety and goodbye letters from my rehab friends. Also on the board hangs an embroidery hoop with my favorite line by the poet Mary Oliver: “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

    Immediately after discharge, I joined a women’s AA meeting and in the months that followed became an active member of the community. I give leads at meetings, share my story, and witness astonishing recoveries in the rooms of the program. This June, I celebrated eight months free from alcohol and drugs.

    Every day now, I surrender and give it up. I relinquish my anxieties, my desire to control elements beyond myself, and I trust that I will be led in the right direction. When I wake, I ask God for his help staying sober for the twenty-four hours ahead of me; at night, I thank him for keeping me on the path of recovery for yet another day.

    I never thought I’d be sober, and I never thought I’d believe in God. Today I’m willing to delight in wonder and the possibility that there is so much I don’t know. Today I believe in a force beyond my comprehension: grace. For by grace I have been saved through faith.

    Contributed By

    Isabel Rae McKenzie is an essayist and poet from Chicago. Her work has appeared in Paintbucket and Q/A Poetry. She holds a bachelor of arts in English literature and art history from Lake Forest College.

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