When I was young, there was a widespread craze amongst children for keeping ginger beer plants. My memory of them is less about the ginger beer that they produced and more about their relentless growth and expansion. Truth be told they were not plants at all; essentially they were a combination of water, ginger, lemon, yeast and sugar. The “plant” or more accurately the yeast, required “feeding” every day with sugar to keep the growth and fermentation process going. Every week or so, the contents were added to a few litres of warm water and sugar, strained and bottled to provide enough ginger beer for several months. But the plant lived on in the strained residue which had now doubled in size, so it had to be split and half of it given away. In the early days most kids were delighted to accept the gift of a ginger beer plant, but with its exponential growth, it wasn’t long before everyone had one; tense, hyper-vigilant parents barred all offers of further plants. Eventually, like all crazes, it died out, and the manufacture of ginger beer is now mainly done by big manufacturers and artisanal brewers.
The relentless advance of the ginger beer plant is very reminiscent of addiction. It doesn’t stay sweet and manageable but gets bigger and bigger until it takes over. Addiction is not just a bad habit, it’s a progressive illness, that untreated can be fatal. What makes it even more insidious is that even if someone is no longer feeding the addiction, it retains its potential to wreak catastrophic damage if the person does try to use the substance again or re-continues the addictive behaviour. Anyone who has been around addicts has seen this happen. Last week I was talking to a man who had been sober for 11 months when that old voice in his head told him he was so well and so established in his recovery that he could safely start drinking again. He couldn’t. He now says that the addiction and the battle to stop is far worse than it was the last time. Another friend was sober for over 6 years when he took a drink to help him through a life crisis. The speed of his descent into a terrifying and utterly chaotic state was frightening. The lovely, gentle, warm man that I knew was replaced by a desperate, wild un-man, hell-bent on self-destruction. Dr Jeckyl was no longer at home and Mr Hyde was well and truly in control. Thankfully, he got to be clean and sober again, and incredibly has built on the experiences to create a stronger recovery than before, revealing a tender, wise and humble person. Even just a few minutes in his company makes me feel uplifted and blessed. Looking back, however, he is still horrified by the speed of his relapse and the nightmare of those months.
Jesus talks very interestingly and with great insight about things which are very akin to addiction and relapse, using the language of his time. “When an evil spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, I will return to the house I left. When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put into order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more evil than itself and they go and live there. And the final condition of the person is worse than it was before”. Jesus’s explanation, whether taken literally or as a metaphor conveys the power and force of darkness and evil. This is never truer than in addiction where achievements and assets from a period of abstinence and stability are washed away by the incoming torrent of a relapse.
So are we helpless in the face of this? Not at all, but we need to recognise that all addiction as a form of evil has immense power for harm and once we have been gripped by it, we cannot overestimate the risk it will always pose for us. As Jesus said on another occasion, we need to be ruthless with the things that can drag us down or make us vulnerable to going off-course. So it has to be “No!” to the addiction we used to have, and No to anything else with addictive potential that we might use as a substitute, which can become worse than the first experience. In addition to this vigilance, we need to hand things over to God, a power that is greater than ourselves, follow a programme for life which we work on a daily basis, look outward by helping others and cultivate friendships with people who may see more clearly than us the signs of dangerous thinking and behaviour.
What is true for addiction is true for life in general. Whilst these dark forces pose a threat, sources of light and power can help us to overcome the darkness and to live happy, grateful and hopeful lives each and every day. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.” That is the good news which Jesus proclaimed. He had come to bring light; to set the prisoner free, to loose the captive’s chains and to announce that the Kingdom of heaven is here, within us.
You can get the monkey off your back, but the circus never leaves town. Anne Lamott
It is 10 years since I used drugs or alcohol and my life has improved immeasurably. I have a job, a house, a cat, good friendships and, generally, a bright outlook… The price of this is constant vigilance because the disease of addiction is not rational. Russell Brand
Every worthy act is difficult. Ascent is always difficult. Descent is easy and often slippery. Mahatma Gandhi
Sometimes we motivate ourselves by thinking of what we want to become. Sometimes we motivate ourselves by thinking about who we don’t ever want to be again. Shane Niemeyer
Recovery didn’t open the gates of heaven and let me in. Recovery opened the gates of hell and let me out! Anonymous