To Cause a Brother to Stumble: On Love and Alcohol

To Cause a Brother to Stumble: To do deliberately do something that causes another to falter in their faith.

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At Trader Todd’s, there are plastic fish and tribal masks mounted on the walls, and the karaoke stage is never empty the night we go to celebrate my friend’s coming wedding.

There is a girl in a green dress, who is sloppy drunk. She keeps clamoring on stage with strangers, wedging her way into groups that are not her own.

At one point, the bouncer picks her up like a child and carries her to the door, but she keeps sneaking back toward to the front, throwing thin arms around us all, indomitable in her drunkness.

She tries to flirt with the DJ, and he ignores her, and I want to put her in her PJs and give her chewable children’s asprin, because – look at her – she’s really just a little girl. She really just needs someone to tuck her in and say, Beloved and Peace and grace, grace, grace, grace.

But also at Trader Todd’s, there is that girl with Down Syndrome, celebrating 21 in a black, polka-dot top and skinny jeans. Her mom and aunt take turns squeezing in at our table to take video as she sings with a passel of friends and a big brother: “War (What Is It Good For)” loud and raucous, without a trace of irony, just joy. Just celebration. And I get a little teary just watching them.

*

On Facebook, I suggest a glass of victory-lap wine for a friend who has successfully wrangled all of her children into bed. Minutes later, I receive a somewhat angry message from her mother, a woman who I do not know, whose struggle I was not aware of.

“Since you clearly have no experience with alcoholism, let me enlighten you,” she says. “It is never ok to tell someone they deserve alcohol as some kind of reward.”

And of course, she’s right. I don’t understand. For me, one drink is exactly that: one drink. For my friend’s mother, it is a dark doorway into places she wishes she’d never been, places she’s afraid she’ll end up again. Places she fears, most of all, for her daughter.

Even during the year of my drinking, I was always aware that it was a choice I was making. A deliberate kind of self-destruction. I liked the way that alcohol etherized me against the sadness, the way it softened the sharp edges, bleached out the harshness of all the world.

For me, the abuse of self and substance was a symptom of something else. The Depression, mainly. The doubt and the pain and the large-looming loneliness that I couldn’t seem to get around. As I began to heal from those things, my relationship with alcohol changed.

In the healing days, I continued to go out with close friends, but I was drinking not to disappear, but to reassemble. I took out my questions and doubts and laid them on the bar tables one by one. I sorted.

I ordered the regular margarita instead of the one the size of my head. I talked and talked and drank, and sometimes I went overboard, woke to that telltale head-pounding…but at the end of those evenings, I mostly felt like some infection had been cleaned out a little bit more, and that I had moved one cautious step closer to God.

And at Trader Todd’s there is a drunk, sad girl in a green dress, begging to be loved, and there is a beautiful 21-year old girl celebrating the fact that she is, and both of these scenarios are the truth about alcohol.

*

These days, I mostly drink wine. Mike’s Hard Lemonade in the summer (because I never quite got used to the taste of beer). Occasionally I have a margarita with friends, sour and salty, the restaurant glass cold in my hands.

Some of my best spiritual conversations have happened here. At a bar table or huddled in a restaurant booth holding glasses of Pinot, asking, wondering. I am aware of how the taste and the ambience seem to make space for the things we cannot seem to say to each other in church or even in small group or even, sometimes, over coffee.

And when someone suggests that there is something inherently wrong in this, I balk. And I distrust them a little.

But, also, God, alcoholism. That dark, hidden place, that concrete cell. That drinking alone on the kitchen floor in pajamas. That life-ruining addiction. It is real and it must be desperately lonely, and to deny it is arrogant and unkind and the opposite of love.

Here is the tension: for me, alcohol has been redeemed, has brought me, in its way, into a new understanding of grace. But for others, it has not been redeemed, cannot be in this life because there is some switch in the brain that got stuck in the on position…and I can’t pretend to understand why.

I don’t know the answer. All I know is that we are all stumbling in our way. That love is, at its heart, a kind of seeing. It means getting up close to people, and sometimes that means a glass of wine, and sometimes it’s a Diet Coke instead. Sometimes it’s a margarita and the space to rant, and sometimes it’s just not. I want that mature, wise kind of love that can tell the difference.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we’re drinking. What matters is the Living Water sitting there, ice cold, waiting for us to take it.

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43 thoughts on “To Cause a Brother to Stumble: On Love and Alcohol

  1. I have a complicated relationship with alcohol on account of a complicated relationship with an alcoholic, and am so glad that in recent years both relationships have been redeemed. One step at a time.

    Thank you for this.

    1. I don’t think you’re alone; I’m discovering more and more how complicated it all is for most of us. Thanks for sharing, Katherine.

  2. My parents, in a strict fundamental Bible church, gave it up all together so as not to cause a brother to stumble. And so I became the girl in the green dress for a few years, with no lens for moderation, and pain so deep it could never be drowned. I am lucky in that, like you, my relationship with alcohol evolved with my healing instead of becoming an addiction. Thank you for this, Addie!!

    1. “no lens for moderation, and pain so deep it could never be drowned” – This is beautifully said and sadly true of many of us. I suppose part of it is just youth…discovering your limits, figuring out how to stay within them. But add the pain piece, and everything gets tricky.

  3. “but I was drinking not to disappear, but to reassemble. I took out my questions and doubts and laid them on the bar tables one by one. I sorted.”

    This, just exactly this.

    It’s so tricky being in college ministry with my husband Kel, because there are so many in our community who either struggle or big time judge any alcohol at all.

    I always joke with him that someone needs to model responsible drinking, but am I really joking? I don’t have all the answers either but I do know that your last line is wonderful.

    1. “I always joke with him that someone needs to model responsible drinking, but am I really joking?”

      That’s an interesting thought! I think it’s something that is needed, especially for those who grow up around the idea that all alcohol is all evil all the time. I suspect that there are a lot of other extremes people in these situations grow up with, and that skew can really be damaging. When they find out that jeans or card playing or smoking or having a glass of wine is not actually an inherently sinful act, some people can feel a real sense of betrayal (a friend of mine comes to mind) and others can go off the deep end experimenting (as Genevieve said) because they have “no lens for moderation, and pain so deep it could never be drowned.”

      Some people reject all the truth because it was fed to them with so many lies, and maybe that would happen less if good examples of moderation that still embrace truth were around.

      “I want that mature, wise kind of love that can tell the difference.” Me, too. Because I want to share that Living Water. It’s the best drink ever.

      1. “Some people reject all the truth because it was fed to them with so many lies, and maybe that would happen less if good examples of moderation that still embrace truth were around.” Well said, Kimberly.

  4. It is striking to stumble into someone’s pain like that, not realizing there’s a history of substance abuse of one kind or another. I think the big problem is that desire to disengage, to escape something. And so we do what brings us together, allowing alcohol to sometimes have a place so long as the focus isn’t on the escape. Having dealt with alcoholics in my own family, I can certainly testify to the need for sensitivity and lots of grace and patience.

    1. “I think the big problem is that desire to disengage, to escape something.” I agree with this. I once heard someone say you should never drink to feel better, but only to feel “even better.” It’s a little thin, but it’s a decent benchmark for me.

      1. Hi.., I’ve been aware that I’m an alcoholic for years now.., I had a DUI about 5 years ago and ended up havnig to go to Diversion , I passed through the diversion honestly basically by drinking a ton of water and not getting drunk for a couple days before the UA but after the meetings I’d head out to my car and go home to a 30 pack and a fifth or half gallon of rum or something ., it’s been like 2 years since I’ve gone even 5 days without drinking and I can’t remember how long since I even went 3 whole days without ., when I did stop drinking for 6 days I took paxil during that time to try and calm me down but I don’t like paxil because it seems to just make me totally numb and it’s a bitch to come down off of when you stop taking it , anyways I haven’t been to any AA meetings or anything because actually I have severe anxiety , I am not on medication but I want to get on meds however I’m unemployed and I don’t have any health insurance , I have Tourettes Syndrome, OCD, ADHD, and Social Anxiety Disorder and I’ve basically been self medicating with alcohol but I know Alcohol just makes things worse.., it’s a vicious cycle.., I feel freaked out and depressed about a lot of things , I end up hating myself for drinking but that just ends up making me want to go drink more to forget how much I hate myself for drinking ., I think if I could find a steady job that pays anywhere near enough to even live on then I think I could at least cut way back on drinking but I don’t know I gotta stop , it’s killing me , I mean I’ve been drinking for about 8 years now.., and it’s ruined my life and my reputation , I’ve made tons of enemies , and besides that I actually had an accident a couple years ago where I shot myself in the foot with a 44 magnum , that’s healed up but that happened because I was drunk and I told myself and the doctors that I was never gonna drink again , but as soon as I could bare the pain to hop to the refrigerator on crutches I was I reaching for what was left of a six pack in the fridge , I watched a girl I know almost die and she is dying all because of drinking .., she’s got cirrhosis of the liver , and well , My liver lets me know it’s in there , i can feel it.. , I’ve got no insurance and no money but I need to get on medication and I could probably use detox and rehab , I’m not sure what to do If I could just make myself remember the way I feel the day after I do something stupid on alcohol , remember how horrible I felt and how embarrassed and ashamed and how I almost get myself killed or remember how much I freaked out , if all that guilt and freaking out and anger towards myself could just come rushing back whenever I even think about buying a beer then it’d probably help with stopping..

  5. This hits me in such a personal place, I don’t even know quite how to comment on it…all I can say is that I am so glad this topic is being discussed with a measure of nuance and grace.

  6. Addie,

    I choose never to drink. Least someone give me some Christian gold stars that I do not deserve I choose for this reason; I do not want to lose my soul and not be able get it back. I feel like I could be prone to not be able to handle it. I have enough destructive tendencies in my life and need not another one. My father who killed himself was an alcoholic, my brother is, and I had an uncle die of alcoholism. I have frankly been afraid to take the chance.

    As a Christian sometimes I have wished that I could make an argument against drinking but I know full well I can not. I believe drinking is not the only thing many people abuse and other issues should be discussed as much as drinking.

    I do think it is important what one is drinking in the sense that they do not have the attitude “I’ll drink what I want I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks” but instead have the attitude of “I have the freedom in Christ to drink and I am willing to discuss this with anyone who has a concern”.

    I am ok with anyone drinking as long as they are not abusing the privilege. I would agree I would never encourage someone to take a drink unless I knew them to be one who did not have a problem with alcohol or was prone to have a problem.

    Overall I wish we were not so concerned with people following someone’s paradigm of a Christian as I wish we were concerned that they were following Christ.

    1. I think it’s great that you figured out your potential limits and chose your response accordingly. Thanks for sharing, Mark.

      1. My wife and children choose to drink in moderation and it is something I have never tried to dissuade them from doing as long as they knew their limits.

  7. Oh, alcohol. Ever the divisive issue, isn’t it? My parents don’t drink. They never really liked the taste of alcohol and then joined a charismatic church where everyone believed good Christians didn’t drink. They let me try champagne at my aunt’s wedding when I was 14 because I was a junior bridesmaid and at the head table. I remember my mom having a serious talk with me about it and alluding to people in our extended family possibly being alcoholics. To this day, I’m not entirely sure who it is that has the drinking problem and therefore I’m not sure how my decision to have an occasional drink could cause them to stumble. Your inclusion of “deliberately” in your definition is an interesting one- and something I’d agree with. I wouldn’t choose to drink around a loved one with a drinking problem, unless perhaps we’d discussed it ahead of time. I do have a friend who is sober and she doesn’t mind if people drink around her. Even then, I usually choose not to, out of solidarity. I’ve made stupid decisions because of alcohol (God bless you, college) and I’m not entirely sure a part of it wasn’t due to the taboo nature. I enjoy having a drink with friends or out on a date. It does tend to lend itself to soul-baring conversations. The kind I look forward to having with you some day soon. I assume we’ll grab coffee at Christmas but we might need to arrange for an evening excursion as well. 🙂

    1. “I’ve made stupid decisions because of alcohol (God bless you, college) and I’m not entirely sure a part of it wasn’t due to the taboo nature.” This is so interesting, and I think there’s a lot of truth to it. It was one of the no-no’s in the lifestyle statement at my Christian college (along with body piercings and dancing), and when I began to pull away from it, it wasn’t Christ I was disgusted with — it was all of these additional things, benchmarks that made you a better Christian.

      In some ways, I think my carelessness in the beginning with alcohol was my way of sticking it to the evangelical system. Not a great way, but the way I chose during that sad drinking year.

  8. Thank you for such a loving, gentle, poignant perspective on this subject. Like many others who have commented, I was raised in an “alcohol-free zone”–including even jokes about alcohol. My mother was raised to see nothing but opportunity for sin in alcohol, and only recently has she come to realize that she is “the weaker brother”–though she can acknowledge with her head that alcohol is not inherently sinful, the presence/consumption of it causes her to stumble in judging others. For me personally–I just don’t like it, and have no problem being everyone else’s designated driver. But in Christian circles it’s a very fine line between what’s acceptable and what’s not, and that line has more to do with paradigm than Christ (as Mark said above).

    I’m sorry that your friend’s mother responded to you in anger rather than love; though you have taken her words as food for thought, resulting in this wonderful post, I’m sad for her that she didn’t choose to use your light-hearted comment to her daughter as an opportunity to teach, rather than to condemn. You demonstrate Christ in your response. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much for this comment Susan. At first, I was a little stunned by my friend’s mother’s comment too. On the first read, I felt very defensive and I had to delete a couple of my initial responses. But when I reread it a second time, I felt like God was helping me to see it through a new lens: the fear, the regret, the loneliness.

      It was never about me, her response. It was about all that fear, all that pain. If I could just remember that in all of my barbed interactions, I think I would live with much greater love. It’s hardly ever REALLY about me, even though it always feels like it is.

      1. “It’s hardly ever REALLY about me, even though it always feels like it is.”

        Yes, this. Again and again I remind myself of this. Or, sadly, I forget to remind myself and the nasty slips out.

  9. Addie, this is so amazing and beautiful! I loved it and I’m going to pass it on. I just wanted to tell you that speaking as an alcoholic, our piece blessed me. At first, I was worried by the title that you were going to tell people not to drink in front of people who they know have a problem with alcohol. So glad you didn’t! Not all alkies are the same, but personally, the best thing you could do for me is would be to invite me along to a girl’s happy hour, not leave me out for fear of “stumbling” me. I am one of those who doesn’t even see the alcohol anymore. It’s poison to me, so why go there? But I do see my friends or kids or relatives and I do want to be close up with them and I do want to talk and be part of that beautiful that happens not because of alcohol but because of love. I love your blog, by the way. So much. I totally “get” you, Today my own blog isn’t even about recovery or alcohol, but Menopause! Yes, I am not just an alcoholic, but a woman. Ordinary and regular and not immune to any of these strange blessings God bestows on our bodies. Anyway, just wanted to thank you. Heather

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Heather! It means a lot that this spoke to you as a person who has dealt with alcoholism. I love the way you wrote, “not all alkies are the same.” It’s a good reminder for me to not assume that I know what someone needs but instead to be willing to ask the uncomfortable questions.

  10. I Timothy 1:5 says “the end of the law is love.” I think if we let love–not our so-called “freedom in Christ”–govern how we live out the Christian life in front of others, we’d never make anyone stumble. There are some things we are free to do in the privacy of our home, or around those of understanding, but for love’s sake must be willing to keep hidden from those who are “weaker in the faith” (Romans 14).

    1. In the same letter Paul recommends alcohol for medicinal purposes. I Timothy 5:23. And The book Alcoholics Anonymous has a good bit to say on the subject. See especially chapter 7 pages 100-103. Here’s a snippet:
      “In our belief any scheme of combating alcoholism
      which proposes to shield the sick man from temptation
      is doomed to failure. If the alcoholic tries to shield
      himself he may succeed for a time, but he usually
      winds up with a bigger explosion than ever. We have
      tried these methods. These attempts to do the im­
      possible have always failed.”
      http://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/en_bigbook_chapt7.pdf

  11. I don’t have a complicated relationship with alcohol mostly due to the fact that, despite repeated attempts on my own part and my husband’s (and many others), I still think it tastes mostly horrendous. 🙂 I would invite you to be the next who attempts to convince me otherwise! 🙂 I love that you are able to stay in the tension, to avoid the allure of the black and the white and sit in the truth that it’s an “and” not an “or,” even though that truth is a little more complicated and takes some time and commitment to sort out. Loved this post!

    1. Thanks Deb. And I wouldn’t be too worried that you don’t like it. It’s mostly just a whole lot of empty, delicious calories. (There’s a reason it’s called a “beer belly.”) 🙂

  12. Addie, your piece left me speechless. Your insight as well as the way you wrote are just incredible. I am so glad I came across your blog. I will be reading more of your work from here on. Thanks so much for sharing.

  13. Wonderfully expressed as usual. When I was very little I signed a vow on a wallet size card that I would never ever let alcohol touch my lips. The Loyal Temperance League was a once a month subject in my children’s church.
    And I never did, until I gained some long over due freedom in my walk with God about 10 years ago while in my 40’s. A glass of wine is a wonderful treat in the evening and when with friends.
    Thanks for this redeeming but cautionary reminder.

    1. What is it with the wallet-sized cards? One for alcohol, one for virginity…like if you have it signed in your wallet, you’ll live by it? Such a strange little phenomenon of Christian culture. Glad that you were able to find some balance in your life and that it’s been so good for you!

  14. This is an important conversation to have – so thank you for jump-starting it here in your usual lovely way. I don’t drink – I don’t like it, I’m a control freak, and I have a history of alcoholism on both sides of my family of origin. It scares the bejeebers out of me. But my drug of choice has been food for most of my life. And that, for whatever reason, seems to be just fine in many Christian circles.

    My children drink some, although one daughter has a palate like mine and just doesn’t care for it. Most of my friends drink – in moderation, usually wine or beer. But I’ve been up close and personal with people who wrestle with the illness, the total devastation that is alcohol addiction – so I guess I would want to encourage grace in both directions: toward Christians who drink moderately (scripture is pretty clear that alcohol is not the problem, excessive consumption is) and Christians who don’t drink – for whatever reason. I am happy to see friends and family enjoy a good wine (to them), but for me? Nope. Can’t get past the cough syrup taste 90% of the time.

    1. Thanks so much for this Diana. I’ll admit that during the first years after my cynical drinking year, I used the alcohol thing as a sort of barometer. I thought that if someone was willing to have a drink with me, then they were more likely to be “my people.” Like their ability to handle a drink made them more capable of handling the reality of my journey.

      Only now am I beginning to see the unfairness of that assumption, the complexity of alcohol, the differences in tastes and dispositions and tendencies. Yes, more grace in both directions is necessary here. Thanks so much for the comment.

  15. Twice today I have been deeply moved by your writing. Thanks for a beautiful, thoughtful, sobering treatment of a topic that just comes up over and over again among Christian friends.

  16. I am new to your blog and it is so refreshing to read your blog and experience the grace and freedom to be honest. We all struggle with our vices, whether they are eating, drinking, lust, envy, misjudgement, and so on. And alcohol can be devastating to a family, I have seen it in my own family. Yet I find myself gravitating in that direction at times that I feel that I just can’t cope with life circumstances. As you stated I am more aware of what it can do to my body. I drink in moderation and find that some of the best conversations come out of those times with people who would never have a conversation otherwise. Thanks again for this refreshing and honest post.

    1. Thanks for this comment Diane. “We all struggle with our vices” — so true. Another reason to always be so gentle with one another.

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