It makes sense to start at the beginning, but in my story, the beginning is not easy to find. Though I cannot say with certainty the day or even the year when it began, I recall with uncanny precision when the torture ended. A drug addict’s life is a montage of freeze-frames. I remember the end; not the end of my addiction, not the moment I emerged, and not that instant of freedom and redemption you hear of so often from recovered drunks and junkies. My end began that night I slipped from the couch onto the floor and my cigarette fell to the carpet from cracked lips. My sober-at-the-time head that housed dead hope and scared eyes surrendered to the truth of addiction -- that it had me and would take me swiftly. “How did it come to this?” was a response to the reflection I imagined of myself mirrored on the ceiling.
Years before on another less-weighty eve, I was driving to my apartment when I noticed the disquieting red and blue strobe in my mirror. As my eyes spied the speedometer that quickly shot from 95 to 30 to a casual stop on the shoulder, I suddenly realized I was wearing a bathrobe and green plaid pajama pants. I hurriedly took count of how many drinks I’d had in the last few hours, remembered the half-gram of heroin in my lumpy pocket, and the likely variety of other unmentionables scattered around the car. I was as calm as a Sunday morning- and it was. I often made trips home between 9 and 11 am on Sundays, knowing my parents and brother would be away from the house, seated in pews, praying for me.
On this particular Sunday however, they’d still be asleep in their beds. I couldn’t wait any longer; it was 3 am. Why couldn’t I come back when my family was there to greet me? My returns home were not for “quality time” or family dinners -- I needed money.
But what of this cop? The chap in blue, sworn to keep our farmland highways protected, knocked on the car window with a rigid knuckle. I slipped my half-smoked cigarette into a can of flat Mountain Dew and lowered the glass. He told me what I already gathered and I told him none of my secrets. He said nothing of my nightwear, the hour, or my unsteady hands. He talked about deer and how dangerous they can be when crossing the road, about my speeding and how dangerous that can be with crossing deer. He was forgiving and returned to his vibrant cruiser without issuing a citation. I figured I must have seemed tired instead of drunk. For some time I had been quite able of drinking generous servings of brandy without appearing drunk. In fact, I hadn’t been good and drunk for a while, and felt closer to normal only after binging on booze. I was calm as he pulled away, and almost disappointed as I drove on, touching the tip of a fresh cigarette to the heavy flame, feeling entitled to a more eventful encounter. But he was not my opponent. I looked into the mirror above my head and saw the adversary.
I both preferred and despised my own company; I feared myself and what I might do if left alone for too long. On more than one occasion I found myself standing in the kitchen with the silverware drawer ajar and a shrill blade in my hand, its tip pressed against my neck, wishing to feel something or anything, wanting to die but really just wanting to live. I’d wake the next morning on the kitchen floor as a grown man who’d cried himself to sleep, broken, cowardly, captive and absolutely alone.
I tried parties for a while, always feeling optimistic right up to the point where I’d reach the crowded room and see a few dozen faces I’d rather not meet. It wasn’t that I chose scummy gatherings, it was my social unease and the struggle that went into forced conversation that I found to be exhausting. I’d stay for ten minutes trying to act preoccupied then pretend to head outside for a cigarette and sneak into my car to get away. For the first few years of this, friends would call and ask where I’d run off to until eventually people stopped calling.
It seems funny in the movies when people wake up in a foreign bed or stray couch without a clue as to how they got there. I don’t recall finding much humor in waking up in the driver’s seat of my SUV, parked in front of the wrong apartment building or sprawled across the coarse bushes outside my door with no room keys in my pocket. I never cracked a smile after rising from a stained carpet floor to walk 14 blocks home to find my car missing from its parking space, not having even a vague presumption as to where it might be. I preferred to stay in my apartment, only leaving for cigarettes, booze or out to the corner to score some drugs. It was safer that way. I didn’t have to wonder if I killed someone. So I eventually resigned myself to never leaving. I’d lock the doors and shut the blinds for days on end. To be sure, total isolation is a recipe for total insanity.
Talking with a drug addict and/or alcoholic (in my opinion and experience there is no distinction between the two afflictions) is not unlike speaking with a child. He or she is present in every physical sense, but there’s a mental barrier of maturity. I was strongly convinced that near everyone was a ranting fool, though strangely enough I was fond of giving lengthy, heartfelt monologues to whoever would listen about the miseries of life and the cruelty of God. My audience lessened as my speeches lengthened and grew gloomier.
The night was my place of comfort, my interval to drink voraciously and swallow, snort, smoke, or stab anything into my body that may offer some relief from … I don’t know what. What was it from which I sought escape? My reasons regressed over time. It did once serve a purpose -- my drinking and using. It brought freedom, clarity, peace of mind, and levity. Where had those solutions gone and when did the solution become the problem? My means of escape had ironically become my prison. I needed a new solution.
I know this about God, His ability to take dreadful situations and reinvent them into something wonderful is a truth I see every day in my own life. I recall sitting in treatment, considering the next steps on an unclear path, wondering what to think about the last ten years of my life. Were they wasted entirely? What am I supposed to do with all of this damage and how can I move forward with the past so close behind?
Over the past several years I’ve continued to analyze my past so I could see where God was at work. Where was He when I felt so abandoned and alone? How was He working when I could not feel His presence? Was He there those many times I drove home after a dozen drinks and a serving of drugs that would’ve satisfied an entire rock band? Was He there when I woke up in the bushes outside of my apartment building with no keys in my pocket and no sign of my car in the lot? Perhaps He was present when I climbed in the hot tub at 4 in the morning and passed out when everyone else was asleep and woke up later with wet hair but no rescuer in sight.
There are so many situations that show me the obvious presence and aid of God. If I’d realized such interventions back then, I’d have wondered, why? What in me was worth saving? To show mercy on a man who was his own master contributed nothing to the world so why did God bother?
I knew all too well on those darkest nights that true relief could never come from a bottle, crushed pills on my table, women, fancy cars, friends, prestige, or money. That doesn't mean I still didn't seek it in all those places. I was never satisfied.
I used to cry out to God, weeping and screaming in anger for Him to rescue me. Every night I dreaded the morning, certain that I couldn't bear another day. Everything frightened me; the ringing phone, knocks on the door, school, work, everyone I came across, and most of all -- myself. I never knew what I was going to do. I'd spread butter on bread and resist the urge to cut my own throat. I'd drive over a bridge feeling my hands wanting to twist the wheel over the ledge. I'd pour the first drink of the day before climbing into my car, knowing there would be more to come.
I so wished to die, but I knew what a sad funeral service it would be. No one would be surprised. People would talk about my potential rather than my achievements. My parents would blame themselves and live in shame and regret and my brothers would lose their smiles and all innocence. My memory would be baggage to them. My classmates would remember the years before with fondness and for a short time, pour drinks in my honor. My future wife would not know me and my kids would never be. I could not let it end in such tragedy but I saw no way out. I was too far gone.
I was an alcoholic, a drug addict, a college dropout, a failed son and brother, a scared boy who had become everything he never dreamed of becoming.
After two months of treatment and no progress, I was more exhausted than I'd ever been. Even though I hadn't had a drink or drug for 60 days I was still harnessed by substances. I had no reference to function like other people. At least when I was drinking, I thought, there was a means of relief from life’s expectations I was ill-equipped to perform. Now I was vulnerable without my solution to living in a glass before me or chopped neatly into lines on the dresser.
So many times I'd fallen to my knees in painful despair, screaming in excruciation, “God, HELP ME!” This night, alone in my room, I did the same. This time my honesty, desire, and willingness were fresh. In all times past I had demanded rescue, never surrendering my will to God. That night I told Him of my sincere desperation to change, to give up my addiction to Him, and to be willing to take action instead of waiting for it to be taken on me. I slept soundly that night. It was the first taste of freedom I felt I'd ever known.
The difference between that night's prayer and all the others is one crucial and powerful word - faith. I had, even in the worst moments of my addiction, believed to a certain extent that God could relieve me of that burden. Nevertheless, I had not allowed Him to have it. I had insisted on things being done my way. I had never before surrendered my problem to God, nor asked for guidance and wisdom on what my role in this process should be and the assurance of “All right then, God is taking care of that because history shows that I can't.”
Addiction brings masochism; I wanted everything and nothing to change. My addiction was my downfall yet it was also my only friend and the only way I knew. To imagine a life without drinking and drugging was impossible. Therefore, to execute an expulsion of addiction through self-will is, in my experience, also impossible. If I have no control over my great dilemma then how in the world might I go about controlling its existence? Thank God for God.
Addiction is a crafty, relentless, seemingly unmovable force but put addiction in the ring with God and it's a joke. Just as my self-will and human power is put to shame in my struggle against addiction, so is addiction annihilated by the power of God. I have no doubt that addiction is one of Satan's favorite weapons since the disease seems so eerily similar to what I would imagine it's like to be possessed. Recovery from addiction truly is a spiritual battle.
I know now that I cannot regret those years of wandering so hopelessly lost. They are not pleasant to remember, but they have brought so much good to my life that without them God would have been denied so much glory. In fact, I'm quite sure that without such suffering and powerlessness, the arrogant and stubborn guy that was me would never have come to know God. My introduction to God was, in a sense, forced. But the choice between life or death for all Christians is the same. My testimony may be a bit more dramatic due to my more persistent character defects.
My relationship with God has grown for the most part, slowly. I am still at times, resistant and faithless but just as my addiction introduced me to God, so does my continued recovery encourage and require an increasing closeness to God. My recovery program is simple -- seeking God, whether I feel like it or not.
My past, as grim as it may be, has become a truly invaluable asset. Now I am responsible to help others find and maintain recovery as I have, and it is our similar experiences that form our bond. It seems every week I have someone new to recovery, unsure of a way out, tell me a story from their recent past that has haunted them and brought their hand to pour another drink or load another syringe. They tell me with hesitation and eyes fearful of judgment of this great shame. When they're finished they bow their head and have long-since ceased eye contact; I smile and say in complete honesty, “Yeah, I did that too.” Suddenly their burden of shame and uniqueness is washed away. Then I tell them how different things are for me today. To have a miracle performed on or for you is one thing, but to voluntarily play a role in someone else's miracle- that's a sublime privilege.
How does an outlaw, a junkie and drunk, a failure in every respect, become an agent of God? How can I, who just years ago was sure beyond a doubt that this world would be better without me, now do God's bidding? I don't really have an answer because God works in ways I don't understand and as we know- he humorously uses the least likely people as His accessories. But that's the case and I don't spend too much time questioning it.
Within six months of surrendering to God and working hard at my sobriety, I enrolled again in school and graduated soon after with Latin honors and a college experience I could never have dreamed of having. It's been over three years since that night I fell to my knees and I haven't felt hopeless since. My life is not “okay,” it's extraordinary. That's not to say that I have millions of dollars, fame, everyone thinks I'm the greatest, and there's nothing in this world I cannot do. What I mean is that every morning I do my best to turn over my will and be open to God's, asking Him to work through me, and that's a prayer He never denies. When I'm awake to the opportunities, they're at every corner. I used to fall asleep by chugging as much whiskey as I could so that I could pass out for a few hours and repeat the process, but these days I fall asleep knowing I've done some work for the Almighty. If that's not a satisfying day then I just don't know what is.
I now work with college students in Duluth, MN at a recovery program for men and women who have recently found sobriety and are looking to improve their lives, regain what they lost to addiction, and experience all of the delightfully unexpected blessings that God puts before them.
- Ted Nielsen