At 16 years old, had there been one, I could have won hands down the "worst case scenario" teen pageant. Reeling from my parents' divorce and my painful Junior High separation from friends and school, I was awash in a sea of bitterness and defiance that surprised everyone in my life, including me. My first drink of Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill wine opened a Pandora's Box of genetic alcoholism that would not see a full remission until 1989. I quit or was kicked out of 3 high schools my sophomore year, was arrested several times on truancy, drug and larceny charges and spent six months behind bars in a maximum-security juvenile facility.
Upon my release, I began a two-year disappearing hitchhiker act that took me from coast to coast several times and in and out of Canada and Mexico without any identification. While most of this period is a blur, I can recall a few highlights (so to speak)—such as the beating I took from a Georgia cop when, having been asked for I.D. I showed him a dollar bill and told him I was George Washington. On another occasion, a friend who was carrying me on his shoulder after I had passed out dropped me on my head but failed to tell me about it, leaving me with unexplained double vision for a week due to a serious concussion. Then there was the time a truck driver woke me up kicking me in the ribs because I had rolled out onto the highway after passing out drunk beside the road.
How I lived to tell these stories is a mystery to me. But I believe that a Providential hand was upon my shoulder, Who was allowed to work in my life because all the people that cared about me let go and let God.
Since achieving long-term one-day-at-a-time sobriety, it has been my privilege and duty to share my recovery experience, strength and hope with many who have wanted to help friends or family members with similar problems. (I tried to help struggling people before this, but, oddly enough, my alcoholic outreach seems to be more effective since practicing it sober.) As a rule, people who struggle with alcoholism or addictions to any of its dirty little cousins (overeating, pornography, gambling, etc.) most often have the best intentions and believe it when they tell you that this time they really mean to change. The problem, however, lies in the addicts' inability to convert these sparkling intentions to right and life-changing actions.
This is not something a loved one can do for the addict, and the process by which he or she learns it is painful for all involved. Much heartbreak occurs when, by their deeds, our loved ones prove that they don't really want to change, in spite of what they might tell themselves and us. Christ himself had many followers who made the decision to turn their backs on him and run from the truth (see John 6:66—strange numbers considering this is the same John who wrote Revelation), so it is important that we not blame ourselves for the rebellious and sick choices of others. It is equally important not to take credit for any progress we see in the lives of those who might be in the process of growing up around us. It is only by the grace of God if anything good happens.
In helping people face the dilemma of how to help an alcoholic or drug addict, I have always reverted to two simple steps (though the alcoholic may require 12) that seem to be at the heart of the solution. First, I have seen there to be much value in the grace and discipline of prayer. In prayer, we are reminded of our own powerlessness over most of what occurs in life, especially in the lives of others. It allows us to turn the burden of responsibility for others over to the One who is equipped to handle it. In my estimation, that's what prayer is about: releasing results to God and trusting God for outcomes.
A second effective tool is the process of "letting go with love." This is sometimes hard to define, but it primarily involves leaving our lost loved ones to their own devices so that they can experience the full weight of the consequences of their actions. We don't do anyone with a behavior problem a favor when we soften the blows or hinder them from hitting the bottom that could very well shake them to their senses. For me, this meant that my friends and family had to say, "We love you, but we will no longer tolerate your behavior. When you are ready to do something different, come back and we will walk with you. But if you continue on your current path, then you need to go away." Harsh words indeed, but ones that saved my life.
I am one of the fortunate ones who have been given another opportunity at living life. Many do not receive this. There are no guarantees that our wayward friends will return or survive themselves, but we can find assurance in knowing that we did all we could to help. Most often, however, this feels to be very little. When we release our self-suffering brothers and sisters to themselves, we do so with the hopes that they will experience the pain of their fall and return quickly for another taste of grace. This was the Apostle Peter's story. Maybe they will even choose to stay for the entire meal. I can't help but wonder if Christ wasn't practicing tough love with Judas Iscariot when He said to him at the Last Supper, "What you're about to do, do quickly." Unfortunately, for Judas the weight of remorse was too great for him to handle, and he took his own life. This is not an unusual scenario, particularly for those who have once known the truth and then left it for other courses. There is no easy solution in helping the helpless, and we have no real choice but to let go of them with love.
Tough love is just that. Tough to give, tough to take—but it is powerful and represents our last line of defense. It is helpful to remember that we are not the only agents God will use in the lives of our loved ones. There will be others, and we will have to trust the same God who lovingly and persistently works in our lives to do the same work in the lives of others. We are individually but a link in the chain of godly influence that transforms attitudes and changes minds in the face of intense resistance and horrendous odds.
It is an arrogant error to overestimate the impact that that any one person can have on someone else. We must also keep in mind that God's timetable is never easy to understand and impossible to estimate. As far as we know, God doesn't carry a watch or a sundial, so we might save ourselves the trouble of sitting around waiting for God to answer our prayers, particularly when we are praying for someone with a hardened heart. Sometimes devastation and trouble can be the very bad-tasting medicine that softens up our black-hole spirits so that we can desire and pursue the good stuff of God. This infinite grace and unending love is available for any and all who seek it, even if the search is only as wide as a keyhole and the interest as large as a mustard seed. I'm banking on the hope that if this formula for "letting go with love" could work on a teenage drunk with a concussion that used an alias like George Washington, it can work for anyone.
Blessings on your journey with God,Dan Gilliam
Dan Gilliam is an author, an artist, and a self-styled contemplative who lives with his wife and three cats in Marion, VA. His first book, 'God Touches: Finding Faith in the Cracks and Spaces of My Life
' is available for pre-order on Amazon.com. His website is www.dangilliam.net