This week I met a man who asked for a blessing on his first day of sobriety. He was an alcoholic and clearly hungover. Bloodshot eyes, red and swollen face, bulbous nose with what might be considered “gin blossoms.” He had barely gotten the words out, and I was already judging him.
This has happened before. During hospital chaplaincy, I met alcoholic patients who went on benders so serious they required medical attention. One such patient was in his 30s. He had lost everything — his fancy job at Goldman Sachs, his house in Greenwich, his marriage, and his two small children. On his first day of a new middle management job at a department store, he’d gotten wasted while celebrating after work and had to have his stomach pumped. I learned the whole story from the man’s father while standing in the hallway outside his hospital room. This father was at a total loss of what to do and ended up crying in my arms. After that, I walked into the patient’s room utterly disgusted at the amount of destruction and pain he had caused. But that reaction was about me, not him. I grew up with an alcoholic in my life, so my own hurt and anger were clearly at play in this moment. Of course, I was able to keep it together and bring at least a modicum of compassion into that hospital room. But I’m not sure how effective I was in providing pastoral care. One thing I was able to do was recite the following prayer from the Episcopal Prayer Book by heart. I know it for good reason: “O blessed Lord, you ministered to all who came to you: Look with compassion upon all who through addiction have lost their health and freedom. Restore to them the assurance of your unfailing mercy; remove from them the fears that beset them; strengthen them in the work of their recovery; and to those who care for them, give patient understanding and persevering love. Amen.” This prayer is called For the Victims of Addiction and therefore is a reminder that addicts really do suffer from a disease. At the same time, they also suffer from sin (at least to the extent addictive behaviors are voluntary). Both characterizations of addiction are true, the medical model and the moral model. And then there’s the closely related spiritual model, which claims that addiction is the condition of a soul in bondage and distress. All three models are at work. This is what makes addiction so complicated for both addicts and their loved ones, even when everyone is working together toward healing. So back to the man on his first day of sobriety – humbly standing before me, wanting to make a good and sincere fresh start, asking that I might bless him on his first step on the road to recovery. Despite my own crap being stirred up, I remembered how privileged I was to be in this position. The position to mediate God’s grace. I could act in harmony with God rather than act in harmony with the part of myself damaged by another’s alcoholism. I pulled some language from the prayer For the Victims of Addiction and gave him a genuine blessing from the heart. As he walked away, I prayed for myself. “God, grant me patient understanding and persevering love. I could use a little extra today.”