A photo of someone wearing a cross necklace


Where the Sick Go to Become Well

A spiritual quest took the writer, a former user, from Yale Divinity School to a 12-step program in her pursuit of sobriety. But does faith in a higher power really work?

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Though no single origin story can be traced to the nicknaming of New York City as “The Big Apple,” the stories that dominate are about horseracing, a dance trend, and jazz. I have always found these impossibly dull compared to the historically inaccurate but far more exciting mythical alternative: that the city was named for the fruit in the Book of Genesis. The forbidden fruit was a source of knowledge and sin, the tremendous freedom and burden of realizing just how human you are. For the city to be nicknamed for anything less than the Fall of Man seemed a disservice to a place so frequently credited as a facilitator of human descents into depravity and corruption.  I was always quite certain that though Satan is no doubt a world-traveler, he pays his taxes in New York City.

My first seven years in New York started in the possibility and idiocy of my late teens as a freshman at NYU. Though alcohol and drugs were readily and abundantly available during my youth in San Diego, there had been none of the attendant glamour and tragedy that surrounded substance use and abuse in New York. I had spent my young years devouring novels by Bret Easton Ellis, failing to see the self-destructive degeneracy of his New York characters as anything short of heroic. And because there are few demographics more prone to believe their own mythologies than young people who find themselves on their own in big cities, I adopted partying with the faith of a convert. Doing drugs in those early days felt as much like the required fulfillment of a particular destiny as like recreation.

The fever and urgency with which I partied away my undergraduate years did not fall away when I finished school. But they migrated away from parties and into my person, resulting in the development of a nervous and unquiet energy whose only remedy was more alcohol and drugs. The salve was always temporary and the unquiet always louder upon return, requiring more rigorous chemical and spiritual interventions. I spent three years in the reliably dull cycle of lackluster employment by day, chemical obliteration by night, and spiritual self-berating around the clock for failure to remedy the former two.

By 2010, regular church attendance and adamant prayer was no longer putting a dent in the suffering I was bringing on myself with substance abuse and the hollow affections of alcoholic men. I reasoned that a more drastic religious conversion would be required to purge me of the rottenness I had absorbed during my seven years in the city. And so in a moment of recklessness that is characteristic of addicts and of productivity that is not, I decided to attend Yale Divinity School to escape the moral decay that I’d blamed on the once-promising city.

I believed that Divinity School would teach me a new language through which to articulate brokenness and suffering, and that the students there would offer instructions on ways to heal the wounds in the world, and those I imposed on myself. In the desperate delusions of addiction, I believed that wellness and goodness from the pastorally oriented students would be transferred to me by osmosis as part of a very expensive and sophisticated exorcism.

Despite a secular upbringing, I believed that the Christian narrative of sin and redemption had given form and substance to otherwise meaningless suffering. Discomfort in my own skin, I believed, was attributable to the wantonness of embodiment itself. Obsession with my appearance was vanity. Coveting was just coveting. I derived comfort in the knowledge that my moral failings had a source at the very beginning of the human story, that there was a protagonist in Christ who would come to redeem me. At the center of this dying universe was a living god. And that god was full of impossible, unconditional, and undeserved love. Love for me, even. But that love was getting harder and harder to feel amid the haze of chemical dependence that I pegged to the city. Just as New York’s light pollution obscured the beauty of the skies, its pace and indifference had dulled my senses to godly love. And so I invented stories about the particular clarity of Connecticut skies.

I arrived in New Haven in June 2010 and learned quickly that the devil, in all his cunning, had learned to use the Metro-North. The ugliness of my habits in a new environment was even uglier when people had no positive reference points with which to keep me reasonably likeable. Even people who transfer goodness by osmosis grow impatient with the antics of an addict. And by September I found myself fumbling about for an inconspicuous entry to a local church basement in the hopes of redeeming myself after I spent that oppressively hot summer in a series of black outs and spineless apologies.

Beginning coursework in religion and 12-step meetings in tandem made the starkly different approaches to explaining suffering and redemption starkly clear. As part of an elite learning institution, Yale Divinity seemed visibly self-conscious of its Christian heritage, eschewing the brutally raw stories that provided the structure to my religious experience. From the humiliating filth of his human birth to his gruesome murder on the cross, their version of the life of Christ was highly sanitized into an unrecognizably feel-good deism. And though I witnessed profound faith among many classmates, most of what I saw was little more than Liturgical Unitarianism masquerading as Christianity.

By contrast, 12-step meetings were awash in souls with the same kind of raw and desperate need as those who suffered in the Gospels: They were rejected and dejected, broke and broken. And they were welcomed by their fellows with abundant love and without exception in a way that can best be described as “Christ-like.” It was here that I would find undeserved and unconditional love that I had sought in religion. And where I learned that my exorcism could have been performed tuition-free.

The term “brainwashing” is cavalierly thrown around to describe 12-step programs by those who doubt the veracity of their claims. Though I don’t practice the twelve steps and did not believe in their efficacy when I briefly tried to, I reject that term—I wasn’t brainwashed. I was brain-baptized. To many, baptism is a bizarre and somewhat cruel ritual during which Christians mark infants as their territory by dumping water on their heads and renouncing Satan on a baby’s behalf. It is a way for churches to cook the books, adding members to their rosters that didn’t have the option of declining the invitation. It is an understandable critique. But where I used to concentrate on the helpless baby in baptism, now all I can see is the best intentions of the congregation. They too are susceptible to the darkness. But they extend promises of safe passage to the child presented before them, abandoning their own self-centered preoccupations in order to focus on the ones that cannot guide themselves toward the light alone.  

In the same way, addicts and alcoholics are especially vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy and moral deficiency, yet they embrace the newcomer with open arms, assuring her they will love her until she learns to love herself. They correct her belief that the program is where bad people go to become good. It is where sick people go to become well. They give her arbitrary instructions to put out chairs and make coffee not to degrade her but to make her a part of the immediate family right away. They close meetings by firmly grasping her trembling hands and ask for strength from sources outside of themselves with a prayer that starts, “God grant me,” when they really mean, “God grant we.” Sometimes they simply hold hands and declare, “Stay.” And by some miracle, startling numbers of them do.

I did not.

Just shy of three years after I found myself in that church basement, I abandoned both the 12-step program and the church itself. I accumulated some modicum of self-esteem and shook off a load of self-centered fear during that time of abstinence for which I have nothing but gratitude. But ultimately, in the same way that I just could no longer bring myself to believe in miracles and resurrection, I could not believe that a Higher Power was responsible for anything but tautologies and circular logic. I’m not sure if I suffered from a period of addicted behavior rather than the disease of addiction, or perhaps I am currently in remission from chemical dependence.

But what I am sure of is that the program, for all the flaws in its logic and the faults in its membership, is a source of profound love and protection to some of our most maligned and misunderstood. That to say it brainwashes its members is either ignorant or apathetic to just how sick addicted minds really are.  

I also know that if my current state is indeed a brief reprieve, and that devil that wreaked havoc on my life finds his way back on the southbound side of the Metro-North, that there will unlikely angels waiting for me in a basement, ready to break the fall.


Photo credit: Flickr user westpark


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