Into the Abyss

Into the Abyss

October 25, 2020 | Sarah Stewart

We have worship themes here at First Unitarian Church, and we're in a theme on heroism and courage that will carry us through until Thanksgiving. The hero's journey, as a frame of a kind of a story that shows up in many cultures and across many times; it's, in Star Wars, it's in a lot of Disney movies, it's in some of our ancient texts about the journey of the hero to defeat the monster.

So, let's just remember the hero's journey. The hero is introduced in their ordinary world, where they receive the call to adventure, we talked about accepting that call. last week. The hero is reluctant at first to cross the first, where they eventually encounter tests, allies, and enemies. They reach the innermost cave where they endure the supreme ordeal, they seize the sword or the treasure, and they are pursued on the road back to their world. They are resurrected and transformed by this experience. They returned to the ordinary world with a treasure, a boon or an elixir to benefit that world, the hero's journey sounds exciting. It sounds like an adventure movie, but not all heroes lead to social movements or star and movies; some heroes vanquish personal demons. This morning, I want to talk about the abyss, that the hero goes into, and must come out of, in order to continue their journey.

We heard in today's story for our children about one such hero, the actor, Daniel Radcliffe who fell into an abyss of addiction and had to climb back out again with the help of his family and friends. Addiction is an abyss that many people face in the course of their lives. About 21 million Americans have an addiction of some kind, some of those people have multiple addictions. We hear a lot about the opioid crisis. Alcohol is still a major cause of addiction, but opioids are very deadly in their addictive capacity in 2018, nearly 47,000, Massachusetts residents, died of opioid overdose. We're living through a public health crisis with coronavirus right now, but it's just one of many afflictions that hurt the people in our state and in our country; opioid addictions take many lives too soon. Alcohol is legal, unlike street opioids, and most Americans have less than one drink a week, but 24 million Americans average more than 10 drinks per day. Problem drinking and alcoholism is an abyss that many Americans find themselves in, and alcohol use has gone up during the coronavirus pandemic. Some scientists estimate it went up by as much as 20% during quarantine, when people's ordinary coping strategies and social outlets disappeared, and drinking seems like an attractive option. Heavy drinking among women has increased 41% in recent years, so that women are almost equal to men now in terms of their heavy use of alcohol. Now in that story about Daniel Radcliffe, we learned that anyone may be susceptible to addiction; wealth isn't a protector, fame isn't a protector, but “addiction”, in the words of Sonia Waters, “is an opportunistic affection infection.” And if people are already struggling with racism, with poverty, with an abusive or traumatic childhood, with homophobia; it leaves them more vulnerable to the disease of addiction.

Children who grew up with addicted parents are more likely to become addicts themselves, childhood abuse or trauma are predictors for addiction, or simply having an unlucky biochemistry, that predisposes a person to addiction. Now, you, right now watching this service, you may be struggling with over-use of alcohol or drugs or addiction, I want you to know that God loves you, and I love you, and help is available. I'm here as your minister; at the end of this sermon, we're going to put some help. lines up on the screen that you can call if you need to.

Addiction is a complex, and paradoxical problem, and yet society tends toward simple answers. We look for that solution that tells us that one thing that addiction is. So, we have, at different times in society, said that addiction is the addicts fault, that it's a weakness and the will, that it's a disease, that it's a crime, that it's hedonism; it's just people seeking after pleasure, that it's something the addict could stop if they really wanted to, or that addiction is something the addict should be held accountable for. But we know that those answers are too simple, and our theology says something different, our theology says that God is love, and that a loving God loves us. Another way of saying it is that our theology says that every person has inherent worth and dignity. We don't have to earn it with our behavior, we don't get inherent worth and dignity, once we get sober, we always have it inside of us. Nothing can separate you from your relationship with the divine. So, if we can say that addiction is primarily suffering, then it spurs us to justice. And we know that suffering needs healing in human relationships. Like we heard in our reading, the divine moves toward us in our suffering, through love, in our darkest hour, is when God is closest to us.

There's been a lot of research into the science of addiction. Early use predicts addiction, 40% of kids who drink at the age of 15 will go on to be addicted to alcohol. Addiction interferes with normal brain function and it makes it harder for your brain to work again the way that it's supposed to. We all have receptors in our brains that receive chemicals that help us feel good, that reward us for accomplishing tasks that reward us;  when we see the face of someone we love, when we smile at a baby, when we exercise hard; but the chemicals that we are addicted to, they take over those receptors in our brain. Sometimes they produce more of the chemicals we're supposed to produce on our own, sometimes they weaken the receptor, so we can't receive as many of those good feeling chemicals as we ought to. And our brain sometimes, very quickly, gets dependent on that artificial source of good feeling, and it can be very difficult to get the brain to make the right amount of chemicals on its own again. So, this tells us two things; that addiction is not about seeking pleasure, even though the drug or alcohol use might have been pleasure-seeking to begin with, and addiction is about avoiding pain. It's about avoiding physical and emotional and mental pain that the drug has helped to overcome in the life of the addict; and in later stages addiction isn't even about feeling good at all it's just about trying to feel normal.  So, an addict is somebody who is trying to cope with suffering that we as a non- addicted person may not be able to imagine; the suffering of ordinary life made more difficult by a brain that can't help the addict cope anymore without the substance. And we, as an outsider, might be able to say, “well that's just not working for you, it doesn't work to use alcohol this way”, “it doesn't work to use drugs this way”. But from the addict’s point of view, the alcohol or the drugs may seem better than nothing. What gives us hope. What may give you hope, if you're struggling with over use or addiction, or you love someone who is, is that the addicted person often recognizes the ways in which their addiction fails them, and they want to seek change at some level. To borrow language from Alcoholics Anonymous, healing begins in recognizing powerlessness in the face of the addiction, in realizing that your self has been divided by overusing this drug or alcohol, that there's the part of you who wants to use and the part of you who feels out of control, and you want something different. So that powerlessness is a first step. And then along the way, Alcoholics Anonymous asks addicts to accept a higher power, something higher than the addiction, higher than the addicted self, higher than this cool master that has caused the powerlessness. For some, that might be God. For some it might be the universe. It might be your best self. It might be something transcendent a feeling of love and feeling that overcomes everything.

We are able to turn to our sacred texts for wisdom on addiction. Because sadly addiction has been a human problem since the beginning of time. You can look at Proverbs 23, if you like, if you have a Bible at home, for a pretty accurate ancient description of alcoholism. This morning, we heard the story of the demoniac from Mark's gospel. You know this story is often seen as a parable about mental illness, but it could be seen as a parable about addiction. You know, if we knew this demoniac today, if this story was happening today, what might it look like? In the story the man lives out in the tombs, where nobody can restrain him, far away from human society. In fact, he lives near the swine herd, and pigs were unclean animals, and the people who took care of them were at the lowest rungs of the social ladder, and this man lives out there with the dead people and the pigs, the worst of the worst. If we imagined this man today, he might be homeless. Maybe he's tried rehab, since in the hospital or jail, or didn't get better. In the story, it tells us that chains can't restrain this man. So, maybe today, he's tried to get help, he's been restrained, it didn't do anything. He might be completely isolated from human connection; he might have burned through all of his friends and family relationships. His drunken or high behavior, or what he's like when he's in withdrawal, it might be so anti-social that people don't want to spend time with him. And he spends time out in the places where no one wants to go. You know, today this man might want help, to a certain extent, but also want to continue using. There's that sense of the divided self; two parts and we see that in the story where the demoniac argues with Jesus, and even the voice of the demon itself, the voice of the addiction itself, gets to argue with Jesus, to say “you can't tell me what to do”, “go away”, “go out of here”, “don't come near me”. But in the story, when the helper, in this case Jesus; in our world, it might be a social worker, it might be a friend or a family member, might be someone the man turned to for help, they're able to see his true self. In the ancient world knowing the name of a demon gave you control over it. And when Jesus asks this demon its name, the demon has to respond and says, “we are legion”. Jesus is able to see the man and the addiction separately, to see who the person is, to confront that addiction in him and not run away. And we wish for caregivers and healers like this in our world, who can help the see the addict for who they are, to see them as a person, see the addiction as something separate from them and not run away from their suffering. And then something must shift in the man because he asks for help. He says, “send us into the swine”. You know he's still negotiating, because the demon doesn't want to be sent far away, so he's negotiating with Jesus’ “just send us over there, just a little bit away”. And that we can see that behavior in people with addictions as well with that negotiating; “well, what if I only had one drink”, “what if I could just not drink for a month.

Jesus's power is so great that as soon as he sends the Legion into the pigs, the pigs run into the sea and are drowned. And you can see that just getting the addiction away from the addict a little bit, gives room for healing; makes it possible for the addiction to run away out of a person, out of a place where it can control them, and allow for healing. When this story is read, it often ends there, but there is a second part that I love, which is that the man, the demoniac who's been healed. He wants to stay with Jesus, and you can understand that, here's this person who's been able to heal him, make him better from this terrible suffering, but Jesus says, “no, you need to go home, go home to your friends and tell them what has been done to you.” And if this story were happening today, we might see this as the accountability and healing that needs to happen in relationships, even in recovery. Addiction does not absolve a person of the ways in which they hurt others; and those hurts can pile up under the weight of addiction in recovery, or some of the steps to make amends with those people whom an addict has hurt. This story gives us hope, it gives us hope that from the ancient world until now, healing is possible. Addiction is not a death sentence; it does not need to be the last word in somebody's life. Help for addicts as possible; it may be family and friends who are able to provide that help, but addicts may need professional help or the help of peers as well, and family members may need their own support. Just like the chemical, the addictive chemical helps establish a new not quite functioning normal in the addict spring. Addicted behavior in a family helps establish a not quite functioning normal in the family where spouses, children, adult children, friends, may work to cope with the addict’s over-use, may try to get them to stop, or try to cover up for their bad behavior. And so, family members also need help, need therapy, or Al-Anon; ways of getting untangled from being part of that coping strategy. If you are struggling with addiction or over-use, or you're the loved one of someone who is, there's one thing I want you to take away today, and that is healing is possible. Addiction gets into the human brain and shuts down possibility. It robs people of connection, of the ability to make meaning, and the fortitude to withstand hard times. It stands in for the holy offering, impoverished meaning, and inadequate love. It's too small of a god. Addiction may work for a little while, but it is ultimately a thief. We proclaim a love in the universe that is bigger than any substance or addiction. We proclaim a God who moves toward people in their suffering. We announce an inherent worth and dignity that cannot ever be taken away. Even heroes may fall into the abyss. With help, and with assurance of love, they who suffer, find their way out.

I love you all. Amen.