This time last year my family was in the throes of a fresh, deep grief. In mid-March, 2016, my step-dad died suddenly from a heart attack in my parents’ home. He was alone and at the end of what would be his final battle with an enemy he had been fighting since his younger years—alcoholism.
I’m not in any way medically trained, but I know alcohol and smoking played a key role in his early death. He was told repeatedly to stop drinking and to give up cigarettes, and would, for a time, only to go back to the vice that had a grip on him so strong he was unable to break it on his own. The tragedy was that he insisted, even in the final conversation we had, that he could beat it on his own, that he didn’t need help to defeat the monster. With grit and determination, he was going to get himself straightened out.
He’d started drinking heavily at the end of February, so my mother, who’d had enough of these episodes, had gone to stay with friends. Her hope was that it would push him to seek help if she wasn’t present to enable his behavior. I spoke to him on a Sunday morning in March and pleaded with him to let us come and get him. He said no and insisted that he had everything under control. The following morning I was crumpled to the ground sobbing as my god-mother told me he had been found dead—the battle now over for him, and the grief just beginning for those left behind.
Before my mother and step-dad married, I had little idea about alcoholism. And actually it wouldn’t be until many years after their marriage I saw any signs myself of the disease. He had many months at a time where he never reached for the bottle to ease his pain, or help him forget the struggles that occur in everyday life. But what I didn’t understand then (that I understand now) is that alcoholism doesn’t simply leave a person and never return; it is a constant temptation that must be fought and dealt with on all levels—physically and emotionally, typically for the rest of one’s life.
He started drinking at a young age, and that had become his coping mechanism, hardwired into his psyche as a way to deal with the stress of life. I don’t pretend to fully understand how his mind processed anxiety, fear, stress, and insecurities. But as he grew older, his method of dealing with things by using alcohol became a detriment to his physical health and relationships.
As I think about his story—our story—I wonder how much is appropriate to share. Certainly, there were people in his life that had no idea of this struggle and would be offended that I even mention it—hoping to preserve some ideal they have in their minds about who he was. I don’t think his struggles diminish anything wonderful about who he was as a person—a husband, step-dad, and grandfather—but are simply the reality in which we lived. His story is now my story as we navigate life in the shadow of loss.
He still got up early in the mornings for most of his marriage to my mom and read his devotions and Bible. He thought of his grandkids and making memories with them that would last a lifetime. He still poured his sweat and resources into rebuilding classic cars. So much of life looked completely normal and good. But his quiet addiction continued to loom in the background, even when times were good. This was an area where outside help was not wanted, and where God had provided my step-dad with opportunity after opportunity to turn to Him and away from alcohol forever. But he always maintained he could handle it—he only needed to try harder and he would be fine.
Of course, this is not just the story of one man and his struggles with alcohol. Any of us can be guilty of using something to numb us when the pains of life become great—medications, porn, television, drugs, food, etc. When we depend on anything but Jesus to meet our deepest needs and look to the world to fill in the voids, we will always find a deficient substitute that often leads us down paths we were never meant to go.
So today, if you are struggling with any form of addiction or lack of control in an area of your life that is harmful to you, I urge you to seek help now. Lean on those closest to you and share your struggles and get whatever counselling, therapy, or support you need to live healthy and whole. Believe the truth that Christ has created you for a purpose and you are of infinite value to Him. Stigmas attached to addiction leave people feeling full of shame, which only perpetuates the hold it has on your life. But in Christ, we are meant to live in freedom.
I wish that my stepfather had embraced that truth with his life and realised how precious he was to Christ. The solace we have now is that he has perfect peace and is now walking with the Father, finally and completely free from addiction.