About 10 years ago, I was in a summer Bible study with a group of moms. We were going through Beth Moore's series on the fruits of the Holy Spirit, called Living Beyond Yourself. I was enthusiastic about the study, hoping that it would help me find freedom from anxiety and depression, and to learn how to harness the power of God to have more self-control.
During the study, I shared that I was going to abstain from drinking wine during the summer; I wanted to give the Holy Spirit the chance to comfort me, as I'd always been taught He could. But then by week two or three, I shared how deeply anxious I was feeling, how I couldn't control obsessive thinking, how tired I was.
One of the women, being totally well-meaning, said, "Maybe this isn't the right time to give up your wine."
The other women at the table agreed. In trying to give me grace -- "You don't have to be perfect"... "You don't have to fast from alcohol to be holy." -- they unconsciously kept me from grace. Because it turns out that "my wine" was keeping me from spiritual and mental peace, not helping me achieve it.
The reality was that back then, I battled a spirit of perfectionism and people-pleasing all day. By the evening, a juice glass full of Chardonnay brought me relief. I used to alcohol to cope with exhaustion and anxiety. To cope with the strain, boredom, and sometimes even despair of mothering young children.
But that relief was only temporary. And that temporary relief was in itself a barrier to doing all the spiritual and relational work I have done since then. What I now know? If I need wine at the end of the day to cope with my life, my feelings, and my own brain, then I need a new kind of life. Because of the Holy Spirit's power, I can do what it takes to have that life.
I didn’t give up my wine back in the Holy Spirit Bible study. But since then, I have. Because in addition to continuing to dig into Scripture in community, I began to take medication, went to therapy, worked a Twelve Step recovery program for co-dependency, found healing from a lot of early childhood wounds, and ultimately, got sober from alcohol.
Among the women in my Bible study group from a decade ago, I wonder how many of them would have supported me taking prescription anti-depressants, seeing a psychologist, or visiting a Twelve Step group, along with studying what the Bible says about allowing the Spirit to bear fruit through me.
My friends in Bible study didn’t suggest those things likely for two reasons:
1. Because they had no experience with those healing modalities.
2. Because the church was – at that moment – more likely to accept alcohol dependency and stigmatize getting treatment for alcohol dependency.
I say this without malice! Women in Bible study groups are more likely to judge you for going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than they are if you show up and get a little buzzed in Bible study. I taught three Bible studies online in the last year, and many women drank on camera, because that’s what they always do at 7 p.m. No shame there! But a couple of my AA sisters came to Bible study, and would have been afraid to be judged if they shared that they were sober – because being sober means admitting they had a problem.
It seems to me that maybe we in the church are warning people off the wrong things?
Because I have encountered resistance from men and women in the church for seeking help through medication and mental health professionals, and been told instead that the solution is to read my Bible and pray more. I've spoken to dozens of women at my retreats and speaking events who have confessed to struggling with anxiety and depression but who are afraid to take anti-depressants because they might be addictive (they aren't in any medical sense of the word); but most of these women drank alcohol regularly. I've been warned that psychologists and Twelve Step programs will pull me away from Christian orthodoxy.
For me, the opposite has been true. Through all these modalities, I have come hear the Spirit more clearly, to know His peace more fully, and to surrender my life and will to His care with more abandon than ever before. When I was drinking – and I was not drinking much, just regularly – I didn’t trust that God could give me the power to do this. But now I know He not only can, but He wants to.
And also, my dears, I have come to observe that I’m not the only one with an issue. Not even close.
I was stopped in my tracks this morning by a headline on NPR.org. It said "Women Now Drink As Much as Men -- Not So Much For Pleasure, But to Cope". This article is a must-read if you choose to drink alcohol, and even more so if you are raising daughters who may someday drink alcohol.
The article reported that "what was previously a 3-1 ratio for risky drinking habits in men versus women is closer to 1-to-1 globally, a 2016 analysis of several dozen studies suggests." Further, a study from 2019 shows that women in their teens and early 20s reported getting drunk more than their male counterparts. Women are more likely to be assaulted when drinking, and their attackers less likely to face serious consequences if the women were voluntarily drinking before they were attacked (see this article on the latest ruling in Minnesota, here). Add to this, medical studies show that women are more at risk for liver, heart disease and cancer from alcohol, and less likely to get treatment for alcohol abuse because the stereotype has long been that alcoholics are primarily male.
The most important thing I want to highlight from this article: Women who use alcohol to cope rather than drinking for pleasure have a higher risk of developing an alcohol-use disorder. I want us to realize for ourselves and our friends, sisters, mothers, daughters, aunties, and Bible study cohorts that alcohol is not harmless. It's not a coping tool. It's not a parenting tool. It's not a means to knowing Jesus better or to improve our relationships. It's not a substitute for the Holy Spirit or an antenna to help us hear Him clearer.
Alcohol is a depressant. It slows the nervous system and also releases dopamine, making you feel a little less intelligent and a lot happier for a very short time. And this is not what the Holy Spirit does at all. The Holy Spirit makes you more discerning, more alert, and sometimes, even prompts you to grieve what's wrong in your life. But unlike spirits in a bottle, the Holy Spirit heals wounds, rather than covering them up, presents solutions, and gives you the power, ultimately, to implement them. But you have to give Him a fighting chance.
Because the Holy Spirit is capable -- and willing -- to help us live beyond ourselves as Mama Beth taught me all those years ago. He's capable of calming my fears, soothing my worries, and directing me into making a life from which I don't need to regularly escape. I live with better boundaries, rather than a buzz. I live with what the Scripture promises: the spirit of power, love and a sound mind. I'm strong enough to feel badly -- really badly for hours or even weeks if the situation warrants it -- and to glean the lessons that only pain can teach me.
My loves, I'm coming up on one year of continuous sobriety. After not drinking for two and a half years, I had a brief run with margaritas and little pink cans of Proseco during the pandemic. After about six weeks, I recognized that it was just too easy to throw away the Power of the Holy Spirit for a quick fix from the lesser spirits. As I say often to recovery groups: Prayer and deep breaths work but alcohol works faster. But when did Jesus ever teach us that the fast way out was the best way out? The Holy Spirit has got you, girl, and He can lead you into lots of different healing ways. If this blog is speaking to you, give Him a chance.
If you want to know more about how Jesus can disciple us into power and away from dependency on substances, food, sex, and other ways we mask pain and anxiety, check out my new video series on Right Now Media, or on my website here: The Bridge: A Biblical Introduction to the Twelve Steps.
Join me at my home Alcoholics Anonymous meeting Ladies Happy Hour, by emailing me here. I'll send you the link and you'll be very welcome!