Lent is a special time. Its meaning is a change in the heart and the mind. However it is hard to rise up to the heavenly and away from earthly attachments especially when those attachment include addiction to narcotics or alcohol. Nonetheless, “Some people have been able to break their bad habits, such as alcohol abuse during the fast.”
Today the hard work of fighting drug and alcohol addiction is the shared effort of priests, doctors and psychologists, who each work on specific aspects of the many divers methodologies for breaking addiction. And they all agree on one thing: addiction is the defeat of a person's will, and as long as a person wants to remain attached to psychotropic substances while simultaneously thinking that he is independent of them, he cannot overcome addiction.
And what if someone wants to be free of this affliction? How does recovery from addiction to drugs or alcohol happen with a person who has entered the life of the Church?
We were able to speak with two former addicts about their experience overcoming this passion. Currently both of them have long, strong roots in the Church. We will keep their real names a secret. In the past one of them—we'll call her Elena—was a cocaine addict, and the other—we'll call him Vladimir—was an inveterate alcoholic.
I fell to my knees, “O God, me?! A drug addict!?”
—During Great Lent. I went to church high. Oh Lord, the way people looked at me! Without my head covered! My face dark... I venerated an icon. I had nowhere else to go.
I did not plan on becoming a drug addict. I always thought that I could keep control. Then one day I learned of the death of someone I knew who drank and also used drugs. I understood that this was why he died. He was a talented young man! And I thought to myself, “That's it, I'm done with this.” I was scared straight. I stopped for a few days. Then I got drugs and with a feeling of immense self-hatred used again. Then again. And again. I was very afraid of dying, but I couldn't stop myself. And I knew that.
I spent a sleepless night stoned and in the morning ran to a church somewhere in the city center.
Lent began a few days later. I started fasting. And I started to use less, stepping down to “lighter” drugs. I was very afraid of using again. I was most fearful at night. In this way I made it through Lent.
I still wasn't going to church, but one day I met a radiant-looking young couple outside the church. It was about one in the afternoon and they were carrying pussy-willow branches. “Excuse me, but what are those?” I asked them. They unexpectedly handed me a bundle of fluffy sticks. I felt joy because they had just been at the service where the branches had been blessed. I got hold of a few branches myself and I interpreted this as God's blessing.
Then the fast ended and with it all my reserves. Then the real period of abstinence began. Even now, when I fast I feel like I'm getting some help. Fasting during a fast is somehow easier. It is a special time. And I felt help then, too. But when the fast ended, it was as if the help ended also. Things got very difficult. I got a seasonal job 1000 kilometers from Moscow—away from all the temptations. But I was very surprised when even out there some young people came up to me and wanted to know if I “wanted to get high.” I refused and understood that I had made an important choice.
Then a very long period of rehabilitation began. My brain started to recover, and that took ten years. I remember how that felt. I forced myself to read difficult books of religious philosophy and to think. I took notes. I had the physical sensation of my brain working, how the gears in my brain were creaking, turning. How hard it was! Afterwards I learned that our gray matter not only consists of neurons but that the connections between them are hugely important, too. And these connections can die, and then a person gets stupider. But they can be restored. And this, apparently, is just what happened with me.
I started going to church, giving confession. My priest blessed me to read the Gospels, a chapter a day. I read but understood nothing. But I read nonetheless. And then the moment came (I remember it) when I couldn't continue, that I could not force myself any more because I wasn't getting anything from it. It was like beating my head against the wall. I recall I even cried in the kitchen with my head on the refrigerator wailing, “That's it! I can't do it any more. Lord!” And then once more—I don't know what prompted me—I picked up the Gospels and stubbornly started reading, clenching my teeth and fists. I came to a difficult passage. I didn't understand anything. I went back and reread the same passage but still didn't get it. I went back again. And suddenly it made sense!
I was literally shaken with astonishment. I went back to the kitchen. It slowly dawned on me what had just happened. What happened was that I had felt the presence of God. I fell to my knees, “O God, me?! A drug addict!?” And I repented.
Then I went to confession. Previously I had “named” my sins, but now it was different. Now I truly repented. I remember that communion, I remember everything about it. The Lord had taken me in hand. Going back to what I had been before was no longer possible, although jonesing for a fix tortured me for many more years.
—What does the Church give?
—The Church gives fellowship. This sin is, on the whole, one of pride.
Sins can be overcome, but pride remains. When you live in the Church, you associate with all sorts of people (very different in terms of education, social status, and spiritual qualities!) and you pray that the Lord soften your pride. He can.
—What has the Church given you personally?
I was kicked out a couple times. The first was when I went to a monastery and got into such an intense argument with one of the monks that he gritted his teeth, turned away and started praying. I walked away, “victorious.” Then I did something to displease the old women in another church. And then another time. But each time I went back. So whenever I hear that old women kicked someone out of church, I laugh. It means that the person didn't want to be there. But this is a long process, lasting a lifetime; it is life. Finally you get the feeling that you owe somebody something, that life is so short and you have so far done so little to help others, given so little warmth. The desire to warm everyone is so strong. Dying is terrifying because one has so far done too little good. And there's such a feeling of shame from having damaged your health on such nonsense.
“My wife wife prayed me straight”
—Vladimir, how bad do you have to want to give up drinking?
—In my case, I just got sick of it. I came to understand that I did not want to drink, but I still did. I couldn't quit. And my wife really wanted me to quit. So did my priest. And I was so sick of it but couldn't quit.
Then I started to try different things.
I tried the torpedo (subcutaneous capsule), but that's bunk: you go around terrified that if you have drink you could die. But since I'm not a coward, I wasn't afraid of dying. So the torpedo couldn't scare me.
I began visiting holy places, waiting for a miracle. I thought I could place a candle, pray, and that the Lord would say, “All right, you won't drink anymore.” But that didn't happen, obviously. It seemed like my life was ending, that I would perish.
—Tell me about the scariest moment in your life.
—Once I spent 24 hours lying in the snow. I had gotten drunk with some friends and I don't know how but I wound up alone in the middle of a field waist-high with snow. I was walking and experienced what I had heard about many times before: my strength started to give out and I started falling. I got up, kept going, and fell again. Then I noticed that I was getting hot. I started undoing my coat, then I fell and don't remember anything else.
I lay there for 24 hours. It was snowing and the snow started to bury me. A policeman rode by on a motorcycle. I saw something dark through the snow in the field... Suddenly I cried out. He responded right away, tracked through the snow and found me, half buried. He picked me up, put me on his bike and took me home and called an ambulance. I was frozen and unconscious. He cut my clothes off me and rubbed me with moonshine.
The ambulance came. I saw myself from outside, my body lying on the table. I was zipped up into a bag, put into the ambulance and the doctor declared, “To the morgue.” Then suddenly it was dark. The doctors said that I moaned, so they took me to the hospital.
At the hospital they put me out in the corridor, where I lay unconscious for another twenty-four hours. I came to the next night. The first thing I did was ask them to call my mother. Then they fed me. The nurses looked at each other and poured a mouthful of grain alcohol down my throat. Then I gobbled up all of the food they had, then everything they found in the common refrigerator. They fed me with a spoon because I couldn't move my arms and legs. However, the next day I could get up and move around on crutches, and four days later I was released from the hospital. People who knew that I had laid in the snow for a day and a night,steered clear, like I had returned from the next world. I should have become an invalid or died, but the Lord performed a genuine miracle, and to this day I have no medical complications.
Alcoholism is a disease. And you cannot get out from under it all alone, without outside help. On my own it would have broken me. Leaving the Church and being all alone makes it very easy to fall off the wagon. Most people fail: they have a drink out of joy or sorrow. One guy started again on some holiday and gradually went too far. Another guy tried to drown his sorrows in wine thinking it would make things better, but instead piled up a heap of problems thanks to alcohol. Some folks understand this, but others don't and perish.
—How did you quit drinking?
—Primarily through the prayers of my priest and my wife, who asked God to help me in spite of everything.
I drank like a fish. Every day started and ended with wine. It was almost like bread for me. We eat bread every day and I needed to drink each day. I worked, made money, turned my paycheck over to my wife (sometimes I even asked her to pick up my check), but I drank every day. I didn't eat much. I didn't want to, but I sure wanted to drink. But my wife merely doubled her efforts: the worse I got, the harder she prayed. She prayed for me, but at the same time asked, “Lord, help him to give up drinking, let him be with our priest all the time.” That's what happened. I stayed to work in the church.
Then a real miracle happened. I stopped drinking on the Nativity of Christ. The evening before I was drinking toasts to the memory of a distant relation but my wife scolded me that we needed to go to the holiday service and here I was drinking. I said that we'd go tomorrow but that today I was going to live my normal life.
I kept my word. With a headache and a bad hangover I went to the Nativity service. I stood the whole service. My head pounded; I didn't understand anything. Then there was a concert, season's greeting, someone gave me some chocolate, some candy. Everything was in fog. But that evening I came home and for some reason didn't have a drink. I just didn't want to. I thought I was tired. I told my wife I would take some time off work and go to the church, help out however I could. My wife approved. And I went to the church the next morning.
There was a service going on (I didn't know that there was also a service on January 8!). I stood for the whole service in fog. Then I went up the priest and said I was ready to help out around the church, just because. He had me bust up the frozen ground outside.
That year it was very cold and the ground had frozen solid; but we had to dig a trench. And I started working. The ground was practically impenetrable. I dug up just a few centimeters, but I kept at it. I quit my job. I dug for two weeks, for a month—all in a fog. I hacked at the ground morning and night. A month and a half went by, and the priest came up to me and asked, “You've been at this for a month and a half?” “Yes,” I said. “And you haven't had a drink?” “No I haven't.”
But I didn't understand why I wasn't drinking. I just didn't want to. (Now I understand that they kept praying for me.)
Then he said, “If you still haven't gone away, then you'll never leave.” And he gave me another job. And that's how I started to work in church. And only after nine months did I realize that I hadn't been drinking that whole time! I was living in a fog. I told the priest about it. He said, “Now you are under God's protection, he is keeping you under his wing, protecting you.”
My first temptations started after a year. I ran into my old drinking buddies. On the bus, the train, on the street, wherever I would go, there they were. And they always had wine. They always offered me some and I thought I would give in.
Then my priest told me, “Tell them whatever lies you want, but don't give in under any circumstances!” And I came up with the lies I needed. They offered me a drink and I said, “I can't.” They asked, “how come?” I answered, “Yesterday I drank so much that today I can't even look at the stuff.” That worked really well because everybody who drinks knows this feeling. For a few years of chance meetings this is what I said. Only after three or four years did I say that I had given up drinking, that I was working in a church and had started a new life. Then the temptations became even worse.
Wherever I went there was always wine. The smell of alcohol pursued me. As soon as I smelled it I felt like a zombie—drawn to it against my will. I was always running to confession, because I always wanted to drink. When I felt a really strong temptation and I was ready to grab a bottle of beer or vodka, I'd drink a glass of water, and for a while I'd be OK. Then a little bit later I'd start getting queasy again. I get the desire to drink even now, but I struggle, I fight it. I know where I've been and where I could go again, if I did.