After years of lying to himself and others about his opioid abuse, he learned that telling the truth about his addiction was the first step toward reclaiming his life.
Posted in , Dec 26, 2017
I sat in my office at a Christian camp west of Seattle. Outside, rain dripped from fir trees. The day was dark and gloomy. Through the window, I could see the fields and woods where I’d worked and lived with my wife, Deb, and four kids for the past three years. I was the camp director, leading a year-round program of camps and retreats for church groups. It was a dream job for me and my family. What could be better for kids than growing up in the woods surrounded by good people?
I was about to lose it all.
In a few minutes, two executives from the camp’s parent company would be sitting on the other side of my desk. They’d requested a meeting earlier that day. They didn’t give a reason, but I knew. I’d been using the camp’s credit card to buy prescription pain pills online. Thousands of pills. Pills to feed my 30-a-day habit. The habit I’d been battling—and hiding—for more than a decade. The habit that had drained my bank account and nearly ruined my marriage.
Up to now, I’d managed to hide my addiction from all but a few people. I prayed I was wrong, that the executives wanted to meet for some other reason. In my gut, I knew I was caught.
The executives arrived and calmly took out a notebook filled with credit card records. They read off pill purchase after pill purchase. There was nothing I could say. They told me that what I had done amounted to a crime. I would have to resign immediately and move out of the camp in two weeks.
I’d taken a bunch of pills that morning. I kept them in my desk drawer, my pockets, my briefcase. I don’t even remember what I said as the executives prayed for me, then left. I trudged toward the cabin where Deb, the kids and I lived. Deb was home from taking the kids to school. She had no idea I was using again. I’d been lying to her for months, even going to 12-step meetings with her at a nearby church. I was about to make our family homeless. Deb would probably leave me. My kids would be devastated.
How had it come to this? A good person ruined by drugs? My story was like that of so many other addicts. It had started with prescription narcotics for migraine headaches in college. That’s where Deb and I had met, at a small Bible college in Southern California.
The pills took away the pain. And they gave me something else. I’d always been insecure, especially about my desire to go into ministry. Meeting new people freaked me out a little.
Not when I was on pills, I discovered. Soon I was taking them even when I had no pain. I told myself it was to keep the headaches from coming back. And that was sort of true. By that point, my body was growing dependent on the narcotics. I had withdrawal symptoms when I stopped taking them.
I didn’t know it, or at least couldn’t admit it, but I was becoming an addict. I needed those pills to get me up in the morning, to keep me going through the day and to wind down at night. Outwardly I lived the model life of a pastor-in-training. Married with four wonderful kids. I got a job teaching at a Christian school, then as a youth minister. You’d never know the smiling dad in our family photos was spending most of his free time hunting down pharmacies where he could get a fix and juggling credit cards to stay ahead of bill collectors.
I thought moving to Washington, where I’d grown up, and enrolling in seminary might help me break the habit. It didn’t. Nor did getting my dream job at this camp.
Deb was unsuspecting for years, believing the pills were for migraines. She had no idea how many I took, but she began to suspect something was wrong. When she heard a woman describe her opiate-addicted husband on a talk show, it sounded exactly like me. Deb confronted me. I promised to get clean. We cried and prayed. I even went to rehab.
Then I relapsed and went back to keeping my addiction hidden.
So began an endless cycle of finding doctors who would give me the pills, going broke, promising to get better, relapsing. We told almost no one what was going on. Deb’s parents were missionaries; my dad was a pastor. Both Deb and I had been raised with the expectation that church people—especially those in ministry—do not get addicted to drugs. They are good people, not bad people. And if they do get in trouble, they don’t blab about it. Otherwise, they could lose their jobs or get frozen out of church. So I lived inside an elaborate structure of lies.
That structure was now crashing down around me. Standing at my cabin door, unable to go inside and tell Deb I’d lost this dream job, I felt the enormity of what I’d done sink in. My secret was out, and everything was ruined. Deb would leave with the kids. Our pastor, who’d been meeting with me regularly to keep me on track with my so-called recovery (he was one of the few people we’d told), would kick us out of church. Our extended families, who’d already bailed us out financially more than once, would disown us. My life was not worth living.
“Hi, honey—wait, what’s wrong?” Deb said when I went inside.
“I just got fired,” I said, almost in a monotone. “They caught me using the camp credit card to buy pills. We have to move out in two weeks. I’m sorry, Deb. I’ve been lying to you all this time. I don’t know what to do now.”
A flurry of emotions passed across Deb’s face. Shock. Bewilderment. Denial. Then anger. “Tell me you’re not serious,” she said.
Silence. Then: “Get out. Now. And flush those pills down the toilet.”
She left the room, looking ashen. I pulled a bottle of the pain pills from my pocket and stared at it for a long time. So much damage in such a tiny container. Then I dumped the contents down the toilet. Before I could change my mind, I fished out my other vials from all the places I’d concealed them and flushed those pills down the toilet too. Doing it felt both liberating and utterly terrifying.
I dialed our pastor. The faster I got through my confession, the better. In the other room, I could hear Deb calling her sponsor from our Celebrate Recovery 12-step program.
“David!” Pastor Jim said. “Good to hear from you. How are things?”
I told him. I closed my eyes, waiting for the click as he hung up.
“I’m really sorry,” Pastor Jim said softly. “I’ll be right over.”
Deb’s sponsor said she would come over too.
“Listen, I’m upset you lied to me,” Pastor Jim said when he arrived. “But maybe there’s a reason for all of this. Maybe this is a wake-up call from God. I expect to see you in church on Sunday. You know we’re just a church full of messed-up people, right?”
See you in church? Messed-up people? Surely not like me.
I had to tell my employees. A few were angry. The rest, to my shock, were kind.
“I know what you’re thinking,” the maintenance director said, putting his arm around my shoulders. “Don’t take your life. You’re loved, and you have a wonderful family. With God’s help, you can beat this.”
How I wanted to believe him.
That evening, I told the kids. As I explained to each of them what I’d done, I could see that, though they were confused and scared, even angry, they didn’t hate me. Our 13-year-old asked if Deb and I would get a divorce.
“I don’t know,” I said. Deb told me I had to go stay with my parents for a few days—she didn’t want to babysit me through the most hellish days of withdrawal. But at least she didn’t say she’d leave. Why were all these people sticking with me? Withdrawal from narcotic pain pills is basically the same as from heroin. Both are opioids.
My parents were full of sadness about what I’d done, but they didn’t turn me away. I lay on their sofa, nauseous, sweating, jittery, sleepless. One afternoon, groping desperately for a handhold, anything to cling to, I remembered a Bible verse I’d said countless times as a pastor: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
I’d always recited those words glibly—a pastor mouthing pastor talk. Now their true meaning began to dawn on me. God’s sacrificial love had been cemented thousands of years before I even touched an opioid. God knew every one of the dark secrets I’d worked so hard to conceal. He loved me anyway.
He knew me—and he loved me, in spite of my addiction. It seemed as if everyone else did too. Why? Maybe I would never know. What I did know was that my secret was out, and for the first time I did not feel afraid. I no longer feared exposure. Honesty was the first step toward healing. Honesty trumps shame. When I returned to Deb and the kids, I was still sick with withdrawal but I could at least look for another job. Deb and I had to laugh when I got an offer… at a debt-counseling service! Can you imagine? Me, the guy who’d been hounded by bill collectors for years, giving financial advice?
My bosses said my background was perfect. “You know our customers’ struggles,” they said. I sure did. I had to turn over a portion of every paycheck to the camp to repay what I’d stolen. All we could afford was a 900-square-foot townhouse. We went on food stamps for a while.
I recommitted to the Celebrate Recovery group and began making progress. The more people I told about my addiction, the more eyes watched me—not out of suspicion but to make sure I didn’t relapse. A few months later, Pastor Jim asked me to speak to the congregation. I was terrified. But the people at church were just like my employees at the camp, thanking me for being honest and telling me they loved me.
Deb and I started a Celebrate Recovery group at our church. I was invited onto the elder board. Four years after the day I called Pastor Jim to tell him I’d been lying to him, he ushered me into his office.
“We have a full-time pastoral position coming open,” he said. “I’d like you to fill it, Dave. We need someone who can relate to addicts. I hope you’ll say yes.”
I’ve been a pastor here at Restore Church in Poulsbo for four years. I’ve started two recovery groups and worked with a lot of addicts. I thank God my own addiction story ended in recovery—one that inspires people I work with.
But I don’t fool myself about the damage my addiction caused. I hurt and betrayed my wife, my kids, my employers. Lies cast a dark shadow over everything I loved most. Only God’s all-knowing, all-loving light was strong enough to banish that shadow. Addiction is not about good people and bad people. It’s about people who are suffering and need to be made whole again.
There’s a reason the first step in all 12-step programs is admitting powerlessness over addiction. Admitting. That means giving up the lies.
I wish I’d done that the minute I realized I was addicted to pills. But that is not the nature of addiction. I wish I’d seen church as the place to come clean. I do my best now to help Restore be that kind of church and set an example for other churches.
Addiction thrives in the shadows. God says to addicts everywhere, Let there be light.
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