Giving His Addiction Up to God

He hated his father’s alcoholism, but as it turned out, he had an addiction of his own.

Posted in , Aug 12, 2014

William Joseph

“Four dozen doughnuts?” the counter guy asked. “Sure thing, Mr. Joseph. Coming right up!” He opened four boxes and began dropping doughnuts inside.

Was it me, or had there been a hint of judgment in his tone? You’re just tired, I told myself. It was 5:30 a.m., and I was the only customer at the Krispy Kreme. I’d planned it that way–I wanted first dibs on the fresh morning batch.

Glazed. Chocolate iced. Cream-filled. I couldn’t choose just one or two, so I’d ordered a few of everything.

I’d need some fuel to get through my busy morning at Straford Memorial Church, where I was the pastor. I had to deliver a sermon for 500 parishioners. Then mingle at coffee hour. Listen to problems and give advice. All with a smile on my face. These doughnuts were a reward for my efforts.

“Here you go,” the guy said. “Your doughnuts.” He held the boxes out toward me, his eyebrows arched.

“For coffee hour at church,” I blurted out, handing over my credit card. The counter guy just nodded. I signed the receipt and scrambled outside. Back to my car, where I’d be safe.

I sat in the driver’s seat and opened the first box. I grabbed a chocolate doughnut and ate it in two bites...then reached for another.

The truth was, it wasn’t likely any of these doughnuts would make it to our coffee hour–I’d be eating them all, right here in my car, right now. Same thing I always did before getting up into the pulpit. Okay, before doing anything stressful.

Between my work at church and my duties as a family man–my wife, Kim, and I had two teenagers, Kristen and Ryan–there was plenty of stress in my life. I didn’t need the doughnuts, but having a special treat helped. Nothing wrong with that.

So why had I lied to the Krispy Kreme guy? That was what alcoholics and druggies did, right? I couldn’t tell him they were all for me. Besides, it wasn’t any of his business.

I knew all about lying from my father–lying and every other trick in the book. He was always slipping out on some pretext at family gatherings to sneak another drink. Disappearing for weeks at a time, dodging phone calls, then acting like he’d been trying to get in touch all along.

Or he’d call me in a panic, confessing that he’d had too much to drink and needed a doctor. How many times had I dropped everything in Chicago so I could drive to Dad’s house in Detroit and nurse him back to health?

Too many times. But no matter how much I prayed for his recovery, every time he got better, he fell off the wagon again. I was devastated and hurt. I felt duped and betrayed. Dad had never been much of a drinker when I was growing up, but in his golden years, he’d become a full-blown alcoholic.

Why, Lord? I wondered. Why can’t he change? On those endless drives to and from Detroit, I’d stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts along the way, treat myself to a doughnut or two. For a moment, my despair and stress would vanish. I didn’t have to think about anything but the simple joy of a sweet snack.

One day, while I led a meeting at church, a nurse at a hospital in Detroit called my cell phone. Dad was in critical condition–again. I didn’t get it. How could he let himself go like this? Wasn’t enough ever enough?

Maybe Dad won’t beat this, I thought. Maybe he can’t. But what could I do? How long would I let his addiction tear me apart?

Dad looked weak and shriveled in the hospital bed when I made it to Detroit the next day. A doctor took me aside. “Your father had so much alcohol in his blood, he’s lucky to be alive right now.”

Dad pulled through. I stuck around just long enough to help him settle back in at home. I didn’t want to hear his empty promises this time. I wasn’t putting myself through that again. I’ve done everything I can, I thought. It’s up to you now, Lord. But I wasn’t holding my breath.

I settled back into my routine as a pastor, but I felt different. Empty. Near my church, I found a supermarket that sold doughnuts by the half dozen. A package of those always perked me up. Temporarily, anyway.

Then I’d have to give a sermon or run a Bible study, and I’d buy another package. One was never enough.

I didn’t want anyone to notice how many doughnuts I ate. It was none of their concern. I scoped out other doughnut shops in town. Before long, I knew where every Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts was and could vary my visits.

Now I needed a whole dozen to feel satisfied. I’d ditch the boxes in a garbage can on the street, not at home or at church, where someone might get suspicious. I felt ashamed, and shame made me want to eat more doughnuts.

Then Dad called me out of the blue. I hadn’t heard from him since my last trip to Detroit. I braced myself for whatever story he had to sell. Sure enough, he swore he’d kicked the habit for good this time.

He’d joined an AA group and had gone to daily meetings, admitting that he was an alcoholic and his life was unmanageable. He was praying again, getting right with God. Like I’m supposed to buy that, I thought.

Even if it were true, how long would it last? What was a stint of sobriety compared with his years of willful self-destruction?

At least I’m not like Dad, I thought, sitting in the Krispy Kreme parking lot that morning. I glanced at the four boxes on the passenger seat. I’d done all I could to live an upstanding life. I was married, had kids, a wife I adored. I was a pastor and led a congregation. I was doing God’s work.

I could always scale back on the doughnuts if I wanted to. Eat just one or two, the way I used to.

But could I? I remembered the guy’s look as he handed me the doughnuts. His arched eyebrows. Now three of the boxes lay empty. I opened the fourth and crammed another doughnut into my mouth. I could hardly taste it, yet I couldn’t stop.

My eyes welled with tears of shame and helplessness. I felt sick to my stomach, the way I usually felt these days. Sluggish, moody and constantly stressed. Kim worried about my lack of energy, and my doctor had warned me to watch my weight, which had ballooned from 210 to 290.

Nobody knew the real reason, except me. I’d kept my doughnuts a secret from everyone. Why was I doing this to myself? I was acting just like...Dad?

I shook my head. It was too scary to think about. There’s a big difference between doughnuts and booze, I told myself. Deep inside a little voice whispered, Yes, but an addiction is an addiction.

The next morning I woke up dizzy. Aches and pains coursed through my body, like I had the flu. I stayed in bed all week and missed giving my next sermon. I’d never done that before. I missed the one after that too. Finally, Kim begged me to see my doctor.

“You’ve got an infection in your blood,” he said, “from untreated diabetes.” He prescribed an antibiotic and shot me a grave look. “If you hadn’t come in for treatment today, you would have been in very serious trouble. Maybe even life-threatening.”

I’d heard words like that before. Your father had so much alcohol in his blood, he’s lucky to be alive, his doctor had said. Now mine said the same. About me. I’d lost control, just as Dad had. I thought I would never understand him. Now I did. I was an addict, just like him.

Back home, I worked up my courage, picked up the phone, and called the only person who could help me. The only one who would understand.

“Doughnuts?” Dad asked, chuckling. “Let me guess. You feel powerless. Not able to stop once you start. Going on even after you’ve lost the taste. You feel shame and remorse.”

He cleared his throat. “Well, I was exactly the same way, son. Then I started going to those meetings I told you about. Sharing my story and my pain with others. I’ve been sober ever since.”

I swallowed hard. “How did you make the cravings go away?”

“You turn it over,” he said. “You give it up to God. You pray and you fight for your sobriety every day. Honesty is the key. And you know what? It gets better. In fact, it gets great!”

For the first time, I understood those years Dad had spent drinking himself into a stupor, hiding from the family. Both of us had been chasing after something you can’t put in a bottle or bake into a doughnut. We were trying to fill a hole in our lives, to satisfy a spiritual longing.

I’d felt helpless when it came to Dad’s alcoholism and I’d turned to my own addiction to cover up that feeling. I’d stopped trusting God. I’d put my faith in doughnuts to make me feel whole.

Dad had gotten better, and I could too. Prayer was the first step. I asked God for strength, not to stop eating doughnuts but to get honest about my situation.

I sat Kim and the kids down in the living room. “This is going to sound nuts,” I said, trailing off. I looked into Kim’s eyes. “But there’s a reason I’ve gained so much weight. I’ve been eating doughnuts. A lot of them. Sometimes I eat four dozen at a time.”

Kim looked confused. “Nobody can eat that many doughnuts!” she said, laughing. I reached for her hand.

“I can,” I said. “And I can’t stop once I start. I need help.”

Realization filled her eyes and she threw her arms around me. “You can count on me and the kids,” she said. “We’ll make it through this together. You’re not alone.”

It wasn’t easy, but prayer and honesty, love and understanding saw me through. I haven’t touched a doughnut in over 20 years–I’ve been “clean” all that time.

Dad stayed sober till the end of his life. He was my hero and my inspiration. I saw how much we were alike, and that drew us closer, both to each other and to God.


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