For years, alcohol was my God.
I relied on booze, drugs, and sex to fill a void inside me that felt all but impossible to fill. No matter how much I consumed, the darkness only ever got bigger, darker, and more terrifying. The desperate loneliness I felt was all consuming. The shame was heavy as lead.
I was raised in a religion where drinking is strictly forbidden. So beneath whatever shame had accumulated as a result of my booze-fuelled escapades was the shame that, no matter how hard I tried, I simply could not stay away from this stuff. Initially, I did not want to try that hard. I reveled in the rebellion. I reveled in the invincibility I felt with alcohol rushing through my veins. But underneath it, down in my core, was a deeper knowing. A sense of homelessness; of not belonging anywhere — not to my religion, to my family, to myself, or to God.
The Baha’i Faith has plenty of other spiritual laws it calls upon its believers to adhere to. Baha’is are not supposed to speak poorly about anyone behind their back, be physically intimate outside of the confines of marriage, or harbor hatred or prejudice towards anyone; we are supposed to pray and meditate daily, fast for 19 days once a year, and work towards the unity of mankind above all else. The truth is that these laws are all held in equal regard. God does not care about some more than others, nor does the Baha’i Faith speak of a vengeful God who expects absolute perfection from its believers. But, as a teenager raised in a Baha’i household, I was certainly expected not to drink booze, not to come home stoned, and not sleep over at my boyfriend’s house or sneak men into the basement in the middle of the night.
Although I have come to know myself and identify as an alcoholic, believing wholeheartedly that nothing worthwhile will come of my life unless I put down the booze (and realizing that I never managed to do this on my own), my tug of war with God’s rules started years before my first drink… with my first kiss. The rush of adrenaline, affirmation, approval, and endorphins that came from that secret kiss in a synagogue hallway far exceeded any Divine Love I had felt up to that point. Some part of me suspected I might be disappointing God (or my parents, though the difference was not clear at that stage), but I enjoyed the whole thing far too much to stop. In fact, as you might have guessed, I only wanted more.
“I reveled in the rebellion. I reveled in the invincibility I felt with alcohol rushing through my veins.”
The shame of wanting to break the rules more than I wanted to uphold them started to seep in right then. Before long, I was convinced that God was completely unimpressed with, disappointed in, and uninterested in me if I could not get these right. When I started drinking, this was the perfect excuse to get very, very drunk pretty much every time I drank. If I was going to piss God off, I might as well make it worthwhile.
As the years progressed and the darkness settled in, the shame deepened. It evolved from shame at not wanting to stop to shame at not being able to stop or change no matter how hard I tried. I remember, near the end of my drinking, wanting so badly to go home to my husband and love him well, only to find myself on the other side of town, in another man’s bed, drunk.
What had happened? How had I strayed so far from the woman I had hoped to be? Become so lost? During that time, I attended a Baha’i conference in Stamford, Connecticut, where I heard a talk by one of the most gentle and honest men I have ever met. His words were loving and kind but they cut to the core. He spoke of men and women who know right from wrong but, despite their best efforts, continue to choose wrong. He was speaking about me, and for the first time in years, I felt some hope. He spoke with love. For an instant, it felt like it could be possible that God still loved me — despite the darkness, despite the pain I had caused myself and others. Perhaps the realm of the spirit was not lost on me after all.
“If I was going to piss God off, I might as well make it worthwhile.”
It was not long after that I found myself in a treatment center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. High in those pink and purple desert mountains, I started my journey back to God. It was clear in the brilliant colors of the sunset and the bright light of the full moon that God was all around me. It was there that I began to consider the possibility that God was inside me, too. That God was perhaps bigger and different to anything I had ever imagined. That the punishing, judgmental, disappointed God of my drinking was perhaps not God at all but my parents, my community, and even my own disappointment in myself. That perhaps God had never abandoned me or judged me but had been waiting patiently for me to return.
Despite these profound experiences and the life-changing effect they had on me (sobriety, honesty, and fidelity, for a start), I spent years terrified of “coming out” to the Baha’i community about my identity as a recovering alcoholic and addict. To some degree, I continued to live a double life. I was terrified of the judgment I assumed would be heaped on my head for not being able to abide by the laws, for struggling to uphold something that surely any good, decent Baha’i would be able to do with ease.
There is a passage in the book “Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions,” by Bill Wilson, that speaks about the “profound confusion” felt by the “wanderer from faith.” The person who once had faith but found it wanting; who abandoned the faith of their childhood, believing that a life based on decent morals and material success would suffice. While I had never abandoned my faith entirely, to a large degree I felt that I had no choice but to relate to it from afar thanks to my many missteps. I couldn’t see how I could ever come into a full, honest relationship with a faith that I still imagined would judge me harshly for my past — a past that I was realizing I had no choice but to embrace fully if I was really going to recover. I had to believe in a loving God, a God that loved me wholeheartedly, not even in spite of my imperfections but perhaps loved me because of them. A God that loved me not because of my goodness, but because of His. The question was whether I could reconcile this understanding of a God big enough and loving enough to save my life with what I understood of the God I grew up with.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure. But eventually, I decided that speaking the truth about my past so that some other drunk Baha’i might read it and find hope was far more important than avoiding any possible judgment about how good I was or was not. I suppose I decided that the God I had come to believe in would want that more than He would want me to appear perfect (which I actually do not believe God cares about in the least). I suppose I decided to risk it: To risk being imperfect in order to be true. To risk judgment in order to bring hope. To risk looking bad in order to free my soul.
“I couldn’t see how I could ever come into a full, honest relationship with a faith that I still imagined would judge me harshly for my past — a past that I was realizing I had no choice but to embrace fully if I was really going to recover.”
The miracle is this: I have come to learn that the God of my faith is vast. That the God spoken of in the Baha’i scriptures is mystical, loving, forgiving, and beautiful. Over and over again He is referred to as “All-Forgiving,” “Compassionate,” “Bountiful,” and “Merciful.” The ideas I had about God were about me, they weren’t about God.
The first time I wrote publicly about being in recovery from alcoholism and addiction, I was about eight years sober. It was a post on social media; I remember hitting “Share” and being at once exhilarated and terrified. I was finally brave enough to share my story with the world; to be honest about who I am and how I got here. I thought the best I could hope for would be comments and likes from my recovery friends. What I found was that, along with messages and comments from women and men I have known my whole life. Baha’is who I always assumed had never struggled with, or come face to face with, addiction, alcoholism, or any other struggles that may have challenged their faith in or reliance upon God.
They thanked me for my honesty. They applauded my courage. They offered their own stories. They showed me that God lives in us all. That the stories of judgment and isolation were my own. That I could return to my faith, be held by it, and be given the chance to bloom.