Addiction, seen as a symptom of our society’s fatal affliction of isolation and alienation.
By Father Michael Decewicz,
Director of Addiction Recovery Ministry
When I was growing up, I lived on a street in the city of Pittsburgh surrounded by family – two aunts and uncles, six cousins, and a couple of streets away, another aunt, uncle and three more cousins, along with my maternal grandmother and her brother, sister and niece! Now, in a nearby neighborhood was my father’s family – my grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, and four cousins. We were a very close family and having all this family around made me feel safe and loved.
I was the youngest boy. I was shy and awkward as a kid. I didn’t like sports; I was different. I didn’t fit in, but I knew my family loved me and would protect me. They made me feel safe and loved; this was my world, my home, my community and I loved it. We did everything together, i.e., holidays, birthday parties, summer picnics. There were jealousies and rivalries; there were arguments and fights. But this was home where I belongs, where I fit. And then something terrible happened. It was December 2, 1959. We moved! Just us – my mother, father, sister and me, out to the suburbs (15 miles away from my neighborhood.) I was terrified. How could I possibly live without the people I love; the ones who knew, accepted, and loved me. I am alone and different. I don’t fit in; I don’t feel like I belong. I am desperately lonely. You see, I had to learn how to make friends or try to fit in. I was safe inside my large, loud, overbearing family. Now it was just my immediate family.
My mother and dad both worked, and I missed having my mother around. My sister, who is 4 ½ years older than me, would watch me after my dad left for his night-time shift and my mother returned home from work. My sister and I would be alone in the house and I was scared and lonely.
I hated my new public school and just stopped trying. I failed third grade. I missed my grandmother, I missed all my family. I would go back to visit as often as I could. I was lost, empty and lonely; my imagination became my home. Then when I was 16, my sister got married and moved away. I remember this being an empty and hollow time. I really didn’t have friends and I always felt afraid and odd, not fitting in.
In my senior year of high school (which I loathed), my parents separated. My Dad was an abusive alcoholic. For about four years he was abusive. I used to lay in bed at night when he was out drinking, hoping he wouldn’t come home. So the separation was something I welcomed. Now I could have my mother to myself.
I started Community College and I searched and searched to find someplace to belong; somewhere to fit in; somewhere to be safe. I kept redefining who I was, trying to fit in, but I just didn’t know who I was. While I was in Community College, I met a priest who took a bunch of us on retreat. I loved it. I always went to church, even when my family didn’t. I enjoyed the music and ritual; I even became a lector. So maybe the church is where I belong. I entered the seminary my junior year and found a place where I felt safe, where I could belong. Oh, I still clung to my mother, grandmother and sister. But here there were men who cared and didn’t scare me. And here I even made some friends. I began to really like school; my grades improved, I graduated and went to major seminary and got ordained. I still didn’t really feel I was good enough; I felt like I was faking it.
Now, in my first assignment, I was assigned with an abusive alcoholic pastor. I am desperate, alone, scared and feeling like I don’t fit in. The people I gravitate to are all heavy drinkers. I enjoy them and drink with them. I begin to adapt. I achieve some success, but I never believe I am good enough.
I really didn’t begin to drink regularly until I was in my mid-thirties. I swore I would never be like my dad, who was dead by now. However, my drinking was becoming problematic. At 40, I got my first pastorate about 50 miles outside the city. I live alone for the first time in my life and alcohol begins to fill the loneliness. In four years, I am transferred to a large, complex, suburban parish. I am not ready for this; I was overwhelmed, insecure, feeling inadequate and desperately lonely. Now the drinking becomes an issue. I deny it, justify it. I function, I get by. But then all hell breaks loose; I get sloppy drunk in public and now I am forced face the truth and the consequences of my drinking.
I realize now that this was a moment of miraculous grace. The year was 2005. In June I was in Lourdes, recently diagnosed with a serious disease and went to the healing water for this condition. On my arrival back home in July, I make a public spectacle of myself, which will lead to my recovery and this is when I come to AA. Now I begin to fit in; to belong. In AA, I rediscover family, friends and community. I belong – I feel safe.
I am sure you are asking why I have gone through this long monologue about myself. You must be asking yourself, “Is this guy an egotist or what?” But please allow me to explain the reason why I am beginning our discussion this way. I absolutely believe that experience is the best way to learn and understand, and my own experience convinces me that isolation can lead to alienation, which can lead to addiction. Isolation is a cancer that is eating away at our contemporary society. More and more, we live in a world of loneliness, believing gratification, pleasure, power, prestige, status, sex, ambition and personal fulfillment will achieve intimacy. This lie is the cancer that infects our society.
Our canonization of the individual can led us into the pit of alienation, an aching emptiness that causes us to withdraw into the abyss of emptiness. We can become “soul sick,” searching desperately for a way to escape the hole of hollowness. We seek what we perceive as intimacy through gratification, with a substance and actions that provide the illusion of intimacy, but really only feed into the emptiness of loneliness and isolation, providing at least initially the illusion of belonging.
And here lies the moment of grace. There may come that time when you see and own your desperation. You’re tired, so tired of chasing the illusion that you’re afraid of falling any further down. This can be the moment when recovery can begin.
Unfortunately, the times we live in feed the mirage. We continue to seek immediate gratification and fulfillment. We continue to worship at the altar of individualism, feeding the epidemic of isolation and alienation, eating away at our families and communities. We replace our family with gangs, Facebook friends, our supplier, drinking buddies, etc.
When we lose a sense of belonging, a community and family, we will search and find a substitute that that will provide, for at least a little while, a place where we can fit in, belong and feel accepted. We can drown in this lake of lies.
However, on the shore of the lake of lies, there is the safety of intimacy of belonging, of fitting in. There is family, friends, community – a place to live and love. That place exists in embracing our brokenness, accepting our humanity, committing ourselves to radical honesty. In other words, as an alcoholic/addict needs recovery to stay healthy, so our society needs recovery to be healthy.
Our society and culture are drowning in isolation and alienation. We need to recover a sense of community, embracing our interdependence and our need to encounter and experience the transcendent.
And how do we do this?
I. We admit that we are powerless over our alienation; our society has become unmanageable.
II. Come to believe that God can restore our society to sanity.
I believe that if we begin to seek God’s grace and
embrace God’s providence, submit to God’s will,
not in a self-righteous condescension way, but
rather as a community of broken, hurting people
who are not afraid to be vulnerable and are
committed to having a vision of empathy and
compassion, then we, as church, as people of God,
as mystical body of Christ, can be a haven that can
truly be the healing, loving presence of Christ in
our world, leading us from isolation and loneliness
to friendship and community.
As it says in John’s Gospel, “As you sent me into
the world, so I sent them into the world. And I
consecrate myself for them, so that they also may
be consecrated in truth. I pray not only for them,
but also for those who will believe in me through
their word, so that they may all be one, as you,
Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may
be in us, that the world may believe that you sent