Heather Kopp was a self-described “Christian drunk.” She kept secret stashes of booze all over the place–hidden behind books on her shelf, tucked away in a special compartment in her purse, stuffed inside her boots at the back of her closet. Even as her career and marriage teetered on the brink, Kopp couldn’t get a grip, desperately hiding the true extent of her drinking problem. During the day, she wrote books about God and prayer and family; at night she’d locked herself in her bathroom to guzzle chardonnay.
Kopp details her experience–and how she escaped addiction–in her new book, Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk. Here we talk about addictions, recovery, and why her faith was a hinderance to getting help.
JM: Your book is intense–plain and simple. What was it like reliving your experiences while writing it?
HK: Both awful and wonderful, actually. The awful part was seeing my story in black and white and recognizing just how bad it got. I was reminded how much I hurt other people, especially my kids. I’m sure this is one reason it took me more than two years to write the book.
Wierdly, facing the ugly truth was also the wonderful part. It’s hugely important for those of us in recovery to never forget what it was like in the darkest days of our drinking. The longer we’re sober, the greater the likelihood that we’ll forget. And I don’t want to. That’s why recovery meetings are so important.
JM: In Sober Mercies, you imply that your Christian faith was more of a hindrance for you getting help with alcoholism than a help. Explain.
HK: Coming from an evangelical background, I viewed drunkenness as sin, period. That makes alcoholism simply the sin of drunkenness repeated over and over again. I had no idea that my response to alcohol—the more I drank, the thirstier I got—was abnormal. The overindulgence was sin, yes. But I didn’t take into account genetic predisposition or physiological factors.
When I lost control of my drinking, I was baffled and ashamed. I prayed and repented until I was blue in the face—all to no avail. Which set up a faith crisis. I mean, wasn’t alcoholism the kind of gross moral sin that I was supposed to have been saved from?
I think this is why Christians make such miserable addicts. When prayer and repentance don’t work, in order to protect our “witness” or God’s reputation, or our families—we think we’re doing every one a favor by keeping it secret or suffering in silence. That only makes us more miserable and further away from getting help.
JM: You mention a lack of resources in the church to deal with the growing problem of alcoholism. How can the church respond better to people who struggle with addictions?
HK: Well, I’m thankful that a lot of churches these days do a fabulous job of addressing addiction, and many host para-church programs like Celebrate Recovery. But I would venture to say that even those churches can fall into a trap of treating addiction as a purely sin issue and discouraging folks from taking advantage of professional resources.
Bottom line, I’m a fan of what works. And what works varies dramatically from person to person, regardless of their faith background. So I guess I would love to see more churches acknowledging that at some point a “besetting sin” crosses the line into addiction—and addiction is often too complex an issue to be treated only with more Bible study and prayer.
JM: Did being a woman change anything about your story of addiction and recovery?
HK: Until about twenty years ago, men were more the stereotype of the addict or alcoholic. These days, things are different. Most of us know that substance abuse doesn’t come with a gender preference. Cute blonde celebrities have helped. J
I do think that in some instances people still have a harder time recognizing the seriousness of addiction when it’s a woman, especially if she’s a caring, busy mother and wife. Recent studies show a huge rise in alcoholism rates among mommies with school age kids.
JM: What hope do you offer to others working their way out of addiction?
You said it right there—hope. Specifically, I wrote my book to show that change is possible. Which is something I couldn’t imagine when I was stuck in my drinking life. It wasn’t until I met a woman friend who I really liked and admired—and then learned was in recovery—that I started to see a ray of hope.
Unlike many recovery memoirs, my story doesn’t end when I get sober. I wanted to show people what life in recovery is like and inspire them to reach for it for themselves or someone they love.
JM: Why do you think so many people—including Christians—succumb to addictions, despite knowing how damaging they can be to them and others?
HK: Because life is hard and because, especially at first, drugs and alcohol work. Of course, at some point they stop working with a vengeance. But think about it: a drink or drug presents itself as the solution. A pill, a toke, a shot of vodka—they deliver pleasure, ease our social anxiety, relieve us of our angst, numb our pain, maybe just turn off the endless chatter of our monkey mind. For a while at least. No wonder millions of people get hooked!
The bottom line is that most of us find that something about our natural state of being is intolerable. We’re desperate to change the way we feel or the way we perceive reality. Once addiction sets in, the “solution” has us by the throat. People are ready to lie, cheat and steal (and worse) to get hold of a substance that will alter the way they feel.
We should also acknowledge the role that mental conditions and chemical imbalances play. Millions reach for drugs or alcohol because they are trying to self-medicate. The manic person needs to calm down. The depressed person wants to lighten up.
I read the other day of a neurosurgeon who said, “Show me a person’s brain and I’ll tell what kind of drug they’re going to reach for if they do.”
JM: You talk about going to Twelve Step recovery meetings. Why did you have to go outside the church to find help?
HK: Great question. I’m fan of all kinds of recovery programs. But my Christian background had sort of inoculated me against the power of important spiritual principles. After decades of hearing the same ideas put the same way over and over, everything I heard in church sounded like stuff I already knew that hadn’t rescued me from my addiction. Spiritual truths that could and should have changed me were bouncing off of me like a rubber ball off pavement.
My 12-step program is at its core a spiritual program of recovery. But it helps me to encounter God, honesty, trust, and surrender in a fresh way. The truth is more likely to go in deep and changes me. And it gives me the language to reach out to other sufferers—many of whom aren’t Christians, who are in fact angry at church and God—and pass along the gift of sobriety in a way that they can receive it.