“Brother, I wish I would have known.” That’s what one of my closest friends said to me when I confided—years later—that the entire time we were in seminary together I was abusing prescription pain pills.
I started using drugs when I was very young—around eleven-years-old. My grandmother had passed away and someone close to me tried to ease my pain with marijuana. That quickly turned into other things, like prescription pills and crystal methamphetamine. When I was high I didn’t hurt, and that’s all I was really concerned about as a little boy—and later as a grown man.
The drug use stopped when I was arrested at school in seventh grade for having enough marijuana to sell, though I only planned to use it myself. I was expelled from school, sent to a year of out-patient rehab, and sentenced to one hundred hours of community service. By God’s grace, a local youth pastor—whose son I bullied—took me under his wing and worked out a way for me to do the community service with him. That meant preparing for Wednesday and Sunday services, cleaning up afterward, and riding to and from school with him every day. I didn’t come to know Jesus for another six years, but he watered the gospel seeds my grandmother had planted so long ago.
I surrendered my life to Christ when I was eighteen, the summer before I entered college at Henderson State University. There I served the Lord at the Baptist Collegiate Ministries and benefited greatly from the discipleship of the BCM director and taking classes across the street at Ouachita Baptist University. During those years I felt God calling me to a teaching ministry, so I applied to seminary and planned to started my studies in biblical languages immediately after graduation.
Before graduating, though, I had to see a dentist about a terrible toothache. The prognosis was grim—the tooth had to go—but the dentist prescribed some pain medicine to help me sleep at night. Without even thinking of my past struggles with addiction, I took that first pill and spiraled into a years-long struggle with narcotics and alcohol abuse.
Perhaps struggle is too strong a word, because for most of those years while I studied Greek and Hebrew and made all A's in my classes, I simply swallowed down pills with vodka, not trying to live any differently. Deep down I wanted to stop. The guilt I felt in the morning was overwhelming, but instead of repenting I would just take more pills in the evening. Like that little boy so many years ago, I just wanted the bad feelings to go away.
I never told anyone about my addiction. I went to class, talked about Jesus, attended church—all the things seminary students are supposed to do. And no one was ever the wiser, at least not to my knowledge. I often wondered when God was going to kill me for making such a mockery of his name. But instead of that, he woke me up one morning with a life-changing thought.
You should know that my dad was an alcoholic. The kind of alcoholic who washes down his whisky breakfast with gulps of beer. When I was twelve or so, some friends wanted to get drunk at my house and I told them, “We only have whisky, and you can’t get drunk off that. My dad drinks it all the time.” So we didn’t drink that day.
That morning in seminary I woke up and thought—“My dad didn’t set out to become an alcoholic. He didn’t look around one day and say, ‘You know, I think I’ll go through life in a hazy fog, leaving wrecked lives in my wake.’” I walked into the bathroom, dumped my pills into the toilet, and have been clean since then—nearly nine years as I write this.
When I think of addicts, I don’t tend to think of folks like me. I excelled in my job and school. I faithfully attended church and even developed relationships with the people around me—as much as a fraud can, that is. And I’m certain most people don’t think of people like me when they think of substance abuse. But here’s the truth: addicts come in all shapes and sizes. And if you’re like me—a well-adjusted seminarian (or maybe a pastor or staff member at a church somewhere)—and you’re struggling with substance abuse, please listen to my friend: “Brother, I wish I would have known.” Let someone know. Be transparent, no matter the cost. The church can’t love you if it doesn’t know you’re struggling. And if you’re not like I was, be that friend. Love the addict. Remind him or her of the gospel, that there’s another way, a better way.