Entrepreneur, marketing director, video producer and corporate president, this is only a partial list of my supposedly impressive credentials. Now, let me take off my mask. Without that mask I was a self centered, prideful alcoholic and drug addict. I was bound by all of the above for 31 long years. I have been in jail 16 times for alcohol or drug related offenses, twice divorced, went through three inpatient recovery programs and three suicide attempts. The last attempt I ingested 60 valiums in an alcoholic blackout. Yes that was the real me. Notice I said the past tense “was” the real me. The following is just a fragment of the story of how I started my downward spiral into addiction.
I was raised in a middle class home, the son of a minister. Yes, I was in many ways the preacher’s kid you hear about. I was rebellious and usually in some kind of trouble in our small Iowa town. I assumed preacher’s kids were supposed to live up to that reputation because everybody told me that preacher’s kids were the rowdiest. I will again explain a little later how my childhood history also led me into my addiction.
A life-changing experience
My life changed however from the normal boyhood pranks when I was 16 years old. During my summer vacation, I took a bus trip to visit my sister in central Illinois. About two hours from my destination, the bus broke down and we were informed that we would have a 12-hour layover that night. As I sat in the bus station, a man approached me and started a conversation. Amazingly, he knew my mother. He had gone to school with her and even knew the church organist from where my father had been assistant pastor in Illinois.
He then suggested that I come over to his house to spend the night instead of staying in that smelly old bus station. I think you know what happened that night. I was molested all night and brought back to the bus station the next morning. I was ashamed and angry with myself because I did not run or fight back. I just knew it was my fault.
That was the second time I had been molested, and at that moment I decided I would tell no one about either molestation for the rest of my life. For the next 31 years I carried that guilt and shame. Two months later in high school, I drank half a bottle of vodka. I liked it because I didn’t see the man’s face anymore and I didn’t feel that guilt and shame. For over 3 decades, there was a lot of alcohol, drug use and sexual promiscuity in my life. In fact more stories than I care to share. I protected my guilt, shame and low self-esteem with a wall of false pride.
I had to be successful in business. I had to be seen with the best looking women. I had to look good, be the laugh of the party and the craziest — anything to cover the pain. I wore a real good mask, I was a good con man, and I fooled a lot of people who trusted in me and wanted to help me.
The black out
On an overnight business trip to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the spring of 1998, I ended up in a blackout at the Honolulu, Hawaii airport. From there it was straight to a Honolulu hospital. They would not release me until my father flew out (on Father’s Day) to bring his humiliated “little” 46-year old boy back to Florida.
I knew then, that if I didn’t agree to some long-term rehabilitation, I was going to lose my wife and my family. I didn’t want to be alone again. I was really scared.
Five days later I was in the mosquito laced swampland of central Florida on 200 acres called Dunklin Memorial Camp. No phones, no radio, no TV and no newspapers, just 60 other addicts and alcoholics and the staff, who were former addicts not afraid to speak the truth in love that could see right through my con jobs. Before I knew it, I went from being International Marketing Director of a Medical company to assistant Hog Feeder for 200 hogs. Assistant Hog Feeder, mind you, not even the Director of Hog Feeding Operations.
In the hog pen
It was hot, smelly, and I had to wear a bandana across my face to keep from inhaling the flies. It certainly was not the modern hog farm you picture in your mind. But for the next 9 months, the Lord did surgery on my heart in that old hog pen. I had not cried for 30 years, not from fights, pain or losses, but one day I was digging the mud out of a feeding trough, and for the first time, I heard a voice in my mind say to me,” Dana, I want you to know that all of the pain you have been feeling is not your fault.” I knew it was God talking to me, and I fell to my knees right there in the mud, by myself, and cried for over two hours. The tears felt like acid coming down my face. That is when I humbled myself and truly asked Jesus Christ to take control of my out of control life. During those nine months, the Lord showed me many of my character defects and blind spots. It was painful and I wanted to leave many times, but I stayed and worked through the pain and shame.
Facing the pain
Some of you haven’t talked to anyone about your pain because of shame, or what people may think of you, so I will share the next part of my story as a Christian, and Addictions counselor.
Eight years into my recovery, I was leading a recovery meeting at a large church in West Palm Beach with an average of 275 attending each week. I also had started a non profit ministry, working with addicts, alcoholics, victims of all types of abuse. My clients were children as young as 3 yrs old to clients in their 90’s who finally wanted to talk about their abuse. I was traveling the weekends working with corporate management teams as well as having six clients a day. However something was wrong; I was slipping into a depression, and I couldn’t figure out why. My wife told me about a man that had 22 years in recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous, 14 years in Alanon, a program for family and friends of alcoholics and addicts, and 12 years in a little known program called Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunction. I met with him and a whole new area of my recovery opened up.
My relational history
I finally understood how my childhood and teenage relational history had affected the choices I made as a teenager and carried over into my adulthood. Now understand, my parents had prayed for me during those 31 years of addiction, had bailed me out of jail many times, paid for lawyers and a host of other expenses related to my addiction, but there was a catch. My parents loved me, but there was something lacking in their parenting that I did not know about because they never talked about it and it was all about guilt and shame.
My father was the youngest of eight kids and the son of a coal miner from England. My grandfather died of cirrhosis of the liver the year I was born in 1951. He was my age now, 64 years old. He came to America, became a farmer in central IIinois and was an alcoholic. My father’s brothers and sisters all fought amongst each other until their death. My mother came from a family that was totally a mess. Her mother was married four times, had a gambling addiction and died in a DUI crash where she flipped her car. Her father was married three times and was an insurance agent in Illinois. My mom had been molested by her two half brothers in her childhood. Her brother committed suicide by hanging himself, then his daughter hung herself and then his only son hung himself. None of the reasons why was ever explained to me, expect all my Dad said was they needed God. My parents had married when Dad was 19 yrs old and mom was 16 yrs old. They had to go to Missouri to get married because of Mom’s age. Remember this was never told to me because my parents had kept me away from my cousins, aunts and uncles for the most part. We moved from central Illinois to central Iowa where Dad built his second church and a parsonage. My father was a workaholic. That was how he dealt with his childhood issues.
In 1969, two weeks after graduation from high school, I was in San Diego in the Navy, and that is where my alcohol and drug use started and did not stop for 31 years.
I gave you that quick background because even though my parents loved me, they were not given the emotional needs necessary for healthy parenting and so they could not pass it on to me.
It was not their fault, they could only give me what they thought was healthy parenting, which amounted to me believing God was a punishing God for everything and there was no grace whatsoever from him. I grew up with the understanding that almost everything I did was a sin and would send me to Hell. That started my dysfunctional belief system. God changed my through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but I also needed answers to understanding why I made unhealthy decisions in my life.
There were two main components I needed to change and get inner healing. The first component was an understanding who Jesus Christ really is, that He is real and present today and through His word will give me insight into myself. The second component is understanding that my relational history has affected all of my choices as an adult and that was achieved through working his recovery for many years in the Al-Anon and the Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunction programs.
Dana Hepworth is an addiction counselor and ministers in recovery and inner healing programs. He is executive director of Life Recovery Ministries, Inc. www.lrmtoday.org