My Therapist, The Dead Dude, and a Lesson in Not Drinking Myself to Death
On January 1 of 2021, I wrote an article about St. Ignatius and sobriety for America Magazine. (You can find my articles here.) In reviewing the piece for a book I’m currently writing, it occurred to me that I might benefit from revisiting these lessons. And in that revisiting, it occurred to me that you might benefit from it, too. Enjoy this re-post from the America archives.
If ever there was a year for a stiff drink, it was 2020. We weathered the whiskey-worthy events: the pandemic pall; the protests for George Floyd in particular and racial injustice in general; the political bedlam of an unprecedented election. It was a year of chaos and volatility—a year spilling over into a new year.
In our year of turmoil, we turned to strong coping mechanisms. Alcohol sales skyrocketed in the days following state-issued lockdown orders. Reported drug use and resulting overdose rates increased. Food consumption, online gambling, porn use—every vice was on the rise. The world was on fire, and we were numbing ourselves to the terror of it all. I’d like to claim I avoided every vice. After all, I’ve written thousands of words on the topics of spirituality and sobriety. Still, in moments of chaos in 2020, I reached for my own coping mechanisms: social media consumption; doom scrolling the news feeds; drowning my sorrows in carbohydrates.
Throughout the year, I fought my own coping mechanisms; and as I did, I revisited the lessons I learned in my recovery journey. I reflected, too, on the saint who led me into a fuller, richer understanding of spiritual sobriety—St. Ignatius Loyola.
In September 2013, I admitted the unthinkable to my wife. Despite appearing to have it together and projecting something like Christian devotion, I was a wreck, I told her. After years of over-drinking to cope with the stresses of career and a son who struggled with chronic health issues, I’d developed a bona fide drinking problem. It was time to make good on the words of Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking”—I learn by going where I have to go. But where did I have to go? I needed a path to a more sober life. I needed to not be so drunk.
That confession led me to a therapist’s couch. There, we uncovered the reasons behind the booze, the chaos, uncertainty and pain that led me deeper into the bottle. He pointed me to resources, gave me articles and materials that helped me understand the ways I’d used chemical euphoria to numb my own inner turmoil.
Over one of our noon-hour sessions, he pointed me to the work of Sue Johnson, a noted marriage therapist who specializes in “emotionally focused therapy.” She preached the power of “bonded attachments,” he said; and though he couldn’t quite explain why, he suggested I watch the last 15 minutes of one of her recordings.
An hour later, I sat in my office chair, unwrapped a $3 deli sandwich and clicked on the video link my therapist had sent me at the close of our session. Scrolling to the 15 minute mark, I listened as Johnson said in a dry British accent, “Effective dependency makes us stronger as individuals.” She explained that those with a bonded marital attachment were able to define themselves in more positive terms, better able to regulate their emotions and could navigate the worst the world has to offer.
“Bonded attachment”—the phrase grabbed me. If healthy, bonded attachment to another person increased the chances of negotiating the pains of life, could there be some divine corollary? This seemed an important question for me to ask. After all, I was a Christian. Had any of the great spiritual writers or thinkers of the faith considered attachment to the Divine in the context of addiction?
These were the days before my Catholic conversion, before I understood the deep well of saintly wisdom. I scoured the internet for some spiritual guru who’d written about attachment and addiction, and one name kept rising to the top of the search results: St. Ignatius Loyola.
I was Protestant; I knew nothing about St. Ignatius other than he was some Catholic dead dude who up to that point had no particular relevance to my life. I read his story.
Before St. Ignatius’ conversion, he described himself as “a man given to the vanities of the world.” But after a battlefield wound, the 16th-century Spaniard found himself laid up in a makeshift hospital boasting a spartan, two-book library. One book was on the life of Christ, the other about the lives of the saints. As he read, his vain appetites would give way to something more holy.
Ignatius began attending daily Mass and tempering his appetites for food, drink, wealth and glory. He cultivated his own bonded attachment, but not to a spouse (as Johnson might recommend). Instead, he attached himself to the divine love of God through Christ and treated everything else as secondary.
After learning this kind of Divine attachment, Ignatius penned his Spiritual Exercises, which he described as “every way of preparing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul” (Spiritual Exercises, No. 1).
I pored over the Spiritual Exercises. I began meeting with an Ignatian spiritual director to help me understand Ignatius’ notion of attachment to God and detachment from the vices of life. As I did, I discovered a new way of imaginative prayer, one that would help me cultivate a less anxious, less shaky sobriety. That way of praying came directly from Ignatius’ writings on food and wine.
Recognizing that food and wine might lead to “disordered attachments,” or addiction, the good saint offered a practical prayer exercise to bring all things into their proper order. He wrote:
“While one is eating, let him imagine he sees Christ our Lord and His disciples at the table, and consider how He eats and drinks, how He looks, and how He speaks, and then strive to imitate Him. In this way, his mind will be occupied principally with our Lord, and less with the provision for the body. Thus he will come to greater harmony and order in the way he ought to conduct himself” (Spiritual Exercises, No. 214).
The advice was as simple as it was profound. When the chaos comes calling, when we are tempted to turn to food or alcohol (pills, porn or whatever) to numb the pain, we should imagine Christ in the room with us, and then eat, drink (use or click) only as Christ would. Through this sort of imaginative prayer, we come to learn the way of Christ, who lived a life of perfect sobriety, of perfectly ordered attachments.
I began to practice this kind of imaginative prayer, and it forever changed my approach to sobriety. It led to the recognition that every moment is an opportunity to choose attachment to the Creator instead of to created things. It was a way of prayer that put Christ in the room with me. Through it, I began to see that created gifts—things like wine, food, sex or whatever—are really good and they can be portals to the goodness of God if we use them as God, the giver, intended. But if we use these gifts as ends in themselves, addiction is the natural result.
I’ve been walking this path of ordering—and constantly reordering—attachments for seven years now. Through it, Ignatius has become the patron saint of my own sobriety. He led me through the early days of shaky sobriety. And when I found myself turning to my own vices in a near-apocalyptic 2020, his prayer practice again helped me reorder things. I suspect he’ll help me make it through whatever chaos 2021 has to offer, too. Through his prayer practice, I’ve learned a way of deepening my bonded attachment to the Divine Love, which is the only path to true sobriety.
We’re entering another year, one that I hope is marked by less volatility, uncertainty and chaos. But if it’s not, we can navigate it soberly if we learn the way of St. Ignatius: Cultivate a bonded attachment with the Giver instead of the gifts.
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