My 7-year-old nephew steps cautiously into the baptismal pool. Surrounded by a few hundred people attending the noon Mass, he yields his shivery thin boy-body back to the waters of life. His younger sister and brother, faces upturned in wonderment, stand below him waiting their turn.
This day had not come easily. When my nephew was born, my brother and sister-in-law were just shy of celebrating three years of sobriety. Every morning during that time, separately and together, they had chosen to live consciously, with eyes wide open; to admit powerlessness over drugs or alcohol; to ask for God’s help.
Those years before sobriety were a time of sickness and slavery. The etymology of “addiction” conjures up giving up one’s name and selling oneself. In addiction the individual becomes debilitated, diseased, obliterated, while the ravenous demon grows stronger. In addiction one trades a unique identity for a drink, a hit, for “pottage” (see Esau in Genesis 25:30-35).
Of course, addiction is not an individual disease; it’s a family sickness. It has required us, as a family, to look hard at our co-dependencies and denial, our anger, depression, and lack of self-regard. Gaining sobriety hasn’t been only for my brother and sister-in-law; it’s been for all of us. Their tenacity has led us into new terrain. I don’t know where we’ll end up, but we have matured as a family.
When my nephew’s head sinks under water, I think about how many of my ancestors also had this moment. For some it was at a small marble font in a city church; for others it was a Nebraska farm pond or in the yard of a Cajun country church with a circuit-riding priest.