alcoholics

Misery Loves Comedy

Nadia Bolz-Weber

DURING MY EARLY years of sobriety, I spent most Monday nights in a smoke-filled parish hall with some friends who were also sober alcoholics, drinking bad coffee. Pictures of the Virgin Mary looked down on us, as prayer and despair and cigarette smoke and hope rose to the ceiling. We were a cranky bunch whose lives were in various states of repair. There was Candace, a suburban housewife who was high on heroin for her debutante ball; Stan the depressive poet, self-deprecating and soulful; and Bob the retired lawyer who had been sober since before Jesus was born, but for some reason still looked a little bit homeless.

We talked about God and anger, resentment and forgiveness—all punctuated with profanity. We weren’t a ship of fools so much as a rowboat of idiots. A little rowing team, paddling furiously, sometimes for each other, sometimes for ourselves; and when one of us jumped ship, we’d all have to paddle harder.

In 1992, when I started hanging out with the “rowing team,” as I began to call them, I was working at a downtown club as a standup comic. I was broken and trying to become fixed and only a few months sober. I couldn’t afford therapy, so being paid to be caustic and cynical on stage seemed the next best thing. Plus, I’m funny when I’m miserable.

This isn’t exactly uncommon. If you were to gather all the world’s comics and then remove all the alcoholics, cocaine addicts, and manic depressives you’d have left ... well ... Carrot Top, basically. There’s something about courting the darkness that makes some people see the truth in raw, twisted ways, as though they were shining a black light on life to illuminate the absurdity of it all. Comics tell a truth you can see only from the underside of the psyche. ...

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Across the Board, Peace

JIM BALMER, president of an addiction-recovery center called Dawn Farm in Ypsilanti, Michigan, has been an antiwar activist since the Vietnam days. His engagement with nonviolence has taken him to some unexpected places, from the antiabortion group Operation Rescue to working with addicts. Sojourners associate editor Elizabeth Palmberg interviewed Balmer early last year at the Consistent Life conference in Washington, D.C.


Elizabeth Palmberg: What was your work for peace during the Vietnam war?

Jim Balmer: I had been part of Detroit-area draft resistance. I went through almost all the conscientious objector status [process]. And it was 1970—what can I tell you? I was under the influence of substances one night, and I wrote the draft board in Pontiac, Michigan, and told them off; I just said, "come and get me." They never did. I suspect that, as the '70s progressed, they got more and more tired of putting us in jail.

The Detroit-Ann Arbor area was a hub for political activism. Students for a Democratic Society was founded there. YPFJ—Youth for Peace, Freedom, and Justice—there were all sorts of organizations. We would protest. The first time I got actually picked up was at a George Wallace rally—Wallace was a terrible, racist candidate from Alabama.

I started being interested in nonviolence. I was reading Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and I took King's nonviolence pledge when I was in high school.

How has King's pledge affected your life? I found myself in a couple of situations where I had the opportunity to practice nonviolence, to be assaulted and not return force. In a protest, during the Vietnam War, I got assaulted by a couple of guys.

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Oil Addicts Anonymous

If the United States is a fossil fuel addict, then the Alberta tar sands are our next big fix.

The tar sands contain the largest oil reserves in North America and their extraction has been called "the most destructive project on earth". The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline would carry oil from the tar sands down to Texas refineries, making it available for our consumption and pushing a turn to green energy sources even further down the road.

Borrowing wisdom from the twelve step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous, theologian Ched Myers contends that addiction -- "the inability to say no because of captivity to pathological desires" -- names our spiritual and cultural condition. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the case of fossil fuels.

Baptizing for Life

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.

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