Out of the Basement
Addictions ministry moves beyond AA
In 1988, Denis Meacham's life was a study in contradictions. He was a successful man of business, founder of his own publishing company. He was a college professor with degrees from Princeton and Harvard. And he was an alcoholic, struggling with a compulsion to drink around the clock.
He couldn't leave his house without a drink. He was plagued by night sweats. He found himself in bars at 8:30 in the morning to fortify himself for the day's work. The grueling cycle wore on until Meacham awoke one morning, unable to get out of bed, wracked with tears, and faced with a horrifying dilemma. His body and his spirit couldn't tolerate his drinking, but he didn't know how to live his life without it.
His wife, Janet, helped get him to a detoxification unit in Boston. And his life has never been the same. Meacham has turned his struggle with substance abuse—one that millions of Americans fight every day—into a lifelong search for the link between recovery and spirituality. Now, the Rev. Dr. Denis Meacham, who was ordained in 2002, is on a quest to equip Unitarian Universalists with the spiritual tools to overcome addictions themselves.
Like any spiritual journey, Meacham's has not been direct or predictable. He has traversed uncharted ground and confronted perplexing questions in trying to create an avenue of treatment for addictions in a community with beliefs as diverse as Unitarian Universalists'.
UUs often dismiss traditional Twelve-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous as too theistic. AA groups meet in Unitarian Universalist churches across the country but only a handful of our congregations sponsor any kind of programs for addicts and alcoholics.
Even in our liberal religious communities, addictions remain a taboo subject. So much of Meacham's work has been to break that silence, to help UUs talk about this silent plague among us. When Meacham has spoken the words “alcoholism” and “drug addiction” in UU congregations, uttering them for perhaps the first time in some churches, the response from church members has been nearly overwhelming.
“Whenever I speak to congregations, I always ask people to raise a hand or light a candle if a person or someone in their family has had a problem with drugs or alcohol,” says the soft-spoken Meacham. “I never see less than three-quarters of the room raise their hands. And you can hear people sucking in their breath, they're so surprised.”
Meacham's manner is measured, his calmness infectious; he's not one prone to quick outbursts or hyperbole. But the light in his eyes betrays his excitement. He's clearly charged up by the sheer number of people he's been able to reach out to and by the countless more who could use his help. His crystal-blue eyes, set off by the whiteness of his neatly trimmed hair and beard, reach a new intensity when he talks about the legions of UUs affected by substance abuse and our institutional silence about them. They are eyes so clear, so sharp, it's hard to imagine them once stained red by martinis and hiding a fear that only another drink could mask.
Meacham's work is centered at the First Parish Brewster, a large congregation on Cape Cod in Massachusetts where he has been affiliate minister for four years. He has established several programs at Brewster for church members, and increasingly, Meacham is traveling to other New England churches. His book on how to create and sustain an addictions ministry, The Addiction Ministry Handbook: A Guide for Faith Communities, has just been published by the UUA's Skinner House Books. And he's lobbying the Unitarian Universalist Association for institutional responses. “The biggest single thing I want to do is to open the windows and doors so people can talk about this,” says Meacham. “So many fellow members and congregants are hurting. And if you're willing to help them, the floodgates will open.”
When Meacham completed his stint in alcohol rehab, he returned to his church, the First Unitarian Society in Newton, Massachusetts, looking for a program that might help him along his road to recovery. But there was no structure to support recovering alcoholics in his congregation in 1988 .
It's an odd gap, considering that alcoholism, drug dependency, and their cousins—overeating, compulsive gambling, and the full panoply of addictive behaviors—are frequently considered spiritual ailments. Recovery from them, Meacham believes, is a spiritual process.
The support Meacham was looking for came primarily from other recovering addicts and alcoholics in AA. There, he was helped by the community and the common experience of people whose lives had been torn down by addiction and rebuilt by talking to one another. Ironically, most of these AA meetings took place in church basements.
“Addiction is the great equalizer,” says Meacham, who despite his fancy educational pedigree and material success found himself in recovery with people from all walks of life. Even with the business success he had enjoyed, he says he would have pursued a very different career if he hadn't fallen under the spell of drugs and alcohol. Meacham had had a lifelong ambition to be a doctor, but post-Princeton, he fell into the world of music and drugs instead.
His bohemian lifestyle and drug use weren't compatible with plans for medical school, so Meacham found his way into medical publishing instead, writing about medical topics for the American Heritage Dictionary and Columbia Encyclopedia. In the 1970s Meacham moved into magazines, editing Blair & Ketchum's Country Journal, Horticulture, and Technology Illustrated. In the '80s and '90s, he was co-owner and editorial director of a succession of publishing businesses that focused on medical information.
Meacham, however, has rarely pursued one venture at a time. While directing his publishing business in the mid-80 's, he was also an associate professor in Boston University's College of Communication and earned a masters of public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
“When I checked into detox, the doctor told me, ‘I hate people like you coming in here with all your education,'” recalls Meacham, with a wry smile that hides a bit of embarrassment that still lingers despite his openness about his recovery. “He told me I had to get off my high horse and listen.”
To Meacham's credit, he has been listening ever since, learning from the addicts and alcoholics around him how to stay sober. He hasn't had a drink or a drug in fifteen years. But at the same time, he has merely shifted his voracious appetite for learning to a new subject: addictions.
As Meacham found his footing in sobriety, he began to pursue two paths: one as a lay minister at the First Unitarian Society, and the other as an addictions counselor. He spoke for the first time from the pulpit and “came out” as a recovering alcoholic. People started coming forward in droves—particularly family members of people suffering from addictions. “The illness makes ill everyone you love,” says Meacham. “If these people don't get help, it's hard for the one who's suffering to get better. I was excited that there might be something here I could do.”
Not only did family members come forward, but alcoholics and addicts did as well. At the church, they found they could talk with Meacham differently than they could at AA meetings. People were able to discuss recovery in the language of their own liberal religion. Gone were the Christian trappings of AA. At the First Unitarian Society, Meacham started a recovery support group focusing on spiritual growth, and he began to contemplate what an addictions ministry might look like.
At the same time, his professional training was chugging forward, crammed in at night and on weekends around his job, his wife, and his two then-teenaged children. He became a certified addictions counselor and completed a prestigious fellowship at Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions.
The next logical step seemed to be getting a Ph.D. in psychology. Meacham was alarmed one day when his academic advisor put into words something he himself had considered, but never spoken. “My supervisor said, ‘Denis, you don't need a Ph.D. in psychology. You should go to seminary, because your interests are spiritual.'”
Twelve years after his academic journey through addictions treatment began, Meacham emerged from Andover Newton Theological School with a doctor of ministry degree and a drive to establish an addictions ministry. He crafted a proposal for the First Parish Brewster, which is well known for its innovative social justice programs and where he'd served as a ministerial intern. And he's been there ever since.
“The Addictions Ministry has had a transforming impact on the community at the First Parish Brewster,” said the Rev. Jim Robinson, senior minister at the 750-member congregation before his retirement earlier this year. “If you don't talk about something that is this pervasive, it's like a wet blanket covering it up. Once you talk about it, it's a transformation, a release of energy.”
Within eighteen months of setting up shop at the First Parish Brewster in 2000, Meacham was approached by 170 church members. Four years later, he still sees one or two new people a month. Just like in Newton, many of the people who approached him were family members: parents, spouses, and children of addicts. But he is also sought out by addicts and alcoholics themselves. The oldest of those was 73. The youngest, 20.
Meacham's energy notwithstanding, a propelling force at the First Parish Brewster has been the involvement of the members in the Addictions Ministry. Meacham organized a team of “First Responders,” church members who are available to other members to talk about issues of recovery and steer them toward help. Some First Responders are in long-term stable recovery. Others have family members who have struggled.
The church conducts two addictions services each year to keep the topic in front of members. Meacham is continually coming up with fresh ways to explore the topic, preaching, for example, about the lessons everyone can learn from long-term, stable recovery, and even putting on a puppet show during the children's homily on the danger of getting stuck in ruts. The church hosts a monthly evening worship service on a recovery theme and runs a weekly family recovery support group. It created a library of recovery resources and literature.
With Meacham's help, the First Parish Brewster has expanded its religious education classes for both parents and children. Meacham encourages all parents to attend the workshop “Parenting to Prevent Drug and Alcohol Problems,” and he speaks regularly to the youth group about substance abuse. He avoids giving a message of Just Say No. “We know alcohol use is normative in adolescents,” says Meacham, since most teenagers report using it. “If all you've got in your tool bag is ‘Just Say No,' it's not much help.” Instead, he tries to talk with them openly and honestly about drug and alcohol use, trying to dispel its myths and help teenagers to reduce the harm drugs and alcohol can cause in their lives.
Meacham doesn't pretend that he personally can save every church member struggling with addiction or heal the families that have been ravaged. That work is up to each individual. Meacham's energy is concentrated on steering people toward the best resources. He conducts initial assessments of people with addiction issues, and then he makes recommendations on the treatment they should seek. That almost always includes a referral to Alcoholics Anonymous.
“We made a decision to turn our lives and our will over to God as we understood him.” That's AA's “third step.” Such God-centered language is an intimidating barrier for many UUs, as well as people from non-Christian faiths, no faith, or people who are running from the Christian religion in which they were raised. AA proclaims that it does not have any membership requirements: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” But its meetings still have many of the trappings of a Protestant church service, says Meacham, complete with an opening prayer, scriptural readings from “The Big Book” (which is commonly regarded as the “AA Bible”), confession of sins, repentance and atonement, and a closing prayer, which is often the “Our Father.” A collection basket is passed, and there's even a coffee hour.
But that doesn't mean AA and UUs can't mix. Thirty-nine-year AA member, self-proclaimed atheist, and devoted UU Al Herter has no problem with any contradictions people might see in his dual citizenship in Alcoholics Anonymous and Unitarian Universalism. Herter is active in AA groups and UU congregations in Paris and New York City.
Herter rejects the dogma of AA, and he doesn't participate in its rituals. Bill Wilson, one of the two co-founders of AA, gave Herter a Big Book in 1969, and Herter boasts never having read it. Yet what does Herter do when he encounters someone struggling with alcoholism? He takes them to an AA meeting.
“AA works,” says Herter. “I just take it cafeteria style because I believe in deeds not creeds.” What works for him is the community of recovery and spirituality.
Those are the attributes of AA that Meacham tries to impress upon UUs who approach him for help with substance abuse. Twelve-Step programs are not incompatible with nontheistic liberal religion, he says. UUs just sometimes need an extra push toward meetings and an urging to open their ears to the messages that can help them.
There are non-AA options. Secular recovery groups include Smart Recovery and Save Our Selves (SOS). These groups, created in reaction to the perceived religiosity of AA are newcomers, however, and there's just no data to know what their rates of success are. At the opposite end of the spectrum are groups such as Celebrate Recovery and Christian Recovery, created by evangelicals who didn't believe AA was religious enough.
Meacham's characterization of alcoholism as a spiritual ailment fits squarely within the AA lexicon, which describes the disease as physical, mental, and spiritual. That means that recovery has to occur in each of those three realms for healing to take hold. First begins physical recovery—removal of the substance and detoxification. Then mental—fighting cravings and overcoming obsession. Only then can spiritual matters be addressed. Says Meacham, “The removal of addictive substances and substance-seeking behaviors must be followed by a program for reestablishing healthy meaning and core values.” That process is surely a spiritual journey.
In AA, the road to recovery begins not just with abstaining from alcohol. It requires admitting powerlessness. AA's first step says: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” This need for surrender can be another gulf between UUs and AA. “People misunderstand the definition of powerlessness,” says Meacham. “It's not powerlessness over someone's whole life. It's powerlessness over a substance. For a lot of UUs this is an immediate barrier, but it doesn't have to be.”
Recovery has to center on surrender, says Meacham, because all addiction is about control: “We become addicted to controlling our lives and to not feeling pain.”
So giving up that control is the first step—just like AA says. There's nothing in AA literature that says that control has to be given to God. Surrendering to a higher good works. So does surrendering to the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Meacham explores surrender in depth in his forthcoming book. He writes:
Whether people surrender in AA meetings or alone, Meacham sees it as a pivotal point in recovery. It is the process when people decide that they will stop putting their faith in a substance and will put it somewhere else—anywhere else.
Surrendering to anything is tricky business for UUs—an optimistic band that seems to believe it can reason its way out of any difficulty. But reasoning can be a roadblock to recovery, where over-thinking is often the fast-track to relapse. “Intellectuals are always getting in the way of their own recovery,” says Meacham, who delivered a sermon last summer on the difficult topic of “Control vs. Surrender in Spiritual Well-Being.” He preached: “Surrender is never a call to passivity.”
“Rev. J,” a recovering alcoholic and UU minister who asked that her name be withheld, appreciates the struggle with powerlessness that many UUs have waged. “This acceptance comes only after ‘hitting bottom,'” she says, and what that means varies with the individual. “Having an addiction is like riding in an elevator going down. You can stop at any floor to get off, but you have to admit powerlessness over the substance before you can do that.”
Even harder, she believes are AA's second and third steps. Step two says: “We came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” And step three, again, is: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we understood him.” Says Rev. J, “I have enough theological training to give me flexibility to negotiate these steps; however, for many people, and certainly UUs, these can be a real show stopper.”
Even with his four decades in AA, Herter has clung to his atheism, and never found that to be a problem. Says Herter, “The only thing I have to know about a higher power is that it's not me.”
Like Meacham, Herter, and Rev. J, many UUs have bridged the perceived gulf between Unitarian Universalism and Twelve-Step recovery groups, helping themselves to different amounts and aspects of “The Program,” as AA is often known, and finding the Twelve Steps in and of themselves to be a rewarding spiritual discipline.
And some people have made the reverse journey. “I never had a spiritual life until I got to AA,” says one anonymous alcoholic. “And when I needed more, I found my way to a UU church and have been able to explore my spirituality beyond my alcoholism. It's like AA grad school.”
To that anonymous alcoholic, to Herter, and to others, particularly those who came to UU churches after AA, the similarities between Twelve-Step programs and Unitarian Universalism are more striking than the differences. A meeting, with its readings, collection basket, and coffee hour bears striking resemblance to a UU service. And a gathering of people all of whom have Higher Powers of their own choosing doesn't seem all that different from a service where Christians, Jews, Buddhists, humanists, pagans, and atheists all worship together.
Meacham has put his addictions ministry together on a shoestring. He donates two days of his time each week to the First Parish Brewster, supporting himself with his private psychotherapy practice. Between his schooling and his attention to the addictions ministry—and with some help from the financial markets—Meacham has nearly depleted his personal savings. “I've never come this close to being as rewarded in my life as I am now, and I'm barely eking out a living,” he says. Still, he is committed to making sure that the addictions ministry at the First Parish Brewster flourishes, and he is busily writing grant applications and seeking donations, hoping to endow his position at Brewster in perpetuity.
Meacham's attic office, which is in a church-owned 200-year-old farmhouse, books on addiction and recovery take up every inch of shelf space. From here, Meacham has been busy traversing the Northeast, speaking to congregations and spreading the word. He has visited more than twenty congregations in the last two and a half years. Four of them are putting programs in place.
As word spreads about his work, ministers are looking to him as a model. In October, the Rev. Alex Holt, a part-time minister with the Woodinville, Washington, Unitarian Universalist Church, began making inquiries at the UUA about addictions resources. He was steered to Meacham's work in Brewster. Holt's church is in the process of adopting Meacham's model. “At the very least,” says Holt, “I want to pilot a workshop on addiction and recovery for religious liberals or spiritual practice for UUs in recovery.”
Like Meacham, Holt believes that spirituality is an essential part of recovery. “Addiction is very isolating. And to me, spirituality is about reconnecting with the world,” he says. “It's about the Seventh Principle and our interconnectedness with the web of all existence.”
Holt thinks ministries like Meacham's have an essential place in congregations, and he sees their absence as a glaring oversight. “We pride ourselves on tolerance and acceptance, and we speak a great deal about social justice, but this is a hidden area,” says Holt, himself a recovering alcoholic. “The more ways that substance abuse can be brought into the open in a compassionate way, the better.”
Meacham envisions a day when churches can become welcoming congregations for people who are suffering or have suffered from addictions in the same way that they have for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. The first time he mentioned this at a church, however, a member turned to him and said, “If we do that, then wouldn't we be inviting them to becoming members?” Meacham recalls, “That person imagined that the church would suddenly look like a homeless shelter. I had to remind him that I am ‘them.'”
To counter the effects of the long established stigma of alcoholics and alcoholism, Meacham is encouraging the UUA to develop a multi-faceted institutional response to the disease. He believes such a response should include religious education, beginning in the third grade; parental education; adult education; continuing education for the clergy; and clergy recovery and support. He'd also like to see a UU covenant that the church is a safety net for our children.
“Denis is a credible squeaky wheel, and he's helped us get these issues on our agenda,” says the Rev. David Hubner, the UUA's director of ministry and professional leadership. Hubner has already enlisted Meacham to meet with UUA ministers with substance abuse problems. He hopes within the next year to make more resources available to struggling ministers. “We are developing better resources with the help of people like Denis to help congregations identify problems and get to appropriate outside resources, whether it's a counselor or AA or detox,” says Hubner.
Although at times Meacham has felt quixotic about his attempts to create change, he continues to be energized by the thought that there are so many people who have fallen under the spell of addictions who can be helped if someone is there to extend a hand. “On any given Sunday, if you look at the person in front of you, to your left or right or behind you, one of them is struggling,” he says.By spreading the word about his way to help, Meacham is hopeful that others will take up the mantle. “I'm anxious to get this going because of my age,” he says. “My only regret is that I came to this all so late in life. I'm 61 years old, and I'm tired.”