This spring I went to the funeral of an addict.
It was strange, for me, experiencing him this way, because I met the man at a place in his life where he was long sober. A counselor, in fact, for others. I knew that his addiction was there – in the past.
That’s how it works, right?
Sadly, not too many years later, his health took a turn for the worse. There was pain and prescription drugs. Eventually he fell back into abuse. I remember wondering how someone so many years down the road could make that same mistake.
He had a wonderful, loving family, and they persevered. He was able to come back to a stable place and have some good years before his health problems overcame him for good. His death, although quite sad, also seemed to have a feeling of peace. Finally he was free.
As I made my way into the funeral home pew that night, I was taken aback by the number of people in the room. This man was not wealthy or even well-known in any traditional sense, but the place was packed. People were standing in the back, out in the hall, around all the edges.
Then they began to speak. At least ten different people talked about him, and they all began with their own version of “Hi, I’m Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.” The rest of the room would say back loudly, “Hi Bill!” The first time it happened I nearly came out of my seat. I simply wasn’t used to that kind of response.
I suppose it’s fairly obvious at this point in the story that I’ve never been to an addiction recovery meeting, or I would have been expecting something like this. I’ve seen it in movies, I’ve heard people talk about it, and while I understand the reasoning behind it, I guess have always thought it kind of corny. An outdated tradition that was maybe marginally useful for those poor souls who needed it.
I’m not sure I even realized I thought any of that before that night.
Person after person got up. It became less surprising – to the point where it felt a little strange when one speaker didn’t start that way. And I began to realize some things. First of all, I was ready to hear what that person had to say. I mean, if you start what you are about to say by admitting your biggest weakness – well, I’m already on your side.
Second, everyone was telling the truth, as least as far as it came to the man we were all talking about. Have you ever been to a funeral and watched the pastor / leader struggle to come up with something – anything – good to say, while everyone else is left thinking about all the bad that is left unsaid? This funeral was not that way: these people did not skirt the painful issue of this man’s failings. They openly acknowledged how hard it had been. But somehow, it only served to make the good things they had to say more meaningful.
And last? It somehow made us all on the same side. I sat there, rubbing the light blue upholstery with my fingertips, thinking what if I had to lead with that line, with my biggest weakness? What if I always started with Hi, my name is Sarabeth and I…
There are so many ways that sentence could end.
Still, somehow it felt like these people would understand.
It called to me in the way that church does, the way that my own faith community, my own family of beggars and addicts does (to be honest, I think it was church). There are rituals that can seem meaningless or silly to someone looking in but I know that they are there to remind me: we all start at the same place; we all need the ability to admit the bad, for the way that it helps us praise the good; we all fall and need hands that will pull us back up.
I am the poor soul who needs it. I, so many years down the road, can still make that same mistake.
What about you? Is there a place like this for you? Is it church, or is it someplace else?