A Feature Review of
Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk
Reviewed by Ellen Painter Dollar.
In a recent interview, popular blogger, author, and recovering alcoholic and bulimic Glennon Melton said this:
I think addicts are the only really honest ones. Life is hard, and everyone thinks so, but we’re the ones who say we will not pretend…Through our recovery, we also tend to end up much more self-aware and grateful than the general population. We believe in miracles, because we are one. We tend to be compassionate to others’ suffering because we’ve suffered. I really like us.
While Heather Kopp, author of Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk, has a gentler, more nuanced style than the über-intense Melton, I think she would agree with this assessment wholeheartedly. While Kopp was a Christian long before she got sober, the honest self-examination required by recovery gave her faith a gritty depth and necessity it lacked before. We Christians talk a good game about how badly we screw up and need God’s grace, while indulging in surreptitious self-congratulatory back pats. We still believe on some level that we are saved by our wit and our wisdom, our commitment to prayer or stocking the church food pantry, and our Christmas tradition of giving gifts to the poor instead of each other. We can go on like this, awash in self-deception, for years—perhaps our whole lives—if we are lucky enough to live a life with few crises.
Addicts in recovery, however, can only fool themselves for so long, no matter how nice their house or lovely their family or full their wallets. Having given up their primary coping mechanism, they must confront the many ways they have failed to cope. Heather Kopp came to understand her need for God only after her recovery forced her to see how superficial her faith had been.
I had always known in my head that I was a sinner saved by grace,” she writes. “But utterly lost? Unable to save myself?…Up until that day when I fell on my knees and sobbed beside my bed [the day she realized she was an alcoholic in need of treatment], God’s grace had been a nice option, a convenient option, but not my only option…[W]hen alcohol had taken me captive, grace had mattered to me mostly because it was a critical clause in my spiritual contract with God whereby He had to let me into heaven no matter how much I drank. I had greedily accepted the gift, only to hawk it for my drug of choice. It was a painful epiphany with enormous implications….I would have to learn the difference between ascribing to a set of Christian beliefs that had no power to change me, and clinging daily to an experience of God’s love and grace that could.
Kopp’s life, even when she was drinking heavily, was a lot like mine—solid, respectable, mundane. She was raising children, nurturing a marriage, managing a household—all under the influence of a steady faith as well as a regular infusion of alcohol. But underneath the shine of her typical suburban life were lies. Out to dinner with her husband and friends, she would drink several single-serve bottles of wine in the ladies’ room so she could be drunk without drinking more than two or three socially acceptable glasses of wine at the table. When she passed out many evenings, she told her husband that her antidepressants made her sleepy. On a trip with her husband, she bought a huge new purse to hide the jumbo beer cans that were the only type of alcohol she could find while shopping on foot in an unfamiliar town.
Even after going through treatment and beginning her recovery, Kopp continued to see herself as different than other addicts because of her faith and stable home life. Pressed by her AA sponsor Kate to make a list of people she had hurt and amends to be made, Kopp “…laid out for Kate my superior record as a drunk: I had never sold off my own mother’s prized possessions to pay for drugs. I had never drunkenly wrecked someone else’s car. Or burned down a house….By now, I’d heard all the stories.”