I am reading a book that describes its author’s desire to build a well dedicated to Mother Mary in her yard. While seeking a worker to build it, she encounters an alcoholic looking for work. He is not in recovery from addiction; no, he is still addicted and actively drinking copious amounts of alcohol.
What is striking is what happens next.
She hires him, builds a relationship with him–not to be his savior–and starts telling him stories about Mother Mary. He shares stories with her, too. Turns out the man’s parents abused him as a child. It was so bad that he entered foster care, and then he fought in the Vietnam war. In hearing about the Virgin Mother, he could see himself in her story and found himself in her love. He stopped drinking, without going to rehab, and recovered from his addiction. All it took was a story that he could identify with, paired with a relationship and meaningful employment that spanned a whole year.
The book is by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, called Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul. The story is autobiographical: she was the one looking for a worker to help her in her yard. While not every case would happen similarly, it is a nice story that actually happened. His recovery hinged on the abundance of stories Clarissa recounted, and his ability to share his story with her. They were redemptive stories that described real suffering.
What I like about this anecdote is its uncommonness. Most people, myself included, hire contractors based on reliability and “purity”–whatever that means–and health and ability to keep a commitment. But that is not what happened here.
And yet she also did not hire him out of pity. She did not make him a charity case.
When I was working as a teacher I once long-term subbed for an man addicted to alcohol. His was a counter-story in supporting people with addiction. Kids and teacher alike had trashed the classroom over a period of months as the man’s health had disintegrated, and the students in the classes were among the worst-behaved I have ever encountered. The teacher finally hit a student’s car on the way to work. In this way he unwillingly brought his addiction into the open.
The administrators placed him on leave and, humiliated, he couldn’t even collect his belongings from his classroom.
I still can’t believe that I heard about his alcoholism from colleagues, since administrators are supposed to keep this sort of thing confidential. I don’t know what happened to the teacher, and yes, he needed to leave the classroom due to his illness. He neglected his responsibilities of teaching, supervising children, and professionalism.
And yet I’ll never forget feeling queasy thinking about how if a person is sick enough to not be able to ask for help in the sterile way our society demands, then they are written off as irredeemable and lose the work that could give them meaning in the first place.
It seems addicted people require what all the rest of us require. They are people, after all. What they need is care, compassion, and redemptive storytelling (see my “resources” page for details on treatment–which is crucial). Religious stories are particularly powerful because of their archetypal quality. Pinkola Estes relies on stories of Mother Mary in her book, but stories of Christ or Gandhi or Siddhartha, can prove just as powerful. I’m partial to Christian stories because I am Christian and I believe that the story of Christ is not merely redemptive but that it points to a deeper Truth of the resurrection.
I did not realize that I would be discriminating in a way by not hiring an active alcoholic. I did not realize that all people, even those who aren’t alerted to their illness, benefit from stories. And I didn’t realize that for some, stories–taken in in the context of loving and supportive community–are the means by which we save ourselves from destruction. That’s what the Bible was for me. A story that was more than a story. A story we can use in supporting people with addiction.