Addiction is a scary word. It can bring unsavory images to mind: unconscious drunks lying on the street with an empty bottle in hand, or a needle sticking in the vein of a heroin user.
But is that the true face of addiction?
It is only one of many. There are also successful corporate managers who think they are only brilliant when on cocaine. There are businesswomen who, coming home after work, can’t cook dinner before having several glasses of wine. And there are priests and religious who serve the Church and their community and are themselves addicted.
Sr. Mary Ellen Merrick, IHM was one of them. As a teenager and a college student, she didn’t drink at all. So when she joined the sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Scranton, Pennsylvania, at age 18, she didn’t miss it.
She was a passionate and successful teacher, and her community trusted her with important tasks. She vividly remembers an attempt to relax: “After a stressful week on Friday night another sister offered me a glass of wine before dinner. She said, ‘It will help you relax.’ It did, and I liked it.”
Now there was nothing inherently wrong with this. However, it somehow triggered her tendency toward addiction. Her brain now saw a glass of wine as a reward. The dopamine in her brain released, and she was feeling better. And although it was only social drinking for the other sisters, for someone with a genetic predisposition to addiction like Merrick, it was dangerous.
It didn’t stop with wine at dinner on Fridays. Soon she had wine in her room and had a glass before dinner every day, or at night while correcting her students’ papers. She carefully hid the empty bottles before dumping them on her way to work.
Deep inside she knew something was wrong. “I felt that I had lost my God and did not belong in my congregation,” she shares. “I was filled with shame and guilt and went through the motions of looking like everything was okay. I showed up at morning and evening prayer, attended liturgy … did all of the external things that I was supposed to do. Inside was a different story. I felt empty and lonely.”
The sense of being a hypocrite was more disturbing than anything else. “The students I taught were 7th and 8th graders; they trusted me, and I knew it. I was a phony. I could not do for myself what I was encouraging each of them to do. The conflict became too much, and that was good because it compelled me to find a way out.”
It wasn’t easy, but she realized she needed help. “The first time my community thought I just needed a change of assignment. I had been in my first one for eight years and it was a very busy school.” It sounded good to her since she didn’t want to think that she could actually be an alcoholic. “It’s called ‘a geographic cure,’ and for four months I didn’t drink alcohol, so my conclusion was that the change had been the right answer.”
The brain of an addicted person, though, doesn’t forget the reward linked to alcohol, or whatever substance or action the addict gets relief from — the brain’s reward center and memory center are close together.
One night, after a terrible day, she had a drink — and even just fixing the drink gave her a sense of relief.
“It was worse,” she remembers. “There came a point where I wasn’t able to sleep much each night and then had to teach the next day. I became exhausted and distant. I had no energy or interest in much of anything, but hiding behind a mask continued to suggest that all was just fine.”
She was still young and could pull this charade off pretty well up to a certain point, because in the end, addiction replaces everything: a job, family, friends, God. In October 1977 she blacked out, and someone called emergency. Even then she was in denial — in front of the first responders she acted as if she had heart trouble.
Another sister discovered in a similar situation that sleeping pills helped her to get through the night. Anti-depression drugs prescribed by a doctor who was worried about her loss of energy gave her a boost in the morning — a dangerous mixture. She also had a little bottle hidden in her desk at school. That sister had a car accident before she was able to face her addiction.
Merrick realized after her own sleepless nights that she needed help. “When I did get the approval to go to a treatment center, I thought three weeks would be plenty. This seemed like a long time for someone who had not missed a day of school since beginning to teach.”
The three weeks were only the beginning. “It was also an example of my need to control something that I didn’t know much about,” she remembers. She had to face the fact that addiction is a lifelong disease, progressive and fatal if not treated. Little by little, she understood what was going on in her brain, and that nothing was wrong with her — the feeling of shame was relieved.
“Most people don’t know how common addiction is: the majority of all addicts look pretty good, hold jobs, have families, give contributions to others.”
On her way to freedom, she understood that the brain can recover in about two years and get pleasure from other things — music, exercise, meeting friends, prayer. For her, as for many addicts, she was greatly relieved to hear that addiction is not a sign of weakness or lack of willpower, but rather an illness that at times is linked to a genetic disposition.
After treatment and help from an Alcoholics Anonymous group, she discovered her calling in a new way. “Faith can be a wonderful help if it is rooted deeply and is truly something that leads to greater insight and change.”
An addict must be aware that he or she needs to do something, “otherwise it can be folded into the denial system and make it harder to try and help someone.” Her advice is that a community should have a plan in mind — and intervene immediately. “Things don’t get better with time or a new assignment. They get worse.”
After her own treatment, Merrick felt called to help others in facing addiction and raise awareness on this issue, which even today is still too often a taboo. She works at Guest House in Lake Orion, Michigan, a rehab facility for priests and religious, and for the last five years there she has been the executive director of the women’s treatment program.
“Our special approach at Guest House is one of respect for the dignity of each individual who comes to us for care,” she says.
Their clients are women and men religious and clergy who have publically given their lives to the service of God’s people. “We need to remind them that each needs to have his or her life in proper balance before trying to help others to do the same.”
And in giving her example and sharing her story, the clients see that giving one’s life to God doesn’t immunize someone from addiction. Faith and spirituality, though, can be a key support on the road to recovery.