Now that we have celebrated one of the ‘great feasts’ of American society, Thanksgiving Day, I thought I would talk a bit about the role of culture in recovery. Some of us have had a harrowing experience getting through yesterday without relapsing, if only because our families present such a risk! However, American holidays can present lots of risks just from the social customs, from the ‘traditional’ eggnog spiked with brandy to the seemly-obligatory bacchanalia of New Year’s Eve.
I was raised in a blue-collar American setting, and my earliest memories of vacations often involved drunk firemen engaging risky behavior. Of course, that was also an era when they were paid less and so had to work harder at having ‘fun.’ There was lots of ‘hard partying,’ and so manhood was demonstrated to me as men who were physically strong and could ‘handle their liquor.’
We always had a jug of wine at the table, and I mean it was a jug. It was never on the table, but that was because it was so big that it got in the way and was left on the floor next to the leg. There was also the evening ‘relaxation’ in front of the TV, complete with a cocktail poured into a voluminous plastic tumbler, heavy on the vodka or something else and light on the ice. Around 2 or 3am, one of us kids had to go and shut the TV off because the off-air tone woke one of us up:
That was my home and my culture, and I did my best to fulfill it into my adulthood.
Part of my own recovery was a turning away from the culture of my childhood. To be honest, I was not entirely comfortable with it then, but I also didn’t know any better and I thought that it was the right thing to do. At times, it looked fun (except in the mornings), but most especially it looked to be the way in which a man was accepted by his peers. A man became ‘honorable’ by drinking.
Recovery means redefining one’s culture. One can no longer accept the premise that part of adulthood means sacrificing part of one’s humanity, and that certainly was what happened. Drinking to drunkenness and eventually addiction has deathly consequences, as does drug use and a host of other substance abuses.
That does not mean that the culture is utterly thrown away and rejected, but it must be restored to its original purpose: cultures protect life. Cultures show us how to raise children, preserve order, keep the peace with our neighbors, and many other good things. Addiction destroys culture, because culture is about one’s relationship with his neighbor and addiction is strictly about the self.
Addiction breaks up relationship and enslaves men to their worst cravings, while culture gives men ways to build strong relationships and a sense of purpose and belonging the addict craves but can never attain. Culture breeds a sense of certainty (some cultures are unhealthy, but that’s a conversation for another day), whereas the addict’s life is full of drama.
Part of what any successful treatment program must do, consciously or unconsciously, is redefine the addict’s concept of culture. He must embrace the healthy parts of his culture more fully and reject its unhealthy aspects more completely. This is not unlike the Early Christian approach to the Roman Empire before St. Constantine: many saints were seen as model citizens, sans the sacrifices to idols.
We have a new church culture developing in the US as the Orthodox Church grows here and the balance of its membership shifts from immigrants to home-grown, and while drinking and drugs are not as significant of a problem with this new community, many other addictions are. As our church culture is developing, we must be aware of its healthy and unhealthy aspects.