“I suppose we’re all drunk on something.”
Seth Haines was in the hospital with his wife, planning funeral songs for their not-yet two-year-old, when he made a very conscious decision: this was the last day he wanted to feel. That evening, he asked his sister to smuggle in a bottle of gin, and gave in to addiction.
But whether or not you’ve ever had a drop to drink in your life, we’re all looking for ways to stop the pain. Like Seth, we’re all seeking balms for the anxiety of what sometimes seems to be an absent, unresponsive God—whether it’s through people-pleasing, shopping, the internet, food, career highs, or even good works and elite theology. We attempt to anesthetize our anxiety through addiction—any old addiction. But it often leaves us feeling even more empty than before.
In Coming Clean, Seth Haines writes a raw account of his first 90 days of sobriety, illuminating how to face the pain we’d rather avoid, and even more importantly, how an abiding God meets us in that pain. Seth shows us that true wholeness is found in facing our pain and anxieties with the tenacity and tenderness of Jesus, and only through Christ’s passion can we truly come clean.
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About the Author
Seth Haines has experienced the grace that comes from a God who lives in mystery, who works through both joy and pain. Seth’s first book Coming Clean: A Story of Faith received a Christianity Today Award of Merit in the publication’s 2016 book awards. Seth’s poetry and prose has been featured in various publications, including In Touch Magazine, Fathom Magazine, Tweetspeak Poetry, and at Seth Haines.com. He makes his home in the Ozarks with his wife, Amber Haines, and their four sons.
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A Story of Faith
By Seth Haines
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2015 Seth Haines
All rights reserved.
PART 1 THE SEEING
I am tangled up in contradictions. I am strangled by my own two hands. I am hunted by the hounds of addiction. Hosanna! — Andrew Peterson, "Hosanna"
Once, I was a hopeful man. Once, I spouted verses in the cloying language that belongs to all clichés. "All things work together for good," I said, and for the most part, they always had. Once, I believed my career — as an attorney for the largest firm in the grand state of Arkansas — would be a shining success, my marriage a model of fidelity, my four boys — Isaac, Jude, Ian, and Titus — the strapping sort of Ozark woodsmen who could fell mighty oaks with a single axe swoop.
Amber and I were church pillars in those days, the kind who led home groups in our spacious farmhouse hewn of 1938 Ozark stone. On the weekends, we sat in our deep couch, swirling glasses of wine with younger married couples and schooling them in the art of connection. We quoted Scripture, prayed often and together. Our eldest children learned John 3:16 before the other boys in their Sunday morning class. Things were sorted, figured, and comfortable.
That was before we had Titus.
Titus was a mystery baby from the first. He was born with a hole in his heart and a rate of respiration that jogged a little faster than most. Even still, nothing could stop his smile. His brothers took turns doting on him and making eyes at his cooing joy. They lured laughs with peekaboos. Even Ian, whose baby birth order had been upset, adjusted to the new joys, loved the big-brotherness of it all.
At six months, Titus developed a large lump on the right side of his neck. The node swelled until it reached the size of a large marble. The doctors pronounced it an invasive strain of staph infection, and it seemed resistant to all but the strongest antibiotics. Weeks of treatment passed, yet as the lymph node shrank, so did Titus. First he stopped growing. Then he did what no infant is meant to do: he began losing weight.
Mild panic morphed into a full-blown medical emergency. Titus turned into a monitoring project, a newborn mystery under the careful and constant watch of our hospital's medical team. But when they could muster no answers, Titus was sent to the Arkansas Children's Hospital.
Follow me into the hospital; see my son.
Titus is just under one year old, and he is a small bag of bones. He is energetic but hollow. Some say he is thin, but I say gaunt. The doctors once labeled him acutely malnourished, and now they say that he has failed to thrive. They have assembled around him as if he is an alien. They have needled him, prodded him, and scanned him.
The specialists at Arkansas Children's Hospital tell us, "This little one is an anomaly." Everything is a little off: his brain stem sags slightly into his spinal column; his respiratory rate is elevated, but only just so; his heart beats a little fast; the minerals in his blood are just a little outside of tolerances. He is skewed a bit in almost every direction.
He is an angel, though; they all say it. His eyes are as bright as full moons, their size amplified by his bird-thin rib cage and narrow face. I count his ribs with the concern of a father, but the nurses do not notice. They play with him, gift him stuffed animals, and coax him into pulling up on the bed rails. He laughs, smiles, flirts, then pauses. He stiffens, falls to the mattress, and vomits his last feeding across the bedsheet. He splays listlessly across the bed. The nurses console him in small whispers. Amber rubs his naked back and cries. Titus has not held nourishment for a week. We fear the worst.
Oh death, where is your sting? The Scripture comes to mind, but not in the voice of comfort. Instead, it comes in a mocking tenor.
Titus is taken to another exam room, and this time, we force him to drink a viscous blue fluid. I pin his shoulders to the mattress and hold his head while the nurses force the liquid into his mouth through a syringe. They clamp his jaws shut, and he lurches and jerks until he gives in and swallows. (Oh, the terrible things we do for love.) We place him on the table, where the mechanical arm and electronic eye look past his skin and into his digestive tract. The electronic eye captures his peristalsis, and Titus, invaded by the all-seeing eye, screams and tries to kick free. I wear a lead vest and hold his arms above his head while a lead-vested nurse holds his legs straight. He is on the rack, and we are stretching him past infanthood. He thrashes, and I fear his arms and legs will bruise from our restraining him. Amber stands behind the glass, hand over her mouth and worry weighing on her brow.
Oh death, where is your sting?
The doctor comes to our room, tells us that he is sorry, but he cannot find the cause of my son's illness. "We will discharge you tomorrow and regroup," he says. "We'll hope to see you in two weeks with a new game plan." We wonder whether Titus can make it another two weeks without eating. I refuse to leave, tell the doctor that we need answers. He measures once, then cuts. "He can stay," he says, "but we're running out of options. We will do our best to make him comfortable, and I'll consult with my colleague. Perhaps he'll have some idea."
The doctor leaves the hospital room, and Amber and I begin discussing funeral songs. I consider the songs of Rich Mullins, my go-to bard. "'The Love of God'?" I ask, "'Creed'?" I feel neither in the moment.
Oh death, where is your sting?
I look at Titus's exposed ribs, and it is right there, the sting.
I pray for deliverance and freedom for my youngest son, but my prayers sink on Peter's faith. Maybe Christ is asking me to leave the boat, to walk on the water. I look at him. "No! Come to me; come to Titus!"
In this moment, in this hospital room, I resolve to pray no more for Titus. He will be either healed or not. Either way, I will not saddle God with the burden of success or failure. I call Joseph, my friend and brother, and tell him that I cannot carry the burden. I can pray no more. "Tell the fellas," I say, speaking of our Friday-morning prayer group, "that they'll need to pull the weight of prayer from here on out. I've prayed all the prayers I know."
I hang up the phone and reach for the Nalgene bottle of gin I cajoled my sister to smuggle in. I pour it over the crushed ice from the vending machine in the hallway and drink deep. I drown the pain, drown myself in the ice-cold gin, and I do it in cold blood.
This was my first conscious barter. Trading pain for the closest vice, I slipped into a knowing numbness. Prayer seemed an impotent remedy; gin did not.
* * *
I come from a long line of southern gentlemen, and like them, I rather like a good and proper drink. Whiskey, beer, and wine — they're all fair game. As an attorney living in the South, I always have an opportunity for evening cocktails. There are happy-hour meetings with clients, charity galas with open bars, seminars with evening mixers. Drinking is bound up in both my genes and my occupation.
There's not a drink I don't like, which is, perhaps, the problem. I'm an imbiber of tequila, scotch, and vodka. Gin, though? Gin is the liquor of nostalgia; it's the water for my southern roots. Gin is the lover of lovers, the drink of fond memories, familial bonds, and adventure.
The best gin drink I ever had came on the shores of the Shire River in Malawi. I was visiting a friend, a missionary who'd made his home in Mozambique, and we were visiting a game park in the neighboring country. A soft palette of pastels hung on the horizon, where the sun was setting in full flame. The colors dripped golden, like honey onto the far plain across the river. The perfume of lavender and wild rose mixed with the sweet smell of the river's mud.
Between the river and me, in the lilac light, there were three hippos — a mother and her two young. The guide told us to hunker down so that nature's wild mother-instinct would not turn us from quiet observers to a perceived threat.
"The stump-legged hippo," said Saul, the local river tour guide, "is our teacher. If she turns, we turn. If she walks, we retreat. If she charges, we jump into the truck and speed away."
She was, Saul said, the most dangerous animal in all of Africa. But wasn't she majestic? See the pink of her back, the breadth of her brown muscled body? He whispered these questions in my ear as he passed a highball of gin and tonic over my shoulder.
The botanical bouquet of the gin lingered, mingled with nature's perfume. It was a majestic drink — yes, there is no denying the majesty — and though I did not yet know it, it was the precursor for the pinnacle of drinks.
In the dying light, we made our way to the Range Rover and drove to the thatched-roof pavilion where dinner was served. Women in long skirts came, dancing, one twirling fire. Their hair was piled high and bundled in fabrics made from the colors of the Shire sky, and their smiles were permanent, decals on dancing machines. Course after course, the women danced, their dark skin blending into the shadows under our thatched roof, white teeth reflecting the spinning fire.
As the fire-twirler continued her endless fire dance, I excused myself and met Saul at the bar. "Give me the local stuff," I said.
He warned me, "Mr. Seth, you do not want the local flavor. It comforts the heart and eases the mind, but it tastes like petrol and burns like a torch."
"Give it to me," I demanded with false gusto, and then conjured up a smile of my own and pantomimed pounding my fist against the bar.
"Double or single?" he said, laughing.
"Double," I said. "I am an American."
Saul poured the drink. It was brown-tinged Shire swill, distilled in the guts of a dried gourd, he said. This was no triple-distilled firewater from Rocky Mountain snowmelt, nor was it moonshine from the hidden stills of Appalachian artisans.
"In Malawi, do as the Malawians," I said and shot the double straight — no chaser, no cutter.
The world went tunnel vision, and I saw the beginning of all things — the end of them too. Anxiety melted, dripped into the Shire River like the honey sky. My throat, nose, ears, cheeks — all of it burned like the swirling fires of the flame-twirling dancer. I sputtered before remembering I was a man bound by space and time. I looked at the barkeep and Saul, who'd been watching the fire rising in my cheeks and up through my ears. Saul laughed, pulled his fingers from his ears on either side, and made the sound of a steaming teakettle. He hugged me, pulled me close.
"You are one of the people from the Shire now," he said with a chuckle and a slap on my back. It must be true, I thought, because I could feel the same fire burning behind my eyes that I saw reflected in his.
I was one of them.
It was the best drink, the drink that initiated me into another people. It was the kind of drink that fiery smiles and worriless nights are made of. It was 2008, the days when I drank for joy — or so I thought.
* * *
Once, I toasted all things beautiful — my marriage, good friends gathering around the table, a fine piece of poetry, the honey sky over the Shire — but the toasting of joys and the drowning of sorrows are closer kin than one might imagine.
Somewhere along the way, my affinity for gin (and whiskey and beer and wine and any old intoxicant) and comfort collided.
Somewhere, my thirst for distraction from the pains and poverties of life grew into a sweltering, parching thing. There are always feelings to be numbed, anxieties to tamp down, and panic attacks to avoid. The people of the Shire knew this, and so do I. I suppose I could have turned to things eternal — didn't Jesus promise us rest? — but we seem to have a way of losing ourselves in our manmade salves — the bottle, the pill, the cheeseburger, self-inflicted starvation.
I suppose we're all drunk on something.
But not tonight. Tonight I'm writing sober for the first time. Fearful I would never write another creative sentence without the sauce, I called a friend, and she challenged me to see what words might come without the liquor. She challenged me to write through my sobriety. Perhaps ninety days' worth of clean words? And so, here I am, recording my first thoughts on the matter, and it hurts.
* * *
I quit the bottle in the wee morning hours of Saturday, September 21. How I'd love for that to be distant history, but the truth is it was only last week.
I'd slopped into my last extravagant drunk under the arms of the Spanish oak at a rented house with friends in Austin, Texas, and even as I took my last slug and fell into a cold leather couch, I didn't suppose myself to be alcohol dependent. I considered that I might wake with the dull thud that comes with having overimbibed, sure; the possibility, though, of waking to the resounding epiphany of this heavy language — dependent — was less than remote.
It was not my intent to be here, writing this. Tonight, I'm writing sober 535 miles from my great epiphany in Austin. I am under the influence only of full faculties. Tonight, I'm free-writing. I've needed to free-write for some time, which is to say I've needed to write from a place of freedom.
This is my first pass, a flyby attempt at recording the things that come in the newness of sobriety. In this scratching of words, I'm hoping to find creativity outside of the bottle. For so long, I've written from the gin or whiskey or wine. I have written poetry and prose and have even penned the Great American Novel — unpublished, as most Great American Novels are, of course — all under the influence. I'm afraid sobriety will mute the muse. A friend tells me this is mockery of God, that the liquor is not the muse. Another writer, a good friend who's had her own battle with the bottle, tells me her best stuff came when sobriety found her.
Maybe they're right.
This I know: the poet in me hears the melody in the juniper berries of the gin, the harmony in the tonic, and the overtones in the lime. This I also know: the poet in me would rather gussy up the poison, would rather call it anything other than what it is.
Tonight I'm writing sober for the first time. I will sleep tonight and hope to wake tomorrow with less fear and more resolve.
The sleep? That didn't work — not really. It was a fitful night, the disquieting kind in which I rolled over to find Amber dead to the world at two o'clock in the morning, while I suffered this sinking feeling, this creeping notion that something is missing without the bottle. I suppose that notion will take a good while to kill, and I'm not sure I know just quite how to kill it either.
I didn't come here to write a book, so if you came here to read one, turn back now.
If you are hoping for plot, climax, and resolution, this might be a sore disappointment. After all, does life run along such a clean narrative arc? This is a diary of sorts, an exposition of a sobering mind. So, if you came here to watch all liquid courage evaporate, you've come to the right place.
As we begin, I might as well get one of the worst confessions out of the way.
* * *
Some folks come into this world with Catholic names, while others are cradle Methodists. Some are sprinkled Presbyterian, and still others are "Baptist born and Baptist bred, and when I die, I'll be Baptist dead." I wasn't born into any particular denomination, though. I only ever recall being woven into the fabric of a local church. My childhood faith was a canvas, colored and sometimes stained with charismatic, Baptist, Catholic, mystic, and evangelical theologies. I was exposed to it all and learned the rules of each. And though this rich tapestry of traditions was a blessing in so many ways, I learned one common Christian truth: there are things not normally confessed by good Christians.
We who are supposed to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, who are to serve as the walking image of God — we are supposed to have a different way about us. We live by supposed-tos and shouldbes. Our more romantic versions of a transformed life clothed with the magic holiness of a magical God are the golden ideal. Our lives are part of the world redeemed by God and for God. Our social interactions are to reflect God; our art is to reflect God.
Excerpted from Coming Clean by Seth Haines. Copyright © 2015 Seth Haines. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsFOREWORD by Shauna Niequist, 11,
SHALL WE BEGIN HERE? An Open Invitation, 13,
PART 1 The Seeing, 15,
PART 2 The Bending, 93,
PART 3 The Healing, 165,
AFTERWORD A Word on Titus, 221,