My Name is Pastor Ben and I’m an Alcoholic

by Ben Gosden

Wherever we go, there we are. I learned this saying soon after I entered the rooms of recovery in 2022. You see, while I have many labels in life — father, pastor, husband, friend, son, etc. — the one I didn’t expect or plan to take on is usually named like this: “My name is Ben and I’m an alcoholic.”

I'm a newer member of the 40-over designation. I don’t know if we get t-shirts, but I’m discovering that a greater awareness of life — both the good and the bad parts — seem to come with age.

Richard Rohr calls it the “what are we really doing when we are doing what we’re doing.” This task of discovery is more encountered than sought. Most of us would prefer to remain focused on what we think are the most important parts of life — creating an identity, a home, relationship, and eventually building a legacy. But life has a way of ushering us into things we don’t seek but rather must simply pass through.

I don’t know where my existential crisis began, but it started around my 38th birthday. It was November of 2020 and the world was in the throes of a global pandemic. A year prior I had begun to feel like my daily drinking habit had become more than a quant recreation. I couldn’t verbalize fully what I was feeling about that either, but I knew two things had happened — I had become more and more uncomfortable with my routine and I couldn’t easily break the daily habit. I had stopped drinking earlier in 2020 — for a whole 100 days. And then, like most bad habits we indulged in, COVID and the fear of the world ending during the pandemic sent me right back onto the routine without a way out. By day I was a functional pastor of a growing church, a faithful husband and father, and an upstanding member of society. By night I would escape into a quiet abyss fueled by alcohol.

I wasn’t outwardly destructive. I was too busy seeking an inward escape. At the time I knew it was a tightness in my neck that a stiff drink could unwind faster than any stretch. I didn’t know then what I know now. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin — I’ve never been comfortable in my own skin. The tightness in my neck was symptomatic of a stress that built up every day from striving to be perfect in all things for all people at all times. I was afraid I wouldn’t be loved if I didn’t succeed. And I was terribly afraid someone would eventually sniff me out as the imposter I felt like I was in life. So alcohol did for me what I could not do for myself — it helped me tolerate the anxiety of living in my own skin.

It was January 2022 before I finally came back to the desire to live a sober life. But it was four months into that before I realized that I was an alcoholic. Up until then, sobriety (like everything else in my life) was a goal I created and pursued using my own strength and ability.

I wish I could say it was a Road to Emmaus experience. But there were no bright lights or voices from heaven. There was only a sinking feeling of despair one sunny afternoon that led me to these words: “I don’t think it’s normal to worry this much about drinking.”

I entered the rooms of recovery thinking I needed a quick fix to the despair that lingered in my sobriety. Only it was there that I found out my drinking was an outward sign of a spiritual sickness I had never been able to acknowledge. All of the nights when the stiffness in my neck would lead me to wonder if I would snap before I could relax with a drink. All of the worry I carried every day about what people thought of me, how I performed, whether or not I measured up — it was all part of the spiritual malady we all carry as broken and finite human beings. It turns out I wasn’t as weird as I thought after all. I was just a broken person in need of healing. In acknowledging my lostness, I began to know the power of being re-found by the love of God.

For me this journey of healing is lived out in my recovery from the disease of alcoholism. But for you it could be lived out in any number of ways. The symptoms might be different — maybe it’s eating or working or trying to control others — but the spiritual disease is the same for all of us. We are broken and we need God to heal us.

Truth is, I don’t know that I could have undertaken this journey in my 20s. I was too eager to prove myself to my peers as a talented and capable person. And I don’t know that I could have undertaken it early on in my 30s. I was becoming set in my vocational life and I was determined to be the best preacher of the fastest growing church around. But by the time my 40th year of life rolled around, I was burning out. It was time for me to ask these bigger questions because the short-term solutions no longer sufficed. It was time to truly surrender on a daily basis to a Power that is greater than myself.

I've lived most of my life in the Church. And I’ve been a pastor for over 10 years. But it’s taken this journey of recovery, the rooms of recovery filled with wonderful misfits, and the power of God to truly awaken me to the deep mystery of faith. God meets us in the dark places where worry and questions live. It’s there where we can bring our truest and rawest selves, broken and struggling, and experience the redeeming love of God in the most healing ways.

I don’t know you personally, dear reader, but I’m willing to bet there’s an ounce or two of angst that lives in you, too. You don’t want it to be there — none of us do. But it’s there because we’re human beings living out the human condition. It’s okay to tell the truth about it. Don’t be afraid. God is there, too. And whatever it is that you use to help it all feel better, you can tell the truth about that, too. I’ve learned through recovery that God is there, ready to embrace you, and wanting nothing more than to lead you in the path of redeeming grace. I know it’s true…because God and wonderful group of drunks teach me so every single day.