Given Heathenry’s focus on using alcohol in our rituals and the focus on feasting (often with alcohol), alcohol abuse can become a problem in Heathen communities. Sometimes it’s a guest who’s high at your sumbel and makes a nuisance of himself. Sometimes it’s that guy who gets drunk and starts to physically abuse your other attendees. Sometimes, it ends up being hidden in one of your most trusted kinsfolk with whom you’ve shared the horn with for years, and comes out in an unexpected and devastating way. Sometimes it’s a lover or even your child. Addiction, it whatever form it takes, can affect us all. Here are some suggestions for dealing with it at all levels in your community.
[Author’s note: In this article, I use the terms “addiction” and “alcoholism” interchangeably because I believe they are essentially the same condition manifesting in different ways.]
Recovery is a topic close to my heart. I’ve been working my own program of recovery for almost ten years. In recovery, we share our own stories: either the listeners will find some commonalities with their own situation, or they won’t. So, take what you like and leave the rest.
My story is very personal, in that alcoholism came into my life in the form of a partner, not some random guest at our blot. At the time, he was a well-respected, though relatively new, member of my Heathen community. He told us all that he was a sober alcoholic, but I don’t think any of us really understood the ramifications. Personally, I had no experience with alcoholism aside from the brown-bag-carrying gutter drunks I’d seen in the movies. Also, he was sober—he was fixed, right? It was only after I was completely dedicated to the relationship that I began to realize that alcoholism might be slightly more complicated than “fixed” or “not fixed”.
Time passed. My partner fell off the wagon and became psychologically abusive, and our relationship devolved. We fell away from our community, and I struggled with our secret alone for a couple of years. I felt like no one in my Heathen community would understand—or, if they did, didn’t have the necessary skills to be able to help.
Unfortunately, to this day I believe that assessment was true. Full-blown alcoholism and drug abuse can literally be life-threatening. Physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, suicide, and homicide are all fairly common side effects that happen more frequently in households with active addiction. These situations can be extremely volatile. Having been through it, I know that it’s not something your average untrained clergy member is equipped to deal with. Nor would I recommend that any clergy member attempt to do so without assistance from a mental health professional or recovery program.
Luckily for me, the wife of a friend of my partner was already in recovery. She saw my situation and gently suggested that I try to attend a meeting of Al-Anon, a recovery program for friends and family members of alcoholics. She mentioned this several times over the course of a few years, but it wasn’t until things got “that bad” that I finally took the risk to try it.
Thank the gods I did. The people in that program gave me something my Heathen community didn’t have—their experience, strength, and hope in dealing with active alcoholism. Some of the people in this program had suffered exponentially more than I had, and they had come out of their experiences strong and healthy. They gave me hope and support, but never told me what I should or shouldn’t do to fix my situation. Eventually, I gained the strength and knowledge to extricate myself from the situation and move on.
Aren’t the 12-Steps a Christian Program?
No. 12-Step programs are intended to be spiritual, not religious. They do not espouse any particular religion’s belief system. You can believe that teddy bears from another world rule over our universe with sparkly unicorn horns, and as long as that belief system works for you, the 12 steps program can work, too. Using “the Gods” or “Thor” works just as well. Unfortunately, there will always be some bible-thumpers in recovery programs who don’t yet have the strength to open up their worldview and realize that other completely valid belief systems exist. (In fact, in the groups I’ve been in, one way we know how new a person is to the program that they are constantly thanking “God” for their serenity and quoting the Bible. We sigh and recommend that they “Keep coming back”; eventually they’ll get it.)
Thor Sheil, a long-time East Coast Heathen, has written many books and YouTube videos discussing recovery in a Heathen framework. He does a great job of removing the Christianized interpretation of the program and explains it in a way strong-willed, independent Heathens can understand. He’s a great guy whom I met him at the very beginning of my Heathen career, long before I was ever involved with an alcoholic. He was writing about recovery even back then.
Some Approaches for Handling Problem Drinkers and Addicts in Your Community
The good news is that you don’t need to drink in Heathenry in order to fully participate and honor the Gods and ancestors. Drinking is traditional, but many people at blots are sumbels are unable to drink for one reason or another. The Troth has realized this and has implemented “two-horn” policy–every ritual has a horn filled with alcohol and one with something non-alcoholic, and participants can choose which one they wish to use. People often use non-alcoholic apple cider, juice, or even water that has been infused with energy from runes or galdring. Other people consume and offer food in lieu of alcohol. Still others simply hold the horn to their lips or forehead in a gesture of respect and then pass it on. Still, addiction can rear its ugly head.
My approach to handling addiction in obviously heavily influenced by my 12-step background. Other groups have found other approaches that work. Regardless, the best way to handle addictions in your community is to be proactive and address it directly, before the problem starts. Esteban Sevilla, HHH author and leader of the Coast Rican group Yggdrasil Ásatrú Association of Costa Rica has set up explicit rules for his group’s events. For example, getting drunk or high before ritual will get you banned from participating in that ritual and possibly the next. He states that repeat offenders run the risk of being permanently expelled. One of the strongest practices his group has implemented is to have drivers sign a waiver that gives the leaders the right to take away their keys if they consider that the guest has become a safety risk. Rob Schreiwer, current Steer of the Troth and the leader of a Urglaawe group in Pennsylvania, states that his group recently implemented a no-alcohol outside of ritual policy (ie, allowing alcohol in the ritual itself, but not during the feasting/socializing).
These strategies are great for dealing with guests or relative newcomers. Sometimes, however, we find that we are already deeply emotionally invested with the person who has the problem. If you find yourself in an imminent situation with an active addict, try disengage calmly. Act, don’t react. Have someone quietly escort them out of the event. Active addiction feeds on drama and psychological power struggles. They can’t cause a scene if no one is there to participate in it with them.
And, if at all possible or safe for you to do so, try to have some compassion for the addict. No one ever wanted to be an outcast drunk when they grew up. The disease of addiction affects the addict just as badly as it affects the rest of the community.
Other things to know about dealing with people with addictions, of any kind:
- You can’t make someone stop drinking/eating/gambling, especially while they are in the midst of their using.
- It’s not your responsibility nor your right to take on the consequences of someone else’s actions.
- You can’t control someone’s actions.
- You can’t cure someone else’s addiction problems.
- And, despite that they may try to convince you otherwise, you didn’t cause their addiction problems.
From what I understand, addiction is a self-diagnosed disease. No one can tell someone that they are or are not an addict. However, if you think you might have a drinking or addiction problem, consider some of these questions from AA’s pamphlet “Is A.A. For You?” Substitute “using” or “eating” or “gambling”, if that is your drug of choice, for “drinking”. Regardless of whether you are interested in AA per se, these questions may help you decide if your drinking (or using) is problematic:
- Have you ever decided to stop drinking for a week or so, but only lasted for a couple of days?
- Do you wish people would mind their own business about your drinking or using– stop telling you what to do?
- Have you ever switched from one substance to another in the hope that, this time, you wouldn’t get out of control?
- Do you envy people who can drink without getting into trouble?
- Do you ever try to get “extra” drinks at a party because you do not get enough?
- Do you tell yourself you can stop drinking any time you want to, even though you keep getting drunk when you don’t mean to?
- Have you missed days of work or school because of drinking?
- Do you have “blackouts”?
- Have you had problems connected with drinking during the past year?
- Has your drinking caused trouble at home
If you answered “yes” to some of these questions, consider checking out an AA meeting. They are free and most are open to the public. Also, check out some of Thor Sheil’s videos on the 12-step program in a Heathen context.
Addiction comes in many forms. Here are links to 12-step programs for a few of them:
Alcoholics Anonymous: For alcoholics
Al-Anon: For families and friends of alcoholics/addicts
Narcotics Anonymous: For addicts
Gamblers Anonymous: For compulsive gamblers
Overeaters Anonymous: For compulsive eaters
Debtors Anonymous: For those who struggle with debt
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