Are We All Getting High? (Part Two)
Inside This Episode
Former professional baseball player Russell Dixon and his parents relive some of the darkest days of his addiction in hopes of helping other families heal. More from Stanford University’s addiction expert Dr. Anna Lembke (featured on the hit Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”) on how we all can overcome our most persistent and dangerous compulsive behaviors and addictions. And Luke, a 32-year-old man that Russell is sponsoring today, opens up about a decade-long battle with addiction.
Eric Huffman: Hey, Maybe God family. Eric Huffman here from our brand new Maybe God podcast studio in the heart of Houston's Museum District. It's so good to be back with you sharing all this new content with you. And I hope that you're ready because starting this month, you're going to be hearing a lot more from us more than ever before.
Throughout the rest of this season, we're going to provide you with all new weekly episodes, along with a ton of other content and other resources, and not just on this podcast platform, but also on Maybe God's YouTube channel and on our new website, which is why it's more important than ever that we all keep in touch. So before you listen to today's new episode, I hope you'll head over to our new website, maybegodpod.com, and sign up to receive all the latest email updates from Maybe God. Thank you so much, guys.
Now, let's get to part two of Are We All Getting High?
[Maybe God intro]
Eric Huffman: In part one of this episode, Russell Dixon was well on his way to realizing his childhood dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player for his hometown team, the Houston Astros.
Russell Dixon: I just had to work out of my life. I feel like 92 from the outfield and then they give you like 20 swings and I hit like probably eight balls out, and like three of them were in the upper deck and they were like, "Okay, we'll take you."
Eric Huffman: But the pressure of becoming a professional athlete led to an addiction that nearly cost him his life.
Russell Dixon: I thought, I'm prescribed to this. I was never like going and snorting coke or smoking weed or anything like that because those were like-
Eric Huffman: You get this at the pharmacy.
Russell Dixon: Right, exactly. It was kind of like my white-collar drug.
Eric Huffman: We also heard from one of the world's leading experts on the neuroscience of addiction who explained exactly what's happening inside the brains of 40 million Americans who are dealing with some form of unhealthy compulsion.
Dr. Anna Lembke: If we wait long enough between ingesting intoxicants, our body recovers and, you know, we go back to baseline. But if we don't wait, and we don't have to wait now because TikTok is infinite, then what happens is over time, we eventually end up in this chronic dopamine deficit state, which is the addictive brain. We're essentially titillating ourselves to death.
Eric Huffman: Today Russell's unexpected path toward healing and more from Dr. Anna Lembke on how we can all overcome our most persistent and dangerous addictions are fitting.
Eric Huffman: You're listening to Maybe God. I'm Eric Huffman. At 26 years of age, after two lackluster seasons playing minor league baseball, Russell Dixon's dream of becoming a big leaguer was a distant memory, and he found himself in a tailspin of heavy drinking and Adderall abuse. Hoping to stay connected to the game that he loved, he took a job coaching baseball at a small university in Abilene, Texas. For this episode, Russell sat down with his parents in our Maybe God studio.
Russell Dixon: Mom and Dad, thanks for taking the time to talk today-
David: Glad to be here.
Eric Huffman: ...to relive some of the darkest days of his addictions in hopes of helping other families heal. As you may remember from part one, Russell's dad, David, has been a pastor for over 30 years at the Second Baptist Church of Houston, Texas, one of the largest churches in the country. Russell's mom, Kristin, has always been one of his biggest fans, both on and off the baseball field.
Russell Dixon: So what was it like watching me go from professional athlete to full-blown addict alcoholic in a very short period of time?
Kristen: Oh, it was awful. As a parent, you'd rather have anything happen to you than to see your child suffer and go through something like that. I had so many sleepless nights and tearful nights knowing something wasn't right. And also, you know, going back through my life thinking, you know, with raising you, where did we go wrong with this? How did this happen? As a parent, you always blame yourself.
Russell Dixon: By December of 2011, my family started to realize, "He's a mess."
Eric Huffman: Really?
Russell Dixon: I mean, it was-
Eric Huffman: Did they talk to you?
Russell Dixon: Yeah. I mean, I had probably three or four interventions from family, friends. Some pre-K buddies, Alex, Jonathan, and David, they sat me down on the cafe at Jane's Grill and they were like, "Hey, we're worried about you."
Eric Huffman: What were they seeing that worried them?
Russell Dixon: I mean, how much I was drinking, how much I was outpacing them.
Eric Huffman: So they saw you drinking heavily.
Russell Dixon: Heavily. And at weird hours, like at lunchtime going and grabbing a beer. And they're like, "This is not normal."
Eric Huffman: And they didn't know you were having to come down from Adderall.
Russell Dixon: Right. I mean, you're drinking 10, 12 beers a night. And then the scary thing is not acting drunk because of, you know, the Adderall has this weird sobering effect. But you're also feeling the buzz from both the Adderall and the alcohol. So they had an intervention with me and like, "Hey, we're worried about you.' Just to give you a full picture, I mean, I was ripping beers in the car on the way to the intervention.
Eric Huffman: I don't think you're supposed to do that.
Russell Dixon: No. Definitely not. But I couldn't admit that I had a problem. I mean, I basically told them, "Hey, I appreciate y'all sharing this, but I'll let you know when I have a problem." And they're like, "This is why we're here. This is really not normal."
Eric Huffman: Ain't that the craziest thing, though, looking back, knowing that you actually said those things, that drinking, you know, a couple of beers on the way to an intervention in your car-
Russell Dixon: In my car?
Eric Huffman: ...it's not a problem?
Russell Dixon: In the parking lot of a Baptist Church that I grew up at.
Eric Huffman: It just keeps coming.
Russell Dixon: So it took several conversations. We had another family friend that was a recovered cocaine addict. And when he saw me at my sister's wedding, he just knew because they say addicts... they just know. So he just looked in my eye and he just said, "Something's not right." So he took me to launch a couple of weeks later and said, "If you don't get help, you're going to die." I mean, he was right but I tried to sh... I said, "Well, what do you think I should do?"
So I started to kind of admit I realize this isn't normal but I didn't want to do whatever it took to get better. He was basically saying, "You need to go to rehab." That's when I started playing the whole, well, I mean, I'm a college coach and I'm doing this Bible study for... It was a very duplicitous life. I was doing a Bible study for these guys and then going out and getting ripped at night. I was like, "I'm my dad's kid. I can't go to rehab. He'll never live that down." And he was trying to say, "No, I've talked to him and he wants you to get better." And I just kept dodging it and dodging it.
Eric Huffman: You mentioned at your sister's wedding. What happened there?
Russell Dixon: I was loaded on Adderall. Probably had taken 10 or 12 and then had a pocket flask and was just burning that all night. This was one of those because she's a Baptist preacher's daughter, there was no alcohol at the wedding.
Eric Huffman: In your mind that's like a crime.
Russell Dixon: Yeah, totally.
Eric Huffman: It's like, Who doesn't have alcohol at a wedding?
Russell Dixon: Totally. We have alcoholism in our family history. The three out of my four grandparents all battled it. And that was part of why my parents always encouraged us to stay away from it. But when you're a kid in their home, you think, "Oh, because it's Satan's juice, you know, and because we're Baptists and because it looks bad."
But that really, in hindsight, wasn't the heart behind their message. It was like, "Hey, we don't want you to become what we've seen in our family." So I go back to Abilene and I had kind of one of those two or three-day benders in January where I ended up having this crazy, vivid, dream hallucination that I was driving and I was under the influence and we got in a wreck and my sister died. And I like wake up screaming. I called my dad. And he knows by this point something is really wrong with Russell.
Eric Huffman: This is Russell's dad, David.
David: Those were some of the longest, darkest nights of our lives because we would go to bed at night and just pray that the phone would ring in the middle of the night because either something had happened to you or you had hurt someone else.
Russell Dixon: So at this point, I go, "Okay, I realize something's not right. I'm fully dependent on the Adderall, but let me try to just quit drinking cold turkey because I realize I can't do the Adderall and drink like this." So I quit drinking cold turkey. But my whole life at this point was centered on changing the way that I felt because I was running to things other than the Lord to fill me up.
Eric Huffman: Right.
Russell Dixon: And so instead, just to counterbalance it, I'm taking more Adderall. So I start taking even more than I already was.
Eric Huffman: How much more?
Russell Dixon: I mean, at least five or ten more a day. I mean, to the point where flash forward to March of 2012, and this is kind of when things hit rock bottom, my coach that I was working for in Harden Simmons sent me to Houston to do a recruiting trip. I went doctor-shopped and got a three-month prescription. So 180 30mg-
Eric Huffman: They do that?
Russell Dixon: They used to. Not anymore, probably because of crazy people like me. I never would say I wanted to kill myself, but I was miserable. I would take four or five at a time. And over a three or four-day period I think I ended up taking like 70, 75 Adderall in like three or four days.
Eric Huffman: Geez louise.
Russell Dixon: Most doctors said I should have gone into cardiac arrest. I didn't sleep a wink. By this point, I'm incoherent. I no-showed for a couple of games I was supposed to go to, my phones off the grid. Parents are trying to get a hold of me because I was staying at their house, but they were on a trip to see one of my sisters. I was the epitome of strung out.
David: It was a nightmare because I was primarily the one communicating with you during that, and I knew you were spiraling badly. I can clearly remember being at the airport in Birmingham and talking to you and then trying to reach you and I couldn't get hold of you. And at that same time, when we were flying, we knew that one of your sisters was driving to Houston. And we land and start trying to call you and couldn't reach you. And I thought, "He's overdosed."
If you remember, I have a friend of mine who is a police officer, come to the house because he could get there before we did to try to check on you-
Kristen: And to make sure your sister didn't get there first.
David: And make sure your sister didn't walk in and find you if you had overdosed.
Russell Dixon: During that period, my phone goes off the grid. Were you convinced he's probably dead?
David: Yes. I was 100% believing that you were gone. That drive seemed like it took four days to try to get to the house.
Kristen: All I could do is cry out to the Lord and was, you know, praying and crying the entire way home.
Russell Dixon: So, you discover, by the grace of God, I am alive, which, you know, is a total miracle. I mean, to take 75 Adderall in three or four days, and the scariest thing is that I had 180 in that bottle. So thank God I had become so delusional that I just kind of lost interest. I vaguely remember the conversation in the kitchen. I remember just being in a place where I was so sick and tired of being sick and tired as they say. If y'all had said, "Hey, Russell, the solution to this is picking up the world's dog poop for forever," I would have done it. But what did that conversation in the kitchen really look like?
David: So you were so messed up. We started talking to you of "Things have to change right now. This cannot go on one more day." It was a combination of us saying, "Hey, we're at the end of our rope," and you saying, "I'm at the end of my own rope."
Russell Dixon: Right.
Kristen: I remember telling you, "Russell, you know, your dad and I, we love you and we will do anything for you but we cannot support you in decisions that are leading to death. And as hard as it's going to be for us, we cannot allow you to stay in our house. We can't do things to help you unless you get help and you help yourself because you're making decisions that are going to lead to death. And we can't do that."
David: This is where I credit your mom. She had a group of moms who had walked a common path together, and they were all praying for you and praying for your heart and praying for that turn that you would want help before something really, really dramatic happened. First of all, I give God the credit for really kind of piercing through the fog that you were experiencing. Because you could have easily said to mom and I that night, "I'm not going. I'm walking out of here." And there's nothing that we could have done to stop you. But somewhere, the Holy Spirit planted a seed of clarity in your mind and you knew that it was time.
Eric Huffman: Russell now says that night was the moment that he realized that if he continue taking Adderall, he was going to end up either dead or in jail. He'd also always dreamed of having a family of his own one day, and he was aware that unless he got clean, that was never going to happen. So that same night, his parents packed him a bag and drove him to the Bay Area Recovery Center in Dickenson, Texas, where they checked him into a 90-day residential treatment program.
Russell Dixon: When I checked into rehab, they said I slept for like three or four days straight. Hadn't eaten and-
Eric Huffman: What's the comedown like?
Russell Dixon: I mean, it was crazy. I woke up and felt like I'd been hit by a mack truck. I mean, you wake up and you're like, "What in the world have I done?" I'm at the point now where my dad has to call the college coach that I'm working for and say, "Russell just checked into rehab and he can't come back and finish the season." I mean, it was the ultimate moment of humility where you're just lower than low and you're-
Eric Huffman: Ashamed.
Russell Dixon: Ashamed. And you're around a bunch of other people that their drug of choice was maybe a little bit different, but all in the same place. But I'm so thankful that I had been so humbled in that process. There's a line in the 12 steps. I believe it's in the first step where it says: had become powerless over alcohol. And that part I was never really able to admit because I'm an athlete, I'm not powerless over anything. But the thing that struck me, there's a line that says, "And our lives had become unmanageable." And that hit me like a ton of bricks, because I knew... I mean, I had a mountain of trash in the back of my truck. Like, what kind of savage does that? So I knew in the depths of my soul that even though my drug of choice was different than some of these guys that are heroin addicts or whatever, I knew I was one of them.
Eric Huffman: Well, there's nothing more dangerous when you're addicted or when you're a mess to have someone who's a little messier to look down on.
Russell Dixon: Mm-hmm. Totally.
Eric Huffman: Because then you can feel like you're normal by comparison.
Russell Dixon: Totally. "Well, I'm not as bad as him."
Eric Huffman: Right. And we take a lot of false assurance from that.
Russell Dixon: Totally.
Eric Huffman: Step one: we admitted we were powerless over drugs and alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. Step two: we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step three: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
The 12 Steps to Recovery were first outlined by Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, way back in 1938. Although Wilson himself never identified as a Christian, he was profoundly inspired by a friend of his who relied on the Christian faith to get sober. That friend's incredible journey helped Bill to see that surrendering to a higher power was an essential step toward recovery.
Russell Dixon: You start to see Scripture come to life through the principles to confession, the repentance, the honesty. And it gives you a daily program to make all of the stuff that I had learned growing up just a lot more simple. So I would say it propelled my faith even more, but it also made it super, super simple. Like, Hey, this is what you do every.
Eric Huffman: Day, man. I've never had any substance issues, thank God, because I'm not always had the highest character in my life, and I've always been prone to impulsivity. Which is why I say thank God about the substance stuff, because if I was wired to be susceptible in that way, I would have been. But I did consume a lot of pornography and things like that early on in life.
What's interesting is discovering the big book was, and that's the 12-step book, for anyone who's unfamiliar, was a revelation to me. Because even though my faith was nonexistent, really in terms of Christianity at that time, I did find core truths just on those pages that inspired text.
Russell Dixon: Totally.
Eric Huffman: That although it was written about alcoholism, it was my book, my story.
Russell Dixon: Totally.
Eric Huffman: Because even with porn it work the same way.
Russell Dixon: Totally. I mean, addiction has various tentacles. That was certainly something I battled as well. The craziest thing about it is when I surrendered and started working the steps, it was like, God set me free from all of it. But it was not all at once. It was as I walked the steps, as I had a very, very honest step for a fearless and searching moral inventory where I really... At Bay Area they tell you to write everything down. I mean, why were you selfish? Why were you dishonest? Why were you fearful? Why were you resentful? So I just put it all out there.
And then the key was in the step five, where you find a closed-mouth friend, your sponsor, and you tell them everything. And they always say, even that thing that you saw you would never tell anybody, you tell them that thing.
Eric Huffman: Why is that important?
Russell Dixon: I think it's the biblical concept of confession. Confess your sins to one another. There's just something freeing about once it's out in the open, it's like the enemy can't keep it in the dark anymore.
Eric Huffman: Right. So as you went through that time, what did you learn, especially about your own story and baseball and all of that and how it mixed into the issue of addiction?
Russell Dixon: You know, I realized just how big of an idol and a god I had made that in my life. You know, just how much I found self-worth in that. So I learned a lot about that. And I learned a lot about humility. I mean, more than I realize. Even though in the grand scheme I really wasn't that good, like even if I was, you know, there's some truth in the fact that I'd still be playing. I mean, I would never openly profess this, but inside I thought I was the man.
Eric Huffman: Sure.
Russell Dixon: I mean, thought I was God's gift to whatever. So that was something beautiful about the program, is they teach you to die to yourself. Addicts have this term where when you walk the steps, it's like you have this golf ball that is your obsession with drugs and alcohol. And when you really work the steps and not just get sober, but get free, it's almost like you wake up one day and that golf ball is just not there.
Eric Huffman: Really?
Russell Dixon: I can't explain it, but it's like I woke up one day and I just saw the world differently.
Eric Huffman: Was that day in rehab?
Russell Dixon: It was. It was really as I started to make amends to people. Because in step eight, it says: made a list of the persons we had harmed and became willing to make direct amends to them all, except when to do so would harm them or harm others. So the willingness was the key part, because a lot of addicts are not willing. They're some family that they messed over for years and they don't want to talk to them. So even though logistically it may be hard to go see them, what they tell you to do is if you're worried about the relationship, just write a letter to them.
I wrote a letter to the college coach that I worked for. I knew it was going to be hard to pin him down in person. I wrote him a letter saying exactly what I did wrong, owning it, apologizing for it, asking for forgiveness. And then the letter he wrote back, I have saved on my desk ever since then. It gave me goosebumps the second I read it. Just total forgiveness and total support and total freedom. So it was pretty powerful.
Eric Huffman: In that same step of making amends, did you have a conversation with your parents?
Russell Dixon: Definitely. My parents and my sisters were some of the first amends that I made. They came and visited me in rehab and those were hard conversations. There was a lot of tears. But as they sat down, they said, "The biggest thing you can do..." Because they always tell you, "What can I do to make it right?" And the thing that all of them said was, "Don't give up on the steps and don't let what a lot of addicts do where time passes and they think, "That weren't that bad. Surely I can have a drink. I can be like normal people and just have a glass of wine and be done."
And for people like me, as the big book says, we like people who lose their legs. You never regrow new ones. So I just have to live with that every day and go, Okay, even though I'm now over ten years removed from this, one drink is too many and a thousand is never enough.
Eric Huffman: After his time in rehab, Russell headed back home to Houston. He started working for a family friend who owned a janitorial company. He also returned to his home church, Second Baptist, and was surprised when he and his parents were met with grace instead of judgment.
David: I don't think either one of us ever really felt the shame because I think we were so confident once you got there that God was going to begin to write a brand new story. I can remember 72 hours, 96 hours into the sixth and seventh day when you began to get some clarity and your head was cleared and you'd gone through all the withdrawals. And I remember the first time I talked to you was the first time that I had talked to the Russell that I knew growing up in a long time. You made some choices during that time period, a lot of folks bounce in and out of rehab after 30 days or 60 days. But you made the choice to stay there. And I'll never forget what you said to me. "Dad, I'm staying as long as I need to stay because I'm never coming back."
Russell Dixon: What advice would you have for parents or loved ones that are walking through a season of addiction?
Kristen: My biggest advice would be: Don't do it by yourself. It's too much to bear by yourself. This prayer group I was in was just a lifeline for me. You know, not only because it was a place designated to share these kinds of things but because each one of them had walked this path and were still walking. Some of them had sons a little bit farther down the road than you, you know, in terms of rehab and recovery. It was one of the most meaningful groups of people that I have ever been a part of. You know, to this day, when I see one of them I just feel a connection because we walked through all this together.
David: The fellowship of believers who will just take your arms and help you stand when you can't stand on your own. It's unimaginable to me that people can walk through that without men and women, believers in Christ who can support them as both your mom and I had during that season. We're forever grateful for those folks who walked that path with us.
But more than anything, and this mom and I clung to this during the days of darkness, we prayed for a miracle. We prayed for restoration. We clung to the fact that our God is a God of hope. He's a God of miracles. He's a God of transformation. We knew that if that would ever break through to you that you could be set free from the addiction and then begin the path that we always thought that God would have for you. Never give up.
Eric Huffman: The strength it took Russell's parents to say that they would no longer support their son unless he went to rehab is beyond most of us. But according to addiction experts like Stanford University's Dr. Anna Lembke, their refusal to enable their son may have saved his life.
Dr. Anna Lembke: There's this whole concept of enabling, right, the ways in which, with good intentions and trying to support our loved one with addiction, we can actually make it worse by giving them money, for example, for food that they then use on drugs, etc., etc.. You know, the question of when to let them come home and live with us again versus when to turn them out on the street. You know, it's not a one size fits all. I don't have, like, you should always do this or you should never do that. A lot of times it's only in retrospect that people are able to see, well, this action was enabling. But this action actually saved my loved one's life.
Russell Dixon: Right.
Dr. Anna Lembke: So it's really tough. I think, you know, getting support through organizations for family members or loved ones of people with addiction can be really helpful.
Eric Huffman: What are maybe some of the common mistakes you see people making when they are, you know, trying to love someone through recovery or through their addiction toward recovery?
Dr. Anna Lembke: I think a common mistake is anger and rage and letting that spill over. Also let me say people are totally justified in feeling rage and anger, especially at the betrayal piece, the lying is what really erodes trust in families. I think, you know, clarifying that is something that people can do. Like communicating to a loved one: "I just want you to tell me the truth. I am more upset about the lies typically than I am about the using. So if we are going to have a relationship, let's have it founded on trust."
Eric Huffman: In 2013, Russell had been sober a little over a year when he became the adult sports director at Second Baptist. While he was working there, he met his wife, Liz, who was the children's ministry director at the time. Today they live with their two children in Dripping Springs, Texas, where you're not going to believe this. Russell, also known as Reverend Dixon now serves as the senior pastor of Sunset Canyon Baptist Church.
The whole time you've been in various roles in pastoral ministry, have you found that you have this inordinate number of opportunities to use your story to reach other people who are struggling with addiction?
Russell Dixon: That's probably been one of my biggest ministry opportunities. And even people who don't... That's part of why I am so open about it is because, I mean, you know this in church, people that are far from God have this perception of the way church people are. So I try to lead with that because I want them to see, Hey, we're all broken, we're all imperfect. We just follow a perfect savior and we're not perfect people.
Eric Huffman: Even though Russell calls himself an imperfect man, his addiction story has a near-perfect ending. Sadly, stories like his are all too rare. And for many people who struggle with addictions, any hope for a happy ending can seem all but lost.
Luke is a 32-year-old man who's been attending Sunset Canyon Baptist Church with his parents since he was a child. After Russell became the pastor of their church, Luke started opening up to him about his own addiction and his recovery story. When they sat down together for this episode, Luke had been sober since April 12th of 2022 and was living in special housing for addicts in recovery.
Luke: I live with two other guys in a single bedroom, so there's three of us in twin beds. We share a single bathroom.
Russell Dixon: Living the dream.
Luke: Living the dream, right?
Eric Huffman: Luke grew up in a loving and nurturing home outside of Austin, Texas, and like Russell, he excelled at sports from a very young age. But unlike Russell, Luke started drinking alcohol when he was just 14 years old, and by the time he was in high school, he was smoking pot in the parking lot every morning before basketball practice. Today Russell is Luke's sponsor.
Russell Dixon: How many times have you been in and out of rehab over the years now?
Luke: Over the years now, this last treatment center I went to made number seven.
Russell Dixon: Wow. Number seven.
Luke: The first one ever went to I was 22. You know, my parents left CDs and pamphlets on my bed. They were fed up with me. I knew I had a problem, I didn't think it was drugs and alcohol. So I said, "You know, what the hell? I'll just go to this treatment center." So that's where it really started for me.
I would say probably my mid-20s is when I was really confused. My collegiate baseball career had ended and I just remember having a lot of guilt, a lot of shame, a lot of anger towards God. At the beginning, it was a pity party. Why me? Why not the band or why not this less fortunate kid? You know, that shows my selfishness as we're speaking. But that was my mindset, you know, why me?
So I went through that period of a lot of shame and guilt and just not wanting to be alive. I would pray that God would take me in my sleep. I would pray that, you know, an 18-wheeler would hit me head-on. These were kind of the thoughts in the beginning. And then I did have a pretty dark moment. Never attempted suicide. I don't think I ever had the balls to do it, but I do on two occasions. I recall being in this relationship and I do remember being in the garage heavily under the influence. I remember loading a shotgun and I had the barrel under my throat and I had my toe on the trigger.
Russell Dixon: Wow.
Luke: And I was telling her, you know, if you leave me, "I'm going to blow my brains out" kind of thing. I know it was a cry for help. Desperation, for sure.
Russell Dixon: Wow.
Luke: And I also had put the gun to her head as well.
Russell Dixon: Was it loaded?
Luke: Unloaded. I hope she doesn't remember that, you know, but I do. But this is just, you know, where the disease had taken me mentally.
Dr. Anna Lembke: It's an interesting job being a psychiatrist. You listen to lots of stories over many years. I'm sure as a pastor it's similar. And after a while you develop kind of a sense of what healing stories sound like and what sort of not healing stories sound like. One of the recurring themes that I became aware of over time was that healing stories are stories in which people are able to talk about their character defects and what they contributed to a problem.
One of the things that's so interesting to me as people go from being in their addiction to getting into recovery is how the story changes. The story goes from being a story about how everybody else is at fault and I didn't do anything wrong or, you know, this deep kind of obsessional resentments toward others, whether it's a spouse or a boss or a parent or child. And then it shifts in a really fascinating way toward, well, yes, this happened and, you know, it hurt me but here's here are all the things that I do that hurt other people.
I see that as part of what I call radical honesty, which is another thing I've learned from people in recovery, which, you know, people tell me they just can't lie. If they lie, they're going to relapse. And that's interesting because it's not just not lying about their drug use, right?
Eric Huffman: Yeah.
Dr. Anna Lembke: It's they can't lie about anything. Once they start down that road of like hedging the truth, especially around ways that they've been selfish or otherwise looking out for number one-
Eric Huffman: Manipulative.
Dr. Anna Lembke: Which we all do by the way. The average adult tells one or two lies per day. But people in recovery from severe addictions, they realize, "I can't. I cannot be doing that. Once I'm doing that, I'm basically reentering that double life where I've got my real experience, both subjective and objective, what really happened inside and outside, and then the story that I'm telling about it, which is if I'm not telling the truth, I can be very, very far from reality in a very short amount of time.
Eric Huffman: Step five: we admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Step six: we were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Step seven: we humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
When Luke was 25 years old, he experienced the longest period of sobriety in his adult life so far. He attributes his recovery to an amazing sponsor who helped him work through all 12 steps, which included confronting the truth about his own story, especially how his addiction led him to lie to and manipulate and even physically harm the people he loved most. Unfortunately, after fighting the good fight for 34 months, Luke relapsed.
Luke: I fell victim to the belief that I was cured, you know. After some time, I went out on my birthday, actually and it was just a casual dinner at a nice place. And I decided to have a beer with my chicken fried steak.
Russell Dixon: Because it had been long enough.
Luke: Sure. I said, "Yeah, why not? I haven't had a problem. I don't understand why."
Russell Dixon: You could have just one beer.
Luke: Exactly. So I did that, and the girl that I was with, she knew I was in recovery. I had met her sober and so she had never seen me drunk or anything like that. So the first couple of times drinking together was fun until the nasty monster finally got back up with me again.
Russell Dixon: Wow. So you said this last couple of years is really when the drug use started to ramp up. What are some drugs that you've taken? And what was that like?
Luke: At my apartment complex upstairs, a gentleman moved in and he was straight out of the penitentiary, which I come to find because we were drinking and I was helping to move in. He had a lot of connections to a bunch of drugs. I was upstairs one night and I noticed that they didn't have furniture. They were sitting on twin beds for couches. And, you know, being under the influence, I thought it would be a great gesture to write this gentleman a check so he could go get some furniture. So I did.
And the next day I got a knock on the door and I had a plethora of drugs: Ecstasy, Molly, Cocaine. I started using those very heavily. In the beginning, it was fun. I enjoyed the way it made me feel. I enjoyed that I could drink more and function, but ultimately it became an addiction just like alcohol. And then towards the end, these last two times but this last time that I went out, I got into methamphetamine. That's a nasty drug. Did a number on me. I think I was out for like a 17-day run. I had lost £26.
Russell Dixon: Wow.
Eric Huffman: I probably didn't shower. I didn't shower actually for two weeks. I didn't brush my teeth. I had no desire for anything except to get high. So it was something I swore I would never do. I valued myself as somebody that I never would picture myself being a meth user. I come from a very solid family background who is heavily into Christ. And family dynamics are wonderful. And here's this 32-year-old kid who's walking down under a bridge on 183 in the ghetto side of Austin scoring dope from homeless people.
Russell Dixon: Wow.
Luke: That's what my life looked like for the last couple three weeks before I made it back to treatment.
Russell Dixon: So you've obviously been through the 12 steps a couple of times. Do you think there's something in particular that's made it so hard for you to be able to stay on the wagon?
Luke: I think the biggest thing is just I felt like AA let me down. And it wasn't AA that let me down. It was me. I quit working a program. Life got big and, you know, my sobriety life and AA got small. I quit going to meetings. I moved to a different city. I didn't find another home group. I didn't find another sponsor. I quit going and sharing my story, quit sponsoring, man. All this stuff that kept me sober and brought me joy. Life just got big, and I thought I was fine.
Russell Dixon: Wow. It sounds like, from what you've told me, that even though you've had moments where you've been really, really low, lower than a snake's belly, I've heard it said, you know, you've been really low, but you've never doubted God's presence in your life from what you've told me. So even in the hard moments... what were your thoughts towards God during these moments? Unpack that for us a little more.
Luke: I just remember just being so fed up and just not understanding how a creator or this loving being could put somebody through this. And that was a very hard thing for me to grasp at the time going through it, how you hear these people worship God and He's this all-loving, unconditional person or man in the sky, however people want to interpret it and I'm over here drowning in this stuff that I didn't ask for. So I didn't do a lot of prayer. I had thrown that out the window. I had figured God had given up on me, and this was just the way my life was going to be.
Eric Huffman: So at this point in the episode, you might be feeling pretty good about yourself. There's nothing quite like hearing about people with bigger problems than our own to give us a false sense of security. Deep down, the truth we all know, however, is that every one of us is prone to addiction or overconsumption, or unhealthy attachments. Maybe you're not shooting illicit drugs into your veins. But who among us doesn't fall prey every day to the impulse to escape reality, even if it's just by way of one extra glass of wine or an iPhone we never put down or another hour wasted on TikTok.
Remember, Dr. Lembke didn't say that addiction is always about drugs and alcohol. She said it is the continued compulsive use of any substance or behavior, despite the fact that it's harming us or those around us. If we're all addicts in one way or another, perhaps we should listen to Dr. Lembke's advice about how to get clean.
Dr. Anna Lembke: What we really need to do, and this is the news that nobody wants to hear, we need to actually tolerate the distress of abstinence long enough for the brain to reset itself. And then we even need to do things that are painful and hard because when we intentionally invite pain into our lives, it actually works through the science of hominis, which is Greek for "to set in motion", whereby doing things that are more painful than the pain of withdrawal, what we do is we signal to our bodies to start to upregulate feel-good hormones like dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin.
So, for example, exercise. Everybody knows about the runner's high. You pay for your dopamine up front. Not only does dopamine slowly increase in the latter half of exercise, but it remains elevated for hours afterward before coming back down to baseline dopamine levels. You do not go into that dopamine deficit state, so you paid for your dopamine up front much, much better. And exercise has been shown to help people withdraw from other drugs. It's been shown to prevent the development of addiction. It's been shown to prevent relapse in people who are in recovery. So, you know, it's a great way to kind of set that hedonic setpoint to the side of pleasure without using an intoxicant. But it's effortful. You have to pay for the dopamine upfront.
Eric Huffman: Yeah. You said earlier something... I want to try to remember the quote. You said, "We have to learn how to endure the distress of abstinence long enough for your brain to reset." How long does that take?
Dr. Anna Lembke: In my experience—and people don't like to hear this—but I usually ask my patients for 30 days. 30 days of abstinence from their drug of choice, whether it's pornography and compulsive masturbation. So no orgasms with self or others, whether it's cannabis, whether it's alcohol, social media video games. And I warn them that they're going to feel worse before they feel better. And this is a really important piece of it. Because people will think, oh my gosh, I feel horrible and now all my options are either keep using my drug or just be in abject misery.
And what I emphasize is you will be in abject misery initially because you'll be in withdrawal. And people say, "Well, can you really be in withdrawal from pornography and compulsive masturbation?" Absolutely. And it can be intensely physically painful as well as being psychologically painful. But tincture of time alone, just waiting and not using that drug, will allow the brain to recalibrate for dopamine firing to upregulate again. And then all of a sudden, our lens will widen. We'll begin to enjoy more, more modest rewards that we forgot about, that we used to enjoy, and then lost the capacity to enjoy.
Eric Huffman: I want to circle back to my conversation with Dr. Lembke that we shared in part one of this episode. I asked her what is wrong with us that we're all becoming so addicted and how we got to this point. And Dr. Lembke was quick to point out that there is absolutely nothing wrong with our brains.
Dr. Anna Lembke: The brain is actually working just the way it was meant to. We are instinctively and deeply wired to approach pleasure and avoid pain, and we do that iteratively through every second of our day, which again works great If you are living in a subsistence environment where just to survive, you better be relentlessly thinking about where you're going to get your next bite to eat. But is a complete and colossal disaster in a world where we have everything.
Eric Huffman: Dr. Lembke says we basically become consumption machines and that our real problem isn't opioids or Adderall or alcohol or porn so much as the disconnect between how our brains evolved over time and the world we're now living in. She calls it the dark side of capitalism.
Dr. Anna Lembke: Capitalism is a wonderful system to incentivize, you know, the maximizing of human potential consumption initiative. But we have reached now this tipping point where we're essentially titillating ourselves to death.
Eric Huffman: So what's the solution on a larger scale? How can we, in this overstimulated world, use the brains that God gave us to live lives that honor Him and each other?
Dr. Anna Lembke: I personally think that it's going to require a new kind of asceticism, which is this kind of minimization of consumption and welcoming pain, including physical pain to a degree into our lives. And then I also believe that we're in a spiritually impoverished world and people are desperate for some kind of spiritual or transcendent communion, meaning, and purpose. And not just meaning and purpose that they find within themselves, but actually meaning and purpose in the universe.
So I think we're very much like a crisis point to where it's clear that science has done a marvelous job answering a lot of questions, but doesn't adequately answer those fundamental existential questions. It doesn't even pretend to try to around why are we here? What is the good life? What is my purpose? Why do I matter? How should I live? I think we have to answer those questions, answer them in a way that resonates for our secular age.
Eric Huffman: Yes, I agree. And as a pastor, what so much of what you've said has raised so many questions and for me in my field, because Christianity by and large is in agreement with what you're proposing for us individually and as a society. I'm not saying we need to go out and, you know, make the whole country Christian or whatever. I'm just saying there is a lot of overlap when we talk about ideals like self-denial, self-control. These are things that are fundamental to the Christian ethic. We don't talk about them enough. But Jesus said, like to be my disciple or pick up a cross, deny yourself, and follow. Like what is self-denial look like in today's world where we're so impulse driven? And the assumption is that, of course, you respond to an impulse because, you know, you owe it to yourself.
Dr. Anna Lembke: Right. Right.
Eric Huffman: You hear that all the time. And again, it's hard to argue with that on the merits of it because we're all stressed out and worried and anxious. And if looking at your phone 50 times a day gets you through the day, sweetie, you do you.
Dr. Anna Lembke: I mean, I totally agree with you. And I resonate with that.
Eric Huffman: Science is telling the same story. The National Library of Medicine published a study in 2019 that backed up what Dr. Lembke says about our need for spiritual or transcendent communion and meaning and purpose as we heal from addiction. In their research, the authors of that study found that faith-based support groups for addiction are saving American taxpayers $316.6 billion every year. They also concluded that, quote, "The value of faith oriented approaches to substance abuse prevention and recovery is indisputable. And by extension, we also conclude that the decline in religious affiliation in the USA is not only a concern for religious organizations but constitutes a national health concern." End quote.
It's remarkable to me how even in this post-religious age when fewer Americans than ever claim to believe in God, prayer continues to be an essential step toward sobriety. According to Bill Wilson and the 12-step Movement, the act of surrendering your will to God's will through prayer is central to addiction recovery.
This is step 11: we sort through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.
Dr. Anna Lembke: Prayer is so important because it acknowledges that there is a power outside of ourselves greater than ourselves that our will alone most often can't solve the problem of addiction and in fact gets in the way of solving that problem. So acknowledging our own transcendence and recognizing the limits of our own will are just really fundamental to getting into recovery and asking for help, to receiving help, humbling ourselves enough to receive that help.
Eric Huffman: If I could ask a personal question, do you find it important to pray?
Dr. Anna Lembke: Oh, I do. I'm always asking for help multiple times through the day. It waxes and wanes. You know, what I find interesting this waxing and waning in terms of the experience of being close to God or being able to feel the presence of God. But in my darkest, lowest moments, I mean, those are things that I've just been just giving it over. You know, surrender has been just fundamental to my own recovery from difficult life experiences.
Eric Huffman: Sure. I would say as a pastor, if I'm talking to someone I know to be a Christian and they're telling me, "I don't feel it when I pray anymore," I would tend to say, well, when you pray and it doesn't feel like it once did, keep praying. Maybe listen instead of speak or do something different. But because I think that is actually our way of saying, Hey, you're not supposed to feel it every time. Like, you're not supposed to reach the mountaintop every time you pray. Sometimes it sounds like nothing. Sometimes it hurts to pray. You know, it's like you're always-
Dr. Anna Lembke: That's very good. That's very good message. And I agree with you 100%. Like, it can't be like a gumball machine. You know, like I put in my quarter and I get my gumball every time. And if I stop getting my gumball, I'm not going to put my quarter.
Eric Huffman: I'm out. Right.
Dr. Anna Lembke: I think the key there is that the gumball will come, but it may come months or years later. But if you don't do the practice, you're not even going to know that the gumball came down because you're not showing up anymore to the machine.
Eric Huffman: Even if you're not sold on Christianity or if you don't believe in God, here we have experts attesting to the real power of prayer, and they've got the data to back up their claims. One study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that praying increases the levels of dopamine in your brain. That's the same happiness hormone that we discussed earlier in this episode.
Studies like this one seem to suggest that every time we search for another high that's outside of us through alcohol or drugs, technology or social media or even sex, the release that we're looking for may already exist within us because of the way that God made us. You might have to wait a little longer for it, and waiting might be the hardest thing you've ever done, but sitting and waiting and praying might just be the antidote to our toxic pursuit of more.
Dr. Anna Lembke: It's a kind of a trust in the universe and in nature and in our bodies and the ability to sit quietly and patiently and wait for joy and to recognize that those profoundest moments of joy come not at the exercise of our will, but come spontaneously at moments that we can't predict or control.
Eric Huffman: But we have to wait.
Dr. Anna Lembke: And there's an amazing beauty to that. On any given day, we don't know what's going to happen. That's the vitality of the universe and life. We think we want to control everything. But in fact, if we did control everything, life would completely be uninteresting and it wouldn't be life.
Eric Huffman: Yeah, right. I mean, that's part of scripture, too, from my perspective, is that that constant mandate for believers to wait. Just wait. Wait. Sit and wait.
Dr. Anna Lembke: Yeah, just wait. Wait for it.
Eric Huffman: And even-
Dr. Anna Lembke: Trust-
Eric Huffman: Trust. Be bored. The Bible never says be bored, but I think that's part of it is sitting in nothingness and knowing there's something and-
Dr. Anna Lembke: And suffer. And sit there with your pain and know that you're not alone and that there's not something wrong with you. But that's the nature of being human, that we suffer deeply and that life is hard. If we're lucky, we have moments of respite, but for the most part, it's hard. So you have to just have faith that there's a reason and a meaning and a purpose, even if we don't know what that is.
Eric Huffman: Right.
Russell Dixon: Something happened in rehab this last time. You've shared that with me, that something was different.
Luke: I was in the chapel, it was 10:21 at night, May 4th, I think it was. And I just finished doing my four-step inventory and I had just got done writing my resentment list on myself and all the horrible things I had done. And I felt the overwhelming need to get on my knees and to pray. So I did. And as I was doing it, our whole body started trembling, tears started falling from my eyes and I just had this overwhelming sense of peace. And I just knew. I kind of just knew that I felt the presence of God in there in that room and within me.
And then I had another moment. This was after I'd done my fifth step, you know, the book suggests that we spend an hour alone with God going back over what we went over to, make sure we didn't leave anything out, make sure we're totally completely ready to give this over to God. I went into my seventh step prayer out in the woods. I remember starting to pray, "Lord, please just take this from me." And then it turned into a scream. You know, a bloody murder, angry cry. Out of nowhere, I went from anger to instant peace and joy. The sun had broke through the clouds, man and I had just happened to look up. And I just felt this overwhelming "I'm okay". You know, just a complete sense of everything's okay.
Russell Dixon: Peace.
Luke: And that was, you know, these two defining moments that gave me the hope again that God is there and will take care of me if I choose to seek Him.
Eric Huffman: Luke is currently working the last step. This is step 12: having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we try to carry this message to addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs. That's one reason why Luke chose to share his story on this podcast to carry hope to a bunch of addicts like us. So thank you, Maybe God family, for playing a part in Luke's recovery. If you are a person of prayer, I hope you'll join me in praying for Luke that he might continue his journey of healing and recovery one day at a time. And while you're at it, pray also for Russell that his testimony may continue to help others find hope and healing.
And finally, if you find yourself in a situation right now in which you've tried and tried to love an addict, whether they're your child or your spouse, a friend or family member or just someone you know who's struggling and you've run out of answers and you're starting to run out of hope, we'll leave you with this last exchange between Russell and I that frankly left us both in tears.
Eric Huffman: When we talk about how grueling it is to love an addict, it really gives you a window into the heart of God and how it must... I don't know if God has feelings like we have feelings, but the Bible talks a lot about, you know, what God endures to love us.
Russell Dixon: Totally.
Eric Huffman: And loving one addict is one thing. Loving 8 billion of us at a time it's got to be another.
Russell Dixon: Totally.
Eric Huffman: And yet the promise of scripture cover two covers that His love endures and that is love poured out on the cross is more than enough to cover our iniquities and to make amends in a way on our behalf, if that makes sense. But to bridge that gap.
Russell Dixon: Totally.
Eric Huffman: And when you love an addict and you see the pain of that, it really is eye-opening.
Russell Dixon: It is.
Eric Huffman: ...about how much God must really be love.
Russell Dixon: Totally. It's that whole verse in 2 Corinthians, he who knew, knows and became sin. So not only did He bear it, but He literally became it for us. It was almost like he assumed every one of those things for us. Why? So that we could become the righteousness of God. So that He can look at us as pure.
Eric Huffman: He didn't pay our bills in a way that made our life easy. He paid our bill in a way that set us free from shame.
Russell Dixon: That's right.
Eric Huffman: But He still invites us to suffer, which is interesting. And that kind of goes with what you're saying about loving addicts well. Like, we need to invite each other to suffer.
Russell Dixon: Totally.
Eric Huffman: And just to sit with the nothingness when we're coming clean and be willing to have withdrawal symptoms and sit through it. I'm talking about addicts, you know, but I mean, all of us. To be able to sit in our sin, understand what Jesus came to do, and even if it hurts, stay faithful another day.
Russell Dixon: That's right.
Julie Mirlicourtois: This episode of Maybe God was produced by Julie Mirlicourtois, Andrea Gentle, and Eric and Geovanna Huffman. Our talented editors are Brittany Holland, Shannon Stephan, and Justin Mayer, and our social media guru is Kat Brough. For more information about Maybe God and to sign up for exclusive updates and content, head to maybegodpod.com today. And don't forget to follow and engage with us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Thanks for listening, everyone.