Living Water

Discovering the true Fountain at the end of self-effort.

by La Shawn M. Barber

Five beers in under an hour — a new record. I’d lost count of the number of beer cans hidden under my bed. When I reached down for one that was full and still cold, all the cans fell over. I’d taken to hiding beer so no one would know how much I was drinking.

It was sometime in January 1997, and I lay on the bed drinking and reading Drinking: A Love Story, by the late Caroline Knapp. I’d checked it out from the library in anticipation of starting one of my New Year’s resolutions. Knapp’s lifelong affair with drinking was chronicled in this autobiographical account of her life. As I finished a six pack, I was enthralled by her depiction of ritualized drinking and chaotic relationships. One woman’s journey — a story of inspiration and hope. Oh, how I wanted to travel on that journey, too!

The ‘decision’

I’ll stop soon, I told myself and knew I meant it. I’d finally come to the end of a long, wet road, and I wanted to dry out. I was 29 and had been drinking almost every day since age 18. I’d graduated from law school in 1996. Jobless, I lived in my mother’s two-bedroom apartment with her and my grown brother and sister. My drinking had steadily and stubbornly increased over the years, and I’d reached a crucial point: Did I want to be a 30-year-old former drinker or continue for another 20 years and be a 50-year-old drunk?

I hadn’t wanted to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or see a substance abuse counselor. I was determined to stop drinking on my own. I thought if I could stop cold turkey, without help from anyone, I would get all the recognition.

Drying out

On the night of March 18, 1997, I drank my last beer. I awoke the next morning smelling of it as usual. I threw on some clothes, grabbed the empty cans from underneath the bed, gathered the remaining alcohol from the refrigerator, threw it all in a plastic bag, and put it in the dumpster. That wasn’t too bad.

I made it through the rest of the week without drinking. To tolerate the craving, I reasoned that my abstinence would be only temporary until I could learn to drink like a “normal” person. I told myself the lie day after day. At the start of the weekend, my thirst was strong and deep, like itching flesh under a cast. I’d go to the store to get something — anything — to drink. I bought a box of herbal tea because I’d never had it before. With a strong urge to drink, a novelty like herbal tea was enough to distract me from the real focus of my appetite.

New religion

Days turned into weeks, which turned into months. The first few weeks were hard, but I’d willed myself to accomplish drying out. I’d fantasized about the praise I’d give myself once I was a “former drinker.”

By the sixth month of sobriety, I began to think there was nothing I couldn’t do. I abstained from other things like sex and cursing. I listened to radio programs like Dr. Laura’s, and I thought I was becoming a moral and “good” person. I preached my new religion to anyone who’d listen. I told people that they had the power to change their own lives. They could control their habits and behaviors and choose for themselves the right thing — even choose to be a moral being. Truth was my guide — cold, hard truth.

Unquenchable thirst

Two years into my sobriety and sexual abstinence, my preaching sounded less convincing to me. I was no longer promiscuous, nor was I drinking; but something was missing. I still thirsted for the drink. I still craved the touch of a man’s hands on my body. Two years of abstinence didn’t seem so vast an accomplishment anymore. But I did it — me — all by myself. And I didn’t need anyone to help me do it! If I could do it, they could, too!

My lifelong tendency to isolate myself continued into my sobriety. Instead of sitting alone in my apartment drinking beer and imagining drinking myself to death, I’d sit alone in my apartment sipping herbal tea, reading and obsessing about my life. I wasn’t growing in any way, especially spiritually. I was a “dry drunk,” a term used by alcoholics to describe someone who no longer drinks but who still thinks and acts like an alcoholic.

My greatness

My youngest sister, a Christian for eight years at that point, had been telling me how God had changed her life and how she’d been praying for me. She’d told me this for years, but I hadn’t listened. Now that I was sober and “sinless,” I wondered, What else do I have to do to get right?

“Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins?” my sister asked.

“Of course I do,” I answered.

“Do you believe that you are a sinner in need of His salvation?”

I said yes, but didn’t believe it. I thought if I could stop drinking by myself, I could do anything, including being good enough to achieve my own salvation.

Between numerous e-mails and telephone calls with her and Christian literature, the answer became clear: There was nothing I could do to get right. I could stay away from drinking alcohol and fornicating for the rest of my life and still not be “good.”

The Fountain

That God had sent His only Son Jesus to die for my sins and that His death on the cross accomplished this was still too abstract. I’d been disappointed by the futility of my own hard work. I’d looked on those months of sobriety as my accomplishment.

I knew I couldn’t go on like this, so I began to pray. I didn’t know Jesus Christ, but knew I had nowhere else to turn. I wanted to know why I was still thirsty for drink, frustrated, and lamenting lost loves. He answered, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Christ was the fountain I needed to drink from.

As I read the Bible, I began to understand that I hadn’t stopped drinking under my own power. But for God’s goodness, I’d still be a drunk or worse. It was all God’s work, and He was ready for me whether or not I was ready for Him. He’d sustained me through the long months of sobriety and turned me away from fleshly pursuits. He got the credit, not I.

Truth and love

The Lord used each stage of my sobriety as a way to the truth. I had desperately tried to apply moral principles to my life and follow the Ten Commandments. I’d been self-righteous and bold in telling others how to live. Now as I read the book of Romans, the Lord began to open my spiritual eyes.

Through the years, He’s shown me that what I thought was my own work was actually His way of drawing me to Him. It is through Jesus Christ I am made right with God. By His goodness alone, I have been forgiven. He took the despair of drinking myself into oblivion and turning to men for physical gratification and shaped it into a love for the Bible and a desire to share it with others.

Jesus said, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

The quenching water that eluded me for years is now mine in abundance. I have been sober for five years, and I no longer thirst.

Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.