Surviving Addiction—and Coming Through Stronger
By the time Dan Maurer hit rock bottom, he was pastoring his third different congregation as an ordained Lutheran minister, he’d already done two stints in treatment, and he was pretty sure he had things under control. That was before he was arrested for breaking into homes in the rural North Dakota countryside he called home.
“I was totally dysfunctional at that point,” says Dan. “I don’t remember a lot of it. I had lost all sense of ethics or morality. I was just doing things to survive. I couldn’t see my life without drugs and alcohol.”
IT HADN’T ALWAYS BEEN THAT WAY, OF COURSE.
As a teen growing up in Anoka, Minnesota, he had what many would consider some normal encounters with alcohol—sneaking a few drinks from his parents’ liquor supply, doing some binge drinking in college. (“Not much though,” says Dan.) His home life was good. There were no obvious signs that addiction would derail his life.
Things took off though when he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. After a painful attack, his wife Carol drove him to the emergency room in Dubuque, Iowa, where he was a grad student in seminary. The year was 1996.
“I don’t know if the doctor on duty made a mistake or actually thought I needed that much pain control,” says Dan, “but I’ll never forget: He prescribed three refills of 30 Demarol. I maybe needed it for that one day (if at all). But there’s no way I needed it for three months. I think I went through that entire prescription in about three weeks. I was like, ‘This stuff is great!’”
He has likened the sensation to the comforting feeling of being a little boy watching Sesame Street, as his mother tucked a freshly laundered blanket around him.
“I was totally dysfunctional at that point. I don’t remember a lot of it. I had lost all sense of ethics or morality. I was just doing things to survive. I couldn’t see my life without drugs and alcohol.”
AFTER THAT, THINGS CHANGED.
Although alcohol hadn’t interested Dan much before, it now became a steady crutch. “Painkillers were my drug of choice,” says Dan, “but I couldn’t get them all the time—and I wasn’t going on the street or anything—so I started drinking more and more.”
He hid bottles in the basement ceiling. He drank in the morning before sermon prep, or in the afternoon before his wife came home from work. He found ways to hide the smell of alcohol on his breath. (“I’d eat pickles,” Dan laughs.)
One day Dan wondered how many bottles he’d stashed above the ceiling tiles. He shined a flashlight around. Holy sh**, he thought. I’m an alcoholic. His next thought was, Oh, well. I can handle this. Everybody else is a loser who lets this mess up their life. I will make it work.
AND, FOR A WHILE, HE DID.
Dan was a master at hiding things, as most addicts are. Carol had no idea. Dan is articulate. He was a great preacher. He’s friendly and likable. He could carry on without too many things falling through the cracks. And he’s smart—so smart that he could research new ways to get high and self-diagnose the side effects. Those side effects included, at one point, having seven tonic-clonic “grand mal” seizures that he mostly hid from everyone.
Meanwhile, Carol and he were raising two young boys and Dan was pastoring congregations throughout central North Dakota.
Not everything was bad. “Even though our life was a lot of crazy,” says Carol, “there were times that were still functional. Decent. It wasn’t 100% insanity. I sometimes think back to that. What if I would have known how much he was boozing and drugging and not doing what was expected of him?”
“The ironic thing,” says Dan, “is I still cared about being a husband, about being a father—but I didn’t see the disconnect that you can’t really have all these things with addiction because addiction is always on top.”
FROM BAD TO WORSE
As Dan’s addiction progressed, so did his desperation for a high, and his willingness to do anything to get it.
By 2008, a physician prescribed Benzodiazepines for his worsening anxiety. When combined with alcohol, these “benzos” caused blackouts—the kind of blackouts where Dan would be talking and functioning, with no awareness or recollection of it. Dan spent an entire family vacation in Florida, blacked out for most of it.
“I just thought he was really, super, super depressed,” says Carol, who suspected Dan might just be longing for a career change. “I knew something was wrong but I didn’t really know what it was.”
It was during this period, Dan says, that he started getting crazy ideas. “One of the ideas I had is that it would be a good idea to walk into other people’s homes to see if they had painkillers.” So he did. Several times.
Eventually, the sheriff’s department caught on.
When Carol was told that her husband was being arrested for a felony trespass, she was confused. “I said, ‘Oh! Well, I think he’s trying to connect with those people for church.’”, believing what Dan had told her. “In hindsight,” she laughs, “that was so not true. But there’s probably a part of you that wants to believe it.”
“At that point, I had lost all hope,” says Dan.
He checked into Hazelden (now the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation). This time, after he completed the 30-day program, the staff recommended he stay for their long-term in-patient program. He did. After 60 days in that program, they recommended he move to a sober house. He did. “I was willing to do whatever it took to save my marriage,” he says. “To save my life.”
And so, after twelve years of addiction and his third stint in treatment, Dan got sober. It was 2011, and he has been sober since.
One thing you notice right away when you hear Dan and Carol tell their story is how cheerful and lighthearted they are. They laugh with each other about the ridiculousness of Dan’s lies and the extent of Carol’s obliviousness. They banter over the details. (“Wait, we had ceiling tiles in that house?” says Carol.) They talk passionately about the recovery process that has kept them together.
It’s clear that there has been so much healing that this story no longer evokes pain. Instead, it is a testament to hope. They both say their relationship is stronger than it’s ever been (although not perfect), and there are a few key things they say helped their marriage survive the destruction of addiction.
“Any difficult spot that you’re in now… You don’t wish it on anyone but it can only make you a stronger person for that.”
Everyone’s story is different. Here is theirs:
1. They both got help.
Carol is a big piece of why they’re still together. She didn’t leave Dan during the worst of it. (“My dad really wanted me to,” she says.) But she also didn’t leave all the recovery work in Dan’s court. If she had, Carol is the first to say she’s not sure they would be together.
“I think one of the main reasons our marriage survived,” says Carol, “is because we both got into some kind of recovery program. If Dan would have done recovery and I just would have sort of kept being my bullsh*t self, I don’t know… Maybe we’d still be together but we wouldn’t be healthy. I mean I can’t imagine what it would look like.”
She didn’t always feel that way.
Carol initially recoiled at the suggestion she might need help. “The first time I went to Al-Anon and found out we were working on the Twelve Steps, I was like, f*ck this. I’m not doing this sh*t. I am not the one with the problem,” says Carol. But, at the urging of others in the group, she gave it a chance. After six sessions, she was hooked.
Carol, herself the adult child of a now-recovered alcoholic, says “I realized how much crap I had brought with from my own childhood. As a child of an alcoholic, you just don’t know how to deal with life. I came to realize how much my father’s addiction had shaped a lot of my attitudes, how I responded to things, the expectations I had about myself, about my life…”
On top of that, says Carol, “There’s no way you can draw a line and say this is the addict’s problem and it hasn’t affected me.” Eventually, Carol says she found serenity for herself—regardless of what Dan was going to end up doing.
“That’s the epitome of what recovery is,” Dan says. “You have to start with yourself—that’s all that you have control of. You have your own behaviors and your own actions to look at. And, as you become healthier with yourself, the bonus is that you’re healthier with the other person. So if it’s working on both sides, you’re going to end up healthier together.”
2. They persisted.
For Dan, treatment required more than one round. Although this can be (and was) discouraging, it’s common. Many professionals compare addiction relapse rates to those of other chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, all of which involve both physical and behavioral aspects. The good news is – relapse does not mean failure. It just means more—or different—treatment is needed.
Returning to treatment can be humbling, but, for Dan, his persistence paid off.
Carol, too, needed to find the right support. For her, it ended up being Al-Anon, a Twelve Step program—but even that took some trial and error. One of her early Twelve Step experiences was handled very differently from others she had seen before, or since. That particular experience was “very shaming,” she says. Fortunately, she knew something was off, and she looked for better options.
Now she says, “I’m so thankful I’ve discovered and worked through Twelve Step recovery because I think it’s just good living. It’s good for anybody. It doesn’t matter if it’s related to addiction or not. We all have things in our life that that kind of rigor helps us work through.”
Still, recovery wasn’t a quick fix for either one of them.
“One thing people don’t always understand,” says Carol, “is how long working on yourself takes. It takes a really long time…to get to a place where you feel changed. It takes a long time.”
“I’m so thankful I’ve discovered and worked through Twelve Step recovery because I think it’s just good living. It’s good for anybody. It doesn’t matter if it’s related to addiction or not. We all have things in our life that that kind of rigor helps us work through.”
4. They got honest.
One of the things that’s changed in Dan and Carol’s relationship is they understand each other better. Both understand that Dan’s brain is wired in a certain way and that, for him, recovery means rewiring the pathways addiction created. Both understand that he’s still an addict—an addict in recovery.
“To this day I still have pill-seeking dreams,” says Dan. “Why do I have those? The only thing I can think of—and the language I use—is an ‘induced mental illness’. It’s an illness of the brain, which is a particular organ in the human body, and if you have a genetic component and the capacity to run in this path, when you add chemicals to it, it induces you into this insane state.”
Dan knows he’s still wired to sometimes make poor choices. “I’m still impulsive,” he says. “I still struggle with these things. I still need to work on them in myself.”
“I’m still crazy,” he adds, “that’s part of my problem.”
Carol counters, “I think we’re honest about our craziness now. We used to have a lot of untruths.“ Carol admits she used to sometimes tear people down to help herself feel more confident. Especially her husband. “I was just looking for any dumb little thing to nitpick about. Even if I had that same issue myself I was just… I could just be really mean.”
“I try not to be mean anymore,” she says, smiling, “I try to say what I want rather than be catty or hinty about it—I try to just be direct.”
Dan says, “I think the marriage has changed now because I’m healthier, because she’s healthier, and because we have a commitment to say what’s going on.”
4. They found purpose.
So where has all of that addictive energy gone these days? Dan says, “The most important thing, if you’re trying to get sober, is you need to find purpose and meaning in your life. For me, I have to create. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing or if I’m on a website studying CSS code or if I’m writing a play or any of that. I have to create and I have to continue doing that. I found that for me, it drives me. It’s enough.”
Today, as a four-time published author and freelance writer, Dan is a sought-after speaker and the brainchild behind several businesses, including two that provide creative resources to churches (rclworshipresources.com and funchurchplays.com).
“Life is pretty good,” he says. “I love doing what I’m doing. I’m pretty good at it. And it’s germane to Carol and I being together.”
These days, Carol and Dan take long walks with their dog every day. They cook, they eat out, they parent their boys (now 17 and 13), they visit open houses for inspiration. “We love our walks, we love our talks,” says Dan. “I mean, she really is my best friend.”
Carol adds, “He’s my best friend too—but we’re our own individuals as well.” She turns to Dan. “My life isn’t dependent on your life, and your life isn’t dependent on mine either. We’re able to function individually while at the same time just enjoying each other.”
5. They’re grateful.
Dan knows he’s been lucky. “The number of times I could have died!” he says, with a mix of amazement, horror, and humor.
Dan knows many addicts don’t have access to the kind of insurance that paid for his in-patient treatment three times. He knows many addicts arrested for felony trespass would never get the opportunity to eventually move on with life. He knows many addicts need more than three trips to treatment. And he knows not everyone who loves an addict can (or should) stay in the relationship as long as Carol did.
His gratefulness is palpable.
“The irony,” says Dan, “is that where we are now is because of all the difficult times we went through. I think that’s a word of hope. Any difficult spot that you’re in now… You don’t wish it on anyone but it can only make you a stronger person for that.”
“But only if you do the work,” adds Carol, with a smile.
Author’s note: Interviewing this exceptional couple left me with a range of emotions and insights. I suspect it may do the same for others. I have known and loved more than one addict. At some points early on, it would have been incredibly helpful for me to know there were others struggling with similar issues, to know where to begin finding help, and—especially—to know recovery was possible, for myself and also for the addict.
I hope this article offers a glimpse of that hope to you. To learn more about Dan Maurer and his journey, visit Transformation is Real. To learn more about addiction, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, and Twelve Step resources, follow the links.