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Longtime minister Judd Kirk fights alcohol abuse

By Linda Moll Smith

For 26 years the polished presence of Judd Kirk was familiar to Worldwide Church of God members. In addition to pastoring churches (Detroit West, Mich.; Minneapolis West, Minn.; San Jose and Palo Alto, Calif.; Wichita, Kan.; Long Beach, Calif.; and Glendora, Calif.), Mr. Kirk was for 13 years a familiar fixture of Feast of Tabernacles live satellite transmissions and videos as he served as song leader and introduced main speakers such as WCG pastors general Herbert Armstrong and Joseph Tkach.

What was not visible to worldwide audiences was that Mr. Kirk, in addition to being a talented speaker, was also addicted to alcohol.

Not quite three years ago, Mr. Kirk, a 1968 graduate of Ambassador College, Big Sandy, began treatment for his drinking and now describes himself as a "recovering alcoholic." He and his wife, Terri, also an AC graduate, now live in San Dimas, Calif., and attend the United Church of God congregation in Garden Grove.

In the interview, Mr. Kirk tells the story of his effort to overcome his addiction.

Considering how personal a matter it is, what is your motivation for contributing to an article about your alcohol abuse?

That's a great place to start because I have two distinct reasons for wanting to help with this article.

First, if sharing my experience, strength and hope adds something to another person's understanding of alcoholism, I'll be very happy. There are many, many misconceptions about alcoholism which create hostility and isolation. I believe that, if there were more education about alcoholism, there would be a greater likelihood of change and fewer people hurting.

We need each other, and it's fulfilling to set aside, for a moment, our own struggles and give some caring to another person. I believe that's a gateway concept for the development of brotherly love.

Along that line, James 5:16 suggests that there is something powerful in confessing our sins one to another. I've experienced that numerous times, so I know it works. But it requires a willingness to face our own humanness and frailty and then actually share our real selves with another frail human.

The second reason is a selfish one, since my continuing recovery depends on my staying acutely aware of the destructive nature of alcoholism. One of the most effective ways of keeping myself aware is to try to add to the understanding of others. I may never know if it helps another person, but I know it helps me.

What was it like coming to see yourself as an alcoholic?

The past 32 months have been the most challenging of my entire life. My struggle with alcoholism has forced me to confront several personal issues, which has been very difficult. But now I can see they were issues which I had to eventually address for the sake of my own spiritual life, my marriage and my family.

So, while I know it sounds paradoxical, I'm also deeply thankful for the last 32 months.

After over 20 years of abusing alcohol, my life was totally out of control. And yet I was a functional alcoholic. That means that I was able to conceal my excessive drinking and its results from most people. I didn't stagger, get DUIs [traffic tickets for driving under the influence] or become physically abusive to my family. But, I was out of control.

In fact, I was eventually dismissed from the ministry as the result of the serious mistakes I made during the worst of my drinking.

By the way, I claim no personal credit for starting my recovery. I don't think I would have ever admitted my alcoholism without outside pressure. That pressure came in the form of an intervention, which means some fellow ministers confronted me and said, "You're an alcoholic whether you realize it or not."

At that point I was sick and ready to listen to what they had to say. Once again, God's timing is best. It wasn't easy, but God offered me help when I had reached bottom. Thankfully, I accepted it.

I was in a treatment facility for 28 days, during which time I learned volumes about alcoholism, God and myself.

So what was it like coming to see myself as an alcoholic? Difficult. Reassuring. All of that and more. But I've gotten my life back. I'm renewing my relationship with my Father, whom I now understand much more. I'm able to understand why I did crazy, insane things.

And, despite huge odds against it, my family is still intact. I'm profoundly thankful for that.

I'm also learning to take full responsibility for my life. I know that being an alcoholic doesn't justify my blaming somebody else for my problems. I am an alcoholic. I made terrible mistakes, which is sadly typical of most alcoholics. But now I'm fervently seeking God's will in my life because I don't believe He has given up on me.

Could you give our readers your working definition of alcoholism?

That's fairly easy because we talked about it so much while I was in the hospital. There are several common traits for most alcoholics. One: continued, increasing consumption despite increasing negative consequences. Two: high tolerance, can outdrink most. Three: denial. Saying, "I could quit if I really wanted to." Four: a genetic component.

Most alcoholics I know exhibited most or all of these characteristics.

In retrospect, I can see that the first point was especially obvious in the latter years of my drinking. In brief moments of partial lucidity, I realized that I wasn't taking care of my wife, children, pastorate or anything but myself. But my addiction was strong, and my denial was entrenched.

A quick word about point No. 4, the genetic component. There is alcoholism in my family, therefore I was predisposed to it in the same way I would be predisposed to heart disease if my father had died of it. Yet one of the most-difficult hurdles I've encountered during my recovery has been to accept that alcoholism is a disease, even though the American Medical Association recognizes it as such.

I've come to see that my body actually processes alcohol differently from a nonalcoholic, and that's why I became addicted to it. That's why I was driven to sacrifice almost everything in the pursuit of alcohol. It provided me with an escape from life's pressures and problems. It was my best friend, since it never failed to do what I wanted.

Now, I'm sure there are those who feel that applying the term disease to alcoholism just provides alcoholics with an escape from personal responsibility for a simple, moral weakness. In fact, that is not the case. Moral deterioration always accompanies alcoholism, but that's not the cause of alcoholism.

My recovery program is built on my taking personal responsibility. My recovery requires that of me. However, I do not have to take responsibility for being an alcoholic, since that's just part of the hand life dealt me. There is nothing I can do about that. What I do take responsibility for is all the mistakes I made, the people I hurt and therefore the amends that requires of me.

Recovering alcoholics realize that alcohol is our mortal enemy, since most of us end up either dead, in jail or in an institution if we don't achieve sustained sobriety.

I see how this must be difficult for nonalcoholics to understand, since for most people alcohol is a means of celebrating and having fun. So, to a normal person, it seems that the alcoholic should simply stop drinking because it's bad for them.

But that perception fails to take into consideration the power of addiction. The disease of alcoholism is cunning, baffling and powerful. It's a killer. So to suggest that we just quit is seriously oversimplifying a complex problem. And, most important, it diminishes the importance God's help plays. My recovery is totally dependent on my staying humble and yielded to God's will in my life.

What has been the impact of your alcoholism on your family?

One of my greatest regrets is the damage my drinking inflicted on my wife and two daughters. Coming to realize how much damage I did forced me to face how out of control my life was.

It also helped me grasp the truth that alcoholism injures more than just the alcoholic. It drags down everybody into an abyss of deceit, denial and confusion. That's why I made amends to my family first.

I talked with each of them, admitting and apologizing for the mistakes I made and the pain I caused each of them. Of course, the most meaningful gesture of caring I can make to them is to continue to maintain my recovery.

Every alcoholic wreaks havoc on those around him. It's part of the predictable damage done by the disease. So I urge every person who is close to an alcoholic to seek a support group.

My wife has been helped enormously by her involvement in a 12-step group for family members of alcoholics. She's learned that she had fallen into the trap of dancing the dance of denial with me. Her way of expressing it is: "I didn't know that alcohol was the problem. I knew Judd could outdrink most people, but I didn't know that was an indicator of a more-serious problem. If I had been more knowledgeable about alcoholism, I could have avoided a lot of pain."

So I'd like to emphasize to those involved with an alcoholic: Please get yourself some help even if the alcoholic near you doesn't. You can't change him or her, but you can educate yourself and stop dancing the dance.

What has enabled you to maintain your sobriety?

The simple answer to that question is God. All the changes in my life are the result of His leadership and strength in me. I was lost, and it was only His perfect love for me which brought me back. I was hopeless, and he gave me hope to do what I thought was impossible: live without alcohol. Sustained recovery requires a profound change, which is only possible through God's action in our lives.

But there is a huge difference between just being sober and being in recovery. In fact, it's possible to be a dry drunk. That proves that simply not drinking doesn't take care of the problem.

Recovery means actually changing the way we think while continuing to not drink. It has to be a combination of both. I wouldn't understand this if it weren't for my 12-step program. It has opened broad vistas of understanding to me. I draw strength and courage from the struggles, successes and failures of other alcoholics I talk with at meetings. I'm reassured that sobriety is possible, no matter how difficult the struggle.

I'm reminded that I'm one drink away from relapse. My 12-step program is an integral part of my recovery.

What thoughts would you like to pass on to any abusers of alcohol who might read this article?

Get help. For most of us, sobriety requires help from other alcoholics and some humility on our part. That's very difficult for alcoholics, since we tend to think of ourselves as being very independent and self-sufficient, even though we're not. But, for those who are sick of being destroyed by alcohol, there is hope.

I'm including my postal address and an E-mail address for any who would like to contact me. Remember, I'm not an authority or a spokesperson. I can only share what I've learned, and I'd be happy to do it.

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