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Reclaimed and Recovering

Conquering addiction by encountering the Deliverer

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I was raised in Nyack, New York, in a devoted Alliance family. My great grandfather, George Breaden, helped to pioneer Alliance missionary work in the Middle East in the early 1900s. My grandparents were missionaries in Vietnam, and many of my family members have been Alliance international workers and pastors.

In an effort to please my family and do what I thought everyone expected me to do, I attended Nyack College, one of our most respected Alliance institutions. But in the end, I decided it wasn’t for me. After years in the workforce I became a successful part owner of a fine-dining restaurant and felt I had it made. I was working hard and playing hard. I did this for almost 13 years and always had an excuse as to why God wasn’t first in my life.

The Birth of an Addiction

At the height of my success I ended up in the emergency room (ER) with severe pain. The doctors noticed a growth and told me they believed it to be cancerous. For the next six hours I sat alone in the ER thinking: Had I lived a life for God? Had I done enough? When was the last time I went to church? Would God even listen if I called on Him right now?

This was a no-brainer for me. Instead of finding answers, I just wouldn’t ask. I didn’t pray. I didn’t cry. I felt nothing. In fact, I thought I deserved cancer for all the wrong decisions I had made in my life. I convinced myself that everything I was brought up to believe wasn’t true or at least wasn’t true for me. These thoughts were interrupted by the doctor telling me I didn’t have cancer after all, just a severe infection. This event became a turning point in my life—but not for the better.

As had become normal practice, the doctor prescribed Vicodin to help with pain during the healing of my infection. Things quickly got out of control when I realized how great these pills made me feel. I had energy; I was happy; I was the life of the party. Besides, I was on my feet 10 hours a day at work, so I could justify the need to take pain pills. However, things escalated quickly as I went from taking the pills as prescribed to taking them more frequently, and then taking them with a bottle of wine, and ultimately upgrading to OxyContin, which I bought illegally off the streets. I kept chasing that euphoric feeling I had when I first started taking Vicodin. I was now taking 30 pills a day at $10 per pill.

It got to the point that I was no longer taking the pills to feel good; I was taking them just to feel normal. If I didn’t take them, I got sick. My days were consumed with finding the next batch of pills and counting them to make sure I had enough to get through the day. It was exhausting. It was the first thing I thought about in the morning and the last thing I thought about at night. All the while, I was keeping my addiction from everyone who knew me. It was my own dark secret, and God was the furthest thing from my mind.

Though I was a functioning opioid addict and alcoholic, I knew at some point I was going to die from an overdose or go to jail—and I didn’t care which, because either option seemed better than what I was experiencing. I was so sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Rock Bottom

The day came when I had no more money and no more pills. I had hit bottom and couldn’t go on. I laid on my kitchen floor and cried for hours, confessing my sins to God. The Holy Spirit met me and revealed an image of a loving Father who was wrapping me in His arms and caring for me more than I ever cared for myself.

For the next several days I laid on my bathroom floor and went through withdrawals. It was physically, emotionally, and mentally excruciating, but I just shut the door and listened to worship music, prayed, cried, and read God’s Word. I found strength from Lamentations 3:54–58 “. . . the water began to close over me, and I thought death was near. From the bottom of the pit, O Lord, I cried out to you, and when I begged you to listen to my cry, you heard. You answered me and told me not to be afraid. You came to my rescue, Lord, and saved my life.”

I knew the Lord was with me, but I also knew I needed other people to surround me during that time. With the Lord’s nudging, I made the humbling phone call to my parents to tell them that I was a drug addict.

A Fresh Start?

As a true example of the Father’s love, my dad received me—his own prodigal son—with open arms. He got me on the first flight out. What I thought was going to be a two-week recovery ended up being a fresh start at life. Leaving everything behind in Maryland, I began a new journey in Colorado. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must have been for my father, a vice president at the C&MA, and my mother to have to go into work at the National Office asking for prayers for their son, “the drug addict.”

In the three years that followed, I experienced awesome recovery, a rededication of my relationship with Christ, a new job, and meeting and marrying my incredibly wonderful, beautiful bride. Things couldn’t have been better, that is until I started having severe pain in my feet.

The Road to Relapse

I was diagnosed with an incurable condition that could only be treated with pain management if I were to have a reasonable quality of life. At first, I chose to stick with the non-narcotics and not fill the prescription for opioids, but as the months went on, the pain got more unbearable. I convinced myself that if I were taking narcotics for a legitimate medical reason, I could control my use.

I was wrong. Within two weeks of being prescribed OxyContin, I was off and running worse than before. I was deceiving, cheating, and stealing from anyone to get my fix. Lie after lie, I spun the web.

After being on the run for six months, I was caught. One would think that my wife would have left me and my family would have disowned me since I had again betrayed their trust, but by God’s grace they chose to clothe themselves in Jesus and welcome back the prodigal a second time.

Rehab or Bust

We made the decision for me to enter rehab. The facility we chose was in Florida, and God ordered every step to get me there. I was grateful to be supported by the team of pastors, counselors, and doctors who guided me through the painful process of healing and recovery—mind, body, and soul. They helped me peel back layers of myself and my addiction that I never knew existed. They helped me connect the dots between my behavioral trends and painful childhood experiences that I had tried to numb away for 25 years of my life. Through it all, God released me from bondage, not just from my addiction but from the unrealistic expectations I placed on myself and that I felt others had placed on me over the years.

I remember on my second day of treatment going to the pastor’s office because I wanted someone to pray with me. I met Phil Dvorak, the facility’s lead pastor and director of spiritual care. After we prayed, we began to talk, and I found out he was an ordained C&MA pastor. This was further confirmation that I was exactly where God wanted me to be.

Recovering addicts find and exalt their Savior and Deliverer at Recovery Church on Wednesday evenings.

Pastor Phil told me about a fellowship called Recovery Church that he and a few other pastors started in 2010. It began with five people meeting in a coffee shop and has since grown to a congregation of 250 and become an affiliated church of the C&MA. It is a place where recovering addicts and alcoholics come together in all their brokenness and worship the One—the only One—who can save and redeem them.

From the second I set foot in Recovery Church I felt at home. I thought, This is what church is supposed to look like: a bunch of broken people who are shamelessly and unapologetically laying all of their baggage at the foot of the cross without judgement.

This church service became the highlight of my week. It had a significant impact on my recovery, and I knew I wanted it to be part of my long-term sobriety. After my wife and I had been praying about possibly moving to Florida, the Lord made it abundantly clear that we were to take that leap of faith and launch a new beginning among the recovery community in Florida.

Beauty from Ashes

We moved in April 2016, and by God’s mercy, I am now on staff at Recovery Church as the outreach ministry coordinator. God made beauty from ashes. He redeemed a life that Satan tried to destroy by trying to convince me that I wasn’t worthy of a second chance. And it hasn’t just been about my new beginning. Since being part of the Recovery Church community, I’ve witnessed countless second chances in lives freed from addiction and turned over to Jesus.

Dennis Whalen (left) and Phil Dvorak (second from right) pray with two Recovery Church attendees at the coffee shop where the church was launched.

We at Recovery Church are in a unique position to reach people who don’t normally go to church or find acceptance when they try. Recovery Church goes beyond a church service; it walks people through the recovery steps that are built on biblical truth, providing an authentic sense of community and instilling a genuine desire to go deeper with their Redeemer and Deliverer.

Surrendering an addiction creates a huge void in the addict’s life. Unless that void can be filled with something more precious than the addiction, relapse is almost  guaranteed. As the Church elevates and exalts Jesus as the only One able to fill that void, addicts will find true freedom and celebrate long-term sobriety. But in fulfilling its mission of freedom, the Church must establish itself among addicts rather than waiting for addicts to establish themselves among the Church.

This is why Recovery Church exists, and our desire is to see many more “Recovery Churches” planted across the United States and throughout the world. Drug addiction is a global epidemic claiming 187,000 lives annually. One in ten people struggle with drug or alcohol addiction, and it’s a disease that does not discriminate. The average drug addict no longer fits the stereotypical mold. As we, the Church—the hands and feet of Jesus—seek to proclaim His good news to the overlooked peoples of our world, let’s not overlook the addicts—who are rapidly emerging as our neighbors, family members, and even our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Profiles of Recovery

The Recovery Church (RC) congregation is made up of people in various stages of addiction recovery. Acknowledging that recovery is often a lifelong journey, those who have conquered or managed their addictions often volunteer to help those both inside and outside of the church who are in the heat of the battle.

Laura

Laura has been a faithful supporter of Recovery Church from its birth. She passionately supports the RC family and gives sacrificially to the ministry. The building where RC meets was once a nightclub called the Bamboo Room. Laura’s addiction started in that very club. Once her source of bondage, the building has been redeemed as a place of healing and freedom for Laura and so many others.

Rob

Rob is a recovering alcoholic. He had been sober for 28 years and relapsed. “I didn’t have the power of Jesus to sustain me. Recovery Church is part of my connection to my Savior. He’s my true Higher Power,” he reflects. Knowing that the hidden epidemic of drug addiction is killing at an alarming rate, Rob volunteers wherever needed at RC. “I pour my heart and soul into trying to help families and those affected.”

Christine

Christine, a recovering addict and current volunteer, attributes her deepening walk with Jesus to the church and its leaders. “There is a feeling of belonging and an unconditional love that I do not feel anywhere else. Every time I walk into the room on Wednesday night, I feel closer to God and leave feeling useful, appreciated, and loved. It is an honor and a privilege to be a volunteer at Recovery Church.”

Cami

Cami, a recovering alcoholic, came to Recovery Church last year “a very broken and spiritually sick person.” Having not yet known her Deliverer, she was introduced to Him at RC. “The pastors guided me with their messages, and the people who stood alongside me became my family. I'm now a grateful volunteer and ask God for guidance before making decisions. I wouldn't be who I am without RC.”

6 responses to Reclaimed and Recovering

  1. Dennis, thanks for sharing your story and His Story! It’s an honor to know you and be RC family with you!

  2. I’m so proud of the CMA for boldly telling what God is doing through Dennis and Recovery Church. I’m proud to call him my friend. Praying for God’s continued blessing.

  3. Denny,
    You have already come a long way in writing this article. I am proud of you in expressing your journey. Would love to have you for Thanksgiving.
    Peace, Uncle Ed

  4. What a great testimony of God’s restorative power offered to any who struggle with addiction of any sort. I pray that the Recovery Church would be replicated all over the country, because there is a great need for a place that recovering addicts can find truth and help in Jesus. God bless you in this effort.

  5. Dennis, thank you for sharing your story & journey to recovery & ministry to people with addictions. As a CMA MK, I can understand your difficulty in letting CMA family members know of your addiction & struggles. I went to Dalat School with your parents & wonderful family. God bless you, Dennis, in your ministry & new life!

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