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August 29, 2022

How a Struggle with Addiction Led a Princeton Alum to Rediscover Faith and Launch Multiple Enterprises

By Chris Lumry 

Chris Lumry

New experiences of God and my own creativity arrived unexpectedly in a season of hopelessness and dissatisfaction shortly after finishing my MBA at Harvard. The day after the 2016 Super Bowl, I blacked out after drinking by myself and woke up around midnight on a street corner in San Francisco. 


Life took a sudden, undeserved turn for the better. 


A drunken call with a loved one and a ride from an angelic Uber driver helped me get home. The next day, a family member aware of my deepening struggles with alcohol over the previous years drove me to a counseling program to get help. I blacked out again en route after darting into a bodega to guzzle down whiskey. I have faint memories of puking out the window while we crossed the Bay Bridge and then waking up three hours north with my cell phone blaring The Revenant soundtrack from under my seat. 


Despite these signs of unwellness, I deflected suggestions from a new counselor and my family about what I needed. Both deeper philosophical questions and what this meant practically for my tech career and my living situation played a role in this resistance. Blinded to my own state, the idea of letting go of control seemed impractical and unnecessary. Though I needed help, a form of self-reliance kept me closed up. 


That Friday night, an outside-the-box experience changed my life. As I walked into a worship service, I felt a sense of unexpected, tangible peace and joy for the first time in months. It was a sensation that I associated with God’s presence and had tasted before during previous years of earnest but tiring efforts at Christianity. Suddenly I began to feel inexplicable hope for situations for which I did not have answers. I didn’t know where I would go or what my next step would be, but I knew I wasn’t alone. This taste of connection, of goodness, provided the inspiration to let go, to say yes to what my counselor was recommending, and to open up on a deeper level. I remember praying—I think I spoke it out loud—“God, if you’re real, here’s my life; here’s everything, including the boxes I have put you in.” 


This spiritual experience of connection brought a willingness to get honest. I recognized at that moment how my best efforts to navigate and control my life were headed in a destructive direction and how desperately I needed help. All of my efforts to be a good student, to be a good person, to be a good son, to be a good Christian weren’t enough. I couldn’t forgive or rectify my own mistakes, I couldn’t take back the words and actions that hurt others and brought me great shame, and I couldn’t stop drinking away the pain. Humpty Dumpty had fallen and couldn’t put himself back together again. Without fully realizing it, I had reached a point beyond my ability to control. 


In this place, I was finally willing to engage with God on God’s terms and surrender responsibility I wasn’t meant to carry. I thought I had known what God’s love was like before, during my decades in various faith communities; I had no idea how much more there was to experience. The mess in which I found myself provoked an openness for change, and I began to experience a God beyond my understanding. In that auditorium, an overwhelming, tangible sense of joy surrounded me like a cloud, lifting off the heavy load of shame. 


Something beyond what I thought possible then happened, just after this surrender. I heard a voice in my mind say, “Chris, I’m going to make this easy for you and heal you and set you free.” Though it felt profound and sparked a sense of divine peace and joy, I wasn’t sure if it was just a random thought. At the time, I could not be by myself for long without getting hammered. Even though I grew up praying for such divine interventions, I could not be certain if I had ever seen something that miraculous. It made no sense to my logical mind that such a good thing would happen in the midst of the worst choices I had made in my life. I had disqualified myself from love, not realizing that my situation demonstrated both the need for grace and how it is extended. Freely. Undeserved. In full sight of harmful choices. 


In the auditorium, these new experiences with God continued to unfold. I knew a lot about Jesus—who obviously is central to the Christian faith I practice—but for the first time, the reality of God’s nature as a Father hit me in a way I had never known. I began to have pictures in my mind and feel the warm affection of a Father who had seen me at every low point and would never give up on me, no matter how messy I got. 


A visceral joy and peace embraced me in the midst of all of the uncertainty about life and work, the next steps in recovery, and the poor decisions I had made. I had no concrete answers for how continuing the healing journey would affect my future. But all of those questions seemed so secondary because I found what I had always unknowingly been looking for: connection, to realize that I never had to be alone again. 


It was like I could suddenly see colors again after being stuck in a gray, numb world of fading hope. The simple sweetness of spiritual and relational connection, and this sense of the Creator’s presence, was so life-giving that it overwhelmed the shame that had been hanging over my head. It also gave me a sense of hope for the outpatient treatment program I agreed to enter. I could see how all of the self-inflicted messes, and other unfortunate experiences of life, had led to this point: a discovery of surrender, connection, and joy I didn’t know possible. It has remained the most important moment of my life. 


These spiritual experiences precipitated a shift in how I approached everything, including my faith and creativity. Though I could see how previous religious experiences had brought good, I gained awareness of where misunderstanding had sparked pressure and performance that contributed to the broken, addicted state in which I found myself. 


The desire to numb with alcohol and sexual behaviors came partially from the exhaustion and pain spurred on by belief systems that needed an upgrade. I had previously learned to associate performance with being loved. In my mind, achievement equaled worthiness. I fed this hunger for recognition and success via a variety of dopamine-releasing activities: sports, educational achievement, career success, and religious duties. Exhausted by this pursuit, I would turn to behaviors and substances to find comfort, or at least to numb the pain. I didn’t know how to enjoy positive milestones or deal with failure or handle the pain of not living up to (impossibly) high standards. There was always more to do. 


I remember walking across a bridge the morning of my graduation from Harvard in 2015, prior to this awakening. Already sloshed, I wondered why others weren’t drinking. The fancy degrees that looked like something worth celebrating felt hollow. I think this sense of being adrift deepened the growing addiction to alcohol. Graduate school was the final step I had mapped out on the pathway to “success,” or what I hoped would bring fulfillment. When I shifted to Silicon Valley, the next season of a life of financial abundance, I still felt behind in terms of income and career progression. 


Instead of finding the security and significance I desired, I had more discomforting questions and a gnawing sense of emptiness. I couldn’t admit or even fully recognize this reality because I was both in denial and trying to live up to a certain image. 


In a way, the personal gifting, financial abundance, and educational resources I had experienced added unrecognized pressure that contributed to coping cycles. Great opportunities became great responsibilities that I didn’t know how to carry. The blessings added a barb, a “more money, more problems” scenario. I hated that I could have all of these things and still be unhappy. But engaging further in these self-destructive cycles only deepened the shame. Where I had felt controlled, I had a desire to control others with whom I would connect. Subconsciously I had started to believe that if all of these things were not working, I was the hopeless problem. Not only was I failing, but I was a failure, in a way that others wouldn’t be if they were in my shoes. This unresolved pain contributed to these destructive cycles. 


I had spent a lot of time and energy defending the broken pieces of my heart, my beliefs, and my life, staying in a collapsing sand castle when there was a wonderful house just up the beach waiting for me. A fear of being controlled and punished also served as a roadblock for years. I had seen that happen through religion. I didn’t want to become a crazy religious nut job or return to serving a relentless taskmaster. But that is not the God who met me on that February night, and it is not the Jesus I get to live in relationship with each day. Rediscovering the Creator via personal, transformative experiences with love and grace changed my viewpoints on previous questions and pain points. I could see the creative work of God in individual lives and across generations in ways I couldn’t see before. In what had felt like absence I could see signs of Presence and the creative possibilities through a love that transforms human hearts. 


The Friday night experience described above served as an introduction to a personal faith more exhilarating, personal, and restful than I knew possible. For about two weeks after, I felt a non-stop sense of euphoric joy and spiritual connection. The absence of any desire for alcohol or other unhealthy coping behaviors caused me to actually begin to believe the words I had heard in the auditorium. 


Six years later, I haven’t craved alcohol again. Meanwhile, the healing of unrecognized stress and pain continued through additional spiritual experiences and counseling moments over the next few weeks. These helped me begin to clean up some messes made in my addicted state and strengthen relationships with family members and friends. 


Continued experiences of goodness motivated a desire to live differently and to shift from old behaviors and ways of thinking into something new, even if I didn’t know what that fully meant. A leave of absence from work provided space for this new operating system to develop, removing distractions that previously blocked connection. Experiences with the Creator began to activate creativity, though I didn’t have language for it then, from this place of childlike freedom. 


My whole life I had unknowingly been looking for connection and belonging in trips and fun experiences, career success, religious striving, and a life of impact and significance. In the early months of recovery, I realized that I could find connection in a support group meeting, in watching a sunset with a friend, in a church service or other place for spiritual connection, or in an honest conversation at work (once I returned). 


I found unexpected joy in simple, authentic interactions, whether on a car ride or while sitting around a campfire. In an unexpected place, I rediscovered life. There have been parts of my growth and healing process that have taken more time and intention—I’ll share more about that in the coming chapters. But spiritual and relational experiences of unconditional love, grace, and acceptance gave me the ability to love myself and my creativity. 


Not too long ago, I would have laughed at the idea that I was creative. I had no idea how much delight and fulfillment could be found by embracing a new approach to my expressions. The series of life-changing experiences described above sparked this shift from a self-proclaimed “non-creative” to someone who prioritizes creating opportunities for joy and meaningful connection every day. Beyond filmmaking and writing, I love to strategize, play sports, hike, make music, tell dad jokes, and engage in authentic conversations with people. The heart-alive moments and delight found even in small steps and wobbles have spurred the discovery of creative identities and projects beyond what I knew possible. 


My favorite part of the process is the intimacy I experience with the Creator. I am so incredibly grateful for the grace I have experienced that empowers me to serve people from all backgrounds, whether via the recovery storytelling nonprofit and documentary or the creativity start-up, which seeks to spark experiences of joy and purpose for people from a range of backgrounds. 


Via workshops and our Creativity Unlocked app, I have had the delight of empowering business owners, artists, academics, tech workers, healthcare professionals, and others to unlock passion and momentum in their expressions via these concepts. Individuals who have suffered great loss have rediscovered joy, authors have found fresh inspiration and joy, and social impact leaders have been refueled and equipped. It has truly been an honor to see inspiration sparked, ideas conceptualized, milestones reached, and projects launched. Most of all, my heart soars as I see people experiencing greater joy and meaning in the process. 


In addition to this work around creativity, I have served as the primary interviewer and story editor for the last four years for a nonprofit, OneStepHope. We capture inspiring written and filmed stories about addiction recovery and mental health that reframe these topics and reduce stigma. Our storytellers represent a range of socioeconomic, geographic, and racial backgrounds. Each has rediscovered hope and passion for life through their journey. All have experienced pain or trauma that contributed to substance or mental health challenges, though you would not guess that from meeting them. 


Early in our work, it became clear that our participants were each saying yes to something positive in their lives, not just no to a substance or behavior. At some point, I realized that all of our OneStepHope storytellers were creating something—whether through a career, art, nature adventures, relationships, service, or a better future for their families. 


In the midst of these storytellers’ respective challenges, activating their innate creative nature played an important role in sustaining a healthier experience of life. Each described both internal shifts and external support as being crucial for their personal growth, and many highlighted creative expressions that have added motivation and purpose to their journeys. 


Getting help for my addiction brought healing to underlying challenges.  I see now how these moments have enabled me to better sit with others in their pain, to extend the grace that helps people change their lives, and to create solutions that enable people to avoid the messes and pain I have experienced. 


Your failures do not have to be the defining factor of your identity. Rejection by people or organizations does not mean you are a reject. Addiction to a substance or behavior or feeling does not make your ultimate identity an addict. Moments of personal failing do not indicate that you are a failure. You are a human being, created in love, by love, for love. You are so much more than any challenge or disorder you experience, whether it is a recent occurrence or a long-term battle. The story you are perceiving and writing with your life each day can hold plot swings and scene shifts that continue to surprise you in a good way.