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Atonement, Drug Abuse, and Grace

Kirk Bangstad

It’s Sunday, and regardless of whether I’m “in” church or not, I think about atoning for my sins which often leads towards self-reflection.  And now that I’m running for office, and have the publisher of the local right-wing newspaper regularly threatening to sue me, I also think about all the cringeworthy things I’ve done that could be used against me on the campaign trail. 

So this post is going to be part atonement, part therapy, and part pre-damage-control:)

I’ve always wanted to write about my past drug use and abuse because I seemingly haven’t been too ruined by it, but I do have some cringeworthy memories that physically shame-jolt me if I remember too intensely.

I think that’s called baggage, and talking about it helps lessen the load on my soul, and I also  think it helps reduce the horrible stigma of drug use by those that drink old-fashioned’s by the dock every night but want to lock potheads up and throw away the key.

I first tried cocaine in my late 20s as a graduate student learning how to be an opera singer at Northwestern University, right around 2003.  I really loved the high it gave me but didn’t do it much because the hangover was so rough I couldn’t sing well for days afterwards, which gave me huge amounts of guilt because I was going to school to learn how to sing.

I did learn that making that first decision to do coke could lead to many more cringeworthy decisions throughout the night if I was with other people. Along with hurting myself, I definitely hurt others while abusing cocaine because although I never became addicted, I was part of the twisted power dynamic between those who were addicted and those who had the drug to give away.

After moving to New York, I no longer partied with other people but abused it occasionally when my life wasn’t going right and I felt frustrated.  Doing coke was like pressing the reset button on my computer-brain that had too many windows open at the same time—complete with a massive hangover, shame, and guilt when the computer turned back on.

After I met Elizabeth, I went many years without doing coke because I was in love and happy.  The only times I did it after marriage was if I couldn’t handle the terrible test results showing that Elizabeth’s cancer had spread, or when going through marital problems that inevitably occurred while trying to navigate the trauma, both for my late wife and for me--her caregiver--of a wicked terminal illness.

Elizabeth knew I occasionally abused drugs, and she didn’t like it. I tried to talk about it with her sometimes, but we silently came to the conclusion that the less she knew, the better.  We both had our escape valves when life got too hard, and we would do our best to not judge each other on how we chose to cope.

So now that you know I’ve abused drugs, you can either confirm your previous suspicion that I’m a lefty criminal devoid of all morals, or read more to see how that life experience informs me as a candidate for office.

Well for one, I’m empathetic to anyone who has addiction problems, as well as just plain empathetic.  I’m no saint and don’t expect anyone else to be, and that empathy will hopefully  guide me to shape public policy with grace instead of a hammer.

And although I admittedly don’t know a lot about the ins and outs of drug policy, I definitely lean towards decriminalizing drug use and distribution. 

The criminality and violence I’ve seen around selling cocaine seems WAY worse than regulating and taxing the hell out of it.  And as a bar owner, I’ve seen alcoholics in just as bad shape as coke fiends.  A drug is a drug, and people will abuse it or they won’t.  We as a society should use the taxes we collect from selling these “sinful” substances to fund the rehabilitation centers and mental health programs needed to deal with the fallout of making them legal.

At least then we’re being transparent, because the fallout and social cost of drug abuse exists whether it’s legal or not.

And by legalizing drugs, you take away another avenue for economic inequality and systemic racism.  I’m a relatively well-off white guy from Harvard University who has gotten away with buying coke for over a decade, and there’s a hell of a lot more poor people rotting in jail for doing the same thing or selling it to people like me. And among those groups, the percentage of them who are people of color is off the charts. 

Now if  I’m told later that legalizing coke and other hard drugs is a scientifically bad idea because the likelihood of addiction is too high, then I’ll recant what I wrote and focus more on legalizing marijuana, which seemingly isn’t doing too much damage in the states that have allowed it.

When all is said and done, wisdom, grace, humility, and empathy should count for something in choosing who you want to make laws on your behalf.  Those attributes often come by making mistakes and learning from them.

And by the way, these are also wholly Christian ideals--if you, like me, have been shaped by Christianity.  Here’s a verse about atoning and learning from one’s sins, from one of my favorite hymns, “How Great Thou Art.”

And when I think of God, His Son not sparing

Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in

That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing

He bled and died to take away my sin

Let’s let grace and atonement be our guide on how we choose our leaders and decide our laws, not punishment.  Let’s let the love of our fellow man be our compass and reject the politics of hate and division that have so permeated our political discourse. 

Finally, I promise you won’t regret taking a few moments of your Sunday evening listening to this gorgeous version of “How Great Thou Art” from the group “Kings Return.”  Hopefully it will touch you like it did me, and help you channel the grace needed to empathize with each other’s failings.


Written by Kirk Bangstad on 07/05/20

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