Alcohol & Me
It has come to be remembered as a day like Pearl Harbor Day or the day Jack Kennedy was shot, one permanently engraved in memory in the minutest of detail, the time, the place, the weather, what I was wearing, how I felt……
It was my day off and my wife, two priests, the senior warden, and a friend in the parish whom I knew to be a recovering alcoholic came to the house and said they wanted to talk to me. Somehow I knew immediately it was an intervention, and on me. I had participated in interventions on others several times so I suppose it would be understandable that I recognize what was happening. Or perhaps it was that uncanny intuitiveness of a suffering alcoholic when his drinking is threatened. Or maybe it was one of those rare God-given moments when even denial becomes momentarily transparent, and things are seen as they really are, this time my self-destructive use of alcohol had finally been found out. Six hours later I was in a residential treatment center, the first of 47 days of fear and pain and wonder and hope, the staff there called it ‘discovery’.
How I got to that point in my life is a story that is perhaps a typical one. We were a large clannish family and we all lived within reach of each other and were together often. We were a manageably devout, Protestant, non-drinking family. In fact, abstinence from the use of alcohol was a religious issue, though there were to be sure family secrets that were useful in maintaining that appearance.
I learned to drink in college, and we seldom drank with much moderation. After college I was introduced by pieces to social drinking, and drinking at home, and hard liquor, and liquor too good to be taken any way but straight, and the importance of being someone who could hold his liquor well, and drinking alone…… I took readily to all of them.
I also learned the usefulness of alcohol as medication. It put disappointments in a manageable perspective and helped keep pain at bay and turned fear away and justified anger. It took the edge off, and came to be a hiding place. I became a true functional alcoholic, and finally was drinking a full liter of alcohol every day, virtually all of it in the evening. I drank out of 44-ounce soft drink cups and didn’t count the first one or two or the last one or two, so I could say with sincerity that I never drank more than two, rarely three, drinks a day. I seldom had a hangover, was never stopped for driving under the influence, and drank only in careful moderation when with others. I became quite knowledgeable about alcoholism, always someone else’s affliction and never mine of course, and used it to be of assistance to others and as a part of my own denial system as well. I said my prayers every day, even though it often seemed as if there was no one out there listening. I worked and took care of my children and had friends and lived an apparently normal life. I was, though, terribly isolated in that peculiar way of a functional alcoholic, and as long as I kept the secrets intact who could know the truth? Certainly not me.
Life in recovery really began for me the first evening at the Meadows when the moment inevitably came for me to introduce myself to a roomful of people like me with the traditional words, ‘My name is Tom, and I’m an alcoholic.’ Until that moment I was there reluctantly and because I couldn’t reasonably do otherwise without paying too-high a price. Saying it, though, was the beginning of my coming to understand that I was there for me, and that the problem here was not alcohol or my job or my marriage or whatever, it was me. Saying it brought an unexpected feeling of relief, and of having stepped across a threshold into a difficult but safe place.
I returned home with much to fear. I was especially anxious about the parish and whether I would have a viable ministry there after treatment. The parish answered that anxiety with acceptance and support and encouragement. People that I knew in the community and even some I’d never met called to do likewise. My bishop kept in touch with me directly and through others who knew me and was an unexpectedly effective pastor.
It has not always, however, been so comfortable a condition, this recovering alcoholic as we call it, but then growth is seldom comfortable. I have found much in myself to examine and reexamine and change and give up, a continuing part of the journey. My marriage did not survive sobriety, although it took several more years of struggling for it to finally end. Many parishes are reluctant to consider clergy in recovery but cannot say that so find excuses to not do so, the response commonly, ‘Thank you so much for your interest in our parish but we find that your very considerable skills do not match……’ There are still those who think this is a moral issue that should have been avoided in the first place rather than a treatable disease. I’m surrounded by alcohol and substance abuse, eating disorders, a thriving drug trade, casino gambling, sexual misconduct, physical abuse, all of them broadly seen as separate and unrelated issues, and a continuing need for more resources for recovery to offer those who suffer.
Mostly, though, recovery has been a blessing. It’s been 28 years now. Much has changed, but the memory of it all remains clear, not least the despairing isolation and aloneness. We do not do this alone. We cannot do this alone.
Recovery has restored me to a normal place in life with the Lord himself, who it turns out was always there, rather than me and an impaired ego, standing exactly at the center and offering strength and hope and love and wisdom. And for that I am grateful beyond words.
God bless us all.
--A former President of RMEC