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My journey past alcoholism and to a real Saint Patrick's Day

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My friends:

I'm Father Tim, and I'm an alcoholic.

Some of you will be familiar with the wording of my greeting; it's how recovering alcoholics (I'll be 15 years sober this Labor Day) introduce themselves before they speak at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I decided to "come out" to you, my dear readers, because Saint Patrick's Day is fast approaching, and sadly, it is a day that will see some recovering alcoholics "slip" and will help turn other drinkers into alcoholics. At AA meetings around the world, discussion has already turned to what is known to be a "slippery" time, when the temptation to drink, as well as the opportunity and not a small amount of social pressure, can increase to the breaking point.

As one of AA's trillion of on-the-mark slogans wisely says, "You're a lot closer to your next drink than you are from your last drink."

Veteran AA members have a good Irish sense of gallows humor when they see and read stories of bars, streets and trains filled with vomiting, out-of-control or unconscious parade revelers. "What amateurs!" they say with a smile.

For it's true that most "real" alcoholics don't stand out of the crowd. You may know some people who are alcoholics, or some you consider heavy drinkers -- but mostly, only those who have spent years afflicted with the insatiable, can't-live-a-day-without-it craving know what they are. And by then, since they have come to this realization, many have been able to stop.

I can tell you from long experience that "active" alcoholics live in a small, delusionary world -- and not just whe they're drinking or drunk. How many drunk drivers who have just mowed down some innocent soul been absolutely sure that they "just had a couple of beers" and were "okay to drive"? I have heard many of these true stories in AA meetings, in which people still weep years and even decades after imprisonment for incidents like this, after losing their jobs, spouses, families, friends, careers and reputations.

The Irish have a "reputation" when it comes to alcohol, and Saint Patrick's Day does little to improve it. Part of this reputation is truth, part is vicious prejudice, part is myth.

I could write -- and those with expertise far-greater than mine could write with even more authority -- a hundred blogs about the legendary Irish pub and its central role in ancient (and present) Irish life and society. I could write about the hardships the Irish have faced, living for years in what can only be called a state of apartheid and enforced poverty, in which a pint or two or three, especially by the warm fire of the pub surrounded by neighbors and friends, seemed a very small indulgence, and certainly not an illness when compared to the sick society inflicted upon them.

I could write about the legion of "Irish drinking songs" and the prevalence of alcohol in Irish literature and theater. Or, I could just say what many bigots say aloud or under their breath to this day -- that the Irish are just a bunch of drunks. For these people and many others, the facts that many countries have more-severe drinking problems than Ireland -- not to mention drug problems -- has no effect. That's the way bigotry works.

But ethnicity, ancestry, culture and history have very little to do with the problem. Alcoholism happens to one person at a time, and for reasons that are individual and unique. The bottle does not know its drinker.

Perhaps my own story, which I have recounted many times at AA meetings, will help make the point.

I do not come from an alcoholic family. I grew up near a giant steel plant in South Buffalo, NY, well within the long shadow cast by the nearby Our Lady of Victory Basilica and its well-known and feared school for misbehaving boys, run by the legendary basilica builder, Father Nelson Baker. I don't think I ever had more than a taste of alcohol until I was in college in New York City, and it was usually confined to a few beers on Friday night. Although I helped carry many a drunken friend home, I only needed the help myself on one occasion.

By the time I began my Formation in the Society of Jesus a few years after graduation, I was drinking more, and more regularly. Beer had been retired and the more-potent Jack Daniel's took its place. Jack was my good friend and companion for many years after and I relied upon him more and more. He was the perfect friend -- he was there to help me celebrate, and he was there to numb the blues. After a while, the occasion didn't matter. Neither did my drinking buddies. Jack and I spent our nights in my off-campus apartment, ignoring phone calls -- or making raving phone calls -- letting the world and its problems melt away until unconsciousness substituted for sleep as my dinner burned to ashes in the oven.

Yet, I was a model teacher and community worker as I continued on course to the priesthood. At the height of my drinking -- a liter of Jack every night -- my Father Superior told an audience of incoming novices that I was a model they should emulate, truly "a man for others," as we Jesuits say.

As my Jesuit Formation, education and devotion to Our Lord grew, the same Call that had brought me to this path came again. Again, and I thank God for this, my eyes were opened. I saw the man in the mirror, and I knew what I had become.

"They say" that knowing you have a problem means you're halfway to solving it -- but I'm not sure it applied to my alcoholism. I went to my first AA meeting, which was very, very far from campus, and couldn't believe that this bunch of weirdos and I had anything in common. I left at the first opportunity, supposedly to have a cigarette, and many months went by until I went back.

I went home to Jack.

My apartment was not faring well with its heavy-drinking tenant. I fell asleep -- drunk -- twice in the bathtub and almost washed away the building. I seldom emptied any trash, and flies greeted my every arrival. In some fit of anger, I had ripped my phone from the wall along with a few yards of wiring, and the corner pay phone became my only way to call anybody. .A tiny drip from the ceiling of my top-floor apartment soon became a stream whenever it rained, and a bit of cracked plaster became about eight square yards of fallen plaster.

I lived in fear that anybody -- the superintendent, a building inspector, the landlord, a friend -- would stop by. How could I let them in?

Although my work and progress continued, my world became small. There was no more room for friends or relatives, no reason to read or answer letters, bills or emails. The day was filled with work -- and I never drank during the day. But it was me and Jack all night.

I no longer had any doubts that I really was one of the "monsters" I had met at that AA meeting. I tried to drink less, to drink every other day, to take a different route home so I would miss the bars and liquour stores.

But I couldn't stop.

I went back to AA, and this time, I listened instead of judged. I began hearing my story coming from the mouths of others. I began to want the life these reformed drinkers had, and I began to see that it was possible. Somehow, an exceptional and beautiful book came to me, "Drinking: A Love Story" by the late Carolyn Maas.

I knew I had hit bottom, and, as AA says in its "Big Book," humbly surrendered to God, my "Higher Power" asking him to take this affliction from me. Soon, with His Grace and eternal Love, and the support and encouragement of my friends in AA, I stopped drinking.

After years of self-imposed darkness, God's Light had given my life back to me.

I owe an eternal thanksgiving to Him, and Alcoholics Anonymous, and Carolyn Maas, and many friends and strangers who held my unsteady, shaking hand. I have been sober ever since, and have continued to attend AA meetings and work with my brother and sister alcoholics. AA is truly everywhere -- even in the remote mission community in which I now live and work.

In the spirit of our patron Saint Patrick, a man with an iron will and a boundless heart, I pray that if you are suffering, you will seek the Help of God and the help of others, whose doors are always open. God loves His Dear Children with a changeless and unchangeable Love, and He will rush to your aid if you but ask Him with an open heart and mind. This is essential: God cannot do for you you what He cannot do through you.

As AA co-founder Bill Williams said, "Let go, and let God!"

God bless you all!

-- Father Tim

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