It was a January midnight, and I was driving down Woodward Avenue, looking for a place to continue my evening of fun. Over there! I pulled up in front of a noisy bar.
Leaving my new Pontiac running at the curb, I walked inside and fired a shot into the ceiling.
In the sudden hush, a hundred startled faces turned my way. I must have looked pretty funny, swallowed up in my father’s felt hat and oversized trench coat, with a red cowboy bandana over my nose and mouth. But my pointed gun was no laughing matter.
“This is a stickup!” I announced. “Line up and put your valuables on the bar.”
Earlier that night, I had robbed a gas station. That success—to say nothing of the bottle of scotch I had finished off between the robberies—made me feel invincible. But as I watched the loot pile up, I didn’t notice that the bartender had snuck up beside me. He hit me over the head with a full bottle of beer, and I came to in a police car headed for jail.
Sitting behind bars, eating cold oatmeal the next morning, it hit me that my drinking might be getting out of hand. But at twenty-four, I had no idea just how long and hard the road to sobriety would be—or that it would require total surrender to God.
Drunk and Disorderly. I grew up in an affluent family—I had a pony at age ten, my first car at sixteen. Dad was a high-placed executive at a major auto company, and my parents did a lot of entertaining, so I also had access to liquor. My first drinks were the unfinished cocktails that their dinner guests left behind. Once everyone was in the dining room, I would creep downstairs to empty all their glasses. By age fifteen, I was a periodic sneak drinker.
In college, my drinking habit got serious, and my grades suffered. “Conversational Speech” was an exception: I’d down three or four drinks before each class, and then go in and talk up a storm; the professor was so impressed that he gave me an A. On weekends and vacations, I’d head for home with three bottles hidden in my trumpet case. This was normal behavior, I thought. And no one around me seemed to notice that anything was wrong.
Of course, there were incidents. In fact, I left college after just two years because I had stolen drinking money from a gas station where I worked part time. The police had no proof that I was guilty, but they were interrogating me as the prime suspect. Every day, I’d look out the window and imagine that they were coming down the road to get me.
I joined the Army to get away. But I discovered that “geographic” cures don’t work—there was no escaping my habits and attitudes. Yet somehow, even though I was often in trouble for drunk and disorderly behavior, I left the military with an honorable discharge. Then I went and pulled those two armed robberies.
God Calling. Up to that point, I had been having too much fun to give any thought to God or to my future. But during my three months awaiting trial in the county jail, I began to wonder where I was going to end up. My court sentence provided a short-term answer: I would do prison time in the locked psychiatric ward of a Catholic medical institution.
It was during my nine months there that God broke into my life. I met a Catholic priest who had just returned from Lourdes, France, and was brimming with stories about the many miracles that still take place at this Marian shrine. He told me about doctors who were atheists—until they studied the “before and after” medical reports of pilgrims who had been healed through Mary’s intercession. I was intrigued. Maybe those doctors are onto something. Maybe life is different from what I thought. . . .
I was also greatly impressed by this priest. Even I could sense his sanctity and dedication. At his encouragement, I read the Bible all the way through—just to check it out. Then I took some first steps in prayer, even lighting a candle now and then when I visited the chapel. It wasn’t long before God gave me the gift of faith. After my release, I was baptized and received into the Catholic Church.
Fire and Foolishness. This was a new beginning for me. God’s graces and blessings were abundant, and I was on fire with faith. What a fool I had been, living for my own pleasure, when I was supposed to be living to know, love, and serve God! With rather too much self-reliance, I threw myself into the pursuit of holiness.
“Slow down!R#8221; a few confessors told me. “Let the Lord lead you.” But I was headstrong and given to extremes. Taking my spiritual development into my own hands, I resolved to become nothing less than a priest and a saint.
I went into the seminary. That didn’t work out, so I tried other orders and forms of religious life. They weren’t right for me either, and after five or six tries, I finally gave up. Over the next ten years, I moved around a lot and held a wide variety of jobs.
“You’re a square peg in a round hole,” my psychiatrist told me. And it was true: I was restless, unstable, and unable to fit in anywhere.
Even worse, I started drinking again, off and on. My spiritual life was developing—I was attending daily Mass, going to Confession, saying the rosary, and making the Stations of the Cross. Yet no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t stop drinking periodically. I felt very guilty about this—especially when it led to new hospitalizations, escapades, and trouble with the law. Disaster was looming, but I was powerless to stave it off.
"Up or Down?” Finally, God helped me to see that I couldn’t change myself by my own power. It happened late one July night, when I showed up drunk at my parents’ country home.
“Have you been drinking and driving?” Mom asked.
I don’t remember what I answered, but it must have been bad. Even though there were guests, my brother, Pete, reacted by knocking me down. Before I knew it, I was sitting on the kitchen floor with a torn shirt, a black eye, and grindings of teeth in my mouth. Everyone was upset, and Mom was crying.
As I felt my jaw, I recalled Jesus’ warning about an outer darkness full of “wailing and grinding of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). All of a sudden, I felt like I was on the gridiron of hell. Then I became aware that God was present and was asking me a question: “Do you want to go down further, or do you want to go up from here?”
It was a moment of choice. For the first time in my life, I surrendered fully to God and put myself in his loving hands. I’ve been sober ever since.
Help in Time of Need. It hasn’t been an easy road, but God provided support right away. A friend of Dad’s who was visiting on my night of decision took me to my first meeting of an organization called Alcoholics Anonymous. I was impressed by the members and their stories of change, and by AA’s program of spiritual growth, which emphasizes surrender to God.
Encouraged by my AA group, I went back to school, earned degrees in elementary education, and found my niche in teaching. As evidenced by my forty-year career, I certainly found stability!
Though I haven’t had a drink in decades, I know I’d fall in a minute if God weren’t holding me up. And so I use all the supports he gives me in AA—both to stay sober and to help others achieve sobriety.
And every morning without fail, I meet my Lord in the Eucharist. Before each Mass, I walk to the side altar and light a candle to thank him and to pray for my special intentions: that he will help me stay sober and that he will show his mercy to prisoners and to other alcoholics. I know that God can do for them what he has done for me.
John J. lives in Marquette, Michigan. He has attended two weekly meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous—including one at an area prison—for almost fifty years. For information on AA, visit www.aa.org.