The Word Among Us

Easter 2018 Issue

Thirsty for Grace

An alcoholic uncovers new meaning for his loneliness, in God’s hands.

By: Colin O'Brian

Thirsty for Grace: An alcoholic uncovers new meaning for his loneliness, in God’s hands. by Colin O'Brian

The great illusion of many alcoholics is that we are alone and that drinking will help us fit in with the world. This illusion had become a lifestyle for me by the time I moved to New York City at age twenty-five. But no amount of alcohol, casual sex, or expensive clothing could relieve my inner loneliness. In a city of eight million people, the loneliest place to be was in a crowd.

“For You, on the House.” The attacks of September 11, 2001, happened just after my twenty-seventh birthday. Watching smoke and ash billow from the site of the Twin Towers, I felt as if all the fear, anxiety, and anguish in me was also boiling over. My most vivid memory from that autumn is the sight of dozens of firefighters in their sharp blue dress uniforms, crowding into the pub near my office for months on end. Every day brought a new funeral to nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And every evening, I drank and looked on, numb and exhausted.

Over the next year, failed relationships, depression, and daily hangovers mounted. As my next birthday approached, I decided to take two days off from work to “celebrate” with extra heavy drinking. The sun cast its menacing eye upon me the first day as I went from bar to bar. When evening came, I felt the weight of the August humidity pressing against me, strengthened by the mixture of gin and antidepressants that I was on.

In the midst of this, I was beginning to dread a dinner date that I had set up at a jazz club in Greenwich Village. Nevertheless, I arrived early and sat at the bar, making sure to tell the bartender I was there to celebrate my birthday. She placed a glass filled with bright green liquid before me. “For you, on the house. Happy birthday!” she said. I raised the glass, but as I did, a voice ringing inside me said, “This is it. This is your last drink.”

The All-Knowing Voice. I moved the glass away from my face and looked at it. I was overcome with a strange feeling of hope and disbelief. Was I going to get sober? Or was I going to die? The voice hadn’t clarified, and death was easier to picture than getting sober. I downed the drink in one shot and then waited. I wanted so badly to believe the voice. Suddenly everything began to go dark, as if I were entering a tunnel. I didn’t die, but I did run to the men’s room and throw up.

That was my last drink.

The voice I heard had filled me with a sudden desire to be free of alcohol. I felt that I had been offered a new start on life, and I didn’t want to squander it.

A few weeks later, the woman I was involved with invited me to hear a church choir one Sunday morning after we woke up. I was so moved by the Gregorian chant and polyphony that I came back the next Sunday, and the next, and the next. I started attending weekly Mass just so I could hear the music.

Gradually, I began to listen to what was happening between songs. Then came the day that I heard the story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:35-43). “Do not be afraid,” he told Jairus. “Just have faith” (5:36). In that moment, I knew it was the same all-knowing voice that had promised me my last drink. I realized that all along, Jesus had been preparing me to thirst for something different.

“My Soul Thirsts for You.” In Advent of 2003, I learned that I was supposed to be in a state of grace when I receive Communion. So I found a Franciscan church near Penn Station and got there ten minutes before Confession ended. I told the priest on the other side of the grille, “It’s been sixteen years since my last Confession.” I heard him inhale deeply. When I said I didn’t know what to do, he kindly suggested I give him a rough overview of my sins using the Ten Commandments as a guide.

“What are they?” I asked. He walked me through each one and explained that Jesus even forgave the sins I couldn’t remember. After I finished reading an Act of Contrition and received absolution, he said, “That wasn’t so bad now, was it? The building didn’t fall down on you.” I went outside feeling a new lightness and happiness, and I looked up at the sky to see pure white snowflakes coming down.

That spring, I started to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I soon came to appreciate the structure that it brought to my day. I enjoyed sitting out on the fire escape of my building in Queens, praying the psalms under the glinting sun. I began to experience God speaking to me through the words of the Bible. Many of the psalms, in particular, were personal to me: My God—it is you I seek! For you my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts (Psalm 63:2).

These texts were no longer remote words from thousands of years ago. They were the basis of a new relationship between me and the Church throughout time. I wasn’t alone in my experience of finding a new hunger and thirst for God. I had King David for company!

New Life in Jesus’ Hands. To recover from alcoholism, I needed my newfound faith. The fellowship I found in twelve-step groups was important, but priests and friends at church also helped me stay sober. They showed me new avenues for accountability and self-examination. I learned from them and from spiritual reading about humility and about reconciling with people I had harmed. Most important, I saw the value of living for other people, not myself.

Through daily prayer, Mass, and participating in the choir, I started serving the Church. These expressions of the Catholic faith have become staples of my life. They’ve helped me take on a whole new perspective about loneliness, heartbreak, and even joy.

These things always seemed like isolated private matters to me. But then I realized that Jesus saw my misery and made it his concern. His voice spoke to me at a bar in Manhattan! He called out to me with beautiful music. He entered into my life at Mass so that he could draw me into his. Just as he sought out lepers and prostitutes two thousand years ago, he found me on the bar scene in Greenwich Village. So although I still experience deep loneliness at times, it has become more meaningful. I have learned how to offer it to Jesus as my participation in his life, death, and resurrection.

According to the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, “In God’s hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have—the key to life and happiness for others.” That’s because in Jesus’ hands, we are remade and given new life. I hope that each of you might experience this joy and share it with the people around you!

Colin O’Brien lives in Hyattsville, Maryland.