Franciscan Spirit Blog

Last Call: Grace and Getting Sober

We were once lost and now we’re found; blind, but now we see. I vividly recall the turning point for me, my darkest hour, which in retrospect was the beginning of a new life in the light.

In the Drunk Tank

I don’t belong here! I don’t belong here! The thought kept repeating itself in my impaired brain as I sat propped against the cold, concrete wall. My head was pounding, my stomach churning. I’m the father of three children, a leader in my community, a radio and television personality. How could this happen to me again?

The evening was a complete blur except for the flashing blue lights in my rear-view mirror, prompting a familiar sinking feeling in my gut. There was no point in trying to take the field sobriety test. I could barely stand, much less walk a straight line. I vaguely remember verbally abusing the arresting officer and faking a heart attack to avoid a Breathalyzer test.

No one was fooled (except me) as I was taken to the emergency room where blood was drawn for the indisputable evidence that my blood alcohol content was well over the legal limit. The only thing this charade got me in the long run was a string of medical bills added to my already ballooning legal expenses.

Now, sitting there in the drunk tank at the county jail, surrounded by a dozen or more men—some of whom were vomiting, others lying in their own urine—I wondered how I could have fallen this low again. Yes, I had been here twice before, but this time was different. There could be no more denying that alcohol controlled me.

I had taken a personal vow not to drive after drinking too much. But, under the influence, I was simply unable to exhibit even one ounce of good judgment. Alcohol had me in its grip. I knew then and there that I was beaten, broken, helpless and hopeless.

I wondered: Was it like this for Saul when he was struck down on the road to Damascus? Was he convinced in that flash of lightning that his entire life’s direction had been completely wrong? I can’t say that I heard the voice of Jesus as St. Paul did: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:46)

For me, it was more like a moment of clarity, a voice inside my head crying, Paul, you’re a drunk, and you’re in the drunk tank again. It is where you belong. No sooner had I accepted this ugly truth than I knew without question that I couldn’t end up here again. It was in that moment that I determined I could no longer drink alcohol.

So now what?

Days of Wine and Roses

I don’t remember having gone much more than a day in my adult life without drinking or using some sort of drug, often simultaneously. I was 14 when I took my first drink: warm whiskey right out of the bottle. I drank the whole thing and passed out. That experience set a pattern for the next 20 years of my life. I knew I had found a magic serum enabling me to escape from reality, and I used it every chance I got.

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As a teenager, drinking helped me fit in. I had always felt different from everyone else—on the outside of life looking in at others who appeared to be enjoying life. Alcohol made me feel more comfortable around people. I could talk to girls. I even thought I could dance. (I know now that I can’t!)

It wasn’t long before I had to drink just to feel normal and, for years, that seemed to be working for me. I got used to the morning hangovers and the constant friction with loved ones. Then came the first divorce, the first arrest, the threat of losing a good job and complete alienation from my children. My answer to all this was simply to drink and drug all the more.

Debts piled up. My body took a beating, and there was another failed attempt at marriage. A second arrest resulted in a month-long suspension of my driver’s license, but after a very brief break, the drinking resumed. I didn’t get into trouble every time I drank, but every time there was trouble, my excessive drinking was a contributing factor. While I tried desperately to control it, alcohol now wielded great power over me.

With the first drink, the drink took me. I never knew where I would end up and whom I would hurt along the way. Those close to me tried to convince me I was drinking too much, but I wouldn’t listen. Finally, that third humiliating arrest convinced me of my personal powerlessness. It was only then that the grace of God could enter me to expel the obsession for self-destructive drinking and drug use.

‘God, Help Me’

Unlike St. Paul’s Damascus-road conversion, mine was gradual, more of the educational variety. I had abandoned my strict Catholic upbringing years earlier in favor of the lure of the world. Having no idea how to live life on life’s terms, after I stopped drinking I became more miserable with each passing day.

I visited recovery groups, but rebelled against the idea of actively joining a 12-step program that relied on God for direction. Though I never actually renounced a belief in God, I lived my life as though God didn’t exist. I had become my own god, a self-made man, worshiping his creator. I eventually became convinced I had to develop a relationship with the creator of the universe, but I didn’t know where or how to begin.

My aging mother was the one person I knew whose faith was unquestionably genuine. I had dismissed her persistent letters over the years as “preachy” and out of touch with reality. A widow with 10 children, she survived on what she called “divine providence” and made the most of a difficult life.

In my hour of despair, there was no way I could ignore the fact that faith worked for her and so many others. We talked, and for the first time in my life, I felt a faint but very real connection with a higher power.

It was soon after that conversation that I met the man who would become my spiritual guide. A recovering alcoholic himself who had even sober just a year at that time, this missionary priest showed me by gentle example his love for Jesus and the Church. He demonstrated the ability not to drink, one day at a time, as he sought God’s help daily.

Initially I resisted, but then I feebly tried prayer. “God, help me” was all I could muster at first. I somewhat reluctantly joined in praying the Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer when meeting with other people dealing with the disease of alcoholism. Finally I graduated to a more personal onversationwith a God of my understanding.

I continue to pray today because it works. In asking only for God’s will and the power to carry it out, I realize that God is not changed by my prayer. Rather, I am changed by it. It was suggested that I make a fearless and thorough moral inventory of myself—sort of a written examination of conscience—followed by an admission of my faults to God, myself and another human being.

Yes, I needed to make a sincere confession. From my new priest-friend, who acted in the person of Christ, I received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time in decades. I heard those sacred words of absolution, my soul was cleansed and I was offered a fresh start. The strict Catholic formation of my youth that I had rejected many years earlier now became a firm foundation on which to grow spiritually.

Making Amends

Initially, I had great difficulty forgiving myself for the mess I had made of my life and the lives of so many others. In my active addiction, I had roared through those lives like a tornado, leaving a wide swath of damage in my wake.

It was pointed out to me that if I truly believed in God’s forgiveness, holding on to my guilt was putting myself above God. That made sense to me, and it helped me to gradually accept my past and become open to the prospect of positive change. It would, however, take a lifetime even to begin to repair the harm I had done.

Many serious challenges came with this new way of life. I had to recognize my defects of character and become willing to have God remove all of them. When confronted with these shortcomings, I had to learn to humble myself and ask God and others for help.

I had to be willing to face the people I had wronged and make restitution for harm done, making direct amends wherever possible. I then learned to assess each day, recognizing those patterns that continued to dominate my life, resulting in harm to others and myself. If I wanted inner peace, I had to admit my wrongs promptly and make them right as soon as possible.

This blossoming relationship with God had to be nurtured through continuous prayer and meditation. In order to keep the precious gift of sobriety, I needed to be willing to share it with others and to practice the principles I was learning in all areas of my life. Self-centeredness had to be replaced with constant thought of others. I had to walk courageously through my fears and trust in God for everything.

Loving Father, Loving Son

Addiction wreaks havoc on relationships, especially with those closest to us: our spouses, children, siblings and parents. Mine would be a long, difficult road of healing, but the willingness to right the wrongs of my past was enough to begin this arduous journey.

I visited my father’s grave after more than 25 years, pounding on the earth as I openly wept over the pain of growing up without a dad. As the tears flowed freely, I could feel the arm of a spiritual father wrapped around my shoulders, filling me with a peace I had never known.

I realized there was still time to be a good son to my mother, and I invited her to make an extended visit. In opening up to one another for the first time in our lives, we established a brand-new relationship. To this day, we remain powerfully connected in spirit.

My children began to see the changes in me, and though it took years for them to be convinced this redirection was for real, they finally embraced their father’s new way of life. Now as adults, they are keenly aware of the devastation wrought by my alcohol addiction, but they are also encouraged by the miracle of the recovery they have personally witnessed.

Embracing Sobriety

Life is still life: filled with daily challenges, hardship and pain. Without alcohol and other drugs to numb those feelings, I am acutely sensitive to them. But now, through faith, I have joy, hope and love, a suitable sustaining substitute for any substance I had ever ingested. Alcoholism can never be cured, but it can be a livable disease with the help of family, friends and God.

Today, I am able to be a good father to my children and grandfather to their children. I’m a loving son, brother and friend. I don’t have to put others down to achieve success. I am grateful to be a worker among workers, a friend among friends.

After more than 30 years of working in secular media, I am privileged today to use my extensive experience in radio and television to share the power of God’s mercy with men and women around the world, hosting a daily Catholic radio show and weekly television program on a global Catholic network.

I thank God every morning for the miracle of my unique calling, while trying never to forget where I have been. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that I am able to rise to this awesome opportunity and responsibility.

Because I’ve been there, I am also uniquely qualified to help others struggling with addiction, offering them my experience, strength, hope and a helping hand if they are seeking what I am so blessed to have received from those who went before me.

The obsession to drink and drug has been lifted by God’s grace. As I face other destructive patterns in my daily walk, I am reminded of the words of St. Paul as he struggled with his “thorn in the flesh.” The Lord spoke to him saying, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Paul M. Smith, the host of the Son Rise Morning Show on EWTN radio, has over 30 years of experience in radio and TV journalism. This piece first appeared in the pages of St. Anthony Messenger.

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