The story of an alcoholic, who has found God through AA and become an Orthodox priest

My life has been far from typical in many respects, but in other ways I have found many of my experiences to by typical of those found with almost every alcoholic. When we come into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, we may have different upbringings and life stories, but we all share many common bonds. Addiction is the single disease with a thousand masks.

Some would say that I was born to be an alcoholic. My father was an alcoholic and prescription drug addict. I was named for a grandfather who drank himself to death before I was born, and his widow took up drinking where he left off.

Growing up, every family activity was seeped in alcohol: from the bottle of wine that was always at the dinner table, to the family camping trips that usually ended with the adults becoming drunk and obnoxious, no life event could be celebrated or mourned without drink.

My father was not a stumbling drunk, he was a responsible drunk… he would drink and pass out in the living room in his favorite chair rather than in the street. He never missed work from his drinking, and so he assumed there was not any problem with his children often being awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of the TV in the living room accompanied by his loud snoring. We would pull a blanket over his, shut off the TV and go back to bed. He was ‘tired.’

Of course, when he wasn’t passed out, he would rage and occasionally get violent. I lived in terror of a man’s who’s nerves were raw from his endless physical pain cause from dozens of work injuries, complicated by the medications that doctors prescribed in the 1970’s that induced occasional psychotic episodes.

That was my normal.

I was afraid to have friends, and my parents were able to have me assigned to better schools outside our neighborhood which gave me a wonderful excuse to isolate. By the time I reached high school, I had no real acquaintances and was socially awkward.

One night, I snuck out of the house and went to a party that one of my classmates was throwing. Because I looked old for my age, I found it easy to buy some beer at the local liquor store, which I brought as my ‘contribution.’ I had always seen alcohol at family gatherings, but was never allowed to drink. This time, there was no one who would say ‘no.’

I opened the bottle and took a long sip. It was like magic! All my social inadequacies and loneliness evaporated. The dark cloud that was always over me lifted, and I felt… numb. It was great! All I wanted was ‘more numb,’ because numb was so much better than my fears of insufficiency and lack of acceptance by others.

People also reacted to the ‘new me’ in a strange new way. Someone remarked, “You are not so bad after all… we should hang out more often!” I was a convivial and joyous drunk, but this was my problem. When I sobered up, I was back to being awkward and miserable. Emotionally, I was becoming two people, but one of them was a lie. It made my fears all the more terrible.

The days for college came, and I now was drinking at every social gathering. I ‘partied,’ but remembered my father’s example to never miss work because of a hangover. Because we were poor, I had to maintain a good Grade Point Average to keep my scholarships. I did so well, I was admitted to an overseas studies program in London.

The year was 1989, and I was studying to work in the field US defense against the ‘Evil Empire,’ the Soviet Union. Of course, during this time the Berlin Wall came apart and the Warsaw pact disintegrated. My classes became meaningless, which was just fine because English ale was far better than American lager. I didn’t have to study, and I didn’t study. I drank.

Blackouts became a regular part of my evenings. I would find myself awakening in strange places. I also found that normal sleep was next to impossible without a glass of whiskey to wash away my nagging thoughts.

When I returned to the US, it only got worse. I would lose my car in parking structures. I would tell lies and forget what I had said. I joined the college rugby team largely because of the parties they held. Several of our games were cancelled because we didn’t have enough sober players, which I thought was even better than breaking our unbroken losing streak.

College ended with a graduation that I nearly missed because I spent the night drinking and forgot to set my alarm. A diploma meant little in 1991, with a bad recession and little work. So, I illegally immigrated to Japan, where I heard there was wild partying… and jobs for English speakers.

Eventually, my dysfunctional ‘sober’ personality offended my Japanese employers and I was terminated. It was just as well… Japan was an expensive place to drink. In fact, it was so expensive that I stopped eating so I would have enough money for beer and shochu. I lost about 20% of my body weight due to neglect.

The loneliness was crushing, but so was the utter failure of unemployment and the shame of my return home empty-handed. I got a few small jobs and continued to daily drink. My father, who got sober right before I was admitted to college, knew I was in trouble.

After a night of heavy drinking with some college friends, I tried driving home. I was arrested and thrown in a jail cell with the other drunks. It was my first time in handcuffs, and it felt like my world was coming apart.

I could not take the loneliness and fear anymore. I felt like I was losing my mind because of my pain. The next morning, I came home and announced to my parents that I had been arrested, but that what I needed was commitment to a hospital.

My father gently suggested that I go to Alcoholics Anonymous, which is where he went as part of his treatment. I told him that alcohol was not the problem, but the only thing that worked. He told me that I should try it first before the hospital.

So, he took me to an AA meeting. I was 22 years old, but looked and felt much older. Sitting in a folding metal chair, I shook from withdrawals as the chair squeaked with my every tremor. I was pathetic, and noisy!

After the meeting, the people gathered around me. They asked, “Do you think you have a drinking problem?” I responded, “No, but I have a misery problem.” One of the Old Timers laughed, “Don’t worry, we can help you with that, too. Just don’t drink between meetings.” I was handed a list of daily meetings they expected me to attend, and I went mostly because I was lonely and they treated me better than I treated myself.

I listened to their stories, and heard the same pain and loneliness that I suffered with as they spoke of ‘what it was like.’ I started to open up. Rather than laugh at me, they agreed. Suddenly, I was no longer isolated… I was among people who comprehended me. I lost the fear of being awkward, because they admitted they felt the same as I did. When I spoke of my embarrassment, they nodded with true empathy.

Yet, for all the pain, they were also learning to overcome all these negative emotions. They were living, and I definitely was not. They were learning and growing, while I had been hiding from real growth. I was an emotional child, and I wanted to grow up to be like these people… not perfect, but happy with their imperfections and open to getting better.

They told me that if I wanted what they had, that I would need to ‘work the Steps.’ This didn’t sound unreasonable… at first. Then I took a closer look.

There was only one problem: God.

I was not raised with any concept of God, and had actually grown to hate Christians mostly because of the rather awful ones that I knew. Now, I was expected to believe in a God that I had formerly spurned. At various times, I tried being a Buddhist, but discovered that it required me to ditch my hard-drinking ways, and so I parted company. One time, I wondered if I could become a Mormon and still drink, if only because they had some of the prettiest girls I knew!

My experimentations with religion were all failures. I had one god, and it came in a bottle. Now that I was parting from my old god, I needed to find a real one. But, this is harder than it seems. I could not make the jump to believing that a loving God cared for me while I had seen so much suffering in the world. This God would have to account for why I was born into an alcoholic family and why He let me suffer, not to mention the horrors of the world.

However, I gradually moved from being anti-God to being agnostic, largely due to the kindness of the AA members and their compassionate, yet anonymous God. Incrementally, I ‘experimented’ with faith, and when it did not kill me, I gradually accepted this premise: say what you will about the world, I felt better believing in God than not believing. If it is madness to believe in God, it was a madness that kept me sober and made me feel closer towards people I once hated and dreaded.

I began to work the Steps, not realizing that they were preparing within me a place for God to enter my heart through the Holy Orthodox Faith. Looking back, I never would have been able to accept the Church without the preparatory work of the Steps.

Now, the initial joy of the camaraderie of AA was replaced by the fear of my pains. I did not want to enter into my conscience, because it had never been cleaned out. I hired and fired several sponsors before I found a young, mentally-ill prisoner with a couple of years sober. He was kind and compassionate in a rough way that made me feel less threatened. He would make fun of me, and then poke even more fun at himself.

I finally took courage and read my Fifth Step to him. In the end, I was exhausted from anxiety and shame. I said it all, and I trembled wondering what he would say. “That’s it? That is the most boring thing I have heard in my life!” I almost wept for joy. Yes, I drank over stupid things, but they were my stupid things, and that made them painful. He gave me the ‘absolution of mediocrity.’ My sins were nothing special… and certainly not beyond God’s reach.

Through the Steps, I came to believe in God without reservation, and this led to my curiosity about Christ. By 1993, I was even prepared to accept that Jesus Christ was real, but I was running into another problem. Everywhere I went to find Christ, I was finding churches and people that were doing things that contradicted what I had learned in AA about God.

I tried fitting in, but the people in these churches were not seeking transformation. It seemed like most of them just wanted to get ‘off the hook’ for their sins and nothing more. I was hungry for something more profound. I needed the God of Change that AA spoke of. It turns out, what I needed was a change of location.

The change came when, because my bills were mounting and my work prospects were limited, I joined the US Navy and left home. I had to take this step, and my friends in AA wished me well. They said they knew I was not ‘running away’ but that necessity pushed this decision. They also assured me that God would follow me on this new journey.

After extensive training, I was sent to the island of Crete. It was there that I saw something extraordinary.

There were churches perched high up on cliffs and in every field. The roads were lined with shrines and monuments. I began to ask, “Why are these people so attached to their Faith?” Then I learned more about how much they had suffered for it, and I was all the more puzzled. I wanted to learn more.

In America, we change religions like we change socks. I have relatives who have made major theological jumps without even a solid explanation other than, “Well, we like this new church.” Clinging to a faith in the face of oppression and persecution made an impression on me, and so I became intrigued by the Orthodox Church.

The problem I ran into was that Orthodox people weren’t really interested in converting me, and I did not speak their language.

When I returned to the US, I left the Navy and decided to start a church history program at a Protestant seminary in the hopes that I could find out more about the history of Christianity. I was certain that I would find out how the Orthodox Church fit into the religious world I was beginning to learn about. My first class was Biblical Greek, and an Orthodox priest was the instructor.

I bombarded him with questions, and he handed me a pile of books in response. I began to read, and was amazed. The Orthodox Church’s teachings looked like the completeness of what I was learning in AA! Suddenly, I found a Church that embodied transformation! Realizing that the Orthodox Church was the ‘origin’ of the 12 Steps, I asked to be received into the Church so that I could have the fullness of what AA promised.

I never thought I would become a priest. By this time, I was working in college financing and thought that eventually I would stay in this line of work or return to writing. When I got married, I only talked with my wife about serving the Church in the most basic terms, perhaps as a missionary. It was hard for me to envision myself as a priest.

Others did not see it this way. Not long after, I was ordained as a Subdeacon, and the bishop called me over to his chair after the Liturgy and asked me if I was ready to go to seminary. I told him that I didn’t think that I was worthy, so I said I needed time to think.

AA had taught me not to trust my own judgment, so I started to ask people in the community. They knew I was in recovery, as did the bishop. Was I really cut out for this?

Everyone said I should go to seminary, and so I went in obedience.

You may ask, “Can an alcoholic be a priest?” The answer is simple, “Yes, provided that he’s not drinking.”

Alcohol really isn’t the alcoholic’s problem, it is just the symptom. It is a symptom of being cut off from God. AA taught me that alcoholics intuitively seek God, but often miss the mark and come to worship their addictions rather than their Creator. So long as I continue to live an honest and active spiritual life, I have a daily reprieve from the disease of alcoholism.

Without the alcoholism, I would not have ever made any attempt to spiritually grow. My addiction has forced me to find God, and repent. I can now look back and admit that every joy I experience today is directly tired to my addiction and my recovery. Everything is a gift from this cunning and baffling disease, which God permitted me to suffer with so that I would come to Him and receive far more than I ever could have imagined!

The real problem of addiction is the overwhelming fear and inner suffering of the addict. Recovery is about being healed from the passions that fear and suffering create. Who is better able to help people be healed, someone who can relate to their suffering through his own suffering, or one who has never known suffering?

As an alcoholic in recovery, I am able to empathize with the suffering of my people because I have suffered as well. I must live a type of ascetic lifestyle not because I want to as a ‘fashion statement,’ but because my life depends on it. The spiritual life is the only life that I can lead, because to abandon spirituality means that I, as an alcoholic, will soon be dead without God.

In this disease, I have died. The life that I now lead is not my own, but rather it is ‘on loan.’ I am a priest only in this moment, just as I am sober only in this moment. I do not know if I will be sober tomorrow, nor do I know if I will be a priest tomorrow. I have ten years of the priesthood, and 20 years of sobriety, one day at a time… and each moment is a gift that I am unworthy of and grateful for.

People are curious and ask how a priest can serve the Holy Eucharist with wine and remain sober. Yes, I cannot drink, and so when I prepare the chalice for the Divine Liturgy, I must either have the deacon consume it or make sure that I only use enough wine for those who are receiving. You don’t have to pour 500ml of wine for every service!

Three sips of wine and a little remnant is not enough for a relapse unless I decide I want to relapse. Alcoholics decide to relapse all the time. Can I say that I will never drink again? To be honest, I don’t know how I have made it this far, other than to say that all those ‘Our Fathers’ paid off. I ask for God’s will rather than my own will, and so I have given Him permission to cut me off when I am heading in the wrong direction.

What Lies ahead is only known to God. This is the best way. Because, if he tells me His plan, I may try to help Him, and that could really mess things up. It is better to live one day at a time.

 

 G.