Reflections on recovery

I had my very first drink the day I married … and it never stopped
September 30, 2005

My name is Bill. I am a priest and alcoholic, the son of a priest who died of alcoholism, the grandson of a priest whose abstinence was legendary.

I promised God and myself I would never drink, and I kept that promise during the most drinkable periods of life. I had my very first drink the day I married – just to be sociable, or so I believed.

I loved that first drink and regretted the years of proud abstinence based on a promise I no longer wanted to keep. “Bill will drive us home; he never drinks, you know!” was a weekend slogan from my brothers in the Sigma Chi house. And those “sherry hours” at seminary: I wasn’t there. I kept a private protest in my room until the start of Evensong.

I was 24 years old when I had that first drink, and it never stopped. I drank to capacity every single day from that point on until I was consuming upwards of two fifths a day of “the hard stuff.”

Confronted time and again by family and friends, I pushed them away, assuring them I was in control. Now, when I look back, the first 10 years of ministry are a blur of unkept appointments, harmful sarcasm, alienation, family tears, parishioners who walked away, blackouts and almost nightly “pass-outs” (that God-given valve that shuts us down before we die of alcohol poisoning).

On St. Barnabas Day 1971, I asked my wife to call Alcoholics Anonymous “to come and get me!” A new rehab center had just opened in a nearby city, but a long waiting list precluded my acceptance. By the grace of God and the clout of a recovering Roman Catholic priest I received the 28-day treatment I so desperately needed.

I have known the hell of this disease, and I now live in the tremendous joy and productivity of sobriety. No one’s to blame. Yes, I do take responsibility for the actions and inactions of that insidious disease, but I didn’t choose it, much as one does not choose to be diabetic.

More than 10 percent of our clergy either is in recovery, working the 12-step program of AA, or still “out there,” exploring the depths of hell, practicing self-deception and assuring those around them that they are in complete control.

Unfortunately, ignorance about this disease prevails. The Episcopal Church always has been in the forefront of meeting that challenge. We have RACA (Recovered Alcoholic Clergy Association), Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church and, in some dioceses, commissions on alcoholism and other addictions. We are not afraid to talk about it, define it and assist you in finding help.

I serve a bishop who truly understands our disease and how to treat it. Many of my brothers and sisters are not so fortunate. For starters, read Vernon Johnson’s I’ll Quit Tomorrow.

I neglected to tell you that, although my father died of alcoholism in 1964, he did have a dozen years of solid AA sobriety with help from his friends in RACA I hated my father during his drinking years but have come now to love him because I realize first-hand that a terrible disease had him in its grip and he was absolutely powerless over it acting on his own.

During his sobriety, he was all the things one hopes for and expects in a good priest. I’ve had the same said of me, but I happily credit AA, RACA, Recovery Ministries, a great bishop and loving congregations for that glorious turning point in my life.

I shall have this incurable disease the rest of my days, but it’s treatable and allows priests like me to say at AA meetings, “Good evening. My name is Bill. I’m an alcoholic and, by the grace of God and the program, sober today.”

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