Father Dave: December 12, 2010

The Rooms Project: Stories of Life on the Other Side of Addiction

“I looked at the host and my hands were just shaking because I needed a drink. I was concerned that I was going to break the host. I was trying to focus on not shaking, which of course only makes you shake more. I remember from the very bottom of my gut, just praying, ‘Lord, I need help.'”

I come from Tiverton, Rhode Island, which is a small town about forty, forty-five minutes, depending on who’s driving, away from here. I come from a very Portuguese, very faithful Roman Catholic family. I’m the youngest of four. My other siblings are older than I am, and grew up in different household altogether. My grandparents lived on the first floor and my family was on the second floor. They were a very close-knit group. My brothers were all in the Portuguese band. My father was a musician as well, so they all shared that in common. Typical small town story. I was a surprise, so my parents who previously were going to retire a little bit early, now were just the opposite. By now the economy had decided to change and they were going to raise a kid again at an older age than they had planned to do so. When I was born, I started my life in that same house.

My parents went and bought a huge house that we could all live in, and so the family up and moved to this huge house on a very busy street in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and then everybody moved out because they were all older. That left me with my parents in this really big house that was intended for many more people. We were on a busy street and so there wasn’t really neighborhood kids around to play around with, that type of thing. I spent a lot of time by myself. I spent a lot of time I guess being more imaginative with G.I Joe action figures and I would build whole little G.I Joe kingdoms and that type of thing. My father in the meanwhile had since become a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church. A deacon is similar to a priest but there’s a little less that they’re able to do. They can be married and have children and so on. You add all of that up and I was not the most popular kid at school. We’re very involved at church and we were at church all the time.

My friends at school, we were the island of misfit toys, I think. All of us to a certain degree didn’t feel popular, so we figured we would just be unpopular together. All through high school, I was very moved by my experience at church in terms of the community. There was a real feeling that everybody was welcome. I wanted to have something to do with that, and I wanted to provide that same experience for other kids. I was very attracted to what a priest did in terms of at mass and stuff, so I started to think, “Well you know, I really think I want to be a priest.” I always said I wanted to be a priest, from the day that I knew what the word meant. The more I got to know about the priesthood, the more it was something I became driven towards. I never really had had a drink until I was in the seminary in high school.

I’ve had a couple of beers here or there, like a party or that type of a thing, but I never got drunk until I was in the seminary. When I started in the seminary program I was the youngest in the house, again. The other seminarians were all second career vocations, and they were pretty well established in life. Their concerns and their stresses and their experience of seminary was very different than mine. Nonetheless, these were the people that I was living with and I made great friends in the seminary. Drinking was of course a part of their reality and so became a part of my reality as well. I started out by realizing that if you went to an expensive bar or an expensive lounge and you ordered a drink, whether it was a brandy or scotch or something that the waitress couldn’t pronounce, she wasn’t going to card you.

Not only did I develop a drinking problem, I developed a very expensive drinking problem. I wasn’t just drinking cans of Narragansett, I was out having these expensive cordials and things. I think it started innocent enough I guess, but that’s how it all began. I quickly learned that drinking is a big part of the social life of the church. I’m not calling out the Catholic Church, but I don’t have experience in other faiths, so I don’t know, but I know that in the Catholic Church drinking is a big part of the social life of the clergy. I think that because we quickly learned that friendships were also important, because if we were asked to live a celibate life, it’s a very lonely life, so they all had very close friends who were in the same boat.

It was the norm to get together and have supper and drinks and more drinks. This was a routine that for many of them has been happening for decades. In the seminary you’re stationed at a parish and so you get entrenched in the parish life. For me in my experience, that included a large amount of alcohol. This is just what cultured people do. They have a cocktail before dinner, and they drink wine with dinner, and then they have cocktails after dinner. There was nothing seemingly abnormal about it. As my time in seminary started to continue to progress, I had a wonderful experience. I got to travel and met a lot of many amazing people. In graduate school, when I get to the graduate level, after a while as ordination day was getting closer and closer where I was going further and further along, in hindsight I noticed the drinking had also significantly picked up.

There were a number of us that drank really all the time. We were doing fine in class and we were in. It’s such a part of the culture that I think that no one was ever really concerned for anyone. I got sent to Omaha, Nebraska along the way, and that was a big turning point. By the time I got to Omaha I had pretty much come to accept the fact that I was gay, and a lot of people knew that I was gay and I told friends that I was gay. In the seminary of course, in the Roman Catholic church, that’s not exactly something you brag about. At the time when I was in, it was during what they called the witch hunt that if they found out that if you were gay, you were just run out. They just weren’t dealing with it. Those of us who were gay, were out to each other. It was a solemn secret.

I went to Nebraska and I didn’t want to be in Nebraska. I was there for the summer, it’s very hot in Nebraska in the summer. There was just nothing about this experience that was very appealing to me. The focus was on spirituality and spiritual theology. My mind wasn’t there any more and my heart wasn’t there any more and with a topic like that for the whole semester, I just checked out. We had a spiritual director that was assigned to us, and I was talking to my spiritual director and he said, “If you were home, then you had no responsibilities for night, what would you do?” I said, “I’d probably go out for a drink.” Of course this poor man had no idea. He said, “Why don’t you go out for a drink tonight? Get out of the house. Don’t go with any seminarians. Go and have a drink, relax and we’ll talk tomorrow.”

I said, “It’s the best advice I’ve heard since I got here.” Out I went. I changed into shorts and a T-shirt and went down to the gay bar that I’d sniffed out in town. I had a drink and a drink turned into more drinks very quickly and before I knew it, it was last call and I was helping close the place, and I went home with the bartender. We went to a party afterwards, and I lied and told him my name was John and that I was a history major and that’s why I was in Nebraska. It was just crazy. We were at this party and I looked around and I noticed that there were all these gay people who were just normal, happy people who just happened to be gay. They were my age, they had careers, they were talking about politics, they were talking about sports, they were talking about the person they couldn’t stand from their office.

They were all just such normal people. It was like watching a television show. I didn’t really know that normal gay people existed. I thought that the only gay people in the world were the gay priests and seminarians who I knew who just sat around and got tanked, and made fun of other gay priests and seminarians. I didn’t even realize. It just never dawned on me. I just thought to myself, “There is a whole other possibility of a way of living, where I could be like these people who are happy.” It was a very sobering moment because I was also by far the drunkest person at this party. I think on some level I knew that something was not right. Here all these people were able to have a drink, here I was, a mess. The next morning I went to chapel like normal. I went to my spiritual director and he said, “Did you go out to the bar?” I said, “I did.”

“Did you have a drink?” I said, “Oh yeah.” He said, “Oh. Well did you make any friends?” I said, “You could say that.” He said, “Well you know, I think that it would be good for you to make friends who are not involved in the church. You’ve been in the seminary really your whole adult life, be good for you to make new friends.” I said, “I agree.” He’s, “Why don’t you spend some time with these new friends while you’re here?” I said, “Oh, I will.” As my time there unfolded, I spent more and more time with this bartender, his name was Jeff, and continued to tell him that my name was John all the way through it all. Eventually I told him the truth and that I was studying to be a Roman Catholic priest and so forth. Then I at this point was now thinking about leaving. He said, “Well, we’re not going to tell everybody else the truth because then they’re going to ask all these church questions.”

I was having an opportunity to just be me, ironically by lying, so I could just see what normal life was like. That’s what we continued to do. In the meanwhile the seminary wanted to know why I was never around. A conversation I guess started behind my back about drinking, “Well maybe he has a drinking problem and maybe …” I ended up getting sat down by the seminary staff and a couple of friends, like this little intervention. I said, “Well this is ludicrous. I don’t have a drinking problem, blah, blah, blah.” “Well, but you’re never around.” They had just added up that it was all about alcohol, and so I told them the truth. That I had met this guy and that blah, blah, blah, and I was going to be leaving the seminary at the end of the semester and this, that and the other. They cooperated with me. They were going to allow me to stay until the end of the academic program as long as I continued to show up and didn’t let on to everyone else that something was amiss.

When the diocese found out that I was planning on leaving, they said, “Oh no, we’re not paying for his trip to Nebraska,” so I had to come back home. Obviously there was a drinking problem, but I don’t know that my drinking was the cause of why I wasn’t around. I think in a way, unbeknownst to them, they were on to something. I came back to Rhode Island, expecting to find… I don’t know what I expected. I think I expected to walk into a gay bar and just meet the Rhode Island version of those same wonderful people. I needed to get a job and a place to live and everything was different now. I really started from scratch and so I went and got a job waiting tables and I finally got this great job. It was probably my second stop. At this great little restaurant in Cranston which is a small town near here. It was a little local place and I very quickly got a spot on the bar and started bartending.

I think though, looking back, there was always this. I wasn’t popular in high school, but then in seminary I was popular because I was young, then bartending, you’re quite popular. I think I definitely did just as much bar attending as I did bartending. It was very much “One for you, two for me.” I had a couple of incidents there I remember were near my birthday, I went out during the day because I used to love day-drinking, and so I would go out during the day and I was just trashed. I showed up for my shift I was just trashed, so I couldn’t work that night. In the bar industry, it’s really the safest place for someone who has a substance problem, because no one’s ever going to say anything because it’s everywhere. Eventually I left that job for one in Providence, right in downtown that was in the gay community. By that point I was drinking morning, noon and night. Life was just one big party. I still I don’t think really thought that it was abnormal.

By this point in my life it was affecting my life, it was affecting relationships, people I dated. It was an ongoing thing. “You drink too much.” “Well, you don’t understand.” I used to always say if I was a doctor I would probably read books about medicine more than the normal person, or if I was a lawyer I would read books about law more than the normal person. Well, I’m a bartender so I might drink a little more than the normal person. That all made perfect sense to me. If the people didn’t understand, then well it was their loss. Needless to say, my life was completely entrenched in drama and just the bar scene. I don’t think I ate a single meal at home in five years. Stayed at work until one or two in the morning, some nights I would go to another bar that was already closed and have another drink and go home. I’d wake up in the morning with the drink in my hand that I fell asleep with, and I’d finish it off. Tried to get the shakes to go away.

You know you didn’t get up until afternoon time, and so then it was time for lunch and civilized people have a drink with lunch. It was just crazy and it was just the cycle. I remember one time joking with one of the cooks in the restaurant. I was outside having a cigarette after a really bang up night, and it was just this feeling, I just felt like death. I’m shaking, I’m having a cigarette and sweating and everything and I remember saying to the cook, “I wish I could just disappear for two weeks and just shake and then not touch any of it again.” I said it half kidding, but that was really what needed to happen. I eventually discovered independent Catholicism and that there was a diocese and parish opening in Providence. By this point I had walked about from my faith entirely. I went to what would have been my classes, ordination to the priesthood and I went from there to a bar.

I remember customers used to say, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” I wouldn’t know what to say back, because the truth was I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to be a priest and I felt that God was calling me to be a priest and so really it was a foolish question to me. There was nothing else that I could do, because there was nothing else that I felt like God wanted me to do. That’s a really depressing reality to live in. I really got to the point where I just hoped that I would die young because this was what life was going to be like, and I couldn’t imagine how it was going to be any different. You make good money doing it, and you’re popular and it was fun, and so I just really thought, “I’m just going to make the most out of this and hopefully it’ll all be over soon.” I discovered independent Catholicism. I went to a mass at the community that had been opened in Providence and a lot of it felt like coming home.

A lot of it also didn’t feel like coming home, because there was that particular community was just getting started and it was missing a lot of bells and smells that Rome provided. Then I went a second time and I guess I was in the right place, and it just clicked. I ended up talking to the bishop and the process started on me [about] returning to a life in ministry. I started to feel better and life started to have some direction now. I started to think to myself, because we don’t make a salary being a priest so we have to have a job, and so I started to think to myself, “Well maybe this would be a way to get out. Maybe now my resume won’t look like such a joke. I can put in there some ministry work and maybe I can get a job at a non-profit or something.” I’d never thought that way before, but I was drinking. I realized that I had to cut back on the drinking. At this stage I knew the drinking was a problem. Normal people don’t wake up in the morning shaking.

Now I suddenly had to get up if I was going to do this church thing. I had to get up at a reasonable hour, I couldn’t just sleep until noon. I was starting to prepare to be ordained a deacon, which is the step on the way, and by that point I think I was just going through life buzzed, basically. There’d be those nights where I’d have 5,001 drinks instead of 5,000. I’d wake up the next day and couldn’t remember the end of the night before. I’d think to myself, “Well that’s weird, I didn’t really drink, but I been drinking all day.” I didn’t think I had drank any more than normal. I remember more than one occasion getting stuck in different places, taking the train to Boston, missing the last train back and spending the night in the doorway in the street. 

I got ordained a deacon, and then nine months later I was ordained a priest. In the last year of my drinking I stopped going out to bars and was just drinking by myself, and at work. I really had it shaved down to just enough drinks to function. When you hear the expression a functional alcoholic, I think people think that that means they’re always drunk, but they’re so used to being drunk that they’re able to function. I think that term more means you need to drink in order to function. When I was first ordained, to sit down and write something, to write a letter, to write a homily, to write anything, I had to have a couple of drinks in me or my brain wouldn’t work. That wasn’t stupid at this point. I knew that we had an issue, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I just didn’t know. I was able to get a job outside of the bar world, so I put in my notice at the bar and I thought, “This’ll make it all better, because I’m not going to be around it as much,” but it didn’t. It was all still there. I knew that there was a problem. A bishop was coming for an event at my parish.

I’d only been a priest for six or seven months and he was coming to something at the church, and we had a dinner party coming up. He was coming on this one weekend and there was going to be a dinner party and all that stuff. The weekend before that of course we were getting ready for it, for the big visit. At mass that Sunday, at the elevation, the priest holds up the host after it’s been consecrated, and I looked at the host and my hands were just shaking because I needed a drink. I was concerned that I was going to break the host. I was trying to focus on not shaking, which of course only makes you shake more. I remember from the very bottom of my gut, just praying, “Lord, I need help.” It wasn’t even like when you sit and pray and you go and tell God what your problems are or what your concerns are. This was different. This wasn’t something I was doing, this was something that just came out of me. It’s hard to really describe.

The next week the bishop was coming, and so we gathered for this dinner party as we were supposed to. It was pretty much an intervention. They sat me down and said, “You know, we’re concerned about your drinking, blah, blah, blah.” I’ll tell you this intervention was almost as poorly put together as the first one was. Their argument was, it was three of them, and one of them said, “Well I feel stupid talking about this because every time I’ve seen you drunk, I’ve been drunk too. I’ve even paid the bill.” He said, “It’s hard to describe it, but I think there’s something different about the way that you drink.” The bishop said, “I feel stupid talking about this at all, because I’ve never seen you drunk.” Then another priest who was there, who’s now our bishop all these years later, he’d seen me drunk and he definitely wasn’t drunk when he saw me drunk. He more or less said, “I don’t know if you can build a case on one incident, but what I saw was pretty ugly.”

Basically I cut them off in the middle of all of it and said, “What are we doing?” They all looked at each other and I said, “Yeah I need help. You said I need help. I’m saying I need help. We’re all in agreement. Where’s the help? What time do they get here?” They were stunned because they didn’t expect that I was going to be so willing. We left from there, the church, we’re not the Roman Catholic Church, so we don’t have the funds that they do. The priests, the diocese came together and paid for me to go to the Stonington Institute, so I went to detox for the weekend and then rehab for a week and that’s been it. I never looked back. I attribute the entire thing to that prayer that day. I, beyond a shadow of a doubt, know that it was, because it was the most sincere prayer I think I’ve ever said. I’d been a very public drunk, and so I decided that I was going to be a very public recovering drunk. I put on it facebook, I wrote a blog when I got back.

Actually I wrote it while I was there in a notebook with a crayon they let me have or whatever it was, because God forbid you have a sharp object. I wrote in my little thing, but I wrote my little blog and when I got back, when I got home, it was a weekend and one of my priest friends said, “Well why don’t you stay with me for the weekend and go back to the real world on Monday?” So that’s what we did. I went to his house, went on facebook, typed up my little blog I’d written and put it online and just told the whole world that I was an alcoholic. It was interesting. The responses very interesting, and to watch all the comments that streamed in from it. There was a ton of support from people. It was interesting, It was never something that I’d been ashamed of, it’s never something that I keep from anyone. I’m very public about it because I don’t really understand why we wouldn’t be public about it.

Especially I think someone who was so public with drinking. I decided right away that I was going to make it a part of who I was, and that this is part of the package. Father David’s tall and he’s bald and he’s got a raspy voice and he’s a drunk, or recovering drunk. This was going to be a part of who I was. It was a part of who I was when I was doing it, when I was drinking, so it was going to be a part of who I was now. I went right away into the twelve-step meetings and the fellowships and stuff, I did the ninety and ninety thing and I learned all the lingo and all the bumper sticker slogans, and got all the books, and read all the books. I think a couple of things that struck me immediately about recovery, was that as soon as you tell someone, because of course in the beginning I thought to myself “I’m going to do all this for now, and then someday I’m going to be able to drink again”; this was the booze in the back of my head—I remember sitting in one of these meetings and thinking to myself, “Well this is once you say that you’re an alcoholic. If I were to ever have a drink again, oh my god, I would be just crucified, because I’ve told the world.” It really made me think a lot about things. A doctor didn’t diagnose me an alcoholic. I said that I was one. What if I decide when I’m sixty that it’s now okay for me to have a drink?

I very much had the attitude of being critical, but eventually it all balanced out. I met some really fantastic people in recovery. I had to learn things like how to socialize again. What do people do to socialize? What do people do on a Saturday night? What do people drink with dinner? Where do people go on dates? It was just relearning life. How do I control my anger now? That was one for me that I remember, very early recovery sitting at my desk what I doing, and the computer acted up. I got so angry. The thing was on the floor and I kicked it. I was, “What am I doing? This is crazy.” It’s an experience really, coming through the hole. I’ve said to a lot of people that I think that everyone in the world should experience one of two things. Seminary or rehab. Both of them force you to really look at yourself, and I don’t think that we do that enough in this world.

I was reaching the one-year mark, and I watched at these twelve-step meetings, all these folks celebrate and they get a card and a little ticker tape parade. Of course I wanted one and I started going to this particular meeting. I was going to two or three different ones somewhat regularly. When I say somewhat regularly I mean by now I was doing one meeting a week and it was one of these two or three. I would be seen at each one every few weeks. I wanted to celebrate my anniversary at this one particular meeting and they told me, “No, we haven’t really seen you.” I said, “Are you kidding me? That’s how this works?” There were some nasty words exchanged of course, and I stormed out of the meeting. There were some meetings that were geared towards LGBT community, and so I figured I would go to some of those. By this point in my life I still have tons of friends who drink.

I was a bartender, and if it was someone’s birthday and they were all going out to a bar, I would go out and I would just have soda and if they were playing pool, I’d play pool. I would just go home when people started to get trashed because I just didn’t want to be around it. Then they started at the meeting criticizing, saying that, “Well you were seen at a bar,” and it was crazy. I just got a really nasty taste in my mouth for that whole thing. In doing the twelve-step thing I remember saying to a sponsor, “As a Christian I have a relationship with my higher power.” I felt like the twelve-steps was asking me to stop being a slave to substance and start being a slave instead to the system. I decided that I disagreed with that. Then I stopped going to meetings.

I also felt at the meetings a lot of time people were miserable. I’d sit there and they’d be twenty years sober. I remember one guy, [with] twenty-five years, and he’s talking about how life is so hard and each day is a struggle and I was sitting there thinking to myself, “Dude, go have a drink then.” Really. If that’s what my life’s going to look like in twenty-five years, I’d rather be drinking. Because he was so miserable. People were nodding and being, “Yeah.” There was no encouragement. It was just people complaining. I said, “This is not what I want for my life,” so I just stopped going.

I’m friends with a number of priests who are in recovery, and we still get together regularly. We’ll pray together or have dinner together or share in that support. Other friends who are in recovery who I just get together with for coffee, not because I got to meet with someone who’s in recovery this week, but just because they were my friend and we were having coffee and we talked about life. I decided that I was doing my thing for my recovery and it was great. Life was great and I was very happy.

I’d run into folks from the twelve-step meetings. Some of them outright said, “You’ll be drinking again before you know it.” I just thought, “Why, I don’t think that’s very encouraging, but thank you for your opinion.” It was being so public about being in recovery and then as the parish started to grow, I would in my ministry encounter a lot of people who would say, “Hey, I think I need some help.” I would always send them to meetings, I would always encourage them to go because that’s what you do. You send people to meetings. I would always tell them, “All the meetings in the world aren’t going to put your life back together.” They’re not. A young woman who’s lost a kid to DCYF because of her active addiction, she can go to meetings, morning, noon and night, it’s not going to get the kid back. I just felt like there’s a piece of all of this that’s missing.

Then I discovered that there’s other organizations that also agree that there are many pathways for recovery, like Rhode Island Cares. [It] blew my mind when I discovered that there was an organization that was public and said that there are more ways to stay sober than just going to meetings. It was really liberating to discover this and to hear people say things that I’d always thought but never did say out loud. Why do I have to sit at a meeting and say, “Hi my name is David and I’m an alcoholic.” I’m much more than an alcoholic. I can’t sit at the meeting and say, “Hi my name is David and I’m a Catholic priest,” and that’s a much bigger part of my identity.

We’re hearing people ask questions like, “Are we in recovery for ever or do we ever recover?” Is there ever a point where we can say, “Well, we’ve recovered.” That doesn’t mean that I’m drinking again, it just means that I can say that I’ve recovered. That I don’t feel the urge to drink anymore or that I go to a bar and I can go to social places. I know people in the twelve-step programs that would not eat at restaurants that had liquor licenses. Everybody’s different, and why can’t recovery also be different for everybody? I think that in all of this, what I’ve learned is that recovery is about much more than not drinking and not doing drugs. Recovery is about, I think, in many ways having your spiritual needs met. We all have spiritual needs. Spirituality does not mean religion. We all have spiritual needs. Some people, their spiritual needs are met at yoga, some people’s are met going to the gym.

We say, “So and so goes to the gym religiously.” For me, my spiritual needs I think are met obviously in religion and worship and ministry, but also in going to the gym and going for a walk and spending time with my partner. We all have spiritual needs and that’s I think the key in recovery, is being able to admit that we as human beings need something to stay whole. Something that’s outside of ourselves. The ticket is, is that thing going to be a substance of some kind, or is that thing going to be something that’s going to make me truly whole and truly happy and truly healthy? You can’t get that from all the meetings in the world any more than you can get it from a bottle of scotch or a case of scotch. I think that that’s really what my whole experience has been.

Like all things with me, when I become passionate about something it becomes my mission. I think that it’s just become an important part of my ministry, it’s become an important part of my life and I think that the greatest thing that all of us in recovery can do is to tell our story to whoever. To get awareness that there are people everywhere, there are neighbors, there are co-workers, there are friends who are in recovery and more people aren’t going to get healthier if they don’t know that there are different pathways to recovery and if they don’t know there are all kinds of people in recovery.

I think that that’s the key. In Rhode Island right now, the opiate overdose situation is out of control, and people, the government, the media and stuff have called it a public health crisis, and it very much is. It’s all those things in there. I’ve read articles where people compare it to cancer in as much as how the cancer community does a lot of public awareness stuff. I’ve seen it compared to HIV, it’s been compared to Hepatitis C. I think that the difference between addiction and the recovery experience, the difference between that and all those other things is that the recovery and addiction piece is something that’s solvable, that we can do if the community is able to be a community by getting our voices out there and putting a healthy face on recovery.

Photographs taken at Saint Therese Old Catholic Church in West Warwick, Rhode Island.

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