Clean and Sober

In the late 1980s, I was in prison more than I was out. At one point, I was out for two days before being arrested on new charges and sent back to state prison on a parole violation.

I won’t go into the long, boring details, but I ended up leaving prison in 1988 and entering Delancey Street Foundation, a 2-year drug treatment program in San Francisco. It was a week before Thanksgiving, and I was 33 years old. I stayed there for 5 years.

In July of 1993, when I graduated from Delancey Street, I had several helpful things: I had the understanding of what it meant to care for someone besides myself, I had several very good friends who were clean and sober for years now, and I had 5 years of sobriety under my belt. And I knew that I did not want to throw away what I had gained the last 5 years.

A friend suggested that I go to a 12-step program. And off I went! It was a great social life, since I had no clue how to relax or celebrate, or even live without numbing myself. And it allowed me a place to talk about the things that were going on in my new life. I found a sponsor, and I attended 5 to 7 meetings a week. But I had one problem: 6 of the 12 steps require a belief in a “higher power,” and the 12th step requires a “spiritual awakening.”

My problem was with God. Like so many drug addicts and alcoholics, I had “authority issues.” I fancied myself an atheist. I was pretty worried, because I didn’t think I could do the “God thing.” To quote C.S. Lewis, I was "very angry with God for not existing".

But I continued to go to those meetings, and I continued to remain clean and sober. And I saw that God worked in people’s lives, so eventually, I softened a bit and decided that there was an outside chance that there was a God.

And then one afternoon in 1995, I lost my job. I had rented a new apartment just days before, and I had used every penny I had in savings to pay the first and last month and deposits. I was devastated! It was the first time in my sobriety that I had not had an income. Suddenly, after 6 years of security, I had none at all! I was in a panic, and even considered getting drunk.

Instead, I went to an AA meeting. It was a very boring meeting, with most of those in attendance there only because the court had sent them. But there was one old man who had been sober for 30 years. I had never seen him before, and I never saw him after. In my panic, my mind raced for the entire hour that I sat in the meeting. I paid very little attention to what was going on, but I remember clearly just one thing that was said at that meeting. It wasn’t even an entire sentence; just a phrase that I heard, having missed the first part of the statement. The old guy said, “...but it wasn’t until I accepted God in my life that I stopped being scared.”

Now, I have to tell you that I didn’t understand anything about God. I knew that He could help people out when they were in trouble and that He wanted people to be “good.” That was about all I knew. But up until that night, I had not tried to talk to Him, because I did not want to look foolish if it turned out that I was talking to someone who didn’t exist.

That night, on my way home, I pulled over to the side of the road and said, “Ok. God, if you are there, I sure could use your help now. I don’t know what I am going to do, but I’m afraid, and I don’t know what to do.”

I waited, and there was no lightning or thunderclaps, no deep voice spoke to me, and nothing really seemed different.

I shrugged my shoulders and continued my drive home, and was already starting to think about stopping a liquor store and buying something to drink.

But when I got about 4 blocks from my apartment, I noticed a building I had never seen before. There was a rainbow painted over the doorway, and as I passed it, I became curious about what it was and why I had never seen it before. I circled the block and noticed an “Open” sign. I parked in front and with no idea what I was doing or why, I went inside.

It was a coffee shop kind of thing, and I sat down and ordered a coffee. While I was drinking the coffee, I realized that I was only mildly panicked now, and I noticed a sign on the wall that said that there was a 12-step meeting in 45 minutes. I decided I’d go to it, since I didn’t really want to go home, being afraid that the panic would return.

A man sat down at the counter, and we made small talk. When it was time for the meeting, we went in to where the meeting was to be held. There were about 12 people there, and the man I had been talking to came over to where I was sitting and explained that he was chairing the meeting, and that the person he had asked to speak had not showed up. He asked if I would mind sharing my story. Although I had never told my story in public, I agreed.

I sat down in front of the group and began to narrate the story of my life up until then. As I was talking, part of my brain seemed to be causing me to speak while another part of my brain was listening to what I was saying and was meditating on it. I really don’t know how else to describe it, but literally, my brain seemed to be in two parts. And as I was listening to what I was saying, I was thinking that my life had certainly been worse, and that at least I was not drinking or using drugs, and that alone was hopeful.

Now, that may not sound like a miracle to you, but to me, it was most definitely a miracle. I was a sinner who had for nearly two decades turned to drugs and alcohol when times were rough -- or even not so rough. The very fact that I had stopped to think about my situation rather than react to it was a miracle. The fact that I passed by that building I had never seen before, had noticed it for the first time, had stopped and gone inside, and had been put in a place where I ended up listening to the only person I trusted -- me -- and demonstrating to myself that there were other options: all of these were miraculous.

It was that night that I decided to trust God.

There was just one problem: My idea of God was a bit strange. After listening to people in the program, I had cobbled together my own god. I made up a god and called him “The Universe.” In my mind, “The Universe” wanted me to be happy, and so it allowed me to do whatever made me happy as long as I didn’t hurt anyone else. There were many other things that my pretend god was, and I won’t go into it all here, but basically, my pretend god let me do whatever I wanted.

In 1999, I was having coffee with a girl I knew from work, and she started telling me about this book she was reading. She said that it started out with the Rapture, which of course, she had to explain to me. But she started talking about the problems that the book dealt with when planes fell from the sky and automobiles suddenly had no drivers. She made it sound so interesting, that I asked her if I could read it after her.

She smiled and said, “Of course.” I had no idea that Traci was a Christian at that time.

Part III: There Is Hope!

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