He was a happy man, somewhat round and somewhat short, with a round face and shaggy, salt and pepper hair that fell across his head in the shape of a bowl-cut hairstyle. This was the kind of hairstyle one would expect to see on a Franciscan Monk, or a priest, or whichever the proper term may be. His voice was friendly and happy.
I suppose no one would ever know by looking at him. I know that I had no Idea. Why would I, right? After all, the guy was a priest. What would he know about addiction or alcoholism or anything in between?
But wait, before I go forward, let me give you some background to this. I was 28 years-old at the time. My girlfriend broke up with me, which, I knew this would eventually happen. The writing was in the sand and the news was in the mail, but yet, somehow, I pretended to be surprised about this for some reason. Besides, I was anything but a good person to her.
I was only heartbroken because of my ego. In fairness, I was selfish and self-serving and she was far more deserving of better treatment. And, also in fairness, looking back at the person I was then, if I could, I would shake that version of me by the collar and shout, “You can’t treat people that way!” but anyway, such is youth right?
Or, such is young adulthood with self-loathing ideas and fears that harbor insecurity.
I was new to a job, which was fine because at least I was earning a living. I was new to the world of being a union employee. I was new to the hard working days with heavy lifting and swinging wrenches and troubled with the economic snobbery that me being in the blue collar was less than someone else in their white collar.
I was previously a salesman with a suit and tie life. I carried a briefcase. I had manicured hands and made sure to keep my shoes shined like mirrors.
I was trying to make my way but the suit never fit me.
Or, maybe it was the sales jobs never fit me. I grew tired of the constant grind, always having to kiss someone’s ass, always knocking on new doors to open up new accounts, and always (and I do mean always) dealing with some kind of production fiasco or a billing problem and always chasing accounts to pay their bill so, God forbid, I could receive my commission, which was not so much at best.
I grew tired of the sales calls and the phone calls and the internal narrative that misguided me and caused me to respond out of insecurity, which I tried to hide with a display of confidence but more accurately showed ass arrogance.
I was in the middle of a personal and business transition and pissed-off but yet, I signed up for this trip because of someone kept leaning on me. I was cornered, sort of, by someone that wanted me to go on a retreat. And, additionally, while nursing my broken heart and processing my separation between me and my usual group of friends, I agreed to go because I had no other plans that weekend. I agreed to go because what else was I going to do? Plus, I was sad enough to give anything a try if it meant that I could feel better.
At the time, however, I was not the retreat kind of person. At the time, I had the serenity of loose cannon. I was not spiritual by any means nor was I interested in spending a weekend at some place out east on Long Island, talking about my feelings, or trying to find myself because hell, if I’m being honest, I was trying as hard as I could to get away from myself. So if this were the case, why would I want to find me? Leave me along, I thought. Just get me out of here.
The retreat was run by the Church, which was fine for me. I had no gripes with the Church or God or anyone that believed in Him. On the other hand, I had my own dilemmas with the subject.
This is not to say that I have ever called myself an atheist, nor would I call myself agnostic either. I suppose my struggle with the religious battle was more because of me and my guilt for who I was and things I had done.
I was a deviant, or so I thought. I was a sinner and a thief. I stole more than money or items; I stole spirit. I was a predator. I was a scavenger and a survivor. I would exploit and use outside resources before over touching mine; and by this, I mean I used people to survive and keep myself fed. I was aggressive. I had sexual and personal mistakes. I hurt people and the pile of skeletons in my closet were asking for me to build an addition to gain more elbow room.
I was sober in name only. I was a 12-stepper, if that’s what people call it. But I was far from working a conscious program to improve my daily life. I did not enjoy the meetings or the groups or the “Rooms” as others have termed it.
I found the meetings to be cliquish and harshly judgmental at times —with the exception of a few, of course, because it would be unfair of me to say this was so about everyone. There were good people here. I admit this but I was not fitting into the style and plus, there was other areas that I needed help with in my life.
I mean what the hell? I was 28 years-old. I was supposed to be having fun and running around the world like I owned the place.
I was supposed to be a millionaire already. I should have achieved everything by this point or gotten by on my boyish charm and striking good looks —only, unfortunately, the truth is I was not as charming and well, good looking or not, no one was looking to pay me for it.
I hated the fact that I had to go to these meetings to “Stay sober.” I hated most of the people in the meetings. More than anything, I hated the little catchy self-help sayings and I hated the fact that everyone in “Recovery” would only talk about recovery —either that, or they were sharing war stories from their glory days because this was their only common bond.
Everything was about program. Everything was about drugs or drinking and how to stay sober, which, okay, I got it, and I understand the importance of the attention to a problem but God dammit man, could we please change the record once in a while?
And there I was, heading out east from the city in a car with someone I hardly enjoyed talking to. I never liked the way I felt around this person. I never liked the way I felt about myself when he was talking to me, as if there was a hierarchy in our relationship, and since he was sober longer than me or had what was perceived to be a better sense of a better program in his life, I was somehow subservient to him.
By the time we were out east, I was already wishing I was home. After sitting in traffic with this asshole, listening to all the things I need to work on and change about myself, I knew this was going to be a mistake.
The house on the other hand was beautiful. It was an old mansion of some kind, owned by someone famous, or something like that I suppose, and donated to the Church for retreats like this.
The house was situated on the bay and the scenery was peaceful and picturesque. There were no other houses nearby. It was beautiful.
There was a small section of beach behind the home and marsh on either side of the sands.
I was reminded of a home from a movie I once saw with Robin Williams called The World According to Garp.
It was summertime and the weather was warm. There were others there in the house as well. Maybe there were 20 people or it was somewhere close to that number.
We were broken up into different rooms, which were not so pretty. If anything, they were rooms one would find in an old home from the 1800’s that somehow weathered the storm throughout the years. And, of course, people snore so sleeping was less than what I had.
There was a man running this retreat. He was happy-faced and very gentle. I remember him still, even after all these years. This is the man I began to tell you about. He was a priest —or hopefully, I should regard that he is still a priest and alive and well but I am not sure where he is these days.
I would never know by looking at him. I would never think someone like him would know what it feels like to be or feel like me. I never knew priests had problems with addiction. I certainly never saw any of them when I was at places; say like, 134th Street, and moving through the crack spots.
You would never know by looking at him but then again, this only goes to show that no one knows anything about people by looking, except for the surface level and the obvious.
Know what I remember most?
I remember speaking honestly about my ideas of God and spirituality. I did not directly say anything about my sins or the secrets I held onto. I did not divulge any information —I simply explained my opinion, which was plain and matter of fact.
I regraded a famous poem and said, “I remember when I was a kid around 8 or so, I invited God over my house once to watch the world series. He never showed . . .”
I was amazed by the look of understanding from the priest. But more, I was moved by his sentiment of emotion and the way he acknowledged me. He looked at me as if to explain that he understood and knew exactly where I was coming from.
He told me this, which hit me so hard. I can say that it hit me this hard because I am much more than a decade away from this time and as I report my story, I can feel the flush of blood beneath my skin because this man hit the nail right on the head.
He said, “Son, I don’t know what you were doing before and I don’t know what you did. I just know what whatever it was; you’re not doing it right now. Let’s see if we can give you a break for now.”
And it hit me. It hit me because I was too afraid to let go of my own pain. I was too afraid to stop running. I was too afraid to face myself and face my truths. I was afraid of my own rejection and afraid that I would never be anything more than unsuccessful and lost, always on the downfall, always trying to overcome a failure, always stupid, always evil even when I wished I could have been different, and always waiting for the day when I would have to face the truth of my sins; because although I tried hard to rationalize the things I did —deep down, I always knew the difference between right and wrong.
I just didn’t know how else to live, to get what I want, to feed my greed, to satisfy me, or how else to quiet my fears that somehow told me, I simply did not add up.
Aside from the old rooms and the dampness from the bay; and aside from the loud snores from roommates which caused me to find another place to sleep in the mansion, and aside from the person that took me there; aside from my fears of what I would learn and what I would see; aside from my anger and aside from my childish refusal to grow up or to let go of the counterproductive ideas that swirled in my head —the truth is this retreat helped me. I never thought this would happen. I never thought I would heal but the truth is I did because someone spoke to me like a human instead of a subservient little man or an apprentice in training.
What I learned from this is preaching is not helpful. Asking questions that are open-ended and allowing someone to come to their own understanding is the key to a real change.
Personal awareness comes with personal realization. This is more valuable than someone telling you what your problem is.
This is what I have learned when it comes to being helpful.
Be non-judgmental. Remove your bias. Be kind and delicate when someone speaks. Listen. Don’t overtake the conversation.
Ask questions and let them answer. Ask questions that allow someone to come to their own conclusion and you will be surprised how helpful this can be.