Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sacrament, Part 1


Religious action or symbol in which spiritual power is believed to be transmitted through material elements or the performance of ritual.

I grew up Episcopalian. That means I didn't grow up afraid of God so much as I did bored by him. To me, God was not a terrible judge wielding thunderbolts and cauldrons of fire; he was a balding middle-aged man in a tweed jacket sipping on a cocktail and milling about a dinner party. He never had anything interesting to say, but people pretended like they were listening. To do otherwise would have been bad form.

Our sacrament mirrored our deity. Communion wafers and fruity wine, mumbled over by the priest to effect the miracle of transubstantiation. To me they seemed like styrofoam and fortified grape juice, nothing more. I never tasted them before the ritual, but afterwards I never sensed any power emanating from them. 

I wanted to. I was a devout little kid, hungry for some kind of spiritual connection that would soothe me and heal the dreadful wounds being inflicted by the people who were supposed to guide and nurture and protect me.

By the time I hit adolescence, that child-like yearning had been replaced by a hard, desperate cynicism and a recognition that church could never provide me the comfort and instruction I needed. I turned in other directions. Pornography, hardcore punk, drugs, and alcohol were clearly a lower path, but that seemed to suit the person I thought I was - dirty and bad and wrong. And very, very angry. I embraced them with fervor.

When I was 13 I was confirmed. My mother insisted on it, and that was that. She had her appearances to keep up - being on the faculty of the local seminary placed certain demands on her, demands that would not be denied. To secure my living space, I acquiesced. But after that, I drew a line - no more. Sunday morning church attendance interfered with staying up all night on acid Saturday night, so one of them had to go. And that one was certainly not going to be my new sacrament.

Because that is exactly what drugs and alcohol were to me. It occurred to me some years ago -- after a friend in AA committed suicide, drunk, in a ghastly manner -- that it was no accident that we refer to liquor as "spirits". I know that the first few times I got loaded, I felt the spirit move through me. At the time, I thought it was the first time in my life that I had experienced it.

What sort of spirit was it? Hard and arrogant and lustful and numb, and delightfully unafraid. The feeling of being an outcast and a reject and a victim that had plagued me since early childhood disappeared completely. I felt confident. I could talk to girls. I felt as though I belonged.

My list of sacraments grew. Marijuana, magic mushrooms, LSD-25, methamphetamine, nitrous oxide, cocaine, pain killers, muscle relaxants. I wasn't too picky - if they helped me to leave my body, to become someone else for a time, that was enough. They worked for quite a while.

And then one day they stopped working. I can't put an exact time on it, but I know it happened. Maybe it was around the time that I felt myself pulled into a corner store and compelled, literally compelled in spite of my wishes, to buy a quart of beer and finish at it lunchtime.

The spirits had turned on me, and they were far more powerful than I was.

And so the first step was no stretch for me at all:

"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable."

I took that step immediately and without reservation.

The early part of my story may perhaps contain elements so unusual that they mark me as unique. From here, though, it becomes painfully, tediously, wonderfully, blessedly common:

"Hopeless alcoholic and addict stumbles into a meeting, asks for help, gets it. Never has to drink again."

God bless you, whoever you are.