For Joe, alcoholism had always been a part of his life since both of his parents were alcoholics.
“I grew up with an alcoholic family,” Joe said. “Growing up was chaotic and as a kid, it gave me a predisposition to the disease of alcoholism.”
Joe grew up a Catholic, though his involvement in the church and the youth group at the time was often in response to his desire to be out of the house. While he is grateful for a couple of memorable, “Mother Angelica”-like nuns for teaching him the basics of the faith, his introduction to the faith lacked substance.
“I got involved in church because I wanted to be out of the house. I thank God for that, but the church at the time was so watered down and I was craving some guidance and leadership,” Joe shared. “Looking back, I might have actually become a priest if I was mentored at the time.”
He was friends with some older members of his church’s youth group. In fact, it was at one of these group hang-outs where he had his first drink. And as he entered the last third of his teenage years he began working in the restaurant industry, which exposed him to an intense drinking lifestyle.
“In the restaurant industry, it’s all about sex and alcohol and I got involved with those people after high school and kind of drifted away from the faith,” Joe said. “I also became a firefighter and EMT at 18, so I had a lot of responsibilities. I was tall and had a goatee and I could get into bars as a teenager.”
While he continued to drink as a young man, Joe did so in the ways many other people do at that age. At that point, he justified his drinking simply as something young people did. However, on September 11, 2001, things started to change.
“In 2001, I was at Ground Zero running ambulances,” he said, sharing that he saw terrible and disturbing things. “I would say at that point my alcoholism turned from being a social and fun thing to a habit and form of self-medication.”
He turned 21 a month after those tragic events in New York City, and with full access now to alcohol, continued to drink. He got married around this time as well, though the relationship ended in divorce a handful of years later. After the divorce, now in his late twenties, Joe turned fully to a bachelor’s life of heavy drinking, promiscuity, and partying.
“I was living with a younger roommate in a bachelor pad with a liquor store right below us on the first floor. That is not a good thing for an alcoholic!” Joe said.
In his early thirties, he met a woman named Kris, who is now his fiancée. They got pregnant with their first son.
“Kris had about a month before our son was born and we got into a fight and I went on a bender and started saying things about hurting myself,” Joe said. “She called the police and I was hospitalized in a 72-hour hold and was put on some medication.”
Joe’s commitment to sobriety at this point was merely to please Kris and prove that he was ready to be a father. Yet, he continued to struggle with drinking. Eventually, they got pregnant with their second child.
“She got pregnant again and we moved to West Jersey, a much more rural area, where we didn’t know a damned soul,” Joe said.
However, this would be a providential change. Joe ended up doing an intensive outpatient treatment program (IOP) at the local hospital there. And unlike other settings he had been in, many of the people in this program actually wanted to get sober, which made an impact on him. He was also attending 12-step meetings.
“Around this time, now that my body and mind were clear from the alcohol, I started to have light bulbs go off during meetings and to realize I’m not the only one in the world who has gone through this,” Joe said. “My problems are the same as many other people’s and there are a lot of people out there who are a lot worse off than me. It put my life in perspective.”
Eventually, September 11th became another important date for Joe. But unlike the first in 2001, this second one in 2017 marked an event worth celebrating: his sobriety date.
At this time, as a stay-at-home Dad, he found himself with more time to watch TV. One day, for no apparent reason, he turned on the Catholic network EWTN. He began watching televised Masses and other programs about the Catholic faith. Then one night he did something he had not done in a long time.
“One night I just wound up praying. I had my eyes closed and I had a vision of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and I was down on my knees and asking God to take this disease from me. I asked him, ‘Can you take this cup from me?’ And that is the point where I realized the power of prayer and slowly but surely I started getting more comfortable with my faith,” Joe shared. “I finally found the courage to go to Mass with my son, little Joey. My first Mass was on Saint Joseph’s Day.”
He started to grow close to his pastor and realized he was one of the priests on a show he watched on EWTN.
“Of all the churches in this country, I wound up at this parish with this priest from EWTN! I had my first confession after 25 years or so and it was just amazing,” Joe said. “I cried after to have heard the priest give me absolution and tell me that all of my sins before that point were forgiven.”
EWTN would come through again for Joe in a powerful way. Joe first heard about Scott Weeman, the founder of Catholic in Recovery, on the EWTN show Journey Home. Eventually, Joe purchased Scott’s book The Twelve Steps and the Sacraments and sent an email to Scott about starting a Catholic in Recovery group in his parish. Scott returned Joe’s call and left a voicemail when Joe was in Eucharistic adoration, reading Scott’s very book.
The effect of this fortuitous call from Scott wasn’t lost on Joe. It has marked the beginning of Joe’s journey of bringing Catholic in Recovery to his parish and, ultimately, of helping spread the mercy of God to those struggling with addictions and unhealthy attachments.