I remember it clearly. I was a freshman in high school and an older teammate from the football team was having a “kegger” party. This wouldn’t be the first time I tasted alcohol, but it would be the first time I drank heavily and liked it.
It was only one night but it was an experience that would set me on a path of wrestling with abusive drinking habits through the remainder of my adolescence and most of my 20s. What began as a youthful pastime and way to prove myself among my peers, my binge drinking quickly developed into a destructive pattern that greatly distorted and wounded my identity as a young man.
Although I had wonderful, loving parents who did their best to guide me, as a Hispanic male growing up in a blue-collar town in South Texas, alcohol was everywhere. Almost every adult male I knew drank alcohol. It wasn’t uncommon to see a family friend or relative drink too much at a party or gathering. But such instances weren’t noteworthy or alarming because it was so routine. I figured that that’s what men do. Men drink; they drink a lot.
In alcohol I also found temporary relief from my frenetic and racing mind. It didn’t take long to discover that while under the influence it was much easier to relax, be gregarious, and push aside things that were troubling me. I didn’t realize it then, but I struggle with ADHD and anxiety, and the pressures from school, sports, and navigating the social ladder only exasperated the symptoms. Unfortunately, rather than seeking healthy ways to manage these challenges, such as prayer, exercise, and professional support, I chose to turn to alcohol to help me cope.
I wasn’t the guy who could have a few drinks and call it a night. I was the one ready to down a shot, chug a beer, and drink well beyond the limits of having a good time. In many ways, I looked like a person on a vendetta to destroy himself. As time went on, this approach got me into a lot of trouble. In high school, I was ticketed for being a minor in possession of alcohol multiple times and was slapped with many hours of community service. As I continued drinking aggressively in college and as a young adult, the circumstances escalated. As I moved on from house parties with friends to clubs and bars, I regularly got into fights and altercations. I was arrested for drinking-related offenses multiple times, including for driving while intoxicated.
Through the grace of God I am fortunate that I never seriously hurt anyone. If I had, life would look a lot different now. I am so grateful that the Lord guided me through this turbulent time.
As is common with those who depend on alcohol and other drugs, using not only got me into trouble but it also warped and eroded my sense of worth.
The simple truth is that I drank so much and so often that I did a lot of stupid things and put myself in a lot of bad situations. I made many humiliating and hurtful mistakes, damaging relationships with girlfriends, family members, and close friends. Deep-seated shame from my poor decisions not only haunted me, but ingrained a profound sense of self-contempt and dislike.
I look back now and I see clearly that I was afraid to confront the truth. Although alcohol had wreaked so much destruction in my life, I wasn’t ready to let it go because at the root of my addiction was fear. Fear of honestly examining myself and my mistakes. It was too painful to stop partying, to sober up, and to reflect on what was really going on in my heart and conscience because I knew I wouldn’t like what I saw.
Alone I never mustered the courage to sober up and reflect on my circumstances. Although I managed to stumble my way through college and set out on a good career path afterward, I didn’t face my demons. As a young professional, despite some progress in cultivating healthier habits and making better choices, drinking was always there. I rarely strung together more than 2-3 days without having a drink and I would almost always consume excessively on the weekends. It was frustrating. For every few small steps forward I would inevitably take a giant stride backward.
I continued in this destructive holding pattern throughout most of my 20s until I began attending Sunday Mass again and joined a local Catholic young adults community. Although raised Catholic, I hadn’t attended Mass for some time and the Catholic faith had no active presence in my life. I came back to the Church without any expectations: all I knew was that I was desperate for help and healing.
It was tough at first. I was way out of my comfort zone and I didn’t know anyone. I was full of shame and I felt like I didn’t belong amongst all these good and “holy” people. Yet, I knew I needed to be there. I realize now it was the Holy Spirit that encouraged me to keep coming back, week after week, month after month. Gradually, as I began praying and learning about the Lord and his Church through Scripture, Church teachings, the Mass, and forming positive relationships with other truth-seeking Christians, I started to experience change.
As I began to understand that I could be forgiven and that the Lord’s love is boundless, alcohol’s hold loosened. The Great Physician helped me work through the inner brokenness that was at the core of my drinking.
Saint John Paul II wrote, “Only in silence does man succeed in hearing in the depth of his conscience the voice of God, which really makes him free.” As my friendship with Christ deepened and took center stage in my life, He granted me, animated by prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the silence, stillness, and fortitude to “hear” the truth. I was finally able to admit to myself the mess I had made and the wounds that needed healing. It was painful, but it was the only authentic path to health and wholeness. Through His grace, I began to believe the truth that, although I was a broken sinner who made many mistakes, I still had worth and was loved by my Heavenly Father.
The acceptance of my failures and the Lord’s love gave life to a new interior freedom and hope deep in my being. This new hope has been the foundation source of my life ever since. More than six years have passed since I walked into a local parish broken and desperate for change. It hasn’t always been easy, and as with any journey there have been ups and downs. Yet, with devotion to prayer, the Eucharist, and community, I remain delivered from the abusive drinking habits that shackled me for so long. I am confident that our Heavenly Father can guide you to your new freedom and hope as well.
Leo Gallegos is the founder of Libertas, a Christian apparel brand and content resource for men. Leo and his wonderful wife Liz have two young boys and currently reside in the Virginia Beach area. Follow Libertas and Leo on Instagram @libertas_alive and @catholic.running.guy.