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.
It wasn’t until Susan was older that she realized alcoholism ran in her family. This is because, though a functioning alcoholic, her father provided well for their family and she had a stable home life. This made it difficult to see that there were problems growing up.
Yet, aside from an occasional event of drinking, Susan didn’t follow her family’s path. That is, until fourteen years ago when her sister died unexpectedly and tragically from a rare medical illness.
“I was off and running and was drunk almost every night for ten years after she died. It was my way of coping with this tragic loss. Yet during this time I really didn’t have any concept that I was actually an alcoholic,” Susan said.
This event started a downward trajectory for her. It was exacerbated by a personal family and legal crisis, followed by the news that a friend had become gravely ill from a rare form of colon cancer. Susan decided to move in and help her friend as she was going through chemotherapy. But Susan’s drinking escalated. She was drinking one to two bottles of wine almost every night, sometimes blacking out. Eventually, her friend asked her to leave. Having moved to San Diego to help her friend with little money and nowhere else to live, she was homeless.
“I got asked to leave and checked into a hotel. I just wanted to die. I did not want to live the way I was living anymore. I wanted to commit suicide, but deep down I didn’t want to die. I just wanted all the pain to stop,” Susan shared. “I ended up calling someone to take me to the ER and admitted I was suicidal. There I was asked if I had a problem with alcohol and for the first time ever I said, ‘yes.’”
It would be on that day, September 17, 2015, that Susan had her last drink of alcohol. Her journey of recovery would not be an easy one, though. She ended up in a crisis house where she received supportive services. Following this, she entered a four-month treatment program for women. Though familiar with the Twelve Steps, she wanted nothing to do with them.
But then she had an epiphany. Shortly after arriving at the treatment facility, Susan attended an H&I speakers’ meeting at her treatment facility. Susan stayed after the meeting and noticed the large posters of the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions.
“I read the posters very slowly, and suddenly I saw the blending of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church and the Ten Commandments with the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. I was off and running with the Twelve Steps,” Susan said.
Susan converted to Catholicism in 2010 and it was from her sponsor that she heard about Catholic in Recovery. She has been attending Catholic in Recovery meetings at St. Joseph Cathedral in San Diego for more than two years now.
“In my Catholic in Recovery meetings, I get to talk about the Twelve Steps and I get to talk about Jesus Christ. There is always something in the Gospel readings or our reflections that is helpful, and I wish I could attend my Catholic in Recovery meeting every day,” Susan said.
Susan sees Catholic in Recovery as a great aid to her 12-step meetings. For her, Catholic in Recovery is not a replacement, since both work together to help her with her recovery.
“Catholic in Recovery is a wonderful addition to my recovery program and to my religion and I would encourage others to check it out,” Susan said.
While Catholic in Recovery offers her spiritual help with her recovery, it also has offered her a source of comfort as she’s had to mourn the death of loved ones. From April to August of 2018, she suffered three deaths. One of the individuals who passed away was her cousin Lynn, a woman with whom she was extremely close.
“My cousin Lynn was very close to me,” Susan shared. “Parkinsons ravaged her, but she was a great advocate in my recovery. On the 17th of every month, she would send me an online card for my sobriety and we spoke almost daily.”
When she passed away, she found love and comfort from those in her Catholic in Recovery group.
“I can freely express my grief in Catholic in Recovery meetings, and group members were praying for me throughout my cousin’s death and supporting me, “ Susan said, and then explained why these meetings have been so powerful for her. “God’s grace is just so present when I’m in a Catholic in Recovery meeting and there is such love there. We're able to express love and I get the beauty of God’s grace in action.”