By David L.
My earliest memory is from when I was six or seven years old. I don’t remember anything before then. I walked into my kitchen with fear flooding and pulsating through my entire body, and my heart pounding loudly against my chest. My mother was sweeping up glass and the kitchen cabinets were all torn up. Cereal was strewn out all over the floor and even outside, with the door unhinged and the screen broken. My mother was shaking and crying while she swept the glass that was all over the floor. She turned to me and said, “David don’t come in here, go back to your room.”
The beatings started when I was nine and went on until I was about fourteen. My father would walk into the house and I could tell from the way he opened the door and the sound of his footsteps if it was going to be a long night. The predominant memories I have of my father are of him gritting his teeth and bellowing at me to lower my hands from protecting my face and him thrashing me over and over again. Eventually I learned to expect the beatings. My mother was no help. She molested me and conscripted me into a role between my father and herself, and my father would blame me for many arguments he had with my mother. My parents had cycles of arguments, with reoccurring themes and levels of intensity, but what was always for certain was that eventually my father would shout and yell at the top of his lungs for hours into the night and early morning. I grew accustomed to it and eventually learned to sleep through it.
We were weekly church goers, and sometimes more than that because my mother was on the worship team of the Baptist church we attended. I felt tormented from the silence and pretense I had to practice daily. I wanted to die as early as the age of nine. I never attempted suicide, but I thought about it a lot. The story I was taught growing up was that Jesus was born to die for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day to prove that he was God. And that I was in need of God’s grace because I was a sinner. God supposedly “loved” me no matter what, and I was chosen by God to either be saved or condemned. Only God actually knew which it was.
I knew and FELT all along that these stories were delusions. They didn’t come close to describing reality and couldn’t help me experience peace and happiness. What was more real and true for me than any story I heard about Jesus was the chaos and destruction I experienced at home. The predominant feeling I had in my home was fear. I had no idea what love and safety felt like. There was always an abiding sense of terror, heaviness in my chest, knots in my stomach, confusion, shame, and loneliness. The only relief and solace I found was outside my house with the few friends I had, and playing sports with my siblings, when we were allowed.
I eventually learned how to run well and earned a cross country and track scholarship to attend college in East Tennessee. I decided, based on a couple of experiences from my childhood, that I was supposed to be a pastor. When I began college my freshman year I was further conditioned to believe the message already given me — that I came from a “loving Christian family” and that I was to follow “the will of God.” Then one morning sometime in October of 2010, my sophomore year, I woke up and wanted to die. It was as if a switch had been flipped and I was suddenly overcome with racing thoughts of suicide and despair. My personality shifted, and I became intensely depressed and unable to get out of bed in the morning without tremendous effort. I experienced daily and reoccurring thoughts of suicide, imagining my funeral and dark violent fantasies about everyone I was around.
Shortly after this, during Thanksgiving break, I had my first drink. I waited until my grandparents went to bed and snuck over to my grandfather’s bar and poured myself some brandy. I loved the flush warmth that rushed to my face and the way the alcohol tasted and spread throughout my whole body. Eventually I was craving alcohol anytime I hung out with my friends at home or college. I soon had my first binge when I drank cup after cup filled to the brim with Absolut Vodka. My favorite drinks were Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. Eventually I was sneaking drinks, stealing liquor from my friends, and obsessing over it. I was typically a binge drinker, and occasionally a daily drinker.
The beginning of my journey into accepting atheism, or as I would prefer to put it, “non-theism,” as reasonable and true for me was when I began studying the work of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bible scholar Walter Wink in my junior and senior years of college. I saw in Bonhoeffer a minister and teacher who was able to question and challenge all the traditional teachings of the church in order to oppose the Nazis. Bonhoeffer’s life and theology are an example to me of someone who was honest with himself and others about his personal beliefs, even when it cost him his life. He developed his own concept of God and helped me to be honest about what I believed and didn’t believe.
Walter Wink’s work on the myth of redemptive violence helped me to see into the self-destructiveness of my Christian conditioning and allow myself to stop identifying with it. During my senior year, when my dissatisfaction and emotional pain was so great that I seriously considered ways to kill myself, I found Buddhism. I also read a passage in Wink’s book The Powers that Be in which he discusses Jung’s ideas about introjection and projection. I eventually understood that, like many victims of trauma, I had introjected the violence of the world I had grown up in, while also projecting it out into the world in which I lived as an adult. This realization gave me insight into the ways I needed to be healed. A few days later I heard a person speak who eventually became my therapist mention these two words in a sermon. I sought this man out and finally disclosed to another human being what I had experienced as a child, all that I could remember. He handed me a book by Jeffrey Brantley entitled Calming Your Anxious Mind. In this book I found instructions on how to practice mindfulness meditation (from the Theravada tradition of insight meditation, vipassana) and body scanning.
As I sat on my sofa in my apartment on campus I felt the energy of my body and the pain, anger and sadness through the breath. The tears flowed and I finally, for the first time in my life, was in my body fully, and could experience all my senses. For the next four weeks I meditated daily and then upon returning home for Christmas break, I had insight into the pain and suffering I had experienced in my house.
I noticed how my father and mother were angry and sad a lot, and couldn’t express other kinds of emotions. I noticed it was as if they talked in scripts and their body language was labored and tight. They looked exhausted when they walked around the house. It was as if they were carrying a large weight in them. It was very sad. I left home after my father threatened to fight me, and thus began my journey into recovery. The day I left home was December 23rd, 2012, an important date and the beginning of me finally coming out of denial. Eventually I graduated from college, but couldn’t support myself. I was still occasionally binging, and couldn’t stop despite wanting to. I don’t remember the exact day of my last drink, but I do know I haven’t drunk since I left Johnson City, TN on March 9, 2014.
One evening in June 2014 I went for a walk and experienced an intense calm come over my body and mind. I sat and took a look at my life and started wondering what was wrong and what I was not seeing. I decided to move to San Antonio, TX where I found the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous after attending a “Heart of Recovery” meeting at the Shambhala Center in San Antonio. I found a sponsor who practiced Zen and Refuge Recovery. Refuge Recovery applies Buddhist philosophy and practices to recovery, using the four noble truths and the eight-fold path.
My step work was from a non-theistic perspective, though I was attending meetings where everyone talked theistically and believed in God. My first step was simply taking a look at the cause and effect of my drinking experiences. Seeing that I eventually lost control and was overcome by the obsession of it led me to step two, which was simply accepting the idea that there was more to reality than just what I felt and thought. My third step was making a conscious wise decision based on the options that arose as I continued to practice a sense of curiosity about my life. After practicing the steps and living in Oxford House for 13 months, I started to notice changes in my life. Oxford House is a sober living program where addicts learn to live in homes with each other and share the bills, chores and responsibilities of the house together while attending meetings. Living in Oxford House and practicing the steps of AA with my sponsor were my first experiences of learning to fully trust people.
Eventually I found myself 18 months sober, but in a cycle of workaholism, working seven days a week and not getting sufficient sleep. A friend suggested that I check out the 12-step community of Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families. This fellowship and its literature galvanized my recovery, and I began to experience and feel a deeper sense of love for myself and clarity about my life. Tony A., the cofounder of ACA, penned the “Laundry List” of the 14 traits of an adult child, which is a description of behaviors and ways of thinking that children of dysfunctional families adopt in order to survive their upbringing. It is a personality profile of how children of addicts live their life.
Along with learning about my childhood conditioning, which I was unconscious about, I am also learning to become my own loving parent by telling myself the story that I am basically loving and capable of receiving love. I am learning to keep my attention and focused energy on taking care of my inner child through loving-kindness practices and meditation. I now practice ways of being alone and with others that allow me to experience deeper levels of trust, intimacy, and fun. I now know what love feels like.
ACA gave me an awareness of my inner child, an ability to be my own loving parent, and a desire to further explore meditation and Buddhism. Eventually I came to find that AA, as I knew it, was not for me, and I began to devote myself to Refuge Recovery, a path that emphasizes the practice of mindfulness. I eventually stopped attending AA meetings and as of the past year I have attended Refuge Recovery regularly.
In February of this year, I attended a Refuge Recovery conference in Dallas, where I heard Noah Levine, the founder of Refuge Recovery, share about his journey and understanding of recovery. What he said resonated with me, and I now accept that my path is Refuge Recovery and ACA. The Refuge Recovery preamble summarizes what Refuge Recovery is all about really well, and it is true in my own life:
Refuge Recovery is a Buddhist-oriented path to freedom from addiction. This is an approach to recovery that understands: All individuals have the power and potential to free themselves from the suffering that is caused by addiction. We feel confident in the power of the Dharma, if applied, to relieve suffering of all kinds, including the suffering of addiction. This is a process that cultivates a path of awakening, the path of recovering from the addictions and delusions that have created so much suffering in our lives and in this world.
I recently discovered a new meeting place for my Refuge Recovery community and we will be starting a second meeting soon. I also recently attended my first “Mostly Agnostics” AA meeting. My impression of Mostly Agnostics was that the discussion in the room centered around feelings, trusting oneself and community to deal with problems in life, and learning how to be in relationships with others. The group I visited talked about how they became isolated in their active drinking addiction, and now in recovery they are connected to community and their feelings. There was no discussion or mention of God or Higher Power. People in the room described the inventory process and how self-awareness helps them to be in friendships and romantic relationships.
A little over a year ago, I entered into therapy, and was diagnosed with complex PTSD. This comes as no surprise to me, but it was truly helpful to finally hear a professional validate my experience. Complex PTSD is a diagnosis given to people who have experienced prolonged and intensive physical, psychological, and emotional trauma from people who were either primary caregivers or people who should have been trustworthy in situations of vulnerability. The nervous system of a person with complex PTSD is dysregulated from the abuse they endured and their own resulting hypervigilance. Their lives are often dominated by fatigue, fear, numbness, and confusion.
I have recently decided to begin pursuing a PhD in counseling psychology, and I plan to seek licensure as a professional counselor. I hope to to study and contribute to the ongoing research of complex trauma and the ways that mindfulness practices help foster recovery. Seeing the world through the lens of Buddhism helps me to have clarity and insight into the nature of my suffering. Instead of praying to a God to forgive or save me, I practice offering myself loving-kindness and compassion by sitting on a cushion, noticing the sensation of the breath, and stating kind words to myself. My practice is now daily, I sit for 20 minutes a day practicing Vipassana, and practice mindfulness throughout the day. I am learning to trust myself and trust others consistently, believing in my own potential for learning how to stop suffering, and welcoming the joys of life. I am beginning to enjoy my life for the first time and experience intimacy with myself and others. I wish for you who are reading this that you find your own path and learn through your own direct experience how to recover.
About the Author
David is a Jersey native who has been in San Antonio since June 2014. Currently he works as a Behavioral Health Tech and also a house painter. He intends to enroll in graduate school soon to pursue a career as a therapist. David has been sober since March 9th, 2014. He is a member of Refuge Recovery; he facilitates meetings in San Antonio and also helped start a second meeting in town. While David considers Refuge Recovery his primary community, AA and ACA are also home to him.
The images displayed in this article were created by Kathryn F.