Free As a Bird

As a young man, he experienced the bondage of lust. Even becoming a priest didn’t solve the problem. But he came to SA, and found a new freedom when he got sober at the age of seventy.

I write this to express my gratitude to my Higher Power and SA for the gift of sexual sobriety. It’s been my goal all my life but I could not attain it on my own, no matter how hard I tried. God knows how hard I tried! I am now free from acting out, though I know this is contingent on maintaining my spiritual condition. I am in my sixth year of sexual sobriety thanks to my Higher Power and SA.

I never thought this would happen to me, as I suffered unbelievable shame and guilt for over sixty years! You see, I am a priest and had taken a vow of chastity. If you want to know what hell is like, I can think of no better way of describing it. Darkness and shame. I used to pray and pray and pray and go to confession and fast and God knows what else. When it first hit me—the fact of my own powerlessness—what a relief! I had been trying to do something I couldn’t do.

I was lucky to live long enough to find freedom. I don’t recommend to anyone to wait this long—to wait at all, really. I was a bit miffed that I had to wait till I was seventy to get sober. But that doesn’t matter now. If it took all that to get me here it was worth it—every day and month and year—for the peace and serenity and freedom from shame I have today. What a gift and how great a joy to live chastely in the freedom of the children of God!

I grew up in a little town in upstate New York. I was one of nine children, eight boys and one girl. I am a twin, and my brother Bob and I were like two halves of the same person. He was the outgoing one and I was the shy one. Though I loved company, especially my family, I was pretty much a loner and lived a lot in my head. My father was an alcoholic who never got into recovery. My mother was a devout Irish Catholic who taught us children to be loving, decent and above all, chaste. She used to say, “Don’t let the camel get his head under the tent.” She was telling us, don’t let lust get into your head or purity will go out the window.

I couldn’t heed her warning. I was in the fog all through puberty. I would hide in the upstairs back room to get away from the violence and I got into the habit of lustful fantasies and desires. This led to masturbation once and sometimes twice a week. Each time this happened, I was filled with guilt and shame and self-loathing.

I couldn’t wait to get to confession and get it off my soul. As a young kid I would bum a ride every Wednesday to the city, forty-five miles away, to go to confession. I was too ashamed to go to my own parish, as the pastor knew me and my whole family very well.

I was fourteen when I went to seminary, following in the footsteps of an older brother who was already a priest. As I got closer to ordination, my confessor told me I should have a year of what we call sexual sobriety before I was ordained. I almost made it, but then I had a slip. My confessor said I had done well, but that I should be on guard against lust.

When I was twenty-two and still in seminary, my twin brother Bob was killed in an auto accident. I couldn’t get over his death. His humor and high spirits had always been able to lift me out of my depressions. Without him, my depression deepened and I isolated more and more.

I did not lose my belief in God, but I thought God did not love me because of my repeated failures. Even after I was ordained, I did not stop acting out but would go to confession and promise not to masturbate ever again. I took to drinking to kill the pain and quickly became an alcoholic. I drank alcoholically for the next twenty years.

I indulged in lustful imagination and desire. Lust took me to buying pornographic magazines and acting out in adult bookstores and cruising around looking for someone to act out with. This led me to a deep disgust with myself and heavy guilt. I was lucky I did not get stopped by the police. I am lucky I did not go out of my mind—in fact such imaginings are insane! I also drank and got drunk, and this was the occasion of more lust.

Well, another priest said he thought I had a drinking problem, so the next time I got drunk I called him. It took me a little while to be convinced I was an alcoholic, because I didn’t drink like my brothers—I didn’t do the things they did. Despite my denial, I was sent to an alcohol treatment center for priests in October of 1982. I told my sponsor I was not convinced I was an alcoholic. He asked me, “Why did you drink?” I told him to get rid of the depression. He said, “That is not just drinking, that is drugging.” It really hit me that that is exactly what I was doing to get rid of the pain.

By this time my brother Frank was already years sober in AA. When I came back from treatment I asked him, “How does this work?” He said, “I don’t know, it’s magic!” And it is magic—the magic of grace. Thank God for the Twelve Steps and the friendship and example I get from the fellowship!

I went to meetings and got sober in AA. I was learning to use the Steps in my life, and my acting out became less. I found I didn’t have the nerve to go into bookstores without alcohol in my system. I was starting to have some serenity.

But lust didn’t go away, and I couldn’t kick the habit completely. I had a friend who ran a counseling center and told him about my problem. He thought I should try that program, and I promised I would “when I retire.” We’ll do anything to postpone! I know now he was trying to get me into SA.

Finally, on my retirement at the age of seventy, I went to that counseling center, which used a confrontational approach. The group confronted me about my depression and anger and low self-esteem, and finally about masturbation. The facilitator asked, “When was the last time you masturbated?” Well, I was shocked. I replied that I didn’t talk about such matters except in confession. He said, “Well, we talk about it here.” He told me to do a life history of my sexuality. I was about ready to say “forget it” but I knew this was the real reason I was there, and that it was now or never.

I gave as honest a history as I could, and I think it was the most difficult thing I ever did. I disclosed my childhood fantasies and acting out. When I was finished the facilitator said, “You’re a sex addict, and you need to go to SA.” That blew my mind. Why I don’t know, but I never thought of my struggles with lust as an addiction. You’d think I’d have caught on over a lifetime! But I recognized immediately he was exactly right—I have a sexual addiction and always have had it. I don’t know why and I don’t like it. Today I know I don’t have to know why and I don’t have to like it.

One of my favorite passages is Scripture is, “I rejoice in my infirmities, that the grace of God may be made manifest in me.” Of the seven deadly sins—the one I least would like is the one I’ve got. And so lust is the great leveler of my pride.

I came to SA in August of 1995. It was the last place in God’s world I wanted to go. It was the first place I should have gone to, fifty or sixty years ago!

When I got here, the other members told me I was addicted to lust and that I was not a bad person, but sick. Wow, what a relief! I felt like a weight had been lifted off me. I had one or two slips, I can’t remember, but anyway I got a sponsor and a home group and started to work the program.

I had a tough sponsor. He’s been very gentle and loving the last couple of years. But he was really tough at the beginning. I’d call him on the phone and tell him things and he’d say, write that down! He taught me how to focus on the positive. He took me through the Steps, one by one. And I started to change.

I had a lot of denial about my alcoholism, but once told “you are a sexaholic,” I had no doubt whatever it was true and the First Step came easy. My favorite step is Step Two. I am very aware of my powerlessness and I guess that is why the Second Step is crucial for me. I can’t, He can and will if I let Him.

I had to “come to believe” all over again in SA. I had a lot of anger at God, you see. My sponsor showed me the line in the Big Book that says, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” Little by little a new faith came, until I could believe that God loves even me. SA has made a believer out of me.

As I think back on all this I am so very aware of the damage lust did to me. The shame and guilt inhibited me in my relations with people and crippled my effectiveness as a priest. I am more aware of the devastation caused by my lust in the lives of others. I pray every day for all those I acted out with. And the more I make amends, the more free I get. Now I can stand before the people and the world and feel free. I cannot put into words what this means to me.

What is it like now? It is like it never was before; it is freeing and joyous, at times even glorious. For me, SA is the royal road to heaven. I don’t know of any other place I can go and speak truth and experience freedom. There is no place. To have found SA for me is to have found salvation, and freedom. And I never want to take it for granted.

Today I am semi-retired and living at a rectory in a poor section of the city. I keep quite busy and occupied with my parish work. I get up each day at six and go to the church for an hour of meditation. Then I come back to my room and prepare my homily. After Mass I have breakfast and go for a drive while I pray. Then I visit the sick in the parish and take communion to those who are housebound. At night I watch sports and news on TV and plan my appointments for the next day.

I go to two or three SA meetings a week and hold a service position in our local Intergroup. I’m a member of our Monday night home group and attend pretty regularly. I keep in touch with my sponsor, calling him from out-of-state when I travel. I have sponsored several men so far and am grateful that today God can use my defects to help another drunk.

I am very vigilant about TV. I can’t play with lust or I will lose and so I don’t put on radio or TV stations that are suggestive. This year I bought a computer and have not yet, thank God, used the Internet for any pornography. I am making progress on getting less negative and connect with friends when I get lonesome which is often. I have lost my parents, my sister and six brothers, and so I miss them very much. I am 75 years old and have a few health problems. I find the aging process quite a challenge.

I am amazed at the changes taking place in my life especially in the area of negativity and fear. In my litany I say I’m powerless over negative thinking. I strive to overcome negative thinking the same way I overcome lustful thinking. I pray every day for the grace of surrender. For me it all began in my head and if I don’t let lustful thoughts or desires in, I have got it made and I am free as a bird. I surrender the thought and get busy doing something positive, like what I am doing now—sharing my strength and hope and gratitude.

Last June I celebrated fifty years as a priest. We had a big reception, and a lot of people said nice things about me. I thought, if they only knew! One speaker made a point to thank all the different groups who were there, only he left out the most important one of all–SA. My sponsor and a few home group members were there too. I am so grateful to SA, for without my sobriety there would have been no party and no priesthood.

This new life I have is full of surprises. I’m not the same person I was five years ago. It’s just so wonderful to get up in the morning and thank God for another day of sobriety. One of the fruits of the Spirit is joy—and it’s the one I always wanted. I have a lot of joy today. Because if God can take someone like me, sexaholic that I was, and bring me into sobriety—that’s a miracle, that truly is “beyond my wildest dreams.” I never, never, never thought it would happen to me. Thanks be to God and SA, my sponsor and the fellowship, and to all those who have helped me in my journey of sobriety. Amen.

Dick O. died January 13, 2016

Dear Essay,

I have been meaning to send this to Essay for some time, but only now has memory and moment caught up with me. This story was originally submitted for “Member Stories 2000,” as it was then to be called. It went through some revision, was approved by the author, and given a short introduction, like the stories in the AA Big Book. But somehow as editors came and went, this one fell through the cracks. It has waited 17 years for publication.

Rereading it just now, I am struck anew by the freshness and timeliness of the story, and the courage and humility of the author. The intention in including it was to show that it’s never too late for sobriety–in fact, the first working title was “Sober at Seventy.” It may also be of interest to clergymen.

Though the author has since passed away, his joyful sobriety still speaks to us today. I submit it now as a tribute to Father Dick, whose anniversary was just passed (January 13). I pray that it may inspire the next generation of newcomers to find a new freedom and a new happiness.

Yours in fellowship,

Mike F., Rochester, NY

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