This is part of a series in which I present a cumulative case for why I don't believe in god. The series index is here.
This particular post presents my personal story as background information and is one of five parts. This post presents my early life through some of high school. Part 2 and Part 3 present my experience at a Twelve Step boarding school. Part 4 will document my time at college and early years in marriage and part five will present the events surrounding my deconversion.
I'd like to kick off this cumulative case with my story. I think it's important as background information, and it will definitely be a part of the "mini-book" I'd like to finish this year so this will get some of that writing out of the way. I write this for two reasons. For one, I've found that non-believers who have always been so are quite often baffled by the fact that anyone could be a believer. I've also found that believers can be skeptical that de-converts were ever "true" Christians. I want to provide insight to the non-believer while simultaneously debunking potential accusations of "fake" belief. I'll be breaking this up into a few posts to make it more digestible. And so the story begins, "It was a dark and stormy night..."
I was born in Milwaukee in 1984. I have a half-brother who is 15 years my senior. He was out of the house after he graduated high school and before I had any memory-retaining consciousness. My dad is remarried; my parents have been the only two I've known and are still married today. They started their own graphic design business (back in the day, this meant developing pre-PowerPoint presentations, developing film, mounting it in plastic slides, and putting their physical slides into carousels for projectors). The business ran out of our basement until I was in 3rd or 4th grade or so when it moved to a rented space in Wauwatosa, WI. I attended a public school in inner city Milwaukee for k-5th. Apparently it is now closed! I then went to St. Benard's grade school in Wauwatosa for 6th-8th grades. My parents picked this location as it was only about 1.33 (repeating, of course) blocks from their business. I think they also might have thought a Catholic school would have better academics and/or students and faculty.
I can't speak for the academics since I've no grounds for comparison to a public school, but if they've ever been wrong about any hunches... that about Catholic students is the one. I can't think of a time when I've been surrounded by more power-hungry, spite-infested, vulturous, and simply mean spirited kids. Most of those in my class had been together since kindergarten, so I was naturally the "fresh meat" of the class. I couldn't tell you how many times my mom would pull up in front of the school to drop me off and I'd cry and beg her not to make me go. I also got glasses and braces that same first year, so my looks weren't doing me any favors.
I think this phase was extremely crucial and transformative in a negative way. What did I do in this environment? I adapted. I've never been above-average for height/weight or strength (in order to threaten others with beat downs), so I took to mastering the art of comedic relief and mischief to both build my reputation and keep the negative attention away. I learned to mock others for their abnormalities. I learned to steal. I learned to make horrid insults about teachers and other students alike. I became a sort of linguistic murder expert. Nothing was too foul, vulgar, or obscene to leave my lips. I honestly think that prior to this I had been a pretty darn good kid. Innocent (for the most part), sensitive, naive, etc. My parents might disagree (after all, I did insist that our cat, Spunky, was the one responsible for the side of the bathtub being covered in crayon at one point...), but I think I was pretty good-natured. These three years really transformed me and contributed to later troubles.
I took up occasional smoking in 7th grade and also experimented a little with drinking with a friend of mine. I continued smoking pretty much from here on out whenever I could. This often entailed finding older kids to buy me cigarettes, or (more often) stealing cigarettes from people who smoked. I got caught a few times in grade school which was quite upsetting to my parents. Smoking was always quite an addictive type of behavior for me. I craved them. I started to obsess about when I could smoke next. Getting caught only inspired me to try harder not to get caught. I just wanted to smoke.
Before I move onto high school, I should mention that my parents were never really aligned with any particular faith/religion. My mother was raised Catholic and my father Baptist. Both left their respective faiths. We attended Unity Church for a while (I think this is the one) and then something I vaguely recall as "Science of Mind." We spent most of our time, however, participating in Siddha Yoga. My dad was also engaged in Eckankar during most of my life, though he more recently fell away after their scandal was uncovered. Faith never really played a big part of our lives. I would lay in bed each Sunday hoping that we weren't going anywhere or that by me not getting up I might make us late enough that my parents would abandon the mission. Once at St. Bernard's, I was suddenly in the extreme minority. The whole school attended Mass each Wednesday morning, and I was one of just a handful in the whole school who had to turn their knees to the side to let all of the communion recipients through. I felt very left out. At some point RCIA was mentioned and I looked into it. It just didn't end up happening at St. Benard's, but the seed was planted.
Then came high school - Marquette University High School, another Catholic (Jesuit, actually) school. Very good academics and great sports. I played soccer from age nine onward and like to think I was pretty good. At age 11 I joined a traveling team, the Milwaukee Nationals. It was a great experience for me, but I can't figure out how my parents did it. We had weekend trips all the time to surrounding states like Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio. We travelled as far as Texas for the Dallas Cup. I played on that team for four years, and in 1998 we won the Wisconsin State Cup (1998 for U-14 boys). I played soccer at Marquette as well. I didn't make it to playing varsity (story to come), but Wikipedia can tell you why Marquette was a good choice for soccer!
We had a second German foreign exchange student live with us my freshman year (the first lived with us the previous year). The first was a pretty straight shooter, but the second was, shall I say, a little more "supportive" of my smoking and alcohol discovery. I got home from school before my parents got off work and he and I (or just I) would sometimes help ourselves to a portion of the "spirits" they kept under the kitchen sink. I wouldn't do this every day, but definitely with regularity. My smoking also increased. I was able to walk to a Walgreens near my high school and loiter outside until I saw someone I judged to be willing to buy me cigarettes. After a few tries, I always found someone. I got caught plenty more times, and smoking became quite the feud arena between my parents and I. They are quite honest folks and would report me to Marquette authorities each time I got caught since I was required to sign an Athletic Honor Code agreeing not to smoke or use illegal substances. I never did get caught during my two soccer seasons there, so I would join up with an off-season sport to serve out my athletic suspension. I joined track the first time and cross-country the second. I ended up not being too bad, though I'll take the 400m to a 5k any day of the week.
Sophomore year is when it all changed. It was homecoming. I managed to find someone who would go with me from the female equivalent to Marquette, Divine Savior of Holy Angels (oh, I forgot to mention that Marquette was an all-boys school). I don't even know if I can remember her name. In any case, there was a sleepover for the guys at a friend's house and a sleepover for the girls at someone else's house. Someone happened to have a bit of pot with them at the party and I was anxious to try it. High school was pretty much my first time ever having a real opportunity to try it and I can distinctly recall wanting to try it quite early after realizing it was a possibility, but the possibility never arose until that night. I smoked it but didn't feel anything. I'd heard it took often took a few times to feel the effects of marijuana, so naturally I dedicated myself to trying it until I felt the effects. I knew someone who sold it, bought a bag, and smoked outside my bedroom window from a tin foil pipe for several days in a row until I got high. And I definitely got high.
After that, I was pretty much off to the races. I smoked cigarettes whenever I could, drank when I could, and tried my damndest to get high every weekend. Like my relationship with cigarettes, my usage began to take over. I didn't want to wait until the weekends anymore. I would get high after my parents went to bed so I could lay on my back and stare at my bedroom light while listening to Dark Side of the Moon. I'd try to detect the exact moment I heard the opening and closing heartbeat in Speak to Me and Eclipse. I'd make faces at myself in my bathroom mirror for quite a long time. Living the high life, right? My parents eventually found out the following summer. By that time I was probably getting high at least a few times a week. They were obviously quite disappointed but more than that I'd say that they were simply concerned. They didn't want me to adversely affect my life, future, talents, etc. They asked if I'd be willing to enroll in an outpatient rehab program, and I agreed. To this day I'm not exactly sure why. Really wanting to change? I'm skeptical about that. I lean more toward the theory that I was doing something finite duration (3 mos.) which I thought I could endure yet which would produce a substantially longer lasting return (renewed trust from my parents).
During all of this mess, wouldn't you know that an opportunity to enter RCIA came up. I had now been in Catholic school for about 3.5 years and still felt left out. Now I got to feel left out among a group of about 1,000 instead of just a few hundred at St. Bernard's. There were monthly Masses and other Catholic things to remind me that I didn't fit in. I joined an RCIA program with our local church and became Catholic on the Easter Vigil in 2000. I was already baptized thanks to my Baptist grandma (my dad's mom). She freaked out when she found out that I hadn't been baptized when I was visiting her in Florida on summer. I was seven and her pastor came to the house and asked me if I had any Bible verses memorized. We learned John 3:16 together, he asked me if I would like to be baptized, and I said yes even though I had no idea what I was doing. That was that. With RCIA I sealed the deal with the Catholic Church.
During rehab I stayed clean except for one relapse during those three months, which, during a flash of inspiration, I told my parents about on my own. I don't think very highly of the program (I recall drawing cartoons and words on the inside and outside of paper bags to represent what we felt on the inside compared to what we portrayed to the world) and still don't think very highly of outpatient programs. They comprise an extremely minimal commitment (2 or so hours three nights a week) and don't alter any of the typical daily patterns -- "negative" friend interaction, usage opportunities, peer pressure, etc. In any case, when the rehab period was over, I stayed clean for another three months or so. This was essentially in hopes of getting back together with a girl I had dated (I won't go into that), but when that possibility vanished, I also lost my inspiration to abstain. I started getting high again.
A short time after that I was arrested. My mom and I were on our way home from school, and I had a bottle of vodka in my backpack (same loitering technique used with cigarettes applied to the local liquor store). I'm still not sure if she just suspected that I was under some type of influence due to my attitude or if she heard the boggle "glug" in my backpack, but she made a detour to the local library, called the police from inside (while I waited in the car), and then drove to the police station to have my searched. They found my unopened bottle of alcohol, but also a marijuana pipe and some pot. Big game changer for me. Rather than respond rationally (hmmm, these activities seem to be burdening my life quite a bit, perhaps I should course-correct), I entered a downward spiral. I essentially engaged in an all out power struggle with my parents. I began getting high every day, going and coming whenever I cared to, stealing as much money from them as I could, and so on. The language wasn't too pretty, either (as you'll recall, I had been working on my linguistic assaults since grade school thanks to the Catholic kids). The arrest resulted in an initial court visit where they prescribed 50 hours of community service, $500 to cover initial legal fees, and a clean drug test, all to be completed in 90 days. I was arrested on January 6th, 2001, and over the next month did absolutely nothing toward accomplishing those requirements.
Another game changer came on February 7th, 2001 at approximately 5:30 in the morning when T.J. and Brian from a custodial transportation service woke me from slumber, drove me to Mitchell airport, and joined me on a flight to the Family Foundation School in Hancock, N.Y. But that segment of my saga is for Part 2...