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. Part 1 covered my early life through some of high school. Part 2 covered my first year at a Twelve Step boarding school. This post will present my initial conversion experience. Part 4 will document my time at college and early years in marriage and part five will present the events surrounding my deconversion.
When we left off, I had just made my second escape from the Family School. I was more determined than ever to never return. I stayed to the woods, which were much more friendly this time due to much of the snow having melted. On my first trip, I failed to mention that I passed by a cabin in the woods. My feet had been freezing at the time and, after knocking on the door to verify that no one was home, I rested on the porch for some time, trying to massage my feet into a warmer state. I came upon this cabin again. It seemed like someone's summer residence, as there were no tire tracks in the snow, no footprints, no sign of anyone living there. I knocked again just to be sure. From where I'm not exactly sure, but an idea arose in my mind. Rather than limit myself to the porch, I decided to break in. I heaved a rock through the basement window and crawled in. Unfortunately, I found the door to the upstairs locked. After trying various ways to get it open, I crawled back out and threw another rock through the living room window. I went in and began to explore. My main goal was to get drunk. I had been at the school for a year, was incredibly angry about my existence there, and think that in addition to simply feeling the effects of intoxication (to escape), I also wanted to do something that would "give a middle finger" to the school. As counter-intuitive as that seems, that's what was going through my mind. Somehow I concluded that I could exact some kind of emotional revenge by doing what they didn't want me to do.
In any case, I did find some alcohol. It was somewhat surreal. I actually found what I hoped for and it came time to decide whether I was really about to throw my year of sobriety down the drain. I did. I found a radio and listed to some classic rock for a while and then packed a bag with helpful supplies (extra socks, bread, water, alcohol) and left. I made it into town late that night and had no idea what to do. I walked all the way through the town (it only takes about 20min) and came up on a highway department site right before the on ramp to the highway. There were a lot of yellow service trucks there and several happened to be open. I slept there for the night, though it wasn't good sleep at all. It seemed I had traded less snow for colder temperatures. It was about 10F (according to the outside thermometer at a nearby bank), and my pained feet would wake me up after a short time and I'd have to pace around and stomp them to keep warm.
The next day I entered the town's diner and just sat there. I asked for water with no money to buy anything. They tend to know a runaway when they see one and, for whatever reason, take kindly to them. They gave me some coffee and a sandwich for no charge. I was warned that staff would be coming in throughout the day to look for me (like I said, they must have quite a lot of experience with runaways). This ended up happening later that afternoon. A staff and student came in and sat down on either side of me. They said I looked like crap and asked if I was ready to go back. I said I was and we walked out to the car. Just as we got to the car, though, I ran off again into the woods. I hid there until much later that night and then returned to the diner. I should mention that throughout this time I was drinking the alcohol I stole -- I was in somewhat of a perpetual buzz.
While in the restaurant, a younger gentleman came and sat down. It came up that I had run away from the school and he started expressing his distaste for it (it seems that quite a few of the townspeople don't like it, actually). In any case, he was quite kind to me and gave me some cigarettes. Somehow it came up that he had some pot and I asked if I could get high with him. He agreed and once the restaurant closed, we left together. We drove off somewhere and I got high. It was quite odd. I recall the feelings being very similar to how they had always felt, but at the same time would almost describe it as being able to watch myself with a more "mature mind," knowing full well that this was pointless and wrong. One other way to put it would be, perhaps, that I was unable to fully enter in to the experience -- a part of me was shaking it's head even as the other part was partaking.
I slept in another pickup that night, and returned to the diner the next day. Soon enough, a staff and two students came in, but this time not so cordially. I made a break for the back door but couldn't unlock it in time to get out. I was more or less seized and not released until I was in the back seat with a student on either side. Once we got back to the school, I contemplated making a break for it one more time, but in trying to decide if I could outrun everyone and whatever other micro-evaluations were going on... I lost my chance.
My face was red from the cold. I hadn't showered in a few days. I didn't have much sleep in me, either. I looked and felt like crap -- this was only intensified by having to face everyone who was still back at the school -- disappointed staff and students. It's like it all sinks in over several hours: shame, helplessness, some despair about ever leaving... It's an awful feeling. The repercussions for a second runaway are quite a bit more severe. My shoes were taken and I wore only shower flip flops (to reduce the likelihood of me gallivanting through the woods again), I was on "double shadow" (where two students have to monitor me all day, everyday), and most importantly, I was put onto what is known as "work sanction." Work sanction entails being temporarily suspended from classes to do work. This is typically done when someone is perhaps failing classes or so rebellious that they aren't putting any effort toward school anyway. There can be several aims: to punish you for not doing what you're supposed to, to "get the body working so the mind will follow", or to show you the pointlessness of your rebellion (e.g. a student may be made to clean rocks outside with a toothbrush all day and then just throw them back afterward). For the family group I was in, work sanctions were simply automatic after a second runaway attempt.
For a week and half, I would spend all morning in study hall to read AA literature, and I spent the afternoon paving a dirt road with pebbles. There was a huge pile of rocks and I would fill two 5 gallon pickle buckets with pebbles, carry them several hundred feet, and then dump them out on the dirt road to pave it. We did this for several hours every afternoon. I did this in flip flops. In February. Needless to say, you're quite tired at the end of the day. I was also in the corner and standing, which only added to the difficulty.
For whatever reason, I couldn't contain my secret anymore about the house. I confessed to having broken in. This brought about quite a lot of activity. I had to make a statement and be formally arrested for the crime (handcuffed and brought before a judge to be arraigned). I was informed that my charges were to be 3rd degree burglary, a felony, with the potential for a six year prison sentence. It was crushing news. It also began my conversion.
I want to spend a brief moment discussing my spiritual journey thus far in the story, which I've left out so far. Recall that I became Catholic in Part 1. The Family School had a parish priest who spent an immense amount of time and energy with the kids at the boarding school. He held confessions, talked to anyone who requested his time, said Mass on Wednesday mornings and Sunday evenings, and held retreats every single weekend for Family School kids. He was insanely generous and probably one of the most loving, caring, passionate, spiritually energetic, disciplined, wise, and kind men I've ever met. That statement stands regardless of whether we still line up on views about the supernatural realm. He was one of my heroes. During that first year, I did try to take the faith life more seriously. Despite becoming Catholic, religion was previously a way for me just to fit in and avoid feeling awkward. It really did start to become something I took interest in. The priest there helped that, and the immense spiritual/prayer focus of the school in general also inspired this. I tried praying sincerely and tried "living my life for god." I guess I don't recall if I had any sense of what that was or meant, but I tried nonetheless. I began having an awareness of god, at least, to the extent that I was "meta-aware" of when I did things I thought were probably not pleasing to him (saying something inappropriate or looking at a girl's butt or chest, for example).
Back to my conundrum. I would caution one from taking a simple "foxhole" categorization view of this event. I don't consider that my response to all of this was as simple as, "god, get me out of this and I'll never drink again." It was more than that. For the first time, I really had to admit that I had screwed myself purely for the sake of getting drunk. Yes, everything I put my parents through was horrible, but I think there was some degree of thinking that I wasn't "that bad" compared to others at the school, or that I never got any "real consequences" from my actions. Well, here it was. I had just done what I never would have thought I was capable of. I broke into a house to get drunk and now faced some incredibly serious charges. I should also mention that the Family School sends kids on a tour (kind of like Scared Straight) regularly and I had attended one of these tours a few months previous. Having seen a prison, I was fairly sure that I would never live through one. This brought about the realization that I had literally forfeit my life through my actions. I had some very intense times of prayer, and they weren't of the foxhole type -- they were simply an admission of complete powerlessness (I had literally put control of my life into someone else's hands) and an admission that god was god and I was not. I surrendered my life unto god (I would say this was, essentially, declaring my allegiance to live according to god's ways).
I went to court for my sentencing and received what's known as a Youthful Offender status: my felony was reduced to a misdemeanor and my record would be sealed and erased contingent on certain conditions such as completing my time successfully at the Family School and completing three years of probation (no drugs, good grades, attending AA meetings, etc.). Obviously this was quite the reprieve. I was overjoyed. I believed that god had given me a second (or nth) chance to live a good life. I devoted myself to god, to the twelve steps, and to a path of sobriety. I became even more devout and intent on being spiritually healthy and living a live pleasing to god. Despite still having to work out of some messes (still in the corner, on work sanction, and behind on school work), I couldn't have cared less. I would have done about anything. I regained trust fairly quickly -- others could see a real change and knew I meant it this time.
I finished out the rest of my time at the Family School and graduated in December of 2002. My parents were able to take me home to visit some colleges toward the end of that year, and I chose the University of St. Thomas (UST) in St. Paul, MN, primarily because of a charismatic Catholic community called Saint Paul's Outreach (SPO). One of the teachers at the Family School was a St. Thomas alum and was involved with SPO. They had houses around UST where Catholic students would live in order to grow in their faiths while at college. I had been away almost two years at this point and was a bit nervous about spreading my newfound sober wings at college. My sobriety and faith were more important than ever and these Catholic houses sounded like the perfect way to help foster both.
I wasn't set to start college until the fall of 2003, so I made the choice to stay and work as a staff member at the school from Jan 2003 - June 2003 instead of going home where staying sober might be a bit more difficult. This also was a way to "give back" to students. It can be a powerful message to see a graduate staying by his own free choice in a place one considers to be a precursor to hell. I shared my story and witnessed and tried to give other students hope. I was quite a role model for the students and I'm sure I provided the staff with hope as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the success rate for addicted kids isn't that great. It can do a lot of good for staff members, who spend their waking hours pouring their hearts out to help troubled kids, actually see fruit develop from their work. It was a great six months.
Thus ends another part of my saga. Continue on with my summer at home, my college years, and early marriage in Part 4.