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Former alcoholic turned Catholic sobriety advocate Derek O'ConnellSilvan Beer

This article was first published in German on https://www.swiss-cath.ch/.

(LifeSiteNews) — Derek O’Connell (born 1964) has had an eventful life. For decades, he struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. Going to confession was the turning point in his life and finally helped him rediscover and begin to live his now deep Catholic faith, leading him out of addiction. Now, together with his wife, he is working on a genuinely Catholic program to help other addicts find their way back to the security of God and overcome their addiction.

Silvan Beer:

You grew up in a very Catholic environment, right?

Derek O’Connell:

Yes, back then in Ireland everybody was Catholic. It was the air we breathed. For example, my grandmother would immediately bless you with holy water, when you stepped into their home. And the clearest memory I have of my grandfather is of him quietly and serenely praying the rosary. Or when the Angelus rang everybody would get on their knees to pray. It was just our culture. In almost every home back then there was an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus – an image portraying the Divine Heart of Jesus aflame with love. I remember walking past it as a child and as I stepped back and forth it seemed that his eyes followed me, I thought it is God and he sees everything.

S:

What was your relationship with God at that time?

D:

I had a deep relationship with God the Father. When I thought about God, I would think of the Father, his almighty power, and his providential care for us. Of course, I wouldn’t put it in these words then. But that is what I felt.

S:

Then at some point came a falling away from God.

D:

Yes, when I was about twelve there came a difficult time. We had problems in our family, and I asked God for help. But nothing happened. I believed in his Goodness and Power, but here he was not intervening. I became deeply disappointed and very angry. So, I severed the ties with God. I said to him: You have the power, and you do nothing. You don’t care about us. And I even swore at him to make that cut final. 

S:

When did alcohol come into the picture?

D:

Alcohol was a big problem back then in Ireland. I swore that I would never drink. But one day on Halloween a bunch of teenagers bought some alcohol and were caught by their parents. They hid the alcohol, but I saw where they put it. I came back the next day to try some. I drank my first bottle of beer and I remember while drinking it, something inside of me said: ‘This is going to be a problem.’ And basically from then on for 25 years I never stopped drinking. I could never drink responsibly. From the beginning, I drank to get really intoxicated.

S:

Where did life take you from there?

D:

Well, I left Ireland when I was about 18 or 19. I went to London and from there to America, where I lived for 16 years. I worked as a plasterer, so it was always easy to get work. In construction, nobody cares what you do with your life, as long as you show up and do the work. In that way, I went to London, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Nashville, Chicago and to Berlin, always on the drink. In Berlin, it got out of control with drugs and alcohol. I don’t even remember how long I lived there.

S:

Did you perceive your life as desperate at that point?

D:

It’s a good question because at that time I thought, ‘this is just how life is.’ But it was a very dark time. It was just this weekly cycle of getting totally drunk, then being hungover and deeply depressed and then doing it all over again. There was something very unsettled in me.

S:

Did you think about God in these years?

D:

I actually did. I was very angry with God and broke the relationship, but I still believed in in his existence. I would think about death as just falling into a black hole in space or there just being nothing. And the thought scared me, but in a way, it was also a relief to think that nothing really mattered. It was a very confusing time and I lived in this kind of despair that I couldn’t get my hands on. But I had my back to God, he was never part of the solution. In a way, alcohol was my God. I had this longing for escape. And alcohol was the only thing that gave me that. Alcohol was the instant answer to my questions. Someone at an AA conference once said: ‘If alcohol didn’t do so much for us, it wouldn’t be able to do so much to us.’ I understand that now. It’s a very diabolical situation, being addicted.

S:

Did you realize that you were addicted?

D:

Only very slowly. I didn’t really understand addiction, but I saw that I was drinking like no one else around me. And when I understood that I was addicted, I thought: ‘Well, that’s just how it is. As long as I can work and the bar is open, everything is fine.’ It’s a tragic way to look at life, but as an addict, you can’t conceive life without the drug. So that’s how I saw it. But it started escalating. I was drinking more and more. Then other drugs came with the drinking. I was arrested three times for driving while drunk. I found myself in very dark places. For example, in Berlin, I went to this tiny bathroom stall in a bar to do a line of cocaine. I had a chest pain and thought, that I might have a heart attack and die right there on the dirty bathroom floor in the smell of urine. I  didn’t care and did the cocaine anyway. It was a very dark existence of constant self-medication to escape from life. As I look back now, I see that it was a very selfish way of living. I was completely consumed by myself and my addiction.

S:

How did your body handle this destructive life?

D:

The thing is, I was very strong and I worked hard, which kept me physically fit for a long time. But at certain points, I would get very heavy with the drink. I would eat almost nothing. I remember in Berlin I would just go to the supermarket, get 1 or 2 bottles of vodka 3 packs of cigarettes and go home. And I would do this every day. I could feel myself getting sicker and sicker, till I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia from which I almost died.

S:

When did things start to turn for you?

D: 

In Nashville I got arrested again for drunk driving, when the police released me I went straight to a bar and continued drinking. I was arrested on Saturday, and released on Sunday morning, I drove the car straight to the bar, drank all day and drove home completely drunk that night. I woke up on Monday morning and while usually I would have a blackout, I wouldn’t remember anything. This time, I remembered every little detail as the scenes of the weekend passed by my mind. The thought came to me, you’re going to die, you will kill yourself… that’s ok… but you, you will take someone with you! Then I thought to myself: even worse you will survive and kill someone else. In that moment an image of a head-on collision between me and a mother with a van load of children came to my mind. I saw a big explosion in my imagination. At that moment I said, ‘I will never drink again.’ I had said that almost every weekend since I started drinking but as I look back now, there was something different. I had received the grace to begin the battle to conquer my addiction. I continued to smoke marijuana but I began to have long stretches without alcohol for the first time in my life.

In the sober time after that DUI, my mind started to clear and a real search for God began even though I was unaware of it. I was reading a lot of New Age books, looking at Buddhism, etc… anything but the Catholic Church. I had closed that door.

S:

Was there a moment of consciously finding back to the faith?

D:

I moved from Nashville to Chicago after the drunk driving. I met a Catholic family and the mother of the house seeing that I didn’t know the faith started to catechise me. One day she said she was going to confession and I thought she was crazy. I didn’t understand it. But somehow as she explained the Catholic faith it made sense to me though I pretended it didn’t.

Then my mother came to visit from Ireland. We were close and I wanted to give her some advice but I wanted to give her good advice that would help her so interiorly I said an Our Father silently. While I was speaking to her, I realized that there was a wisdom in my words that certainly was way above me. I saw an amazed look on her face as she listened to me and said to me you sound like a priest.

The next morning, I called the mother of the Catholic family and told her that last night, ‘I had a conversation with my mother but it wasn’t me that spoke it was God who spoke through me.’ I put down the phone, I turned to my mother and said ‘I’m going to confession.’ As I recall now, it seems I didn’t think of it. I just made the decision and went looking for a church. I drove around Chicago for a couple of hours trying to find an open church. I found Saint Mary of the Angels, an Opus Dei parish. I went into confession and said: ‘Bless me Father for I have sinned. But I don’t know how to continue from here.’ My last confession then must have been 25 years ago. And the priest said: ‘That a boy, You came to the right place. I’ll help you through it from here.’ He guided me in a very fatherly fashion through the confession. It was a beautiful and very intense experience. I came out of the confessional with the absolute certainty, that remained with me till this day: There is a God. He is infinite mercy. And all my sins are gone, He has forgiven me. I knew it. It was not an intellectual thing. I just knew it. The next day I went to the Mass. As I knelt down and waited to receive holy communion, in my thoughts I was brought back to my childhood, I remembered the awe I felt then for the Eucharist. Even the taste of the host brought me back to the parish of my childhood. When I came out of Mass, I looked out over Chicago and thought: ‘Everything looks the same. Nothing has changed. But in my heart, everything has changed!’ I had come home, I never wanted to be separated from God again. 

S:

Then everything was fine?

D:

Oh no. It was just the beginning of a long and hard war with many battles. But something completely different began, a new life because I had this encounter with the forgiveness of God. But the habits of a lifetime remained.

S:

How did you go on from there?

D:

I realized, that even though I grew up in a very Catholic culture, I knew almost nothing about my faith. I bought a Bible, and a Catechism, I found the Book True devotion to Mary. I started going to daily Mass and adoration. I remember thinking, kneeling in front of the Holy Eucharist: ‘Jesus, if this is you, I really have a hard time. I don’t get it. Please help me!’ And I just felt this joy and consolation, that I can’t begin to describe. I just knew it was Him. I literally learned my faith. 

S:

What happened to your addiction?

D:

A true battle began. I quit drinking for a while. Then one evening I was offered a drink and I just drank a little that evening. But the next time, I drank for three days straight. I tried to control it but couldn’t. A kind of cycle began. I would stay away from drinking and then relapse. But every time I was drinking it really troubled me that I couldn’t go to Communion. For the first time in my life there was a deep motivation not to drink. But still it was very difficult. I would go to confession and then to mass. And without even thinking I would leave the church and head straight to the bar. And then just do cocaine and drink for a couple of days. Then go back to confession. So, it wasn’t instantaneous. It was a long process. But it became clear, that it was either alcohol or God. The possibility of going to confession saved me in those days. I had great confidence that God forgave me and gave me the grace to win in the end.

S:

How long was the period of this struggle?

D:

It was about half a year of this going back and forth. But slowly it changed to not being about not drinking, not doing drugs, but having a desire for God. This shift of perspective started to happen from constantly thinking about my addiction, the struggle, and my sin to trying to follow God. But it really took time to change. One evening, I lay on my bed and reflected on all of the destruction that my consumption of alcohol had caused. How many forbidden doors had been opened because of the influence of alcohol? While thinking about this, I remembered how many years earlier I would marvel at my two-year-old niece as she learned how to walk. She was just about able to walk but could not do it alone. She would hold her hand up to mine and I would reach down mine to help her keep her balance, sometimes I simply held the tip of her finger to help her keep her balance but inevitably she would take her hand out of mine and would immediately fall. I thought to myself, ‘this is how I am with God. He has his almighty hand extended down to me, and he will never take it away, if I decide to take a drink I will have to take my hand out of his and I know what will happen immediately as did with my niece, I will fall.’ At that moment I made a choice. I chose never to take my hand out of the hand of God my beloved Father to take a drink or to take it out by choosing to sin. As I look back now, that was the moment that the addiction in me was conquered. That in itself was amazing, to be freed from the slavery of addiction! But it was much more than just freedom from slavery, it is freedom to live as a beloved son of God here on earth.

S:

How do you explain this time of struggle, where you stood between the addiction and what you already understood as the better life?

D:

We have such a strong attachment to our sin, whatever it may be. In my case it was my addiction. I came from a place where I thought that I could not live without alcohol. Where that just wasn’t a possibility. From there I went to a place where I realized that it is sin, that separates me from God. But the focus was on the sin. But somewhere along the line there was a shift, where it wasn’t any more about me wanting the sin and God, but just wanting God and enjoying this loving relationship. From then on, I never drank again.

S:

What did you do with this newly gained life?

D:

I knew that this wasn’t just for me, but that I had to help other people with my experience. And when me and my wife got married in 2021. With the blessing of that love, of the gift of that relationship, we talked about how we would want to live our relationship also for others. And we understood that we live in a world, that is consumed by addiction, whatever kind that may be. And the only real option for addicts that I have seen is the 12 steps program from Anonymous Alcoholics. And AA is a wonderful thing, but still, it’s just about getting sober. What I experienced is something that goes way beyond just being sober. We call the apostolate that we founded “La Via,” the Way, because it’s not just about being sober, it’s about reaching out to God trying to be faithful to him and overcoming the addiction in the process. He provides the grace, especially through confession and the Eucharist. The striving is not so much focused on the addiction, it’s focused on a blessed life in general that’s lived in communion with God and other people. With faith suffering has a different meaning, the addiction doesn’t just go away but we are reassured that it’s possible to overcome it. With Jesus Christ and the sacraments that he gave to his Church, we can be liberated from our addictions. This is what we want to share with people. It’s nothing I invented. It’s just the Catholic way lived to its fullest. That’s what we try to do, in our marriage, in our lives and shared with other people.

S:

What did you experience so far, sharing your story with other addicts?

D:

For example, recently I met another man who was struggling with addiction and gave him my number, in case he needed help. So, he called me when he was struggling. He was also a Catholic who had fallen away from the faith. He came over, helped me a bit in the garden and we had a long talk. I told him my story and a couple of days later he went to confession for the first time after 35 years, which helped him a great deal on his journey. Recently we also went to a prison in Ireland to talk about my experience. A member of the Missionaries of Charity who is a chaplain there invited us. 25 good, humble, very sincere men, who struggle with addiction, came to listen. That was very moving. One of them showed me a long list of things he is doing in the AA program to stay sober. And he asked me, what he should add to the list. And I said to him: ‘Go to confession.; Everything he was doing was right. But at the end of the day, you need to reconcile yourself with God. And we have this very concrete form of this reconciliation given to us in the sacrament of confession.

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