My spiritual awakenings from unexpected places.
Note: This article was originally published in Elephant Journal.
I started taking drugs in 1999, at age twenty-six, when I moved to New York City to work as a consultant on Wall Street.
I had just graduated from the Weston Jesuit Seminary in Cambridge, MA, where I acquired a master’s degree in Roman Catholic Theology. Before that, as a Harvard undergrad, I was a student pastor in an Evangelical Christian organization, leading prayer groups and Bible studies on campus.
My gateway drug was Ecstasy, then Marijuana, then Cocaine, then everything else. All told, I ended up trying every single recreational drug imaginable, sometimes all in one night, including GHB, Ketamine, Crystal Meth, and drugs you’ve probably never heard of unless you know what 2cB is, or 2ci.
I even smoked Crack and tried Heroin. Although to be fair, my Heroin usage was accidental. A friend of a friend gave me a pill in a club that I thought was Ecstasy. Once I took it, however, something different came over me.
I still remember how each time I puffed on my cigarette; it sent waves of tingling pleasure through my whole body emanating directly from my chest. I had to go sit down it was so orgasmic. I lost contact with my friends. And, I had their coat check tickets in my pocket. They went home in the cold morning without their winter coats.
I only found out later it was Heroin I had taken.
I attended Catholic school while growing up in Fort Lauderdale, FL. In retrospect, it was pure torture, the agony of being forced to “examine my conscience for the sins I may or may not have committed,” the stultifying boredom of going to Mass, and the repressed, seething sexual rage of the former nuns who were our teachers.
Then, at age seventeen, on a retreat my senior year of Catholic High School, I met a priest who changed my life.
He spoke on the retreat. Afterwards, I sat with him in a face-to-face Confession style. I don’t remember what I said. But then, he stood to pray the traditional prayer of Absolution. As he did, he put his hands on my forehead. The moment he did, something went woooosh right though my body, from head to toe, in a split-second flash of electricity that felt like water washing me clean.
From that singular, extraordinary experience, I realized there was actually something real behind the mind-numbing dogma and ritual. That single encounter set me on a journey for my adult life to find God. It’s what led me deep into the heart of Christianity, morphing my adventure into Protestant Christianity because it felt more alive to me. I loved the singing, the preaching, and the high energy of Evangelical Church.
And yet, by the time I had graduated from Harvard (where I studied post-modern philosophy), I had already seen the irreconcilable flaws of Christianity. I couldn’t explain it eloquently at the time. It just felt like I was losing my faith, losing my ability to spout the same warmed-over platitudes about Christians going to Heaven and everyone else, to Hell.
As a result, I started to doubt the validity of my spiritual experience at age seventeen – for it was directly from that experience that I harvested my Christian interpretation of reality.
And, if the Evangelical Christian view of the world now appeared to me too small, too bigoted, unable to satisfy the integrity of Being, then the only conclusion I could draw was that my Christian-based spiritual experience must have been false too, perhaps a psycho-somatic by-product of my own over-active imagination.
Nonetheless, I still wanted to be a priest or minister, somehow. So, I returned to the Catholicism of my upbringing, as if, I suppose, to find a more intellectually satisfying approach. I also went deep into a service model, Dorothy Day style. I moved to Los Angeles to live and work with priests in a poor Mexican barrio. From there, I enrolled in seminary, back in Cambridge, MA. But, I couldn’t fathom celibacy for the rest of my life – even though I was still a virgin at the time.
Mostly, I realized that I wanted to get started living; it was time. I had devoted nine years, from age 17 – 26, to the pious life of a social monk. When my college roommates were out drinking on Friday nights, for example, I was attending Friday night church services.
Coming to New York, to enter the job market, opened a whole new world of possibility. I had a primal urge to break out and break free.
I called up a friend from Harvard, who had moved back to New York, and told him sheepishly about my overpowering desire to go clubbing and try drugs. This was someone who, a few years earlier, had shared my desire to be a Roman Catholic priest. He laughed, admitting to me he was already there. He invited me to join.
And so it was at the now defunct nightclub called Centro-Fly that I took my first pill of Ecstasy, under the watchful supervision of him and his crew of friends. Each of them shared with me their first experience and answered all my questions about what to expect. They coached me through the whole night – it was something I would later do for many first-timers myself.
I’m smiling now as I write this – that night, that experience, the exhilarating rapture… I still remember the sensation on the back of my neck as the aptly-named drug starting unfolding it’s ecstasy along my spine and into an explosion of unfathomable bliss inside my skull.
I remember later that night walking around the dance-floor, hugging everyone in the club… pressing sweaty bodies against sweaty bodies, man or woman, it didn’t matter. I was in love… with life, with feeling good, with human connection.
In high school, I had been painfully shy, painfully unable to express my emotions, unable to look people in the eye, unable to ask-out the girl I really wanted to ask-out on a date. And, suddenly that emotional barrier was lifted.
But, it was cocaine that was the real shell-popper.
As a teenager, my family and friends used to tease me that I moved on what they called “Turtle Time.” I preferred to think I was “marching to the beat of my own drummer.” But the metaphor was true; I did hide myself emotionally inside a thick shell.
And then, suddenly, with one sniff of white powder, I had all the confidence I needed. I remember the first time it happened. There was a gorgeous blonde standing at the bar. I walked right up to her, started talking to her, got her phone number, called her up later the next week, went out on a date with her, took her home, and slept with her.
And yet, even as I was having those experiences, finding new connections to parts of myself long suppressed, long-buried, long covered over in shame and guilt, even at the time, I realized I didn’t need the drugs to have that human connection. But, it was a necessary step, a necessary breaking down of an unseen wall in my life, much like the spiritual experience I had at age seventeen with the Roman Catholic Priest.
Now, many years later, at age forty, I have absolutely no desire to participate in Roman Catholicism, nor to ever take drugs again. I’ve given up my childhood religion just like I’ve given up the house of drugs. Now, I prefer meditation, yoga, and a diet of real, local food free from junk, sugar, coffee and alcohol.
And, I enter this new chapter of my life for the same reason I started down the pathway of recreational drug-use in the first place: to find real human connection.
My drug use was always about finding connection, breaking down barriers, healing old wounds, overcoming limitations, learning how to dance, learning to love music and learning how to be myself with people… until it wasn’t any longer.
After that first memorable night, I began using Ecstasy every Friday and Saturday night. Years later, I could take four or more pills of Ecstasy in a single night and feel barely any rush at all. It became a joyless experience of rote habit. Worse, after the night, day, and night were finally over, I would lie in bed tortuously-awake with piercing, throbbing headaches, cold sweats, shivering, my body convulsed in aching spasms.
There is, of course, a well-known down-side of extensive drug use. Near the climax of my drug-life, I was using cocaine to the point where I had an open bloody wound on the septum of my right nostril. It didn’t stop me. I just navigated the straw around it.
And there, sitting around a plate of cocaine on the coffee table, I used to tell my party friends that I thought of drugs like training wheels for a bicycle.
The drugs helped me to find my balance and get comfortable in my own skin. But, once I learned to be so, it was time to kick-off the training wheels. For me, that was a long, gradual, frustrating, self-judging process… one that involved leaving New York City altogether, going to India, living in Ashrams and meditating eight hours a day.
Recently, however, I’ve realized I do need to go to rehab.
It’s not for my drug use, but for my sports injuries. I have no lasting ill effects from my extensive adult drug use. But, I do (as of this writing) still have lingering scar tissue from all the sports I played as a boy.
My shoulders, back, knees and ankles are sorely in need of physical repair. And, I’ve finally admitted to myself just how much damage I did to my body playing tennis all day long in the summer and basketball every afternoon in the winter. So, I’ve sought out a Physical Therapist to help me rehab my body.
In this new chapter of my life, I choose to be kind to my body, to breathe deeply and fully into my body. I choose to be completely connected to my body, so I can be completely connected to who I am and everyone else too. It’s why I choose a healthy diet and lifestyle.
It’s also why I now choose to go to bed early (still a work-in-progress) so that my body can sleep enough, and I can (if possible) arise with the sun…
I still remember the first time I realized how much I love the dawn.
I was standing with friends outside on a balcony at an after-party, house music thumping, high on a cocktail of drugs, as the sun rose up over the city skyline… and oh, the elevated bliss, the rising crescendo of the soul’s connection to the light of our world. I told myself in that moment that one day I would rise to see the dawn, sober, after a full night’s sleep.