'I couldn’t argue with the change I saw in my family’

Bill’s story | A long recovery and the grace of God

“My mother and father were Irish Catholic immigrants to New York City. They married there and had five children and opened an Irish bar. I learnt to play pool in that bar. It was fascinating for a child. Catholicism was also ingrained in us from a very young age. I remember being on my knees, praying to God, sincerely.

Then we migrated to Australia at age nine. By then, both my parents had developed a dependence on alcohol. There was a lot of turmoil in the house. Alcohol destroys families, relationships, jobs, everything. It’s a disease.

But then, when I was ten, they both got sober through Alcoholics Anonymous. It was crazy. Having one person going through the recovery process in a family is challenging, let alone two. But they did it. They got sober and their lives changed.

In many ways though, the damage was already done. I went off the rails as a teenager – alcohol, parties, girls, to an extreme. My youngest brother was the same. He was 15 or 16, and it was obvious his path was getting worse. We were all worried about him. But in those days there was a program for the teenage children of Alcoholics Anonymous. So we all went there and got help and support. At one of the events, a Christian worker got alongside my youngest brother and invited him to church. He went.

Much to everyone’s surprise, he actually changed, drastically! It was so dramatic that Mum and Dad thought they better go and investigate the church. Amazingly, over a four-year period, God picked out all seven of us – first my youngest brother, then my parents, then my other siblings. I was the second last. I was 21 by then. The change in me was so drastic. Before that, I’d been mixing with bad company. If I hadn’t got saved I would have ended up in serious trouble. But I knew I couldn’t argue with the change I’d seen in my family. None of us could. I went to a weekend Christian camp and I knew I wanted a relationship with Jesus. I’d heard the gospel and I went forward for prayer. Afterwards, the alcohol just fell off me. I got a job as an electrician and I got married and had kids.

But it wasn’t all easy. Later, I had another wilderness experience. It lasted 17 years. The alcohol never completely left me. If I had a couple of drinks, I’d have too many. And things weren’t right with me and my wife. We were both to blame. I wasn’t innocent. Eventually, it all came out – a very messy story. I found myself in the wilderness and there was no plan B. I didn’t fit into the church anymore. I felt ashamed and judged. And I didn’t fit in at the pubs and clubs where I used to belong. On Sunday nights I’d fall apart and turn to alcohol. At the same time, I held down a job, but it went on for years.

In the meantime, my parents had started a Christian recovery group called Regeneration. It was based on the same 12 steps as AA, except outwardly Christian, and open to anyone. They ran it for 30 years till they both died. They helped thousands of alcoholics recover. I also got involved, some years later. It’s a long story, but I went to rehab and got sober again. I’ve stayed sober now for seven years and I’ve gone back to church.

But I’ve seen the frailty of human beings, all of us, including Christian leaders. We’re all frail. And there’s a difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge. I’m a head person, wired for intellectual knowledge. I loved Bible college – all that history and learning. My favourite verse is Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

But it’s much harder to transfer all that head knowledge to the heart – to genuinely experience the love, forgiveness and relationship of Jesus. That’s what I need. That’s what helps. Now, I sing children’s songs daily: ‘He walks with me, he talks with me …’ Otherwise, without the songs, I know I’d overthink everything. I have to develop a closeness with Jesus. He wants to be my friend – involved in every aspect of my daily life. That’s what helps me. I need a relationship with Jesus, not just knowing about it. I need to experience it, live it, feel it …”

Bill’s story is part of Eternity’s Faith Stories series, compiled by Naomi Reed. Click here for more Faith Stories.

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