by Brent Livingood
I am an alcoholic preacher. Not one in recovery. Not one who had a drinking life, found Jesus, turned things around and went into ministry to preach about the dangers of a gluttonous lifestyle. In point of fact, I didn’t have a drinking problem until I went into rural parish ministry. The boozing started as a once a week event, just something to take the edge off. The years of escalation followed, two nights a week, three, four. Now, I’m drinking every day and no one has yet to notice.
When a man with his name stitched on his shirt has a drinking problem, he’s a drunk. But being a drunk is no big deal as long as the leaking pipe gets fixed. If an attorney admits she has a drinking problem, she has a disease and a disease has a cure. But a preacher? Preachers are special people. I believe this because I have to. Preachers are called by God to be God’s personal representative in the lives of normal everyday people, and, make no mistake about it, these everyday people expect their preacher to be Christ – fully human, fully Divine, with an emphasis on the latter.
Take, for example, worship: the pastor petitions the Almighty serving as a mediator between God and the congregation. The preacher turns juice and bread into Christ. At a funeral, the preacher assures the community that the departed will live again because the dead live in Christ. At a wedding, the preacher is the human representative joining spouses because God approved of marriage by Jesus’ presence at a wedding. So when a preacher has a drinking problem, it’s a scandal. God cannot be a drunk. A pastor who can’t stop drinking isn’t a drunk or diseased; the boozing minister is an abomination and abominations must hide their true identity.
I find it disturbingly easy to be just this sort of abomination in a small southern town and have no one know I am a boozer. They say a preacher lives in a glass house. I installed shades. Being a man of the cloth makes me a man of the chalice and surely my cup runneth over. I’ve prayed a revised Augustinian prayer, “Lord, give me sobriety, but not yet,” and God seems perfectly inclined to grant at least that second part. My ministry is a ministry of presence – a sacramental extension of the ministry of Christ. Increasingly, however, it is becoming a ministry of absence – a withdrawal from the crowds and pomp for an extended encounter with the demon of the wilderness.
There are a couple of rules to follow if you are going to be a boozing minister in a rural area. First, don’t hide the fact that you drink. If you are at a social party, don’t hesitate to have a drink, maybe two at the most. Then make sure people see you quit and start drinking a Coke out of the can or bottle. Don’t drink it out of a glass or it will appear like another mixed drink – it’s all about appearances.
Next, don’t be afraid to buy beer in the grocery store. But how you buy it is important. Buy the beer the same way you would radishes or canned soup or cheddar cheese – you’re only grocery shopping. Don’t go in and buy a case of beer. Instead, buy bottles, not cans, and make it something expensive, like a Blue Moon or a Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat – microbrews, or something else posh, specific, and preferably imported. You’re an experimenter in eclectic beers, a connoisseur. Generally, church folk believe that alcoholics drink cheap liquor, not expensive foreign beer suited for a polished palate. Let their misconceptions protect you.
If someone from church sees you buying beer, so what? Expect it. Be glad. Walk right up to them, shake their hand, and make no effort to hide the beer. If you notice a funny glance at your shopping cart, say, Have you tried this? Don’t wait for an answer. I’ve heard it’s good. A judgment cast can be a judgment returned. Then, forgive them. Give the other person permission to see exactly what you want them to see: a normal healthy person who enjoys a good tasting beer from time to time. You’re an adult damn it, not some teenage kid trying to sneak something by the checkout clerk. Play the part. The more deliberate you are about not hiding your boozing, the more uncomfortable you make everyone about asking if there is a problem.
The second rule contradicts the first rule. But that’s okay because you’re a contradiction.. This is to say, drink the booze you can get your hands on without being noticed. Remind yourself that you have to hide it. Discipline and control, that’s your creed. You can’t buy a month supply of liquor at one time and you can’t be seen coming out of the grocery store juggling a box of wine, a bottle of vermouth, several twelve-packs of beer, and a giant plastic tub of pretzels. This just won’t do. Those fancy posh beers, to say nothing of the old fashion Budweiser, are a joke for a true hardened alcoholic anyway. To get anywhere with those you’d need a juvenile delivery system like a Myrtle Beach Beer Bong and a two-day empty stomach – I might be a drunk but I try to keep a little bit of dignity about myself. The only reason you buy the grocery store beer is because jokes are funny.
Liquor is best, but in the South it comes with baggage. There are only two reasons you go into a liquor store in the South: either to buy liquor or to get boxes. A preacher seen with loads of boxes creates its own scandal – everyone will assume you’re moving to another church or you were fired. A preacher coming in and out of the liquor store without boxes tells its own story. This means going into the liquor store must be celebrated as a regal affair. So only go from time to time, a rendezvous secretly hidden in front of everyone. Discipline is everything. And when you buy in the liquor store, don’t pretend you’re buying the booze because you have a cough or because you’re baking a cake – that’s pathetic. When shopping, take your time, peruse, enjoy the foreplay. Take in the artistry of the fancy-shaped garlanded decanters, caress the contours. Ask the clerk questions about which vodka has been selling the best. Be blunt. Tell them that the last time you bought the cheap stuff you woke up with a headache. When two drinks gives you a headache the cheap stuff sucks. They’ll agree. Can they recommend something to help avoid that?
The liquor store is a treat that, if abused, will get you caught. So I’ll say it again: discipline and control. Being an unnoticed alcoholic preacher requires commonsense, poise, and a willingness to vanquish the gag reflex. You can’t get what you need every day from the grocery store or liquor store. You’re gonna have to be more creative than that.
The third rule: do your homework. Scout out all the beer joints in town. Go to places where people sit out with cans in brown paper bags – where smashed bottles of Colt 45 litter the parking lot. An armed cashier indicates a good place to get your booze. A good rule: if the gas station sells porn, it’s a good place to buy beer. Church people don’t go where porn is sold openly. They have computers. And don’t underestimate the importance of location. It might seem counterintuitive, but don’t drive out in the country to Winston’s Grocery and Gas Mart. For the love of God, don’t go there. A lot more is happening out in the middle of nowhere than appears. Winston is just sitting around with nothing to do but notice everyone and everything that happens in his store, and he has two or three buddies sitting around with him doing the exact same thing. Just because you don’t know them doesn’t mean they don’t know you. Before you get home Fred, out on his tractor in the tobacco fields, will know what you bought, how much you bought, and how often you’ve been buying it. Even if you buy your booze there once – just once – a beer-buying preacher in a country store will fuel idle chatter for months. And their baseless speculation will be exactly right. No, buy your booze where it’s busy – the busiest.
The fourth rule concerns accessibility. Does the beer joint in question have a drive-thru window? If at all possible, don’t park your car and go inside. You are most vulnerable going in and coming out of the store. People will notice that sort of thing, but if there is a drive-thru, people won’t notice that. Think about it. When was the last time you saw someone you knew in the drive-thru at McDonald’s while cruising down the road at 45 MPH?
The fifth rule involves the caste system we aren’t supposed to talk about. Who are the people who work at this beer joint? Are they the same people day in and day out? Know what their turnover rate is. Are you going to bump into them at Walmart or the local Mexican restaurant? If yes, go somewhere else. You don’t want the clerk unexpectedly slapping you on the back and asking how his favorite customer is doing just after you’ve finished the Ash Wednesday service. But if they’re working every day, all day long, that’s a good sign. Equally good is if they open on days like Christmas and Easter – not only for availability purposes but this also means their circles are nowhere near your circles.
There’s one last quality to look for before you invest in your personal booze supplier: how good is his English? It chills me to say it, but be a racist when it comes to buying your beverage in stealth. Being a white preacher in a small southern town, buying your beer from a black guy will do in a pinch, but buying from an Asian man who speaks no conversational English is the best. And male is better than female. Remember, this is the one person with whom you are sharing half your secret. He will know that you are an alcoholic. The other half of your secret, that you are a minister, is shared with the rest of the community. Keeping these secrets strategically compartmentalized is essential at all times.
Once you’ve found your personal booze supplier, be nice to them. Smile, don’t quarrel over price, and try to always pay in cash. Exact change is perfect, or, even better, tell them to keep the change. And be ready with your money – don’t go stumbling around in your car trying to dig up a quarter or a nickel. Be a Boy Scout – be prepared. Always remember that your beer provider is far more important to you than you are to them.
My beer supplier is a little gas station snuggled between Hardees and a garden-nursery center right smack in the middle of town, just a couple miles from my church. There are three stop lights from the parsonage to the gas stationhere to there, two stop signs, two right turns going and two left turns returning. I drive through the carwash attached to the building, circle around to the back side of the store, and pull into the drive-thru. The window opens and all I have to do is hold up four fingers and he knows what I want and how much I want. Within moments the one armed Asian man returns with my beloved – four twenty-four ounce beers at 8.1% alcohol. I pay exact change and start the drive home.
Before ten o’clock in the morning I’m opening my first beer. It’s going to be a good day, free from worry, liberated from obligation, like a snow day for children who didn’t do their homework. I get myself settled. I pour the beer and get something salty to eat while the head clears up. I down a pint in seconds – I don’t gulp, I just open my mouth and pour a continuous uninterrupted beerfall. To hell with dignity and those sissies at the beach with their beer bongs. As quickly as I drink it, I feel the warmth return to my body. I put in a movie I’ve seen a thousand times. I’m not really watching it at all. I could be anyone right now – the beer doesn’t know I’m a preacher.
I fill my glass again and drink some water while the head diminishes. This process goes on for a while and my drinking starts to slow as I come closer and closer to the end of my supply. One beer down means I have three quarters of my supply to go. Two beers down and I’ve drunk half. One beer left and it’s time to start contemplating whether or not I should go get more before I run out completely or whether I should just chug away and enjoy an involuntary nap.
I’m not done. My movie is not over. The phone hasn’t rung and I’m pretty confident now that it won’t ring all day. I brush my teeth and change my shirt just in case I’ve spilled some beer on it. I grab some chewing gum and go back to my beer supplier.
This time the drive is more calculated. I don’t worry about crashing into someone else because I am very focused on my driving, my speed, coming to a complete stop at the stop signs, and never running so much as a freshly lit yellow light. I stay in control, disciplined. I do whatever it takes to get there and back without anyone noticing I’m even on the road.
I pull through the beer shack again. The clerk looks at me a little funny and I just hold up my fingers. He returns with beer. I pay cash, again. He says nothing. I drive away. I come back home and resume the movie I’m not watching. I drink the last beer I left behind, but take comfort in knowing I have a restocked inventory.
I down another. I think about Sunday morning. I hate Sunday morning. I hate standing before the congregation. They stand when I say stand. They sit when I say sit. They sing when I introduce a hymn. And when I pray, they bow their heads, clasp their hands, and listen for me to talk to God about the misery this world daily inflicts. They are real people with real hurts and pains with real need for Divine intervention. They are older folk with white hair and walking canes watching as friends and family die, one by one. They come to church wondering who won’t return next week. And, while I pray, I think my prayer is canceled out by my throbbing hung-over headache. These are my thoughts as I round off another beer. My parishioners deserve more than I can give them. I am not God. I am not Christ amongst his people. I am not gifted with the Holy Spirit. I open another beer. I cannot stop death. I cannot restore lost companionship. I drink.
The morning bleeds into the afternoon and I am already stumbling around the house. The fun and soothing are gone. Now I am beyond drunk but I cannot stop. I finally pass out. Three hours later I wake up drunk, but I still have two-and-a-half twenty-four ounce beers to go. I haven’t eaten anything all day except chips and almonds. I drink water believing it will help with the hangover. Evening comes and I still have a beer left. I open it and start finishing the unending cycle. The beer is warm, if not hot, but I don’t care. Empty beer cans are strewn about the floor, some kicked under the bed. The nightstand is covered with beer cans -. I am incoherent. I won’t remember this. I fall asleep in my clothes with the lights on.
I open my eyes and have Morning Prayer. God, is it morning? God does not answer. I slept on my back all night. The lamp on the nightstand is still burning. I can’t remember the night before, at least not in its entirety: a movie, some music, incoherent text messages to my girlfriend. Why does she stay with me? I would leave me. My sober heart plummets. Did I? Oh, tell me I didn’t, and before I roll over for external confirmation I know I did. Damn it to hell. It makes no sense that I am surprised at the wasteland of empty beer cans. . The fact that I did not drink all of the beer is the worst news, for there the demon sits. It did not leave with the rising sun and it promises to make today go by smoothly if I just finish what I started yesterday morning.
I am disgusted.
The hangover doesn’t begin when I first sit up in bed in the early morning. The headache, the throwing up, the withdrawal panic attack, the rocking back and forth at the end of the bed telling myself over and over and over again what a complete waste I am, how completely useless, good for nothing I am, an inebriated hypocrite, none of that begins within the first forty-five minutes of waking up and seeing the empty beer cans.
No, the first forty-five minutes is a retrieval of as much memory as possible. What movie did I watch? When did I decide to start listening to music as loud as my stereo would play it? Did the neighbors hear? They never complain anyway, so I guess it doesn’t matter. Jesus, what dumbass thing did I tell my girlfriend?
Oh God, I earnestly begin to pray, I hope I didn’t cook. Do I remember cooking? I can’t remember. I know walking into the kitchen will give me an answer, but I would rather not know for a while. Cooking is the worst. Not only is there the mess I leave for my sober self to deal with, but, substantially more terrifying, I know every time I cook drunk I’m a hair’s breadth from burning down the manse. The last time I remember cooking I threw frozen chicken wings into a pot of hot grease. The cloud of icy lava vapors erupting above the stove looked like the protruded nose of Ruth Bradlee, a parishioner. She hates me. She hates all preachers. She would love to know I’m a drunk. She would love it if I burnt down the parsonage.
I look at the telephone to see if there were any calls I either don’t remember or was smart enough to ignore. If there is one bright spot to this morning’s debacle, no one called me last night. No one ever calls.
Okay, now that that part is over with, I can begin my hangover properly. First, I am going to throw up. I go to the bathroom and voluntarily begin the heaving process. At first nothing comes up, but quickly thereafter it’s sort of like a baby spitting up: not much of anything really, just snotty fluid. Then I feel another urge. I sit on the toilet and bring the trash can to my feet. I am now expelling liquid voluminously, simultaneously from end to end. After years of doing this, I have come to understand this ritual to be as much a part of the drinking process as the actual drinking. There is some polluted part of me that likes this. This is my true portrait – not the one robed behind a pulpit, preaching forgiveness and atonement.
I think of Janie Garland. She’s probably waking up right now with an empty bed for company. Last week I walked her into the Emergency room to say good-bye to her husband. I officiated his funeral. She sent me a note. I was her Gibraltar, she wrote. If she saw me now, I think.
I deserve this, I think to myself. My gag turns to a yellowy bilious substance. I tell myself that it is sinus drainage or some other innocuous phlegm. Deeper down I know that it is evidence of one of my major organs protesting. The liver, kidneys, stomach, or a combination of several indispensable body parts hate me and I deserve to be hated. I leave the bathroom and go sit on my bed. I deserve this. I am a failure. I am a hypocrite. I am a pastor who drinks.
Sitting on the bed is the worst thing I can do. The best thing I could do is take a shower, clean up the empty beer cans, and pour out all the remaining beer – maybe go for a walk and pump positive endorphins through my body. But I can’t do that in the same way I can’t bench press four hundred pounds. Sitting on the bed I hear the voice of the demon. There is an easy solution to this entire problem. It’s right there on the nightstand. It might not taste so good having sat out all night, but taste is a luxury medicine disregards.
I go and fill the empty water glass consciously knowing what I am about to do, I sit the water glass back on the nightstand and start rocking back and forth trying to find comfort in this trauma. There is no comfort save the beer left over from the night before. At this point there is no rationalizing, no thinking of what the consequences are going to be. I’ve abandoned my creed. No more of discipline. No more of control. There is nothing I know I can do to stop the process; it already happened before it began.
I take the beer pint in one hand and the water pint in the other. I gulp down the flat beer and wait for a gag reflex. It does not come so I take only a small sip of water. My rocking slows a bit. I pour the glass half full of beer from the night’s remains. There is no head. I immediately drink it down. As it slides down my throat and into my stomach, I instantly feel better. It’s warm and has a comforting tingling familiarity. I pour the rest of the beer in the glass and wait a few minutes. I drink a sip or two of water. I wait another minute. This is the last of the beer and after this is gone I will have to make a decision, but I know the decision is already made. There are people in the nursing home to visit. There are sermons to write. There are widows waking up in silent homes. There are many other options, but an option is not the same thing as a choice. I have no choice. I swallow the beer and it in turn swallows me.
God, why doesn’t anyone notice? I finish my devotional and God never answers my prayer.
Brent Livingood served as a United Methodist minister for two different congregations. He left the ministry after eight years, having never been asked about his use of alcohol. Today, he lives at the beach with his wonderful wife, two dogs, and one cat.