by Pamela Maringa

I met Father Tom Weston SJ a day before the Winter Living Theology workshop started in Johannesburg. One of the things I immediately noticed, as I started engaging in conversation with him, was his great sense of humour. He has a way of drawing people’s attention. He shared his stories with so much insight and wisdom.

Father Weston is a recovering alcoholic from California. He’s been sober for 40 years. He was ordained a priest in 1978. He was the director of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Since 1984, he’s been ministering to addicts and leading retreats and workshops around the world for addicts and people in recovery.

He began his talk at the workshop by quoting from a book by Claudia Black called, “It Will Never Happen to Me.” The book is about alcoholism. The author’s parents were alcoholics and she was a middle child who always said, “It will never happen to me,” until she became an alcoholic herself. In the book we find a family struggling with addiction. The family follows three rules:

  • “Don’t talk.” You can talk about anything else but you don’t mention the drugs, alcohol. You don’t talk about what bothers you.
  • “Don’t trust.” You are encouraged to keep quiet about the problems at home because it’s not safe, and you are told not to air your dirty linen in public. You pretend to be fine at all times.
  • “Don’t feel.” You don’t show any of your emotions. It is easier to just shut down.

Father Tom said that with his experience with alcoholism, he noticed that these rules are dangerous because part of treatment is to learn to talk about things. This is why when you go to recovery meetings you are encouraged to start by admitting that you are an addict and have a problem. That is a way to deal with the shame. Then it becomes a part of the conversation. Accepting and dealing with emotions is a part of the process of recovery that people have to learn.

During the talk Father Tom answered questions based on his own experience as an alcoholic.

What is alcoholism and its symptoms?

According to Father Tom, alcoholism is an allergy of the body and is an obsession of the mind. He is allergic to alcohol and he is obsessed with it. Alcoholics don’t drink more than other people, but they drink differently to other people. Some of the symptoms are black out, sudden dramatic personality change and tolerance to the substance. If you have an alcoholic in your life, there are lots of loses; lost opportunities and loss of self-dignity.

How can I get help?

If you are an addict, you have to want to change. If you are a family member or loved one of an addict, you have to look after yourself. There are support groups for addicts and for family members of addicts that you can join. At these meetings you will find people who will understand your situation. You can talk and listen. It is a safe space where you can allow yourself to trust and to feel.

He also encourages us to pray and ask for help. He made use of the serenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

It is very likely that what might have worked for Father Tom may not work for you as you as an individual. Whatever approach you may take, it is important to change your thinking, behaviour and attitudes. Start opening up to positive ideas around you.

Recovery starts where you are, not where you could have been only if you were better.

Recordings of Fr Weston’s talks on “Addiction & Recovery” are available from the Jesuit Institute