A Nun's Story
Sister Ruth Finds God
in the A.A. Meetings
by John Barleycorn
The punishing God of
Sister Ruth's childhood
Never a day went by that I didn't get a spanking because as a child I just had to test the system. My mother would tell me to do something, but I wouldn't do it because I had an obsession about evading responsibility and I had to see if I could get by without following mom's orders, but I always got caught and punished.
We never had any kind of outward affection in our home. Our parents never put their arm around us or hugged us, but when we got caught disobeying orders we were punished. Our world consisted of doing our duty and even after entering the convent (in the early days); we never hugged because we were not allowed to touch one another. It was not until I entered A.A. that I learned to hug and be hugged by people, and now I'm making up for lost time. I was taught that God is a punishing God and he was up there watching my every move and writing it down and I believed it was only a matter of time before he too punished me with hell, fire and brimstone.
Yet today, I can still hear my mother's voice saying "You're stupid, you have no good brain cells, you'll never amount to anything, you're a born loser and you'll never make it in life." And it was the same at school, I felt like an ugly duckling and I felt worthless; my self esteem was zero. I carried those feelings with me all through my life. After I attended a Catholic grade school for eight years and barely passed, I entered a public school system for my freshman year of high school. I got along even worse in that public high school and so my parents decided since I was such a bad kid, they should send me to a private academy for girls at Tipton, Indiana, for my sophomore year of high school. It was the first time I'd ever been away from home and I loved it!
Three weeks later, at the age of fifteen, I decided to become a nun because I saw all the other girls running around in their black dresses and veils and I wanted to be like them. Besides that, I wanted to get away from home and I thought God might like me better if I was a nun. I called my parents in September and told them about my decision and said, "If you don't come to see me this weekend you can't come until December," so they drove down to Tipton for a conference with Sister Superior. My parents were shocked to hear the nun news and they wondered what on earth the nuns had done to their daughter! After my parents' conference with Sister Superior they decided I was too young to be a nun and so I had to wait until I turned sixteen.
Becoming a nun -- and
starting to drink
I stuck to my decision however, so right after my sixteenth birthday, on the first of September in 1942, I entered the Sisters of St. Joseph Convent in Tipton, Indiana, and finished high school there in the convent. It was a lot like home: it was a very structured and rigid existence, with many rules, sort of like the military where you must be at a certain place at a certain time. I followed all the rules and was a good nun. We had a prayer book about the size of our Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book and there were no spontaneous prayers in it. Everyday prayer session was just one more job I had to do. It took about an hour and after it was over I was glad to have it done.
After high school, I entered nursing school and as soon as I finished training, I was shipped out to Oregon and it was the first time I'd ever been out of Indiana. In Oregon I went to work in surgery and I loved it. I worked my tail off and for the first time in my life, doctors and supervisors complimented me and the more they complimented me the harder I worked. Time went on and I returned home to Indiana about every three years on vacation.
I started drinking beer at home with my father and liked it. I didn't get drunk and I never drank back in Oregon, but I began to look forward to coming home, visiting my family and having more beer. In hindsight I now see that looking forward to that beer should have been an early warning signal, but I liked the taste of it.
As the years passed in Oregon I often rode my bicycle while wearing a full habit. We pinned up our dresses and away we went! In those days, I was the flying nun, but one day I had a terrible bicycle accident; it was not alcohol related, but nevertheless it left me with a serious head trauma. I started having blackouts and could no longer be a super nurse, and so I began suffering from chronic depression. When the amnesia hit me I couldn't even finish writing on the chart and I had to lay down somewhere and come back later.
The doctors put me on antidepressants and somewhere during that time frame I started drinking alcohol. We were allowed to drink and one of the nuns suggested I should have some wine to cheer me up, and the next thing I knew a beautiful glow came over me. And then I started hiding bottles of wine, but it was gradual. As time went on we were invited to a Thanksgiving dinner and nine of us nuns went to the dinner. The host had a full bar set up with hard liquor and guess what happened? I spent most of the night in the bathroom because I was sick and couldn't eat dinner. After I slept it off, the next day I had a terrible hangover and couldn't remember what I'd done.
Thoughts of suicide
I was so embarrassed and I felt terrible. The other nuns didn't appreciate the way I had acted and they were ashamed of me. I remember that Saturday morning as if it was yesterday; I remember the room I was in and what I put on that day. I decided I was going to get out of their lives by jumping in the river. I couldn't swim and although I'd taken two swimming classes, I failed both times. I don't know what it is with me and water, but I still can't swim. I had it all planned and knew just where I would do it. I decided to jump off a bridge and make certain nobody saw me because I didn't want anybody rescuing me.
I was getting out my bicycle when this nun came along and asked me what I was doing, I told her, "None of your business!" She asked, "Can we talk?" and I said, "No." Nuns normally don't talk to one another like that. We didn't get into a wrestling match, but we came close to it. We were still inside the building and that nun locked the door and called a doctor. It was on a weekend and normally doctors aren't in, but there was one there that Saturday and so they shipped me off to a psychiatric hospital. I was there for six weeks and they treated me for acute depression and attempted suicide, but nobody asked me about my drinking. Of course alcohol wasn't the problem, it was always about depression, but for the next three years I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals.
Even though I'd thought about how horrible my suicide would affect my parents and the nuns, I just didn't care. Can you imagine a story in the newspaper about a nun committing suicide? When I look back on those times, the thing that really gets me is that I thought to myself, "if I do this, I'll go to hell," but I didn't care. That's how bad I wanted out. It was total and absolute hopelessness and despair and I can't imagine anybody ever getting any lower than that. I need to say this because maybe somebody else out there needs to hear this. If that nun hadn't physically taken me to a treatment center I wouldn't be alive today. When a person has their heart set on getting out, talking to them won't work. If you ever encounter somebody in such a state of hopelessness and despair, remember: talking won't work, you must get them help immediately.
After my encounter with West Coast psychiatric hospitals I asked for a transfer and was transferred back to Forth Wayne. I lived in the St. Joseph Hospital nurses home and worked in the operating room at St. Joe and I loved it because none of our nuns worked there and I could do my thing without their interference.
I was allowed to drink and I became a party nun. The nurses and I went out to bars at night and we had ourselves a ball. I won't go into all of that because they didn't know I was a nun. At that time I decided to stick with wine because it was the cheapest thing to drink, and let me tell you, there's some pretty crummy wine out there.
About then, I became concerned about my drinking because I'd heard there was an invisible line a person can cross with alcohol and so I decided to quit drinking altogether. I'd buy a bottle of wine and then tell myself I can't do this and I'd pour it down the drain. But then I'd buy another bottle and I thought, "My gosh, what's wrong with me?" I did not understand why I could not stop drinking. I'd been a nun for thirty years and I had plenty of will power and discipline, but one time when I offered up my alcohol to God for Lent, I didn't make it through Ash Wednesday.
The blackouts started and delirium tremens too, so I decided to take another geographical cure and asked to be transferred back to Oregon.
Sent to Washington, D.C.,
for alcoholism treatment
I did not last long back in Oregon this time. They gave me another psychiatric evaluation and this time it was discovered that depression was only one of my problems. The other problem was alcohol. So it was recommended that I should go to a place on the East Coast where they specialized in treating people with drinking problems. All I could do was cry and I looked out at the Pacific Ocean and said to myself, "That ought to be enough water to do it," but even though I felt cursed and couldn't stop crying, I promised Sister Superior I would call her when I received my evaluation. But, I also made up my mind if she said one negative word I was going to end it once and for all.
When I called sister superior, I was crying so hard I could hardly talk, and she asked me, "What did they say?" I told her they suggested I go to a place on the East Coast where they specialized in people with drinking problems. Sister Superior said, "Why don't you give it a try, you might learn something, and besides you don't have to stay if you don't want to." "Whatever you decide, we're standing behind you one hundred percent and no matter what the cost you're worth every penny of it."
So, I thought to myself, the least I could do was go to Maryland and get another evaluation. So ten days later I was on a plane headed for Suitland, in Prince George's County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C., it's called St Luke's Institute and it's especially for priests and nuns. When I got there I was given another evaluation that lasted about four days and my diagnosis was that I was an alcoholic, who suffered acute depression and was also brain injured.
When they told me I was alcoholic, I thought "O.K. God, I always thought you'd zap me some day and now you finally did, you've made me an alcoholic nun!" I've never forgotten that day, I thought it was the worst curse God could give me and all I could do was cry. It was the end of the line for me, I couldn't look anybody in the eye, all I could do was look down and cry. This was in 1983 and I stayed in Suitland's four month program for six and a half months -- some are sicker than others!
The first thing they did was ship us out to local A.A. meetings. They loaded us in two vans and sent us around the Washington D.C. area to meetings. When I walked into my first A.A. meeting, I was shocked to see so many people there and I tried to hide behind the others. And when it came my turn to speak, I could not say a word. I was not able to say, "My name is Ruth, I'm an alcoholic." I was too ashamed to talk at all, and I did everything I could so I didn't have to. I sat quietly in the corner and wanted to disappear, and so that's what I did for days on end.
The God of love
revealed himself in an A.A.
meeting in a ghetto
Even after four months there, I still couldn't get through the steps. In Step One, I could do the first half, I could admit that I was powerless over alcohol because I couldn't quit drinking it, but I couldn't do the second half and admit that my life was unmanageable. When it came to the Second Step, I knew God had the power to restore my sanity, but why would He want to? And the Third Step, "Made a decision to turn our will and life over to the care of God, as we understood Him." You've got to be kidding, I already knew about God.
The turning point in my recovery began at a meeting held in the downtown ghetto in the poorest slum of Washington, D.C. The director of our recovery center was very effective and he believed we should go to all types of A.A. meetings. That ghetto meeting was held on Friday nights, we pulled up in front of this liquor store, they had a bouncer at the top of the stairs, and if a practicing drunk pleaded his case well enough to convince the bouncer that he really wanted help then he was admitted. Once inside the door the practicing alcoholic was set in a chair at the back of the room.
One night a wino got in that way. He was shaking too badly to hold a full cup of coffee so they gave him a half of cup and told him to sit quietly. That ghetto meeting was extremely spiritual and it became my favorite one and I hung onto every word they said. I heard stories there that I've never heard anywhere else, and it's unbelievable the things that had happened to those people. Before the meeting adjourned a couple of the guys went over to this trembling wino, put their arms around him, and started talking to him. And, it made no difference to them what he looked, smelled or acted like!
And when I witnessed that, it occurred to me that God must surely be kind and loving, not the punishing God that I'd imagined all of my life. All of a sudden in a flash of intuition, I understood that I had a warped image of God in my mind. Sometime during that ghetto meeting, God switched from the intellectual understanding in my head to a new kind of feeling in my heart! I had never before seen so much love in one room as when those recovering alcoholics reached out to the trembling man who still suffered.
And the same thing is still happening today, whenever a newcomer comes into the rooms of A.A., it doesn't matter what they smell, look, or act like, or how much money they have, people already in recovery wrap their arms around them and we love them until they can love themselves.
to God's care and direction
and loving arms
You have no idea what this meant to me. I'm a nun, but I didn't find God in the convent, in religion, or at home. I found Him around the tables of A.A. I owe my life to Sister Superior, the nuns who stood behind me, Alcoholics Anonymous, and a loving God. After the night at that ghetto meeting, God moved from my head into my heart, and life took on new meaning. I'm so grateful that I stayed at St. Luke's until the miracle happened.
After that night the Twelve-Steps took on a whole new meaning for me. The secret to the A.A. program is surrender and I finally just let go, that was my moment of surrender. I surrendered! The program of A.A. is so powerful, but unless we surrender we can't get it. If I was asked to put the A.A. program into one word it would be "surrender." And the amount of peace and serenity I have in my life today is directly proportionate to how much I surrender and turn my life over to the care and direction of God.
I do the steps each morning, I surrender in the First Step and ask God to restore my sanity during the Second Step, and then add a word to my Third Step. When Bill Wilson originally wrote the Third Step, he wrote: "Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care and direction of God as we understood Him." He included that word direction. You can see that in the original multilithed draft that they passed around to look at and comment on. But since alcoholics hate to be given directions, the committee removed that word before they sent the Big Book to the typesetters. But I put it back in there, and I say it to myself as "turn my will over to the care and direction of God."
I once heard an explanation about the Third Step and how we turn our life and will over to the "care" of God. When our car develops mechanical problems, we don't give the mechanic our car, we put it under his care and let him fix it, so we can drive it again.
I also want to talk about another God Step, the Eleventh Step, "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out." Step Eleven is about "prayer" and "meditation," prayer is talking to God and meditation is listening to Him. I remember how I used to rattle off prayers in the convent at such a rate that God couldn't get a word in edgewise. Today, after praying I meditate in silence and imagine that God is right there with me and that He has His arm around me, it's such a good feeling; words would only get in the way of that feeling.
God gives me a world
that is full of good things
It's such a good feeling. I enjoy knowing that God loves me, what an honor, and who am I to deserve such grace? God loves me and I relish that feeling. Some days I sit there and nothing seems to happen, it's like pulling for a fish and finding nothing there, but that's just life and that's the way it is. Not every day is warm and wonderful, but during the cold dark days, if I give God my time in the morning he gives me His time later, and my whole day is different. Maybe nothing happens in the morning, but then later somebody will say something, or I will read, see, or hear something that just wows me. I walk around a lake almost every day and God puts all of nature before me to enjoy. Sometimes a song bird lands on a tree branch in front of me and begins to sing, and I look at it and say, "God, thank you for putting me and that bird together right at this moment in time."
I'm grateful today, but I wasn't while I was still drinking. Back then I didn't think about anything except the next drink or how not to get caught taking it. I took my vacations in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with my family, and then at night I went to bars and other wild places. Since I entered the convent in high school, my friends decided to show me how the rest of the world lived. They picked places they themselves didn't ordinarily go because they wanted to shock me. They took me to gay bars and strip joints and watched my face. I gulped down the alcohol like it was water and then I'd get sick and end up in the filthy, rank rest rooms barfing it back up. After the Saturday night party was over, I'd slip back to my parent's house at four in the morning forgetting they get up early on Sundays and go to church. Well, you can imagine how I felt at sunrise, but I had to pretend like I'd been in bed all night, and then get back up and go to church with my parents.
Today, I can look at sunrises and thank God for all of nature's beauty, and especially for the program of Alcoholics Anonymous that has allowed me to enjoy these magnificent moments. Each morning, I ask God to give me the courage, strength, power, wisdom and willingness to do His will, and to show me the character that He intended me to be. Sometimes I'm just not in the mood, but if I pray and meditate long enough it eventually happens.
Asking God for guidance
I also want to talk about pages 86 to 88 in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. These are my three favorite pages of the whole book. I ask God each morning to keep me tuned in to his wave length. My mind is like a radio and I must keep my antennae pointed in the right direction in order to hear a clear signal. When we stay tuned to God's will for us, we develop a "sixth sense." This is so important, especially to newcomers, because when we wake up each morning we need to read, hear and understand this passage even before we get out of bed and before we ever put our foot on the floor to do our prayer and meditation.
This is something that takes time and most newcomers think it's impossible to totally surrender, and I must confess it wasn't easy for me either, but by persistent practice these "new" daily actions will happen. It takes daily practice, lots of practice, but it's worth it because it gives us this new and wonderful, intuitive "sixth sense."
The greatest feeling I can have comes to me with the thought that God loves me. Who am I to deserve such an honor? When we keep tuned to God's will we develop a sixth sense that keeps our thinking straight and if we keep that straight we won't drink! Some people call that a gut feeling, and I often ask the women I sponsor, "What's your gut feeling about this?" Ever since I worked the twelve steps and got sober, my gut feeling has never lied to me.
For fifty-seven years I walked around like a robot, but today I have a whole new life and I'm so excited about that. While I was drinking, suicide was always on my mind, and I probably would have eventually done it because I could not have gone on much longer the way I was. Today I like the person I see in the mirror and I can walk down the street and look people in the eye. That's a whole new thing for me, especially since I encounter so many desperate people who cannot. A.A. works, it really does!
I used to pray and ask God for all kind of favors, and people used to come to us because they thought we had an inside line with God. But I have news for you, we all have an inside line with God if we practice daily prayer and meditation. People asked me to pray for their job, wife or husband and for all sorts of problems, but the truth is that I have no idea what God's will for them is. So when people ask me to pray for them I ask God to take them in His hands and do what's best for them. God, thy will not mine be done. Father Martin said that he asks God, "Help me, help them and help them, help me."
Once there was an alcoholic named Don C. who was a patient at St Thomas Hospital, he asked Sister Ignatia to pray for him, and she said, "I will, but why don't you pray for yourself too because God loves to hear strange voices!" Don C. also told me that A.A. is like a polished diamond and when he'd call me on the telephone he'd ask me, "Are you keeping your diamond polished?" This program is a precious gem and it's our job to keep it polished and we do that by doing service work, attending meetings and sponsoring people. I really believe that when I die God's going to ask me, "What did you do with the gift I gave you?" Every one of us alcoholics was broken by the time we got here, but the shepherd healed us and now it's our turn to "pass it on." Make no mistake about it, "we will be held accountable."
Priests and nuns probably carry more guilt than other alcoholics because we're placed on a pedestal, we're supposed to have all the answers, we're supposed to have a hotline to God, and always know what to do. Being alcoholic was such a hard thing for me to admit because I thought being a nun should exempt me, but it didn't. I became full of resentment, fear, remorse, guilt, and shame just like other alcoholics.
There's one more thing I want to say before I end this story. My mother died while I was in treatment, and she never knew that I was an alcoholic. Mother hated alcohol and alcoholism, because she grew up with an alcoholic father and watched alcoholism destroy her brother. I left the treatment center, came home for mother's wake, and after I returned to treatment, they helped me write a letter to her and put everything in it that I should have said while she was alive. I carried that letter to mother's grave and read it out loud and apologized to her for being such an ungrateful daughter. I was raised during the depression and my parents worked very hard. I was their oldest daughter, we always had plenty of good food to eat, nice clothes and a roof over our head. We were well taken care of and that's how my parents expressed their love for us, but I didn't understand that. I was not a good daughter and my parents had to constantly nag me to get any work done. I hated the kitchen and farm chores and I wasn't a very productive daughter, but after I left the treatment center, I was able to make amends. My mother and father died four months apart and neither of them ever knew I was an alcoholic or that I was in a treatment center.
Today, I hear a lot of Fifth Steps, and the more I hear about other people's parents, the better mine look. I am so grateful to have had them for parents. In closing I want to say this simple prayer:
God, by the time each one of us reach the end of our lives, let us be the person that you intended for us to be when you created us.
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