Freedom Through Forgiveness

I am completely estranged from my family. Throughout my journey with addiction and recovery, I struggled to navigate my feelings about this. I wished for my emotions toward them to be clear-cut: either I love them or hate them; I miss them or I’m glad they’re out of my life. At times, I had even wished they were no longer alive so that I could find closure. But now, I understand that what I had truly been seeking was something different.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian cult. That’s not hyperbole. Cults, by definition, are religious groups characterized by isolation from the outside world and an indoctrinated belief system, along with practices demanding unwavering devotion that deviate from societal norms. That was me! I was raised with a set of beliefs so clear and rigid that they allowed no room for interpretation or deviation. There was only one sanctioned way to think about any subject. It was a seemingly idyllic life within a tight-knit community, attending church regularly and being perceived as an exemplary family. Despite feeling different outside, within the confines of my home and church, I believed we were part of something significant as the chosen “people of God.” I believed in my faith, my God, and my family. I believed that we were living in the end times, that our religion was the sole true path, and that homosexuality was an abomination.

I started to become sexually aware around the age of 12 and found myself having sexual thoughts about men—and I was petrified. How could this be? I couldn’t be homosexual. Homosexuality is reviled, and those who practice it won’t inherit God’s kingdom. Moreover, I’m one of the most devout members of my congregation.

I embarked on a mission to counterbalance my “homosexual tendencies” through an excessive focus on religious study and service to my congregation. By the age of 15, I was a part-time minister, and by 17, I had risen to a full-time ministerial role. Yet, nothing was changing. In fact, my internal struggle was intensifying. I was in the midst of an existential crisis, and I felt profoundly alone. I was driven by a determination to beat this. Each day became an internal battle between who I believed I should be and who I felt like inside. This left me in tears and constant prayer. As a last-ditch effort, I committed myself to serve at the world headquarters of our religion. This was the highest role one could attain. I was convinced that by serving in “God’s house,” my prayers would finally be heard, and these feelings would be removed. I was devastated when this attempt also failed. This left me unsure of how much fight I had left in me.

My connection with God began to waver, providing me with the opportunity to reflect: What if the problem didn’t lie within me, but rather within the beliefs I had clung to so vehemently?

A new fear set in. I knew that if there was nothing wrong with me and something wrong with the religion, I would need to make a decision. A decision to be honest with myself and seek out some authenticity for my life. But I couldn’t do that and remain a part of my religion. And if I didn’t remain a part of my religion, I couldn’t remain a part of my family. The rules around excommunicated members were clear: once you leave the religion all forms of association and communication must be cut. It is a form of shunning they believe will both keep members in and encourage members who have left to quickly return. Who wouldn’t want to return knowing that everyone you know and love will be cut off from you?

For the first time in my life, I felt like I was dying and I made a decision to live. On a Friday evening, I packed my car with whatever belongings I could fit into the backseat. As I drove away from home, I knew it would be the last time I saw my family.

To say that I was overwhelmed by emotions would be an understatement. The insular, family-centered life I had known was upended, thrusting me into a world for which I was ill-prepared. My skills and life goals, shaped by my religious upbringing, were centered around becoming a full-time minister. In an instant, my support systems evaporated. Alone and grappling with my emotions, I found a new home in the gay community and was offered crystal meth at a party. The moment I did my first line I knew I had found a cure for the pain I was suffering. I loved the feeling of numbness. The drugs made the abandonment and loneliness that were consuming me fade into the background. They provided me a temporary escape—a means of pushing through another day. It became my lifeline, something I couldn’t imagine surviving without. Over the next decade, there wasn’t a single day I wasn’t high on one substance or another.

Don’t get me wrong—my childhood ambition, all of that drive to overcome, proved invaluable during this phase of my life. I put myself through college, secured jobs, and honed my skills. I was unrelenting in my pursuit of success. It was OK if I got obliterated every night as long as I continued to make progress. And obliterated I did get—a long day at school called for an evening of alcohol and weed, a Friday night meant GHB or cocaine to get the weekend started, a holiday weekend or special event called for my drug of choice, crystal meth. I eventually started crossing the lines and boundaries I had put into place to “control” my using. My nightly use became daily, crushing Adderall in the mornings, doing a bump of coke between classes, and taking a couple shots before I caught the train to work. I switched between substances, giving myself the illusion that no particular drug had a complete hold on me.

What I really wanted was to use meth more often. It was the one drug that pulled all the levers for me. But I couldn’t devise a system in which I could hold on to the basics of my day-to-day (work, school, relationships) and deal with the comedowns from using. It was then that a proposal was offered by a using buddy, “If you can’t manage the comedown, just don’t come down!” Never had I heard a more brilliant plan. I picked up the pipe that evening and didn’t put it down for another five years. The shreds of a life I had built were crumbling but I couldn’t see a way out, so I just went further in. I was asked to leave a good job which freed me up to become a full-time drug dealer–my life revolved around using. In a sick sort of way, there was a sense of enjoyment–I was no longer the good, Christian boy and I was living out a fantasy of being a “bad boy.” No one would ever guess that the guy who came to sell you dope was once the same kid who tried to preach you the Bible.

Throughout this all, and in perfect alignment with the teachings of our religion, my family remained distant. They severed all ties. Occasionally, I concocted excuses to reach out, only to be met with curt responses and swift disconnections by my parents over the phone. My siblings took an even more drastic route and cut me off entirely, ignoring my emails and calls.

I didn’t know how to feel about it. If you got me on a good bender, I would get emotional about how much I missed my family–how sad it was that they were living their lives and I knew nothing about them, how such a giant part of my soul had been wrenched from me. If you got me on a more reasonable night, I would tell you it wasn’t their fault–they were in a cult, I understood because I used to be just like them, I knew they still loved me, they just weren’t allowed to show it. But mostly I just tried to keep them out of my thoughts and press forward.

My addiction ends the way many of our stories do. I was a destitute, former prostitute, washed-up drug dealer with a daily crystal meth addiction with no hope on the horizon. How far I had plummeted from my days as a clean-cut minister! When I had driven away that morning all those years ago, my goal had been to prove my family and my religion wrong, to demonstrate that I could stand on my own. Instead, I had orchestrated my own downfall. I was unemployed, homeless and had whittled my group of friends down to less than a handful of people who cared about my wellbeing. Once again, I found myself teetering on the edge of life and death. I chose life.

One day, a very close friend and using buddy of mine came to visit. He had recently been going to Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings and had 30 days clean and sober. This sounded like a miracle to me and I was out of options. I decided to give what he was doing a try and went with him to a CMA meeting. I heard of people who’d been using just like me who had found a solution and solace—so I decided to give the program a try. Driven by desperation and hope, I committed to doing whatever it took to recover. My old ambition and determination kicked back in. I threw myself into sobriety, the Twelve Step program, and the pursuit of a new life. And in this process, I discovered that I was a person worth saving.

When I reached Step 4, it was easy enough to identify that my parents belonged on a list of those I harbored resentment toward. They had abandoned me, disowned me, and left me adrift during a critical phase of my young adulthood. My anger was justified, and their actions and decisions were unquestionably wrong. But as I worked through my columns, I hit a roadblock when it came to identifying my part in the situation. How could I have a part in something I had no control over? Being gay was an inherent aspect of who I was–beyond my control. I was blameless in the events that led to my resentment. But therein lay my confusion—I was searching for my role in the event itself, failing to recognize that what I was actually looking for was my responsibility in holding onto the resentment. Guided by my sponsor, I pinpointed two aspects that resonated: my expectations that my parents should act differently and my reluctance to forgive.

As I progressed through Steps 6 and 7, I grappled with my expectations. The answer here lay in acceptance. As I began to embrace the reality of my relationship with my family, I could start letting go of those expectations. They had often driven me into despair—longing for family, reaching out with hopes of a genuine conversation, only to plunge further into depression when my attempts were met with disappointment. With time and practicing letting go, I found that I hadn’t felt the need to contact my parents in years.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, proved more complex. I suspect it’s common to perceive forgiveness as an all-encompassing embrace, a gesture declaring, “It’s ok, what you did was alright and I forgive you.” I definitely looked at forgiveness that way. And I wasn’t prepared to validate my family’s choice to abandon me. So, with the assistance of my sponsor and my therapist, I embarked on an exploration of forgiveness.

The first thing I read stopped me in my tracks–the definition of forgiveness in the dictionary: “to cease to feel resentment against.” That’s all. I delved further into the concept, finding that it was entirely possible to release my anger and resentments without absolving those who had harmed me. I even found an online article from my former religion outlining this very concept! This change in perception shifted everything. I felt like I could communicate with my family honestly and grant them forgiveness. I didn’t know what that would do for me, but I was willing to do the work.

I sat down and wrote to them about how I’d been feeling for the first time since I left home 18 years ago. I told them how much I loved them, how much I adored my childhood, how wonderful it was to grow up as their child. Then I detailed my struggles with my identity beyond what they knew. How I had been dying inside and how the only choice I had left was to be my authentic self. Finally, I identified that they had a choice as well, and they chose their religion. It was for that choice that I forgave them. I told them I would never agree with their actions but I would no longer allow my feelings of resentment to live in me and dictate my life. I was letting go of my anger. I forgave them.

I sent the letter, realizing that my forgiveness wasn’t for them, it was for me. This act enabled me to progress and continue growing. Although I never received a reply, a profound shift occurred within me. I suddenly felt at peace with my parents, as if I had gently closed a door. It dawned on me that my emotional connection to my family had kept me tethered to the past, preventing me from fully embracing the loving and accepting people I had built connections with in my new life. I had been constantly reaching backward when I should have been reaching forward.

Years later, something happened that showed there had been healing and growth. Out of the blue, my sister, with whom I hadn’t communicated for nearly two decades, called to deliver sad news: “Your father has passed away; we wanted you to know.” At that moment, genuine, heartfelt empathy flooded me. I was truly sorry for their loss, with no bitterness or lingering anger. I had made my peace with my father and had grieved our relationship. I was able to be present for my family’s experience and not make it about me or my feelings.

To be clear, there are definitely times when I think, I wish I could share this with my mother or siblings. I have fleeting moments of sadness over experiences that I’ll never have with them. Yet, today, these emotions don’t dictate my life as they once did. Thinking about my family no longer spirals me into a depressive haze or sends me on a self-destructive bender. Today, I am building a new family, one composed of people who offer unwavering support and love. Thanks to the Steps, I possess the tools to create this space for myself. For this, I am eternally grateful.

Skip to content