The quest for sobriety with the Calix Society

Many spend their Saturday mornings sleeping in or cheering at their children's sports games. But at Club 12 in Leesburg, one group of Catholics huddles up, pulls out their rosary beads and prays the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy to begin their weekly Calix Society meeting. Then they relate their trials and tribulations with alcohol.

"Those present may differ in age or experience but share a common language: suffering," writes Michael Cappitelli in his essay, "Two or Three Gathered in My Name." "Where alcohol once overtook their lives, wrecked relations, left no room for God, they have rediscovered their Catholic roots and (allowed) their faith to nourish them."

Since 1949, Calix has supplemented the better-known Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon programs, allowing participants nationwide to open up about God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary in a 12-step environment that encourages Catholic language and sentiments. With Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's permission, Father Michael R. Duesterhaus, parochial vicar of Corpus Christi Church in South Riding, comes once a month to offer spiritual direction and hear confessions. Non-practicing Catholics and Protestants also are welcome.

Bob*, a Calix participant whose wife and daughter struggle with alcohol, said that before coming to the meetings, he had "fallen out of the faith." He was in "a very bad place emotionally, mentally and physically" when he went to confession for the first time in 25 years.

"Before Calix, I was praying for the things I wanted instead of praying for understanding what God wants," he said. "Now I pray for the knowledge of what He wants to happen and the power to carry it out."

"Practicing your faith is how you keep from relapsing," said Billy*, who helped found the Northern Virginia chapter in January 2014.

When Gregory*, who has been in recovery for more than 15 years, first learned about Calix, he said he immediately looked it up but was disappointed to find that the support group nearest his home was in La Plata, Md.

"I prayed for a Calix chapter to start up closer," he said. "One day I walked to Club 12 for AA and saw a flyer on the door for a new Calix meeting. My prayers were answered."

Now a regular Calix attendee, Gregory said it is the group's emphasis on mercy that has changed him the most.

"When we become more aligned with the God of our Catholic understanding, we have a more complete recovery in practicing the faith: daily prayer, routine, Mass more regularly," he said. "We are more involved. The take the others have has given me perspective."

Three years sober

Lucy*, 39, first started drinking at age 12.

"Believe it or not, it was because I was depressed," she said. "I drank heavily in high school. By the time I became sober at 36, I easily had 25 years of alcoholic drinking. I knew for a long time that I had a problem and that I had to stop."

When Lucy experienced a trauma that required emergency spinal surgery, she was prescribed painkillers. Over her two-year recovery, she said she became addicted to pills.

"I was getting worse and worse personally," she said. "My boss told me, 'You need to get help. We'll hold your job.'"

Lucy sought medical attention at Father Martin's Ashley, a nonprofit drug rehabilitation center in Havre de Grace, Md. founded by a formerly alcoholic priest. She stayed there for 30 days, but did not return to work. Inspired by the new evangelization, she asked herself how to become a disciple of Christ. An active Catholic before becoming sober, she enrolled in the master's in theology program at Christendom College in Front Royal.

"I don't know where my career's going to take me," she said. "But whatever I do, hopefully it brings me closer to God."

Since becoming sober nearly three years ago, Lucy also has become a mother.

"AA says don't quit before the miracle happens," she says. "I'm 39. I didn't think I was going to have a baby."

Lucy learned about Calix when she stepped out of Mass to nurse her baby and noticed a card about Calix near where she was sitting.

"When you talk about God in some AA meetings, people get mad," she said. "You're supposed to say 'Higher Power.' … (In Calix), having the same faith is huge."

A parental nightmare

Barbara* said she knew her then college-age daughter struggled with alcohol, but she didn't consider getting help for herself until a friend recommended it. After failing to find a support group in any of her local parishes, she turned to Al-Anon, which caters to alcoholics' loved ones.

"When someone in Al-Anon realized I was Catholic, he told me to try Calix," she said. Since April, Barbara has come to the group to listen to others' stories and share her own.

Barbara grappled with her daughter's eating disorder in high school, so when her teen went off to college, she was happy to learn that her roommate was Catholic.

"I thought, great, maybe they'll go to church together," she said.

But instead of worshiping together, they drank together, and heavily.

"I remember I went to visit (my daughter) her sophomore year, and there were alcohol bottles lined up in her kitchen like trophies," she said. "You wondered how these girls could drink all the time and stay so thin. They were eating tiny salads or sandwiches and then throwing up. They were malnourished. These were not the healthy Catholic kids who went off to college."

According to Barbara, her daughter has gotten a DUI, spent a night in jail, had an ignition interlock system installed in her car to prevent her from driving drunk and participates in a court-mandated AA group.

"How much can you do as a parent? You can urge but that's sometimes futile," she said. "They have to hit their rock bottom."

Barbara's coping mechanism has been prayer, in and out of Calix.

"Ten years ago, I never would've imagined this," she said. "I ask where was I when I was 25? I was married, but you can't compare. I tell her, 'I remember the day you were born.' All the things you want for your child and never did you think you would be dealing with this."

Calix gives Barbara a chance to connect to other Catholics and bond over shared experiences. When she listens to people relate their struggles with alcohol, it helps her better understand her daughter's challenges.

"When you go to church, nobody knows the trouble anybody's going through," she said. "Everybody looks so perfect, but so many people are struggling. On Facebook, you see the perfect life, the perfect clothes. You don't see people's battles."

For that reason, Barbara says she hopes Calix chapters are started at the parish level instead of only taking place at Club 12 in Leesburg. Nonetheless, she is grateful for the group and plans to continue attending meetings.

"This is where the faith worked. There's a lot of shame with alcohol," she said. "You're trying to hide, cover and fix. There's this façade. Here, there's honesty, sharing, acceptance and thinking. My faith has deepened and reminded me that it's really not just about the alcoholic."

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Find out more

Calix meets Saturdays at Club 12, 58 Sycolin Rd. SE., Leesburg. To learn more about the Calix Society, visit calixsociety.org or send an email to Calix_NOVA@yahoo.com. To learn more about Father Martin's Ashley, go to fathermartinsashley.org .

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015