From the time I was a young boy, religion was a very important part of my life. I remember my father's look if I was acting up during Mass, and I knew that I should be quiet and listen to what the priest had to say. My father died when I was nine, but I had absolutely no doubt that he had gone to heaven and took comfort in the fact that I would see him again.
Around this same time, I began to have feelings for other boys. Although my mother never talked about homosexuality, I remember hearing derogatory things about gay people and I did not want to be one. I hid these feelings for a couple of years, and then in seventh grade I was reacquainted with my best friend from years earlier. Our friendship grew and we began an intimate relationship.
During these years, I felt extremely conflicted. I was an altar boy and was very close to our parish priest. I recall hearing him preach that he could understand aid for starving people or for homeless people, but aid for people with AIDS was taking things too far. He was basically saying that people who were dying from AIDS were getting what they deserved and no one should try to help them. I also remember a family friend -- a doctor -- saying that AIDS was God's way of getting rid of homosexuals.
When I was 19, I remember making a conscious decision that I would never tell anyone about my feelings. My friend went off to college and never mentioned our relationship again. I began to drink and drug to bury my feelings and prayed that God would make me straight. I gained a lot of weight and struggled for many years with a food addiction. At age 25 I decided that I needed to get sober and had several meetings with a priest, who I tried to talk to about my feelings toward men. I had heard in Alcoholics Anonymous that I needed to be honest about who I was. He told me that it was wrong and that I needed to pray to God for help. This kept me in the closet for another six months, until my older brother came out to me. I also came out to him, but I believed that being gay was wrong, and that I had to leave my church and my friends behind. (Several years later, I saw that same priest coming out of the "dunes," an area in Provincetown where men go to have sex. I resented him for a while, until I realized that he was as much a victim as I was.)
For years, I had sex with men but could never stay in a committed relationship because I did not believe I was worthy of being loved. I had anonymous sex just to feel good, but I was so ashamed of my behavior I compartmentalized my life. In my mid-30s, I got involved in the equal marriage rights issue and built strong relationships with several politicians -- I like to believe that I had some influence over several votes. I remember standing in the Massachusetts State House in 2004 with thousands of equal marriage advocates, singing songs, standing side by side with Senators who were putting their careers on the line to fight for my civil rights. At the same time, I remember thinking, "If they really knew what I have done, they would not be on my side."
Guilt and shame were eating me up inside. Shortly after that, after many years of sobriety, I picked up crystal meth for the first time and became addicted right away. Not only did it give me energy and a false sense of self confidence, but I also lost weight and was the thinnest I had ever been. Over the next couple of years, my life got progressively worse. I contracted HIV, withdrew from friends and family, and left a great job. I was physically and spiritually bankrupt and suicidal. Memories of my priest talking about people with AIDS haunted me. I had a lot of shame about my HIV and I started to believe what I had heard as a child. Using meth made these feelings go away and seemed to be the only way to make my life tolerable. My health deteriorated from my drug use, but I felt it was from my HIV and accepted this as my fate. Being at the lowest point in my life and not sure what to do, I asked my family for help and this is where my life took a dramatic turn.
I checked into an addiction treatment facility, where I heard someone explain the difference between religion and spirituality. He said that religion is for people who do not want to go to hell and spirituality is for people who have already been there. Since that time, I have been through several treatment programs and several relapses. I have learned a lot about recovery, spirituality, and loving myself for who I am.
Today, I have been clean and sober for over 18 months. I attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings almost every day. I work regularly with my sponsor and I take my HIV medications regularly and consistently. I believe in a loving, nonjudgmental God who takes care of me each and every day. I no longer pray for material things, but rather ask God to give me guidance so that I may find my purpose in life. I used to go to the Jesuit Urban Center in Boston, because they were gay-friendly. But a nun there christened the baby of a lesbian couple and the cardinal cracked down on them, so I stopped going. I don't belong to any church or religion today.
Finally, I no longer feel guilt or shame for anything that I have done in the past. The Ninth Step Promise in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, "No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others." I do believe that just as "coming out of the closet" was easier for my generation than the previous generation, it will be still easier for the next. If my story helps someone else, then today is a good day.