FINDING MY RELIGION II – The Rev. Ken Barnes saw alcohol as a gateway to the divine – then the bottle turned on him

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Alcohol has long been part of spiritual practices, from the Grecian rites of Dionysus, the god of wine, to the observance of the Christian Eucharist. The Talmud, a sacred book of Jewish law, insists that the celebration of Purim is not complete until a person has drunk so much that he “cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.'”

But there can be a dark side to divine intoxication. Ken Barnes, a 67-year-old pastor and Oakland native, has struggled with alcoholism for much of his life, including the 22 years that he served as senior minister at the Arlington Community Church in Kensington.

Initially, Barnes says that drinking brought him closer to God, but eventually his addiction threatened to destroy everything he held sacred. With the help of recovery groups, meditation and other spiritual work, he has been sober for more than 30 years. He is now the interim pastor at Community Congregational Church in Tiburon. I spoke with him recently at his home in Kensington.

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You’ve been clean and sober since the early 1970s. When did you start drinking?

I started drinking in college, a little bit before I turned 21. That was mainly beer, and at parties. But as I look back and piece things together, I realize I had a desire to get high much earlier than that.

I can remember in about the fifth grade someone teaching us that if you take 10 deep breaths, and then if you kneel and put your thumb in your mouth and blow as hard as you can, you’ll keel over. Well, we all did this once to show how macho we were. But I loved it and I’d do it regularly.

Then I got totally immersed in athletics. I was the one who they had to chase off the practice field — I always wanted to go out for one more pass. I’m realizing now exercise put my body into different states — changed my body chemistry. Now we call it “getting in the zone.”

I actually went to school on a football scholarship, at Redlands University. And then I switched to Cal because I played football for two years and didn’t like it. And I got an injury. Looking back on it, I believe my increase in drinking started when I no longer got high athletically. Drinking, from the very beginning, just put me in the zone in a similar way that athletics did.

When you say drinking “put you in the zone,” what do you mean? It made you happy?

It made me happy, made me free. Later on, I had this little mantra I would say to myself: God is in the heavens and everything is right on earth. And that’s what alcohol did for me.

At the early stages of my drinking, before I lost control of it, I’d be amazed when I played basketball with my buddies that most of them wanted to stop drinking after one beer or so. They just wanted to focus on basketball. But I’d want another beer or two. I thought maybe I’d play better. I thought they were so strange! Drinking was my favorite joy — my recreation.

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You told me earlier that drinking was sort of a key to a spiritual doorway for you — until it started killing you. Tell me more about that.

It was for me at that time. I felt a sense of transcendence. Of course, alcohol has always been that for people. In the Middle Ages, it was called aqua vitae, the water of life. Jews and Christians have always used it in sacred ceremonies.

When I went to seminary at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, I would study at night with this Irish friend of mine, and after looking at visions of Isaiah and the Hebrew words behind the verb tenses, we’d close our books up and run down to this pub that we liked. And the person would see us coming and he would pour us a glass of whisky and a pint. And we would sit and talk about what we had been studying. And as we got the buzz on, we felt like we really understood what we had been studying meant at a deep level. I used to love doing that.

At what point did alcohol become a problem for you?

Sometime in my mid-20s drinking went from being a recreational activity — something I tried to bring into most social events — to a daily part of my life. Partly, it was when I had the financial means to procure alcohol, after I got my first [job at a] church.

Most evenings I was either at the pub or at home with the bottle. And most of the time I didn’t get rip-roaring drunk. I tried to maintain that high and the spontaneity that it gave me. But pretty soon I crossed that invisible line where I lost control.

Did anyone try to confront you about it?

I dated a couple of women, and they would at times wonder about it. But then I would back away from them. So no, I was for the most part a very congenial, sensitive, aware drunk. And I’d feel so good that I would just be so interested in whomever I was with.

What about your congregation? Didn’t they notice?

Not right away. I was a good pastor. Most of my folks just loved me, and I loved them. And when there were important events at night, I would work really hard to keep my drinking down. I probably drank addictively for five to seven years before things started getting bad. And then I really got scared.

What happened?

For one thing, I started having partial blackouts where I couldn’t remember or piece together everything that had happened the night before. Sometimes I would go through a radical personality change. I’d be so delighted with my wife, and then suddenly I’d get quarrelsome with her for no good reason. And later it would confuse the heck out of me. It didn’t seem like the real me who was acting this way.

Then I started getting hangovers. For a long time I never got them. That’s how I decided I wasn’t an alcoholic. I’d drink my buddies under the table. They’d be puking in the morning, and I’d be fine. But then I started getting them, too. That was pretty serious. And I started doing some things that I didn’t like, like hiding my drinking and not being truthful in other ways.

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Denial is a big temptation for alcoholics. At what point did you decide you had a problem and needed to stop drinking?

I got pulled over a number of times by the police. Two or three times it was city cops who stopped [me], and since I chaired the fire liaison board for the city, they just took me home and told me where my car was. But one time I was on [Highway] 880 and the highway patrol pulled me over. I ended up in the Santa Rita jail.

My wife bailed me out, and the whole thing really scared me. Plus, we were expecting our first daughter. At that time, I practically kept a furniture repairman in business by falling and breaking things [when I was drunk]. I was terrified that I would fall while I was holding her and hurt her.

So I called a pastor friend of mine who I knew was in recovery, and he took me to my first meeting. And that was the beginning of my recovery process.

What was that first meeting like? What were you hoping it would be?

I didn’t know what to expect. It was an all-male meeting — they were all professional men, including several judges. I thought to myself: “Oh my God, I have to talk to these guys? For an hour? What am I going to say?” And, of course, I was told to sit down, shut up and listen! As they told me their stories it just opened my eyes. It was amazing because I could identify with so much of what they were saying.

I knew I had come to the right place, and so I started going to meetings. But about three months into it, I was still tense and nervous. I was a cocktail drinker, so come five o’clock in the evening I would crave a drink. My wife didn’t want me in the house, because I was just like a pirate prowling around, and I certainly wasn’t going to drive anywhere, because there are liquor stores and bars everywhere. So I started running.

You went jogging?

Yes. This was before the running craze for adults happened. The first six months I was running in our neighborhood I was twice stopped by the cops — one thinking I had stolen something, and the other time fearing that somebody was chasing me.

Running calmed me down. It gave me a sense of well-being, But six months into my recovery I was still struggling. And the struggle, quite frankly, was that I’d lost my pathway to God. I no longer felt that inner glow, that connection with the divine. And I really wondered if I wanted to lead this kind of life without it.

But isn’t that one of the tenets of 12-step groups — a belief in a higher power?

Yes, belief in a higher power. Recovery programs all have to be spiritual. And how you work that spirituality out is different for each of us. But for me, the meetings weren’t enough. That’s what I call “horizontal” spirituality: The fellowship. Knowing that I belong, that I’ve got a place at the table. I wasn’t getting the “vertical” spirituality, that contact with a higher power. I wasn’t getting that at the meetings.

How did that affect your work as a minister?

Honestly, I was wondering if I wanted to continue in my line of work. At least when I was drinking there was an inward knowing, an assurance — there was a God. And now I didn’t have that experience.

But then I got introduced to a meditation teacher, Laurence Leshan, who taught a variety of techniques. His little book “How to Meditate” is still, I think, a classic in the field.

I began meditating, and not every time — because it wasn’t quick and easy as alcohol — but I would get that inward glow, that openness, that I had been missing. And then I started fasting and taking spiritual retreats. These were practices that I’d heard about but not really explored. Now, they’re part and parcel of my life. I still run and meditate, and I fast periodically, too.

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Did you tell any of your parishioners about your alcoholism?

Not for a long time. I was clean and sober for seven or eight years, but I didn’t let many people know about it — just a few friends and some family. Finally, I was inspired by my gay and lesbian friends who were coming out and saying: “This is part of who I am!” And I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I’d lived with it long enough. I was ashamed of some of the things I did, but I wasn’t ashamed of who I am.

I decided I was going to preach on it, to my congregation, and before the service in the announcement time I was going to say what I have said, literally thousands of times, in meetings. “I’m Ken, and I’m an alcoholic.” And I couldn’t say it. I tried and the words wouldn’t come out. I broke down, and tears came, and I took a deep breath, and I tried two or three times before I could blurt it out. And that was humbling because it was saying, “This is an area that I have suffered in, [it's] my weakness.”

And, of course, the congregation embraced me, and the interesting thing was, for the next couple of weeks, my counseling load was filled with people. A couple came forth who had drinking problems but also other kinds of addictions or abusive behaviors.

It’s amazing that you didn’t have any major problems in your job as a pastor because of your drinking. How do you explain that?

I embarrassed myself towards the end a couple of times, but I was able to recover. I was what is called a high-functioning alcoholic. And in these Berkeley Hills there’s a lot of us! You know, professors and physicians, and all of that.

Did you ever have a relapse?

I had one — six months into the program. We were going to England for the summer. I had made up my mind that I would find 12-step meetings to attend while I was there. The thing I hadn’t counted on was the flight from here to there.

Being on the airplane, you wanted to drink?

They did charter flights back then, and here I am airborne, not another recovering alcoholic on the flight as far as I knew, and the cocktail cart came down, and I said, “This is my chance to do some controlled drinking.” [laughs]

On that flight I got quite drunk. I chatted up the stewardesses, and they kept giving me these little bottles of booze, and so I had my pockets full of these, and when I got to England I never went to a meeting. I drank for the two and a half months we were there. But I couldn’t wait to get back here to go to my meeting and to start again.

And I’ve traveled quite a bit since, and I’d go to meetings. We were in Barcelona a few years ago, and I went to meetings in Spanish, and I never spoke Spanish. But there is a bond.

So you never had a problem again?

Well, I had problems, but I never slipped again.

Recovering alcoholics and other kinds of addicts talk about triggers, the things that make you want to drink. What are yours?

One would be in the first warm day of spring. I would just obsess on gin and tonics. Another was dreaming about being drunk. Occasionally, I still have those dreams, and they are very powerful.

As a sober person, can you still look back on the drinking and say it was spiritual? A lot of people might say that was an excuse for getting drunk.

It was until the end, when all of these really bad things started to happen. I still believe that alcohol opened me up spiritually and that it was a leading force of why I pursued these other disciplines, like meditation.

How has your understanding of God changed as a sober person, if at all?

I believe very much in an immanent God. A God within. A divine spark. A glow. And that hasn’t changed much.

That’s what you believed before?

That’s what I experienced — not believed — before. What I experience now when I meditate is the ultimate mystery of God, but it’s inside. I don’t have a lot of patience with theology or talking about a God “out there.” But to me it’s a mystical God — the light within us. And that’s been consistent throughout my life. I just thank God that I have a way to access it that doesn’t kill me.

What is the most important thing you have learned from this process of recovery?

That I didn’t do it. There but for the grace of God. After I had been arrested and my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I literally got down on my hands and knees and said, “God, this is bigger than me. Help me!” I really feel that what I do in meditation, what I do in running, is I just release my ego. Release the self to a higher entity. And I really believe in that now.

Do you miss drinking?

At times. There was a length of time where I avoided any drinking situations, but I don’t do that anymore. I’m not envious of people who drink. I’ll go into bars now, although I don’t particularly like to do that, because they are kind of boring places.

I also really have a deep feeling that if God can pull me through my alcoholism, then everything else will fall into place. And I’m a very optimistic person. It’s the divine human coming together, where the light is far more powerful than the darkness.

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By David Ian Miller

During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.

His “Finding My religion” series of interviews that you can find in SFGate.com look at individual experience of how different people found their religion. It is considered that this is a subject close to all Templars heart, that will surely resonate with some of our own individual experiences, helping us understand how mystical traditions far apart from ours have so many common points. You will also read about people that today follow mystical disciplines that it is said the historical Templar Order was familiar with, including Sufism, Kaballah, Gnosticism, Sacred Geometry, Meditation, etc.

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