Walkin’ Through the Valley – My Journey, Chapter 1

Make no mistake, this is a story about God.  It is true, it is real and it happened over the last fifty years or so.  I want to be sure you understand that although this narrative will focus on my life, the intent is to convey God’s power, God’s grace and God’s ability to redeem and utilize even the most broken of human beings.   I believe God wants me to and, indeed, has asked me to, share this story with you.  My relationship with God today is personal, active and life-changing, but it wasn’t always that way. 

Very early in 1983, my life took a drastic turn for the worse.  I was happily married with a reasonably good job, a college dropout who liked to party on the weekends, enjoying life to the fullest extent.  My wife and I had been together almost continuously since 7th grade.  We came from the same small Illinois town, had roller skated, played cards and trumpet together, were rarely apart, seemingly forever.  I had built and planned my life, my dreams and my happiness around my relationship with her.  We had it made.

I found out in early January that she was much more interested in ‘my best friend at the time’ than she was in me.  She wanted a divorce.  I was devastated…and divorced by Valentine’s Day.  So I did the only thing that seemed to make sense at the time, I turned to…alcohol. 

Before we go any further into that part of my journey, I feel you should know a little about my background.  I was raised in and around Paw Paw, a small farming community in north central Illinois.  My parents are awesome and have supported me throughout my life in so many ways.  They are also strict teetotalers.  I’ll tell you more about my family at another time.  I was a good student and was also very involved and active in my church.  I have Evangelical United Brethren, United Methodist and Presbyterian church roots.  Singing and playing the trumpet were two of my pleasures and talents.  I didn’t drink, smoke or swear.  I was a “good” kid.  Most of you would have considered me to be a geek and a nerd.  I started working at my great-uncle’s grocery store after graduating from eighth grade and continued to do so for the next 6 years.  I graduated from high school near the top of my class.   I was a member of the National Honor Society and won the band and chorus awards for my school my senior year.  I was on the basketball and baseball teams at different points in high school and was a regular starter at soccer as a senior.  I started Computer Science coursework at Bradley University in the fall of 1977.  I never quite made a successful transition into college life, dropping out after a couple of years.  I was married August 5, 1978.  I was 19 and my life was going just the way I wanted it to.  I left church behind somewhere in this time period as well.  Looking back, I am not sure how or why this happened.  I think the biggest problem was that my plans, at this early age, all focused around my wife and marriage, not on college or a meaningful career or staying in church.  At any rate, I am trying to paint the picture of a normal kid, with a good solid moral and educational background, who had endless possibilities in front of him. 

After my sudden and undesired divorce, I became a drunk, a foul-mouthed, selfish, pessimistic, self-pitying creature, seemingly beyond hope or redemption.  I got drunk most every day, not just a little drunk, but serious, word-slurring, can’t walk straight and at many times, passing out drunk.  Some days, I got drunk twice.  If I couldn’t drink and do a given activity, it was a pretty safe bet that I didn’t do that activity.  My normal habit was to get drunk fast and then keep drinking enough to stay drunk for as long as I could.  I was working at a bank as a computer operator in Peoria, IL when this all started.  I worked three days a week and got paid for 40 hours plus overtime so there was plenty of free time to drink.  I started my workday at 4 PM and continued until the work was done, most days we finished between 1 and 4 AM.  Peoria was a mostly blue collar 3 shift-a-day factory town so the bars closed at 4 AM and could reopen at 6 AM.  You could get a drink at almost any time round the clock…and I did.

I didn’t know it then but the first true miracles in my life were already happening.  I centered my life around alcohol for a long time after that, drinking as if it were the only important thing in the world.  I drove drunk many hundreds of times.  On too many mornings, one of my first actions of the day would be to look out the window and see if the car was outside.  That would tell me if I had driven home or gotten a ride somehow.  Think about that real hard…because on most mornings the car was there.  I was a danger to myself, to those around me, and to the communities I lived in at those times.  Through 11+ years of incredibly stupid and irresponsible actions, I never once got a DUI or was involved in a significant accident when I was drinking.  I never once lost a job or got in trouble at work for my drinking.  That’s an amazing amount of luck, too much, in my opinion.  I now know God was looking out for me all this time, in spite of my complete and total failure to pay any attention to him.  Why or more specifically, why me?  It’s a question that I still ask at times.  I’m not sure why I ask the question, as it’s plain that God has chosen me to do part of his work and who am I to say that God is wrong.

I kept trying to kill the pain with liberal doses of alcohol.  If my ex-wife had walked in during those years, I would have gone back to her in an instant, even if it had occurred during my other two failed marriages during this time period.  Something was missing in my life but I sure hadn’t identified the correct answer yet.  I kept blaming others for my failures and it took years for me to admit my responsibility for what happened to and through me.  I hurt people who didn’t deserve to be hurt and I pray that they have found a way to forgive me.  One thing I know is that God has forgiven me and that I have forgiven myself but I’m jumping way too far ahead of the story.

There’s a lot I don’t remember about those days…and a lot that I do.  Many of the names and faces have slipped away.  At times I would try to stop drinking and straighten my life out but I always slipped back into my old habits.  I could give you chapter and verse on how bad it really was and tell you about some of the specific foolish things I did, but I’m not sure what the point would be.

Sometime in the first half of 1993, my third wife and I were driving back to Kalamazoo, Michigan from visiting her family in Springfield, Illinois.  I had gotten drunk that morning while golfing with my brother-in-law, who had several DUI’s to his name.  During the drive home, she told me she didn’t love me anymore.  The old pain came slamming back, devastating and familiar.  This time, I handled it differently….I didn’t have another drink for at least a couple of years after that day.

Walking through the valley is the part of my story that sets the stage and the background for everything that follows.  All the shame and responsibility of this part of my journey weighs heavy on my shoulders at times but I know that I am forgiven.  I wouldn’t and couldn’t change those times even if I were somehow able to, because there would be no guarantee I would end up where I am today.  I do not believe God predetermined that I was going to go through those terrible times, my choices and decisions led me there.  I do believe that God has every intention of making the best possible use of those experiences.  I believe that the Creator of the Universe wants me to tell others this story.  God wants some to hear so that they can avoid the traps that I fell into and others to others to hear to so they can begin to believe that they can overcome their own seemingingly hopeless situations.
Copyright 2010 John Lage, Jr. All rights reserved

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