I’d been alone on my sailboat in a terrific storm, more than 150 miles out in the Atlantic, and I’d been out there for seven days. Good Samaritans guided me the last few miles into Charleston Harbor—a place unknown to me—and showed me safe anchorage for my 39-foot sloop. My new friends picked me up in a small dinghy and ferried me to their marina. It was a miracle I’d survived.
When I got in the shower, I felt like I was riding a bucking bronco. The violent motion of the boat at sea over the last week was in my bones, and I kept wanting to reach out and steady myself, as though I were still in danger of being pitched overboard. The wonders of running water, central heating, and electricity were luxurious to me, like memories of another lifetime. I’d almost died out there, and I knew how fortunate I was to be alive.
I’d sailed right into the teeth of a December gale, and the boat had been battered to pieces. I’d lost my power, too, so I had no lights, no radio, no navigation, and no way to restart my auxiliary engine and head for safety. I was far beyond sight of land or any coastal shipping traffic, so there was little chance of being found. The old boat seemed to be coming apart, and I knew a crack in the hull would quickly send me to the bottom, several thousand feet below my keel.
In the end, I was confined to a darkness deeper than anything I’d ever known. The weather was already bleak, with howling winds and roller-coaster waves, but as night fell, my isolation became complete. Without electricity, I couldn’t see the world around me, so I had to rely on an old kerosene lamp—very dangerous— and a small flashlight. The sailboat’s rig was twisting the deck violently, causing explosive sounds in the cabin below. I expected one of those cannon-like blasts to crack the hull any moment, so I spent the hours of the night in despair, waiting to die.
There was no reasonable hope for survival, barring a miracle I probably didn’t deserve. My only prayer was that I wouldn’t suffer too long, that I would die quickly. I had no life raft and no way to survive the ocean waves.
It had been the same at the end of my drinking and drugging career, nine years earlier. I saw no way out and had no hope of recovery. I was 26 at that time, and my addiction had taken me from a bright young college student to a homeless vagrant in less than 10 years. I was suffering from a bleeding ulcer, bleeding colon and transient neuropathy of the legs, and my mental state was desperate. I was also a card-carrying atheist in those days, so if I couldn’t help myself, there was no hope for the future. Suicide seemed like my best option.
But in the end, a family intervention saved me from myself and got me into a hospital, and ultimately into recovery. It was no small miracle to be saved from my own self-imposed death sentence, but there were many dangers ahead. While still in treatment, I realized the addiction was more powerful than me, and that I was being pulled back down into the morass of alcoholism. I was desperate to find a solution, but without the most rudimentary faith, I only had myself to rely on—and I was the problem. I spent a long night searching for a way out, but couldn’t find the light. Misery and fear were my only companions.
Only complete surrender finally delivered me, in a way I never could’ve imagined. In the middle of the night, in the deepest despair, I got down on my knees and cried out to the God I didn’t believe in, and asked for help. In the moments that followed, a power greater than myself was revealed to me, beyond anything I’d ever imagined. In those ineffable moments, I came to believe I could stay sober, and that there would always be help when I needed it. My life was never the same.
It wasn’t something I could easily talk about. I didn’t want to be branded a religious fanatic, but I’d had a supernatural experience that changed everything. Now the Twelve Steps made perfect sense, and I began to grasp what the people in meetings were trying to tell me. I understood the paradoxical nature of Step One, the need to believe in a power greater than myself in Step Two, and the necessity for placing myself in the care of that power in Step Three.
This last part wasn’t as difficult as it appeared, because my white-light experience had revealed a God of infinite love and understanding, far beyond the realm of human comprehension. I knew I was always safe in that love, and that my addiction had no power, by comparison. I still had to contend with all my human weaknesses, but I never drank or drugged again. I became a pro at “one day at a time,” and I was eager to carry the message.
My life looked very different nine years later, out on the ocean in the middle of the night with the boat on the verge of sinking. What miracle would save me now? Hadn’t I designed my own fate with this crazy voyage? Wasn’t I guilty of always wanting more, of always trying to outrun the past? Yes, I was clean and sober, but wasn’t I the architect of my own demise? Many losses—and even deaths—had sent me off on this adventure, in a bid to find another chance; but now my dreams lay in ruins and the boat seemed to be on her last gasp.
Most people don’t know much about sailing, but we know what it’s like to be on a sinking ship, as we slog through the storms of sickness, divorce, unemployment or grief. All of us have known the dark days when all seems lost, and the will to go on evaporates. But out on the boat, my end seemed certain, not metaphorical. Worse yet, it was all my fault.
In what I thought were my final moments, a relentless guilt seized me, as I thought about the things I’d done and the things I’d failed to do. We all have regrets, yet they often disappear into the background as we live our busy lives. But in the moment of my seeming death, these failings loomed large, and dragged me down into a black hole of despair. I couldn’t forgive myself, and I couldn’t believe that God would forgive me either, as I’d strayed so far from the law of Love in the pursuit of my own desires.
A miracle happened on the boat, which I describe in Navigating Grace, and I was delivered from the black hole and the storm. The clutches of death were ultimately loosened and I found my way back to shore, astonished and grateful. I learned I could be forgiven, and I could begin again. This knowledge was wrapped in mystery though, and it took me more than 20 years to grasp the fullness of the message. You could say I’m a little thick-headed.
Back onshore, the familiar world seemed unfamiliar. The demands of life often crowded out the spirit, and it took concerted effort to break away from the distractions and pay attention. I had a renewed appreciation for my life, for the miracle of it, and for the generosity of strangers.
How many storms have we all survived, delivered by love in all its disguises? How often do I still look into the blackness, when I should be looking at the light? Why is it so easy to fall into that trap? The light is always there, waiting to be noticed. The hand of a friend or a stranger is always there to help, if only I stretch out mine. Will I?
Jeff Jay is the author of Navigating Grace: A Solo Voyage of Survival and Redemption.
This article was originally published on Hazelden’s website.