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Welcome to the atheist in recovery Podcast, where we talk about finding hope and recovery. And now your host, Dr. Adina Silvestri
Adina Silvestri 0:13
Bonjour Guys, and Welcome to Episode 84 of the Atheists in Recovery podcast. And today we have David Cunningham on and I'm excited about this guest. We really talk a lot about Catholic school. And if you know anything about me, you know that I have a love hate relationship with Catholic schools and church and all of those things. And so David talks about growing up in Catholic school and being part of a small congregation and how he never felt part of anything, whether it was his family, church, or school and as an altar boy, at his Catholic school, he found solace in comfort. And that first drink of altar wine which she describes as horrible. We also talk about finding your higher power. And David breaks down how he came to discover a God of his understanding. And so there is some, some 12 step talk in this episode. But I find that that each guest brings, you know, a new way of thinking about recovery. And so and so I say, bring it on. So David talks about the God of his understanding, and how it's continually evolving to this day. And at the end, David has a message for those of us who are feeling hopeless, and it's simple. The premise is simple, yet significant. Okay, let's talk about our guest. David Cunningham has been in the addiction treatment profession since 1990. He has served as East Tennessee president, Tennessee State President and served as the South southeastern regional vice president for NAADAC. He has been the recipient of numerous awards including the Tennessee Henry A Ashe professional of the Year in East Tennessee, the state professional of the Year award in Tennessee, runner up for the National professional of the year (NAADAC), the Tim Karen read ribbon award for community achievement with Child and Family Services and helping prenatal chemically exposed children and adults. The East Tennessee Lifetime Achievement honoree and most recently, the Tennessee State Lifetime Achievement Award is also been made an honorary member of clean and sober and the wind Motorcycle Club of Portland, Oregon. David is a passionate member of NAADAC a member to those entering the addiction profession, and an advocate for those continuing to suffer from the disease of addiction. He is dedicated to the 12 step philosophy, leadership in the recovery field, the encouragement and others of others and the promotion of sober lifestyles, and you'll see how passionate he is about helping others in this episode. Alright guys, on to the show,
David Cunningham. Welcome to the show.
David Cunningham 3:11
Adina Silvestri 3:12
I'm excited for you to be here. And I want to start this conversation. Like I do many conversations with just acquiring a little bit about your deepest roots from childhood.
David Cunningham 3:25
Okay, I am David Cunningham, I'm alcoholic from Knoxville, Tennessee and right born and raised here in Tennessee. And you know, we were a lot of minority being Catholic in East Tennessee. Back in my youth, it was a very small congregation, very small school I went to and, you know, I recall, you know, in my early years, never failing a part of really anything, whether it's my family or my church or my school. And so that feeling of aloneness and isolation started long, long, long before I ever picked up the first Greek and as altar boy, and a Catholic school. That's where I picked up my first drink and sip of the priests wine tasted horrible, but it gave me a sensation that everything was going to be okay. They're almost like the magic elixir. had three older sisters. My youngest sister is 10 years older. That could have been another part of that feeling a lot different because my three sisters were all in school together and close. And then my father over his years had been a pretty much a raging alcoholic and I'm pretty sure my dad was a major depression and a lot of issues going on. And you know, over the years of what my recovery I've been able to do a lot of forgiveness around that, and a light around that. But one of my sisters, the only one that acknowledges it, and says that, you know, we were raised with a terrorist, and you would never know when things were just going to explode. And there was no talking, there was no really discussing things, a lot of family secrets. So that went on up through the fifth grade. I don't recall why. But our small Catholic school closed down, and I was plummeted into public schooling, which was another complete shock, because it was large. And there were, unfortunately, race riots and all kinds of stuff going on that. And so once again, even more reason to want to escape. So that's kind of where a lot of the start is childhood.
Adina Silvestri 6:01
Okay, so it sounds like you, you didn't really fit in and this in a small school in East Tennessee, and being an altar boy in church that sort of gave you the view of the first sip of this magic elixir, as you called it. So looking back, do you feel like those early days had that formative meal, you have a debt of identity? Did you feel like you found some support in the magical elixir?
David Cunningham 6:31
Yeah, I mean, just anything to escape and make me feel different. Because I just felt like a misfit. And then, you know, finally, as I got a little older, and I found the culture that also did the same things that I was doing, I was off to the races. And I knew some of my family history, I knew that there was a lot of drinking, I knew there was drug use. And also for some really twisted reason. My dad was a big guy, a lot of people were kind of scared of him. And, you know, I wanted to be like my dad, you know, I want to be a tough guy, won't people be scared of me? and found that, you know, and alcohol and other drugs and and when I started running with those other groups of like minded drinkers and users, I guess I was a bit of a chameleon, I could fit in just about anywhere. While I was I was drinking music. Mm
Adina Silvestri 7:33
hmm. Yeah. So wanting to be wanting to be like your dad. I think that that's something that that many boys want to do. And to emulate what they see as masculinity. Right? And so yeah,
David Cunningham 7:53
yeah. And everything I was raised with around what it takes to be a man was so so distorted. And honestly, it raised me to be somewhere along that point, I really didn't like myself at all. So again, I wanted to be something different. Now, alcohol, seemed to lend to that. But just really, almost a hatred for myself. It was very easy to hate anybody else was not like me. And, you know, that was the very unfortunate culture I was raised in, if you weren't like me, I hated you. It was just a very twisted, distorted way to raise people thinking that that's what it took to be a man, you know, you had to, you had to hunt and kill things. You had to dislike different people because of their beliefs or whatever. And when I got in recovery, all that started dropping by the wayside.
Adina Silvestri 8:57
Yeah. So David, I think maybe now is a good time to talk about maybe your recovery journey. I know you've you've already mentioned that you you found this group that was doing the same things you were doing. How old were you at that time?
David Cunningham 9:12
Oh, I really, it really probably started kicking in about 15 years old, and again with the I did not know all my family heritage, but I knew that was German, Czech, Scottish, Irish. And I knew my great grandmother was full blooded Cherokee Indian. Up until about a year ago, I found out my other great grandmother was full blooded Choctaw. And so I was genetically set up for disasterous drinking, but with that being 157, if you will. So I believe when my drinking and drug use started around the age of 15, it wasn't maybe but the first drink or two or three brogre two that I'd already crossed the line was, yeah, I was I was headed off to the races at a fast pace in the wrong direction.
Adina Silvestri 10:09
Mm hmm. Yeah. And I'm wondering, you know what you're like, Did you get any input from your family at that time? Were they? Were they saying like, Hey, you know, maybe you're going down the wrong path? You know, look at Dad, or were those conversations happening at all?
David Cunningham 10:27
Oh, yeah, they were disturbed with my drink and my drug use. And that was probably very obvious to them. But that just kept putting me a little deeper into it, quite honestly. I'm sure I had some guilt and shame around it, even then. But at that point, I mean, there just wasn't really that many people, particularly younger people to talk to and recovery. I mean, if I'd have had some of the young people stuff that are available today, where somebody would have talked to me in recovery and went, hey, this, I was just like you and here's what it's like today, I think it would have possibly been a profound difference. If I'd have thought somebody that really understood.
Adina Silvestri 11:17
That's a great point. That's a great point. So then, when did you decide to seek help?
David Cunningham 11:22
Well, it had to get much, much worse, I had a rodeoed growing up, showed broke trained horses, wow. And did a little bit everything in the rodeo circuit, which was also a big drink and not so much drug use them. There were some but a lot of drink and atmosphere. And then when drug use kind of took off, I didn't want to be around those people, because I want to be around other people doing the same thing as me. And so ended up losing all that. And, you know, got into some other cultures. I was always a mechanic and, and enjoyed working on motors and engines and fell into the motorcycle groups, and started riding Harley's and all the wonderful things that came along that for me, and I had several serious accidents, a lot of DUIs, drug arrest, you know, you know, and I'm sure everybody was sitting back going, Oh, my God, it's terrible for this guy. What's it gonna take?
Adina Silvestri 12:33
David Cunningham 12:34
How bad is it gonna have to get and, you know, in the 80s, I went to treatment five times for back problems. I think the first one was to get friends and people I knew off my back. The second was to get family off my back, there's all these back problems I had. And another one was to save a job. And, you know, the list went on. And so five treatments in the 80s. But when I left, I did not do anything that was suggested. And I tell people that today, if I had done, followed the suggestions, and the first treatment I went to, I would have probably got clean and sober then. But I was just not willing to do some very simple things that they suggested. And so trust me, things progressively got much, much worse. In 1990, November 11 1990, I finally decided I was done. I had tried every I had tried, priest had tried, pastors had tried psychology, throughout psychiatry, had tried, I had exhausted every resource that I thought would help me and did. So they had suggested that that I go to sober living for six month commitment. And, you know, I was like, Oh my gosh, that sounds like a death. But I'm willing, I'm willing, because I'm so tired of this life.
Adina Silvestri 14:09
So I was just gonna ask David not to interrupt you. But what do you think led to you finally saying, I'm done? I've had enough.
David Cunningham 14:18
Well, it was a number of things. I mean, it was even apparent to me at that point, I had exhausted my resources. But one other key thing was one of my sisters has started going to Al anon and I came out to my vehicle one day, whatever time of the day it was I got up and getting ready to go out and do the same old thing again. And there was a note in there that said, Don't ever and she was my greatest enabler extremely codependent with me and she said don't call don't come by. We've notified family and friends that if they see it is to call the police.
Adina Silvestri 14:58
Oh, wow. Yeah.
David Cunningham 15:00
I mean, she cut me off at the ankles. And it was like one of my last hopes of having a codependent family member, and she cut me off. So I kind of knew things were done at that point. So that was really the straw that broke the camel's back, if you will.
Adina Silvestri 15:19
Okay. Yeah. Yeah. So then you decide to go to the sober living house.
David Cunningham 15:27
Yeah. And, you know, back then, it was really a kind of a fly by night halfway house at best. And you know, no one what I know about halfway houses and sober livings. Today, it was not much. But the good news was, I had a wonderful house manager that just knew recovery inside and out. He had been in long term recovery. And so I listened to everything he said, I followed everything, every suggestion of the program, all the way down to like, the one that I thought was like, the most ridiculous suggestion was no relationship for the first year. And but I was so done, I was afraid not to do everything they told me. And so I followed that as well. I mean, no relationship whatsoever, and had a sponsor and working the steps and helping others and doing service work and reading the literature and just absolutely everything they suggested. And to kind of speed things up, just a Tisch Two years later, oh, well, part of the way during this two years, I found I had outstanding warrant that I had to go get that taken care of for six months. So I tell people, I was on overload for two years, but it was really about a year and a half. But, you know, two years later, I went did a little stamp there came directly back to the sober living was my safe place when soon as I got released, and yeah,
and came back there. And so it was two years later, they were patting me on the back going, you know, you bet house manager, you've been this, you've been that we really think you could probably move now.
Adina Silvestri 17:21
To move now, David,
David Cunningham 17:24
I didn't want to go for six months. And after two years, I really didn't want to leave.
Adina Silvestri 17:27
David Cunningham 17:28
You know, that was my safe place. It was where I felt like I'd been raised really. So the funny side to that friend of mine, and from our home group rented a place right next door. Wow, you didn't go far. I'm like, now this is this is home, you know, fast forward, again, extremely blessed, you know, the being raised with the God of my understanding, as a youth. This one that was really not enough, God was kind of out to get me and shaming and just all these just wasn't all that great. And, you know, recovery introduced me to a loving, caring God, Am I understanding that, and you know, I've got friends that whether it's Buddha Judaism, or, or Mother Earth, or whatever it may be, and we all get along just fine, you know, with everybody having their own. But, you know, it's developed into a relationship with a higher power that today that was different than anything I was ever raised with. There was a lot of, I felt like religious abuse growing up. And so I really didn't want to be part of that. And so, you know, almost when some of the literature refer to God, I just cringe a little bit. But, you know, finally, I was just like, they say, you gotta have this component of your recovery, or it's lagging. And I thought, well, you know, I mean, whatever it takes.
Adina Silvestri 19:03
So, David, I wonder, there's so many questions that I have one, I wonder what made the sober living so great, you know, that, that you didn't want to leave that you literally rented a place right next door? And then also, I hope if we have time, I'd love to get into how you discovered the God of your understanding, because that's a big question mark, for a lot of people that I treat, like what does this mean? Yeah.
David Cunningham 19:28
Well, you know, I really think it was my house manager. He was just a great guy. He worked a super great program. And, you know, he would redirect me in a loving, caring way that that I understood. Yeah. From one alcoholic addict speaking to another, understood his language when he had tried to redirect me. It was a lot around him. And and, you know, I did get to a point in my recovery where I was able to learn from other people's mistakes. And I saw people that were credentialed and were struggling. They were in recovery, but they had credentials at that point. They were struggling. But it was like they were beyond going and asking for help themselves.
Adina Silvestri 20:17
What is credentialing?
David Cunningham 20:19
Oh, that's, you know, if someone has lcsw, w licensed clinical social worker, or a license, addiction counselor, or whatever it may be, it was like, they didn't need to ask for help themselves anymore. And so, as years go by, and I went back to school and got credentials, and all kinds of stuff over the years, I just know how important that self care for even if you're working in a profession, that component of self care is absolutely vital. And I learned that in recovery, you know, if it hadn't been for that, you know, I'd probably failed miserably. But I saw some of these people relapse, and, you know, all kinds of horrible things. And, and so, I still treat my recovery today. A lot like I did in early recovery, almost like it's new every day, you know, I try to reach out and help others. I read the literature, I still attend a lot of meetings, and COVID has not been friendly to that. But I did notice I was going to be at home, I was going to be working in front of my computer. I was isolated at home, even though my family's here. But my fellowship friends and my work, people and stuff like that were pretty much isolated at home. And so I knew at that point, I was going to a fair amount of meetings before pre COVID. But when COVID hit, I was like, these are going to be zoom meetings, but I'm going to have to update. And I go to go to more meetings now than I did. You know, wow, pre COVID actually got one tonight. That's a group of healthcare professionals from all four corners of the country in between, that we meet every Thursday night and Saturday morning. And they're all in recovery. And and you know, what kind of support each other that way, but there's a lot of the meetings I go to. And now with the zoom meetings, there's, there's somebody who wants to go to meetings, there's no reason you can't. Yeah, they're there. I look forward to the day people can experience the face to face meetings, because I don't think there's a real parallel to that. But in the meantime, if you get served lemons make lemonade.
Adina Silvestri 22:33
Yes. Would you mind talking just for a few minutes about how you came to this God of your understanding?
David Cunningham 22:42
Again, I didn't want any part of that. Matter of fact, I skimmed over that initially in a couple of the first three steps. And, you know, there are some guys that just told me, you know, when it came to that decision, Park made a decision to turn my Will my life over the care of God, as I understood him, they said, you know, that can be whatever is a power greater use. It doesn't have to be the god you were raised with. It doesn't have to be this or, and then they also said, all it's asking is to make a decision. You don't have to, like do any major, major event or anything. And somewhere along the way, and I don't know the timeline on it. But I did make a decision. And, you know, I do believe that. Things like, as silly as it may seem, my manager, my sober living my group of friends, like I had never had before in my lifetime. Yeah, we're really a lot of developing power power. And then I would hear these kind of laugh about it now. But I would hear these old timers that were talking about God, not you know, it's a school to 70s. And so there was a term called Jesus freaks back then. And, you know, probably called a lot of people, Jesus freaks back in the 70s. And I heard these guys just talking about God all the time. And I was like, Oh, my gosh, I'm in with a group of Jesus freaks. Yeah. And it wasn't that at all. And today, 30 plus years later, I get it. You become to depend, you know, on this power greater than yourself. Yeah, that is truly amazing journey. You know, there's some things that happen in my recovery. That were the worst things that happen to me in my entire life. You know, I had no children before recovery. Thank God, I would definitely have been the worst dad on the planet. And so ended up getting married a number of years into recovery. And, you know, five children later out. But one of those children is my daughter and she was a twin, and I was 15 years sober and we lost her little brother, which was the most painful thing in my entire life, and what would have been, and trust me if I knew how to fix any kind of pain. You know, real quick, I had the recipe for that. But the real miracle and that was never once at 15 years sober when I lost, we lost our son, did I ever want, even for us snippet of the second? Think about checking out and going to my backup drinking and drugging. You know, there's some miracles like that, that they're they're not you can't.
Adina Silvestri 25:38
Yeah, no, that's a great, that's a great point. Your life now is so much better back then. I mean, it's it's so much richer and more and more full. And yeah, you would be giving up so much, you know, it's worth it.
David Cunningham 25:53
Yeah, the whole parade was coming by for many years. And I missed the whole thing. Up until I was 30 years old, kind of missed out on everything. I felt like, I hadn't missed out on much of anything in the last 30 it's been a wonderful ride, a wonderful journey, and just extremely grateful. And I do try to think about others reflected back when I was a kid, father had somebody like me, or some other people know, to talk to back then. Or if they did talk to me. And they, you know, had been down that path because parents and family tried to talk to me, none of them really understood the drinking and drug. And as I did, and if somebody would talk to me that understood, had been there done that, I would have been like, I can probably talk to this person.
Adina Silvestri 26:49
Yeah, you wouldn't have felt so removed from everybody, like you had mentioned. And Dude, I just want to highlight something that you said a few minutes ago. And you know, we were talking about this God of your understanding, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I wonder if people that are struggling with, you know, who is this God of my understanding? How can I identify this person or this being, you know, what it sounds like for you, you took the best parts of these groups of friends that were in your sober living and the best parts of the sober manager, you know, the kindness and the in the grace, you know, and care that they were giving you in sort of used that as as part of creating this higher power? Yeah,
David Cunningham 27:35
I mean, that's a good way to put it. I've never really thought of it that way. But yeah, I mean, this, just everything good, and calmed and generous, and so on, that you could think of, kind of bundled in one. And a lot of people's develops differently. I've heard so many different things. Some people just have this moment of clarity that something happened, like, right then I don't recall ever have anything, I have a lot of God shots, I call them. And that may be driving down the road, and seeing a beautiful red tail Hawk flying to blue skies, or one of my kids pointed out something out in nature to me, that I like to think that they picked up on from me showing them you know, just just some very simple things. I never had any kind of a burning bush experience lightning, flashing lights, nothing, nothing like that at all. And it's been a gradual thing, right? Then a gradual thing. And there's no rush in doing any of it. That was the thing, you know, when they said, All you got to do is make a decision. You don't have to do anything right now. Just make a decision, that you're going to start trying to turn your life and your will over the care of God as you understanding, again, that that was a slow development. And I think it actually still developed.
Adina Silvestri 29:01
So yeah, sure. For sure. No, I believe that. Well, this has been a really fun conversation to have with you, David. I'm glad that we were able to connect today. Are there any last words that you can think of that you maybe want to share with the air audience?
David Cunningham 29:21
Well, just this month is the month of Hope is a spiritual principle. And I think that was a big thing also in this oh god thing, you know, this spiritual life instead of a religious life and, and not so much man's traditions in this religious stuff, but spirituality, and there's a huge difference in that for me. You know, for a guy like me, that was completely hopeless, thought I was a complete failure. I mean, heck, I couldn't even do tricks, but it gets over five times. And so I was just a hopeless case. I felt like the people in the rooms that had befriended me when no one else would. I mean, I was cut off from everything. The people were like, a will, will love you to love yourself. And I'm like you are crazy.
But they did hope for the hopeless and I was definitely one of those. And so this month, second month of the year, first month is honesty in January and this month is hope. I always love this one because then the hopeless variety plain and sober today.
Adina Silvestri 30:37
Where do you find these these months?
David Cunningham 30:40
It's the spiritual principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. So you can look those up pretty much anywhere online. If you Google spiritual principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, it'll give you a list of
Adina Silvestri 30:53
Yes. Yes. Well, that sounds like a great place to end on the on the month of hope. Absolutely. Absolutely. Even where can people find best find you if they wanted to get in touch? You know, are you are you on the web? Yeah, whatever. You know, I
David Cunningham 31:10
am, you know, I can be found on our website at Augustine recovery calm. That's Augustine recovery.com, where I work. And my email is David at Augustine. recovery.com.
Adina Silvestri 31:27
Okay, great. And I will link to all of those in the show notes for everybody. So good. All right, David. Well, thanks again for being on.
David Cunningham 31:37
Hey Adina. Thanks so much for having me. It's been an honor. appreciate everything you do, trying to get some good good vibes and good info out to people. Give them some hope. Yeah,
Adina Silvestri 31:47
David Cunningham 31:48
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