Recovered alcoholic helped other in Dallas diocese

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DALLAS (AP) — On a recent morning, Phil Paschke sat, legs crossed, and sipped on a juice. His head twitched involuntarily from side to side — a constant reminder of who he used to be. But he wore a Mickey Mouse wristwatch as another reminder — to live a life of joy.

"I made a lot of people sad in my life," Paschke said. "I'm trying to make up for that."

Paschke spent 15 years in the depths of alcoholism. The addiction destroyed his relationships and left him with a pronounced tic, the result of nerve damage.

After he sobered up, Paschke started the Catholic Diocese of Dallas' substance abuse and addictions ministry. The program helps alcoholics and other addicts find recovery programs. It also coordinates outreach among the diocese's parishes.

Because of his work, more than 30 parishes started their own addiction ministry programs, and thousands of people have found strength in sobriety. And through his example, Paschke has given other recovering alcoholics hope that it's possible to find joy again.

But after nearly three decades at the diocese, Paschke, 70, retired last week. Many say he'll be difficult to replace.

"I could always turn to Phil," Charles Stump, who was Paschke's boss, said. "It's going to take me a while to get my feet stable after he's left."

At 13, Paschke opened the door to years of misery. This was all it took: Curiosity, some allowance money and the October 1955 issue of Esquire.

Paschke grew up in a rough neighborhood in Chicago. When it came to drinking, his Polish, Catholic parents stuck to the basics: beer and bourbon. But young Phil and his buddies wanted to try the exotic drink they'd read about in Esquire — black Russians. They pooled their money and cruised around Chicago sucking down vodka and Kahlua out of Thermos bottles.

That night, Paschke felt something shift. He was no longer the nerdy son of two opera performers; he was larger than life.

For the next few years, Paschke chased that feeling, drinking as often as he could. By 17, he was a full-blown alcoholic. Later, his first marriage broke up and he became estranged from his daughter. He lost his job, his home and his Catholic faith.

"I was a loser," Paschke said. "I was an egomaniac with an inferiority complex."

He drank until he hit rock bottom. One night, while drunk, Paschke tried to kill himself by crashing his 1966 blue Pontiac. That night, his girlfriend left him. She told him to get help. Wanting to get back in her good graces, he went to an alcoholics' recovery meeting. He wound up discovering the program that would save his life.

"The only reason I'm sitting here is (because) I had the snot knocked out of me on April 9, 1975," he said.

Paschke sobered up and moved to Dallas, where he worked as a systems analyst at an oil field supply company downtown.

Each day on his lunch break, Paschke ate at a Greek restaurant on Main Street. Afterward, he slipped into St. Jude Chapel across the street. He couldn't bring himself to go to Mass; he simply sat on the couch and smoked a cigarette. This was his routine every day for two years.

One day, a priest stopped to talk to Paschke. They bonded over their hometown of Chicago, and the priest persuaded him to go to confession. "He said the words that changed my life forever. He said, 'Welcome home,'" Paschke recalled. "I started crying."

After that, Paschke began going to church again. He convinced the bishop that the diocese needed an alcoholism ministry. He quit his job, giving up a $35,000 salary, and worked for free for the first six months.

As coordinator of the program, Paschke raised awareness about substance abuse, listened to families, and networked with organizations throughout Dallas. He referred people to recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon.

Paschke also mentored recovering alcoholics like Dave, who asked that his last name be withheld to protect his privacy and that of others in his recovery program.

Dave said Paschke helped him reconnect with family and reminded him not to take life too seriously. "He has been able to show me and other people that, hey, this program works," Dave said. "It's not hopeless, and there is a way out."

Now, Paschke is 37 years sober. He attends St. Rita Catholic Church in North Dallas. His hair and beard have grayed, but he still has a spring in his step. Soon, he and his wife of nearly 30 years, Marty, will move to their dream home in the southern Rocky Mountains.

Looking back at his 28 years at the diocese, Paschke said his favorite days were those he spent volunteering at the Dallas County jail. He talked with inmates about spirituality and the Twelve Step program to recovery.

At the end of each session, he'd hold up a $20 bill and offer it to the inmates. Then he'd scrunch the bill up, toss it on the ground, and stomp on it. Did they still want it? They'd all raise their hands.

That's when Paschke would tell them: "It's never lost its value. And neither have any of you."

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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