Jim Wahlberg took his first drink at age eight because he wanted to feel accepted by the older kids he was hanging around with. He was too immature to know at the time that his choices were leading him down the road to addiction, crime, and homelessness.
The situation wasn’t helped by Wahlberg’s non-existent self-esteem and nominally Catholic upbringing which emphasized God’s wrath. He recalled, “I never heard the words, ‘God loves you, Jesus died for you’…I didn’t get that information until I was 22 years old in state prison for the second time.”
Once Wahlberg came to understand and accept God’s love, he began moving his life in a new direction. That’s what he writes about in his new memoir “The Big Hustle: A Boston Street Kid’s Story of Addiction and Redemption,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcasts below).
Wahlberg grew up as one of nine kids, two of whom became the famous actors/musicians Mark and Donnie. Their family was relatively poor, so his father worked two jobs, while his mom worked an overnight shift as a nurse.
Starved for attention, Wahlberg started hanging out with the neighborhood “hippies,” who were happy to give him beer because he made them laugh. Once, he drank so much that he got violently ill at home, with his vomit reeking of alcohol. His mother forced him to tell her where he got the booze, then she proceeded to go to the group’s leader and beat him with her shoe.
Jim’s father, who himself could be a volatile alcoholic, thought that bad experience would be enough to keep his son away from alcohol for good, but he was wrong. Jim explained, “The trouble was never enough to make me stop or change my behavior. The thing about alcoholism and drug addiction is you can’t scare an alcoholic or a drug addict out of doing substances. It just doesn’t work. I’ve been to funerals where people died of overdoses, and all their friends were there and they were all under the influence of the same drug that killed their friend. Because the thing about addiction and substance use disorder…is the world sees that substance as the thing that’s tearing [the addict] apart. But the addict sees that substance as the thing that’s holding them together…The only thing, for me, that can combat those thoughts is a real relationship with the Lord. I need to be connected with Jesus on a daily basis. I don’t get to coast on yesterday’s connection with God, I have to be in it today. I’m only as good as my spiritual condition today.”
Though Jim grew up in a culturally Catholic family, his understanding of God was defective because he was taught an image of a vengeful God who is always watching us and out to get us. Jim said, “That’s what I grew up with. That’s such a terrible thing to do to a child. I don’t blame any particular people, except maybe I do blame the church a little bit because either they weren’t saying it – or I wasn’t hearing it. But I never heard the words, God loves you, Jesus died for you….It wasn’t like I was encouraged to have a relationship with God. I was encouraged to be afraid…I think everybody maybe should have a little fear of living a totally sinful life, but ultimately nobody should be denied the fact that Jesus loves them and that He died for them. That’s important information. And I didn’t get that information until I was 22 years old in state prison for the second time.”
The person he got that information from was none other than Mother Teresa – though Wahlberg had no idea who she was. Before she even said a word, he could tell she was someone important and holy. The warden, the governor, and lots of men in suits surrounded her and hung off her every word.
As the Mass for the prison’s inmates began, Mother Teresa was invited to sit in a place of honor next to the cardinal. But she adamantly refused, choosing instead to sit with the inmates.
Wahlberg recalled, “When her time came to speak, she spoke words that I never heard before: God loves you. Jesus died for you. You are more than your prison number. You are more than the crimes that you have committed to get here. You are a child of God.”
Those words touched something deep inside of Wahlberg that had never been touched before. With the help of a priest he befriended, he got his addictions under control. But his spiritual journey wasn’t a straight line from there. This was the time when the Church’s abuse scandal rocked Boston, and Jim walked away from the faith he had just started to re-embrace, seeing only its dark side and hypocrisy.
He said, “In my early recovery journey, after getting out of prison, I wasn’t focused on God. I was focused on myself…I decorated the outside for you and for anybody that would look in my direction. I decorated myself with fancy gold chains. I always had a fancy car. I was always in the company of a beautiful woman, obviously prior to being married. And it was all for you to say, ‘Wow, you look like you’re doing good!’ Because the sad thing about living life without the Lord is that I was so much more interested in what your opinion of me was than what my opinion of me was.”
Jim accomplished some milestones in his life. He stayed free of drugs and alcohol for five years, got married, and had three children. But without God, he remained empty inside and even suicidal.
There was a spiritual dimension to his recovery, Jim explained, but it ultimately fell short: “I was given permission by some really nice people to create my own conception of God, which was not a good plan for me. If you leave it up to me, a broken sinner, to create his own conception of God, He’s going to be like a pool hustler. He’s going to co-sign my bad behavior and say, ‘It’s okay, don’t worry. You’ll do better next time.’ That’s not enough for me.”
When Wahlberg finally embraced his Catholic faith and developed a relationship with Jesus, he began to flourish. He shared his experiences with people around the country and made several films about addiction.
“I met hundreds of people who had lost their children,” said Jim. “And I kept getting requests: will you come and show your film? Will you come and help facilitate a conversation? We need your help. And so I prayed. I said, ‘God, I don’t know what you want from me, but I can’t walk away from these people. So I’m committing to You that I’m going to say, yes, Lord, whatever You want me to do…and we’ll just see where it goes.'”
Jim has gone on to create 12 films about addiction, including the most recent short, “What About the Kids?” (available to view for free at WhatAboutTheKidsFilm.com).
The movie tells the story of an eight-year-old girl whose parents are both addicts. When her mother dies of an overdose, she is left in the custody of her religious grandmother who teaches her to rely on God.
There’s one common theme in both “What About the Kids” and “The Big Hustle,” said Jim: “Stigma. It’s about not judging people, and also knowing that anything is possible with God.”
But the stigma is hard to overcome. Wahlberg recalled a 2016 conversation he had with a marketing guy about a Gallup poll which showed that addiction had no place on people’s reported concerns about the world.
The marketing expert explained, “When you call your neighbor and [say] that your kid has cancer, they cook you a casserole. They cut your grass. They go to the supermarket for you. When you call your neighbors and say, ‘My son is suffering from addiction,’ they pull their shades down. They lock their windows. They lock their doors. They tell their kids to stay away from you, and they avoid you in the supermarket.”
Wahlberg observed, “Why is it that we do that? Why is it that we don’t love each other and be kind to each other and be there for each other and serve each other? Why is it that we’re willing to serve somebody in [one] instance, but not in [another] instance, when the situation is exactly the same? This person is in danger of losing their child. Why is it that we do that? It’s stigma. It’s lack of understanding. It’s lack of education on the topic, and I get it. There’s a lot of things for people to take the time to educate themselves on. Most people don’t educate themselves on addiction until addiction shows up at their door.”
Jim’s addiction battle also gave him the strength to practice mercy towards his father, who had been an alcoholic himself and never given Jim the affection he longed for.
Jim learned that the problem was generational. His father’s father was an emotionally cold alcoholic, so it was largely a matter of modeling the example that was set for him.
Wahlberg said, “My dad and I, we healed a lot. A lot of it wasn’t through words. It was through actions. My dad lived with me, in my home, with my family, as he got older and got weaker…He loved my children. All the things that I wanted to hear as a child, I watched him pour all over them, and tell them how adorable they are, how much he loved them. All the things, I guess, that a grandparent is supposed to do. It becomes easier to do with age…I learned a lot in the process. I learned about my dad and how he was raised, about his limitations, about alcoholism, which he suffered from. I learned about all that through my own recovery, in my relationship with God. I learned about myself, and then I saw the similarities between he and I. Ultimately, I came to [understand] that he did the best he could with the tools that he was given.”
The generational aspect of addiction also hit Jim’s son. And the pain of watching his own flesh and blood endure its horrors hurt him more than he could have imagined. Thankfully, after several unsuccessful rehabs, Jim’s son entered the Catholic community of Comunità Cenacolo, which set him on the right path.
Today, Jim Wahlberg continues in his mission of turning his pain into purpose. Having walked through the darkness of addiction, he has emerged into God’s light and is determined to share it with everyone who needs help.
(To listen to my full interview with Jim Wahlberg, click on the podcast links):