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The Near-Death Experience That Brought Him Clarity

He almost died in the fire that killed his mother and brother. But the divine encounter gave him the strength he needed to get sober years later.

An old photo of Mark and his family.

Three-thirty in the morning. I lay awake in bed, bleary-eyed from a night of drinking, exhausted yet unable to sleep. I hated living like this but felt powerless to stop.

I was a 27-year-old physical therapist who worked with burn victims at a hospital in central Florida. From the outside, I seemed on my way to success. I owned a boat and rented a three-bedroom cottage by the dock. But I was drinking myself to sleep every night. I’d begun showing up for work with traces of the previous night’s party on my breath. I’d recently crashed my friend’s car. If I kept going like this, I would soon be drinking around the clock. I could lose everything.

I’d grown up watching my dad’s drinking become a problem after my mom and youngest brother, Toby, had died in a horrific house fire 11 years earlier. I vowed I’d never end up like him. But had I, despite myself?

I held my head in my hands, feeling helpless and ashamed. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Everything was supposed to be part of God’s loving plan. God had told me so once.

The night of the fire, Dad was away on a business trip. My mom, my four younger brothers and I were asleep upstairs. Suddenly I awoke, smelling smoke. I bolted out of my room and screamed at the top of my lungs to wake everyone up.

My brothers Tim, Danny and Patrick managed to get out. My mom and six-year-old brother Toby were trapped. The last thing I remember is trying to reach them, but the flames and smoke were too thick. Firefighters found me lying unconscious, suffering severe smoke inhalation, more than half of my body covered in burns. Mom and Toby didn’t make it.

Doctors stabilized me, and I went into surgery for my scorched skin. Something went wrong. I was paralyzed but conscious. I could feel everything—every scrape and cut—but couldn’t move or say a word. I screamed inwardly, wishing for something, anything, to make it go away.

“We’re losing copious amounts of blood,” I heard someone say in a clipped, urgent voice. “Blood pressure is low—let’s hold up.”

Suddenly, the pain was gone and I was floating, suspended on a cushion of air above the operating table. I could see the surgeons working frantically yet felt no pain. I was calm, content, awash in well-being.

I was approaching a threshold, about to cross into some new and wonderful place. Unconditional love, forgiveness and acceptance flowed over me. I was so happy, I wanted to laugh out loud.

With utter certainty I knew: I was in the presence of God. In that presence, everything—even my trauma and the deaths of Mom and Toby—was part of God’s perfect intention.

No suffering is ever in vain, God explained. All pain has its purpose and is part of the plan.

Beings surrounded me, ushering me along. Mom and Toby were there, alongside Grandpa Larry, Dad’s father who had died when I was a baby. I felt them with all of my senses combined. I knew they loved me and all would be well.

Lord, it’s so amazing! I thought.

I stopped moving toward the threshold. A new feeling welled up. I was needed back home with my dad and my brothers. This was not my time. I would survive the surgery. I would recover and move on with my life. I would play my role in God’s perfect plan.

I returned to my body and woke up in the intensive care unit.

That encounter with God gave me the strength I needed. Through years of additional agonizing surgeries, daunting rehabilitation and grief and trauma from the fire and losing Mom and Toby, at the core of my soul I felt confident knowing that all things are part of God’s plan.

I felt more than secure. I had endured horrific loss. I had come close to dying and broken through unimaginable walls of pain. Even when Dad’s drinking spiraled out of control, I held on to the conviction that God cradled me—and everything else—in his hand.

That conviction was so strong, it became the bedrock of my faith. Eventually, I let supreme confidence take the place of actively seeking God. Life would have its challenges, but with God’s help I believed anything was possible.

So why did I start drinking? I wasn’t unaware of the danger. Dad’s dad had also been a problem drinker, and I knew alcoholism runs in families. I vowed I would not become the next McDonough alcoholic.

Instead, I believed I could keep my drinking under control. In high school, I enjoyed the way alcohol eased my lingering physical pain and helped me overcome self-consciousness about my burns. I drank socially but made sure alcohol didn’t interfere with my studies. I tried to maintain the same balance in college, working hard during the week so I could party hard on weekends.

Little by little, the drinking escalated. “Weekends” expanded to include Friday, then Thursday. Pretty soon I was drinking every day. I knew where this would end, but I didn’t want to admit it.

Dad entered recovery while I was in college. I drove him to the addiction treatment center at a Catholic hospital in Cleveland. He clearly needed help. I convinced myself I was different.

Now, staring at the phone, at 3:30 A.M., it was impossible to deny I had a major problem. How did my wonderful confidence in God’s provision turn into this awful reality?

I ransacked my memory, searching for the decisive moment when everything began spiraling out of control. Maybe there was no decisive moment. Maybe the problem ran deeper than that. Maybe the bedrock of my faith—that confidence in God’s plan, a gift of my encounter during surgery—had been whittled down by alcohol into a self-serving justification of my own bad choices. Yes, God was there for me. I was part of his plan. But I hadn’t been doing my part.

When was the last time I’d prayed? Really asked God for help and thrown myself on his mercy?

I couldn’t remember. I tried it.

The next thing I knew, I was dialing Dad’s number.

“Dad, it’s Mark,” I said. “I think I’m an alcoholic.”

Dad was wide awake. His voice was calm and loving. “Thank God,” he said. “Don’t worry, son. It’s going to be okay. So much more than okay.”

He was right. With his encouragement and prayers, I checked into a detox facility in Orlando and started attending 12-step meetings, which I continue to do to this day.

Now 33 years sober, I know that my experience with God in my moment of near death was anything but a spiritual blank check. It was an invitation. An invitation to make God’s plan, not mine, the center of my life. An invitation I finally started to accept the night I picked up the phone.

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