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The Warrior and The Princess


This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Renew magazine.

For me, 2014, the Year of the Horse, has been a game changer. It was the year I realized that in many ways I have become my father. It was also the year I came to realize my greatest opportunity in life might be to break the cycle of anger, addiction, and alcoholism that has plagued my family as far back as I can trace. And once again, this year, I learned that surrender is my greatest ally and benefactor.

On the 31st of October, at the tender age of 54, I celebrated 16 years of sobriety. A few months before that, I joked with my son on his 9th birthday that he was now 9 years sober since hadn’t yet taken a drink. (At least, I don’t think he has. I took my first drink at 11, and kids do things earlier and earlier these days, so who knows.) A few days after my 16th anniversary, my daughter celebrated her 12th birthday. On that day, I remembered that 12 years earlier I had come to understand, in a matter of moments, what it means to love unconditionally.

The greatest act of spirituality I can think of is the act of forgiveness. This was the year I sat quietly in the bleachers at a baseball game moments after my then 8-year old-son hit his first ever, over the fence, out of the park, home run—a walk off grand slam no less. I sat quietly because it was at that very moment—the moment other parents were jostling me, patting my back, and yelling, “Did you see it? Did you see it go over the fence? It’s a Grand Slam!”—it was at that very moment I realized I had become my father.

Less than an hour before hitting his first home run, while warming up, my son had seemed rather lethargic. I had chided him for failing to hustle, failing to show enthusiasm, failing to listen to his coaches … failing, failing, failing … to do what I thought he should be doing, as my father had chided me for failing to do what he thought I should be doing many years ago. And just as I had done to my father on numerous occasions—and with great pleasure—my son rose up and quieted my rant with one swing of his bat.

At that moment, the moment my son launched the ball over the fence with the bases loaded, I realized I had become my father and I forgave him.

Like his father before him and my father before me, my son exhibits a great deal of natural talent on the baseball field (a blessing and a curse). Already, though he’s only 8, I’ve heard numerous parents and coaches—some of them former professional baseball players–talk about his “potential,” a word I grew to hate between the ages of 8 and 18. Unlike my father, who would never know the joy and clarity of sobriety before alcoholism took his liver and eventually his life, I have the opportunity in sobriety to make my son’s experience of that word much different and hopefully more fruitful than my own. If nothing else, recovery has taught me to think of those who depend on me before I think of myself. In my son’s case, recovery forces me to focus not only on his successes and failures but also on how well he and I handle them together … until he is ready to handle them on his own.

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After yet another day of baseball on yet another Saturday afternoon, the father of one of my son’s teammates sent me a series of photos of my 8-year-old in action. I eventually posted this one to Facebook and labeled it simply, The Warrior. I’m sure most who look at it chuckle over the artful overabundance of eye black that same father-photographer applied to my son’s cheeks before the game. It would become his signature look for the remainder of the season. Privately I labeled that picture the Warrior because I know that as an athlete and as a man, he’ll face many of the same trials and tribulations that I did and still do. Thankfully, to date, he’s never seen his “old man” take a drink or use any substance to handle any of those trials and tribulations. My greatest prayer is that in so witnessing, he, too, will turn to faith in a power greater than himself as a solution to life’s challenges before he ever thinks to turn to anything else.

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Later that same day, after the baseball games were over, my son and I drove 45 miles north to Ames, Iowa to watch my daughter dance in one of her many dance competitions. Sitting in CY Stephens Auditorium on the Iowa State University campus waiting for her to take the stage and perform her solo for the first time in front of an audience, I realized how peacefully and purely I enjoyed watching her dance. She was out of my reach, way beyond “my” element, and certainly out of my control. There was nothing I could do for her even if I knew what it was she was supposed to do. I could not run back stage and tell her to show some enthusiasm or listen to her coach. I couldn’t even go backstage. And civility prohibited me from yelling out instructions or commands once she did take the stage. More important, I wouldn’t have known what to “yell out” even if civility didn’t prohibit me. All I’ve ever known to do where my daughter’s performances are concerned is to wish her luck and courage beforehand, enjoy the show, and applaud her performance once completed. Here was forced surrender and consequently a much more serene and peaceful experience of the moment.

That evening in Ames I experienced yet another moment of clarity. I realized the incentive my father provided me as a young man came not from the stern discipline and drill-sergeant-like directives he was famous for, but rather from his mere presence. Whether stern and disciplinary or supportive and loving (and he was all of the above at different times), his presence, the fact that he cared enough to be present, kept me fighting to improve as much as his absence robbed me of desire.

Sitting in that auditorium choking back tears as my daughter performed, I realized if I knew as little about baseball, golf, math, and literature as I do about modern dance, I might actually surrender a little more and enjoy my children a helluva lot more. I might learn to be less the ogre, and more the nurturer they need when struggling to learn how to live life on life’s terms.

My father never had a daughter to learn from, and sitting there that evening I knew without a doubt I had a lot more to learn from the Princess on stage that might one day benefit the Warrior by my side.

The Warrior and the Princess Photo

Breaking Bad, Or, Ending the “What Ifs”


What is it about endings anyway? Why are they so difficult, even when they hold the promise of making our lives better? I’m thinking the end of relationships (romantic or otherwise), marriages, jobs, and, of course, addictions. In particular, I’m thinking of relationships and marriages that aren’t working, jobs that are hell to go to day in and day out, habits that are clearly unhealthy, and, ultimately, addictions that are killing us.

Some would posit that change, in and of itself, is the culprit, especially for those of us who are “prone to addiction.” I’ve been told time and again that “we” don’t like “change”—even if it’s for the better. I buy that. A promotion, for example, can be a tremendous source of fear simply because it raises the specter of the unknown and the possibility of failure. I know what to do in my current job; I know what’s expected of me; and I know how to do what I’m supposed to do well. (That, of course, is why you’re offering to promote me, isn’t it?) Even though a promotion may mean a raise in pay as well as status, it also raises the suddenly very real possibility I will fail, that I will not be as good at my next job as I am at my current job, and once I leave my current job, you may never let me come back to it if I fail at the new job. “What if?”

Changing jobs may also hold the promise of getting away from a co-worker or boss who causes us anguish on a daily basis. But what if people at my current job like me because I complain with them about the annoying boss or coworker— our common enemy? What if there’s no one to complain about (not likely) at my next job and no one has a built-in or automatic reason to like me? Worse still, what if I’m promoted and become “the boss” everyone else complains about. What if I become the enemy? “What if?”

Oh, woe is me. Change categorically sucks; even when the odds are in our favor it will be good for us.

Still others would posit that, ultimately, fear of being alone is the major motivator for staying in bad relationships and bad marriages—for failing to end them. I buy that, too. The end of friendships, love affairs, and worst of all, marriages that aren’t working anymore is fraught with misleading emotions.

First, there is that distracting memory of what was once “good.” Even though things haven’t been good for a long, long time; even though the same behaviors are repeated over and over to the same unhappy end; even though we know it’s insane to stay in the present situation, we think “What if …” Maybe tomorrow the old spark that originally united us will return and the relationship will right itself, right? What if we miss that opportunity, right? Even though that opportunity has been there every day for as long as we can remember, “What if tomorrow …”

And second, even if things don’t change for the better, there is that overwhelming fear that ending the relationship may leave us … alone … forever. Which, of course, is rarely the case. And, even if it is the case, being alone isn’t always or necessarily a “bad” change. Some of us “badly” need to learn how to live well alone so that we can become “livable” partners in our next relationship. I’ve spent some of the healthiest years of my sobriety in relationship solitude. As my one-and-only roommate in sobriety liked to say, “There’s a lot of serenity in being single.”

Endings are difficult, I agree. And there are countless reasons we shy away from making them happen. But I would argue that it’s the “What ifs” more than anything else that prevent us from taking that “first step” toward making the clearly necessary endings happen. It is the “What ifs” that keep us from seeing change and the unknown as an opportunity rather than as a source of paralyzing fear.

Today, whenever I’m seriously contemplating a change in my life—and especially a change that means ending one thing and beginning another—I try to think about the first time I managed to stay sober for an entire week. Bottom line … plain and simple … all other bullshit aside: By the beginning of the fourth day, I felt better than I had felt in YEARS! I broke the bad habit of making myself physically ill by drinking myself into oblivion on a daily basis, and, if nothing else, I felt GOOD. Sure, the first few days were hell—especially in the absence of a program or any support. But I could tell, moment by moment, that I was feeling better. By the seventh day, I actually had HOPE—hope that, rather than running on a treadmill to the gates of insanity or death, my life might actually, one day, improve. Unfortunately, that first time around I didn’t believe I needed support or a “program of recovery” to stay sober, and I ended up drunk shortly afterward. But that’s not the point. The point is that the seed was planted. The point is the memory of that week is probably the single most important reason I have been willing to quiet the “What ifs“ and make other changes in my life since. More important, that memory—that simple source of hope I was given by ending something bad and taking the first step toward change—is probably the biggest reason I’m still alive today.

 

Pass It On … To Yet Another Guy


This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

Just the other day one of the men I sponsor (let’s call him My Guy) wanted to know if he should encourage one of the men he sponsors—a man who had been sober less than 6 months—to “work with” another man who had expressed a desire to stop drinking.

Silly question? I think not, especially in a “recovery culture” that places so much emphasis—wisely or unwisely—on a person’s “time in” recovery as a measure of their ability to help, or work with, others.

First off, I reminded My Guy that Bill Wilson had his last drink on December 11, 1934, barely 6-months before Dr. Bob Smith took his last drink on June 10, 1935—“a soothing warm beer handed to him by Bill W. to steady his hands for surgery” (“Who Really Founded AA,”). When Bill and Bob met, they didn’t have the 12 Steps or a “Big Book” to consult, and they didn’t have a meeting to go to. They were the meeting. All Bill and Bob had on June 10, 1935 was each other.

Second, I reminded myself “practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 89). To suggest that one alcoholic with a desire to stop drinking cannot in some way help another alcoholic with a desire to stop drinking is, of course, ludicrous. The very notion flies in the face of the principles that bind all of us in recovery.

Nonetheless, I understood My Guy’s question the instant he texted me. The question wasn’t really whether His Guy could “help” the Other Guy; the real question was should he “allow” His Guy to “sponsor” the Other Guy.

I don’t know what it’s like in your town or at your meetings, but in my experience the phrase “working with others” is too often equated with sponsorship—as if “To work with is to sponsor” were a spiritual axiom of some sort. For nearly 16 years now, I’ve worn my sponsor like a life jacket. But he certainly isn’t the only person in recovery who has “helped” me or “worked with” me. Many men and women have—some with more sobriety than I have and just as many with less. And quite possibly, those who are new to sobriety help me the most because they challenge me to explain, and remind me time and again, why I do the things I do to stay sober, one day at a time.

The bottom line, always, is that any kind of work I do with other alcoholics, any contact I have with others who are on (or interested in finding) a path to recovery, will only serve to “insure” my own “immunity from drinking.” It’s the primary reason I still go to so many meetings and certainly the reason I take time to write about my experience in recovery. Sharing that experience makes it real, and making it real makes me all the more accountable not only to my self, my sponsor, and the men I sponsor, but also to the very concept of a recovery that happens one day at a time.

So my answer to My Guy was Yes, of course, His Guy should work with the Other Guy. But My Guy and I were not Pollyanna about the situation either. We agreed we needed to remind His Guy that you “cannot transmit something you haven’t got”(164), that His Guy’s first order of business with the Other Guy would be to introduce the new man to the fellowship that has grown up around the rest of us. Somewhere in that shared experience, we can only hope the Other Guy might find the strength to hang around until it’s his time to pass it on to yet Another Guy.

The Alcoholic Mind


Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.

     On the 31st of October, 2013, I was fortunate enough to celebrate the 15th anniversary of my “last” drink. The 31st fell on a Thursday, and a few days later, at my Sunday evening home-group meeting, I came across the above cited line from Alcoholics Anonymous (aka the Big Book): “Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.” (23)
     I have read that line and considered its significance dozens and dozens of times over the 23 or so years since I first read the Big Book. But for some reason, this year, when I read it shortly after celebrating an anniversary God alone knows I never expected to celebrate, I found it important to remind myself why I so firmly believe that the “main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.”
     I recalled that at one time, back in 1996, very shortly after I’d celebrated 2 years of sobriety for the first time, I genuinely thought I knew exactly what it meant for the main problem of the alcoholic to center in his mind. In fact, less than a month after celebrating those 2 years, I had been asked to speak for 30 minutes at a meeting that was largely attended by “old-timers.” I distinctly remember announcing from the podium that, after two years of sponsorship, meetings, and Big Book studies, I honestly couldn’t “imagine” ever taking a drink again, not under any circumstance. Alcohol no longer presented itself as a solution, I proudly proclaimed.
     I had been sincere and earnest in making that statement, but no sooner had I finished thanking the chairperson for inviting me to speak than one of those crotchety old-timers came up to me and said, “Don’t let your guard down, Son. Don’t kid yourself and rest on your laurels. Whether you think so or not right now, alcohol is always an option.” I remember feeling a certain degree of animosity towards that particular old-timer for essentially scolding me so soon after I’d given what I thought was a rather “good” talk. In my “alcoholic mind,” if I couldn’t “imagine” taking a drink “under any circumstance,” then the problem must’ve been removed from the place where it was most likely to attack me—my mind.  And I’d be damned if I was going to let some angst-ridden old-timer bring me down.
     Within nine months of that talk—after deciding I didn’t really need to read the Big Book as often as I had been, after deciding fewer and different meetings would probably help keep the program interesting, and after deciding to take my sponsor’s direction with a grain of salt rather than a willing dose of desperation, (i.e. after knowingly letting my guard down and resting on my laurels)—I was drunk. And for two long years after that, I struggled miserably, if not suicidally, to make my way back to a more permanent life in the fellowship, which I finally did on October 31, 1998.
     I had known for many years—first intuitively and then more concretely by admitting I was powerless—that alcohol was no longer a solution in my life. What I had to accept upon return to the tables, however, is that alcohol, whether it presents as a potential solution or not, is always an option. I had nodded in agreement for many years that alcohol is cunning, baffling, and powerful—that it is a worthy opponent. But not until I had stayed sober for a period of time, chosen to drink again for a period of time, and, by the grace of God, found it possible to get sober again, did I truly understand the “cunning” part. The deadly paradox is that alcohol will ALWAYS convince me that drinking is an option, if not as a solution, then surely as an immediate source of relief (and surely a better option than suicide, which, in the absence of a daily reprieve, too often seems the only “other” path to immediate relief).
     A few weeks ago, I posed the question I’d been mulling over for months to the men I sponsor: What does it mean for the main problem of the alcoholic to center in his mind, rather than in his body? I posed the question because a number of them are between two and five years of sobriety, and I wanted to know if any of them suffered the same delusion I had once suffered at two years sober–that alcohol was no longer a solution or an option.
     I was pleased to discover that most, if not all of them, were not nearly as deluded as I had been, that they could, in fact, “imagine” taking a drink in the absence of a daily reprieve. More important, all of them seemed to agree—in ways and with a conviction it had taken me far too long to learn and embrace—that the most expedient way to provide relief to the alcoholic mind is intensive work with other alcoholics. I used to wish there was an easier, softer way. Today, when I’m with my own sponsor or any of the men I sponsor, I’m glad there is not.

Good-Bye, Sweet Boy


On November 16, 2009, my young friend and former neighbor, Darrin Z., passed away after battling cancer for over a year. He was ten years old. In the fall of 2008 he was diagnosed with medulloblastoma. Healthcentral.com provides the following description of the condition, which echoes the last year of my little friend’s life with eerie accuracy:

Medulloblastoma:
The most common pediatric malignant brain tumor (10-20% of all pediatric brain tumors).
Occurs more frequently in boys than in girls. Peak age is about 5 years old. Most occur before 10 years of age.
Signs include headache, vomiting, uncoordinated movements, and lethargy.
Can spread (metastasize) along the spinal cord.
Surgical removal alone does not cure medulloblastoma. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are often used with surgery.

If the cancer returns, it is usually within the first 5 years of therapy.

Source: healthcentral.com

I first met Darrin six years ago, when my wife and I moved into our current home with our then eighteen-month-old daughter, Grace. Darrin was the middle of three children, and we fast became friends with his parents Dave and Tonia. They were clearly the more executive parents, with two children already in school and a toddler only a few months behind Grace.

From the very beginning, Darrin proved to be an angel, the calmest and most unassuming of all the kids. What I remember most about Darrin is the way he would quietly enter my garage on a sunny weekend afternoon and just “hang out” while I cleaned and tinkered. He didn’t require special attention or entertainment. I don’t remember him ever asking me for anything, though he was most appreciative whenever I brought home Batman or Spiderman coloring books and sound story books from work. (At that time I was Editor-in-Chief of Meredith Books, and we were actively licensing the rights to produce such books as Hollywood churned out super hero sequel after super hero sequel.)

And it was that simple memory of the quiet, unassuming Darrin alive that overwhelmed me at Darrin’s visitation. I’ve been to dozens of visitations and funerals in my life, but never one for a child who didn’t live long enough to become a teenager. I was not prepared for the emotions that would overwhelm me—emotions that were more intense than the ones I’d felt at my own father’s funeral after his battle with cancer. I stood for a long time in front of Darrin’s casket, and for a portion of that time, I stood there arm-in-arm with Darrin’s father, Dave. The two of us, who had stood in our front yards commiserating about money and work and the state of the nations numerous times while our kids rode bikes or played catch (while Darrin ever-vigilantly watched after my little girl Gracie to ensure she didn’t fall on the concrete or wander unknowingly out-of-bounds and into the street), the two of us briefly stood arm-in-arm before Darrin and cried. There wasn’t much to say nor was there much that needed to be said. We were both fathers with sons and daughters. Dave and his wife, Tonia, knew we loved their kids and all that they and their kids had taught us about raising our own children in the three plus years we were neighbors. Now, after an often hopeful but always touch-and-go battle, one of us was gone.

I stood before Darrin for a long time, and finally I prayed for him one last time, as I had prayed for him daily for over a year, every morning, without fail. I stood before him a long time and wondered how, how on God’s green earth, his parents had the strength to stand beside him for hours and greet all of us who had come to pay our respects. I wondered if I would have had the strength to stand there ten minutes if it were the end of my own child’s heroic battle everyone were coming to acknowledge. And Darrin’s battle, with all of its ups and downs, was the kind of heroic that transformed many of us. Never will my own suffering seem so unique after following this little man’s journey as it was so deftly captured by Tonia on her son’s care page.

Before I finally walked away from Darrin for the last time, Tonia walked up beside me and said, simply and frankly, “It’s a journey, Greg. It’s a journey,” as if she’d been reading my mind, as if to offer me a glimpse into the source of her own transcendent strength.

A few days after the visitation, on Saturday evening, I attended a service at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines. The church’s pastor, Mike Householder, spoke at length about suffering. As he did I noticed Darrin’s name in the weekly program under the section listing the names of those “for whom we mourn.” A few minutes later, Mike made reference to the R.E.M. song Everybody Hurts and then posed the question that has stuck with me every waking moment since he first uttered it: Is your faith bigger than your suffering? The implicit message being that, if it is, if your faith truly is bigger than your suffering, then there is nothing you and God can’t walk through with dignity and grace—with the knowledge that at the end of the journey, all will be as it should be. Clearly, Dave and Tonia’s faith, like Darrin’s bravery throughout and his refusal to give up until the very end, is and has been bigger than their suffering, and I pray that it remains so in the days ahead.

Good night and good-bye, Sweet Boy. Your journey lives on in all of us who knew you. Because of you, Darrin, and your mom and dad, and your big sister and little brother, and the utter dignity with which you have all faced these trying days, some of us may one day come to know a faith that is bigger than our own suffering.


Darrin and his sister, Emily, hanging out with me and neighborhood kids in my driveway during a visit back to the old “hood” earlier this summer