Tag Archives: aa

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

The Blame Game


PAUSE …

Sometimes just for a minute …

Sometimes for an hour …

Sometimes for days … weeks … months even, depending on the severity of the problem, the depth of the issue.

But by all means and at all costs …

… PAUSE.

At some point during our active “using” careers, many of us found it necessary to become expert at the blame game. For me to successfully camouflage the severity of my drinking problem, I had to sabotage the lives of others. That way, I could point the finger somewhere other than my own face when my drinking caused problems in the world around me.

But those of us who’ve genuinely worked the 12 steps, and especially steps 9 and 10, know that camouflaging the truth is as detrimental to maintaining our sobriety as failing to camouflage it was to hiding our addictions. The old blame game becomes an exercise in self-sabotage.

But how do we break such a deeply ingrained habit? Just because I don’t drink doesn’t necessarily mean I no longer lie, cheat, steal, con, or, at the very least, color the truth so it matches the world I see through my rose-colored glasses. How, once we’ve stopped using, do we suddenly become willing to search–as a reflex rather than as an afterthought or a sponsor direction–for the truth in all matters? And how do we learn to refuse, at all costs, to blame others automatically for all the problems, large and small, we endure in life?

As with most things in sobriety, when it comes to halting the blame game, I’ve found simple answers that aren’t always easy to apply. To this day, however, before I allow myself to assign blame (and I am still as prone and egomaniacally inspired to assign blame as the day I began this journey), at all costs, I …

… PAUSE.

And if I can, I change my location. I do whatever I can to take my head somewhere other than where it is the moment I sense that I’m somehow disturbed. If I’m inside, I go out. If I’m outside, I go in. I go wherever I can to ensure my senses experience something entirely different. I’m not running, I’m not hiding, I’m just shifting my surroundings enough to shift my thinking. I do this to physically remind myself that everything—absolutely everything in this life—will change; that this, too (whatever disturbance “this” is), shall pass. If, as I’m so often told, I suffer a disease of perception, then a change in perspective should act as a figurative sedative.

After I pause and relocate, I try to remember two things our literature has taught me:

  • After all, our problems were of our own making (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 103)
  • It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 90)

My divorce from the mother of my children is now four years old—plenty ripe to have taught me a few things. The monologue—sans obscenities—that charged through my head the day she announced she didn’t want to be married anymore began something like this: “After all I have done for that woman … .”

Luckily, before my thinking went too far and became too self-serving, I managed to PAUSE.

And luckily, before I acted in a manner unbecoming someone with 11 years of sobriety (at the time), I managed to change my surroundings and my perspective almost immediately by calling my sponsor.

At that moment, I didn’t want to consider that I might have done something to her that inspired the divorce … but I was reminded that someday I would have to face that fact.

At that moment, deep in the emotional turmoil prompted by the idea of not waking up in the same house as my children everyday, I didn’t want to accept that there might be something wrong with me that was causing their mother to take flight … but I was reminded that someday I would have to face that fact, too.

And at that moment, I certainly wasn’t ready to give her one iota of credit for what she might have done for me over the years—conveniently ignoring the fact that she was, after all, the mother of my children.

Luckily—no matter how deep the quagmire—the challenges I face in recovery are never as solitary as they were during my life as a practicing alcoholic. I have a sponsor, I have friends, I have the fellowship that grew up around me to help me seek the truth at all times. I have the ability to PAUSE … look around … and ask for help.

When I took a long, hard look at my behavior during the final years of my marriage, I realized pretty quickly I wouldn’t have always been thrilled to be married to me either. My wife was younger than I was and the mother of two small and wonderful children. It should have been a time to marvel and experience joy for both of us. And for a time it was, until I allowed fear of financial insecurity (something I thought I had conquered long ago) to consume me. And once it did, I quickly became the Ogre who’s return home at night went from being an event to anticipate … to an event to endure … to an event to avoid whenever possible, and eventually permanently. When I took a long hard look at my behavior during the final years of my marriage, from 2007- 2010, I couldn’t help but accept the fact that my problems were of my own making.

And there’s a strange thing that happens once I accept the spiritual axiom that if I am disturbed, there is something wrong with me … there’s a strange thing that happens when I point the finger first and foremost at myself rather than at someone else: I discover that my first instinct is not to find blame but rather to forgive. When I instantly acknowledge my part in any disturbance (and we know we always have “a” part), I’m much more likely to accept the other person’s imperfection and humanity and look to amend the relationship, and much less inclined to deepen the wounds with rationalizations and accusations.

In the example that is my divorce, we quickly discovered that the simple solution to our discomfort was right under our noses: We made amends before the decree was signed and agreed to keenly focus all of our future interactions on the welfare of our children. It’s the only right thing to do. No one says you have to like each other to do the next right thing. My ex-wife and I have had the good fortune of burying the hatchet and remaining friends. The relief that has brought to my children during the past four years is tangible. But I’ve worked with other men whose divorces were far more contentious, and they, too, agree that keeping the focus on caring for their kids softens their resentment and makes interacting with their former spouses far more tolerable—and directed.

As I have found in so many situations in sobriety, once I acknowledge that I have a part in the problem—once I acknowledge that if I’m ill at ease with a person, place, or institution, something is wrong with me—I have very little desire to “figure things out.” I’m much less likely to care about who was right and who was wrong. I’m much less likely to worry about assigning blame. Once I’ve recognized that I had a part to play in the drama that ultimately led to my own discomfort (whether it is because I or someone else initially chose to act badly), the only thing I’m truly curious about is how to end the discomfort and move on.

A Quick Challenge


In your opinion, what’s the most important thing you can say to someone who is new to sobriety?

There Is a Solution


Generally, my Sunday evenings are painfully, yet thankfully, routine. Painful because, at 5:00 PM each Sunday, after spending most of the previous four days with my two wonderful kids, I’m obliged to return them to their mom, knowing full well I’m not likely to see them again until Wednesday evening. I’ve never experienced the relief or release some parents tell me they experience when they get a break—however brief—from their kids.  Even when I remind myself that turning my kids over is a valuable exercise in acceptance, I still have to fight off a low-level solemnity every time I back out of their mother’s driveway.

Thankfully, I have men to sponsor, service commitments to fulfill, and a home group to attend. Once I drop the kids off, I head straight to the church where my home group meets every Sunday evening. By 5:30 PM, before I can become too sullen about my kids’ absence, I’m standing in the church kitchen making coffee while some of the men I sponsor break down tables and set up chairs for the meeting, which is regularly attended by 100 or so recovering alcoholics. By 6:00 PM, the meeting is “set up” and a handful of us retreat to the pastor’s library to read the Big Book and discuss the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. This goes on until about 7:00 PM when the meeting actually begins.

At 8:00 PM, after the meeting, that same group of men and I will break down the chairs, clean the coffee urns, set the security alarms, and, if we’re lucky, lock the place up by 8:25 PM and head to a local sports bar and restaurant called Legends, where as many as 15 to 20 of our fellow meeting-goers can be found on any given Sunday night, eating dinner and watching the sporting event du jour—whatever the season dictates.

This is the welcome routine of my recovery. It is the path I’ve been shown, the method I’ve been taught, the only way I know to stay sober. It is part and parcel of my solution and has been for many years. My Sunday evenings, painful as they are at the start, have become a metaphor for what helps me through most any difficult situation: unity, service, and recovery. The only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking, but membership alone, in the absence of action, has never done a damn thing to keep me sober.

A few weeks ago, my Sunday evening stopped being routine and got very real once I arrived in the restaurant parking lot after the meeting. That night, the Iowa air was cold but also damp and misty. As I weaved between cars and toward the entrance to Legends, I noticed a tall, almost phantasmagorical figure moving toward me. Clearly a younger man, he was none too steady and wearing a baseball cap under the hood of his sweatshirt, making recognition next to impossible.

“Hey, Sponsor,” he said.  I had tensed up more stiffly than I’d realized and could literally feel the muscles in my body relax a little as I recognized the voice. The somewhat ghostly figure was a young man named Jake, someone I had tried to sponsor on and off, with little success, for nearly two years. “Man, I can’t believe this,” Jake said. “I can’t believe it. I was telling these people about you today, telling them about when I was in AA and this sponsor I had, and, man, I can’t believe this. It’s no coincidence, right? No coincidence.” Clearly, Jake was drinking, smoking, and snorting, more or less uber-tweaking. Sober and healthy, he was a tall, somewhat imposing figure at 6’ 3” and at least 225 pounds, but now, bent over in the rain, wearing a baseball cap under a hood, he appeared gaunt and far too twitchy for a Sunday night.

Before I could ask him how he was doing or why he was there, a tall, wispy young woman in skintight jeans and black heels walked out of the restaurant and toward us. All too anxiously, Jake called to her. “This is him,” he said, pointing at me. “The guy I was telling you about today, or whatever, maybe it was yesterday, this is him, my sponsor. My AA sponsor.”

“I told you,” the young woman said. “I told you. Wow! It’s a god thing, right, I told you, you need to call him.” She put her hand on my shoulder; I was caught in the crossfire between two tweakers. An otherwise very attractive woman, the all-too-rapid speech, the oily hair, and the adult acne were dead giveaways: this woman had not, and probably would not, sleep for days. “He needs to call you, we all told him you’d just appear someday. Now you’re here, this is too freaky; I knew it was going to happen, I told you, Jake. That’s how life flips, you know, you have to pay attention, right?” she said, and just as quickly, without a hello or a goodbye, she strode away toward what I recognized to be Jake’s van. There was another woman and a man in a wheelchair waiting outside the open sliding door of the death wagon. Together, they looked like a bad album cover in the Iowa mist.

“She’s nuts,” Jake said. “I’m chaperoning a couple of hookers and this other guy. He’s got brain damage from a wreck. Just nuts. Totally nuts. My life, right?”

“What are you doing here?

“Freakin’ crazy. Seriously. She’s here trying to collect. I said I’d give her a ride. Just friends. Trying to help out.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “Still no license?”

“No license.”

“Risky business,” I said. “Especially if you’re all holding.”

I asked him how he was doing otherwise, what had happened to the sober house he’d been living in the last time I’d spoken with him, whether he had a job. I knew the answers to all of the above, but I wanted to hear his version.

“I tried, Greg. I did, man, really. I’ve tried everything. Treatment, AA, sober house, bible-based recovery, I’ve tried everything. I have. Everything. I just don’t think I can do it. I make it a while and then I don’t know … I just don’t think I can do it. AA doesn’t work for me.”

I’m no step-Nazi, nor am I a proselytizer. I try the best I know how to work with others, the way the chapter Working with Others proscribes in the Big Book. Normally, I would have been more patient and spent more time listening to Jake.  I would have encouraged him to come to a meeting with me. But I had been down this path many times before with Jake. Unfortunately for him, I had also recently read one-too-many blog posts (usually by someone new to recovery) about how AA doesn’t work. So, when Jake uttered those fateful words of contempt prior to “genuine” investigation, “AA doesn’t work for me,” I came a bit unraveled and suddenly heard myself saying the same words my sponsor had said to me more than 14 years ago.

“You haven’t ‘tried’ anything, Jake.” I said. “You’re like everyone else who says they can’t stay sober or that AA doesn’t work. You’ve been a lot of places—treatment, rehab, sober houses—and you’ve been to a lot of meetings, but all you’ve ever been is a visitor. You’ve never actually done anything.”

He suddenly looked rather despondent and much less excited to see me. “What do you mean?”

“I mean you know everything you need to know to stay sober. The only question now is whether you’re ever actually going to do something.”

“I’ve gone to a lot of meetings. I’ve read the book … with you even, at your house with other men. I tried AA and it didn’t work. I just can’t do it.”

“Did you ever work a step, Jake? Did you ever do a 4th and 5th step? Did you ever make a 9th step amend? Did you ever hold a service position? You say you’re chaperoning hookers tonight. Did you ever go out of your way to give a guy a ride to a meeting? Anything?”

Silence.

Jake was eventually saved by the bell from a prolonged harangue; his friends were growing increasingly restless, though our entire encounter couldn’t have lasted much more than 5 minutes. Before we parted ways, I made sure he still had my phone number in his cell phone and reminded him which meetings I went to and on what nights. We shook hands, and he promised to call, though I feared I’d sooner read about Jake than hear from him directly.

Last Friday night, however, two weeks after my initial reunion with Jake, I sat in a small group at another meeting for nearly 10 minutes before I looked closely at the guy across the room wearing a ball cap, a clean sweatshirt, and a freshly pressed pair of chinos. When we made eye contact, Jake shot me a smile and a peace sign. At least he was present and seemingly clean. After the meeting, we chatted, and he promised to touch base during the week. He never called, but at my prompting, he did respond to a text during that week and say he hoped to see me again on Friday night.

There are two things I’ve learned in nearly 20 years around Alcoholics Anonymous: surrender everyday and never give up hope … not until all hope has been definitively taken away. As long as there’s hope, there’s always the possibility of a solution.

More Than a Sufficient Substitute


For years now, I’ve listened to people in meetings describe our program as “a sufficient substitute.” I presume they mean a sufficient substitute for their drinking. And, I suppose, at its most fundamental and basic level, that’s an accurate description. But today, I find it hard to characterize our program as little more than a “sufficient substitute” because, for me, it is so much more.

On Friday, February 10, 2012, I found myself stuck (and heartbroken) at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. I had flown there the day before on our company plane with colleagues for meetings at our offices in Manhattan. We were due to leave from Teterboro at 4:00 pm that Friday and arrive 2 1/2 hours later in Des Moines, Iowa at 5:30 pm–in plenty of time, I had hoped, for me to attend the annual Daddy-Daughter Dance my 9-year-old daughter, Grace, and I have attended each year since she was 6. When we arrived at Teterboro that Friday afternoon for our return flight, however, we were told the company Leer had a hydraulic leak and that our only commercial options were flights leaving from Newark Airport and LaGuardia, the earliest of which would land us in Des Moines at 9:05 pm, exactly 5 minutes after the conclusion of the Daddy-Daughter Dance.

This was not an earth shattering event but one that prompted in me a dream-like desire to somehow circumvent the impossible. There had to be a way, I thought, to make it from Point A to Point B, from Teterboro to Des Moines, by 7:00 pm Central Standard Time. There simply had to be a way. The answer, the critical solution, just hadn’t presented itself to me yet. It was on the tip of my tongue, so to speak, but I couldn’t coax it out, right? There had to be an answer, an option, but what the hell was it? What was I failing to see, remember, consider? What …

I stood there in the lobby of Teterboro for a number of long minutes, oblivious to the conversations going on around me. I stood there in a circle with my colleagues who were carrying on multiple conversations that sounded like they were taking place in another room I was so completely obsessed with inventing a way to circumvent the impossible, when, of course, there wasn’t one.

For two weeks in advance of my trip, I’d feared the possibility of my not making it back in time for the start of the dance.  Who could count on leaving the New York Metro area on a plane–private or commercial–on time on any given Friday afternoon? Luckily, on Monday of that week, I’d had the presence of mind to concoct a plan B. I’d enlisted my daughter’s godfather–a close friend and a man I sponsor–to be ready and waiting for my call on Friday afternoon to confirm whether I’d actually land in Des Moines on time. If it looked like I were to be the least bit late–first for our ritual dinner with three of my daughter’s friends and their Dads at Biaggi’s restaurant on University at 6:00 pm or for the dance itself at 7:00 pm– Uncle Tom, as he’s affectionately known, was to suit up and show up as Grace’s “sufficient substitute.” The thought that I might miss not only the dinner but the entire dance, of course, had never occurred to me at all. Being late would be unfortunate, but the idea of being entirely absent was unfathomable.

Eventually I came to and realized this was the cold hard fact of the matter–I would arrive at Point B that evening moments after the main event had ended. So I began making the requisite phone calls. First, to my ex-wife and her mother, who, at that moment, would be helping my daughter primp and dress for the big event, and then to my daughter’s godfather who would have to step in and do what godfathers are “hired” to do: Play the role of father when necessary and in the father’s absence. To make matters even worse, none of them actually answered their phones, forcing me to leave messages and to wonder if those messages would be received soon enough to put our back up plans effectively in place.

At some point, one of my co-workers and I hoped in a cab and headed for Newark Airport where we’d hop on a plane that would depart at the same time the dance was due to begin and land in Des Moines only moments after the dance would end. Before we actually made it to Newark, my ex-wife called my cell. She’d already broken the news to my daughter who, when she eventually got on the phone, was unable to do anything but whimper and mumble through tears over her daddy’s inability to make it home in time for either the dinner or the dance. The sound of her voice sent me into a sad, gut-wrenching spiral that eventually inspired me to post the following lame video as a feeble attempt at an apology before actually leaving Newark and arriving in Des Moines.

I cannot sleep on planes, no matter what kind of plane, no matter what time of day. Instead, I either read or feign sleep and meditate. I’ve traveled enough to respect other people’s space in flight and rarely engage in conversation unless my seat-assigned fellow wanderer absolutely insists on a little small talk to pass the time.

That night, on the flight from Newark to Des Moines, I sat at the very back of the plane due to my last-minute booking. And thankfully so.  During those two short hours I was able to experience fully a sense of gratitude rather than merely wallow in self-pity over my not-so-surprising dilemma and the disappointment it engendered.  Given my rather raucous youth and the exceptionally reckless nature of my lifestyle before sobriety, I reminded myself once again that I was lucky to be alive, let alone free and gainfully employed. At the tender age of 52 and 13 years sober, I realized I was damn lucky to have children at all, let alone a 9-year-old daughter who was heartbroken her father with two left feet would not be able to accompany her to the Daddy-Daughter Dance that night.  And though divorced, I realized once again I was lucky to have a good enough relationship with my children’s mother, whom I had met in sobriety, that I could count on her to explain to my daughter that I would be as pained and disappointed by the circumstances as she was–rather than a vengeful Ex who would seize the opportunity to trash her former spouse.  And I realized if it weren’t for the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, I might not have had a reliable friend I could call and count on to make every effort in his power to help Grace make the best of an unfortunate situation. And from that point on, I realized once again, as I so often do, that almost all of the good things that have happened in my life have only happened in the absence of alcohol and that Alcoholics Anonymous is the only remedy that has made that possible in my adult life. That, my friends, strikes me as far more than a sufficient substitute.

And there’s more, as there so often is once we’re able to look beyond ourselves and our most immediate loved ones. Once I landed (promptly at 9:05 pm), I called Uncle Tom and Grace, who were just leaving the dance, and suggested we all meet at Maggie Moo’s Ice Cream parlor, a place the kids and I were known to frequent as regulars. And as I drove there, I was reminded that my friend and Grace’s godfather, Tom, had never married and, though close to my age, had never been blessed with children of his own (though he has always fawned over my kids as though they were his own).  And so, if not for my own misfortune this one year (and God willing, Grace and I will have at least 3 more Daddy-Daughter dances to attend), Uncle Tom might never have had the opportunity to dress up in his finest suit and take one of the most naturally grateful little girls in the world to that place where every little girl is always the Belle of the Ball, no matter who accompanies her. When I shared that thought with both Tom and Grace moments later over ice cream, it seemed to bring a smile to everyone’s face and, without a word being spoken between us, reminded Tom and me both how truly blessed we are to possess a means to a life that is far more than a sufficient substitute for the lives we once led.

Uncle Tom and Grace at the Daddy-Daughter Dance 2012

Broken


People get broken. Broken hearts, broken bones, broken dreams, they break down, they break up, they break the bank, break promises … break, break, break, we all fall down.

People get broken a lot, in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons. Some good, some bad, some just because. But how do they mend?

Sometimes I think those of us who live a life of active recovery take what we have at our fingertips for granted. When we get broken, we have instant access to the healing process: people like ourselves who intuitively understand EXACTLY what we’re thinking and feeling.

The other night after dinner I asked a younger man, someone new to Alcoholics Anonymous and whom I was encouraging to attend more meetings, “Where else can you go for an hour and know, with certainty, that the topic of conversation will be significant?  Where else can you go and know that the people in the room have to care about you if they have any hope of saving themselves?”

Emotional Pain: A Source of Hope, A Prompt to Love


I clearly remember the day, in eighth grade, that Mary Beth H. broke up with me. I was crushed, truly devastated … or, at the very least, my ego got hammered. This meant I would no longer be seen in the hallways of McGee Junior High School holding hands with Mary Beth as I walked her to class. This meant we would no longer plan secret rendezvous in the stairwells where we could “make out,” and, as often as not, be discovered by someone like my basketball coach, Mr. G., who would later rib me about my breathless moments with Mary Beth in front of the entire squad, a ribbing which, he may or may not have known, brought me great pride because Mary Beth was undoubtedly the most sought after hand to hold in the entire school. This meant we would not talk for hours on the phone at night, mostly about nothing and until our parents told us to hang up but not before we would promise to meet somewhere in town over the weekend. Two full days apart was, of course, more than any young couple should have to endure.

Mary Beth and I had been “going steady” for well over two weeks the day she dumped me and, in my mind, reduced me to a hapless loser, a status only reinforced by the fact that she was dumping me for my cousin, David H., a veritable Fonz at McGee since he was very handsome and very cool and could grow a full mustache—no surprise since, as we all knew, he would turn sixteen in the ninth grade and have a car before anyone else.

I did everything you’d expect an eighth-grade boy to do once I’d been dealt the hellish blow—I spoke at length to her friends and mine about why, about what I could do or should have done differently, about the possibility that this was a mistake and what were the chances we’d “get back together” sometime soon. I cried openly, I hoped privately, and eventually I hated venomously with all my heart. I worshiped her very being and spat venom at the thought of her freckled face in the same breath and always behind her back.

Losing Mary Beth was not the most tragic event I’d experienced up to that point in my life, and I’ve experienced many others since that are far more tragic, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt emotional pain as deeply and purely as I did that day.

I did unwittingly learn a few lessons about pain management in the hours and days that followed. My mother allowed me my share of tears and a week-long period of mourning (i.e. lots of moping around), but she would not allow me to miss school the next day so I could avoid Mary Beth and the shame of seeing her walk the halls with my cousin. My father, too, consoled me as only a father who was a union foreman could: “Ah, you’ll go through a hundred Mary Beth’s before you’re twenty.” But he would not allow me to skip basketball practice that day or the next, even though my cousin David would be there to flaunt his victory … on and off the court. They were insistent I wake up each day and “trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.” Ultimately, my mother would say the one thing that would stick with me throughout my life: “Why would you want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you anyway?”

In the eleven years since I returned to AA, I’ve watched a lot of recovering men face this type of rejection and even helped a few walk through the emotional pain that goes with it. Recently I watched a man I sponsor grieve so torturously over the end of a relationship I honestly thought we might lose him, not to alcohol but more likely to a bullet. At one point, however, I reminded him that if he didn’t hurt so badly, if he refused to open himself to the seeming agony, it would only mean that he didn’t care—not only about her, but more so about the mysteriously wonderful phenomenon of loving and being loved. I begged him (as so much spiritual literature often instructs) to embrace the pain and become one with it, not as a form of punishment or self degradation, but as an act of hope.

It’s been my experience that emotional pain is often just that, a sign of hope, hope that we will one day experience the joy and sheer bliss of loving and being loved unconditionally again—if not by the person breaking our heart, then by someone else. The pain shows we still care.

Loss of love is painful mainly because IT, the loving, once seemed so pure and unconditional. That lingering pain that follows the end of a relationship mostly represents the desire to have IT back—not necessarily the person, but the experience of IT, which, in the aftermath of a failed relationship, is falsely associated with the person who has usually long since stopped loving us in a pure and unconditional fashion. Again, my mother: “Why would you want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you anyway?”

In the handful of suicides I’ve known intimately this past decade (all of them “alcoholic” suicides), hope of ever again loving someone else in a pure and unconditional fashion seemed lost. These suicides had lost loved ones, family members, friends and more with extreme apathy—not because they didn’t care about and love those people purely and unconditionally at one time, but because they had completely and utterly lost hope that they would ever regain the ability to love and be loved in that way. Why they had lost that ability, why they seemed to fall victim to an extreme state of anomie,* is not for me to conjecture. I simply witnessed that they had, by their own admission in every case, completely and utterly lost hope. As one of these dear friends attested before his death, there was no pain, nor was there an absence of pain. There was simply a complete absence of hope and therefore nothing to prompt or prevent any kind of emotional pain. No hope, no pain. No pain, no gain … emotionally or otherwise.

As my current marriage inches closer and closer to its own end, I hope to draw some valuable lessons from the losses I’ve both experienced and witnessed these past 50 years. First and foremost, I hope to wake each morning with a firm commitment to “trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.” If past experience has taught me anything, it’s that a failure to rise up and DO is a sure-fire prescription for emotional suicide. I continue to wake each morning at 5 so I have time to meditate and hit the gym before I leave for work at 8. I endeavor each day to leave my emotional issues at home to the best of my ability and commit my focus to work while I’m there. I continue to play, read, laugh, and work with my kids in all the ways they’ve come to expect—as much for my sanity as their protection. And, I hope, to the best of my ability, I continue to respect, and maintain an appropriate level of civility with, my wife, whom I still count as a great friend. None of these efforts is perfect nor do I perform them in absence of that often gut-wrenching pain that accompanies impending loss. I’m not always fun, and I’m not always patient. But I force myself to try to be when I recognize I’m not. I’m far from perfectly civil or perfectly respectful; I’m just as capable of anger and resentment as ever. But any time anger wells up, I try like hell to squelch it (or call my sponsor), knowing full well if I indulge it, I’m the only one who is likely to suffer. I am way beyond those days when I could unleash my own wrath and enjoy it or walk away from it without consequence. Another sign of hope, I think.

It’s also my position that emotional pain is not only a sign that we still hope to experience love in our lives—with or without the person we perceive to be the cause of our pain—but a prompt to redouble our efforts to love those who remain faithfully connected to us. Ironically, I pity those who have not loved or cared deeply enough to have experienced extreme and debilitating emotional pain. For me, not having suffered that level of loss at least once would represent a life unlived. The key is to recognize the pain for what it is (a sign of hope), embrace it, and ultimately unearth a solution from it that will propel us into yet another not-so-well-lit dimension of human experience.

* social instability resulting from abreakdown of standards and values; also : personal unrest, alienation, and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals