Tag Archives: hope

Look for the Good


This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com.

“I don’t waste my time looking for the bad in people, Gregory,” My aunt said. “Look for the good.”

Earlier this summer, back on the weekend before the 4th of July, I had the opportunity to take my children back to Connecticut to visit my mother and the other members of my family whom they rarely see. In fact, before this trip, they hadn’t seen their grandmother Kayko since December of 2010. For months they’d been anxiously anticipating the trip, which I, at the same time, was quietly dreading.

I wasn’t dreading the trip because I don’t love my mother (or my aunts and uncles and cousins who all remain in or near my hometown in central Connecticut). I was dreading the realities I knew I’d have to face.  I knew that my mother, at 86, and her sister and brother-in-law, who live right next door, had all suffered serious health setbacks since our last visit in 2010: diabetes, dementia, prostate cancer, and many of the other ailments that attend the realities of aging.

On our second night in town, my mother insisted we make the trek over to visit my aunt. I say trek because visiting my Aunt Pauline meant helping my mother navigate a flight of stairs, a curb, and a driveway: No small feat for a woman who had beaten breast cancer not once, but twice, lost a section of her pancreas to surgery on a benign tumor, and was now managing type 2 diabetes, which often caused her a great deal of pain in her feet and legs. Should I live to be 86 and have 1/10th the fortitude of people like my mother and my aunt, I will certainly count myself as blessed.

Walking into the bedroom where my aunt was convalescing (as I understood it she’d grown so weak and frail she’d only been out of bed twice since they’d brought her home from the hospital the previous October) was like walking into a scene from a 19th century Russian novel: the low lighting, the stillness, and the silence which was interrupted only by the soft-spoken broken English of my aunt’s home nurse, Maria, a Ukrainian immigrant who had once been a doctor in her homeland but now spent her days in America caring for the elderly in their homes. The only distinctly modern touch in the room seemed to be the chrome of the hospital bed my uncles and cousins had bought to make my aunt’s time at home more convenient and bearable.

Witnessing the irreversible deterioration of any elderly loved one is disheartening. Witnessing my aunt Pauline’s demise was especially disturbing to me because she was truly the matriarch of recovery in our family. We have a long standing joke in our family that all of the men are either practicing or recovering alcoholics and all of the women are either treated or untreated “Al-Anons.”  Some 40+ years earlier, when my uncle’s alcoholism had taken him to a bottom from which few thought he would ever recover (two bottles of gin a day in the basement of that very house), my aunt sought solace in Al Anon. Within a year, my uncle was committed to a VA hospital in Connecticut and told he would die if he ever drank again. At least that’s the way I heard it as a kid, and what I recall is that he emerged from that hospital sober and, thanks to God, AA, and a sponsor, has never taken a drink since. What’s more, the nuclear family within our extended family of alcoholics that had been the most decimated and demoralized by this disease would emerge to be the model for the rest of us who sought recovery–all, in my mind, because my Aunt Pauline took the first step of seeking help for herself.

What I remember even more clearly from my childhood years is that once my aunt surrendered to the fact that she could do absolutely nothing to save her husband but everything to save herself and raise her three sons, I never again heard a negative word about other people, places, or circumstances leave her lips. She was not only the matriarch of recovery in our family, she was the patron saint of unsullied optimism. A very strong but simple daughter of Polish immigrants, she was always cheerfully interjecting the most annoying of clichés into situations the rest of us took far too seriously: “Give him the benefit of the doubt,” “We’re only human,” “Nobody’s perfect,” “Forgive and forget,” and on and on and on. I can still hear her voice and see her smile as a younger woman to this day. Even as a teenager, I often wondered how a woman who had been beaten down psychologically and emotionally for so many years could emerge from the ashes so full of optimism and enthusiasm for life, and all just because she went to a few meetings a week with like-minded people.

Later that evening, after we had all spent a half hour or so with my aunt, Maria offered to take the children out to the living room to watch TV. Pauline had already turned to my son and asked him, “How old are you?” at least three times, and it was beginning to freak him out. Eventually my mother, too, decided to take a break and join the nurse and the kids in the front room.

Alone with my Aunt Pauline I wondered if she even understood who was sitting beside her in the room now. To my surprise, within moments of everyone leaving, she turned to me and said, “You look good, Gregory, and you have beautiful children.” So, she did know who I was. Never one to accept a complement very graciously, I launched into a monologue about the kids. I told her, as I’d told so many others, what a gem my daughter Gracie was, how I honestly wondered if she weren’t simply an angel sent down to look after the rest of us. I told her what a good heart my son Adam had but that he also had a rather mischievous spirit and that he kept me on my toes every moment he was awake. And then it happened: The seemingly weak and heavily sedated Aunt Pauline lying under the thin veil of a bed sheet held the palm of her left hand up to silence me and became as lucid and firm in her tone as a perfectly healthy 20-something. “I don’t waste my time looking for the bad in people, Gregory. Look for the good.”

Within moments she lowered her arm to the bed, turned her head away from me, and, as if returning to a conversation in a far distant and possibly kinder place, said, “I like my room. I hope I never have to leave my room again until its time.”

It was in that moment I felt I understood why it had been so important for me to make this trip after more than a year away: To hear my Aunt Pauline affirm, one more time, that life is good–even as she lie dying in the room she loved so much. Her admonition was full of not only wisdom but also guidance. I’d been told many times in many ways by many people in my life to “look for the good” in others, but my aunt Pauline had just given me a reason that was more inspiring than any I’d ever received from mentors or read in books: To look for anything other than the good is an utter waste of time.

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

Sponsorship: Into the Unknown


This is the 168 yard, par 3, third hole at Beaver Creek Golf Course in Grimes, Iowa. Between the trees and on the other side of the pond is a green; there’s no land between tee and green. The man standing on the tee box about to tee off into the fog is my sponsor.

This photo has served as the wallpaper on my iPhone for the past two or three months. On Friday, October 31, 2011, I celebrated 13 years of sobriety. That night when I came home and looked at the photo, it became something much more than wallpaper. It became my metaphor for sponsorship in Alcoholics Anonymous. Here’s how.

I’ve been sponsored long enough to know that my sponsor, whom I love dearly and admire greatly, is an imperfect human being like myself. He’s just another man striking the ball into the fog and hoping everything turns out all right. The only difference between us is a difference in perspective. On the tee box, he’s closer to the green and has a better view of the target than I do standing back at the tips taking his photograph. He sees more clearly. His visibility from 50 yards in front of me is greatly improved.

In life he’s just another imperfect human being striking out each day into the unknown, full of fear or blessed with faith, depending on how well he’s using the spiritual tools laid at his feet the day he walked into Alcoholics Anonymous. In life, his perspective is deepened by his years of experience as a sober human being—he’s more than 18 years my senior in sobriety. Those years of experience mean he’s seen things I haven’t, things about which he can caution or coach me. Those years of experience, and the perspective they give him, mean he sees more clearly than I do. Those years of experience have not provided him with all the answers, but they have provided him with better advice to offer than I could possibly offer myself.

I’ll let you guess who’s shot landed closer to the pin this side of the foggy pond.

There Is a Solution, Part II


Back on February 24, 2010, I wrote the following paragraph in a post titled “Emotional Pain: A Source of Hope, A Prompt to Love.” To this day, that paragraph offers as much solution as I can muster from my own experience in sobriety (and I’m committed to sharing only my experience):

“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.”

I’m not normally prone to depression … not in the absence of alcohol anyway. But these past 18 months, I’ve woke more than once with little or no desire to “trudge the happy road.” I hadn’t experienced that kind of debilitating malaise (the kind that straps you down and makes getting out of bed seem monumental) for well over 10 years. During the divorce, however, I woke many mornings feeling this way. I would often lie in bed after the alarm went off and play the “maybe-I-don’t-need-to” game. “Maybe I don’t need to meditate today; if I don’t, I can get an extra hour of much-needed sleep.” Bullshit! “Maybe I don’t need to go to the gym this morning; I’ll head to work early and squeeze the workout in at the end of the day.” Bullshit! End of day workouts haven’t “worked out” for me for years. If you’ve had a morning routine that works in sobriety and you find yourself playing the maybe-I-don’t-need-to game during tough times, start playing the NO BULLSHIT game instead. I learned to will myself out of bed and mindlessly back into my routines. They had worked for me in good times for a reason, a reason I didn’t need to understand. I just needed to learn to wake up willing to DO and not question. It’s no different than willing myself to a meeting. I don’t know why meetings work for me. They just do. They work their magic in spite of me, so I mindlessly will myself to meetings on a regular basis.

Some mornings I’d wake up suffering the Great Ache, that low-level ache in the gut that, left untended, could make me nervous and even nauseous with the realization that soon I’d be divorced, soon the kids wouldn’t be in the house with me every morning, soon my life would be a life I no longer recognized as my own. Again, my antidote to the Great Ache was, and still is, the same as my antidote to the maybe-I-don’t-need-to game: Get up fast and DO, do something. Once I’d willed myself out of bed, I’d will myself to meditate. Often times my meditations were worthless, my mind wandering or obsessing, my body failing to relax. Didn’t matter. Going through the motions of prayer and meditation, however mindlessly, was far more effective than staying in bed spinning yarns in my head and nurturing aches in my gut.

Once I’d made it through meditation, getting to the gym was much easier. I was awake and actually hungry for the energy I knew the workout would give me. By the time I shaved and showered, I was ready to be away for the day–somewhere I could give myself a mental and emotional vacation from the heartache. Work, golf, a trip to the park or grocery store with the kids, any of the simple activities that used to weigh me down in my drinking days, proved to be the best antidote to fear of the unknown in those final months before the marriage ended. Finally, as I have for the past 12 years, I hit 4 or more meetings a week and kept current with both my own sponsor and the guys I sponsor. Nothing has done more to insure my sobriety and my sanity than “intensive work with other alcoholics.” Nothing ever has; nothing ever will.

I don’t mean to suggest that doing what I’ve always done to stay sober made divorce any easier or less painful. Only that it did make the process more tolerable. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest for a moment that I “have” the solution. I only wish to remind all of us that there is one. It’s in our basic text, “Alcoholics Anonymous.” (Which reminds me of something I’ve heard Johnny H. from California say almost every time I’ve heard him speak: “If you want to hide something from an AA member, stick it in his Big Book,” implying most of us don’t spend nearly enough time in the book.)

So, the circumstances and challenges life throws at us may change (and certainly are likely to continue to change), but the solution doesn’t seem to waver much from its path. We’re handed a simple kit of spiritual tools when we arrive at AA. All we really have to do is will ourselves to pick it up.

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

Moment of Clarity #2: True Love


In true love, there are no victors and no victims—only the genuine pursuit of time well spent.

No Pain, No Gain


“No pain, no gain.” I’ve endured that taunt since high school. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’ve always had an extremely high tolerance for physical pain. I once caught an entire high school baseball game with a broken wrist and played left field in another on a broken ankle. I played high school football games with everything from
broken fingers to a torn quadricep. Add alcohol to this disposition in early adulthood, and you end up in your fair share of barroom brawls—replete with face-scarring, broken-bottle swipes, bloody noses, black eyes, and enough face-first collisions with concrete to permanently dimple any chin. Nothing to be proud of, for sure . . . unless, of course, you’re an active alcoholic in need of another tall, barroom tale to tell.

What did I “gain” from all of that pain? On the one hand, not much—not until later, in my late twenties, when I rigorously studied the martial art of Aikido for three years in Japan and learned, for the first time in my life, the true importance of conflict avoidance. On the other hand, physical pain does teach you one valuable lesson: Time heals all that can be healed. Most cuts, bruises, and breaks (if not critical or life threatening) do mend—less and less efficiently as you age, but mend they will.

Emotional pain, however, is entirely different. Time alone has never been enough to heal my emotional pain. For years, from the age of 11 to 38, I had the instant cure for feeling anything; alcohol—properly abused—could dim, dull, or dissolve most any emotion I didn’t care to confront: relationships failed, I drank; my father died, I drank; my wife and I ended our marriage, I drank. I will never forget the sunny morning I left my first wife after 8 years of marriage. I loaded up a newly purchased pickup with my feeble belongings, hopped on I-35 in Kansas City headed for Des Moines and cried all the way to Kearney, Missouri (about 20 minutes outside of KC) where I pulled off, loaded up the cooler in the back seat with beer, and began a three-year celebration of my freedom. That celebration ended one night in 1993 when I fought the law and the law won. That night also marked the beginning of the end of my ability to cure everything with a drink.

What then? What do those of who have never allowed ourselves to feel a genuine emotion do when suddenly, as full-grown but under-matured adults, we are forced to “feel?” If we hope to stay sober and survive, we do exactly what we should have begun to do the day we took our very first drink: Grow up.

For me, and I’m only taking responsibility for my own experience here, “growing up” has meant much more than simply trying to behave in a mature and responsible fashion. That would never have been enough to keep me sober. For me, growing UP has quite literally meant growing upward spiritually to a genuine relationship with a higher power I choose to call God. Time alone has never healed a single emotional wound for me, but time + prayer + meditation + action on a daily basis has made it possible for me to say, in all honestly, I am current with the souls around me and quite content to die in my sleep tonight if that’s what’s in the script.

In subsequent posts, I hope to talk more specifically about how that very formula (time+prayer+meditation+action) has delivered me on more than one occasion from the often dismal shores of emotional pain to the much brighter side of personal gain. I’m hoping that some of you, especially those of you with longer periods of emotional sobriety, will share your own strategies for dealing with emotional setbacks—strategies designed to benefit the newcomer. In other words, I’m hoping we can all join in an active discussion of the solution.