Tag Archives: United States

Empathy: A Necessary Ingredient

This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

A friend recently told me that I lack empathy. She also hinted that, since I am male, the problem might be endemic, if not incurable. In the old days, and certainly during my drinking days, such a comment would have prompted me to become defensive at best, abusive at my worst.

Not so today. Today, the comment simply prompted me to take stock.

I’ve spent most of my adult life writing, editing, studying, and teaching the English language, so the word “empathy” isn’t foreign to me. At the outset, however, I struggled to understand how my actions communicated a lack of empathy. So, like any good high school student asked to understand an abstraction, I clicked over to Dictionary.com and re-read the definition of the word empathy: “The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

Concerning the matter at hand—the particulars of which really and truly are not relevant here—I was guilty as charged. As a 50-something American male born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, there was no way in hell I was going to intellectually identify with or vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of a 40-something American female. She was absolutely right; I didn’t get it. So, I promptly went to work making amends.  After numerous text messages, two hours Christmas shopping, and a promise to cook dinner on Saturday night, the air between us was—if not clear— at least less cloudy. We both agreed, in the end, it was not difficult to understand why I am twice divorced and living alone.

I can joke about the matter now, but at the time, the criticism hit particularly hard. Not because it so accurately characterizes my long-term inability to live well with others, but rather because empathy is the very word I associate with the people I admire most in sobriety: Men like my sponsor and his cronies, men who—whatever character defects they may still endure and find it necessary to work on—never, ever fail to have empathy for the still suffering alcoholic.

And by still suffering, I don’t necessarily mean those alcoholics who have not yet found a path to recovery. More often than not, I mean those alcoholics who suffer before our very eyes. In many cases, the still suffering alcoholics are those who come in and out of meetings on a consistently irregular basis and never manage to embrace the simple kit of spiritual tools laid at their feet. They are close at hand, yet very far away.

These are the people for whom I cannot fail to have empathy—as distinct from shallow pity or even sympathy. I can’t help but feel their pain because I have had their experience and know what a horrible and frustrating journey they’re on. For the first seven years that I came around the tables, I was just as likely to leave a meeting and drink as I was to go home and call my sponsor or read the Big Book. Surrender simply wasn’t in the cards, though I’d already endured a healthy dose of desperation.

Alcoholics slip away from sobriety long before they have a slip. The warning signs of an alcoholic’s imminent departure from the fellowship are all too easy to identify and equally easy to ignore or rationalize away. In my early attempts at sobriety, whenever I felt the need to change my regular meeting schedule, to ditch or upgrade my sponsor, to read anything rather than read the Big Book, or to find fault with the steps, I was clearly headed for a relapse. This pattern played itself out the same way at nearly 3 years of sobriety as it did at 3 weeks. I simply decided I could not surrender my liberty to drink no matter how good my life had become and no matter how much I loved the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In recent months, I’ve watched more than a handful of people gradually fade away from the program only to drink and then return to meetings, drink and return, drink and return, and drink and return yet again, just as I had done so many years ago. In the even sadder cases, I’ve spoken to those alcoholics who leave the program to drink and report back how wonderful their lives are despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—evidence so overwhelming they don’t even need a forest or its trees.

It troubles me most, however, when I hear those who are fortunate enough to stay sober boldly judge those who have left. “He wasn’t working a program anyway,” some say, or, “She found her new higher power—a boyfriend who tells her she isn’t alcoholic because he’s a drunk himself.” I’ve heard more; I’ve heard worse. What I don’t hear often enough is, “I pray they make it back. So many don’t.”  I know from my own experience that it was only a matter of one or two drunks before I began longing for the experience, strength, and hope of those I’d left behind in the program. I also know that it was foolish pride and fear of judgment that kept me from coming back sooner than I did. Luckily when pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization destroyed me, I was welcomed back unconditionally by those whose empathy for the still suffering alcoholic never wavers … and the naysayers wisely kept their distance.

Every year around my sobriety birthday my sponsor and I meet for dinner to assess the year gone by and to map out goals for the year to come. Almost every year, he reminds me that the longer we stay sober, the narrower the path becomes and that no matter how secure we may feel, we’re still alcoholics with alcoholic minds that are always plotting ways to escape Alcoholics Anonymous. Without a spiritual defense and a daily reprieve, I’m just as likely to leave the path and drink as I am to stay on it. Passing judgment on, or failing to have empathy for, the still suffering alcoholic isn’t likely to fortify my spiritual defense.

I’ve been around long enough to know there isn’t much I can do for an alcoholic who chooses to leave Alcoholics Anonymous and do what we do best and most naturally—which is to drink and to drink with a passion. The risk for newcomers is particularly high at this time of year when so many of us would like to believe once more that we are not mentally or physically different from our fellows, that things surely will be different this time. And for a time, probably a short time, things might be different. But if they are alcoholics of my type, they’ll quickly experience the progressive reality of our disease, and things will ultimately get much worse. I only hope that if and when they return, I can be there to greet them with empathy and neither ignore my own past nor close the door on it.


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