Monthly Archives: April 2013
As I type this, I am currently frustrated. I’m working with a guy now who is utterly, completely negative; everything that comes out of his mouth is awful. His life is awful, his past was awful, and his simple-minded calculations for what his future holds is, of course, awful. I try to give him some things to work on, and next time I see him, he has ignored them, has not done the work I recommended, and he is completely unhappy. He is helplessly resistant to trying, in part because everything he’s tried in the past failed, and he doesn’t want to fail again. For now, he’d rather be miserable. It’s frustrating for both him and me. He’s so tied up in pain, he can’t see the forest for the trees. I’m frustrated because I can’t just lay my cloak of recovery over him and make magic happen. He’s gonna have to work for it. However, I am very aware of how I felt just a couple of years ago, so I take a deep breath and feel the compassion roll through me and how that compassion motivates me to understand his plight and allows me to be helpful.
When I first came into the program, my first mentor, Roger, would often take me by the shoulders, walk me up to someone, and say, “Tom, this is Jake. Jake this is Tom. Tom, speak to Jake.” Jake, invariably, would be some understanding soul who had experience in recovery and could actually speak in complete sentences. “Hi Tom, How are you?” I, on the other hand, could barely utter words. “Hi,” I would reply, then I would attempt to mumble something without parting my lips, while staring down at my shoes. I could hardly look people in the face, much less in the eyes.
One day, after Roger had forced me to go to lunch with a “crowd” of maybe three people, we went back out and sat in his car. My emotions welled up and completely over-took me. I busted into tears. I sat leaning forward with my hands over my face. I couldn’t stand for someone else to see the strange twists my face created when I cried. “It just hurts so bad!” I began, “Being away from my girls – it’s just killing me! How could I do this?!” I cried for a long time, perhaps a very long time. I made loud noises and heaved to the point of hyperventilating. I didn’t look around to see if anyone was watching in horror – that’s how much pain I was in. Fortunately for me, Roger sat quietly and provided me the space I needed to express my pain. I am so grateful for that. I hate it when someone tries to fix me. I just wanted to cry. I can feel the water-works starting to engage even now when I think of how blessed I was to have those moments.
Early recovery was just so damned painful. Any and everything that came out of my mouth was self-damning. It was my fault. I sucked. My life sucked. I had been dealt a bad set of cards, so it was their fault too. I had failed miserably and I was an awful person. If you didn’t see that, then you simply didn’t know how bad a person I was. It was just a matter of time before you’d see that, and then you’d want to get rid of me.
It turns out Roger had seen all this before, in fact, all of the people around me had seen this before. But how could they? I was unique! I was special and my story was exclusive and private. How could other people be as “bad” as me and live to tell about it? I just wanted to die, and they seemed to understand that, and somehow, it was okay.
My thinking was so negative, and I don’t mean partially negative, I mean completely negative. I could talk myself down with the best of them. I would come to learn, much of pain came from wrong conceptions about life, which in turn was producing some crippling negative thinking.
I’ve always been a tinkerer. Even as a child, I seemed to have a remarkable ability to take my toys apart, expose their inner workings, then reassemble them back to working order. My parents were amazed. I think I was a mechanical engineer in another life. I was fascinated by how things worked, and I’m fascinated by how my brain works too, and thus, I’m fascinated by what motivates my thinking.
I’ve always been kind of a “hack” when it comes to figuring out what’s going on in the world and in my brain. My approach has been informal and undisciplined. I’d enjoy intellectualizing with folks, as long as they weren’t actually the “real thing”; someone who was accredited like a philosophy professor, or an anthropologist. I stayed away from those people because they intimidated me and might reveal me as being full of crap. When I thought of actually taking a course in studies like psychology or biology, the portion of my brain that was interested in improving my knowledge would get overruled by my fears about being discovered as someone who struggles with focus and reading, and remembering facts. I didn’t do well on tests. I’d rather just think about it than do something about it.
Nonetheless, like all of us, I’ve tended to assemble pieces and parts of things I’ve been exposed to over my lifetime; in my case, things I’ve read, words friends have spoken, and the shows I’ve watched on cable television. Here’s my stab at how I think my thinker works:
*Note: If you’re having any trouble sleeping, read this.
We are essentially animals with advanced brains – so advanced in fact, that we have self-recognition. And because we don’t have exceptionally large muscles or claws or fangs, and because we can’t run really fast or climb trees easily, my far distant cousins had to find a way to survive, so they spent ten million years or so developing adaptive behaviors which culminated into a socially designed networking structure. Those cousins found it beneficial to work together, hunt together, mate, and forage for food together. Through the magic of successful mutations over a millennia, they developed all sorts of adaptive behaviors which allowed them to communicate with each other, learn from each other, and protect one another in order to survive all the beasts and threats from the wild kingdom surrounding them. Any individuals who didn’t play along with the rules of the social structure were rejected or banned, and found themselves out of the club. Consequently, those individuals had a family tree that did not branch. Their unsuccessful social behavior brought an end to their lineage. Therefore, successful social behavior became extremely desirable, and was built in to the DNA of gene pool of those who went on to pro-create.
Across those millions of years, generations of successful mutations have ultimately provided me with a wonderfully crafted body – which includes my brain and its capacity to assimilate and reason. Without even being aware of it, I have been furnished with innate design components developed to give me the necessary intuition for success in a social network, including a high degree of sensitivity toward other creatures like myself – humans. Not just any humans, but humans that look like me and generally act like me. I have an internal monitor that dictates my behavior by constantly reviewing all interactions, and it bids me to have like-minded patterns of thoughts and actions, and a similar appearance and behaviors, that ensure I find success amidst my tribe of fellow brethren. And with my big brain, I attempt to interpret the full range of social cues that provide me with the on-going training necessary to promote my success within the clan. The process is so innate, that when I do the right things and have successful interactions, I receive goodness in the reward centers of my brain. And when I do the wrong things, I receive badness signals in my brain that apparently cue some version of pain or anxiety. My behavior is thus motived both by a longing for such goodness, and an avoidance of such badness. It is a systematic series of biological events within my brain that inspire the core of my behavior.
All this forms what I think of as my ego. My ego is my innate, social-engagment circuitry. I’d like to think of my ego as highly advanced; and that’s the way my ego would like you to think of it as well. Without my ego, I cannot have success with other human animals. My ego, as it stands, is probably only one or two steps up the evolutionary ladder from that of a baboon, or a chimpanzee. Often, it feels more like a baboon.
I started my journey to sophisticated social communication right out of the womb. When I was hungry, the millions of years of DNA development in my naked, lumpy little infant body said, “push lots of air through your tightly-squeezed vocal cords and make an abhorrent noise that draws attention.” Thus the closest human, hopefully my mom, ever conscious of successful social assimilation, quickly sought to remedy the problem, and I was fed. First lesson: Make disagreeable noises out of my mouth and I will receive a reward.
The lessons continued over my lifetime and my ego continued to develop. It did its best to guide me through the rigors of social engagement, learning more and more lessons along the way. In my particular case, some of my most valuable lessons had to do with “stuff.”
Stuff turned out to be a big deal for me. The more stuff I gathered, the more my ego said I was doing well, and my brain would send me some goodness rewards. If my stuff was nicer than other people’s stuff, then its value would make me appear more important to my clan. It gave me a feeling of security within the network. That was the path for me: stuff.
Stuff came in different forms. An attractive mate also made me compare more favorably. Personal interaction skills between my potential mate and me did not matter beyond a certain functional point, as long as my possible mate had a physically desirable appearance. I wore my attractive mates on my arm, much like a rare furry animal skin. As I walked with her, a voice would announce, “Look at me and how valuable I am. I’m going to have sex with her, and you’re not.” It stood to reason that an attractive mate obviously made me appear more valuable. It did not matter if she was whinny or even nuts – my ego was happy, and I often seemed to be willing to put up with a ton of crap to keep my ego satisfied. In one case, I signed a legally and culturally accepted document that committed my ego to be responsible for a mate for my entire lifetime. Wow. However, when I was still early in my understanding of mating rituals, I found that if a mate lost interest in me, especially if her interest became focused on another male, then the level badness signals in my brain could go berserk and “adaptive behavior” would kick in, and things could get ugly and often regrettable.
My ego comes with all sorts of preprogrammed adaptive behaviors which are often used to help me get stuff, and are also there to keep me from losing stuff, but always functioning to make me look better when compared to others. These behaviors can bring out the best of my natural talents; I can be charming, interesting, witty, sexual, intelligent, congenial, thoughtful, and manipulative. If there is a risk of losing my stuff, I can be defensive, protective, mean, resentful, even violent, and again, manipulative. Additional behaviors include the “Call for Mommy” request, which tends to sound something like, “Somebody feel sorry for me!”
During my lifetime, my ego’s adaptive behaviors continued to expand and become more refined, all the while staying loyal to the mandate of successful social engagement; a desire to improve my value within the clan. Over time, I developed a kind of contract of terms and conditions that guided my actions in order to meet with success and inclusion. Violating the terms of my contract would mean failure and ultimate doom. Much of the details of the contract were not actually written down anywhere or visible, instead they were made up of sets of emotions or feelings, and the feelings were the facts. Feelings where naturally, therefore, facts.
Given these parameters, I set about in my adult life to achieve success. More stuff meant more social security. “Relationships” with others tended to serve primarily as a means to an end; people were valuable to the extent that they helped me meet my goals.
It is almost shocking now to admit all this but yet, I believe that may be a primary motivation for my behavior. I wanted to be included socially, but I seemed to suck at “real” relationships, so I endeavored to circumvent that trouble-spot by having more and better stuff than those around me. The reasoning in my ego-centered brain said they couldn’t throw me out if I had more “value” than them, and value meant stuff. Consequently, I tended to only interact with people who I could “out perform” or at least be comparable to.
Everything it seems, was somehow centered around me – even those I “cared” for; children, wife, parents and close friends, had me at the center. My kids needed to be better than other kids. They needed to excel at sports or the arts, so I coached them in soccer and performed with them in plays. My wife, who didn’t seem to be caught up in my particular paradigm, didn’t really need to be. She had the gift of being valuable and interesting to others just based on her ability to “connect” with people. I didn’t have that. I needed stuff, and she was part of my stuff. Very often, I “rode in on her coattails” during social events. She could disarm and make friends with anyone, and since I was with her, I was immediately accepted. I, on the other hand, was silently monitoring, judging, and calculating my responses to best suite my ego-centric desires. My wife had a great mom, an almost saint-like woman who was loved by all and devoted to the church in a charitable and loving way. Her father had charisma and friends, and played poker every week and golfed at a country club for most of his life. With her wonderful, loving parents and close extended family, she was exposed to nurturing and training, and she developed social acumen. She had that advantage. I did not. I had to make up for it.
There has been throughout my life, a sense of pain I’ve often experienced when I’m around people, whether with individuals or in groups. I’m not sure I can adequately describe it to you. It comes, I believe, from an innate desire to be accepted by others; to be a valuable a part of my clan. When I say “innate,” I mean that it is like breath to me; biologically, my body can’t actually function absent of it, and my existence will terminate and I will cease to exist without it – or at least be deeply depressed. Acceptance of others is that important to me, and when I feel it waning, I actually feel the pain of death. I have for most of my life, without necessarily having the words to describe it, felt the basis of my language, and the source of my desire to communicate, are built upon this core desire for social value and inclusion, and the fear of social rejection. This type of pain can be highly motivational, of course, and the regular fear of that pain caused stress, and the basis of my depression. The thought that I would never be relieved of this pain caused a certain lack of hope which I found depressing.
The reason I choose to frame the acceptance issue as “pain” is curious. Why not frame it from the perspective of the joy I feel when I attain acceptance? I think it’s because the pain is more common, and it seems ever-present or vigilant. The joy, on the other hand, has always been fleeting and short-lived, whereas pain is something I have to constantly attend to in order to keep it at bay. It’s right around the corner, and likely to show its face at any moment. I must be constantly on guard and prepared for its appearance. It is apparently, what has motivated my behavior since I can remember. And maybe “joy” as I describe it, is not actually joy but absence of the pain, or success at improving my security. Maybe true joy is something I’ve yet to experience – especially since I’ve never possessed the skill set to develop “real” relationships. Perhaps, for me, there is a strong correlation between joy and learning how to form “real” relationships.
I know that I found relief from this quagmire through the altering of my mood – which I experienced from the affects of drinking alcohol. It “successfully” relieved the tension and anxiety brought about by the vigilance of the pain and the memory of painful past failures. At first, I found alcohol enabled me to be more comfortable in social situations. This effect was, of course, very attractive to me. However, as my shame grew, due to my failures in maintaining the responsibilities of my life and my supposed inadequacy, I became increasingly isolated. This is the progressive nature of alcoholism.
By the time I entered recovery, my reasoning, as it was then, told me I was a failure and that naturally it was my fault. This makes perfect sense. The shame I felt came from the “proof” that I was indeed invalid and deserving of exclusion – in essence, of death. I was supposed to feel that way because my innate system of social monitoring told me so, and I was now feeling the badness signals in my brain that I had worked so hard to avoid. My ego had tried to direct me in life but failed – people tended to get hurt or bored. Alcohol sustained me for a while but its acute side effects had now contributed to ruining my life. I was in deep desperation and profound pain.
My thoughts and words were extremely negative. I was in two places at once: I was still dependent on my lifelong thinking, which proved beyond a shadow of doubt that I was a failure, yet I was also realizing that my reasoning was possibly wrong, and if it was wrong, what the hell was I supposed to do? As I thought about that, the feelings would be so unsettling, I’d start to sense an approaching panic attack. I’d reach down in my pocket and make sure the klonopin was still there.
If you would have told me I’d come to be okay without klonopin in my pocket, I would have said you were wrong. In the fog of my frustration and confusion, I interpreted most of the things people told tell me as wrong. It turns out that this was the nature of my dis-ease. Yet somehow, those same people seemed reasonably at ease. They laughed and spoke of their struggles openly while I sat back quietly and judged them for their short-comings. Sometimes, when I couldn’t stand to sit there quietly anymore, I’d attempt to speak. Most of what came out of my mouth was broken; broken sentences, broken trains of thought, some gibberish, and often tears.
Finally, after a while, I began want what they had, and I began to slowly open up to the idea of trying the path they recommended. But it wasn’t easy. I wanted instant results. I wanted dramatic results today in exchange for dramatic work I’d do tomorrow.
The “facts” my ego had been telling me about how to live were significantly challenged one day. I guess I had said something out loud regarding what I was struggling with. Afterward, an older man with a gruff voice walked right up to me and spoke in a somewhat irritated but loving way. He said simply, “Son, what other people think of you is none of your business.” I remember staring back at him, completely dumb-founded. I was confused but somehow able to realize he was absolutely right, even though I couldn’t conceive of how it could be true. I had never, in my entire life, heard anything like that. My ego quickly spoke up and said, “Don’t listen to him. He’s just an old fart.”
My ego speaks loudly in my head. It often says things which seem a little confusing, “We’ve got this. Don’t worry. You’re a piece of shit so you need to go get some more stuff or convince someone to like you.” Looking at it now, the voice seems simple-minded, and superficial. It is, however, deeply ingrained and not interested in giving up its position in Command Central.
But there was another voice speaking now. I couldn’t hear it very well, but it was there. It tended to say, “Listen to these people and watch what happens.” Thus, I began to get a peek at a different path. This path would lead to a show-down with my ego. I laugh now because I want to say, “It’s a challenge to the death!” I still tend to be dramatic.
Recovery has taught me to go easy on myself. Early on, a friend said, “You’re a sick puppy Tom. Don’t hit the puppy.”
I occurs to me as I write this, I don’t know that I am or I am not presenting these subjects in the correct order. However, this “blogging” concept is new to me so I want to stop a moment and mention a few items: This is the first time I’ve attempted to write at this level. I’m writing about topics and concepts as they occur to me or as I’m inspired. I haven’t done any planning for this blog. I’m simply learning to write, and it’s a new process. However, I again feel it’s important to say it feels like it may be best if you read the topics in the sequence I’ve presented them; in numerical order.
It also occurs to me (again) that you are witnessing the writings of someone who was very sick, and it might be easy to “identify out” along the way, that is, say to yourself, “You know, this dude is writing about some stuff that is beyond where I’ve been. I’m not that sick. Sorry, but I don’t think I can get anything from this.” And you may be perfectly correct in assuming that. However, you may also be not correct. I was not correct a lot when I first started recovery. For me, it was the pure gift of grace that I was able to come to grips with the possibility that I was wrong; it was the crack in the wall that gave me a peek to other places I might want to visit. As it turns out, visiting those other places was where I found healing and true recovery.
As I mentioned previously, my early experiences in life taught me to be dependent on my thinking and to be dependent on being right. Some of my early conditioning taught me to be a survivor, and as a survivor, it was critically important to be right because I was the only person I could really count on; everyone else had conditions. I had to be right, perhaps in order to stay alive.
Recovery exposed me to different ways of thinking and to the process of conducting myself with a different mindset, and ultimately to a different purpose. I entered a program (which I will introduce shortly in a future blog) that would completely challenge my concepts of what was “right” and give me first-time exposure to a new set of principles on which I could live my life going forward. However, I found the program so disagreeable, I wanted to leave – more than once. I hated it. I could never do what they were asking, never. Perhaps as a gift though, I was so deeply desperate, I somehow found the strength to stay and listen. For the first time, I flirted with the idea of putting down my guard, and I began to try something new.
“No way! Forget it. I am absolutely not going there – period. You have no idea what it’s like to be me. You can’t expect me to do that.” I protested much like a nine-year old in the middle of a tantrum. I could be dramatic; it seemed to be second-nature for me.
I had come to this point where, amongst other things, I was supposed to make a list of my fears – a complete list. I couldn’t and I wouldn’t. Sure, I’d write down the easy stuff, and even make it sound so dramatic as to give the impression that it was tough to do. But that secret stuff – no, sorry, ain’t gonna happen.
I knew, at least intellectually, the importance of this challenge; of making a “complete” list. I knew the exercise wouldn’t be effective unless I had the ability to bring it all forward – including all the “bad” stuff. I hated it and I balked – for months. And, as it turns out, I tended to not be able to stop drinking during that time and I remained an emotional train wreck. Finally, through no power of my own, an angel walked into my life and asked if I needed help getting through the list. She offered to help. This was a moment that, upon reflection, probably changed my life. It was a moment of grace.
I’m reluctant to say how important it has been for me to find someone I could trust. I’m reluctant to say because it was so strikingly critical for my recovery. And I’m reluctant because I’m not sure how many angels exist and if you are like me, you may struggle to find one. I’m not sure what would have happened to me if I hadn’t found her. But I did, and now I’m here. And now I provide the same opening to others. I’m paying it forward.
I have to pause now. Writing this is such a challenge. There are so many thoughts running through my mind. I’m at once on the “recovery side” of the issue, yet thinking back to the space I was in before. It’s almost impossible for me to express in words just how fucked-up and tormented I was. Just a few months previously, I had experienced a full month of twenty-four-hour-a-day panic attacks. I’d wake up several times every night and within 60 seconds, I’d go into a panic. It was excruciating. And now, a few months later, all a needed was a whiff of uncertainty, and I could go off. I carried around tablets of klonopin in my pocket as a safety net. I was jittery and highly anxious. Often, I just stared at my shoes.
I thought of Roy and his mom, and of my dad. They never had to go through this crap. They were stable and successful. Why in God’s name was I having to go through this? Why did I have to experience this humiliation? Why couldn’t I just be like them? I go to that place now and I can feel the bristling resentment welling up inside of me. Why was I a victim?
I remember vividly the room of my therapist several years ago. I remember the lighting, his quiet face, and the couch that I was sprawled across. I remember looking up at the walls and wondering just how sturdy they might be. I was about to tell him a secret, and I was sure it would be followed by a shaking of the earth and the emanate collapse of the ceiling. I hesitated for several minutes while he sat quietly and waited for it to come.
“Okay, look. There was some stuff, okay!? My mom, you know… she uhm… she did some stuff, you know? She did some things, some things that weren’t right maybe. I don’t know… she uhm, she did some sexual stuff that was just weird, you know? She exposed herself, and uhm, showed me fucked-up magazines and stuff, you know? I mean, she said some things and kind of, sort of encouraged some pretty fucked-up behavior.” As I spoke, the 11-year old boy inside of me was saying the words.
I went on to describe the details. I cried and I hurt. It hurt that I was having to re-live and admit for the first time that I was a person who had a mother who would do that shit to a child. It hurt that I felt so ashamed of myself and my mom. It hurt that I was somehow defective because my mother was such a sick person. And it hurt that I wasn’t gifted enough to have a mom like Roy.
I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be after telling him about this. Surprisingly however, in the moments that followed, the earth did not crack open and I was not sucked into the depths of hell. As far as I know, the walls of the room are still intact. The light in the room still shines on those walls, and there, inside that safe place, are probably other people who are working through the difficult issue of exposing their fears, and discovering it’s okay.
Even though I had managed to survive that exposure, and even though I had experienced the degree of healing that followed, I was still reluctant now to expose my other secret on the task at hand: my complete list.
I still like Superman. I like the Christopher Reeve version of Superman. The dude was good looking and he could pick up his favorite woman and fly her around the planet. Pretty fucking cool. And he had just the right combination of being a bad-ass when necessary, yet being a sensitive, romantic, woman’s man when he had to. I still wanna be like fucking Superman; immune to panic attacks, never having to spend time in a psych ward, and able to leap a tall bottle of alcohol in a single bound. Yeah, that’s me.
I’m not a particularly scientific-type guy, but I think there are two things necessary for life to exist on this planet; the ability to find sustenance before getting eaten or irreparably damaged, and the successful passing-on of DNA. That means, as it turns out, that sexuality is a core component of my being. I’m good with that. I think about sex a lot. I see a woman I’m attracted to, and before I even realize it, I’ve spent at least a few moments thinking about having sex with her, even if we are talking about why Christ died for my sins. That’s who I am and I don’t think I’m especially bothered by that. If it gets out of hand, that’s a different issue. It’s never gotten out of hand with me, either because I’m shy, or because I’ve always had some sense of honor about the whole deal – I’ve yet to decide which.
You would think if you were visiting this planet for the first time, humans would spend a whole lot of time discussing sexuality, especially since it’s such a core component of who we are. However, as it turns out with my family, we not only don’t talk about sexuality, we don’t talk about emotions at all. It’s like an alien language, and thus if you talk about emotions, you might be an alien. Additionally, as you might imagine, there’s a fairly narrow conception of what sexuality is and of course, what’s acceptable. But I don’t really know – because we don’t talk about it. Somehow, through osmosis perhaps, you’re supposed to grow into adulthood with a complete understanding of how to behave sexually (but please don’t use that word), and if you don’t pick up on all the cues from the modeled behavior going on around you, then you are subject to rejection – kind of like not holding your chest up properly. Some of the cues come from the content of jokes, like those poking fun of “queers”, “faggots”, or “niggers.” Obviously, if they are the brunt of jokes, then you don’t want to behave like them. Heaven is the home of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Lord God Almighty, and Heaven forbid you behave in any way not deemed severely heterosexual because then you might be an embarrassment to the family, or in my dad’s day, you might have to be institutionalized, which would be an even greater embarrassment to the family. You might as well be “afflicted.”
In my time in recovery, I have noticed a phenomenon which continues to surprise hell out of me: the vanquishing of fear. It’s what I might describe as what happens to an issue when I work through it or get on the other side of it. Quite often, when I get through it, I look back and say, “Damn. It’s almost like it wasn’t even there.” However, when I first start thinking about facing the fear, forgettaboughtit. I can make it into one big-ass sum’bitch.
Someone I trust, most often someone I trust deeply, has to help me get through it. I need that, and I’ve started to be okay with needing that, in part because it is how I’ve made great strides in recovery.
So, back to the list. After I found that person I could trust and she offered me a space where I could feel safe and without fear of rejection, I sat one day on the back deck of my house and went through the complete list. It included my thoughts about sexuality. And it included thoughts and actions I had taken that weren’t severely heterosexual. As I worked through those enormously difficult admissions, as I made that admission which I would never do in a hundred lifetimes, I watched and waited for her to get up and run from the table. She did not run, she did not budge. Instead, she looked at me and said, “Is that it?” It was almost like she was saying, “I thought you were going to tell me you murdered somebody, or you burnt down a church, or you had thoughts of shooting the pope, or something.” Instead, she just looked at me, politely smiled, and said, “Is that it?” Is was like she had heard all this before, like she almost expected it, and now, we could bask in a moment of healing. I had admitted something profoundly risky to another human being, and that human being let me know it was okay. I could now move on, discover what was there, and experience what it was like to let another human know my deepest secrets.
Obviously, it was a huge challenge for me tell another person I was sexually abused, and it was an even bigger challenge to tell someone my sexuality spanned beyond women. Even as I write this, I feel a sense of fear of rejection. I’m okay with that now, in part because it allows me to better understand how others might feel, and how others might be experiencing the same pain. It also has allowed me to reach a place honor with others who have sat and opened up about their fears. It is a true blessing. It is healing.
Additionally, once I admitted this private thought, I could begin to work on what it meant. Was it okay? Was it a result of my mom’s weird-ass sexual-dysfunction parade? Is it who I am? Is it okay to have feelings for women and men? Is that possible? How the hell would I ever know the answers to these questions if I wasn’t able to ask the questions? In my experience, the input from others, real-time, who are not emotionally attached to the issue, is extremely productive and remarkably healing.
As I said before, this phenomena of recovery – the “vanquishing” of fear – surprises the hell out of me. Maybe because I’ve never experienced what it’s like to stand on the other side of such huge fears. Or maybe because I had never experienced the freedom and healing power of breaking through them. And maybe because when I break through a fear, it starts to lose its hold over me, and each time, I look back and ask myself, “How could I let that hold me back for so long?” As far as my sexuality, I don’t think I’ve really noticed any difference in terms of my normal mode of operation; I’m still attracted to women and I’m good with that. I think as much as anything else, I just wanted to be okay with having whatever feelings I have, and knowing that it’s perfectly fine, as long as I am taking care to approach them in a thoughtful and perhaps spiritual way.
I should stop here and mention something incredibly important. This was an extremely private matter for me. It was done with a person with whom I had very high trust and utter, complete confidence. I’d like to take great pains to assure you that it is indeed possible, and absolutely okay to take the time needed to find the right person for you. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
It is also important to have a plan. In the days following my admissions, I experienced a wide range of emotions, both ups and downs. It was new ground and it was unfamiliar. That can be a little disorienting. Having someone close by to speak with about it made a real difference for me. Gradually, a clear sense of healing came through. But it took some time.
The “program” I mentioned has the plan. It also challenged me to work through other fears and resentments, and a whole host of difficulties, all of which have proved to be healing and life-changing. At some point soon, I want to talk about the program.
All for now.
My friend refers back to a favorite t-shirt of his which read, “Outwardly Calm.” That describes, rather accurately, the preferred image I’d like to portray to others. Anything short of that can mean I’m vulnerable or defective, and in need of help. If my ego had its way, I’d be completely invulnerable, never needy or weak, or any of that silly stuff that’s for kids. Even when I was a youngster, I wanted to be Superman, or at least able to fly.
I still have flying dreams. My friends or people I know are always close by in the dreams. I impress them by floating above their heads and zooming around like a fighter jet. They always look at me and wonder how I do it. Interestingly, I can never seem to fly above power lines.
Ever since I can remember, my dad tried to teach me how to be a man. Often he would compare me against Roy, my cousin. Roy had all the right and important stuff. He was eight weeks older than me, slightly taller, could run slightly faster, could throw a football farther, had bigger muscles, and could get a deeper tan than me. He also had a wonderful and beautiful mom who was brought down from heaven just to be there for Roy. She was the walking embodiment of grace; always had the right thing to say, always carried herself with majesty, had a great sense of humor, and was loved by all. She even directed her local church choir. Dad would often motivate me by saying, “Don’t you want to be like Roy?” Whenever I was shy or uncomfortable in a crowd, he’d say, “Hold your chest up! Get up there to the front of the line! Stand up for yourself!”
I was never gonna be like Roy. I seemed to have a knack for constantly proving this to my dad. It was often painful and I ended up spending the better part of my life being really pissed off at my dad for being such a douche bag.
Dad was a hard worker. He was a blue-collar man who worked his way up through the company, starting out by running a giant printing machine, then moving up to Quality Control, with an office of his own. He worked for the company for 35 years. He never got fired. He provided everything we needed monetarily and we never spent a day going hungry. He saved his money with discipline and is now retired comfortably. Dad never had a problem with alcohol. He never talked about his problems. He never visited a psych ward. If he ever did need help, I don’t think he asked for it. He got through any difficulty on his own. That’s the way I saw it. That, in fact, was wrong.
As an alcoholic, I am particularly skilled at comparing my insides against other peoples outsides. I would often try to model my insides against the outsides of those I admired. The fact is, however, I had no earthly idea how much they might be struggling, or whether they had issues with substance abuse, or even whether they had secret fears they would suffer with for the majority of their lives. I only saw what I wanted to see. Anyone who did show signs of difficulty might end up the subject of my discreet cruelty or the brunt of private mimicking. I would never want people to poke fun at me. That would be unbearable and unfair. I had lived my life trained to never be overcome by failure; to remain stable and unaffected by the common woes of life. This would keep me insulated from embarrassment and potential isolation. As much as I may not have liked my father, I did want him to love me, and I did want to be a success in his eyes. Somewhat unconsciously, I wanted to live up to the standard of achievement he had set for me. If he could do it, with all his ignorance and limited insight, I could do it better.
At some point, depression started getting the best of me. I blamed my mom for it. Her mental illness, suicide attempts, and terrible attitude were at the core of my problems. I clung to my thinking, much of which had been formulated in my childhood. It’s interesting how the simple constructs of childhood reasoning can be carried into adulthood; never grown out of, just enhanced with the sophistication of intelligence and experience.
Some of my core thinking had survival as its inspiration. When I was nine years old, my mom’s second husband used to beat her regularly and would come after me on occasion and leave the welt marks of a whipping with a belt. It was violent and not the kind of thing a child should be exposed to; lots of screaming and trepidation when evening rolled around. I guess that lasted for a year or so. Later, when I moved back in with my dad, he seemed to spend a lot of time being angry with me. He had very little patience for my acting-out and his inability to control me and my “smart mouth.” There was not a lot of “warm and fuzzy” time around the homestead.
When you’ve survived that form of torture, and not found proper refuge or nurturing from a parent, showing any signs of weakness is not part of the plan for the future. I wanted to be tough, even though I was helplessly sensitive to seemingly everything. It would not be easy to ask for help, or to listen to advice that challenged me in any way. I was easily offended, lusted after control, and seemed to have an embarrassingly short temper. There was plenty of shame to accompany my sporadic outbursts, and lots of promises to never let it happen again.
Drinking alcohol offered relief because it made me feel better, but the deeper issues remained and I found myself dependent on its affect. Alcoholism is a progressive disease and the history of my drinking is proof of how it can ruin those of us with best of intentions. I finally found my bottom after great loss, and for me, it was only at this point of desperation that I could began to ask for help, admit my powerlessness, and really begin the hard work of recovery.
Admitting defeat. That’s about as tough as it gets. I’d rather eat a briar sandwich – or maybe six briar sandwiches. At first thought, admitting defeat meant I was weak and vulnerable. It meant people would know I had failed and they’ll all poke fun at me and certainly have no respect for me. I’ll be a weakling. My life will have been a failure. No one will love me. My dad will have no respect for me and my family and Roy and his mom will all think I’m stupid and worthless.
If that sounds a little childish, perhaps it is. As I mentioned before, most of this thinking originated from the powerlessness I felt as a child. I can even see Roy and his mom looking at me weird and disappointed. I can see that idiot beating up my mom and I can still feel that pain even as I write this. It sucks and it still hurts. And, apparently, it was still inspiring me, even into adulthood.
I depended on my thinking, which meant I had to be right. Being wrong meant failure. Being right meant safety and exclusion from pain. I was an expert at being right, and when I wasn’t right, I was an expert at wiggling out of the truth. I was never actually wrong, just misinformed. Whatever the case, it was never my fault. Surely I could find someone to blame.
Finally, someone said, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” Wow! That hit me between the eyes.
The psych ward probably brought me to my knees. The center where I stayed afterward, introduced me to recovery. I asked, “What if maybe I need to have a look at this? What if I’m possibly not right? What if I wanna just sort of stick my toe in the water and see what you’ve got to say? What then?”
Their answers didn’t work. Unbelievably, there was still another 10 months of drinking and medicating left in me. Finding my way to recovery was yet to come. I’d lost my job of 18 years, lost my marriage, and began alienation from my two girls. I didn’t show up for Christmas, missed both their birthdays, ran out of money, and would have been homeless had not my parents funded my apartment. I spent my time alone and struggling for the strength to kill myself. I could not muster that which I needed but could not fathom: trust.