For, what seemed like the five-billionth time in my life, I was on the phone with my father, the successful businessman, asking him to help me out of a jam of my own making. I was in my 324-square-foot studio in St. Louis’s Midtown, while he was on his 50′ yacht, with my stepmom, in Key West.
“I don’t even know what to ask you, anymore, because you’re very selective with what information you give me,” he said, the tone of his voice going from pleasant to exasperated in about the time it takes a speeding driver to go from 80 to 55, upon seeing a traffic officer.
I won’t get into all of it, because it’s standard stuff – frustrated father lecturing his kid. I’ll only say that I got what I needed, financially from him – as seems to always happen. But, at what cost?
They say that both failure and rejection are a part of life…whoever the heck “they” might happen to be. “They” haven’t lived MY life, wherein such events happen on the regular. Failure and rejection have, in fact, defined my life – and, continue to do so, despite my best efforts to rewrite the story.
And, with every closed door, every “no,” and every avoidance by others (I believe the kids call it “ghosting“) – with every conversation that starts off with “you’re so good at this, but…”
Every time I’m faced with acknowledging how much I fail at life, the feelings of unworthiness only grow. And, that’s where a drink seems like a good idea – only because I haven’t found a foolproof way to painlessly and successfully end it all.
Sometimes, I feel like I would be relieving those close to me of a heartbreaking burden. No more would my failures exasperate them, no more would anyone question what could have been done differently. No more would anyone wonder how it is that I could be destined to a life of futility.
Even then, the chances of acting on any thoughts are slim, if for no other reason than this: given my track record, the thought that I would end it all properly is wishful thinking. I’d probably fail at that, too, and do so in such a way that the consequence would make my pathetic life even worse.
And, that’s why escape through substances always seemed like the best way forward. Depending on one’s perspective, it’s either a good or bad thing that I am so broke, I have no money, with which, I could purchase alcohol. This, more than anything, has saved me, over the last six months, as I’ve struggled to pay for a 324-square-foot studio with the well-below-livable wage that I’m paid, at a menial job.
I am unemployable, anywhere else.
The Christian faith teaches that those who don’t believe Jesus is God – and/or those who do, but who don’t submit their wills and lives to Him – are destined to be separated from God, forever . In eschatology, this eternal separation is referred to as The Doctrine of Hell. In Evangelical circles, this has become the primary sales pitch for becoming a Christian. All over America, there are thousands of awkward conversations going on, right now, wherein some well-meaning believer, is trying to sell some well-meaning non-believer, that they’re gonna go to Hell. And, that’s why they need Jesus.
I’m living out mine, right now – the unholy culmination of bad decisions, traumatic experiences, and dysfunctional support networks. I don’t disagree with the concept of eternal separation, or in the twin doctrines of grace and mercy. I just don’t think “fire insurance” is the most important reason for me to believe in Christ, and submit to the will of God.
What I would argue, is that the most important thing a broken human can hear is that God loves them. No matter what.
No matter how many times one gets into financial trouble, or falls into addictive behaviors, or gets rejected by another broken human being – or no matter how many times we allow our hurt and pain to negatively impact the lives of others, through our own hurtful actions.
This is a love beyond anything we can imagine as humans. Those closest to my situation, who have witnessed my decades of travails, have shown an incredible level of grace and mercy – along with the very human emotions of anger and frustration. I would imagine that most people see me as someone to pity, rather than admire or respect. Or love.
Which, ultimately, is why I would rather not be here. In the end, I stay because it’s not my place to check out. That, I guess, is me – quite literally – submitting my will and life to God.
And, that must seem insane to anyone reading this, who has read how I feel. I wouldn’t disagree totally. I would only say that such a submission has produced some good things, too: more authentic relationships with friends and family, a continued friendship with my ex-wife – a woman I hurt deeply over an 11-year period, and who deserved much better in a husband. I have a boss who believes in my ability to change attitude, outlook and behavior, such that I can become a better person, and a better leader. He’s seen me remain teachable, and that I attribute to submitting one’s will.
I get to serve with a group of creative and technically-minded folks at my church. I’ve never had so much fun doing something I love, while pushing – each time in the booth – to learn one more new thing, get better at one more element, to give my very best.
And, I have a handful of friends – people, with whom, I can be honest, who love me for my imperfections and hold me accountable for changing my behavior.
“I would miss you,” one of them said to me, recently, “you’re one of the most intelligent people I know. We’re able to have discussions about anything. And, you can write. I can tell that you’re focused on using the exact word.”
If I were putting the good and the bad down on a list, I’m not certain the good would outweigh the bad, right now. And, I don’t have a ton of hope that things will change. This morning, I’ll clock in at my low-paying job, and deal with some of the most high-maintenance customers I have ever encountered in my life. I’ll do my best to lead and coach a group of coworkers, and serve our guests in a way that’s memorably good. Tonight, I’ll go to a meeting, to which, I’m committed, and find someone who can cover my weekend commitment, related to tonight’s group meeting. Because work.
Today, I’ll block out some hours in several days, over a week in November, so I can pick up several hundred dollars worth of work in what’s becoming a second job. Today, I’ll have to deal with more BS, related to my poor financial situations. And, I will go to bed alone, tonight; the dog will eventually make her way to her own bed.
And, today, I just might pray that something changes drastically. Because, if this is as good as it gets, I can’t accept it. I simply won’t.
“Finding a Power greater than me, and working to submit myself to that Power are the most important priorities in my life – without which I’ll gain little, lose much, and hurt a lot more people along the way.”
A week ago, a good friend of mine left me with a question, on which, I’m still chewing: “Do you still think that if you took care of the mental and emotional issues in your life, and got on the right med, that you could, then, drink normally?”
The question stopped me dead in my tracks for all the right reasons, and I’ve spent the last two weeks reconciling – with all the self honesty I can muster – where I’m really at with it. It was asked in the context of finding a spiritual solution to a problem that science has determined as both physiological and psychological. Furthermore, addiction science has shown multiple paths toward addressing the twin problems of substance abuse and addiction. For many, a spiritual solution has proven effective, though it is hardly the only pathway to addressing the problem.
It is the spiritual solution that seems to work best for me. So, his question made me ask myself: “Have I conceded that neither my own willpower, nor the power of someone else, is strong enough for me to recover from my addictive behaviors? Have I surrendered the long-held idea that I could drink without consequence if only I could get my mental and emotional mess in order?”
As of this writing, I can’t say with certainty that I’ve completely jettisoned that falsehood. I only know that this particular lie is where my diseased brain will take me, when the thought of a drink crosses my mind. So, at the very least, I better be prepared to shut that crap down. And, for that alone, I’m going to need Divine Intervention. Left to my own devices, and without an effective mental defense, that tempting thought will take me toward the next relapse – from which, I’m not so sure I’ll recover. Decades of on-and-off drinking, poor decisions, and not dealing with the mental-health issues – both related to my addiction and apart from it – have put me in a seriously vulnerable spot, which truly means that going back to a life of substance abuse is the worst possible option I can exercise.
A couple of nights ago, this same friend and I had coffee at a favorite spot near his house. Our work at hand involved learning how to believe in a spiritual solution, and addressing the many roadblocks that keep such a thing possible.
Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that both finding a Power greater than me, and working to submit myself to that Power are the most important priorities in my life – without which I’ll gain little, lose much, and hurt a lot more people along the way. Getting here has taken decades – a few good years, and many bad ones, whole periods of my life colored by depression, some instances of spiritual abuse by past mentors, and years of reticence to get close to anyone in that position, ever again – lest that individual place themselves in an authoritative position in my life. This, unfortunately, is part of the cult-like behavior that can happen within a group of people, when truly sick people attempt to guide other truly sick people through the process of recovery. Or, as an old friend used to put it, “we’re all here, because we’re not all there.”
My last mentor, a man I continue to love and deeply respect, hammered two things into my consciousness: 1) I alone am ultimately responsible for my recovery; 2) The whole point of the spiritual path to recovery is to find a Power greater than oneself, which can solve the problem of addictive enslavement. By existential definition, that power cannot be another human being. Yet, so many of us give other people that kind of power all the time. Otherwise known as codependency, it is, too often, the residual characteristic of family members impacted by alcoholism.
Such was the case for me, as I was incapable of any real partnership with another human being. Simply put, it was a part of my baggage that I had yet to fully face, much less address. Sadly, there’s still truth to that; hence the rigorous spiritual housecleaning that my friend and I are undertaking.
My experience has shown that I can stay sober for long periods of time, but being happy during those periods has – until recently – proven elusive. During one of those early stints of long-term sobriety, I got hung up on finding the right Higher Power – the one conception of God that would work for me. How I landed where I did is pretty typical of how God works in my life – using my weakest points to draw me into taking the actions that work best.
It always starts with a woman.
I became really interested in a female coworker, while at a radio station in West Texas. She was going to a non-denominational church – one that I, later, discovered to have Charismatic roots (Texas is, after all, a very Southern state). Aside from some of the doctrinal weirdness – of which, I would become fully aware later – I heard a pastor who was able to communicate The Bible and Christianity in plain English, and it was there that I began to see the relevancy of Christ in my life.
To this day, I consider myself a professed Christian, having committed to the continual process of submitting both will and life to Christ. I wouldn’t have it any other way, though the process of getting there warrants its own separate post.
The thing with the woman didn’t work out the way I wanted it to (It never does, though she and I are friendly toward one another, today). The slow march toward surrender, however, is what stuck with me. That was in late 2000, and there would be five different relapses into active addiction, over the next 18 years – taking with them a marriage, a job, my financial future, the trust of family and friends, my overall integrity, my mental health, and my hope for a meaningful, rewarding life.
During that period of time, I became increasingly, gradually, more honest with myself, regarding my part in my life’s troubles, the impact that alcoholism has on the family – and how my growing up with a lot of drinking around me affected me – the mental health issues that have always worked in concert with my addictive behavior, and the childhood traumas that drove my need to escape reality, from an early age.
That last part – that particular set of demons – is the one holding me back. And, I’m tired of it. While I know better than to believe such things can be healed in one fell swoop, my experience shows that facing the crap head on – with the help of professionals, a spiritual pathway…and, frankly, Divine Providence – will allow the greatest progress in this last dark corner of my life.
How In the World?
So, how, exactly, does one surrender, in order to win? That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? The very concept brings about existential conflict not unlike an internal, civil war. Winners don’t surrender, don’t shrink, don’t give up – or so we’re told. Ask a veteran what he or she thinks of surrendering, and you’re likely to be told off. The idea that we surrender anything – much less, doing so in order to win in the long run – is counter-cultural.
Once, I heard somebody frame it this way, and it’s stuck with me, ever since:
In the throes of my addictive behavior, or during periods of sobriety when I was still hellbent on running the show, I surrendered a lot: my academic goals, a good GPA, my financial health, genuine relationships with friends and loved ones, and a clearer-headed path toward growing into the kind of person God wants me to be. Those were the things I gave up, when I insisted on doing things my way – drunk or sober.
While actively drinking, I surrendered my credit rating, a house, my marriage, a job that – while increasingly stressful within a changing political environment – remained rewarding and provided a career pathway to really making a difference in the realm of local government policy. I surrendered the trust of my family and friends, and for several months I surrendered my dog, because I was incapable of caring for her. I surrendered my integrity, and along with that, what little bit of love I had for myself.
I had become someone that I totally despised, completing the subconscious, self-fulfilling prophecy of self hatred. This alone – for the amount of turmoil this attitude toward myself has created, both within and around me – deserves its own post, as well.
So, what would it hurt to surrender to a God concept that loves me? Since the evidence of my life’s experiences proves I do a horrible job of running the show, what would it hurt to give that job to Someone Else?
And, what, exactly, would that mean? Another astronomically expensive question, I suppose, and one, for which, I don’t have a pat answer. There is none. Different spiritual pathways teach different things on the concept of prayer, Divine Guidance and working out one’s “stuff,” (known in Christianity as Sanctification).
As a practical matter, and because my personal demons involve various addictions, I follow a 12-step pathway in this process of working out one’s issues. This is totally compatible with professing the Christian faith, as all I’ve done is define the Power greater than myself, in a way that works for me.
Regarding my recovery process, I’ve kept everything vague, intentionally, since all 12-step-based recovery fellowships are anonymous. By its intended nature, this blog is a public forum, and that means I have a responsibility to treat it as such. The steps themselves have been featured prominently in all forms of media, and you can find them online. I would encourage you to do so. My linking them would give the appearance of breaking anonymity. And, that I simply will not do.
Suffice it to say, the decision to surrender to a Power greater than one’s self is the crux of Step Three. The action implicit in that decision is to work the rest of the steps – which involve serious personal housecleaning, paired with an even greater dependence on The Divine, in a way that makes more and more sense, as we reach Step Twelve. This isn’t a one-and-done deal, either, but rather, a process – one that will take a lifetime to finish, while in the meantime, providing a clear pathway toward a rich and meaningful life – the details of which are as unique as the people who trudge this particular pathway.
Doing so has made me a better son, friend, co-worker, leader, volunteer, congregant, Christian, human being. I’m only beginning, and have much more work ahead of me. But, I am ready. Finally.
Steady repetition is a compulsion mutually reinforced Now what does that mean? Is there a just contradiction? Nothing much Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord, hesitate
J. Michael Stipe, 1983
Two years ago, yesterday, my then wife and I struggled to find a parking spot, during a rainy September Friday night downtown, our voices ever raising in frustration. We were going to meet up with my friend, former co-worker and drinking buddy at Kilroy’s bar, after the Cardinals game. He ran an expanding side business shuttling people back and forth to the game. Home base for his service was the garage behind the bar. She was irritated that I kept passing up the bar, while trying to find a parking spot, and I was irritated – plainly and simply – with her.
“Don’t you know where this is?” She snapped.
“Of course I do,” I growled, “I just can’t get to it.”
The parking lot is at 7th and Cerre, but getting to it involves traveling south on 8th, turning left on Gratiot, and keeping an eye out for the entrance, before hitting Broadway, which is one-way south. I’d had a couple of large beers to drink, over the evening, but don’t particularly remember being drunk. Also, I was high on pot, all day – much to my then wife’s dismay.
“I asked you not to have any, today, and you couldn’t even do that!,” she screamed, while I was trying to find the damned parking lot entrance in the damned rain, with all the damned parking lot traffic. Damned wife…
The truth is, I couldn’t imagine very many waking hours without it. Cannabis was my anti-anxiety drug, at the time, and it really sucked that weed became a $400/month habit. We had dodged foreclosure, thanks to my dad and stepmom bailing me out one. More. Time. The Wife hated how much I smoked; technically, I was vaping it, thanks to this nifty device. She hated how much time I spent doing it, how much it cost, and how using it opened the door to smoking cigarettes, again. I’d quit those, the day we got married. Which was ten years ago, this evening.
When we set our sights on spending the rest of our lives together, we intended on having a long engagement – ten months, to be exact. Given the fact that we got engaged in June – on my birthday…the logistics of which is another story in and of itself – that would have put us into April. The amount of time was somewhat arbitrary. To me, it seemed long enough that we could thoughtfully consider our next steps. It was suggested that we really use this time to review the strengths and weaknesses of our pairing – and be prepared to walk away, if necessary. Of course, no one wants to face that option. But, I’ve always believed that if more people did, then we’d have less divorces.
My ex wife wasn’t having any of it. And, that should have been my first clue. We had what I would consider surface-level premarital counseling. Even then, we were warned by the pastor who married us, that we would spend considerable time fighting our way through conflicting ways of approaching things, because we were moving so quickly.
Give me a couple Don’t give me a couple of pointers Turn to lies and conversation fear
J. Michael Stipe, 1983
After five years, I had concluded it was too quickly. After five years, we realized we had nothing in common. And, we couldn’t communicate without conflict or resentment. Too often, “compromise” meant giving up pieces of myself, one people-pleasing move at a time. To be fair, it also meant she acquiesced on some major decisions – one of which, our home purchase, would haunt us for eight years, and contribute significantly to our marriage’s undoing.
Still, we wanted to make it work. We attempted counseling, although much of it was stuck in mutual contempt, by the five-year mark. I had allowed addictive behaviors to get in the way of loving her properly, she complained. She knew I no longer found her attractive. Looking back, it was much more than physical beauty. I’d come to realize that her chief goal in life had been to find a man who would take care of her, so she could live worry-free as a full-time mom. Individual identity seemed severely lacking. All of her hope and grounding was dependent on me. And, I was increasingly convinced I wouldn’t achieve my own form of self actualization.
We were nowhere near whole enough to partner together. And, we hated each other for it, though we would bury that hatred in myriad distractions: dinners out, expensive vacations, endless TV watching, and a small zoo of animals that we accumulated, once we bought our house. All of that took money we didn’t have, and so cycles of financial insecurity were ad infinitum. We’d get behind, and I’d take on an extra job. She’d get miserable in her work, but struggled to take the necessary steps to find a better path for herself. I stumbled into a rewarding volunteer gig that led to a solid, well-paying career path, and she was fired from her job. Just before that happened, she told me that she struggled with feeling jealous because I’d found something fulfilling. She couldn’t just be happy for me, and as such, was a horrible cheerleader – resentful at the time my new job took.
During a period of sobriety, in which I wanted to give our failing marriage a fair shot, she was resentful that, instead of spending time at the bar away from her, I was spending time at meetings…away from her. When I pointed out that I was a better husband because of those efforts, she was dismissive. This was probably around the eight year mark. And, the more she nagged, the more I wanted to spend time away. So, that by the time I relapsed…again (that was number six, I think), I had checked out completely.
Such was the backdrop that colored what should have been a happy milestone – ten years of living our lives together. Instead, my inability to find a damned bar in the damned rain, with a damned wife nagging me about it while driving, became the perfect fuse.
We exploded on one another in a parking lot, not far from Kilroy’s. Everything I mentioned above, I hurled at her, in catalogue format.
“This has been ten years of nothing but misery,” I shouted, both of us sitting in our car’s front seats. “And, you have to be the least supportive person I know!”
“You think this has been great for me?!,” she screamed, the rain pounding on the windshield as the wipers keep wiping away water, so as not to notice our voluble argument. “You’ve done nothing but lie to me the whole time, and I am NOT a better person for having married you!”
The next part’s a bit hazy, but at some point before this verbal disaster began, I’d let her drive, so that she’d quit bitching. I think that’s why we were parked.
“Fine, then! I’m walking to Kilroy’s,” I yelled.
“You do that,” she yelled back, “and, stay at (name redacted to protect the innocent bystander)’s house, tonight! We’re done!”
As I got out of the car, she started to take off. I yelled at her to stop and threatened to call the police on her, and I quote, “crazy ass.” I slammed the car door, and she took off, tires squealing. The Honda had excellent anti-slip control, so there was no fishtailing involved. But, she would have, if she could.
Wherein September 9, 2006 was a celebration of two people starting their lives together, 9-9-2016 was the firing shot of that futile journey’s tragic end.
We picked that date, after it was clear to both of us that we were going to kill each other before the wedding, if we didn’t stop arguing about its execution. She wanted a Fall wedding, anyway, and 9-9 was repetitive enough that neither of us would forget. Me being me, I thought of how 9-9-06 is divisible by 3, and 9-9 is one of my favorite R.E.M. songs. My ex got amusement out of my first thought. She didn’t get the second one. Is it wrong that sometimes, I think that should have been my second clue?
I suppose it’s a bit shallow to place such a premium on musical tastes. She called me “weird,” and “a snob.” I took those intended epithets as compliments.
So, what did we have in common? Our spirituality…our strong spiritual side, as the pastor who married us put it. She wasn’t wrong about that. It was, in fact, one of the things that attracted me to my ex. Thing is, that strong spirituality had been severely damaged by hurtful acts within her former place of employment, which I will only name as a large church in the St. Louis region. In fact, I had seen enough of that church’s seamy underbelly, that after Christmas 2006, I was all about us finding another place to worship, while she looked for another job…a job hunt that took over four years, and only moved forward after her former employer got strict about enforcing their personnel rules about staff being church members in good standing.
She went to work at a small church that was just rebooting, about three blocks from our house. It was the worst church plant either of us had ever been involved with. While not going into details, the position was a bad fit, budget woes aside. The budget woes only became worse when a former staff member muscled his way into a full-time position, while equally crowding her out of her limited hours. And, the way they handled it only made her emotionally sicker. It was so bad that *I* demanded a meeting with leadership and called them out. We left two weeks later, and she eventually got a job with a large hospital group.
Because of her work history, and my two relapses within our marriage, financial crises were a running theme. In fact, crisis itself was a running theme.
One would think that parting ways and ending such a tumultuous union would bring signs of relief and closure, as well as the necessary motivation to put this mess to bed.
That was only true of one of us. My ex absolved herself of responsibility, regarding getting the house ready for sale, then hired an attorney who went after everything he could. I pointed out these facts, the afternoon she should up on our doorstep – months after having moved out – crying that I was killing myself. This was October 24, 2017. My five-month flameout involved a heavy dose of alcohol and weed, along with occasional grams of coke and meth. None of it was working. And, I thought her the worst of all hypocrites for pretending to care about me.
My phone had been stolen days before, while I was wrapping up a late-night-to-morning jag on the metro area’s East Side – the Illinois part of our metro, for the uninitiated. I had been robbed, and was so ashamed by what had happened, and too drunk to make my way to work on time (I passed out on an Eastbound train, and ended up near Scott Air Force Base, while I was supposed to be in the office). Knowing that this would be Strike Three, and too ashamed to face the consequences, I holed up in my room, and drank. A former supervisor and that same former coworker knocked on my door, four days later, and took me to Barnes ER. The next day, my dad and sister showed up. Dad put me in his truck, and we went to my work’s EAP, to start the process of getting me back into treatment.
I stayed with my mom and stepdad for over six months, while dad and I worked diligently to get my house ready for sale, put it on the market, and navigated the sickeningly complicated closing process. Selling a jointly-owned house when the court has ruled your marriage “irretrievably broken,” and creditors have judgments against you…well…sucks.
And, what should have been the lifting of a Sisyphean burden became simply a shifting of Sisyphean tasks, as I moved out, struggled to pay living expenses, faced a major repair on a car I had just bought, and strained to find joy in a job that didn’t pay enough, and certainly didn’t justify the daily maelstrom I encountered, every time I clocked in. Yet, I was unemployable in my former field – having been shut out of a hiring process conducted by a friend, with nothing more than a generic rejection letter.
Sleep became my only way of coping. Slowly, I began to isolate – as I usually do in times of strife. Late May through early August were among the darkest months I’ve ever weathered. I fought the urge to drink, as well as the temptation to end it all. But, I knew this stuff was beyond the scope of my recovery program, and despite the completely unprofessional way my psychiatric referral was handled by the medical group, I kept calling. And, calling. And, calling. Until I got someone willing to break through the bureaucracy and just schedule a damned appointment for the next day – which resulted in a med change for the absolute better.
I should also mention that one incredibly positive development that helped keep me going was my growing engagement with The Gathering – a United Methodist Church with multiple sites in the St. Louis area. I remember when I first heard my pastor utter words he has since said multiple times: “If you’re new with us, and you show up at one of our services, or at an event like this (a get-to-know-the-church forum, then hosted at a local microbrewery) we want you to feel as though we’ve been expectantly waiting for you. Because, we have.”
I went to a recovery meeting a day, plugged into a “home group,” where I hold a service position, made myself available to sponsor other men, and found a new sponsor, after mine left the country for a job opportunity in Beijing.
The job that formerly seemed like a daily exercise in futility (and, still doesn’t pay nearly enough), became a challenge to be surmounted. And, I acted like the leader I’m training to become. The current financial failures became an exercise in failing with integrity, and holding my head up high in the process.
My immediate family wouldn’t let me drift too far away from their contact, and I didn’t want that anyway. So much has healed over a relatively short period of time.
Two months ago, I made a formal amends to my ex wife, and admitted with full contrition all of my wrongdoing in our marriage – with intention to make right all that I could. We now talk, occasionally, as friends who still love one another with the history that only a divorced couple can share. I know that our cats are in good hands, and I know she could watch our dog (of whom, I have custody) in a pinch. For that matter, she knows she can ask for the dog whenever she wants, to get her bonding time in, with no complaint or resentment on my end.
Because, it’s not about me.
I’ve learned that the most important person, with whom I can be honest, today, is myself. I’ve learned that success isn’t so much living the best version of myself, but the most honest.
In the midst of last year’s insanity, I managed to get a pretty clear picture of my ideal partner – the sucker punch being that I need to be that person, as well.
Last night, I told the woman I’ve just started dating that this post was in process. She was in pretty strong agreement that this was a story worth telling. Time will tell if I’m the partner that I seek, but so far, I’ve been happy with my progress – even if it’s meant revisiting painfully old insecurities, in order that I might put them in their rightful place, with the help of a Power much greater than me. In fact, that she’s around at all is testament to God doing for me what I haven’t been so capable of doing for myself.
9-9-18…life’s far from perfect, but I’ll take it. Gladly.
This morning, I woke up on the proverbial wrong side of the bed.
Ever since my car’s transmission decided to go belly-up, 25 days after I bought it as-is, with no recourse or grace from one of the St. Louis Area’s top 20 privately-held companies, with revenue in the mid nine figures – getting to work takes me four times as long, and involves a particularly inconvenient ordeal. Our transit system has some real bright spots, and my new apartment is close to several of them. My work, on the other hand, has limited transit access, exacerbated by system planning, which doesn’t favor westward commutes.
Not exactly how I envisioned my life at 47: broke, divorced, childless, and working in a job that takes every bit of my energy, along with a schedule that requires insane amounts of caffeine, in order to keep up.
When I was younger, and would find myself in situations like this, I would often think to myself, “there has to be more to life than this.” Today, I know better. This is life. This is how it is. This is as good as it gets. The sooner I accept it, the happier I am.
These are the consequences of my actions and decisions.
The last six months have been a constant tumult of movement, followed by roadblock. I lost a job, due to performance issues directly related to drinking and drug use – otherwise known as Relapse Number Seven. It was a job I was increasingly growing to hate, given the increased toxicity. Working for the government can be rewarding – until it isn’t. And, when the budget runs constant deficits, and your agency is a perpetual, political football, it ain’t fun.
Relapse Number Six cost me my marriage and house. Number Seven cost me my job and any hope of financial solvency. With every relapse, over the last 25 years, the will to recover becomes more difficult to muster, the faith in recovery that much harder to grasp. The hope of a better life fades even farther from view.
And, every. Single. Obstacle. Every messed up transmission, every discouraging meeting with an attorney, every stressful e-mail from a realtor, every hard conversation with a family member, every time I have to chase down a non-responsive car dealer, every impossible customer or selfish co-worker, every damned time the key-card to my building doesn’t work, and I have to wait an hour for a maintenance guy – who knows nothing about key-cards – to show up without the proper tools (the fault of his employer, not him), so that his best course of action is to hammer the hell out of my lock, and tear the damned thing off (scaring my dog in the process)….
Every. Single. Obstacle. Becomes another punch I take. And, take. And, take. The gloves some down, arms slack and sore with each blow, leaving me vulnerable to the next one – the inevitable take-down.
Depression is like that for me.
Life is hard enough without a bunch of extra BS getting in the way – both the external circumstances, and my inability to accept them. Add those elements to the equation, and life becomes damned near impossible.
For most of my life, I’ve thought that money, success, status and a partner in crime would help mitigate most of this difficulty. That’s a lie.
I’ve never had much money, but I keep reading about high-profile suicides of wealthy people. So, that can’t be only solution.
I’ve had success and status, and aside from a sense of self importance, those things come with their own stress.
I’m not the greatest at being a partner, which helps explain why I’ve never been able to attract a good partner.
These latest suicides – that of fashion icon Kate Spade, and Chef/Writer Anthony Bourdain – prove that “having it all” can leave a person wanting. I mean, here I am, mourning the death of all my dreams, only to realize that achieving those dreams isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
I don’t know much about Kate Spade, however, I was a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain. He’d be a guy I could drink with, if I could drink with impunity. Sometimes crass, often irreverent, he was – at the same time – deeply insightful. When he launched his new show on CNN, it felt to me like he found the perfect fit – a channel that would allow him to go as deeply into global perspectives as he did food – to really draw out the relationship between food and the community it serves, and to place some favorite dishes within sociopolitical context. As a viewer, Parts Unknown was a perfect fit for me, too – a beautifully complicated tale, as told by a thoughtful but tortured soul.
Anthony was never shy about discussing his past with heroin or cocaine. And, so much of No Reservations was the crew rolling film on “drunk Anthony.” Prolonged use of those substances will re-wire brain chemistry – and, alcohol is a depressant. That doesn’t even get into the life circumstances that cause trauma for so many. For me, it was growing up the target of grade-school, and junior-high bullies, weathering my parents’ divorce, feeling so acutely different, because of how I walked and talked, and because I had little to no social skills, among my peers.
More likely than not, I’ve suffered from some form of depression since childhood, but it was easy to mask by making myself busy, or distracted. As I got older, I learned about drugs and alcohol. Then, in periods of sobriety, I would throw myself into busyness. And, when recovery left me wanting, then work became the escape. Once work was the problem, I got married. Then, bought a house, then…
Thing is, take away the busyness, the substances, the distractions – both good and bad – and I’m left with nothing but anxiety and depression – which was what hit me square, this morning, as I struggled to get out of bed and go to work.
During my darkest nights of the soul, before I would get sober (One. More. Time.), I would have this routine conversation with myself. It was a simple question that my inner dialogue would ask, upon my awakening, each morning:
“You gonna kill yourself, today?”
It was a nonchalant question, along the lines of “What’s for breakfast?” or “Did you let the dog out?” Every morning, I would answer back with a litany of responses as to why I wasn’t going to do it, that day: Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem; or, suicide doesn’t make your problems go away – it only passes them on to those left behind. The last one is what has kept me going. With as much grief as my family has dealt with, regarding my behavior, I can’t bear the thought of how they would react or respond. I can’t bear the possibility that those I love would struggle with the question of what they could have done differently – when I know damned well it wouldn’t have been their fault.
Problem is, nothing would quiet the dialogue.
Over the last seven months, I’ve found myself occasionally in the midst of this dialogue. It’s not as strong. The question isn’t as loud. But, the fact that it even comes to mind is concerning. Here’s what I know, however.
Over the last seven months, the thought of drinking over my problems no longer sounds like a great option. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. It only means I’m better able to think it through.
More importantly, the driving force seems to be that, no matter how bad I feel, no matter how dark it seems, it’s important that I learn to keep going – to press on – not by simply finding some other thing to buy or achieve – thereby masking whatever feelings exist. It’s critical that I remain as honest with myself as possible. And, doing so means I need to recognize that there are days when life feels insurmountable. When I feel like the Universe just hurled a big “I-Told-You-So” in my face. When it feels like God is punishing me for wanting what I want.
I don’t have a pat answer for this, and I sure as hell don’t trust anyone who claims to have one. And, I don’t trust anyone who can’t understand the depths of depression or mental illness. Recently, I read the status of someone I don’t know all that well, who – in a way that was meant to be non-hurtful – admitted as much. And, while I appreciate the sentiment, it makes me want to run away from that acquaintance. As fast as I can. I don’t need a lack of empathy in my life.
I can only talk about what’s working. And, what’s working is continued efforts within a program of recovery, that allows me to uncover more and more hard truths about myself. And, in so doing, I’m able to change how I react and respond to life. I have a family that loves me more than I could ever appreciate. I have a dog that means the world to me. I have coworkers who love having me around, even when I can be really difficult.
I have one or two good friends who can give it to me straight, doing so with a necessary level of kindness.
One bad decision could ruin all of that. And, my addiction has already taken enough from me. It doesn’t get any more of my dreams.
If you find yourself in one of those lost nights, with endless dialogue, reach out. I know it’s easier said than done, because it’s the last thing I want to do. But, for the love of God, do it. Know that you’re loved. Valued. Appreciated. You will be missed. It will get better. But, most importantly, know that you are worthy of living.
Long before my ex wife and I divorced, I’ve thought seriously about leaving Shaw. It’s not that I don’t like this neighborhood. Far from it. Everything I’ve loved about the person I have become, I’ve learned from this place. But, among the things I’ve learned in my near-decade in Shaw, it’s that love is complicated.
When Nikki and I were still together, we looked at a couple of houses outside the neighborhood. At the time, we were still planning on having children – most likely by adoption. And, since both job and income changes were a regular fact of life for each of us, we wanted less of a house payment – possibly none, given the right situation. And, we didn’t want to give up the amount of space. If anything, we wanted room to grow.
So, we stumbled upon a house we seriously looked into buying, in Old North St. Louis. When I mentioned that to a relative, recently, he shot back with the remark, “That’s where people go to die.” I wish people didn’t feel this way, about the City I love. But, they do – comfortably from their homes well outside City limits.
I spent nearly four years of my life as a Neighborhood Improvement Specialist, in some of the most challenged parts of the City. Doing that kind of work confirmed something I already knew in my gut. Beauty is everywhere, if we look for it. In neighborhoods that are only known to most people by sound bites and TV stand-ups, you’ll find blocks and neighbors who fiercely care, with homes that are more meticulously maintained than the one I just listed (under contract in less than a week, thanks to the efforts of residents and our previous alderman) – in a high-market-value area. That’s not meant to minimize long-standing, generational challenges. Those exist, too, and we are long overdue to address them. It merely serves to challenge stereotypes that are perpetuated, even within our City.
Old North St. Louis, by the numbers, is one of the safest parts of the city. Until the recent crime spikes of the last couple of years – which impacted neighborhoods citywide, Old North saw huge reductions in both person and property crime. The old 14th Street Mall was redeveloped into Crown Square, and has hosted some of the most incredible events this city has seen. Since the phrase of the day is “racial equity,” and lots of well-meaning people like to talk about it – allow me to introduce you to a neighborhood that is thoughtfully doing something about it – with near universal buy in. How I wish we could achieve that in Shaw.
Our credit wasn’t good enough to get the loan we needed, so we had to pass. I met the person who bought the house, though. He lived in the neighborhood, and the house was an opportunity for him to own a home. It went to the right person.
Other North St. Louis neighborhoods have been doing this sort of work for years, with little recognition. Places like Hyde Park, which has seen the formation of a true neighborhood organization, over the last four years. The Lindell Park historic district in Jeff VanderLou also defies those stereotypes, as does Academy in the 18th and 26th wards. The private street known as Lewis Place got some major infrastructure upgrades, thanks to the hard work of residents, partnering with Ald. Terry Kennedy. The 21st Ward is a political powerhouse, carrying on the tradition of the old 20th, before it was moved to the South Side. And, there are parts of the O’Fallon neighborhood that look every bit as stately as blocks you would find in the Central West End.
Yes, Northside Regeneration is a festering cancer. And, the residents of Old North, JVL and St. Louis Place are demanding accountability. As they should. Yes, vacant and crumbling housing stock exists. And, a significant number of voters said “no” to a creative solution that would, in my view, honestly and correctly address the problem of vacant buildings in distressed areas. That particular vote is being rightly litigated by the City, and my hope is that the decision is overturned.
We can talk these problems to death, but unless they’re in our back yard, we don’t care enough.
My last assignment put me in the 25th Ward. For all the talk of high crime in North St. Louis, Dutchtown actually led the city in police calls for service, when former Mayor Slay and his office put together the P.I.E.R. Plan, at the end of 2015. Stereotypes may be a time saver, as The Onion once put it, but given the data, they just don’t hold water. And, still, there are amazing assets that point to its inevitable rebound.
Like any neighborhood, including Shaw, you’ll find residents who care, who keep up their homes, help out on their blocks, and try to make their corner a better place. Go to a Dutchtown West meeting, and you’ll find them. Go to a Dutchtown CID board meeting, on the other side of Grand, and you’ll find them. Go to one of the many community engagement meetings facilitated by the Dutchtown South Community Corporation, and you’ll find them. Beauty is everywhere, if we look for it.
Like the 8th Ward, I have family roots in Dutchtown. My mom’s cousins lived on the 4300 block of Virginia, and all of them would walk to St. Anthony of Padua for mass. St. Anthony’s is still open, and there are residents working to keep it the anchor it’s been; it’s one of many South City parishes that hosts a fish fry during Lent.
Dutchtown is in a pocket of South City that has an incredible influx of people who don’t look like me – whether they moved to St. Louis from another country, or to another part of the city, while crossing the so-called Delmar Divide – which is, in many ways, an invented mythology. The original divide was Mill Creek. Delmar came much later.
At any rate, when my ex wife decided she wanted a divorce, Dutchtown ended up on my short list, along with other neighborhoods where the prospect of finding a small house was more doable. I had a hard enough time caring for the 2K square foot home I just sold. I wasn’t going to do it again, unless I could afford to pay people to do the kind of necessary work it takes.
It’s also the place that offers the least expensive market-rate rent for a single person with a large dog.
In coming to accept this eventual move, I looked at several factors. Size of house in the neighborhood, should I buy again, was chief among them. Familiarity with the neighborhood was second. Home prices being third, since I wasn’t going to put myself in the same position I’d done before. And, neighborhood/ward dynamics being fourth.
Home prices ruled out a huge chunk of the city. Home sizes, both North and South, ruled out the other chunk. Familiarity narrowed it down, then, to three areas.
Tower Grove South: Love the proximity to South Grand. Its where Nikki and I originally looked, before moving to Shaw
Gravois Park: Love the older architecture, and the recent development booms bode well.
Dutchtown: Same as point two, with closer proximity to South Grand. Less development booms, but equally thoughtful neighborhood planning.
It was the fourth criteria that sealed it. I’ve spent nine years in Shaw, with several of those in neighborhood leadership. It was a divisive neighborhood when I moved in, and unfortunately, it will remain one after I move out. Frankly, I’ve found it tiresome, and while Dutchtown certainly is experiencing the pains of change, I’ve not found near the amount of vitriol that I’ve experienced in Shaw, and witnessed in other places. I once saw an all-out, online throw down between older liberals bashing younger liberals, in a different part of South City from where I used to live. Honestly? It stopped me from moving anywhere near the place. I’ve gotten too old for that crap, I guess.
And, I struggle when those of us from wealthier neighborhoods throw out platitudes about gentrification and property values. As in, “I care about gentrification, so long as I can be the last person that does it.”
To quote someone I heard in a less wealthy neighborhood, “We wouldn’t mind having that problem, right now.”
Perspective matters, especially when the words we use become loaded tools to fire off at anyone who sees the situation differently. Yes, we need to be more thoughtful about planning. And, yes, it’s okay to want your single greatest investment to appreciate in value. We can do both, and do it better.
It’s easy to love a neighborhood when, physically speaking, it’s a nearly finished product, or when it’s viewed as up and coming. From that perspective, it’s easy to throw invective and talk about the state of the city, having not experienced significant parts of it. From that perspective, local elections can seem like popularity contests, and opportunities for long-time political foes, both within and outside the ward, to settle old scores – no matter how much the voters, themselves, may care about the issues at hand.
It’s harder to go somewhere and be part of the solution, in love with a neighborhood and all its imperfections. It’s harder to plant roots. And, it’s just as hard to re-settle.
In reflecting on my years in Shaw, I saw both the best and worst in people. I saw neighbors come together, after a tragedy, to show care and compassion. And, I saw neighbors pile onto one another, online, in ways that would make any stranger wonder why anyone would want to live in such a place. Frankly, it’s made more than a few residents question the same thing.
Again, love is complicated. Which is one of the things that Dutchtown residents seem to get.
It’s possible, for example, to have a taxing district that provides necessary additions to fundamental services, and put real effort into making the place equitable and inclusive. It’s possible for newer, younger residents to partner with long-timers, and reach out to a community that is much more transient than the place I’ve left – and welcome everyone. We are, after all, in this together.
It’s possible to work for a healthy rental inventory, and hold out-of-town and out-of-state property owners accountable – even if that sometimes means both residents and elected officials need to hold feet to the fire, working against State laws that are counter to our City’s interests, and other municipalities that have gone too far.
And, it’s easier to find common ground, when the problem is right in front of you. For all its division, Shaw had a much more robust neighborhood organization, and a much more connected neighborhood, when there was a serious need for these things. The unintended consequence of success is the loss of this institutional memory.
Indeed, love is complicated. And, loss is painful. But, without love, what else is there? And, love without hard work isn’t really love. It’s adoration. Fandom. And, at a neighborhood level, it can amount to seemingly high-school cliquish behavior that serves neither the neighbors nor City well.
In moving, I’m losing a neighborhood that has made me who I am. And, I kind of like that person, today. In spite of my losses – marriage, job, house, neighborhood – I’ll still choose love, every time – practicing it imperfectly, learning as I go.
I’ll take the best parts of my experience in Shaw with me. It will always be my wish that those divided could find the common good in all we seek – even if the chances of that realistically happening in my lifetime are slim. For that kind of dynamic to change, Shaw has to want it. And, someone needs to be left holding out that hope. A group of someones, preferably.
Until then, I look forward to contributing in my new home, where I can. My dog needs a place to play, so there’s a start.
A friend of mine wrote a post that has inspired this. He was, I believe, referring to the current sociopolitical tensions, both nationally and locally. His perspective is that of a Baby Boomer, among other things. From his view, the current tensions have much to do with Boomers expecting “obedience,” and Millenials demanding “respect.” My immediate thought was, well, what about Generation X – which happens to be where I fit into the scheme of things? The short answer is, it leaves us where we’re used to being – on our own.
The actual time period used by demographers to describe Gen X is in dispute. If one goes by strict fertility rates (the reason for the Baby Boomer moniker, in the first place), one would be looking at a time period after 1964. In fact, a majority of the people born between 1961 and 1964 do not self identify as boomers, and have distinct cultural and historical experiences from their older siblings. So, in my non-scholarly opinion, I’m gonna go with the period between 1961 and 1980 – though, even the end period is in dispute.
I was born in 1971, which puts me square in the middle of this time period. Like so many of my generational cohorts, I spent time as a Latchkey Kid. My parents divorced when I was 12 – exactly on their 13th wedding anniversary. That wasn’t planned (they swear!). It was just how the court dates worked out. That particular event put me in the norm of another increasing trend – divorce rates. By 1980, the US divorce rate was 52%; by 1985 it was 50%. So, I went from the oldest of two, in a two-parent, single-income home, to a single-parent home, with mom working doubles at a nearby restaurant, so that she could keep us in the Webster Groves School District, and in a house she really couldn’t afford. It brought forth all sort of insecurities within me, though I’ll cover those topics another time.
As a child, before all Hell broke loose at home, I was interviewed by a local TV station, because of a project our class did, related to the Iran Hostage Crisis. It was a helluva sound bite for a 10-year-old, but then again, I’ve had the gift of sounding good – even when I was a mess on the inside – for as long as I can remember.
I grew up with Reagan as Godhead, Morning In America, the first of many revisits of our role in the Vietnam War, the beginning of Nixon’s reinvention as an elder statesman (News flash: he was still a conniving, manipulative President, who disgraced the office forever – with his lackeys serving political roles up to now. The current White House occupant shares many of his traits, to the tenth power).
My teen years were within one of the most self-centered, self-absorbed decades in history. Spare me your ’80s reminisces. Unless you wore the right clothes and drove the right cars, the ’80s sucked. About the only good thing that came of the 80s was cable – specifically MTV. That stands for Music Television, though you wouldn’t know it, today. Damned Millennials.
I’m sure much of that perspective was colored by my parents’ divorce. I became nihilistic. Cynical. Disillusioned. Disaffected. Pissed the f— off. Ask my parents. All four of them. They’ll tell you.
By the end of high school, the obscure stuff known as “college music” was becoming mainstream, with bands like U2 playing stadiums and R.E.M. signing to a major label. The B-52s had a Top 40 hit, and by college, artists that we would now classify as “indie” were being signed in droves. A handful of the previous generation retained relevance. My top three favorites in this category are: Prince, David Bowie, Neil Young.
And, then, around the same time that the Soviet Union fell, Nirvana happened – bringing with them other rising bands that were often incorrectly grouped together as “grunge,” for the style of clothes that most of us wore, at the time. I was always more “goth” than “grunge,” but these bands spoke to me – with their unapologetic guitars, and wailing voices. Kurt Cobain’s scream was that of a generation that felt lied to. Eddie Vedder sang to every abused child in America, he once joked. And, Soundgarden – one of the most technically proficient, badass bands to come of that era. I am still heartbroken over both Kurt Cobain‘s and Chris Cornell‘s suicides. Where Kurt’s voice was the banshee wail of an untrained singer, Chris’s voice was our answer to Freddie Mercury. I think of that aria, and damn it, I still get goosebumps.
We voted for a President who “smoked, but didn’t inhale.” We learned about his many indiscretions – one of which would land him at the center of an impeachment trial that was really a farce – especially considering the current White House Occupant. We stood with Hillary, when she was indignant about playing the traditional role of First Lady. We winced, by the time she talked about a “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” Once again, we felt let down (Note: she wasn’t wrong about that, as future events would prove such).
After 9/11, I questioned everything. And, even further in the runup to Iraq. I wanted us to be the strong actor in an evil world, however, I knew the implications of middle-eastern conflict. I had bought into the conservative lies about Clinton being a weak President, however, I kept questioning the actions of the current administration. And, as more became revealed about the manipulation by Nixonian proteges within Bush 43‘s Presidency, I could no longer stand with things as they were.
We grew up – at least, theoretically. We got married. Some of us raised kids. Many of us got divorced, ourselves, and in the process of living life, learned to forgive our parents. We realized there’s no manual for this crap. We learned early that the world wasn’t giving us anything, so we needed to figure it out.
In midlife, our generation is characterized as entrepreneurial, having achieved work-life balance, and happy. I’m not so sure about that last one, but the first two I’ll take. If you have a family, take care of it. Be present, engaged. If you want something, go after it. Make it happen. Create it, if it doesn’t already exist.
Build bridges, where there are none.
And, that leads me back to the original quote that started this whole thing. No doubt, we’re seeing a generational shift. And, Gen X is still sick of everyone’s nonsense. A lot of us are looking at this and saying, “for God’s sake, work this out!”
I get why the Boomers want “obedience.” In one sense, they’ve created the rules that work for them, and expect everyone else to play by those rules. In another sense, they’re looking at their own past mistakes, and don’t want to see future generations replay them. We Gen-X’ers are learning that sometimes, it’s okay to listen to them. As we approach midlife, suddenly, “they” aren’t so old.
And, I get why the Millennials demand “respect.” They’re seeing a world they’ve inherited that is pretty messed up, because previous generations – mine included – have kicked the can down the road. Change is not only necessary, it is the only constant in life. So, in this way, I stand with my Millennial siblings (because of remarriage, I’m now the oldest of five) who can’t understand why some of our earlier fights were such a big deal at the time – or why change seems so slow.
Sometimes it feels like we’ve become the adults in the room, trying to put each tribe in their corners, lest the fight do permanent damage. And, sometimes, the hardest and most adult thing to do is let go.
I’ll spend, hopefully, the rest of my life seeking the “wisdom to know the difference.” In the meantime, it remains my goal to be a student of history, an encourager of history makers, and – most importantly – a fierce backer of bridge builders. We need to remember the real enemy – often, ourselves – and stand together, as much as possible. It’s gonna take all hands on deck.
The upcoming special election in the City of St. Louis’s 8th Ward is a big freaking deal, to state the obvious – and paraphrase Joe Biden, at the same time.
Alderman Stephen Conway, a longtime fixture in city politics (and son of former Mayor Jim Conway) was one of the Board’s most senior members. Whatever anyone’s feelings are about seniority vs. newcomers, that seniority comes with some benefits: institutional memory, a deep understanding of parliamentary procedure, and a working knowledge to get things done.
In the last few years, we’ve seen a change in Board makeup – some newer faces who look at our City’s challenges, and are unafraid to call out imperfections. This, too, is important.
And, based on these value statements, among other things I’ll get to, I am supporting my dear friend and longtime neighbor, Paul Fehler, as the Democratic nominee to replace Ald. Conway. This was not a decision I took lightly, as I have deep respect for the other candidate seeking that nomination. So, rather than go into a comparison/contrast, I want to tell a story about friendship.
I first met Paul through our neighborhood’s former listserv, Shawtalk, when he called out my block for a successful National Night Out party, in 2010. I’d love to take full credit for that, but really, all I did was plant the seed and energize neighbors. They stepped up in ways I didn’t even think of, and made it a success. Good leaders inspire that in others.
I was able to do that, because I listened to the concerns of others, while I was co-block captain. My initial motives were to make the block safer for my ex-wife and me. In the process, I learned of a bitter feud that divided longtime residents, and sensed serious discord. National Night Out was an opportunity to begin that process of righting a fundamental wrong. And, it proved successful. I’ve seen Paul do very similar work, over the years.
After that initial encounter with Paul, he reached out to me privately. Turns out, he was producing a film called The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. That film would become a globally-recognized piece of work, and should be required viewing for anyone who cares at all about St. Louis, urban planning, public housing, racial tensions and public policy.
Paul allowed me to see an unfinished version of the film, and I came away gobsmacked. I went home and wept for my city. I changed how I viewed our city’s troubles. Much to the consternation of well-meaning friends who wanted to do good, but couldn’t see that good requires action, I couldn’t stop talking about it. And, I couldn’t stop focusing my efforts on making my own neighborhood both safe and inclusive. Good communicators inspire that in others.
When I stepped into the role of 1st Vice President, and later President, of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association, Paul would continue to challenge me in uncomfortable ways. I was heavily invested in the City’s Neighborhood Ownership Model – a good model with systemic challenges that I’ll get into, another time. He would challenge me to not play into others’ fears, in order to recruit neighbors. I didn’t see it that way, at the time, as I saw myself challenging neighbors to quit talking and start doing.
Both of us learned from that experience. And, I watched Paul get involved in neighborhood leadership, as a vice president, and chair of the Safety committee – the very place he was challenging me to do better.
When I took a position with the City of St. Louis, as a Neighborhood Improvement Specialist, Paul and I would meet regularly. He would ask me questions about City processes and operations, and he would offer insights as to flaws within how we were doing things. I, too, considered myself a potential change agent from the inside, and I saw immediately the value in those discussions. It’s critical to understand the rules you want to change, before you change them.
Even now, he’s exhibiting that principle, going directly to members of the Democratic Central Committee on both sides of Delmar, and listening before he talks. Because, that’s always been Paul’s heart.
I know few people in this world with as much thoughtfulness as Paul Fehler – along with the willingness to put those thoughts into action, by building the necessary consensus to get the right things done. It’s what I’ve tried to do – however imperfectly – in my own leadership roles. It’s what I still hope to do, even though I’m no longer a City employee.
My early-childhood roots are in the 8th Ward. My mom and dad lived in a 2-family, on the 4500 block of Flora, when I was a kid. That particular part of Southwest Garden continues to have a special place in my heart – so much so that my ex-wife and I lived across the street, before we bought our house in Shaw – one that we need to sell, because, unfortunately, my professional ambitions came at the expense of my marriage. Not a problem for Paul, Nadia, and Henry. They’re all in.
Again, I very much appreciate and respect the other candidate, who has her own support. I wouldn’t have voted for her as Committeewoman, if I didn’t think she was up for the job. I will not tolerate any divisive or negative comments about either candidate on this blog post, or on my social media profiles. Our neighborhood suffers from enough division, and that breaks my heart more than few know.
All I ask is that you consider my thoughts, along with those of others, and make an informed choice. I’m laying mine on the table, for the ward, for the City, and for a good friend. Here’s a video from the man, himself.
I’m a morning person. Sort of. I’ll wake up early, without an alarm, and – once I’ve shaken off the cobwebs I’m moving along. Sometimes, the dog is my alarm clock, and I’m on her bathroom schedule. Either way, I’m up. So, I might as well do something.
Lately, I’ve been working on making the best use of that time. Mostly by being still. Quiet. Doing what I can to get the internal dialogue that’s so often a part of my day to shut the hell up. Sometimes, I’m successful, and other times…well…take recently.
Much of my internal dialogue, the last few weeks, has centered around wanting to throw in the towel – to undo all of the hard work I’ve undergone in the last six months. And, when that dialogue becomes a shouting match, the impact ripples into every facet of my life.
Maybe not shouting, per se. Maybe loud and insistent. Like an intense family meeting, or my dog, when she sees a random creature she doesn’t like. Which is all the time.
I like to think this isn’t my normal resting place – this deep level of negativity and despair. But, really, it’s the undercurrent that has subconsciously driven much of my life. To sum up…
Calling divorce a humbling experience is like calling being struck with a sword slightly painful.
I loathe failure. Which puts me in good company. I don’t know too many people who like it. I see all sorts of motivational quotes from famous people who talk about how they learned the most from their failures, and used those incidents to become successful, later on. That sounds peachy.
The posters would have you believe that all those people simply brushed off the dust, got back up, and did it again. And, it’s a lie.
I’m fortunate to be close to some amazingly successful people, and can tell you that, with each failure, was a period of grief. Anger. Bitterness. Self pity. Perhaps to lesser degrees, and for smaller periods of time, but no one is immune from being human.
Feelings may not be facts, but they are, in fact, real.
Lately, it’s become important to trace the feeling back to the internal dialogue that may be causing it. And, that takes a certain amount of internal quietness. Which leads me to mindfulness. And, the study of Zen. And, it hit me that my long-standing internal drama functions as its own koan – and, not in a good way.
The reason I hate failure so much is that I’m rarely kind to me. As much as I want to think I have this instant likability, I don’t like myself too much. If at all. Success becomes the fix that blunts the inner pain, quiets the negative koan. Laughs in its face and flips it the bird. It’s fleeting, temporary, and then, it’s off to the next thing.
Failure is not an option. Which is, to use the vernacular, bullshit.
My hatred of failure, and ultimately, of myself, leads me to make rash choices, react quickly, keep moving. Do not sit. Do not feel. Do not acknowledge how much it hurts. Just. Keep. Going. Dodge the demons. Fake-throw and run.
The thing about demons is they’re persistent. Patient. Crafty little bastards. And, when they finally catch up to me, they’re pissed. I guess if I was part of a pack of howling, shiftless, spawn of Satan, running after some dodgy asshole, I’d be a little miffed, too.
So, there I am, face to face with a child of Beezelbub. I’ve just laughed in his face, given him the finger and made him chase my ass. It’s not much different from when I experienced this in grade school, with real-live bullies. Except, then, I usually got my ass kicked.
This chase scene is rather Benny Hill-ish – except not bawdy or humorous. So, maybe, not at all like Benny Hill (I just wanted to get Yakety Sax stuck in your head. Have I succeeded? Good.).
And, it’s an illusion.
First off, the wiry little fucker is only in my head. A figment of my overactive imagination. The culmination of years and years of bad thinking, picked up from a multitude of sources – each with their own set of broken agendas.
This particular lying asshole demon wants me to believe I’ll never succeed. Never get what I want. Or, it would have me believe that I’m an impostor. That any success is fake. Ready to be snatched from me at any instant.
Any screw up is merely confirmation.
The first time I confronted this, in any healthy way, my therapist told me I needed to re-frame my concept of failure. Instead, I needed to look at what I learned in the experience. And, I needed to practice self compassion. He challenged me to call out the negative thoughts as harsh. Because, they are. And, he challenged me to ask the question about the source of the thought. From where, exactly, is it coming? Why would I possibly think such a thing?
In so doing, I have just made the unconscious conscious. I’m staring that son-of-a-bitch demon in his beady eyes, ready to throw the first punch.*
Right now, I’m scratching the surface – becoming aware of tiny acts of self-sabotage, in which I engage almost daily. I’m realizing that, when such a thing happens, my subconscious is screaming for help. And, this time, it’s a true scream.
Lately, that’s been more difficult. The thoughts and the feelings are strong. Fierce self hatred is so ingrained, and people fail my expectations regularly. But, every time I breathe in and out, every time I sit down and articulate things, I’m throwing a punch at that scaly, worthless demon. With enough practice, I connect. Connect enough times, and the bastard goes down. He might get up again, but I’ll be ready.
*Most modern-day therapists would say the unconscious mind is not the enemy. This is a departure from Freud, who called it a storehouse of repressed thought. And, it’s a shift from those would treat the unconscious mind as a superhighway to achievement – then wonder why the constant barrage of positive affirmations aren’t working. The above links are to the same article, which gives the unconscious mind the proper respect it’s due.
While I was researching for this, I looked up “midlife crisis,” and what I found was pretty astounding.
It’s not a real thing.
We hear about it a lot in popular culture. Often, we joke about it, when referring to those of us who have reached middle age. But, it’s a far from guaranteed psychological phenomenon.
“One study found that 23% of participants had what they called a “midlife crisis,” but in digging deeper, only one-third of those—8% of the total—said the crisis was associated with realizations about aging.
The balance (15% of those surveyed) had experienced major life experiences or transitions such as divorce or loss of a job in middle age and described them as “midlife crisis.” While there is no doubt these events can be traumatic—the associated grief reactions can be indistinguishable from depression.”
The footnotes are from this study, published in 2009. It goes on to say that while midlife is often seen as a period of re-evaluation in adulthood, it only becomes emotionally problematic in a small percentage of adults – many of whom also experienced a traumatic event in midlife.
According to two additional cited studies, “the condition may occur from the ages of 45–64. Mid-life crises last about 3–10 years in men and 2–5 years in women. A mid-life crisis could be caused by aging itself, or aging in combination with changes, problems, or regrets over:
maturation of children (or lack of children) (yep, this too)
aging or death of parents (not death, thank God)
physical changes associated with aging (not reall…okay, check)
Individuals experiencing a mid-life crisis may feel:
a deep sense of remorse for goals not accomplished (check)
a fear of humiliation among more successful colleagues (raises hand in agreement)
longing to achieve a feeling of youthfulness (more than I may want to admit)
need to spend more time alone or with certain peers (check)
a heightened sense of their sexuality or lack thereof (Sure. Why not?)
ennui, confusion, resentment or anger due to their discontent with their marital, work, health, economic, or social status (Absolutely, every bit of this)
ambitious to right the missteps they feel they have taken early in life
And, yes, the last one would logically follow…until one realizes the colossal waste of time and energy, and the emotional toll that failure brings to such ambitions.
So, what do we do when certain dreams die?
Example: it had long been a dream of mine to have a family of my own. I put it off, when I was in my 20s for two reasons: 1) I wasn’t about to pass along all of my attendant neuroses to my kids. I wanted to make sure I had a modicum of my sh*t together; and 2) I remain the most ill-equipped person I know to navigate the dating/relationship world. And, I certainly wasn’t relationship material during most – if not all – of that time.
Looking back, it seems as though I settled when I married my ex. I’m not sure I would have described it that way, at the time. We were set to make a life together, and quickly realized how ill equipped either one of us was to do such a thing – financially, emotionally, relationally…all of it. And, while I’m glad we didn’t have kids, given the demise of our marriage, the biggest regret is the waste of time. She needed a better partner than I was capable of being. And, so did I.
That window is all but closed. Having kids at 47 isn’t impossible for a guy. But, raising them at 57…67…different story. I’m not sure that’s even fair to the potential kid involved. Also, that would involve marrying someone 15-20 years younger than me. And, as much as it might be nice to take the stereotypical divorced-guy route: 1) I’m not all that; and 2) much more importantly, that would require dealing with a level of immaturity…the likes of which might drive me to total insanity. I don’t want kids that badly, thank you very much.
So, given all of that, the next best thing would be to land a partner in crime closer to my age, with kids of her own. And, well, being a grandparent is a pretty sweet gig. All the fun and nowhere near the effort. So, there’s that.
One problem: I’m still one of the most ill-equipped people I know to handle the whole scene. I attach too quickly, and – in the past – have overlooked unacceptable behaviors, because: 1) No relationship is perfect; and 2) Being alone sucks. And, just when I think I’ve moved past some of my struggles in this area, I get reminded that, well, no. Not really. They just involve a different set of details.
I’ve spent most of my life as a dreamer – always with some grandiose vision of how my life will eventually turn out. Sometimes, I’ve managed to put those dreams into some sort of action. Such was the case when I pursued a journalism degree and ended up interning at the local alternative weekly – even though I had been denied admission to the School of Journalism, only months before. Such was the case when I became a commercial production director for a group of radio stations – fulfilling a childhood dream of being on the radio, and nurturing both a gift and passion for creating interesting things with audio…something borne out of my very first “escape” from reality, which was music. And, such was the case when I went to work for the City of St. Louis – fulfilling a more recent dream of using my passion for community engagement and neighborhood improvement to address problems in our most challenged parts of the city.
And, in each of those cases, it was self-sabotage that destroyed each of those dreams. I drank my way out of admission to the Journalism school, and allowed the clumsiness and distractions of early sobriety to keep me from focusing on the goal at hand. I allowed myself to plateau, as a radio production professional, during a time when it was becoming increasingly harder to break into the larger markets, and do some of the “bigger” stuff that was part of the dream. And, I allowed addiction and obsession, alcoholism and workaholism, to drive me to the point of complete emptiness, when I lost my job with the City – in addition to losing my marriage, house, financial stability, and what little credibility I had among friends and family.
And, yet, at times, I still envision a life, in which, I’m able to write, produce, create – and that, perhaps, I might be lucky enough that my work reaches a wide audience. These days, I dream of having a home/recording studio/writing and performance space on the family farm. And, I envision having a partner who gets me – who would be 100 percent supportive of even the most outlandish of these endeavors…as I would hope to be of hers.
But, time is short. And, while failure is a part of life, I have very little time to waste in shooting for something that may never happen. I have retirement to consider. And, if I accomplish nothing else, I’d like to be able to walk away from the work world, and do a few of the things that haven’t been possible, right now. That’s gonna take a focused career effort on making as much money as possible within a short period of time. That calls for a slim margin of error.
And, so, once again, I find myself at a place where it seems best to just let certain other dreams die. I’ve long given up on being a rock star. Or, being the kind of journalist who gets to hang with rock stars. Or, even being the kind of producer who gets to work with rock stars. I’ve given up on writing the great investigative story. Or, the great American novel. This, here, is the closest I get to writing every day. And, who really wants to read about me, all the damn time?
And, as far as wanting to share what’s left of my life with someone else? Probably a good idea to let that one go, too. At least, the professional world follows a sense of rules and logic that are easy to navigate – and, therefore, succeed. There is absolutely no logic in matters of the heart. Not a single shred. I don’t have the emotional makeup to withstand it.
And, so it goes.
Yet, if this is as good as it gets, I’ll still take it, because even a life of lonely mediocrity is better than where I came from, eleven months ago. I still get the chance to help others who are trying to get sober learn how to not drink over every. Single. Thing. That happens in their lives. I still get a chance to contribute to the health and well being of that particular fellowship – one that has saved my life, however unremarkable that life may be. I still have the love of my family, and that’s more important than any achievement I could ever amass, or any material good I could ever possess…or any outside relationship I could ever attain. Family is forever.
I’m rebuilding a sense of integrity, which is something that was never 100 percent solid, in the first place. And, I get to serve in an area of my church that allows me to develop certain creative gifts and talents in the service of something much, much greater than me.
So, sure, it feels defeatist of me to say I’m going to let the rest of these ambitions die. And, I haven’t exactly been thrilled with that prospect. I’ve wound my way through the Five Stages of Grief multiple times, and fast enough to make a hummingbird’s head spin.
But, the alternative is to sit in despair, resentment, bitterness and anxiety, over what could have been, or what should be. Not worth it. Ever.
And, I’m not totally alone. I have my dog. Who never judges me. And, that’s more than I can say for 98 percent of the people I encounter on this planet.
So, even in the midst of this, I remain grateful. And, that means I won’t drink. And, that makes all the difference.
A couple of weeks ago, I walked out of my apartment building, headed to a training event for my church’s new building – an opportunity to get involved in AV/Tech in a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility.
My car was gone.
While it briefly flashed through my head that it might have been stolen, deep down I knew better. First and foremost, like most mid-level and up cars built from Y2K forward, my VW has an immobilizer system. It’s gotten harder to just flat break into cars, these days (which is one of the reasons we’re seeing an increase in carjackings).
Second, I knew my parking tickets were accumulating – at this point, almost daily. Ever since I moved into my new apartment, I struggled to make the numbers work. I thought I had budgeted correctly. I thought I had given myself margin. When it became apparent that I was going to be playing catchup, I thought I could do it successfully. I chose to ignore the tickets, knowing I did so at my own peril. The final cost to address those consequences will be enough to threaten my living arrangements.
I swore I wouldn’t let myself get here, again. And, in doing so, one more time, I found myself at an emotional low equal to last year, when my ex wife filed for divorce, hired a ruthless attorney (knowing I would eventually be footing the bill), and refused to do anything to assist me in getting our house ready for sale. In the midst of all this, I reconnected with an old acquaintance, in what became an attempt to move on to my next chapter. It ended horribly, in the most passive-aggressive, mean-girl fashion one can imagine, and once again, I was the grade school kid who was bodyslammed on the pavement, in front of my mother – who was waiting to pick me up. I was the seventh-grader, who was tripped by a classmate, at the suggestion of someone else. I was the kid who was mocked for just about anything and everything imaginable.
I get flashes of this insecure feeling, whenever I deal with a rude customer at my current job – which just so happens to be in those same stomping grounds – a sought-after suburb that has been the subject of numerous national profiles, for its so-called image of Americana. In reality, much of it is populated with a particularly self-impressed, entitled bunch, who don’t have near the amount of wealth they want you to believe they do. I know rich people. They don’t act like this. In fact, if my financially successful father ever got wind that one of his kids was acting like this, we’d be summarily called out. Which is as it should be.
I got flashes of this, toward the end of my time in Shaw – an equally self-impressed bunch, with that irascible combination of privilege and self-righteousness. I’ll call them “Woke Rich.” They’re perfectly comfortable telling you to check your privilege – while sitting in a half-million-dollar house, on a street with private security.
Mind you, I have zero problem with wealth. I’ve benefited from access to said wealth. More times than I care to admit, since it was often the result of me getting myself in a jam. My problems are with entitlement and hypocrisy. But, are those really the root of my problems with the so-called “beautiful people” – the “cool kids”?
Or am I still wounded from my childhood traumas, of which there were many?
Probably both, and truthfully, more of the latter than I want to confess. Because, more than the physical pain I endured at the hands of others, what I dread most is humiliation – especially in public.
Because, I couldn’t handle these things with an equal amount of physical measure, I learned to channel that anger toward my mistreatment in a written voice that was equal parts authoritative and acerbic. I learned I could cut people to the core in an argument. But, more often, I took it out on things – destroying books, CDs, stereo equipment, flat-screen TVs, kitchen windows, drywall. I angry drove. I stuffed my emotions to a breaking point, then exploded, regardless of who might be around.
Sometimes, I still do these things. And, while my more glaring behaviors are no more, it is clear that a life full of resentment only leads to futility and unhappiness. And, for me, it will eventually lead to self-destructive behavior – which I can no longer afford.
The full catalogue of those resentments, and the motivations behind them, became perfectly clear, some time ago. The tools to address them, became things I would start to put into practice, with some success. And, yet, here I am, dealing with the consequences of impulsive decision making, and reactions based in anger. I am, at once, clearing away the wreckage of my past, while dealing with the continued mistakes of the present.
And, it is painfully clear that my old ways of coping simply won’t work. If that is my one takeaway – two months shy of (yet another) one year of sobriety – then, so be it. Some of us are sicker than others. And, I am grateful that my ACA-subsidized health insurance allows me access to good psychiatrists, psychologists, and any necessary medicines – with minimal copays…actually, none, when it comes to the meds I need.
In his first sermon in my church’s new building, my pastor put it this way: “you can’t build a new building over old junk.” Another writer, whom I deeply respect, put it similarly: “Have we tried to make mortar without sand?”
Am I willing to discard my old junk? Doing so, is going to mean involving other people – including and especially mental health professionals. Doing so – for me – is going to mean dependence on some power greater than my own. This is more than esoteric tilting at windmills. Because, if I was so capable of willing my behavior away, I would have done it already.
Honestly, I don’t have much hope that doing these things will result in the abundant life that others tell me is possible. I only know that the alternative is continuing in my current perception of reality – which will only result in further heartache, bitterness and pain.
Today, the best I can do is believe that others believe. And, take action accordingly – which means going after the community I crave. If I’ve done any one thing correctly, over these last ten months, it’s been exactly that. And, I believe that they believe it’ll work.