Tired.

April 20, 2021

Sometimes, I feel like I don’t know what the f–k I’m doing. Sometimes, I feel like I know exactly what I’m doing. The operative word is “feel” because that is the variable, the thing that changes. Otherwise, I’m pretty much doing what is in front of me. But, man o man, I hate feeling like I don’t know shit. And lately, that feeling is all too common. Especially when it comes to the myriad details required to maintain a semblance of order in this chaotic, digital, diseased and polarized world. Just today I got another form letter from the IRS saying I owe X dollars for some miscue from 2019. I think it’s bullshit. But its on ME to prove otherwise. And you can’t just call the Feds. It’s a rabbit hole. A matrix. And then my insurance sends me another notice of denied coverage for an office visit my daughter made in 2020. Again, bullshit. again, on me to prove it. Every day these mosquitos invade my serenity. Add that to my full time job caring for sick people and trying to stay healthy and trying to work out and trying to try. A man gets tired. You feel me?

      

       Coming from the proverbial broken home (parents divorced at a very early age), I first identified with the role of Lost Child. I felt alone and rudderless. Obviously, the negative impact on me in assuming this role stands out. I had no one on which to model my behavior, and so sought after role models, and, being a just a child, I made many bad choices in this process, some crucial. Finding a group of older, troublemaking teens in the neighborhood became my de facto family system. Drugs and alcohol were our glue.

      Did I find the role of Lost Child? Or did it find me? Permit me a few paragraphs to set the stage for this “role” of my lifetime…

      Having been clean and sober for nearly twenty years, I am deeply familiar with the 12-step model for recovery (I actively participate in Alcoholics Anonymous and am grateful for the program) but I also recognize that AA and NA are not treatment programs and that there are other modalities and therapies for helping patients achieve long-term sobriety.

      That being said, I feel my message resonates with young people and I am interested in helping them in particular. Part of this reasoning has to do with my own recovery journey and how I have always endeavored to tailor my message to those still raw in their recovery, or even still using. I feel a kinship with individuals who struggle accepting AA’s first step: that of being powerless over drugs and alcohol and accepting that their lives have become unmanageable. Perhaps I remember all too well the lonely child I once was, and still am, and am motivated to divine sobriety from these kindred spirits.

      Over the years, I’ve heard many people “in the rooms” state that they were “born alcoholic.” Something akin to being an addict and not knowing it until consuming that first beer or line of cocaine, when suddenly the beast appeared, soon taking over their souls.  Others argue that they learned how to become alcoholic and/or addicts by observing key influencers in their life, i.e. parents or peers and modeling their behavior accordingly. Nature or nurture? Be the addict’s roots steeped in blood or sewn up from the environment, nothing captures both of these ideas like the concept of family. By definition, family systems involve heredity. Many proofs exist linking disease to the family tree: “Diabetes runs in the family.” Why wouldn’t the same probabilities exist for the disease of alcoholism? Yet, inheriting “the sins of the father” can also happen independent of a biological blueprint. The alcoholic father or mother create a dysfunctional solar system in whose gravity no child can escape.

       As with most paradigms, the likelihood is that both variables (heredity and environment) play equally potent roles in the creation of most alcoholics and addicts. Whether one leans toward one school of thought or the other matters little when considered through the lens of family systems. My own experience is indeed a mash-up of the two. Both my parents have drinking problems: one identifies as an alcoholic and is in recovery. My father does not and is not. Both my brothers struggle with alcoholism. Oddly enough, no one else in my known family tree has anything closely resembling what I went through, as an alcoholic and an addict. So, depending on how one were to frame the argument, my disease is either clearly inherited from my parents or we in the immediate family were merely anomalies.

       Personally speaking, I believe my own addiction was as much a function of my environment as bloodline if not more so. Growing up, I wasn’t particularly aware of my parent’s drinking. However, their early divorce and the circumstances it led to absolutely were pivotal in my descent into alcoholism and drug addiction. I grew up the proverbial “latchkey kid.” Left to my own devices, without suitable role models, I readily discovered kinship with the drinkers and druggies in my neighborhood and high school. With no one looking out for my best interests, I fended for myself, creating a dangerous family out of a motley crew. Shit happens.

      Still, my family’s dynamics (or lack thereof), created myriad opportunities for my addiction to grow or, perhaps better said, created a particular stage set for my role as a son, brother and addict to intertwine and bind together.

      Within role-playing dynamics of family systems, most latchkey kids (a child who is at home without adult supervision for some part of the day, especially after school until a parent returns from work) might identify with all four basic roles: hero, mascot, lost child and scapegoat – taking one on as the family evolves or devolves. Then latching on to one role more than any other. That was my experience.  Feeling abandoned by my parents because of their early divorce and their own ambitions and hedonistic patterns, I felt alone and rudderless, a lost child. To this day, I feel that my sense of being the “other” began here, as the lost child. Yet, I aspired for more and would come to embrace characteristics in line with the hero archetype: the firstborn son in my family unit craving attention, adulation and accolades. To the degree I got these rewards was commensurate to how much I embraced the role. I did pretty well.  As I grew older I came to romance the Lost Child role (way before I ever heard of family systems). I learned to live in my head and spent a lifetime refining my creativity, becoming a copywriter, author and defining myself as a right brain, creative person. I also became an addict and alcoholic, where I discovered inside my head could be a “bad neighborhood!”

      Interestingly, my brother, beset with the same variables as me, struggled far more than I did (with school, with friends, with the law) and so this lost child quickly became the unquestioned scapegoat of the family, a role he sadly typifies to this day.  Perhaps my brother needed the emotional support of a loving set of parents more than I did. He was compulsively getting into trouble. It seemed to find him. And he seemed to make it worse. For example, when arrested for smoking pot in the schoolyard he made it worse by lying about it, and then, making a bad situation terrible, denied that what he did was wrong in the first place. This scapegoat seemed to always be defending him self. His acting out only made me look good, relatively speaking. It became an aspect I relentlessly exploited.

      For long stretches we both acquired and cultivated the defining characteristic of a mascot: namely, being the funnyman. Using humor (the darker the better) we learned the dark art of sarcasm and became lifelong cynics in the process. And to think this all started being family mascots, deflecting with jokes, our own sadness and pain.

      Before and after my recovery, I’ve become attuned to seeing these roles and variations presented by others. In particular, I’ve found it to be useful form of “profiling” within the treatment community. Understanding how archetypes and roles played a part of each of my client’s addiction stories as well as how they present within the context of the milieu is a pragmatic and fascinating way to build rapport and create a therapeutic relationship.

Whiz Kid

April 10, 2021

After Mt. Vernon, Madison was a revelation. Surrounded by three beautiful lakes, the campus was an oasis of cool, the nucleus of a progressive city also the state capital. The population could not have been more diverse. Music and the arts thrived. There were myriad places to go. Bars galore. The drinking age was 18.

Once again, you’d done little to prepare for the move and so had to settle on a dumpy apartment with designated roommates: a Polish factory worker’s son from Milwaukee, Arthur and an exchange student from Thailand, whose name you couldn’t spell even if you remembered it. Though you had nothing in common with either of them, they were both diligent students, reserved in temperament, hardworking to their core. You hardly saw them, wouldn’t know they existed if not for the occasional aroma of Thai cooking or Arthur’s booming laugh. Once in a while you shared a beer. But making friends with your roommates was not a priority. You were only interested in two things: writing and women. Drinking seemed a foregone conclusion.

You expanded your proverbial horizons, joining the two campus newspapers as well as helping to create one of your own, a music-focused magazine called the Mad City Music Mirror. You saw your name in print every week and often received letters about things you had written. An audience! Your career as a professional writer had officially begun. Reviewing albums and concerts and films. Someday you would be a journalist for Rolling Stone. It was the perfect job, allowing you to write perilous prose, drink with abandon, and meet scores of beautiful and scandalous women. Highlights from this period included reviewing two up and coming bands, The Replacements and Violent Femmes. If not for your glowing praise, who knows whether either group would have succeeded? Such was your hubris.

In reality, you mostly reviewed local talent, including a hair band called Whiz Kid. Whiz Kid played Lover Boy and Head East covers for drunken sorority girls and the men who loved them. For two bucks a head one got three sets of music. Like any novice, you rejoiced in ripping them a new one. You were not up on that stage but you had a typewriter, which was mightier than any guitar. You poked fun at their cheesy name, ridiculed the matching spandex outfits and blow-dried big hair. Employing every bit of your modest skills, laughing out loud as you wrote. When the story got published you put it with all the others, in a scrapbook showcasing your diabolical wit.

Needless to say, Whiz Kid did not share your sense of humor.

Soon after the article came out, you stumbled into the lead singer at a club. The man knew who you were and he was plenty upset. He asked why you had so cruelly laid into his band. Was being a dick part of your job description? Your inebriated reply: No disrespect, brother, but playing covers by Lover Boy is what sealed your fate.

The vocalist did not punch you. Instead he hit back with something you would never forget. The reason his band played shitty music, he said, was in order to get gigs, so he could make rent and support his wife and new baby. None of the bars in town hired original talent unless they had a following. Whiz kid was unknown. Therefore, he had to sing Working for the Weekend because that’s what 19-year-olds paid money to see.

You had no defense. Because you had no clue the very real life this man had been leading. Struck by his truth, you were ashamed. From that moment forward, you abandoned your desire to be a professional critic. Whiz Kid had been working for the weekend, literally every weekend, in order to survive. You had no right criticizing them for doing so. Your cruel review served no discernible purpose. Save for hurting a group of people.

In light of this revelation, you pivoted. Deciding to be a copywriter, a form you were already familiar with given it was your father’s vocation. You wouldn’t even have to change your major, communication arts. You studied radio, television and film, took an advanced course in screen writing as well as continued writing for all the newspapers. No one could call you lazy. At night, between hunting down women and getting your drink on, you also began writing the great American novel. As well as an award-winning copywriter, you were going to be the next Jay McInerney. You’d found your North Star: the hard drinking writer. You would romanticize and hold onto this identity for decades.

In addition to liquor, women were key to your newfound persona. Chasing them down became pastime. Disenchanted by uptight female students, you developed a fondness for blue-collar girls. The former required too much effort. You’d once dated a sorority girl and spent weeks of nights trying to get past first base with her, which never happened. Cocktail waitresses had no such inhibitions. They seemed to want what you wanted, a few rum and Cokes, MTV, and sex on the carpet. You could leave at 4AM, without drama. Maybe you’d see them again. If not, it didn’t matter. Here was a contract you could get behind.

Juice

March 10, 2021

The summer after you finished high school. Having recently moved into a small apartment, stressed out by her own demons as well as yours, your mother indicated you find someplace else to live. She’d found evidence of your partying in the basement and could not take it anymore. Never mind you were still a minor in the eyes of the law. You had to go. Jesse was already camped at your father’s townhouse so that was not an option. Naturally, you chose living with a small time drug dealer you’d met in the park. You could not legally sign a lease but “Juice” had been more than happy to take $500 dollars under the table. It was a win-win. He’d even given you the flat’s lone bedroom, preferring the living room because “it was bigger.” Far from the threatening stereotype of a drug dealer, Juice was about as odd a character as you’d ever met. African American, he was also albino, which made him whiter than you. He had pink eyes. And he had lots of drugs, which in turn attracted lots of women.

Your mother met Juice only once but you will never forget her stunned expression, upon seeing this pink-skinned, black man whose apartment you now shared. Akin to a spit take, like something from the popular TV show, Laugh In or more appropriately, The Odd Couple. But mom was a bohemian and Juice was on his best behavior. The arrangement was allowed to continue. Not that she could have prevented it anyway. For the record, your father wasn’t made aware of your exotic roommate, only that you had one.

Those two and a half months became one long weekend. An array of females came to see Juice for pot or acid, often staying to tryst with you. Or they came specifically to fool around with you but later stayed to cop from Juice. Thus, you both shared a symbiotic relationship. Many things could have gone terribly wrong that summer, and arguably should have. Yet, from what you recalled it had been a total blast.

Continued from previous post…

Even though it was only a few blocks from your father’s house, the next day you both drove his car to the coast. The Missing Persons song on the radio was accurate: Nobody walks in LA. Surely, the beach would provide a better experience than the previous evening. After all, this was sunny California! Girls would be everywhere. You’d have your pick. After trudging across a massive expanse of empty and hot sand, you dropped your towels a short distance from a group of teens playing volleyball. Their hair nearly white from the sun, they seemed like exotic creatures. You dared not approach. You lit up a joint, hoping maybe one of them would notice and invite you over. Didn’t happen. You decided to go for a swim, feeling foolish when you discovered how cold the ocean actually was. Nobody swam. Nobody walked. You didn’t understand California at all.

The whole trip was like that. You felt naïve and alone. Jesse’s up and down moods made it worse. You had hoped the West Coast was where you’d finally fit in, where everything would click. By the week’s end you couldn’t wait to go back to a frozen Chicago, the devil you knew.

You would return to LA many times, first to visit your father, and then for work, shooting commercials. Even then, with a great job and an expense account, a room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, you still felt inadequate and uncomfortable.

Refusing to accept such miserable feelings you chased the life you weren’t having. By then you were drinking and snorting cocaine. Many nights you sat in your opulent room, doing lines and watching pornographic movies on cable. Sometimes you’d go to the hotel bar and get loaded, fantasizing about the bombshells and starlets you would meet there. This too, never happened. Even the expensive hookers left you alone. What the hell were you doing so wrong?

The teen-dream photograph beguiles you today because everything about it belied the truth then. In fact, you had trouble sleeping. You got drunk and high almost every night, and hung out with a crowd your father had correctly labeled as losers. You looked like a winner in that photograph. Yet, under the studly veneer was rotting milquetoast.

Ironically, as a child it had been the other way around: you were a smart inquisitive kid trapped in a soft, unappealing body. Getting both aspects right has been a lifelong struggle. Unable to reconcile the two you began dividing yourself. You were either the smart kid who enjoyed learning or the defiant teenager who got high all the time. The chasm grew wider with each passing month. By senior year in high school, you were two different people, with distinct and offsetting personalities: the double life of an alcoholic.

This was not to say you didn’t enjoy life or were depressed. You did and you weren’t. But you would constantly appease one personality at the expense of the other. Neither side ever developed completely or properly.

Though you eventually would lose the weight that insecure fat kid was always close by, rendering you sensitive and shy. The vulnerability was not lost on your peers, who found myriad ways to exclude you or take advantage. When you finally started getting noticed by girls, nothing ever clicked. You were as scared to be with them as turned on. They could tell, you just knew it. Oh, how you wanted them to think you were cool. But you had no idea what they wanted from you.

You could hold your own in school, got good grades, impressing your teachers. But to your peers it was a different story. Your long hair and concert tee shirts said one thing your report cards another. The smart kids could smell the cigarettes and marijuana on your denim jacket and deemed you a stoner, seldom inviting you to their parties. God forbid you showed interest in your education to the burnouts.

And so it went. Desperately trying to belong to one group or the other, never finding your place in either. You were like one of those hapless characters in Dr. Seuss’s story, The Sneetches. Were you a star belly or a plain belly? You had no idea.

You were not allowed to attend high school graduation because you’d been caught wearing shorts on the last day of school. You weren’t the only senior to have defied this rule but were unique in telling the Principal to fuck off when he busted you. Deeply upset, your mother viewed the ban as further proof of your increasingly reckless behavior. For your father it came as a relief of sorts; he wouldn’t have to drop anything more important in order to attend.