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.

Iowa

March 20, 2021

Distracted that hot summer, you’d done the minimum to prepare for college in the fall. At the last minute you ended up accepting the lone invitation you’d been lucky enough to receive: from a miniscule liberal arts school in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. It had fewer students than your apartment had tenants. Sure, why not?

Arrived at Cornell you firmly believed it was the real you who showed up: the intellectual poet, able to drink and fuck all night and write about it the next day. Students and professors alike would be captivated by your artistic soul. You’d have a diverse peer group, one that would appreciate you in all your complicated glory.

You almost pulled it off.

Not surprisingly, you adored collegiate academics, taking to literature and philosophy like a fish to water. Math sucked but you’d always hated that subject anyway. Besides, you were going to be a successful writer. You’d pay an accountant to count all your money.

You wrote sordid poetry, reveling in how it provoked your less sophisticated classmates. You were a provocateur, like Bukowski. Now here was a role you could relish.

Despite coming from the big city, you enjoyed the smallness of the school as well as the town. In Mt. Vernon there were only two bars, one for the students and the other for locals, mostly farmers who wore their dirty tractor caps with pride. Having had ample experience navigating dichotomies, it was easy sliding from one base to the other. In many ways, you preferred the local atmosphere, basking in its authenticity, developing a growing appreciation for real women who worked for a living as opposed to the entitled girls who didn’t.

Alas, the good vibes would be short lived. Turns out many of the students were not as keen about your iconoclast personae as you were. Rather than changing your game, you glommed onto a pair of likeminded outsiders: a super rich Mexican named Ricardo and a fellow Chicagoan, Billy from the tough streets of Bridgeport.

In your eyes, you were The Three Amigos! The Three Musketeers! Others undoubtedly saw you as The Three Stooges. But so what? As a trio, you reveled in the virtue of your minority status. Applying it to captivate the virtue of others. The Three Amigos created a makeshift gambling empire, taking bets on horse races tallied from the newspaper. Drunk and high, The Three Musketeers stole a car in Iowa City and for good measure rolled it straight into a pond in the center of campus.

These acts endeared you to no one. But it was your seduction of a pretty coed that ultimately caused you the most grief. A tiny campus, word spread fast that you’d taken advantage of this poor girl. Soon, you were blackballed from parties. A footballer threatened you, claiming he’d kick your ass if he ever saw you with her again. Not an issue as women no longer wanted anything to do with you. In your dorm’s bathroom someone composed unflattering graffiti about you, highlighted by an equally demeaning portrait. You had long hippie hair, a sleazy mustache and an earing. Behind you was the skyline of Chicago, lest anyone be confused.

Clearly, you’d overstayed your welcome.

Next year, you would attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a far bigger, famously liberal, more edgy environment, where your kind, whatever that was, could flourish.

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.

The Lizard King

February 24, 2021

Long, curly hair framing an impetuous, sensuous face; a chunky, beaded necklace clinging to his lean torso like the serpents he so often rhapsodized about, this was Jim Morrison in his prime. The photograph, taken by Joel Brodsky, captured the iconic rock star on one of the last days he would ever look this good, before degrading into a bloated, bushy alcoholic. A beautiful man who had it all, Morrison would be dead in four years. According to the photographer, Morrison was blind drunk during that photo shoot in 1967. You couldn’t tell from the pictures. He looked alive and virile. The camera had lied.

Not long ago, you discovered an old picture of yourself, shirtless playing table tennis in the backyard of your father’s first California house, in Santa Monica. Tanned and lean, with long brown hair, you were also wearing a beaded necklace. Was this your Jim Morrison moment, where you looked as good as you ever would? You remember not feeling that way. Like Morrison, you’d been a chubby kid. Those insecurities were still there even if the pounds weren’t. You recall being proud of your lean body but frightened by it as well. New skin or not, you trembled inside it. You looked cool but would never feel that way.

And just like your hero, you would become an alcoholic. You’d also written your share of bad poetry.

Goddess of burning urination

Clap Trap, A small-breasted nymph

Groveling for lust you succumbed

To pumping her indifferently

In this city of women

You lay dregs and drunken exceptions

Routine masturbations

Are cock and ball hand me downs

You’ve forgotten the rest, thankfully. It lies buried between sheaves of old papers somewhere in the garage. But the photograph brings it all back: summer break from college, visiting the old man in California. Looking at it now it’s tempting to think that this was the time of your life. Yet you remember that trip to LA as anything but.

The first night, borrowing your father’s car, you’d gone with your brother to Hamburger Hamlet, supposedly a cool place, according to your dad. You remember him telling you not to stay out late or bring home any chicks. He’d winked. You can still remember the envy in his eyes. Oh, to be young again, he said loudly as you paraded out the door.

But the evening was a dud. You were too young to order beer and you certainly didn’t pick up any women. You didn’t even speak with one. Entombed in a leather booth, you and Jesse tried valiantly to look like you had it going on. In a half hour you were done eating. It was painful. The sun hadn’t even set. You couldn’t go home now. Your dad would be so disappointed. The two of you decided to drive into Hollywood and check out the strip. You smoked a joint and turned up the music. But no amount of posturing could hide the fact that you were a couple of clueless teenagers in their dad’s Honda. You’d spent the rest of the evening killing time, waiting for it to be late enough to return home with a semblance of your dad’s fantasy intact.

to be continued

The Endless Friendless

February 19, 2021

Chasing friends was humiliating and losing them even worse. Yet, the pattern of loss was real. And you were the common denominator. Was Sarah right? Were you too sensitive? Are you an asshole? Your estranged brother seemed to think so. The letters from your father had been unequivocal.

It wasn’t just old friends. There were the people you had helped professionally. And now, when you needed a lifeline, they were ghosts. One man, call him James, lives only 5 miles from you. He runs an agency in San Francisco, whose parent company you’d gotten him the job at.  When his career had been faltering, as well as his marriage, you recruited him to Chicago and made him a partner. You saved him. James knows you need work and he knows what you can do. Yet, he’s not called you once.

Why?

You have beaten this horse to a pulp in therapy. You shared about it in AA. You discussed it with Sarah, your father, the man on the moon. Endured their subtle damning explanations, pointing at you.

People in the fellowship like you. What do they see that no one else does? Like most, you present the best version of yourself in AA. Was that it? Still, had your second best really been that bad? Enough to alienate Tom, Peter, David and James? Maybe your mother’s theory would explain this great mystery. You sure as hell couldn’t.

Your mom has been talking non-stop, about the harrowing and narrowing life of a 77-year-old woman, living alone. Brave yet often frightened, rarely lonely but leery of isolating, doing the best that she can. She’s thrilled that you called. She loves you. Goodbye.