My philosophy as it relates to diagnosis and treatment has evolved since I first became clean and sober in 2003. While I began (and continue) my path to recovery as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have never completely accepted a number of its foundational tenants. For example, I remain uncomfortable ascribing to the disease model espoused by AA (and elsewhere). I believe every person with a substance use disorder played a major role in creating their problem (routinizing bad decisions), and they will need to do the same in recovery (changing the behavior). I recognize the usefulness in calling alcoholism a disease in terms of framing the therapeutic aspects of 12-step recovery models and in determining healthcare policies, qualifying for insurance, etc. Like with any disease, I also believe that alcoholism and drug addiction are progressive in nature.

As a counselor, I adhere to the five ethical principles: Autonomy, Beneficence, Fidelity, Justice and Nonmaleficence.  Realizing that while each has specificities all are beholden to the other. Indeed, one may be in conflict with another, such as confidentiality and the potential for imminent harm. Untangling a sticky ball requires a measured hand. In a given situation, if right and wrong are not crystal clear, my intent will be to discuss options and scenarios with my peers before acting. One of the most important words booming from your lesson plan: CONSULT! I look forward to that collaboration.

The first thing I learned in Journalism school there is always two sides to a story. Likewise there are multiple stories for every individual who suffers from alcohol or chemical dependency. A person’s drug narrative is often shaped by their genealogy as well as environment. Things like family structure (or lack thereof), social groups, ethnic and cultural norms and other issues almost always play a role in the formation of a substance use disorder. How could they not? Therefore, a counselor worth his or her salt must be culturally competent beyond what passes for acceptable in today’s divisive political climate. Working in the field I know this is an area I must continue to develop, letting go preconceived notions I may be harboring.

 Specifically, regarding your class, I very much appreciated the flow, tone and manner of each session. Given the myriad technology issues and the upside-down nature of 2020, I found this course almost therapeutic! Yes, it was a lot of work but the curriculum was such that I could immerse myself in it, whether absorbing content or creating it. So… thank you!

Like many of my classmates reported I also enjoyed and appreciated the role-playing activity. “Practice” like that is always appreciated. Yet, my favorite part of the course was/is the active discussion concurrent to your lectures. Spirited discussion with peers and professor works for me; I like learning this way!

Creating my presentation piece was, dare I say, fun. Immersing myself into the content was of course beneficial from a learning perspective. But the assignment was stimulating from a creative perspective as well. Making slides. Creating graphics. Presenting to the team. Giving and receiving these presentations was time well spent.

Finally, thank you Dr. ——- for your efforts in trying to keep the Certification Program going. Whatever happens, I appreciate knowing my commitment to this coursework is valued beyond its profit margins or lack thereof.

The Acorn

November 16, 2020

On the last day of your senior year in high school you broke a rule by wearing shorts. The Principal called you out for the infraction, stopping you in the hallway. The details of your exchange are lost in time but you most certainly had been disrespectful. Whatever the case, he ended up banning you from the graduation ceremony. A harsh blow, but hardly the first one the school had dealt you during your tenure. Thankfully, it would be the last. Good riddance. Your mother was upset by the news. Maybe she cried. Maybe she took your side. You don’t remember. It was a long time ago. However, you do recall your father’s reaction. “Good,” he had said. “Now I don’t have to go.” You were relieved that he hadn’t gotten mad. But was it also possible that you’d been hurt by his indifference to your banishment (and by proxy his). After all, had you not been banned from the ceremony your father would have been forced to attend. At the time you viewed it as a win: neither of you sitting in the hot sun waiting for a piece of paper. But shouldn’t a father want to go to his son’s graduation?

The acorn does not fall far from the tree. Having three children, you too are put off by the myriad events you were made to attend. Parent-teacher conferences. Recitals. Soccer matches. Graduations. You were ambivalent about going to any and all of them. Sarah hated this about you. “Why must you only think of yourself?” She asked a million times. As time wore on, she would become even more direct: “You’re going, whether you like it or not.”

And go you did. Sometimes grumbling, rarely happy about it, always happy when it was over. You have wondered about this attitude. Many times. It’s not that you didn’t want your children doing these things you just didn’t want to do it with them. It was nerve wracking watching Remy hammering away at the piano or Callie being bested on the soccer field. Worse was enduring the other children. That was the opposite of entertaining. What did Oscar Wilde once say? Hell is other people’s children. They bored you to annoyance.

But you went. Dutifully. You have Sarah to thank for this.

After joining AA, you learned to name your character defects and that your principal sin was one of self-centeredness. Early on, you recall a member’s lamentation about drinking in his car while his daughter played the cello. How low can one go? He asked the group. Join the club you wanted to say. It went without saying.

Your upbringing demanded that you become self-sufficient. Your difficult surroundings forced you ever deeper into your head, where you created fantasies to offset the growing fears and frustrations of the outside world. You became introverted and built your life around it – it being you. Reading, writing, collecting butterflies, drawing comics, even masturbating; by the time you started using drugs and drinking the die had been cast. You put yourself first because in your mind no one else ever would. You had ample evidence to support this view. Your parents abandoned you. Friends betrayed you. Girls were beyond you.

You have covered this territory before: in therapy, in AA, in your writing, in your head, ad nausea. Even during your darkest hours, you knew better. That’s why you intervened on yourself, joined AA. What you hadn’t counted on was “better” meaning selfless. You desired to be a better husband and father but you couldn’t let go of your will. Despite everything, you admired your wits and what they had wrought. In AA, you heard people attack such pretenses over and over but… There was always but. Needless to say, untangling yourself from your self has proven to be tricky. A lot more tricky.

Even so, there is much to celebrate. You are not so angry anymore. You are responsible, law-abiding, and paid your taxes. You do not feel cheated by the world or anyone in it. Though you know the world is unfair you also realize that this is why you are still alive and not a drunken statistic. If life were fair you’d be dead. You are grateful for what you have. You are sober.

Every day you do something physical, something spiritual and something for your brain. You have your set of unwise and unhealthy behaviors but it soothes you. It could be worse.

But the calm always seems conspicuous. Can you maintain it? Will another front arrive? The questions buzz like mosquitos, disturbing the peace. What now?

Mustard Seed Epiphany

September 29, 2020

Start small…

.

“I had an epiphany.” Far from spontaneous, you are looking forward to discussing it with her.

“Do tell,” she replies. “I’m all about the epiphanies.” Mia peers at you from behind a large coffee mug. The image would make a good shrink Emoji.

“Do you know the biblical story regarding the mustard seed?

Mia nods. “It’s an allegory. Something about inauspicious beginnings.”

You snap your fingers. “That’s the one. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed… I take it to mean great things can come from the tiniest of starts, like faith in God.”

“Are you born again?” Mia asks, feigning surprise. She knows you too well.

Her sarcasm does not deter you. “I believe we all plant mustard seeds knowingly or unknowingly. Acts of kindness. Helping others. Practicing these principles in all our affairs.”

“Okay…” Mia purses her lips. “But I’m not sure that constitutes an epiphany?”

“Hear me out. Most people think being of service means action. Something one does. Like giving money to charity. Meeting another alcoholic at Starbucks.” You pause. “But what if it also meant something you don’t do?”

“Like not drinking?”

“Exactly. But that’s only the beginning.” You polish off the last of your Red Bull, which explains your exuberance, part of it, anyway. “Not taking sides. Not criticizing. Not trying to be right all the time. Listening instead of talking. Not being that guy anymore.”

Mia nods. “I’ve noticed the difference,” she says. “Your anger has abated considerably since we first met.” She leans toward you. “I’ve told you this before.”

“But I didn’t really believe you. I’m suspicious of my own progress.”

Mia sighs. “You don’t accept praise well.”

“Never have.” Which is odd, given how much I’ve always sought it out. But I’m learning. Instead of deflecting a compliment by saying something sarcastic I’ve learned to say thank you. That’s my point. My epiphany. By not reacting I’m, in essence, acting. Does that make any sense?”

“Doing nothing is underrated,” Mia says. “Especially given the reactive culture we live in today.”

You roll your eyes. “It seems like everybody offends everybody. Trolling. Protesting.  Where does it end?”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t.”

“Well, it will with me.” You throw your hands into the air. “Let the world trample all over itself. I’m done.”

“Hallelujah!” Mia exclaims.

“Hallelujah.”

Welcome to Armageddon

September 25, 2020

“I’m going to tell you a true story, okay?”

Callie is looking at her phone but you know she is listening. You are driving her to rehearsal. She has a big part in Les Miserables. She plays the grown-up version of Cosette. Though you saw the movie you don’t really remember the story. Victor Hugo is not your thing. Being a musical, Callie has been practicing her song for weeks. You’ve heard her belting out lyrics from her room, in the shower, on the trampoline in the backyard, which she pretended was a stage. You couldn’t tell if she was good or not but her enthusiasm was infectious. It gladdened you to see her so passionate, so happy. Many members from your family are coming in to see her perform. Hundreds of other people as well. The tickets cost money and this is a real show. Up until yesterday Callie had been totally psyched.

One of her “friends” had disrespected her online, insulting her singing skills or some other shit. Usually a brick, Callie had been wounded.  Your wife told you as much. Now you felt it in your daughter’s sullen demeanor.

So you tell her a story…

“Before you were born,” you begin. “Back when I was coming up at my agency in Chicago, we were preparing for this huge presentation. It was my idea we’d be showing. I had written all the copy. And I had the game to go with it. I knew what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. I had my shit down.”

Callie looks up when you curse. Good. You had her attention. No easy feat with a teenager.

“Anyway, the night before I rehearsed my bit in front of the team. I get done. My colleagues are pleased. One even clapped. Then the head account person –the guy who deals with the client- he proceeds to crap all over my work. He’s not happy with the creative, he says. It’s shit. I’m dumbfounded. Where did this come from? He’d seen it before.”

Traffic on the 101 is heavy but it allows you to turn and look at your daughter. “The guy says to me, in front of everybody, if you present that work tomorrow it will be Armageddon.”

“The end of the world?” Callie asks. “What did you do?” Callie’s eyes are one of her most beautiful features, big and blue, and they are wide open staring at you.

You laugh. “I told him I would make changes. That I’d do what he wanted.”

“That sucks,” your daughter says.

“It would have sucked,” you say. “Had I listened to him. The next day I delivered my presentation just as I’d planned it. My work. My way. And I fucking killed it. When I was done the client cheered.”

“Really?”

“Damn straight,” you say. “But the story’s not over. After the meeting ends, everybody’s shaking hands, patting each other on the back. I walk over to the account guy who’d dissed my work. He thinks I’m going to shake his hand. I look him right in the eyes, and I say, ‘Welcome to Armageddon, asshole.’”

Almost missing your exit, you swiftly change lanes. So caught up are you in the tale.

“Wow, that’s a great story, dad,” Callie says. “It’s all true?”

“Every bit, sweetheart.”

At the red light, you look at Callie full on. The middle child, she’s the sassy one. The daughter that gives your wife the most trouble. You choose your words carefully. “If people disrespect you or your work that does not mean you have to listen to them. Just be…”

The light turns green and you move the car forward. The word comes to you.

“Devastating.”

AA teaches that redemption comes from being of service. Letting go the bondage of self. This is true. Yet redemption also comes by shattering the chains from the bondage of others. You want your daughter to believe in herself, even when others don’t.

In the parking lot, Callie thanks you for driving her to practice. But you sense something deeper. You can see it in her eyes.

The fierceness has returned.

You watch Callie as she marches toward the theater, joining her other cast members. When she was a toddler, she had refused to walk upright, instead choosing to tread on her knees. The pediatrician had concerns. Your wife was worried. It’s not normal, they said. But you knew her day would come. And in your mind so did she.

The world is a stage and you just gave an important player some badass direction.

Sometimes Grace

September 22, 2020

Leaves in the pool…

You always try and view the Program through the eyes of a newcomer. Though many members feel otherwise, for you listening to the old timers has limited value. The rawness of someone in his first 30 days is why you keep coming back. You haven’t had a drink in 14 years and gave up pills soon after. You are looking for someone new. You slide back in your usual seat at the Living in the Solution meeting at the Loft, a small but airy room over the rec center atop a hill in Strawberry. You have a diet coke in one hand and three chocolate chip cookies in the other, both qualifying as “lesser addictions.” You have many more of those.

Joan, a 70-year old former model and fashion entrepreneur, is sharing about the ongoing struggle with her sister. She loves and hates the woman in equal measures.

You can relate.

Despite animus, Joan and her sister do not desire to break off relations. Instead they fought, enduring the pain each inflicted upon one another. Choosing it over abandonment. You guess sisters are different that way. They are bound in ways you’ll never understand. Your wife was tight as hell with hers.

At first you didn’t like Joan. She came off like a bored, rich lady in Marin (which she was); her petty shares struck you as “leaves in the pool.” She lamented the men who took over her company when she was too drunk to run it. Even though they had paid her millions. She cursed her sister for not giving her enough credit in building their fashion empire then blamed her for the drinking that lost it. Then there was the dog she almost ran over in her BMW, while drunk. Other indignities half remembered. Joan spoke in a drawl that made her sound both queenly and oddly still drunk.

This bothered you until it didn’t.

You came to realize that all difficulties were leaves in the pool: Yours, hers and everyone else’s. People fell in and out of love or had others fall in and out of love with them. Lost family and money (“romances and finances” as they said in AA) and more and so on. All was petty. But if a thing made you drink it might as well have been the apocalypse. You were wrong to have judged Joan. Furthermore, you had judged her wrongly. In a lovely turnabout, you and Joan became close. Developed a rapport. You admired her. She hadn’t relied on a man to get all she’d gotten. Despite the wine and cocaine (her drugs of choice), she’d done well for herself, by herself. She’d earned her house in Tiburon same as her seat in AA. Now you are glad to see Joan when she comes in the door. You save her a seat next. You smile at the smell of her perfume.

At the Loft, most of the regulars are at least 50, many much older. Words of death and dying take up evermore meeting time. Yet, Joan seldom goes there, another reason you liked her.  As for the specter of death, you’ve come to believe that if one is serene it too is just a leaf in the pool. But most people are not inherently serene. And you are no exception.

Joan concludes her share by saying she’s grateful for the “sometimes-grace” she’s received while dealing with her sister. It’s an ongoing struggle, she says, as most struggles are, but she is overcoming her resentment, and is staying sober, one day at a time.

Sometimes Grace.

This is what AA is all about. When things go sideways or even well, you don’t drink or use drugs. You keep sane. You know peace. You look forward to living another day.

Despite your troubles, the leaves in your pool, you’re glass is almost always half full. You are strangely happy. Was this grace? Unlike many AA’s, you doubt that it’s God. But you are certain the Program has something to do with it. People like Joan.

This afternoon, you don’t share your problems. Instead, you talk about your wife in favorable terms. “We have been married over 20 years,” you say, with genuine wonder in your voice. “And we have stayed that way, for better and worse. Through it all.”

For the record, you are petrified of death. How it will come for you. What you will have missed when it does. All the things you will never know. Those are the leaves in your pool.