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.

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.

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.

Chasing Windmills

January 14, 2021

Continued from previous post…

Looking back, the corner office and all its trappings could be summed up via the old expression: be careful what you wish for. You’d gotten the carrot only to find out you didn’t like carrots. You’d grabbed the brass ring but it hurt like hell holding on. Climbing the ladder you hadn’t realized the rungs below would disappear until it was too late. There was no stepping down a few lengths to adjust, catch your breath, and assess the view. You had to keep climbing or plummet, which is exactly what happened. This was not to say certain ambitious and notorious colleagues hadn’t greased the rungs, expediting your fall; they had.

Came a time there wasn’t a safety net. No cushy job after the severance. No friends to catch you, even those you’d helped on their own ladders to the top. You try not to be bitter. What good would it do? Resentments were like taking poison and expecting others to suffer.

Enlightenment didn’t prevent you from occasionally trolling these pricks. Waves of resentment rolled in now and again, like the king tides in Marin, defeating you. Maybe you turned to the Internet, desperately trying to find an outlet for your vitriol. Mercifully, mostly, you never pressed send.

You remember the day you crossed the one hundred thousand dollar mark. When you were 30 years old, and recently married. You took Sarah out to celebrate, sat across from her in the restaurant, maybe even held her hand, speaking about the future as if it were a gift. If you ever were in love with her it was then, when nothing felt impossible. That night even drinking too much seemed fine. You don’t remember if you and Sarah made love but it hardly mattered. Intoxicated, the two of you. The next morning hangovers were pleasant. Lazing together in pajamas, drinking coffee, reading the paper, gazing at homes in the real estate section, day dreaming about the fantastic tomorrows both of you would share.

And yet, even then, you knew money was most of all a yardstick for your ego. Titles would serve the same purpose. Copywriter. Senior Writer. Associate Creative Director. Creative Director. Vice President. Group Creative Director. Senior Vice President. Executive Creative Director. Rungs in the ladder. Notches in your belt.

Perhaps after achieving success, as was accused, you became complacent. It’s possible. You had made compromises, believing certain situations required it. You must wonder about that now.

You were most content when your work got noticed, won awards and attracted people to you. One campaign in particular ran the table at all the award shows, garnering praise around the world. It would become the agency’s show pony, and you rode it proudly. The best whore in the whorehouse and you were its pimp. The man. Waiting for an elevator at work, a group of marketing students gathered behind you. You heard one of them excitedly whisper to his mate. “That’s him!” He was talking about you. “No fucking way,” the other guy said.

Way.

Being revered was beyond anything you’d ever experienced, more gratifying than your promotions and trophies. And it had come unsolicited. Out of the ether! For what seemed like the first time, you’d been noticed for greatness not flaws. No longer were you the fat kid punched in the gut and crucified on the diving board. You were special, with proof. You’d waited so long for that moment had fantasized about it. Comeuppance. By then the fantasy was less about smashing your tormentors and more about gaining respect and validation. You had no idea what it would look like until that afternoon by the elevators, when the world shifted, ever so slightly, favoring you.

You chased that feeling like the drug that it was, madly looking for it in every promotion, every raise, every accolade. It was never enough but the next one would be.

Relationships and family took a back seat. Any idiot could find a mate and have babies. Friends were transient. Parents weren’t there. Finally, you had something you could control. What you craved was conditional and directly related to your accomplishments. Your vocation became the most important thing in your life. You drank. You got high. But it was just a byproduct of success or a panacea to failure. Finally, you had a calling.

You were chasing windmills.