Tidings of Acceptance and Peace

cropped-lanterns.jpgThe first hint of silliness came from a coworker who said “Bless you,” when I sneezed. She waited, expecting a thank you, like a bellhop looking for a tip.

She became further irritated later when she sneezed and I didn’t bless her.  I don’t think Pope Gregory the Great, who started this little superstition during the Bubonic Plague, expected it to become contentious. And if Medieval denizens were correct, my soul might have escaped through my nose when I sneezed, so I had more important things to worry about.

In an effort not to offend, I wish you Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas, or Happy Christmas, or Merry Holidays. I hope I’m covered. Oh, and Happy Saturnalia to my pagan friends. Sorry Jews, you haven’t made enough fuss, and Hanukkah came too early this year.  And Kwanza, well people who celebrate that are used to being ignored.

Some Christians (too many)– in a world filled with real problems — are again grinding their teeth about the expression “Happy Holidays,” which is not a new expression. I remember it when I was a kid. I always assumed it was a succinct way to cover Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. I see it on Facebook: “If you still say Merry Christ then repost this…”

I’m not sure who’s not saying Merry Christmas, though. I hear it about 10 times a day. Our Muslim president said over and again on TV last week. My Jewish friend at work even said it to me.

There are rumors that atheists out there are snapping at every person who deigns to wish them a Merry Christmas, but I haven’t met these people. And I know atheists; I live in California. Legendary American freethinker, Robert Ingersoll, would probably have at most poked fun at Christmas’s lumbering presence. I’m sure he would have congenially said “Merry Christmas” back to well-meaning Christians. He made his point while keeping long friendships with his Christian opponents. Granted, atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins might take a crankier approach.

However, if non-Christians have any reason for discontent, it is the protest from Christians who feel they are being oppressed in a country where they are the overwhelming majority. It’s like the coach whose football team is up 60-3 and still complains to about officiating. I have never understood why any religion feels the need to be the one, true path to salvation. Likewise, why does the way someone celebrates or greets others at this time of year untitled.png1matter.

Several 24 hours ago, I stopped drinking. The first approach of Christmas was reason for anxiety. This was a season during which whiskey flowed and I had done more than my share of damage. On Christmas Eve I felt as fragile as a the decorations on the tree. I did my best to shrink Christmas like the wool Reindeer sweater your great aunt gave you. It was in my interest to watch it pass like any other day. I read a slender book by the environmentalist Bill McKibbens called the Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, in which he called for simplifying, and then simplifying more.  His advice was exactly what I needed as I tried to make a big, loud drunken holiday into something small, quiet and sober. A holiday that had promised regret and disappointment now was simple and reflective. I observed Christmas.

I have continued to be something of a wallflower at the Christmas dance, keeping my distance from the noise and size of the season.

I am not opposed to Christmas. It is my wife’s favorite time of the year. My children’s too. My daughter’s bedroom looks like a scene from the film “Elf.” We don’t live in a Christian country, but most Americans are Christian. This holiday will never hold the warmth, comfort and magic of childhood.  I sought that in  deceptive warmth of my special Christmas bottle (which ended up being bottles), but I always ended up filled with regret, and sorrow, a failed father who couldn’t remember his children opening presents.

I see no reason to concern myself that this season doesn’t fit my expectations. I have made it an exercise in acceptance, a reminder that all I have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. To do otherwise would be a waste of energy and peace of mind.

Christmas concerts have been renamed winter concerts. There are no more manger scenes or Christmas trees at schools. On the other hand there are no Menorahs or Stars of David either.

If parents are concerned about the presence of Jesus in their children’s lives, they can do something about that at home. Those who clamor for Christmas and prayer in their schools claim they are only concerned about their children, but I suspect they want things the way they used to be, when they were kids. This desire is as old as civilization. The result is, too. The only thing that stays the same is change. No matter how much we want it–no matter how much whiskey I drank– we’re not going back. The reason is, the next generation doesn’t care. They don’t know any different, except from our stories, and those get boring after a time. They don’t care what their concerts are called. Mostly, they don’t want to sing in them. They don’t notice that there are no Christmas decorations at school. They have them at home.

When we look a little deeper at the past we will find that things weren’t as different back then as we remember. Our parents talked a lot about times gone by.

Our kids share one very important thing with us. We didn’t care much about what our parents did when they were young either.

All we wanted to do was open our presents.

Tidings of acceptance and peace

cropped-lanterns.jpgThe first hint of silliness came from a coworker who said “Bless you,” when I sneezed. She waited, expecting a thank you, like a bellhop looking for a tip.

She became further irritated later when she sneezed and I didn’t bless her.  I don’t think Pope Gregory the Great, who started this little superstition during the Bubonic Plague, expected it to become contentious. And if Medieval denizens were correct, my soul might have escaped through my nose when I sneezed, so I had more important things to worry about.

In an effort not to offend, I wish you Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas, or Happy Christmas, or Merry Holidays. I hope I’m covered. Oh, and Happy Saturnalia to my pagan friends. Sorry Jews, you haven’t made enough fuss, and Hanukkah came too early this year.  And Kwanza, well people who celebrate that are used to being ignored.

Some Christians (too many)– in a world filled with real problems — are again grinding their teeth about the expression “Happy Holidays,” which is not a new expression. I remember it when I was a kid. I always assumed it was a succinct way to cover Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. I see it on Facebook: “If you still say Merry Christ then repost this…”

I’m not sure who’s not saying Merry Christmas, though. I hear it about 10 times a day. Our Muslim president said over and again on TV last week. My Jewish friend at work even said it to me.

There are rumors that atheists out there are snapping at every person who deigns to wish them a Merry Christmas, but I haven’t met these people. And I know atheists; I live in California. Legendary American freethinker, Robert Ingersoll, would probably have at most poked fun at Christmas’s lumbering presence. I’m sure he would have congenially said “Merry Christmas” back to well-meaning Christians. Agreed,  atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins might take a crankier approach.

However, if non-Christians have any reason for discontent, it is the protest from Christians who feel they are being oppressed in a country where they are the overwhelming majority. It’s like the coach whose football team is up 60-3 and still complains to about officiating. I have never understood why any religion feels the need to be the one, true path to salvation. Likewise, why does the way someone celebrates or greets others at this time of year untitled.png1matter.

Several 24 hours ago, I stopped drinking. The first approach of Christmas was reason for anxiety. This was a season during which whiskey flowed and I had done more than my share of damage. On Christmas Eve I felt as fragile as a the decorations on the tree. I did my best to shrink Christmas like the wool Reindeer sweater your great aunt gave you. It was in my interest to watch it pass like any other day. I read a slender book by the environmentalist Bill McKibbens called the Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, in which he called for simplifying, and then simplifying more.  His advice was exactly what I needed as I tried to make a big, loud drunken holiday into something small, quiet and sober. A holiday that had promised regret and disappointment now was simple and reflective. I observed Christmas.

I have continued to be something of a wallflower at the Christmas dance, keeping my distance from the noise and size of the season.

I am not opposed to Christmas. It is my wife’s favorite time of the year. My children’s too. My daughter’s bedroom looks like a scene from the film “Elf.” We don’t live in a Christian country, but most Americans are Christian. This holiday will never hold the warmth, comfort and magic of childhood.  I sought that in  deceptive warmth of my special Christmas bottle (which ended up being bottles), but I always ended up filled with regret, and sorrow, a failed father who couldn’t remember his children opening presents.

I see no reason to concern myself that this season doesn’t fit my expectations. I have made it an exercise in acceptance, a reminder that all I have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. To do otherwise would be a waste of energy and peace of mind.

Christmas concerts have been renamed winter concerts. There are no more manger scenes or Christmas trees at schools. On the other hand there are no menorahs or Stars of David either.

If parents are concerned about the presence of Jesus in their children’s lives, they can do something about that at home. Those who clamor for Christmas and prayer in their schools claim they are only concerned about their children, but I suspect they want things the way they used to be, when they were kids. This desire is as old as civilization. The result is, too. The only thing that stays the same is change. No matter how much we want it, no matter how much whiskey I drank, we’re not going back. The reason is, the next generation doesn’t care. They don’t know any different, except from our stories, and those get boring after a time. They don’t care what their concerts are called. Mostly, they don’t want to sing in them. They don’t notice that there are no Christmas decorations at school. They have them at home.

When we look a little deeper at the past we will find that things weren’t as different back then as we remember.

Our kids share one very important thing with us. When we were young, we didn’t care what our parents did either.

All we wanted to do was open our presents.

 

 

 

Son of a Bitch, Everything’s Real

I don’t know why I went to the meeting.

After a two-hour drive in traffic to reach the Costco pharmacy in time to buy anxiety medication, I meandered back through more traffic and arrived at the Church five minutes late. I felt a chill dark and cold like the winter night. I vowed to sit in the back and not participate. Like a kid whose parents made him attend Mass. “I ain’t singin’ and I ain’t listenin’ to no pastor!”

Bbx45RRIYAA5kUKI tugged my stocking cap down over my eyebrows and punched my fists into my pockets. Leaned back in the church pew and closed my eyes painfully. Luckily I was late enough I had missed the reading of “How it Works.” The first person started to share: Something about being grateful for this program and about how good it was to have this meeting to come to. I wasn’t really listening.

I looked at the time on my phone. Fifty more minutes. Fuck, what was I doing here!

More sharing. One guy had lost someone close to him and proceeded to relapse. He was back– starting over. I think he said he had 10 days sober.  I sat up and golf-clapped for him. Then I leaned back and closed my eyes again. The guy sitting next to me got up and moved to another seat. I was putting off an uncomfortable vibe.

I was better than I had been a few days earlier. The terrors of the bipolar episode weren’t paralyzing me anymore, but that didn’t mean the fear was gone. All the character had drained from me. I had become the center of my own universe and it was a universe without texture or excitement or tenderness.

I sat fidgeting as voices droned on about gratitude, acceptance and promise.

I couldn’t hear the voices over the question in my head, “Why in the hell am I here?

For some reason a memory bubbled up through the poisonous thoughts in my head. It was from the last months of my drinking. It took a lot to get me drunk back then and it really wasn’t much fun anymore. I walked into a liquor store near Atchison, Kan., and stood, staring at the shelves. Nothing looked good. But I stared and stared. For a half an hour I stared at beer and whiskey and rum and tequila. I stared until I finally bought a cheap bottle of rum.

I drank that bottle on the way home to my family.

To my surprise, I raised my hand and spoke. “I’m Dan and I’m an alcoholic.”

”High Dan!” the room responded. I felt irritated.

“No offense,” I admitted, “but I haven’t really been listening to you all tonight.”

I briefly mentioned that my holidays had been kind of crappy and that I didn’t really want to be here.

I told the story of long ago standing in the liquor store trying to decide what to buy.

Whether I wanted to or not, drinking had become a habit, I said.

I think that’s why I ended up at the meeting. Habit.

I remember a lot of 12-Step meetings where my heart was lifted, or I felt embraced by fellowship, or where answers to my problems mysteriously arrived just when I needed them.

This time, not so much.

Someone once told me that sober stands for “Son of a Bitch Everthing’s Real”

I laughed lamely, “I guess it’s better to be at a meeting in a shitty mood than to not be here at all. I hope by the time I leave I’m grateful for coming.”

As I slinked toward the door,  a tall man with silver hair approached and said, “Well, Dan, quite a share!”

I grunted.

He said, “So you had a bad Christmas?”

I knew he was trying to be helpful, but I wasn’t having it.

“How long you been sober?” he asked. I told him and he looked surprised by how long. He asked me if I’d done the steps,

“Yeah,” I said, anxiously turning toward the door.

I shook his hand, said thank you, and walked to my car.

Some will tell you that you never feel worse after a meeting than you did before.

On that night, I would have disagreed.

But I did drink a Dr. Pepper on the way home to my family.

Polar Meltdown: Nearer to Life

In stories of near-death experiences, people recount watching their bodies from above, as doctors and family members scurry about.

I feel like I’m having a near-life experience.

BcMGZcnIQAA9vc8My doctor started me on new medication two days ago. The 24-hour-a-day panic attack has melted a bit. So has the paranoia. I’m not worried that I’m going to lose my job or my wife is going to leave me or I’m going to end up homeless. I’ve gone back to work and I’m easing back into most of my daily tasks. I coached my first basketball practice and I wasn’t quite as afraid that the young players were judging me.

But something tells me none of this is really happening. I feel like I’m watching the whole thing–watching myself go through the motions. This person I’m watching is tentative. His voice  quieter, trembling. He doesn’t trust anything. Especially the slight improvement in mood. I wonder what would happen if I reached out and shoved him. He would fall. Would he get back up?

The medication relieved the paralyzing anxiety that made me feel permanently startled. The fear is drifting into a haze, but the sadness is still there–an old, weary sadness that they sing about on the radio when you’re driving late at night, far from home. The sadness of an airport departure gate.

I pulled off the road this morning and wept.

I thought for a moment yesterday, maybe I’m getting back to normal, but that word tastes chalky in my mouth, like the name of a lost love, an agnostic prayer.

The terror and panic and exhaustion are losing their edge. But I’m worried that i have forgotten what joy feels like. My wife, my strength, reminds me time and again to be patient. Take one step at a time. I am too tired to resist.

I will see my doctor again Monday.

I will tell him that I feel much better, that the horrifying nightmares are going away, but that I still cry for no reason.

He’ll tell me I’m taking another step nearer to life.

Polar meltdown: A startling view from the paranoid side

Last night I dreamed that small children were plummeting from the Golden Gate Bridge. I tried to catch them but they were just beyond reach.

Ripped awake, I began sobbing quietly.

Something menacing followed me out of the dream and beckoned me to return and jump, join the broken little bodies in the black water. I wanted to go.

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The moonlit room at 3am was colorless. Terrors swarmed into my mind, and poisoned my lungs.  I clawed at the stabbing pain in my chest that had been there all week — the feeling of being stuck in a constant startle.

Only the faint warmth of my wife sleeping beside me reminded me that a deception might be at hand. Another sob escaped my lips. Exhaustion dragged me back to sleep.

This morning I am still clenched with fear– fighting an eternal panic attack. I  can’t place the day or time, can’t find my phone or keys. I try to construct my day but it’s like doing algebra in a tornado. I try deep breathing but I can’t stop gulping oxygen. I try to stay in the moment but I either sprint past it in a panic to wrestle made-up demons, or lose track of it staring at old ones.

I try to gather up runaway problems like spilled marbles. Attempts to make me see logic or find Jesus anger me.

I call in sick to work, but I do not rest.  I dive down rabbit holes of fear. Will I be able to work again? I tell my wife she should find a man who can take care of her, who is strong and attentive, someone who can stop cying.

She is abruptly in front of me, clasping my face in both hands, staring into my eyes. She gently growls, “I’m not going anywhere!” She promises me this will get better, it will end.  I nod, but I don’t believe her.

“Are you suicidal?” My doctor asks. I’ve seen that fear in my wife’s eyes. I tell him it’s tempting. Life has no texture, no color, no joy.

One person who had been through this describes it well: “Even at my best life feels a little rickety, like I’m here but not quite here, like I’m just a stand-in for my real self, like someone could just reach over and pinch me and I’d deflate. I thought I was feeling better, but I don’t know anymore.”

I’m on the phone with a counselor. She says this is like an asthma attack. It comes on for no reason but it does end. A friend, who has suffered mightily from bipolar disorder, compares it to diabetes. I just need the right treatment and long-term management and I won’t ever have to suffer like this again.

I wish I could believe them. What else are the going to say.

I am afraid I have lost the best of me. I don’t think it will be back. What piece of me will fall away next.

Writer Amy Reed described her bout with bipolar disorder this way: “I feel like I’m a snow globe and someone shook me up and now every little piece of me is falling back randomly and nothing is ending up where it used to be.”

This happened before; seven years ago. Before that was 2003, following an encounter with violence that stole away two friends. When I think of those times, my heart pounds and my hands shake. I want to go to sleep and never wake up. I came away from those encounters feeling like I had lost something of myself, like life had worn me down. This time I have a clearer diagnosis, a better support system. I am sober. But I can’t help fear that I will still emerge—if I emerge—even weaker, more afraid, more exhausted.  The people around me talk of asthma attacks, diabetes. I think of a knee injury. After three, can I ever run the same again.

There have been moments in the past week when I have laughed, engaged in lucid conversation. At those times I doubt this whole things is real. I wonder if it is all something I have created to avoid responsibilities. Im lazy and disorganized. Am I running from the world? But like the ocean’s tide the darkness surges back. I think of my little girl, a sophomore in high school, playing basketball 2,000 miles away in Missouri, or I see the date on a calendar when my son who is visiting will leave, and I fall apart, sobbing with despair.

I have a cup of anxieties that is normally about half-full. Through the past five years, during alcoholic recovery,  a nasty divorce, a year of unemployment, a difficult move across country away from my children, it has stayed pretty steady– no unexpected spills. Now, suddenly, it is filled to the brim. The slightest upset– real or imagined– a minor work concern, a lost set of keys, an unexpected envelope in the mail, and the cup overflows spilling composure to the floor.

My wife tells me to be patient, so do doctors and counselors. But I don’t trust them. I wonder if there is something they aren’t telling me. My bosses at work say take my time, get well. But how long will they put up with this? I used to be a patient person. I sat quietly in traffic and weathered disputes calmly. When I made mistakes, I usually made amends and let what was out of my control happen in its time.

But this kind of fear is not a patient place to be.

I started a new medication this morning. So far I haven’t seen much difference. My wife embraces me and reminds me again to remain patient.

Tonight I hope to sleep better.

Without the nightmares.

Whatever is following me out of those dreams is wearing down my resistance.

A sense of belonging: Picking at the gauze in my heart

This is a lonely time of year for me. It’s not because I’m alone. My wife recognizes the change and surrounds me with tenderness.

I love my relationships with my children. I enjoy daily phone conversations with my son Joe. My daughter Emily and I talk basketball and her boyfriend Sammy. My college son Jacob texts me, “Hey old man,” followed by amiable insults. Last weekend I took my daughter Annie to get her nose pierced.  Everything’s fine at home.

No, it’s the season. I keep Christmas at arm’s length. While friends and family are posting holiday plans and photos of Christmas delicacies on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve changed my profile picture to a creepy clown smoking a cigarette.1017032_10201667383311684_872608623_n

There’s a tightness in my chest that feels like gauze shred over a rose bush. I keep picking at it, but can’t quite get it all.

I used to plan the holiday with a ceremonial bottle of Jack Daniels purchased a week before Christmas. I would imagine the warmth of the liquor and lights and my family around me on Christmas Eve. Imagining was the best I could do. Two days later I was buying a fresh bottle. By Christmas Eve I was on my third. On Christmas morning I awoke frustrated that I couldn’t remember everything that happened the night before. I resolved that it wouldn’t happen next year.

I shrink Christmas now. With good reason I try to make it like any other day.  I am grateful for it, but I have no illusions, no expectations.

During this season, I still feel the stirrings of something big coming, but I try to be sill and stand outside the rush.

The loneliness can slam into me hard. I miss my kids back in Missouri. I long for innocence lost. I feel the absence of loved ones who have died. And sometimes– for brief moments– I miss those bottles.

I went into a meeting on a Friday night last week, and on the wall was a huge sign that said, “Alcoholism is a disease of Loneliness.”

The small meeting of eight people read  from a book called “As Bill Sees It.” The person running the meeting happened to choose a series of readings on loneliness. As so often happens in this program, it seemed like the readings were speaking directly to me at that particular moment in my life.

I’ve been sober five years and eight months. One of the benefits of coming to these meetings is that they remind me where I came from and that I am not doing this alone. I was staring at a reading called “A Sense of Belonging” when emotion surprised me.

An elderly woman was talking nearby when I ducked my head and wiped away a tear.

It was the name of the reading more than the actual reading, I said to the others in the room when it was my turn to talk, trying to gather my composure.  Everyone nodded knowingly when I noted with a raspy laugh  how things tend to weave together. I was feeling sorry for myself that night, feeling lonely, and I walk into a meeting about loneliness.

I told the group about the  day in a St. Joseph, Mo., courtroom when a judge handed me a jail sentence for drunk driving. I was terrified, angry and lonely.

My attorney assured the judge that I was attending meetings and that I was sincere about sobriety. The judge gave me a 15 day jail sentence and two years probation. I left the courtroom. As I walked down the hallway, a gray-haired man in a suit got up from a nearby bench and greeted me. I recognized him as an attorney who had appeared before the judge three cases before mine. He had waited for me. He offered me his hand and told me to keep going to meetings. It works, he said warmly.  I was speechless for a moment then thanked him. He smiled kindly, squeezed my hand once more, and left.

Then, I left the courthouse and went up the hill to the jail to find out what I would need for my incarceration. As I entered the jailhouse, a bearded guard approached me. He was a gruff, older man, probably 65. Somehow he had heard I was coming. He had been sober for a long time, and he wanted to assure me that I was on the right path. Everything is going to be OK, he told me, you don’t have to do this alone.

With one more swell of emotion,  I looked around at the small Friday night meeting and whispered, “I don’t feel so lonely any more.”

The elderly lady approached me afterward, asked for a hug, and thanked me for sharing. “You feel better now, don’t you,” she said.

Yes, I admitted, my voice still rough.

I glanced at the big sign on the wall and walked into the night, breathing easier for the moment.