Looking into the eyes of courage: A life-changing reunion

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An intimate moment between Trish and Hakan, who traveled from Sweden

It’s not very compelling to read that I was indifferent about going somewhere.

My journalism professors would call this a “bad lead.” No hook to draw the reader in. “Indifferent” isn’t exactly a power word, more of a lame adjective where a good verb would coax the reader along.

But it fits. I’ve been a flimsy cliche. I recently agreed to go to a reunion but with the qualifier that “I’m not really a reunion sort of guy.” Like those people who boast that they don’t watch “Game of Thrones,” do I somehow think this makes me superior?

What it makes me is insufferable. And full of shit. Some friends from an adventure more than three decades ago showed me that.

I am a member of Up With People Cast C ’86 and we aren’t an indifferent group. One of our own is enduring a decade of suffering that should break the spirit. Instead, she has transformed it into spirited poetry, a lyrical lesson in whole-heartedness. Trish Wilson-Geyling and her family lost their youngest member, 8-year-old Rudy, in July 2017. He died suddenly from a congenital heart syndrome. Before he was born doctors said Rudy would not survive without utmost medical intervention. In a blog called “Rudy’s Beat” Trish chronicled the joy and exhaustion, beauty and terror, adventure and mystery of her family’s short time with the buoyant little boy who possessed the same bottomless supply of smiles as his mother.

 

 

The words of Trish and her husband Rolf invited us in as they savored every moment, every smile, every tear, every overwhelming fear. They asked for our prayers when holding on to hope demanded more hands. Trish’s writing expressed the heaviness of fragile hope, but it never outweighed mindfulness, faith and gratitude. Upon Rudy’s death Trish wrote, “The doctors would have counted it a victory to have him home for six weeks. We had him home for eight years.”

Two months after Rudy’s death, before they had time to unpack their grief, life ambushed the family again. Trish was diagnosed with ALS, the progressive and incurable attack on the body commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

I gasped “Jesus!” when I heard. It was up to him if he took it as a prayer or a reprimand. What more could one family endure?

Although leveled by the news, Trish kept writing Rudy’s Beat, digging deep to balance twice the grief with her singular presence in the moment. As always, her posts were packed with photos of a family clearly in love with one another.

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Trish and her son Max

Updates on her treatment were stirred in with tales of daily life, celebrations, kids starting school and memories of Rudy. And gratitude, always gratitude. As the ALS progressed, word spread across social media. It was time for a reunion. More than fifty of us would meet in Santa Barbara for “TrishFest!” The rest of our cast would show up on FaceTime and cell phone speakers. Our mission was to be there for Trish, but I don’t think anyone was surprised that it was Trish who ended up being there for us.

I mistook cynicism for wisdom, or for keeping it real, when it was simply a disguise for insecurities. My take-it-or-leave-it coolness about attending the reunion was camouflage for the self-centered silliness of the 19-year-old in 1986. A reunion is a good place if you’re not careful to compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.

However, I forgot a few things. My fellow cast members are among the kindest people I know, and it was ridiculous to think my dark thoughts would not be extinguished by the brightest smile in our cast, still at full power and untouched by illness.8C178468-E589-4FB2-98E6-722EE99F5FEA

When we returned from our year with Up With People we learned that our experience was inexplicable. Even those closest to us stared blankly, like we were telling them about a dream we had the night before. We were a 100 kids between 18 and 25 from more than 30 nations and states, who traveled the world performing music and dancing for crowds, even though many of us weren’t that talented at either. However, some were so gifted they made the rest of us better. We were our own roadies, merchandisers and PR. We lived with families in each town we visited, even if we didn’t speak the same language. All of this was a wedge. It opened our way into communities for the real work. Cast members served at schools and nursing homes and homeless shelters and soup kitchens. We visited prisoners and addicts, and felt the grace of people who were ill, stigmatized, disabled and dying.

One of our greatest accomplishments was showing people everywhere we went that a bunch of kids from different backgrounds, cultures, and nationalities, saturated in hormones and without the benefit of fully connected frontal cortexes, could get along and do some good.

Mostly, we learned to show up.

It is not hyperbole to say that TrishFest was life-changing.

My oldest daughter Annie came with us to the reunion and her sister Emily surprised us, showing up from Missouri. They finally experienced the rowdy hospitality of Cast C. Emily hung out with the cast drummer for whom she was named, and Annie mingled like she had traveled with us.

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Emily and Emily

After so much time apart our cast hugged like linebackers. Happy anxiety charged the air with impatient affection. The laughter was pyrotechnic. Trish entered in her wheelchair with a smile that I could swear made the lights flicker, and turned a rented house into a sanctuary where we could be both riotous and reflective. She liberated us to unleash the power of our vulnerability, to carve away all the emotional callouses of middle age.

Quiet conversations in corners, home-cooked food prepared by our children, raucous tequila shots on the patio, jam sessions with Trish and Rolf’s astounding children. Stories that justified gray hair, wrinkles and wisdom. One friend recalled that there were a few times on tour that he wanted to kick my ass; I grinned and nodded. “I remember, and you should have done it.”

We went to church with Trish and longed to have her faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were a cast known in our day as trouble-makers. Sometimes it seemed like the rules were a disobedience to-do list. What we were doing was too important to be taken seriously. Last week we were almost as unrefined, crowded into a house, as we were long ago, cramped on a bus.

We surrounded Trish with stories, songs, photographs and prayers. We looked into the eyes of courage and felt braver for it.

Trish wrote that she wished Rudy didn’t have to live with such frailty and lamented that he left them so soon. She wished she didn’t have ALS and that her family didn’t have to walk through it with her. Her family has a deep capacity to love, she said, but of course that comes with a deep capacity to feel pain. It comforts her, though, that life has become “second nature” to them because of what they have come through. They have gained a certain “expertise.” She calls it “Rudy’s legacy.”

Being with Trish broke us open and renewed us. Her presence in our lives, even from great distances, is a gentle challenge to stay broken. Remain vulnerable. Don’t let the protective callouses grow back. Don’t allow fear to rule us.

Our “official” reunion is in two years. As she left, Trish beamed through exhaustion, and said “maybe I’ll be there to see you.”

I plan on showing up.

Check out Rudy’s Beat: https://rudysbeat.com/

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Mining for Lithium in the Red River Valley

There’s something lonely about tail lights. They pass in the night without even the blink promising they might turn off and wait.

I pull onto Highway 101 in San Rafael, California, and ease into a river of red. The music on the radio is gentle country, but
I’m headed north to become a Nirvana song.

rainy-tail-lights-at-night-400x265The traffic is dispassionate and sluggish like my emotions. I slow down and gaze ahead at a valley of commuters, trying to imagine the car lights as festive. They are people who care nothing for my pharmaceutical pilgrimage. I have to be at the Rohnert Park Costco by 7 p.m. to fill a prescription of Lithium.

As I drive I worry. There are so many side effects I can’t keep them straight in my head. And there’s Kurt Cobain’s ghost sitting in the back seat. But I’m turning my will over to what monks call obedience. My doctor and my wife and friends say I should give it a try. I’m taking it on faith.

As they said when I got sober, what I’ve been doing hasn’t been working.

At a 12-step meeting a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the terrors of my bipolar break and how Alcoholics Anonymous had helped me prepare for it. I knew I couldn’t handle life alone. I knew my life was unmanageable. I had learned the Promises: “We will know new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”

These did not seem extravagant, but they did seem hazy.

Following the meeting, two kind women approached me and thanked me for revealing my struggle. They, too, were bipolar. The rooms of AA are full of our types.

I remember a day at the beach when my break was at its worst. I felt the need to alter my mind. It didn’t need to be alcohol. I felt like anything: codeine, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet, weed, meth would have made the slightest crack in in the fear clamping my soul. It would have been like that first crack of light that buried coal miners see. From there all it would take would be a few more cracks.

Fortunatelly, I waited for a medically approved cracks.

Now, I push through Novato traffic, where it routinely bogs own just after dark.  I am nervous, tired and sad. I still haven’t been handling work situations and conflicts as I used to before my Christmas crash. My doctor says I’m getting better, but there’s still something behind my eyes, a look of fear that something is waiting to take me again.

Lithium is a the standard med for treating what has been happening to me my entire adult life. The side effects sound like one of those TV commercials for erectile dysfunction medication, where the guy reads so fast you can’t possibly hear them all.  None of them are worse than the panic and nightmares and that feeling of permanent startle.

When I told my daughter I was bipolar she cried. “It’s a lot to take in,” she said.

“I’ve  always been bipolar,” I said. “They just gave it a name this time and they can better treat it.” Then I went into the bedroom and held my head in my hands. I try to protect my children from this but they deserve honesty.

Traffic slows to a crawl through Petaluma and the two lanes in the final stretch to Rohnert Park. I will pick up more Klonipin for the anxiety and Clonidine for the tics from Tourette’s I’ve had since Junior High. I chuckle at all the drugs that have replaced booze.

When I pick up the meds, the paranoia flickers. I expect the pharmacist handing me all the medication to glance at a nearby security officer. We’ve got a live one here. Instead, she smiles, asks if I have a Costco card and rings up my order. She pleasantly says, You have a nice evening.”

I pull out of the Costco parking lot to more lonesome tail lights. The only meeting I’ve been to  in a week has been to see my psychiatrist.

I have a bag full of pills and a pit in my stomach. I open the bag and look at the bottles.

I think I’ll wait until morning to explore the promise of Lithium.

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.

Getting past this ‘God shit’: Recovery of an agnostic

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I believe in prophecy. Some folks see things not everybody can see.
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me.
I believe in miracles, something sacred burning in every bush and tree.
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing.
I believe in God, and God ain’t me.

Steve Earle

I didn’t have much starch in me the night I went to my first meeting. I had publicly humiliated myself, and more important, lost my way as a father, the only true moral compass I had left.  Alan (not his name), a recovering alcoholic, was gentle with me as he picked me up in his car. I was talking rapidly, nervous and eager to do this thing right, afraid of looking foolish. As we approached the doors, I stiffened and found what little bit of defiance I had left. “I don’t want any of this God shit,” I said.

Alan grinned kindly and said, “That’s Ok, you don’t have to think about that right now.”

No one enters those rooms on a winning streak. It was a strange mixture of fear, anger and brokenness that led me to the tables after 23 years of very determined and passionate drinking. A looming court date, a waiting jail cell, and a brutally honest court-ordered drug and alcohol counselor left me little wiggle room.

At the time I thought my agnosticism was principled. But If I’m honest, I was probably still looking for a way out. I had known for some time that my drinking was a problem. I had said it aloud to myself late at night when I was alone and at my worst. But now, despite all the evidence to the contrary, my brain was telling me to run.

I stayed that night. I kept coming back for a variety of wrong reasons. I wanted to show people that I wasn’t that guy, the drunk fool. I wanted to prove to my kids that I could change. I had to get that damn sheet signed for my probation officer. Through it all I flinched at each mention of God.

Eventually–I’m not sure when it changed–I was coming for the right reasons. Not for other people, but for myself.  I realized that if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to lose everything–even my life.  Tolerating a little God talk seemed a small price to pay.

Today, five and a half years later, I am still sober. I’m still not sure about God.

Almost a year into sobriety, when I was on the pink cloud of recovery, a friend who is a Benedictine monk asked me to define God. I said, “Oh, no, I’m not touching that.”

I felt my heart pounding as he pressed me: “Come on, try!”

I insisted that I was perfectly comfortable not naming my higher power. I’m not superstitious but I was still pretty fragile. I didn’t want to mess with a good thing.

But my friend wasn’t letting me off easy.

I thought for a moment and then looked at him. “It works,” I said, “That’s my answer. Whatever is keeping me sober is not me and it’s working.”

He grinned broadly, like I’d passed a theology exam.

I remember when I struggled with the second and third  of the 12 steps, I considered returning to church. A Catholic priest, who had been in recovery for a long time, warned me, “Don’t let it interfere with your sobriety.”

His message was that my relationship with the Church and my relationship with a higher power were two entirely different things and I shouldn’t confuse them, especially when the most important thing in my life was on the line.

For those who are curious, alcoholics and addicts who have found a daily reprieve through the 12 steps have admitted, in Step 1, that we are “powerless over alcohol and that our lives are unmanageable.” In Step 2 “we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

The italics are mine. Frankly, I never have gotten past the possibility and mystery in the word “could.” And I never needed to. My first sponsor asked me if I could accept that it was possible, not even likely, that something greater than myself could restore sanity to my life. Of course, I admitted, there was the slightest possibility.

I’ve stayed sober for a lot of 24 hours on that slightest possibility. For a while, my God was a Group Of Drunks who didn’t judge me and expected better from me. Sometimes it was the Great Out Doors. It didn’t really matter what or even if I believed as long as knew God ain’t me. I learned that almost everything in my life is beyond my control. One thing I was certain of: what I had been doing wasn’t working. I had to change my entire way of thinking, let go of self-will and accept life on life’s terms.302811_3913001063340_2085956480_n.jpg

In Step 3, “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

These days I meet people who want to stop drinking. But like me five years ago, they say they are turned of by all the God talk. My response is that perhaps the 12 steps isn’t for them. There are other options. Or maybe if a little God talk is too much of a burden, then perhaps their not ready to quit yet.

I grew up in a family that was certain about God and religion. I, however, have grown comfortable with doubt, with mystery and uncertainty. I have accepted the fact that I will probably go to my death unsure of God’s existence.

My higher power could be sobriety. Sobriety is not simply abstinence. It is knowing that each day is another chance to get it right. It is letting go of resentments and fear, trying to make amends where I can, and to live with gratitude. It is seeking not to judge lest I be judged.  I find it liberating to make decisions by asking whether I will be more sober. You could say it’s a form of prayer. I get into fewer conflicts. I’m a better husband, a more patient father. I’m even nicer to referees when I coach basketball. I’m more honest, more aware of my shortcomings and more willing to acknowledge my strengths. I tend to be more forgiving, less anxious about tomorrow and less likely to regret the past.

There have been times in the past couple of years, mostly during financial crisis, that sobriety was all that stood between me and the abyss, when sobriety seemed to be all that I had, when sobriety got me out of bed in the morning.  If that isn’t a higher power then I don’t know what is.

I told Alan I wasn’t having any of this God shit. But I endured, I tolerated, because my sanity and my life depended on it.

God isn’t necessarily the word I use, but a lot of people on this journey with me do. And they have convinced me that it is a miracle I’m sober today.

I guess you could call that faith.

Oh, the giddy anticipation of daydreams coming true

For my wife on our anniversary.

I would be with you.
In my innocence, before life became difficult, I daydreamed about you. Your eyes danced like light on water. Your golden hair touched my face. Your skin was of sun and sweat and mountain air. Your legs dangled, bumping against mine, as we sat on a wall laughing. You giggled with me when I tickled you in the back yard as fireflies 1235066_10200478278179342_836543230_nwhispered to one another in the secret dark. In fantasies that I never told a soul, you smiled only for me, and your smile was summertime and warm kitchen smells in the winter and breezes on the water. You would hold my hand and make funny things happen to the patter of my heart. I would never get the nerve to kiss you, but the thought of that elusive kiss would torment me.
I wished that I knew back then that dreams come true.
I would be with you.
Girls troubled me. Their hairspray, their makeup their smiles were never for me. My shoulders tanned in the sun, eyes shot red from swimming pool days, bugs bounced against baseball park lights on muggy nights. Desire for nameless you was swampy inside me. Summer was when you haunted me.
You faded in my thoughts. How could someone so real be real? Set aside childish things.
Silver buses and a moment of laughter. Mythical California, sun-kissed skin and that laugh. A laugh that meant it. A laugh filled with joy and pain. A laugh filled with life.
We passed one another on the way to someone else. I stare at the photo, my arm around your waist, your hand in mine, stirrings unacknowledged. One bus ride, a few moments in the dark. What might have been? Young passion unleashed.
I had forgotten you, my summertime fantasy. I didn’t recognize you.
I remember envy in an airport. I wanted you. Then you were gone.
A quarter of a century. Water under broken bridges. Healing scars, so many mistakes.
Then an earthquake: forbidden lust, forbidden love, divine desire.
A crash of perfection, beautiful ruin.
My heart still hammers in my chest.
The absence of you is heavy with miles and missed years.
Looking at you fixes everything.
Still daydreaming.  Your eyes dance for me in blue light of a darkened bedroom. Your hair kisses my face as we make love. Your skin burns me like the sun and steals my breath like the altitude at timberline. Your legs tangle with mine in the sheets and wrap around me when desire tries to carry me away. My long ago fantasy did not know your heart. You soothe me with kindness, your generous love makes me unworthy. You smile at me. I pray it will always be for me.
I ache. The longing of absence when we are apart. The pain of physical want when we touch.  Passion without restraint. The agonizing curiosity to know you, to make up for lost time.
Life is harder now. Choices hold consequence. History holds regrets. Love means suffering. Irrational fears, clouds of compulsion, obsessions. Small price for my girl.
I am in love. I love. I am loved. Love is not a choice. Love is having no choice.
If only I had known through all the dark times, if only I had known so long ago. Perhaps the joy, the giddy anticipation, would have been too much to bear. Perhaps amorous impatience would have driven me mad.
Oh, if only I had known.
I would be with you.