Why “Handcuffs Hurt”


“I try to hold fast to the truth that a full and thankful heart cannot entertain great conceits. When brimming with gratitude, one’s heartbeat must surely result in outgoing love, the finest emotion that we can ever know.”

Bill W.


Someone once asked me how I knew I had a problem. I said the handcuffs hurt when I leaned back in the seat.

It’s a joke tinged with sadness, regret, and if I don’t do all the right things — relapse.

The handcuffs hurt my wrists, yes, of course, but they hurt up into my elbows, where the patrolman awkwardly jerked me into the backseat of his car. They hurt up into my shoulders upon which the weight of the world was descending. The cuffs strangled my heart as I stared back at my sons standing on the side of the highway, looking so lonely and scared.

They eventually took the handcuffs off. The red, coarse rings on my wrists faded. I had to go back to jail later for 15 days of what they appropriately call “shock detention” (my breath still catches in my chest when I remember it). The day before I went in, a friend said to me, “Well, Dan, look at the bright side, if you don’t drink again, you might not have to go back.”

It’s been five years since my last drink. When people hear that, they say, “Congratulations” which still makes me a little squeamish. As the actor, Christian Slater said to an interviewer, “It’s nothing to be proud of. It’s like running out of a burning house.”

I don’t want to go back, and I don’t plan on it. But you never know. In the meantime I’ve learned there are other kinds of handcuffs. Anger, resentment, FEAR! They bind me and hold me back. I’ve gathered that I’m on a chain gang with a lot of other people these days.

So many things to be afraid of. Climate change, Republicans, immigrants, unemployment and money or the lack of it. Demons! A vengeful God, religion, religious people, terrorism…Satan and He Who Shall Not Be Named (depending on your stripe this could be Obama, Cheney or Voldemort). Most of us are afraid of being wrong, or of someone else being right, or of not being with the right person or of being left all alone. We are afraid of closets and who might come out of them, and ghosts — in the attic and in our minds. War, flag burners, liberals, guns, sex, men, women, even poor people and chocolate. We are one frightened and pissed off world, handcuffed together, straining against one another like the Defiant Ones. As I write this, my chest aches and I’m not sure why.

On that highway that day, with my kids looking to me to be a dad and me failing miserably, I didn’t know it but I was on my way to some answers. At that moment I hated the bottle of rum churning into a DUI vapor in my belly, but I would soon come to believe that every dollar I had spent on alcohol was a dollar well spent.

I met some wise people. For a while it would be a condition of my probation to come back and see them. I had to get this sheet of paper signed each time I met with them. But eventually, I forgot to bring the sheet. I would just forge random illegible signatures. Don’t tell my probation officer but I wasn’t going for him anymore. Once, when I lost the sheet and turned up at the probation office afraid, he said, “Don’t worry, we can tell you’ve been going.”

I found out that I will always wear handcuffs, but handcuffs have keys.

Each day when I get up I can do my best to accept people and situations as they are. I can live and let live. Try to do the next right thing. Don’t get too far ahead of myself. Stay in the moment. All I have to concern myself with is not taking a drink and helping the person next to me not take a drink. The simplicity is breathtaking.

Or I can put the handcuffs back on.

I love to laugh. I love to fucking swear. I find beauty in small things and big bold things. I love my amazing children who are stronger than I will ever be. I also get my heart broken easily. I get scared. I get angry. My wife says she feels it when the darkness comes. I love to kiss her. They say kissing releases something called oxytocin, which is like an antidepressant. I think I might be faking that darkness when she’s around.
I love words. I love to play with words. I love listening to the worn words of old timers who have walked ahead of me and the shaky words of those who remind me of where I’ve been. Even hateful words of fear mongers, rude parents at soccer games or meanness close to home serve their purpose. They provide perspective, a reminder to be accepted like inclement weather for which we should prepare. The ability in the moment to find my tumbling mind’s angle of repose is a fleeting gift handed down. Words free me, whether it’s whispering the mantra of the “Serenity Prayer” so the world and I can relax our death grip, imagining a campfire and the lustful prose of Edward Abbey, or driving to the soulful wail of Bob Marley as the wind blows through what hair I have left.

When words and people come together they make stories. Stories make us free. Stories freed me from my handcuffs five years ago. I kept coming back and hearing stories and telling my own. It’s a truth as old as humankind. Without stories there is loneliness, isolation, and fear.

I will write this blog about handcuffs – things I observe in the course of my 24 hours that might hold me back or that I think might be holding us back. More likely I’ll write about keys — things that free us from our cuffs — humor, community, family, love, romance, nature, beauty.

I love words. I like to take them off their chains and hold them up to the light. I like the way they jingle against each other.

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