midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “battling adversity”

Intersection of Beginning and Ending

For the second straight day, I couldn’t get my mother on the phone and got no reply to my messages. The last time I called from work and left a message, I got a sick feeling. I knew something was wrong.

I called my wife Amy and told her to meet me at my mother’s apartment building, where we had struggled to move her a year earlier during a period of my mother’s physical health decline and struggle with a mental health disorder. At midlife, roles had reversed and we had become my mother’s caretakers and support system.

When we got no response to our knock on the door, dread came over me. We entered and found her dead on the bathroom floor, cause of death unknown. Though she had been experiencing health problems, they were more the nagging kind than life-threatening—until they were even more than that, suddenly.

It was a tragic start to a political campaign. Only five days earlier, I had registered in dontknockfront-cover_6283732Maryland’s capital of Annapolis as a Democratic candidate for state delegate. I had never told my mother I was considering running—our relationship had been strained during her time of unpredictable and volatile mental health, exacerbated by her stubborn nature and rebellious streak. I didn’t want to mention a political run until I was fully committed to entering the race and felt she was on firmer ground. I had planned to let her know I was in the race the next time I saw her. I never got that opportunity. I felt terrible I had never shared the news.

The profile story on my candidacy in the Baltimore Sun with an October 8, 2013 dateline coincidentally hit the newsstands the same day that Amy and I found my mother dead. That day, I was going to proudly present the article to my mother, my biggest supporter, as I broke the news to her about my candidacy.

I wrote about my mother’s political influence on me and the impact of her death on my nascent campaign in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics:

I credit my mother Sandra Sachs, a diehard liberal Democrat from Boston who had a fascination with the Massachusetts Kennedy clan, a devotion to other charismatic pols and a penchant for volunteering for campaigns, for getting me interested in politics…

The Sun article provided me a nice opening salvo. Now I just had to back it up with real action. That is, as soon as I could plan a memorial service for my mother, meet and make plans with funeral directors, coordinate with out-of-town family, untangle her financial affairs, launch the bureaucratic estate settlement process with the Register of Wills, negotiate with her landlord, make repairs to her apartment, sell her furniture on Craigslist, and move all her other belongings out of her apartment within three weeks. Not the ideal way or frame of mind to launch a campaign.

So the first month of my campaign was put virtually on hold while I dealt with my mother’s affairs and coped with the sudden loss emotionally. In a spiritual way, I felt Sandra Sachs with me during the campaign, watching over me as I traveled door-to-door and marched with people who were struggling day-to-day. It occurred to me that maybe it was fate that I was running at all. It was my mother who loved politics and took pride in identifying herself as a Democrat, the party of inclusion and champion of the vulnerable, with her roots as the daughter of Eastern European immigrants who settled in the gritty outskirts of Boston and who lived a hardscrabble, working-class life. She would have been proud, I thought, looking down. No one from my family had ever run for political office before. The Kennedys we were not.

My mother’s keen interest in politics landed her on Capitol Hill as a staffer for U.S. Senators Bill Bradley (D-NJ), who ran for president in 2000, and Daniel Moynihan (D-NY), no small feat for a woman who spent her initial post-college years in the 1960s into the 1970s raising kids, and then battled back from debilitating depression to gain a foothold in the workforce.

At one candidates’ forum in particular, at a large residential retirement community outside of Baltimore, I felt my mother’s presence with me. I eschewed my usual stump speech in favor of an effort to connect with the seniors on an emotional and personal level, as excerpted from Don’t Knock, He’s Dead:

“I have a good idea of the issues you have faced and your current challenges,” I told the Charlestown [Retirement Community] residents, “but not because I read it or heard a policy wonk or a politician talk about them. I know from personal experience, from trying to help my mother with problems the last couple of years of her life before she died, when her health was going downhill.”

I told them about my mother’s challenges with downsizing and finding appropriate housing; exploring assisted living facilities; searching for viable transportation when she couldn’t drive; navigating a poorly coordinated, frustrating health care system; determining finances; and finding social outlets.

I wasn’t aiming for sympathy, but nevertheless several of the attendees and my fellow candidates offered me condolences and said my speech was heartfelt afterwards. Once again, I didn’t know if my speech had earned me any votes, but I was proud that it was memorable.

Nearly four years later, following a dinner celebrating my daughter Rebecca’s graduation May 20, 2017 from the University of Maryland, Rebecca told me she was sad that Nana – my mother – wasn’t there to celebrate with us. Another prideful campaign sadly missed. Whenever Maryland plays the University of Michigan, often now that Maryland is in Michigan’s athletic conference, Rebecca said she’ll think of her grandmother, who took great pride in transcending her poor, neurotic family in working class Malden, Massachusetts to arrive at a beacon of rah-rah American collegiate life in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and who ingrained the “Go Blue!” Michigan chant in her grandkids.

And I’ll always think of my mother when I recall my run for politics, one of her other great loves.

‘Play the Whole Tape:’ The Struggle of Addiction

Alcoholic_AAMtgThe lanky young man with the tattoos took a break from his intricately-detailed pencil-sketching to look up from his art and turned to face me after I introduced myself to the group.

“Have you ever been addicted to drugs?” he asked.

“No,” I responded.

“Ever been addicted to alcohol?”

“No,” I said again.

“What can you know?” he mumbled with disgust and turned back to focus on his artwork.

It was my first day as a co-leader of a substance abuse therapy group, an internship for my clinical mental health counseling master’s degree as I make a career transition from public relations to counseling. The group leader smoothed the edges by telling the group members they can learn different things from counselors who had addiction problems and those who haven’t. The leaders with whom I have worked had substance abuse histories and can talk the language of the streets and drug culture; I can’t.

When a member glorifies the days of using, as those in substance abuse recovery are wont to do, one leader admonishes: “Play the whole tape,” meaning remember the misery that accompanied the action, the “ripping and running.”

Later in the session, the young man apologized to me and the group for his abrasiveness, saying he had discovered just before the session that a good friend from childhood had died by drug overdose. That type of emotional volatility and chaotic, unpredictable life is common among members.

In my two months co-leading and leading this three-hour-long group session, I have learned from members and have become more comfortable guiding and interacting with them. The members provide a fascinating window on life’s struggles and many life themes: redemption, commitment, determination, acceptance, grace, hope, resilience, courage, meaning, generosity, self-centeredness, self-destruction, temptation and despair.

Group members represent a microcosm of society: male and female; fathers and mothers; black, white and Hispanic; teenagers to seniors; those from childhoods of abuse, neglect and deprivation and others from relatively stable, caring families; workers and jobless; people doggedly seeking change and others going through the motions.

Some have been homeless, shunned by family members. Many have been imprisoned, and some still are dealing with charges that could result in jail time with any transgression. Some have risked their lives to get drugs, running dangerous streets at all hours, banging on doors of drug dealers. They have lost children, jobs, health, relationships, dignity, trust and respect over their addictions. Many have been through rehab before, but reverted to previous habits, some as soon as they exited. Their emotional lives have been engulfed with fear, shame, guilt, resentment, anger and damaged self-worth.

I don’t have any particular unique or profound insight into the scourge of addictive behavior and those who come under the influence of alcohol and drugs. I only have impressions as a person and professional new and fairly oblivious to this world. My biggest takeaway is that these individuals are not addicts, but people with addictions. In our society, we tend to apply labels to people that come with proscribed traits and characteristics, effectively straight-jacketing people into circumscribed boxes.

The experience has reinforced for me that addiction does not define the group members, a lesson I also learned first-hand when a roommate suffered a relapse. In fact, addiction is not at the core of their being at all. They are so much more than “addicts.” I appreciate the regular group members I have gotten to know for their sense of humor, loyalty, caring, openness, friendliness, raw honesty, suffering and commitment.

One woman exemplified the power of passion, hope and resilience – and the difference between those who truly accept and want to beat addiction and others who may be biding time – in an activity I led challenging the members to identify their strengths. Some struggled to come up with more than two; a few others declined to offer even one when called upon to share. But this woman, for whom the phrase “to hell and back” would apply, rattled off about a dozen assets. She appears to want recovery bad; her emotional pain is palpable. She has a medical condition that might keep others away, but she refuses to miss or give up. She’s a good person who got some raw deals in life and made some regrettable choices that sent her into a downward spiral, like many of the members, and she’s developing the courage to own it all. She is recognizing her worth as a human. She expresses faith.

I’m pulling and praying for her and the others to beat their addictions and find serenity and contentment, and hope I can be a positive influence, however small, on their recovery.

 

Thoughts on Struggle, Resilience, Gratitude and Grace

Counseling has given me a new perspective on struggle, resilience, gratitude and grace, at this time of year when we may slow down enough to think about these phenomegracena.

I’m working as a therapist intern at a mental health agency in Baltimore that serves low-income clients. Many have substance abuse problems. Some have been drug dealers. Some have spent time in prison. Many have been victims of crime or domestic abuse; some have perpetrated violent crimes.

Some have been homeless or evicted with no place to go, and some are on the verge of homelessness. Some are shunned by their families. Some were criminally abused or neglected as children.

All are struggling mightily, yet they have resilience. They want better. They want to overcome. They don’t quit. The question, however, is always: How motivated are they to change? When I think about resilience I’ve had to summon to face challenges, it doesn’t compare.

Many of our clients are on the margins of society, nearly invisible. Many have dropped out of the job market. Some want to return, but it’s a struggle to re-enter. Some have become isolated or reclusive, out of distrust or fear of failure, rejection or disappointment. They want independence, but it’s a struggle to get there; many have to lean on others for help. It’s easy to see: Once you fall into a hole, the climb to emerge can be arduous.

They are grateful for people who care about them, whether a therapist, a social worker or a friend or family member who stuck by them during difficult times when others didn’t. They are grateful for sobriety, kids and grandkids, and new chances.

Our clients inhabit a world and have lived through experiences with which I had no familiarity until my counseling internships. For the clients who have let me into their worlds and taught me about the enormous challenges they both inherited and created themselves, I am grateful. They have blessed me with a real-world education that books and classes can’t approximate. I hope I am providing a certain kind of education for them in return.

As for grace, Gerald G. May, M.D. described “living into grace” in Addiction & Grace:

“Living into the mystery of grace requires encountering grace as a real gift. Grace is not earned. It is not accomplished or achieved…It is just given.

“But living into grace does not depend upon simple receptivity alone. It also requires an active attempt to live life in accord with the facts of grace [which]…are simple: grace always exists, it is always available, it is always good, and it is always victorious…

“The risk, of course, is to my addictions; if I try to live in accord with grace, then I will be relinquishing the gods I have made of my attachments…I must make conscious efforts of will; I must struggle with myself if I am going to act in accord with those facts. Living into grace requires taking risks of faith.”

As we enter a new year, I hope and pray our clients are able to recognize grace working in their lives and find the strength to take the risks of faith to live into grace.

Facing a Match Point

It has not really been intentional, but death has been a recurring theme on this young blog about midlife. There was cyclist Tom Palermo, tragically mowed down in the prime of life by a drunk bishop. Two vibrant co-workers at my current job have been at work one day, gone the next. Perhaps it’s inevitable that when you reach midlife, feelings of immortality are stripped and death becomes less an abstract concept and more a certainty you have to reckon with. And that can be a good thing, motivation to be your real self, focus on the things that are most important and for which you have the most passion, take more risks, express yourself more fully and love more deeply.

This post, however, is about life, not death, though its specter, I would imagine, is present, a hard thing to dance around. It is about the fight for life and the preciousness of life. It is about braving the worst of times so one day again the best of times will feel even sweeter. It is about having to dive deeper into one’s soul and mine further into one’s spirit than ever previously imagined. It is about adjusting and learning new ways of living, being and relating.

I received an e-mail from my tennis buddies that a friend – really an acquaintance, but I know if I knew him better, he would be a friend – had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Before I say more, I want readers to consider making a donation to Bobby through the GoFundMe website set up to help cover costs for him and his family.

Bobby is a tennis pro at the clubs where I play, and has coached at the high school and college levels. We have crossed paths and talked a number of times. I know something about his job from personal experience.

After a layoff from a public relations job in 2002, I got certified as a tennis instructor from the U.S. Professional Tennis Registry. I had been a competitive junior and college tennis player, and had always been interested in teaching – especially competitive juniors – but never had the time. Now I did. I taught for a while for the same recreational organization where Bobby teaches, spent a summer teaching at a summer camp, and coached a girls high school team. I made an arrangement with a local swim and tennis club to teach members and non-members on its two seldom-used courts, and began building up a clientele. I taught for a nonprofit organization that ran after-school programs, and eventually became its organizer and director of a high school training program. I loved it, but as I eventually re-entered the corporate world, my tennis teaching started to dwindle. At one point, I talked to Bobby about assisting him with his juniors program, but it never came to pass.

I only describe my own experience with tennis teaching because I know that as a successful tennis teacher and coach, Bobby possesses many attributes that are going to help him in his fight to recover. Any successful tennis coach must have energy, passion, enthusiasm, patience, positivity and spirit. That’s what rubs off on students and keeps adults and kids coming back and hooked on working to improve their games. I can tell Bobby possesses these traits by his community’s outpouring of love and support. He has had an impact, likely far broader than he ever thought.

As an individual sport, tennis teaches many life lessons: managing emotions; staying positive; focusing on the moment; having a game plan, and adjusting when it’s not working; dealing with adversity; valuing the process as much or more than the results; and fighting hard and never giving up. These, too, can be applied to Bobby’s challenge.

Bobby is somewhere in his 40s, younger than I am and too young for this. For me, as with the Tom Palermo story, this hits home as another case of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Life is unfair. And for Bobby, this sucks. But I notice he is already learning new things. When I e-mailed him about writing about his journey, he responded that he had learned from the outpouring of community support to “put my pride and privacy to the side and allow people that want to help to do so.” We all have our walls and our desire to be invulnerable. In acknowledging vulnerability, I believe Bobby is letting some walls down. And in so doing, he will be letting in the caring and love that will strengthen him to beat his illness. I’m praying for him and his family, and hope with all my heart I see him out on the court with his students, hitting balls and barking encouragement, come spring and summer.

To donate for Bobby, see: http://www.gofundme.com/ka1jw4

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