midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

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A Tragic Tale of Alcoholism

Alcoholism is an insidious disease. Those with the hubris or self-delusional thinking to believe they can confront it and defeat it or manage it without professional help and community support, or who are oblivious, willfully or otherwise, toward recognizing their problem, invariably lose. That’s not to say that people with alcoholism who choose to go it alone are senseless, just that they are human and flawed, and as such, stubborn, prideful, in denial, and resistant to surrender. This is the tragic story of one of them.

*Names have been changed.

I received a text message overnight from Monty*, the head tennis pro at a community recreation center near where I was teaching tennis for the summer at a seaside resort. We had met early in the vacation season to talk about whether he had need for assistance and whether I could work around my schedule to teach at his club.

As a last-minute replacement hire, Monty also struggled to find housing for his three-month gig, which is prohibitively expensive and scarce at the shore.  So throughout the summer, it was common for him to text me to help him with his housing search or to let me know his teenage assistant wasn’t working out and to ask whether I had any availability to teach.

But this text was different. It was shocking, but unfortunately, not entirely surprising: “Adam, I heard your friend Kevin* is no longer with us. If it’s true, I’m sorry for your loss.”

I didn’t see the text until the morning, just before I started teaching for the day. When I VodkaBottlegot home, I searched online to see if I could find any confirmation of what Monty had relayed to me. I did. It was a sad, bizarre and surreal article in a Caribbean newspaper, but rang true to what I knew about my friend Kevin. Alcohol did him in.

The article described how Kevin had traveled to the Caribbean island from the U.S. Heartland in hopes of securing a tennis teaching job at an island resort. In unusually detailed reporting, the article also explained that Kevin was unable to land a job because he remained drunk all day and night, and had numerous cuts stitched up on his head from falls as testament to his non-stop drinking.  According to the article, Kevin drowned in shallow waters beneath a coastal town’s popular boardwalk, lined with restaurants and bars. By the time passers-by spotted him and pulled him out, he was gone. He was 61.

The Odd Couple

Kevin and I not only were roommates for summer 2016, but taught tennis alongside each other at the large coastal resort. We spent more time together than a married couple, especially since Kevin did not have a car. He said his car had some mechanical problems and that he did not want to take it on the long trip from the Midwest to the Atlantic shore. I took him at his word at the time, but now I suspect he might have lost his license due to drinking-related violations. It might have been one of those little lies he told others and himself to mask an unpleasant truth.

I took him on shopping and banking errands, restaurant outings and side trips, and we usually drove to work together, with his bike on the back of my car in case our departure times were different. He called me his “wing man” on social outings. We shared lunch breaks at the tennis center and barbeque dinners at home. When it rained, we sometimes taught side-by-side on the same indoor court. Together, we watched his favorite Midwestern teams compete in the NBA Playoffs and hockey’s Stanley Cup at restaurants until our cable TV got hooked up, then from our couch.

When I first made Kevin’s acquaintance by phone, I got the impression that Kevin, at age 60, was mellow and wise, a sage who would bring harmony to any situation. While that impression wasn’t entirely inaccurate, it missed the mark. From the moment I met Kevin on my first day at the tennis resort, when he burst through the clubhouse doors sweaty and pepped up from his bike ride to the facility, and zeroed in on me immediately as his new roommate, colleague and man he had communicated with by phone and email for several months, I knew he was more like the proverbial “real pistol,” a whirling dervish, belying his near-senior citizen status.

We were The Odd Couple – he the big-talking extrovert prone to braggadocio, the raconteur of uproarious stories, the unabashedly gutter-mouthed chatterer, the lifelong bachelor, the conqueror of beautiful women, the bon vivant, the energetic go-getter, the confident expert in his field; me the introvert, the married man with kids, the calm and contemplative one, the boring one satisfied to do solitary things at home and rest, the relative newbie at big-time tennis teaching who didn’t know if he fit correctly within the zeitgeist of the profession. But somehow, the yin and yang worked; we played off each other like Felix and Oscar.

I’ve Got to Get out of this Place

Kevin – who introduced himself as “Coach Kev,” the same as he was called by his students — got in touch with me in spring 2016, several months before we both showed up in the beach town as seasonal tennis instructors, to make my acquaintance and discuss strategies for searching for a place to live for the summer. We talked numerous times about our backgrounds and experiences, and our prospects for securing housing.

In the course of those discussions, Kevin revealed that he was an alcoholic, had attended Alcoholics Anonymous, had a sponsor, and had been sober for three years. He said he had been sidetracked from his tennis teaching and coaching career by an illness and death in his family, forcing him to return to his Midwestern hometown after globetrotting for two decades, bouncing around among eight states from the Southeast to the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest to the Northeast, with an interlude in China.

In hindsight, I suspect that transient existence may have had something to do with Kevin’s battles with alcohol.

He was eager to get away from what he called his “gloomy” Midwestern home state and a grunt-labor factory job he worked while caring for his family member to “build a nest egg” to jump-start a better life doing what he loved. The tennis court was his sanctuary.

“Can’t wait to get out of here and to the beach!!!” he wrote in one email.

“Let’s work hard and have some fun and learn something about each other and the rest of the team this summer,” he wrote in another.

Fish Tales

I secured a room for rent in a homeowner’s house two miles inland from the beach, and connected Kevin with the homeowner Steve*, who rented Kevin the other available room.

The three of us became friends during the summer of 2016, engaging in fraternity-like banter about each other’s social lives, eating and shopping habits, athletic prowess, and quirks. Kevin told stories about living with a trio of Swedish girls while working in a ski resort town and adventures in Alaska, where he claimed to be a friend of singer Jewel. We all laughed at Kevin and Steve’s evening rituals of lawbreaking, when they would walk through neighbors’ property to fish in the adjoining private golf course’s pond and play the closest three holes as freeloading non-members, both activities prohibited.

Steve and I cracked up as Steve recounted Kevin’s reaction when admonished by a golf course superintendent that fishing was not allowed on the golf course.

“What do you MEAN there’s no fishing?!” Kevin bellowed incredulously to the golf course official, fishing line dangling in the water from the bank, as if those golf course fish were Kevin’s God-given right to catch.

I still have the hilarious image in mind of Kevin striding purposefully down our neighborhood street, wearing his floppy fishing hat and fishing vest with dangling lures and hooks, wading pants and boots, fishing pole carried erect, looking comically out of place amid the trailers and modular homes with no river or lake within proximity. Invariably, he would come home in darkness with a fishing tall tale, immediately pulling out his cell phone to show me photos of and describe in vivid detail his evening’s triumphs.

The Big Dog

On the tennis court, Kevin was intense and driven – perhaps too much so for a resort environment. He had a strong desire to demonstrate his knowledge and skill, and seemingly to show he was superior to other tennis coaches, The Big Dog, which appeared true but may have rubbed some the wrong way.

He sometimes became frustrated with lackadaisical players on his court during clinics, urging them, “Move, players, move!” Some liked to be pushed; others felt browbeaten – after all, they were on vacation, not training for Wimbledon. On occasion, when players failed to listen or couldn’t understand instructions, Kevin would turn his back to players and perform the religious ritual of crossing his chest and looking toward the heavens in mock – or in his case, perhaps all too real — despair.

Kevin was an excellent tennis coach, with a knack for explaining technique, strategy, shot selection and court positioning in simple, succinct and understandable terms. Players who were truly interested in improving their games gravitated to him, booking private lessons. Parents who wanted to help their kids compete at a higher level often sought out Kevin to be their coach for a week or two, or intermittently during the summer, deeming him the instructor who could produce the most results.

I learned a lot from Kevin about tennis coaching and teaching. I often watched his lessons and took notes on his sayings, advice, instructions and drills. Invariably, Kevin would bring his day at work home with him, recounting each teaching hour of his day, analyzing individual players on his court and their idiosyncrasies, describing what went well and what didn’t, and sharing his observations of other coaches, administrative staff and the entire tennis resort operations. He assumed the role of self-appointed management consultant and evaluator, seemingly unsatisfied to limit himself to his more narrow daily duties.

He would ask me about each of my clinic hours and students, and offer commentary on what he observed of my on-court performance. We often engaged in hours-long discussions on the finer points of tennis stroke production, doubles strategy and movement, ball-feeding patterns, purposeful drills, and how to keep clinics fast-paced, engaging and informative. He used his fingers to diagram and explain drills on our kitchen counter, moving them along the Formica® to demonstrate the flow.

His intensity and high standards often extended to the tennis club’s administrative staff, which caused him anguish when he believed they were lax or did not communicate well, especially about scheduling and booking issues. “They’re taking money out of my pocket,” was Kevin’s frequent refrain. As a result, tensions mounted between some of the young desk assistants, who may have felt intimidated or unfairly criticized, and Kevin, who expected a high level of professionalism. His reasonable but firmly delivered demands for accountability may have hurt him in the end.

Kevin was full of bluster and confidence. Even though he was 60, he approached the tennis teaching gig like he was 25, insisting with bravado that long hours on his feet in temperatures hovering around 90 were “a piece of cake.” Recognizing his desire to work and customers’ appreciation of his coaching skill, the club worked him hard. Some days, Kevin would start with an 8 a.m. lesson, and would finish with the 6 p.m. evening clinic, arriving home by bike at 7:30. The grind finally wore on him. “They’re riding me like a mule!” he would confess, sweaty and red-faced.

Voluntary and Involuntary Transitions

As the summer wore on, Kevin realized it was time for him to search for his next gig, as our tennis center dramatically cut its teaching staff after Labor Day. After several weeks of negotiations, Kevin proudly announced that he had secured a tennis teaching job at a large Florida facility. Kevin, who came from a family of eight siblings, called one of his brothers to share the good news, and became frustrated when he was met with skepticism and disapproval.

Late at night, after the phone call, he knocked on my bedroom door, wanting to talk. He lamented that his brother and other siblings didn’t share his joy in nabbing the Florida job, but instead seemed to want him to head back to his Midwestern home base and hunker down with something more stable and secure. He assured his brother that he was doing well, was happy and sober, and was excited about the new opportunity. Sad and reflective during our conversation, he seemed distraught by how difficult it had become to relate to close family members and their seeming lack of confidence in him and support for him, and needed an ear to bend. Coach Kevin was headstrong. He wasn’t the kind to do what others wanted him to do with his life, and resented the insinuations that others knew what was best.

Soon after Kevin scored the new job and his distressing phone call, things began to unravel. I’m not sure if a slip from drinking abstinence precipitated trouble at our tennis club or trouble at the club precipitated drinking. As far as I could tell, Kevin had done a fantastic job staying sober, resisting temptations, grinding on the tennis court and keeping himself on track all summer.

But in August, Kevin was let go from his job. He received a call one morning, and left home early for work. During busy morning clinic hours, when Kevin typically could be heard five courts away barking instructions and exhorting his players, Kevin was nowhere to be found. At lunch, the tennis director and head pro pulled me aside, as a courtesy since I was Kevin’s roommate, to let me know they had let him go that morning.

Relapse came fast and hard for Kevin, and with it, the ravages of alcoholism. Within a few days, his descent was so steep I couldn’t even recognize the Kevin I knew, from confident, energetic, strong and outgoing to weak, bumbling, indecisive and lost. He was a shell of his former self. For several weeks after his firing, with nothing to occupy his time, Kevin’s days revolved around drinking and were spent secretively in a drunken fog and the throes of violent physical illness, and in desperate but futile attempts to stop.

He knew he was sick and needed help, but refused to accept help from his roommates and a few other friends, always appreciating and thanking us for offers but never following through. He resisted regularly attending a nearby Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He stubbornly persisted in his effort to slay the dragon on his own through sheer force of will, or maybe perversely preferring to wallow alone in misery as a form of self-punishment, shame and guilt. He startlingly and rapidly declined physically, lacking sleep and nutrition and looking like he had been in a barroom brawl from numerous cuts on his head, hands and legs incurred from falls, similar to what was reported in the Caribbean newspaper about his final weeks.

With prompting and help from Steve, Kevin got his act together enough to pack some of his stuff, buy a bus ticket to Florida, and hitch a ride to the bus depot with Steve for departure. But I suspected in his condition, his new venture would be doomed from the start.

An Unexpected Reunion?

Kevin and I left messages for each other several times in the fall, but had difficulty connecting. In messages and short conversations, it wasn’t clear exactly what he was doing, but I gathered that Florida had not worked out and he ended up back at his Heartland home base.

Then, in spring 2017, he contacted me to let me know he was making a comeback, literally. He was up for two seasonal tennis director jobs at a country club and the planned community recreation center along the same stretch of Mid-Atlantic shore that we both worked the previous summer. He offered me to be his assistant during my off times at wherever he landed, knowing that I was returning to the bigger tennis resort at which we both had worked the previous summer as my main job. I said I was interested, but couldn’t guarantee him anything, owing my allegiance contractually to my employer and working unpredictable schedules day-to-day.

He took the job at the community recreation center, keeping me updated on his programming plans and anticipated needs for an assistant pro. Once again itching to leave the gloomy Midwest behind, he arrived at the shore a good two months before the busy summer season began in earnest.

In one phone call before the summer season started, Kevin sounded particularly anxious and downbeat about his inability to find a reliable assistant, a lack of support and tennis industry knowledge on the part of the recreation center management, and the challenges of designing a schedule, implementing programs, establishing a budget and purchasing equipment. The responsibility all fell to him as a one-man operation, and he seemed to be feeling the pressure.

Downward Spiral

Within days, I got a call from Steve saying that Kevin had fallen off the wagon, had been hospitalized and had lost his tennis director’s job, replaced in an emergency hire by Monty. He hadn’t even made it to Memorial Day.

Kevin eventually caught a bus back home to the Midwest. I talked to him a couple of times while he was there. He told me ruefully that he “screwed up,” that he was depressed and about to enter a 30-day rehab program, that if he didn’t he feared he would die. But about a week later, I received a voice message from Kevin. In our previous conversation, he said he wouldn’t be allowed to have a cell phone in rehab. I concluded he had decided not to attend rehab at all, or bailed or got kicked out after a few days.

I didn’t hear from or about Kevin again for the rest of the summer, until I got the text late at night on September 1 from Monty, who had heard the news from the board president and manager of his recreation center/tennis club, where Kevin had preceded Monty as the short-lived tennis director.

In an odd and admittedly delusional way, I feel like maybe, just maybe, I could have changed the course of Kevin’s life and saved him from his drunken stumble to his death off the gorgeous island’s boardwalk. Maybe if I had been able to offer him more assurance that I could assist him in his new job at the shore, relieving some of his anxiety. Or perhaps if I had been in touch with him more frequently over the summer, providing him someone less judgmental than family members in whom to confide or vent fear and frustration. But I know that is unrealistic, fooling myself about having any power or influence over the death grip of alcohol and its captive. Without the alcoholic’s full surrender to the indomitable potency of alcohol and to a power greater than oneself, bystanders can do little to save the alcoholic from himself. Lord knows, Kevin’s many family members must have tried mightily to exert power or influence over the years, only to be rendered helpless in the end.

This is speculation, but my best guess is that Kevin had a tennis industry contact on the Caribbean island who encouraged him to relocate with the promise of leads for tennis teaching jobs. The newspaper article said Kevin stayed at a private residence on the island before moving into a hotel, a possible indication that drinking may have disrupted his stay with someone he knew.

Maybe Kevin wanted to make the ultimate escape, leaving behind the U.S. mainland, family, friends and acquaintances, and past job failures and bad memories, all together for a tropical paradise, where everybody is in good spirits, the slate is clean, and beauty abounds. Problem was, he couldn’t escape himself and his disease. Ultimately, it appeared, he ended up in a place where nobody – or perhaps practically nobody — knew him, where he could blend into the scenery and surrender, willfully or not, to his vice and disease unfettered, instead of to a higher power, without the watchful eye or emergency intervention of anybody who cared, a paradise that paradoxically turned ultimately into his own private hell.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Coach Kevin since I heard the news and found the article. It doesn’t seem real, but more like “fake news.” I keep thinking that I will hear from him again, about his next stop in his series of adventures, and to check in on me. But his disease was all too real.

Though he could drive me a little nuts with his hyper-analysis of our tennis teaching days and critiques of my performance – often backing off later saying, “Ahh, don’t listen to me…I’m just trying to help ya” – I appreciated Coach Kevin as a one-of-a-kind character. I’ve never met another Coach Kevin in my life – the intensity, the bravado, the humor, the sailor’s mouth, the entertaining stories, the wide-ranging opinions, the passions, the insights, the hard-learned wisdom, the friendliness, the complexity of his personality and being. He was one of those people you come across in life who you never forget, who makes an indelible impression. I was glad to call Coach Kevin my friend and I’ll always remember him, even though we were so different and entered each other’s lives late and for only a brief period.

I am deeply saddened by the loss of my friend. It would have been wonderful to keep in touch for years to come, sharing tales of new adventures and offering support and encouragement. The only solace is that Coach Kevin is free from the demon that he just could not tame despite what had to be many repeated Herculean, gut-wrenching efforts.

I imagine him looking down at me during my last few days teaching in the summer of 2017 and saying in his own inimitable, blunt-spoken way: “That lesson was miserable! What were you doing? I could have had that woman ripping topspin forehands into the corners in five minutes! Pow, pow, pow. Ahh, but don’t listen to me…”

 

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A Love (Turned Divorce) Story

I never saw it coming. Twice.

Maybe I was oblivious or in denial, or both. But when my ex-wife first announced that she wasn’t happy and didn’t know if she wanted to stay married, I was dumbfounded. We had two kids under 5 at the time after less than seven years of marriage, and my world was turned upside down in an instant.

I was among the 50 percent of married people who entered marriage thinking divorceTrainInTunnel was only for other people who marry the wrong person, have poor character or morals, or can’t figure out how to make a marriage work, only to end up immersed in the previously unthinkable, bewildered by how such a good thing could have turned so unpleasant.

I didn’t want a divorce. When my ex-wife first raised the specter, I struggled to hold on, to determine what the problems were and how to fix them, and to convince my ex-wife to stay in the marriage and work things out. My emotions were raw and unstable. I became depressed. I lost my appetite and energy, had difficulty sleeping, and experienced trouble concentrating at work. I went to a therapist, desperate to have someone objective with whom I could unload and discuss my predicament.

At the same time, I visited a divorce lawyer, because I knew my ex-wife already had. I dreaded the meeting. I dreaded the prospect of being a part-time father and exposing my young children to the perils of divorce.

We went to couples counseling. I vacillated between feeling hopeful and frustrated that my ex-wife seemed entrenched in her position that she was uncertain whether she wanted to remain married and non-committal toward working to save the marriage. We co-existed for several months in an awkward netherworld of fragile uncertainty. I slept in the basement. I tried to find religion, going to Jewish services, partly in search of peace and community and partly just to escape the tension of being home.

And then, gradually, things got better. We seemed to turn a corner toward reconciliation. We made efforts to be more thoughtful of each other and communicate better. We seemed to be committed to making the marriage work. But perhaps something had been broken irretrievably – or perhaps something was broken all along.

Less than four years later, after a blowup over a happenstance, comedy-of-errors incident that provoked anger, hurt feelings and resentment, my ex-wife announced she was done. Again, I was staggered. I knew things weren’t great, but I also believed they weren’t bad either, at least not divorce-worthy. We weren’t blissful, but things seemed relatively smooth, two typically busy parents of an 8- and 6-year-old, juggling parenthood, careers, finances and social lives. Two successive job layoffs I had suffered added stress, but I didn’t think they were something the marriage could not handle.

This time, my ex-wife was firm in her resolve. I tried, perhaps foolishly, to hold my ground and influence her to work things out. It didn’t work. There was no more trying — only a long march toward a slow death. During the previous divorce threat, I felt befuddled, depressed and physically sick. This time, I was more prone to outbursts of anger, which I knew were ugly and abhorrent but had trouble controlling. I was so easily set off.

I went through the stages of grief for my marriage – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. We lived together for seven months in a state of confrontation, avoidance, resignation and disdain. It was miserable, living with day-to-day tension and knowing what was coming and the eventuality of involving our kids in a breakup. We went to mediation sessions, which I saw as a last ray of hope, but the well was dry. We worked to figure out how to separate amicably.

Finally, we made the arrangement to separate. I stubbornly, and perhaps ill-advisedly, refused to leave the married home. I just didn’t want to be the one to leave, to raise the white flag, to say goodbye and give the appearance of walking out on the kids. I also worried that leaving would create disadvantages for me in future legal negotiations.

During our seven-month Cold War, my ex-wife frequently recited the times I had disappointed her, made mistakes or bad decisions or seemed uncaring and unsupportive, adding up to being a less-than-stellar husband. Those incidents couldn’t be redeemed; they were etched into the narrative of our marriage. The more I railed against or disputed her accounts, the more despondent I felt and the deeper the hole I dug.

Like most marriages, it wasn’t all bad – far from it. We had had a delightful love story, or so I believed. We were senior year college sweethearts. We camped out for several days in Provincetown, MA before graduation, and I had never felt happier. We survived a year of long-distance romance, Upstate New York to Florida, before drifting apart because of impracticalities. Six years later, we rekindled the romance after I discovered my ex-wife had ended a long-term relationship and was interested in seeing me. We endured another long-distance relationship, this time more manageable, Maryland to New York, before getting engaged and finally settling in the same place, my ex-wife moving to Maryland. We loved each other – at least, I know I loved her.

As our marriage came crashing down, so did my beliefs about what I thought I understood about our relationship. Was it revisionist history, or the truth from one partner’s perspective? My ex-wife said perhaps we should have never married, it was all a mistake, maybe she never really loved me. Perhaps I wasn’t the person she thought I was – didn’t have the character she was seeking, not good husband material. At the time we married, I was a Baltimore Sun reporter, which sounds prestigious. By the time we separated, I had been severed from The Sun during a ruthless round of downsizing, laid off from two other jobs, unemployed, and about to start an uncertain venture as a Baltimore City teacher. Perhaps she grew weary of such instability and lack of focus and contentment. I was searching. Perhaps she gave up too much in leaving her established New York life behind, including a graduate school program, to be with me.

The separation was not without challenges and recurring hurtful feelings, but it was a great relief. However, I felt a sense of failure, shame and embarrassment to be heading toward a divorce. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t make my wife happy and keep a marriage strong? The simplest answer, as I have come to realize and accept over the years, is that love – to whatever degree there was that, and I believe there was – just withered, and without it, there just wasn’t enough worth salvaging to bind two people together for eternity.

The finiteness of love is the train that I never saw coming through the tunnel. And here’s where it seems entirely appropriate to quote Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, his song about an amusement park ride serving as a metaphor for the dark side of a love relationship, my first marriage:

…There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark brother
It’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love

Well, it ought to be easy ought to be simple enough, yeah
Man meets woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above
If you want to ride on down, down in through this tunnel of love

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4K7XZGeHTE

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.

Midlife Men and Divorce: Risky Business

For the capstone class – the 22nd! – of my 5 ½-year master’s degree program in clinical mental health counseling, I had to choose a narrow “clinical population” for a research project. Somewhat shamelessly, self-servingly and unimaginatively, I essentially chose myself: a midlife man who has experienced divorce.

The findings were not pretty for the divorced midlife’s male’s future, though I acknowledge I intentionally selected research that highlighted why this population would be candidates for mental health treatment.DivorceHeartPhoto

Research has come to varying and sometimes contrasting conclusions on divorce and midlife men (roughly age 35 to 60), and mitigating factors are difficult to account for. However, numerous studies have shown that midlife men who have experienced marital breakdown have had greater propensity to become depressed, anxious or develop other psychiatric disorders; abuse alcohol or drugs; suffer from higher rates of illness, earlier death and suicide; harbor anger; live with loneliness and social phobia; qualify for work disability; and experience lower levels of physical health, mental and emotional well-being, and happiness and self-esteem.

And the majority of time, men aren’t the ones pulling the trigger on divorce, which studies show is one of the most psychologically distressing events in life. Research indicates that wives frustrated by an inability to improve their troubled marriages may be more likely to end them, with one study concluding that husbands initiate only a quarter to a third of marital separations.

These are research-based outcomes of divorce that pose challenges for the midlife man:

  • Recently divorced men were more likely than other groups to receive psychiatric treatment and be prescribed medication for mental health disorders. One study concluded that major depression was nine times higher among men who had been separated or divorced compared to stably married and single men.
  • Remarriage in midlife brings with it a whole new set of complications and negotiations that cause stress, indicating that marriage alone does not prevent mental and physical problems. One study found that remarriage was associated with an increased risk of depression compared with men who remained divorced.
  • Men often rely on their wives for their social lives and support for their health and emotional well-being, as women generally have stronger social support networks. Without their marriage, men can become prone to social isolation and loneliness.
  • A common dynamic of divorce is “non-acceptance” of marital dissolution. The ongoing feelings of attachment are associated with depression. The reality for some divorced fathers is continuing angry disagreements with and hostility toward their former wife a decade or more after breakup.
  • Once divorced, men’s physical health can decline, as wives often assume a role for monitoring and influencing their partner’s health behaviors.
  • While women experiencing divorce were at higher risk for mood and anxiety disorders, men were at higher risk for new substance abuse disorders. One study indicated that divorced 46-year-old men comprised a disproportionately higher share of binge and heavy drinkers compared to other groups of the same age.
  • The mortality risk for inconsistently married men (those who had divorced and remarried) was more than 40 percent greater than for consistently married men, and men who were currently separated or divorced had a mortality risk 2.5 times greater than consistently married men.
  • Men who had been divorced had a higher prevalence of work disability many years after the initial divorce.

As for me, I was the prototype of the midlife divorced male: separated at 42 and divorced at 45 in an action initiated by my ex-wife, with two pre-adolescent kids. I also have remarried, and while my wife Amy has been a wonderful social and emotional support, as the research indicated about wives, the second union has inevitably come with some stress due to new family dynamics and inter-relationships, financial complications and psychological adjustments.

I have avoided many of the pitfalls of the midlife divorced male, such as substance abuse or physical health decline, but did not escape divorce unscathed. When first threatened with divorce and teetering on the brink, I suffered from depression that affected my appetite, sleep, energy level and concentration. I struggled with non-acceptance when the reality of pending divorce flooded me like an unstoppable tidal wave. I lost a big chunk of my social connections and outlets. Worst of all, it was hard not to feel like a failure at something so important, and as a letdown to my kids.

Researchers have come to different conclusions over whether such a thing as a “midlife crisis” really exists, or whether it is a pop culture phenomenon, especially for men. But there’s no doubt that midlife is the time men walk through the landmines of marital upheaval, and when they are most prone to its potentially harmful and long-lasting mental health effects.

 

The Rewarding Work of Helping People Change Their Lives

Until you work in a mental health setting, you never realize the prevalence of depression, anxiety, mood and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, trauma, substance abuse, paranoia, anger issues, family dysfunction and other mental health problems in our society.

In the midst of a career transition from public relations to counseling, I just completed the first year of my internship at an outpatient mental health clinic that served Medicaid recipients for my counseling degree program. I counseled people with all those issues. All took medications as part of their treatment. Therapy was the other half of their recovery and managing their symptoms.

Gaining better awareness of ourselves and understanding our current behaviors and how the past may have affected them can be a lifelong and complex process. At the risk of oversimplification, recovery and a more healthy and satisfying life for people suffering from mental health issues (excluding those without severe mental illness or psychosis) comes down to several key factors:

  • Desire and readiness to change

  • Commitment to take actions

  • Ability to implement new ideas or behaviors

  • Willingness to accept reality

  • Fortitude to replace negative or destructive thoughts with more positive ones

I found clients were able to change their thinking and behaviors, and as a result, their feelings and emotions, to varying degrees and on different timetables. One client reported she had consciously changed a negative pattern of thinking to a more positive one within a few weeks, and as a result had significantly reduced stress and anxiety and slept better. Her entire presentation changed from forlorn and dragging to bright and eager. That told me clients had the ability to make rapid and meaningful changes. When you observe someone change like that, it’s a beautiful thing.

Others struggled with the same issues of anxiety, anger or dependency for months with small improvements and back slides. They had walls that were harder to penetrate, built over lifetimes of learned behaviors, ingrained messages and adaptations to survive circumstances.

Overall, the internship provided a fascinating window into the human experience and human behavior through my adult and child clients and their families. It was a privilege to get to know them, and difficult to tell them I had to leave when my internship ended.

The internship also taught me how little I know about mental health disorders and strategies to help people who suffer from them. There’s so much to learn about the science and art of mental health and therapy. And about how to be comfortable just being with people, showing authentic caring, developing a connection and earning their trust. But I’m learning, and excited about expanding my knowledge, getting better at being helpful and more courageous about challenging people to dive deeper below the surface to confront the roots of their problems. All signs indicate it will be a rewarding new career. I’m glad I took that gamble.

Down and Out

Recovering from surgery for broken tibia, fibula

Recovering from surgery for broken tibia, fibula

Lying on my back, looking up at the stars and stadium lights and the sweaty faces circling me, the terrifying thought flashed through my mind: “I’ll never be the same again.”

Seconds before, a crossing pass came rolling slowly from the sideline toward our goalie box. As a defender, I instinctively broke for the ball. I also broke my self-preservation rule – avoid reckless collisions – but I couldn’t predict it soon enough. As I got to the ball, so did a strapping young opponent, coming full-speed. He swung his leg like a nine-iron, attempting to score. Players arriving for the next game said they heard the “thwwaaackk” a field away. I went down. I thought it might be bad, but didn’t know. Just a bad bruise? I was afraid to look.

Play stopped. Players gathered around me. “Probably a broken shin guard,” I heard. Someone helped take off my shin guard. It was fine. I peered haltingly at my lower right leg and knew I wasn’t. We had a surgeon on the team. All she could offer was, “I’m sorry, Adam.”

Another teammate gripped my hand. Others began asking me questions. “What’s your wife’s number?” “Which car is yours?” “Where’s your bag?” Within minutes, I was being wheeled by paramedics to an ambulance. “What’s your birthday?” they asked, the first of many times I would hear that question that night, to evaluate my alertness, I guess. That and, “What’s your pain level, 1 to 10?”

I stayed conscious and alert through the trip to the ER, surprising myself that I didn’t go into shock or even feel overwhelmed by pain. I had a broken tibia and fibula, two main bones of the leg – a “tib-fib” in orthopedic jargon. The next day I had surgery, a rod and screws inserted, and embarked on the greatest test of adversity in my life.

I had made it to 49 without ever being seriously injured or having surgery. In an instant, to go from sprinting to (pardon the political incorrectness) crippled, is an absolute shock. Prognosis: full recovery, 6 to 9 months. I would learn in the coming months that the injury and surgery didn’t just affect an isolated part of my leg, but distressed my toes, foot, ankle, Achilles, calf muscle, knee – the whole kinetic chain.

I had played in a high-caliber co-ed recreational soccer league for seven years, starting at age 42 – 30 years after last playing. I stuck with it long enough to become a decent defender, and eventually team captain when no one else wanted the job.

More than 120 games, with nothing more than the occasional pulled muscle or bruised rib. It became a point of pride to be perhaps the oldest player in the league, competing against former high school and college players in their 20s and 30s, but it was getting harder.

Maybe ego got in the way, or nostalgia, trying to recapture a vestige of youth. Maybe I should have quit. I almost did several times, but decided “just one more season.” Now, barely able to bend my knee or get off the couch without great pain, I punished myself mercilessly for that decision.

I was angry at the player who hurt me. Problem was, I had no idea who he was. I was told he stood behind me as I lied on the turf that night, looking concerned. But I never heard from him. With no external target, I turned my anger and blame inward.

I blamed myself for decisions I made from two seconds before the accident to months beforehand that could have changed the devastating outcome:

“I shouldn’t have gone for that 50-50 ball.”

“Why did I go back in the game as a sub in the second half?”

“If I had only registered for a Thursday night graduate school course instead of Wednesday, I would have missed the season.”

In the first month after my injury, I continually ruminated about these scenarios, often in the wee hours of the morning between restless bouts of sleep and groggy interludes of cable TV movies and cheesy mystery novels – but of course it changed nothing.

With a walker, just like the near-death seniors at the assisted living facility up our street, I struggled to make it to the end of our 50-yard row of townhouses, and needed my wife to bring a chair so I could rest for the trip back home. Going upstairs on my butt was a chore, so the living room became my bedroom. I didn’t take a real shower for weeks.

I missed three weeks of work, which was just as well because I couldn’t focus, and didn’t drive or wear a shoe for two months. Cooped up and growing depressed, the days became interminable, and I dreaded trying to sleep at night. I had in-home physical therapy – boring and sometimes painful leg exercises, with a lady who scolded me that I would have trouble growing old with my downbeat attitude. But I did the exercises religiously, structured my day around them, multiple sets per day, even strapping a dumbbell or a big flashlight to my heavy, protective knee-high boot to strengthen my leg. But it atrophied anyway.

I was miserable and wallowing in self-pity. If I kept it up, I wouldn’t have blamed my wife if she had walked out, “in sickness” be damned.

I had been athletic all my life — a collegiate tennis player who still played competitively – and now I was struggling to do a lap around our kitchen and living room on crutches without falling. I had the distinct feeling that the world was going on without me.

I started outpatient physical therapy with great trepidation. I imagined the therapists as heartless drill sergeants, pushing me to do masochistic exercises to see how much pain I could endure before collapsing in humiliation. Wrong. I soon embraced my sessions as part of my recovery.

In my early days of rehab, my favorite part of the day was just before bed, after a hot shower, when I lied on the bed and strapped an ultrasound bone-healing unit to my leg for 20 minutes and watched the NBA playoffs, forgetting about everything. I found myself empathizing deeply with players who suffered leg injuries – Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and Baron Davis of the New York Knicks – now really knowing what an arduous road they faced.

I turned the corner and began rejoining life when I learned to use crutches more confidently. I would break up a work-from-home day with a laborious 1/5-mile walk to the neighborhood park about the speed of a kindergartner on 90-degree June days, sweating through my shirt and exhausting my arms, collapsing on the bench for a Gatorade break before the return trip. At night, I would take one of my kids with me until sunset.

I got stronger. I began going distances, about a mile along a path to the Lakefront in town for summer festivals and concerts, and just to sit on a bench with my son.

In late June, two months in, I mustered the courage to go to the neighborhood pool for laps. For the rest of the summer, I swam like my life depended on it, rarely missing a day, often closing down the pool after work. As the pools closed for the summer and healing progressed, I transitioned to cycling and gradually added tennis to the regimen in late fall, slowly increasing my lateral movement.

My new physical therapist told me recovery would be like a rollercoaster, and it has been. I went from two crutches, to one crutch, to no crutches, then back to one crutch as pain in my knee and swelling in my ankle made my gait uneven, then again to two crutches for a while, before finally weaning my way off. Pain and discomfort has flared and subsided regularly. But like the surgeon said, in my eighth month, I started feeling closer to normal, like this too shall pass.

Throughout my ordeal, I progressed from denial to acceptance to ownership. Ironically, the graduate course I was taking at the time of the injury was Theological Anthropology – an exploration of the influence and meaning of God and spirituality in our lives and the world. I came to view my injury as having deeper meaning – the response to adversity, nobility in suffering, a preparation for things to come. I didn’t even want to trade it away anymore, because then it wouldn’t even be my life, my unique experience, but someone else’s.

It was tremendously humbling. Who are you if you can’t do what you’ve always done? It gave me the perspective of living with a disability. I parked in “handicapped” spaces. Near-strangers asked what happened and offered their sympathy, welcomed or not. With my crutches and boot, I felt like a conversation piece.

It ate away at me that the player who injured me had never contacted me. I guess I just wanted to think it mattered…I mattered. Just after Thanksgiving, seven months after the injury, I e-mailed the player’s captain to say I was recovering and that I forgave his teammate. He responded that his teammate felt really bad about it, and it was his idea to send me the Get Well card with a $50 Amazon gift card way back when.

I still never heard directly from that player, and never will. But I never thought about it again. I guess that’s part of learning how to heal – physically, mentally, and spiritually.

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