midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “fear”

‘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.

 

(Not) A Chip off the Old Block

Academically, my son Daniel doesn’t take after me – except for the fact that we have each attended college. And in today’s increasingly specialized and technological economy and job market, I’d say that’s good for him.

As a freshman computer science major and bioinformatics minor, Daniel is taking a heavy dose of computer programming, biology, statistics and math. I predict he will separate DanAdam2_PotomacHallhimself from the masses who hold college degrees, which no longer guarantee entry into the professional world, by going the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) route and will find himself in demand in the job market. No post-college Parental Unit Domicile (PUD) basement-dwelling likely or necessary for him!

I, on the other hand, took an occasional math or science course three decades ago at my liberal arts college – only enough to meet the requirements to graduate – and overdosed on philosophy, history, political science, economics and English courses, emerging with a smorgasbord-style International Relations degree that led to nothing in particular.

But in that era, being a generalist with a broad liberal arts education could still work as a professional launching pad for many occupations. It’s not that it can’t work today, but it just appears harder.

Industries can be more selective in hiring graduates who more closely fit the profile for their jobs based on their degrees, internship experiences and technical and industry-specific knowledge. Those without more targeted, specialized and immediately marketable degrees will flood the “generalist” markets, like education, communications, sales, fundraising and social services, creating the immense competition that has left many college graduates on the sidelines.

While teaching tennis at an beach resort last summer in the midst of my career transition to counseling, I talked with a doctor at Minnesota’s renowned Mayo Clinic after a tennis clinic. His wife also was a physician. He had two kids in college, and explained his parenting philosophy about his kids’ college education. He did not take a laissez faire approach, like many parents who allow their kids to “find themselves” – or not – by experimenting and dabbling with a variety of subjects with no clear idea of where they were heading. Guessing and floundering, and possibly wasting time and money, was not acceptable, he emphasized. If his kids were going to attend college, he demanded that they have “skin in the game” and demonstrate a well-thought out plan outlining what they would study, and how their field of study would lead to a career path and jobs immediately after college, based on real-world economic and occupational data. Otherwise, the parental money pipeline would be disconnected.

It made sense to me. And immediately after my discussion with the doctor, I was struck by pangs of guilt: My daughter Rebecca was about to enter her senior year of college as a liberal arts major – sociology and French minor – and I had never really had that practical conversation with her about the real-world application of her college pursuits. I was the laissez faire parent!

That’s not necessarily a bad approach. There’s value in allowing your kids to make their own decisions, find their interests and passions on their own, and take responsibility for the outcomes. Parents foisting their own interests, desires and fears upon their kids to either force or influence them to take a certain path rarely works – at least not over the long haul – and typically ends in resentment. But I still felt remiss about possibly leaving Rebecca unprepared for a world that can be callous and crush souls.

So I called Rebecca that August day, knowing that merely mentioning the idea of developing a plan for her post-college life early in her senior year could ratchet up her stress level. She assured me that she was considering various ideas and researching careers, and that she wasn’t approaching her pending graduation flippantly.

That was enough for me. I could check off the Parental Duty box next to “Advise Child of Importance of College Choices.” I’ve never been a hard-ass parent. I have confidence Rebecca will find her way, just like I do with Daniel. And even though their career paths will be different, I’m glad both will be making their decisions based on what they want to do, not based on my ideas of what they should do or on pursuing a path based on fear that they won’t succeed. Because they will succeed if they have the desire and interest.

There are no strings attached to my investment in their college educations. I’ll guide where I can and when and if I’m asked. Otherwise, they’re on their own, and I know that’s the way they want it.

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.

The Art (and Practice) of Self-Promotion

I attended my 35th high school reunion last weekend – but not for the typical reasons of reconnecting with old friends or catching up with acquaintances. I knew none of the few people I still am in touch with from high school would be there, and that I wouldn’t recognize the vast majority of attendees, let alone have had even known them in high school.

I went primarily to practice self-promotion and marketing, tactics at which I am not highly proficient, but which I need to improve to raise awareness of and generate interest in my two new books published by Sirenian Publishing. These are skills which I also will sireniancardneed in the future, as I plan to launch an independent counseling practice. Having just obtained Sirenian Publishing business cards, I wanted to see if I could work the two books I have authored into conversations and grease some palms with the information.

I’ll call my endeavor a success, having talked about the books (the novel Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet about a rookie sportswriter in Florida and the nonfiction political memoir Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics) and given out cards to the eight or so classmates I spoke with at any length.

Sorry to sound so crass, Winston Churchill High School Class of 1981. However, it wasn’t completely an exercise in marketing, public relations and sales. I also attended to be social and with the thought of the possibility of meeting engaging people and establishing a new friendship or two.

It’s just that I know that I fall on the Introversion side of the Myers-Briggs personality inventory and that I don’t get energized by joining big crowds of people I don’t know in loud, cramped spaces. In fact, when I first walked into the reserved room at the restaurant and observed the scene of many strangers who 35 years ago had something in common with me engaged with each other in loud, animated conversation, my first instinct was to leave. I wouldn’t know anybody and I wouldn’t fit in, I thought. I walked straight past the crowd to the bathroom and then stopped at the far end of the bar and watched a football game on TV for a minute to compose myself, get in the spirit and prepare to plunge into the social melee.

It’s also that I associate high school with a difficult time of life that I never felt I could embrace – no fault of my high school classmates. Just before 9th grade, I moved, the result of my parents’ divorce years earlier and my mother’s struggles with her health and ability to function adequately as a single parent. I didn’t want to move to the new high school district, leaving the neighborhood and classmates I had known since kindergarten, and I resented it. It was difficult to adjust and break into cliques and friendships that had been established for years at the new school. I was an outsider and naturally quiet, and never really felt like my new high school or community were my places.

Luckily, just as I left my safe place at the bar to mill through the crowd and face my fear, I encountered a guy I recognized who was with his fiancé. We talked for 45 minutes while I drank a beer and they ate dinner. The ice was broken. That’s what it took to quell my anxiety, open up more, engage in the event and enjoy myself – while still subtly working on self-promotion (At least, I hope I wasn’t blatant. I think I had some tact.) All the classmates I met at reunion were exceedingly friendly and accepting, and I enjoyed conversations. I was grateful for that. As a former reporter, I asked people I met a lot of questions about themselves, so I wasn’t overly narcissistic about self-promotion.

The reunion was an event I wouldn’t have attended if I wasn’t an author. I just wouldn’t have been interested enough to make the effort. But the only way to become better known is to put yourself out there more, and when you do, good things you don’t expect and side benefits can happen.

I talked to a few people at reunion I would like to see again. They don’t even have to buy a book – but it would make me want to see them again more (final shameless plug)!

 

 

Getting to Know My Muslim Neighbors

While driving today, I passed a banner outside a Muslim mosque promoting an “Open House” later in the day. As a graduate student in counseling with courses in Diversity and Religious Perspectives as part of my program, I decided to visit to learn more about Islam directly from the source, especially amid the current national environment of muslimmeetneighborsfear, misinformation, rhetoric and propaganda about the religion based on the 1,400-year-old Qur’an.

I’m glad I did.

Non-Muslims came to talk to the mosque’s Muslim “guides,” ask questions and observe a prayer session. It was encouraging just to see the interaction and effort toward greater understanding at the Dar Al Taqwa mosque, which, translated, means “The Home of Consciousness” or “The Home of God-Fearing People.”mosque

My “guide,” a Baltimore pediatrician and Pakistan native, explained that Muslims pray five times daily, as a way to observe their belief that their God (Allah) sets the path and that their mission in life is to act as servants of God. Even during his medical training, he found the time and space he needed to observe his prayer ritual – it was that vital to his life.

My shoes left outside the sanctuary, I watched a group of about 35 males in a line, led by one man, in silent prayer for about 10 minutes, except for the brief utterances of the leader. The males alternately stood, bowed and kneeled with their heads near the floor. My guide later told me that the males were mentally reciting verses from the Qur’an.

After the prayer session, I asked my guide some probing and sensitive questions. Why were there no women praying with the men, I wondered. My guide explained that it was true that Muslim men and women were separated in some ways and roles in Islam, including in the ritual of prayer. However, separateness was not an indication of superiority or inferiority, the doctor said. American Muslim women have professional lives just like the men, and are relied upon to determine the future of their families and serve in other specific roles.

I asked his view of the typical American’s lack of understanding of Islam. He responded that Muslims take it as a challenge to try to educate Americans of different religious backgrounds about the tenets of Islam, which he said can be described in three words: peace, love and service.

The reason the mosque holds open houses every few months is to dispel misconceptions through face-to-face meetings.

We discussed whether the doctor believes that Muslims are integrated into American life and viewed as contributors to society, acknowledging that some view Muslims as a faction separate and apart. The doctor noted that he treats about 5,000 kids – the vast majority non-Muslim – in his practice, including many low-income, vulnerable children that other doctors won’t accept for insurance reimbursement reasons. His sons were born in the United States and attend schools with American, non-Muslim classmates. One son joked with me that his non-Muslim classmates would remind him and encourage him when it was time to pray. Muslims are our neighbors, work colleagues and classmates, and believe, on the whole, in giving, contributing and neighborliness, the doctor said.

Finally, we got down to brass tacks: the fear, paranoia and hatred inspired by terrorist attacks around the world committed under the guise of Islam, and the political rhetoric leading to a deep distrust, rampant misconceptions and misguided fear among many of anything Muslim. The doctor didn’t mince words. He said widespread “ignorance” is apparent. When people demonstrate “hate” toward Muslims, it is the responsibility of Muslims to “show them love and respond with compassion.” I offered that his response sounded like the teaching of Martin Luther King, Jr. The doctor and his son laughed, telling me that King incorporated ideas from the Qur’an in his philosophy.

Terrorists do not express Islam the way that he and the more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide understand and practice Islam, the doctor emphasized.

The doctor acknowledged that Muslim children have suffered at times in school and other phases of life because of perceptions and generalized anger directed toward Muslims. Girls and women who wear hijabs have been especially identifiable targets.

I have to admit: I can be influenced like anyone else by messages delivered by politicians and the media and knowledge of evil acts committed under the banner of Islam, to think there is something subversive and dangerous about Muslims. I have to fight against unfounded stereotyping.

Attending the mosque’s open house crystallized for me that you can’t paint any religion or culture with a broad brush based upon distant, hyperbolic perceptions. Real dialog, personal observation and a seeking to learn and understand is a more rational and productive way to form judgments. Americans of all cultural, ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds would be well-served to take such an approach in this era of powder-keg emotions and reactions.

 

 

 

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