midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “fear”

Career Change at 50 ‘Can Be a Perilous Thing’

Altering a career course at fifty can be a perilous thing, and many people, if not most, do not traipse merrily down that path. The luckiest among us find their work fulfilling, and cannot imagine why they would leave. Others would follow their passions if they could, but college tuition, the mortgage, and the care of parents or children or both buckle them into their present work…Still others are simply scared – with good reason, because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions.

— Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Reimagined

I embarked on a path to a new career at 48. It was more like entering a maze – I couldn’t see what was around the next corner, let alone envision arriving at the destination. I had doubts about whether I would have the fortitude to finish, and whether I actually even wanted to make a dramatic change and start over so late in my professional life.

I had established several decades of skills and experience as a journalist and public relations professional – fields that wouldn’t earn me a cup of coffee in the new career I was pursuing. I wasn’t just transferring and adjusting skills, as I did when I made the leap from journalism to PR. I was doing a total makeover, learning a new way of being.

“The brain likes its habits…and hates change,” Bradley Hagerty quotes a Harvard Medical School professor. “The brain despises conflict: It reasons that I may be happier over there, CareerChange_TwoPathsbut I am earning a good paycheck here, and in general it resolves this cognitive dissonance in favor of the familiar. At the bottom of every dilemma is fear.”

To make the change I sought – becoming a mental health counselor/therapist – I had no choice but to return to school for a marathon master’s degree venture, and ultimately confront the fear of the unfamiliar and the insecurity of the lower earnings commensurate with starting anew.

At first, I merely dipped my toe in the water by applying to a program and enrolling in the first of 22 required courses. I nearly dropped out after breaking my leg before completing my first course and losing motivation, feeling overwhelmed by the long road ahead. I overcame ambivalence and registered for a second course a few days before the next semester began. From there, it was a step-by-step progression that would have registered in the hundreds on a Fitbit.

After 5 ½ years of classes and internships and another five months of bureaucratic license- application process, I have been hired for my first professional job as a licensed counselor at age 54. As Bradley Hagerty writes in her book about midlife, it has not been a merry traipse, though it has been rewarding nonetheless – the sense of striving and accomplishment, the satisfaction of learning and growing, the excitement of pursuing something new and meaningful that will contribute toward others.

“The role of people in their second half of life is not to build up for themselves, but to begin to give away their time, energy and talents,” Bradley Hagerty writes.

There have been costs accompanying the benefits. I left my job two years ago, largely because it was incompatible with the latter stages of the master’s degree program, where I had to serve internships for four semesters. That plunged me from making a comfortable living to pay for a mortgage, two college tuitions and care of children – just as Bradley Hagerty identified – to an itinerant work life in the Gig Economy, working lower-paying temporary, part-time and seasonal jobs. Breaking even on the monthly household budget, much less saving for retirement, went out the window.

Psychologically and emotionally, I felt unmoored. After all, what kind of responsible, mature man in his 50s would be working the same summer job alongside college students as a tennis teacher? Wasn’t I supposed to be at the peak of my earning power – indeed, the job I left provided me the highest salary I had ever made – instead of making the same hourly wages I earned in my 20s? All this so I could enter a new career at the bottom rung in a profession where beginning pay is notoriously low. Just to drive home the point that I’m a rookie, my license for my first two years identifies me as “Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern.”

Was I scared, as Bradley Hagerty suggests many midlife career deliberators rightly are, “because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions?”

No…at least not so much to be deterred. I was more scared about looking back in a decade still with a yearning to try something new and realizing with regret that I missed my window. Once midlife careens on the backside toward older age, it becomes even harder to reinvent the self.

I also was entering a job market where there is a growing need, where men are relatively scarce and therefore actually valued for their gender perspective and traits, and where the accumulation of life experience and wisdom that comes with age is an advantage in helping other people with their problems – unlike some other professions, where older workers become dinosaurs because they can’t keep up with technology, trends, new methods and the requisite energy to stay on top. Or they are paid at the high end of the salary range, making them expendable in favor of hungry and more footloose up-and-comers.

Altering a career course at 50 certainly can be a perilous thing. There’s no guarantee the job market will unfurl a welcome mat for a midlife career changer or that the changer will be successful, however success is measured. I’ve managed to get through the front door; now I’ll find out for myself whether the new house I’m entering truly is my dream home.

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Listening

A follow up to my post on Facing the Music (from May 17, 2017, re-posted below), describing my invitation to have an authentic conversation with my young adult daughter Rebecca to hear her perspective on growing up in a family of divorce and the mistakes or oversights I may have made during those crucial years of development:

Time was running short, but I didn’t want to be a typical “all talk, no do” phony dad. I made my overture for an honest conversation just before I went to the beach for three months to teach tennis. Now I had less than two weeks back home until Rebecca traveled to France for a school year to teach English, and she was busy preparing and doing things with friends and family.

There seems never a good time to have difficult, uncomfortable and potentially distressing conversations. They’re easily avoided, and that’s what many people do, DiscussionTimeburying the hurt, anger, disappointment, sadness or other negative emotions until one day they boil over and surface in a torrent, providing release for the emotional-baggage carrier and a knockdown punch for the recipient of the pent-up emotions, unaware of the depth and intensity of feelings. I’ve been on both the unleashing and receiving ends of the bubbling emotional volcanos, and it’s never pretty.

A few days before Rebecca jetted off, we found ourselves together at home, and I broached the topic. Understandably, Rebecca was ambivalent about getting into an emotional conversation about past wounds and frustrations before embarking on an adventure of a lifetime. But she started talking, and I listened and asked questions.

I can’t reveal the content of what we discussed about our relationship and family life, and the complications and challenges Rebecca faced as a child, along with her younger brother, whose parents separated 12 years ago when she was 9 and ultimately divorced. It’s too private.

But I can say that at certain times I could have handled things better, that I was caught up in myself, that I made some mistakes, and that I was sometimes unaware of – or didn’t want to acknowledge – how much the kids observed, heard, knew or perceived, even at relatively young ages. Listening to Rebecca’s perspective and looking back, I can say how challenging it was for me to balance the needs, feelings, happiness, stability and security of my kids with my own needs, desires and emotions, and to try to lean toward selfless rather than selfish.

Divorce and eventual remarriage created some circumstances that ultimately were going to cause some distress for Rebecca individually and in our relationship, no matter what I did or said. The complexities of a marriage breakup and the constantly evolving aftermath can’t be fully grasped by a child, whose experience can be like that of a pinball ricocheting within a constrained environment. I experienced the pinball game as a child, and certainly didn’t understand everything that was going on with my divorced parents, and now so has Rebecca.

The beauty of our conversation was that Rebecca was able to tell me some things about what transpired from her perspective, what she experienced and how she felt honestly, and I was able to listen while squelching the default tendency to be defensive or critical.

We got through it with our relationship intact and expressions of love for each other. I’m hoping our conversation helps set a foundation for our future adult relationship, one in which we can be open and honest with each other without fear that we will be jeopardizing our relationship by revealing our feelings and with knowledge that we love each other unconditionally regardless of any conflicts, hurt feelings or differences that can be addressed and resolved.

So many relationships between fathers and adult children barely break the surface because of the dread of churning what lies beneath and what digging will uncover, or because of an inability, unwillingness or lack of desire to go deeper. Stoicism and emotional avoidance are drilled into males. I don’t want that type of relationship with my kids as they grow into adulthood. I want them to know and understand me, with all my attributes and faults, as I do them. I want us to be able to know and share our emotional selves. The only way to do that is to be emotionally available and vulnerable to them, and to show that I care about and want to know how they feel, and can handle it when they lay it on me.

One takeaway from our conversation is that whatever mistakes I made as Rebecca was growing up, I believe that she accepts my apologies, forgives my transgressions, acknowledges that I have tried to be a good and caring father and doesn’t expect me to be perfect. Our conversation was a good start toward setting the standard and expectation of our relationship for the future. I’m glad we each took the risk of having it instead of avoiding it.

Facing the Music (Midlife Dude Blog Post from May 17, 2017)

As my daughter Rebecca and I were discussing her sociology class on adolescence, she tangentially announced, “You and mom did a good job raising me.”

Surprised by an out-of-the-blue compliment, I asked, “What makes you say that?”

Rebecca explained that she does not view herself as materialistic, implying instead that she values experiences and relationships above things. We provided for her needs and many wants, but we didn’t overindulge, and didn’t replace our caring, attention and presence with materials, she was saying.

As a 21-year-old sociology major graduating from the University of Maryland in four days, she has learned about inequality, justice, race, poverty, privilege, human development and other similar topics, helping her become more insightful and introspective about her own life, and more astute about distinctions among individuals and communities.

I was happy to hear Rebecca praise our parenting, since her mom and I broke up when she was 9. My biggest fear about our divorce was that it would cause emotional and psychological problems for Rebecca and younger brother Daniel.

“So we did a lot of things right,” I said, fishing for more praise.

“Yeah, but not everything,” she said, adding the inevitable disclaimer.

“What didn’t we do so well?”

“There were things I haven’t talked to you about.”

We were headed to an Easter celebration, so there wasn’t time, and it wasn’t the right time, to get below the surface. But I kept the conversation in my memory, committed to return to it.

I did that last weekend, inviting Rebecca to have an open discussion with me as a young adult, reflecting on her experiences as a pre-teen and teenager, the positive and the negative, the gratifying and the disappointing, the supportive and the hurtful.

That conversation, I recognize, will require certain things of me, to be constructive rather than destructive or dismissive:  I’ll want to approach it as a listener, not a talker, and with an open-minded, non-judgmental, non-defensive attitude. Because I know my temptation, like any parent told in retrospect they weren’t as magnificent as they believed, will be to explain or justify or rationalize or correct the record, which would only serve to shut down Rebecca, diminish openness, trust and honesty and invalidate her experiences and feelings. My current training in counseling should help me control such urges.

I would like to give Rebecca the chance to have an open forum with me without fear of reprisal or disengagement. I believe it’s important to transition into our adult relationship with everything in the open, past issues revealed and understood, nothing left unsaid, as the foundation for our future interactions and communications.  It’s the key to an emotionally healthy, genuine father-daughter relationship.

I don’t know what she will say to me. I don’t know if I’ll be surprised. I don’t know what emotions it will trigger. But I want to hear it. I know I had good intentions throughout her childhood, and did my best as a father. But I also know I made mistakes. And I know the fact of divorce created situations and triggered emotions that were difficult, or perhaps impossible, to manage without having an impact on the kids. 

Facing the music about my role and impact as a divorced (and remarried) father in my daughter’s life will increase my awareness and, I hope, strengthen my ability to relate to Rebecca. It’s worth whatever discomfort or ego deflation it may cause me.

She’s Leaving on a Jet Plane: No Failure to Launch

My daughter literally has launched herself into adulthood.

The cornerstone job as a parent is to help your kids launch themselves successfully into adulthood by fostering their independence, confidence, self-identity, decision-making ability, sense of responsibility and motivation – traits which they have to develop themselves but over which parents have a big influence.

I’m proud and excited to see my 21-year-old daughter Rebecca exhibiting these traits. She has jetted off for Toulon, France, on the Mediterranean coast, for an eight-month RebInFranceassignment teaching English in two French middle schools, her first professional job after graduating college. This will be her second tour abroad, following a semester in college in which she studied at the University of Lyon in Lyon, France, and traveled throughout Europe.

Rebecca landed in Toulon September 18, 2017, not knowing anyone, same as when she ventured to Lyon in a study group comprised of American students from across the country. She was anxious and excited, the eagerness and thrill of the adventure, opportunity, unknown and challenge far outweighing any fears and doubts. I congratulate Rebecca on her adventurous spirit and desire to explore the world.

No Failure to Launch here, unlike Matthew McConaughey’s 30-something character in the 2006 movie of that title, who resisted leaving the comforts of the cushy life provided by his parents until they hatched a plan to finally get him to launch out on his own.

Psychology Today labeled “failure to launch” as a syndrome characterized by the “difficulties some young adults face when transitioning into the next phase of development—a stage which involves greater independence and responsibility.” Energy, desire and motivation are the necessary ingredients to fuel the launch and overcome fears and anxiety, and taking risks and actions comprise the launch process. Then, resilience and perseverance are required to overcome inevitable turbulence and continue progressing during this stage. Without those components, the post-adolescent risks becoming stuck and dependent.

Ultimately, says Psychology Today author and psychiatrist Robert Fischer, M.D., for a successful launch, a young adult “must tap into and identify a passion or passions, experience the joy that comes with expressing those passions, and have opportunities to share this joy with others.  There must be a conscious effort to cultivate not just the logic of the mind, but also the desires of the heart.”

I’m gratified that Rebecca is following her passion and desire by taking the risk and action to travel to France and to teach in foreign schools.

Rebecca is part of an age group that has been segmented recently from the broader adulthood category and coined “emerging adulthood” for its characteristics common to people in their late teens through their 20s. These are young people who feel like the knot in a tug-of-war rope, caught between breaking free of the challenges of adolescence yet often still maintaining close bonds with parents, family and the familiar trappings of youthful existence.

The psychologist who identified the new life-span development phase, Jeffrey Arnett, outlined five distinct features of emerging adulthood:

  • Identity exploration: Establishing one’s self-identity continues to evolve throughout the 20s, as young adults search for what brings satisfaction out of education, work, and relationships.
  • Instability: This group moves around a lot, among schools, jobs, locations and residences as they experiment with future paths, change their minds and directions and struggle to accumulate the resources to fuel their journeys.
  • Self-focus: Emerging adulthood is a time of intensive internal focus, as young adults explore their desires for work, living arrangements, experiences and relationships with a sense of broad possibilities and few encumbrances. It is an age when opportunities may seem limitless, before developments such as marriage, children, increased financial obligations and career choices inevitably pose constraints and redirect attention more outward.
  • Feeling in between: Emerging adults feel they are taking more responsibility for their own lives and decisions, yet still feel they have not completely broken free from some form of dependence and do not completely feel like an entirely self-sufficient, autonomous adult.
  • Age of possibilities: Optimism characterizes emerging adulthood. After taking a hard look at their parents’ lives, many believe they have a good chance to create a more rewarding and exciting life for themselves.

Another researcher sought to determine why some emerging adults thrive and why some struggle in establishing identities and independence. She found that the foundation for such progress or obstacles are established in childhood and adolescence, and are heavily influenced by parents striking the right balance between providing support, limits and structure, and encouraging kids to pursue independence and make their own decisions.

One type of family dysfunction that inhibits emerging adults from becoming independent is “enmeshment,” when family members’ emotional lives are so intertwined that children have difficulty separating, becoming their own person, and accepting responsibility for their choices and lives. This is a dynamic I have observed often in counseling.

The signs are clear that my daughter is becoming the captain of her own jet. I feel rewarded as a father that I have contributed to the foundation of her launching pad.

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…”

 

‘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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