midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “unpredictability”

Intersection of Beginning and Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Play the Whole Tape:’ The Struggle of Addiction

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

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

“No,” I responded.

“Ever been addicted to alcohol?”

“No,” I said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

15 Principles for Surviving and Executing a Career Transition

In two months I will complete a graduate degree in clinical mental health counseling that will have taken 5½ years to finish, enabling me to take final steps to executing a fairly drastic midlife career change from public relations. I had made a career change before, from journalism to public relations. Though still jarring, that transition was significantly more seamless than this one, requiring no additional education and using many of the same skills.

I have been seeking to derive more meaning and satisfaction from my career, as well as tCareerImagehe opportunity to self-direct my future, embrace an entrepreneurial spirit, contribute value to society and work flexibly, creatively, collaboratively and independently. I explored life-coaching, completing a series of training courses, but ultimately didn’t pursue it. But the idea of helping people with psychological, emotional and life challenges stuck with me.

It took me about three years of mulling the idea to apply to graduate school for counseling and another year after acceptance to enroll in my first class. Twenty-one classes and three internships later, I’m on the precipice of a career transition.

It hasn’t been easy. As I started my internships, I ran into a buzz saw at my PR job. It was miserable, and at the same time the best thing that could have happened. I couldn’t have done both well simultaneously, along with graduate classes. I would have burned out. I left my job, and the security blanket of a biweekly paycheck. That was 18 months ago. Since then, I’ve lived a much more itinerant, unpredictable and frugal existence, cobbling together temporary, seasonal and part-time jobs, and unpaid or low-paid internships.

In brief, these are 15 principles I’ve learned about making a significant career change, concepts that are valuable to consider while mulling a change or while bulldozing through the trenches:

  1. Long-Term Vision – A career transition won’t happen if you can’t envision a different future, if you are too overwhelmed by the daily grind and stressors to dream about a new life.
  2. Delay Gratification/Patience – Depending on how drastic the change and the amount of education and training required, the transition could be a long haul rather than a quick fix.
  3. Risk (Tolerance/Acceptance) – You will be giving up something known for something new, with no guarantee of breaking in, or even being proficient at or liking the new endeavor.
  4. Self-Knowledge – Become clear on what is most important to you, your values, how much risk you can tolerate, and how hard you are willing to work to make a change happen.
  5. Courage – You’ll have to be brave enough to take risks and step out of your comfort zone.
  6. Confidence/Self-Assuredness – Consider how you will handle other people in your life, including those closest to you and colleagues in your current occupation, questioning or casting aspersions on your decisions. How much would a wave of skepticism and criticism deter you or affect your thinking and beliefs?
  7. Identity – Leaving a profession, especially one you’ve worked at for years and in which you’ve achieved a certain level of expertise, status and success, can significantly alter how you identify yourself. Can your ego withstand such an identity loss, while building a new and different piece of your identity?
  8. Research/Network – It will be important to determine the costs and requirements (and barriers) to entry into a new profession, as well as occupational outlook, such as job growth and salary projections. Soak up all the information you can about your prospective new career while considering a transition and in the transitional phase by interviewing people in the field, networking with fellow career changers and professors, taking classes, attending conferences and reading industry journals.
  9. Commitment/Persistence – A half-hearted or uncertain effort will likely fail to result in lasting change, like my foray into coaching. The urge to give up may hit, especially early in the process. You’ll have to constantly re-evaluate your commitment, revisit why you embarked on the effort in the first place and resist inevitable doubts.
  10. Embrace Uncertainty/Unpredictability – Become comfortable with not knowing and embracing the journey as an adventure. View unpredictability as making life more exciting, stimulating and challenging. Here’s where faith and spirituality can come into play.
  11. Sacrifice – Be prepared to pay costs in terms of money, time, effort, perceived security and status (you may go from being expert to novice).
  12. Hustle/Scramble/Diversify – A career transition may not be seamless, moving directly from a job in one career to a job in another. There may be an intermediary period involving education, training, internships and the like. You may have to jump off the cliff during this period – leaving security behind – but with a parachute. You just won’t be able to be sure where you may drift or land along the way. You may have to be aggressive in patching together a living from various jobs that aren’t career jobs, but serve as a means to your end. You may have to call on skills you weren’t using in your current career, or adapt your skills to different positions that work within your new goals. For me, that meant working summers as a tennis teacher and applying writing and teaching skills as a university writing tutor.
  13. Flexibility – A flexible frame of mind complements the principles of identity and hustle. If you are not rigid in your identity, you can explore varied employment opportunities, living arrangements and lifestyles that can help you manage the transition. If you are open to a wide range of income-producing opportunities, you can minimize your reluctance to try new things – perhaps jobs you would have once considered beneath you — and ramp up your hustle to get them.
  14. Financial House – Your transition will be easier and less stressful if there is Order in the House, the Financial House. As much and as far ahead as possible, craft a financial plan for the transition. Build savings cushions and tuition accounts, if education is necessary. Consider becoming a minimalist in your lifestyle choices, to some degree. A transition likely will come with some financial pain, including possibly a precipitous income drop from your previous career once you start in a new occupation, but planning and frugality can mitigate the potential pitfalls.
  15. Negotiation – If you’re lucky, you’ll have a current employer who respects, or maybe even encourages and supports, your career-change endeavor (I wasn’t). If so, see how you can negotiate to get what you need – time, a flexible schedule, tuition assistance, remote work arrangement – while continuing to fulfill your employer’s needs. You may be able to hold onto your job and income much longer (I couldn’t), helping to bridge the transition.

 

 

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